Friday, August 12, 2011

Marion Zimmer-Bradley 'The Mists of Avalon'

I chose to reread The Mists of Avalon this week because it is one of the greatest epic fantasies of all time, and because it was sitting there on my bookshelf wondering why I hadn’t picked it up before this. This book was a watershed moment in fantasy literature for me, and my own writing has been heavily influenced by the many epic  works of Marion Zimmer Bradley.
First published in  1983,  Mists of Avalon is a wonderful retelling of the Arthurian legend. The main protagonist is Morgaine, who watches the rise of Uther Pendragon to the throne of Camelot as high-king. When she was still a young child, she was taken to Avalon by High Priestess Viviane, her maternal aunt, to become a priestess of the Mother Goddess. While in training, she sees the rising tension between the old Pagan religion and the new Christian religion. At the age of fourteen, she is given in a fertility ritual to a young man whom she later discovers is Arthur, her half-brother.   Morgaine conceives a child, Gwydion (who will later be called Mordred), as a result of the ritual. She conceals his existence from Arthur.

After Uther dies, his son Arthur proves himself in battle and ascends to the throne.  Morgaine and Viviane give him the magic sword Excalibur and a bespelled scabbard as gifts from the country of Avalon.  Using the sword, which is a pagan weapon, Arthur succeeds in driving the Saxons away. But when his wife Gwenhwyfar is unable to carry and deliver a living child, she is convinced that it is a punishment of God: firstly for the presence of pagan elements(a position which Morgaine deeply resents), and secondly, for her forbidden love for Arthur's finest knight Lancelot.  Hating herself for her forbidden love for Lancelot, Gwenhwyfar becomes a religious fanatic, and the relationship between Avalon and Camelot becomes hostile.

The story is compelling at the outset, and it captivated me from page one.  Upon finishing this book I immediately re-read it!  Zimmer-Bradley immerses you in the culture and mores of the mythical Britain of the seventh and eighth centuries.  The thoughts and feelings of each character are clearly drawn, and so are the places and the societies in which they live.  The over-riding themes of love and treachery make for a tragedy with tremendous political ramifications.

There are good and wise men and women and there are greedy, shortsighted men and women, and all are depicted with an impartial eye in this tale. The flaws and the strengths of each character are drawn with compassion; and the personal choices that those in power make change their society for all time.  The clear and visible change in the cultural values of pre-christian Britain is vividly portrayed, setting the place of women in the society of Britain for the next 1,200 years. Within the two generations that this book spans, we see women going from having a respected voice and power in their society, to being relegated to the position of chattel; property of their husband and having less of a voice than his cattle.  The Mists of Avalon is masterfully woven to make a novel that sets the standard for Arthurian literature, and raises the bar for writers of fantasy in general.


Lisa Zhang Wharton said...

Connie, who is a great epic fantasy writer herself, has introduced a new author to me. I will definitely want to read this book after reading this blog. Thanks, Connie.

Gary Hoover said...

This is one of those books that I've heard so much about but never actually read. I guess I should get on it. Thanks for another great entry!!

jennymilch said...

How great to be reminded of an old favorite like this! Thank you, Connie!

Rachel Tsoumbakos said...

This is one of my all time fave books ;-D

Kara said...

Love this book and so glad you featured it!

Hart Johnson said...

Was it YOU I had the convo with on FB about this this week? I didn't think it was. This is my very favorite version of the Arthur legend--I love the book and the layer of Pagan versus Christian tension (I love it told from a pagan sympathetic view... after all, they were there first).

My only problem with the book is it's become Arthur canon for me and now all the other versions annoy me.