Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Today I'm looking at another retelling of the Arthurian mythos, The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I was interested in this book because it's billed as the story of King Arthur as told from the perspective of the women in his life, such as his mother Igraine, his sister Morgaine, and his wife Gwenhwyfar. Since the women in Arthurian myth are often relegated to side roles or, in the case of Morgan le Fay, antagonistic roles I was hopeful that this would be a new and interesting take on a thousand year old storytelling tradition.

Unfortunately I'm left with the feeling that this book simply isn't worth the time and effort that I put into reading it. There are a few good parts which I want to talk about first before I get to the big issues, but I was left feeling extremely disappointed. Perhaps it's unfair for me to judge a book published over thirty years ago by today's standards, but for a radical new perspective on the Arthurian mythos, this feels like it doesn't break new ground.

The thing that I liked most about this book was how it explained some things that never really made sense to me in the Arthur legend. For example why Morgaine, Arthur's sister, would help him and then later decide to hurt him by stealing Excalibur's magic scabbard and plot his downfall. In a lot of the older stories Morgaine isn't developed much beyond her being an evil sorceress so the fact that Zimmer Bradley puts in the effort to make it sense within the narrative I greatly appreciated.

I also liked how Zimmer Bradley explained why the Grail Quest was such a curse on Arthur and Camelot. In some versions of the mythos, the Grail Quest scatters Arthur's knights to the corners of the earth, and many die or disappear, so that when Mordred attacks Camelot Arthur doesn't have his full strength. And it seemed curious to me that God should send Arthur and his knights on a quest to find the most holy of relics only to have it end up destroying Camelot. The way that Zimmer Bradley frames the Grail Quest and what's truly going on makes the story make a lot more sense. Obviously these are stories that have been told, retold, edited, and remixed for hundreds of years so a lot of stuff isn't going to make sense, but I appreciate how Zimmer Bradley managed to turn it into a cohesive narrative.

The biggest issue I had with this book though was what the women spent about 80-90% of their time talking about, namely their relationships with men and having babies. For me this was incredibly boring and it just utterly failed the Bedchel Test over and over. Which is a little weird to use the Bedchel Test when it dates from the early 2000s, but I feel like if your main characters are going to be the women, it's a valid test to use. But I'm still torn over this for a number of reasons. On the one hand, at the time period they're depicting the roles of high-born women were largely circumscribed and dominated by men and their ability to bear children, so it is an accurate portrayal in that regard and if the goal was to show how frustratingly boring and limited these women's lives were, then Zimmer Bradley does a good job.

On the other hand, for a nearly nine-hundred page book it makes for really, really tedious reading and if this is supposed to show how powerful women can be then it still shows that they're dominated by their relationships by men and their ability to bear children. And I do think Zimmer Bradley was trying to go with the women being powerful message because Morgaine and several other characters are priestesses of Avalon, representatives of the Goddess in the mortal world with their own mighty, magical powers. So we have all these powerful women who are trying to influence the future of Britain and yet they are almost still by their relationships to men rather than their own abilities.

The other 20-10% of the time, the women were arguing about religion, which is the second biggest theme in this book after men and babies. Morgaine is a partisan of the old ways and the traditional druidic religion of Britain, passed down from Atlantis, in which all gods are one God and all goddesses are on Goddess. Gwenhwyfar, however, is a devout Christian, the proponents of only one God and who wish to stamp out all other forms of religion. At least, that's what we're told by Zimmer-Bradley. For most of the book we're told about the Christians' intolerance for other religions and the pagans' willingness to tolerate the Christians, although based on the things we actually see in the book the pagans look like the intolerant ones. It's really a case where Zimmer Bradley needed to show rather than tell to us. And as someone who has no dog in this fight beyond a general attitude of letting people worship however they please as long as they leave me alone, I couldn't get terribly invested in the conflict.

Another thing that kind of annoyed me was that Zimmer Bradley threw in various things that could have led to plots more interesting than what we got. For example, it's heavily implied if not outright stated that Arthur and Lancelet are sexually interested in each other and Lancelet is, if not gay, then at least very, very bisexual. And this would have been really groundbreaking in 1982, never mind today when it would still be new. But this gets barely any attention at all. Or the ambitions of Moraguse, Arthur's aunt, wife of King Lot, and foster-mother to Mordred. We get told that Moraguse is an extremely ambitious woman with great sexual appetites and is extremely interested in becoming High Queen of all Britain someday. We actually get to see Moraguse be the ruthless operative willing to utilize dark magic to achieve her goals, but only a couple times in the entire book. Most of the time Moraguse is barely in the book to the point she's a side character rather than a main character. I feel like this could have been a much better story than what we ended up getting but for whatever reason Zimmer Bradley left it as an undeveloped thread.

I think my negative opinion of this book is just because of how dreadfully long it is which made it feel like that much more of a chore to read. I personally felt that the payoff was not worth all the time and effort invested in this book, and I finally finished it with relief more than anything else. If you're looking for a really good Arthur re-telling from a female perspective, my favorite of all time is still Gwenhwyfar, by Mercedes Lackey. As much as Zimmer Bradley tried, I just can't make myself love this adaptation.

- Kalpar

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