Monday, April 5, 2010

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Title: The Mists of Avalon
Author: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Publisher: Knopf (1983)

Like many Arthurian tales, The Mists of Avalon is a bittersweet tale - at times even heartbreaking - of ancient ideals that have lost their place in modern history. Unlike standard Camelot lore, however, this story focuses on, and is told from the perspective of, the women of Arthur’s Britain. Additionally, this is a story of the old religion of Goddess worship that was lost to the Christianity that patriarchal Rome brought to Britain, and King Arthur’s court adopted. Put very simply, the story is that Arthur swore an oath to the folk of Avalon to unite the kingdoms of Britain and protect the right of each soul to worship as s/he chooses. The symbol of this oath is the gift of Excalibur and its magic-laden scabbard to always protect Arthur in battle. That he forswears this oath sets the scene of our story.

This is a long book, and not an insignificant undertaking by Marion Zimmer Bradley. She has built upon established Camelot lore and added a fully-imagined new dimension. Many familiar characters are encountered but not necessarily in their traditional depiction. Betrayal, heartache, and intrigue are as prevalent as justice, truth, and companionship. Through it all, we are guided by Morgaine, a high priestess of Avalon and sister to King Arthur.

I actually found this book to be longer than needed and a bit repetitive. The writing is clear and engaging but not concise. I think it easy for the reader to lose involvement with the story due to the almost page-length diversions into content that was early established in the story. However, our narrator, Morgaine, is a complex character with whom it is easy to remain interested. Indeed, characterization is the strongest aspect of Bradley’s novel. Her depiction of Lancelet, especially, is extremely compelling.  Many of the male characters are not fully fleshed out (the biggest fault of the book) and it's interesting that her most fully realized male character is, at turns, irresistible, despicable, and pitiable.

My least favorite character, and the one that elicited the most frustration from me, is Gwenhwyfar. As with all the women of this story, Gwenhwyfar has a deep influence on the men around her. It's hard to tell whether her internal vacillations are beautifully done or tryingly overdone. In any case, her over-blown piety begins to feel like a plot device. It’s hard to fault Bradley overmuch in this as there is need for a strong antagonist to the traditions of Avalon. However, I found myself skipping most of Gwenhwyfar’s perspectives around two-thirds of the way into the book which is never a good sign in a main character.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book. Its intricate look at the motives of so varied a population adds depth to the otherwise straightforward tale of knightly conduct. I think it does require a little patience to sift through the tome-like length of the book but it is well worth it for fans of Camelot lore. And its non-traditional perspective adds an additional layer to the legend that should bring new fans to the mythology. Like the Arthurian tales that have gone before, and maybe even moreso, the story is ultimately tragic; as is any story that follows the rise of a prosperous and idyllic kingdom that now lives only in fable.

rating: 4 of 5 stars


  1. I read this a very long time ago and dimly remember that I didn't like it, probably because I'd just finished the superb Mary Stewart Merlin trilogy and thought this would be similar. NOT.

    BTW - I snickered about your sci-fi snob post. Love the idea of picnic baskets as characters. I didn't realize 'Oryx and Crake' (which depressed me horribly, which, I suppose, was the point) was sci-fi - I'd have called it pure dystopia.

  2. Looks like I better add the Merlin trilogy to my TBR list if it's better than TMoA; since I liked the one I hope I'll like the other... I'll keep in mind that they are different.

    I think Oryx and Crake would fit in a couple categories, which is something I've always liked in books, and dystopia is certainly an accurate description. Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of dystopian stories. Between my indifference to dystopian stories and my too-critical eye on the science it's no wonder Oryx and Crake didn't do much for me. :)