This is one of those books I have long been ashamed to have never read. Feminist Fantasy doesn’t get much more iconic than The Mists of Avalon, after all. But between its hefty weight — my copy is 884 pages, you guys! — and the fact that it treats with Arthurian legend, which is not my favourite at all, I just kept putting it off. And off.
I finally bought a copy back in 2011, after my good friend Kate waxed lyrical about the book in particular, and Bradley’s genius in general. Kate knows ALL THE THINGS and is a woman of great taste and discernment, and I aspire to be like Kate in most ways, so naturally I had to add this to my reading list after such an enthusiastic recommendation. But then… it just kept being so long… and so about Aruthurian legend… and I couldn’t do it.
I have finally done it. And I am furious about it.
This book. This book is dire. It is full of inconsistent characterization and brutality and bizarre mysticism, and I did not enjoy it at all. Oh, I understand what Bradley is doing here — history has not been kind to women; women can be manipulative masters of the universe, too; religion makes people crazy, and Christianity is especially bad for women; etc. — and it’s clever, sure. But it’s also such a damned slog to get to any of the remotely interesting messages, a slog through remarkably similar minds, none of which anyone can damned well make up.
The story kicks off with Igraine, who has been given in marriage to one man against her will and is now instructed by her sister Viviane, Lady of the Lake — basically, keeper of the Old Religion of the Goddess, which the Roman conquering of Britain has brought into conflict with the patriarchy of Christendom — to seduce another, soon to be High King. Then Viviane sends Igraine’s daughter Morgaine, who is a priestess of the Lady, to sleep with her much-younger brother (Arthur, though he had another name as a child; people in this book keep having other names!), because he too will some day be High King, and the old ways have no prohibition against incest. They conceive a son, Gwydion, later named Mordred, and yes, the women of this book, and age, are highly ill-used, but so too is Mordred.
You know how the rest of the story goes, right? It just takes HUNDREDS OF PAGES to get there.
It’s hard not to blame Viviane for the tragedy of everything that befalls Morgaine, Arthur and their son, plus everyone else associated with them. She and “the Merlin,” which it turns out is a status not a name, denoting the chief druid of the Goddess, manipulate events because they claim it to be the will of their deity, but in fact it is all a bid for their personal power, and the ascendancy of their religion throughout the land.
And look, I like the religious aspect of the book. The pitting of old versus new, one way of controlling and manipulating people versus another, it’s all very well drawn, making mythologies of both. True, the religion of the Goddess is given to us as a real thing, with manifestations of Her divine purpose left and right, while the dogged, misogynist priests of the usurper Christ are not painted in a very good light at all. (Nor should they be. I’m no Medieval scholar, but I know that the plight of women in Britain was made far worse when powerful men started ranting about the sins of Eve.) But to get to that kernel of subtext/actual text/READ MY TEXT I AM MAKING A POINT NOW — it all gets far less subtle as the book goes on — one has to wade through chapter upon chapter of vacillating, infuriating women who alternately despise and adore the same person, who both do and don’t want to betray their husbands, depending on the day, who have the hots BAD for Lancelet, but also kind of hate him some of the time. It’s exhausting.
(Lancelet’s beloved and Arthur’s queen, Gwenhwyfar, by the way? One of the most selfish people alive, as presented here, and a freaking religious extremist, as well. I think I hate Gwenhwyfar the most.)
Yes, the book takes place across decades, and our protagonists — I will not call them heroines — grow and age, and naturally we all change our minds about things over time. But at the root of pretty much every woman’s problem in this book is jealousy: jealousy over lovers, jealousy over children, jealousy over status, jealousy over youth, jealousy over beauty, jealousy over freedom. And I just don’t think women are solely driven by such a cruel mistress. Not even in a time when they were most valued for their looks and dutifulness and ability to provide heirs.
Of course, Bradley is constrained somewhat by the various retellings of myth passed down through the ages, and her scholarship throughout is obvious. Indeed, it is very possible that a big part of why I did not enjoy this book is explained by my reluctance to read it in the first place: Arthurian stuff bores the hell out of me. But, no, I mainly disliked it because not only could I not find anyone to cheer for in these pages — or, at least, not to continue to cheer for, when they turned into first class jerks a chapter later — I could not find a single woman within that I was not perfectly happy to see killed off, the sooner the better.
Quite frankly, when the regicidal, patricidal, slut-shaming Mordred is the most sympathetic character in your feminist retelling of Camelot, I think you’re doing it wrong.
TBR DAY 30: The Mists of Avalon (Avalon #1) by Marion Zimmer Bradley
GENRE: Arthurian Legend/Fantasy
TIME ON THE TBR: 8 years.
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.