The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon retells the legend of King Arthur. Like most versions of what has come to be known as the “matter of Britain,” the story chronicles the monarch’s rise to power, his glorious but troubled reign, and his downfall and eventual death. Bradley’s tale also offers a revised view of Arthur, of his changing world, and, more specifically, of the transition from pre-Christian Goddess worship to Christianity. Narrated by Arthur’s half-sister, Morgaine, The Mists of Avalon brings to life the Cult of the Goddess, paying homage to the women in Arthur’s life.
Arthur’s rise to power begins with his and Morgaine’s mother, Igraine. As Igraine’s fate unfolds, so do the futures of both Great Britain and Avalon, the sacred island of the Goddess. In her role as High Queen to Uther Pendragon, Igraine serves the Goddess by keeping Ava-lon, her homeland, alive in the minds and hearts of her subjects. As giver of life to Morgaine and Arthur, she is also mother to both Avalon and Great Britain, for through her, Avalon finds a successor to Viviane—the reigning high priestess—and Great Britain acquires its next High King.
Aided by the women of Avalon, Arthur ascends to the throne and marries Gwynhwyfar, the antithesis of his female relatives. She becomes a defender of the Christian faith and an enemy of Avalon, and thus a source of conflict and a catalyst for change. To appease...
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The Mists of Avalon (Magill's Literary Annual 1984)
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon is a monumental undertaking: a retelling of the legendary tale of King Arthur from the point of view of the women who are central to the story. One in a long line of narratives about Arthur’s reign (a line that includes other twentieth century versions by Mary Stewart and T. H. White), The Mists of Avalon presents the legend from the points of view of Igraine, mother of Arthur; Viviane, Igraine’s sister and High Priestess of Avalon; Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), wife of Arthur; and, most important, Morgaine (Morgan le Fay or Morgan of the Fairies), half sister of Arthur. Morgaine is the principal narrator of The Mists of Avalon, but the story is not hers alone; in Bradley’s interpretation of the “matter of Britain” from a feminine perspective, the focus is not simply on individual characters but rather on the complex drama in which they are but a part. That drama grows out of the undeclared war being waged between the followers of Christianity and the worshipers of the ancient Druid religion.
This emphasis on the larger drama does not in any way diminish the depth and subtlety of the characterizations, both male and female, but particularly the latter. One sees Morgaine, for example, as a beloved child on her mother’s lap and later as the maiden who loses her virginity to her half brother in the Beltane ritual; one follows her in her later roles as lover, priestess, and queen....
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
This imaginative retelling of the life and times of Britain’s legendary King Arthur consistently displaces the usual masculine focus on the trials and triumphs of the hero. The battlefield where men play their desperate games of life and death recedes to background information. The focus is on the personal experiences of the women who are ordinarily only peripheral to hero stories. Suddenly, the myth, even though tinged with mystery and magic, seems more real, more grounded in some kind of gritty truth about human nature and the trials of the soul—at least women readers may think so.
Curiously, even male characters, though relatively simple in motivation and character compared to women, may seem more human and life-sized than heroes usually are, more entrapped by the demands of their social roles and their need for love and ego validation. Even the victorious Arthur, basking in the camaraderie of the Round Table, seems curiously understandable as a husband who is more comfortable with other men than with trying to untangle or even comprehend his own marital difficulties or his moral obligations.
Moreover, the larger truths of history, too often neglected in traditional tales of war, become visible as the deeper, always ambiguous, but ultimately more important changes in religious and philosophical outlook. This is a story about the gradual replacement of paganism by Christianity, revealing the new religion as a mixed blessing, a value...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Without actually being a polemical feminist, Bradley has certainly gained the attention of feminists because of her skill at presenting female points of view. Because she is also a careful researcher in history, anthropology, magic, and religion, she is able to fulfill a contemporary need for female heroes. She is one of the best popular writers to explore imaginatively the possibilities of alternative roles for women— especially in The Shattered Chain (1976) and its sequel Thendara House (1983), part of her Darkover series. These novels about Darkover women have been praised as being among the best and most realistic treatments in science fiction of the themes of liberation and free choice.
Bradley has sometimes been compared to Ursula K. Le Guin, who once explained that she wrote The Left Hand of Darkness (about an ambisexual human race) as a kind of “thought experiment” with which to approach the interesting question What is basic human nature, if gender differences could be ruled out?
Science fiction and fantasy provide ways for persons bound by contemporary cultural reality to visualize the unthinkable. An alien world may be far removed in planetary space or in time alone. Perhaps the latter, by virtue of its actual or implied reality, may provide an even more striking commentary on contemporary mores. The increased knowledge and speculation among scholars (especially feminist writers) about ancient...
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In keeping with the genre of fantasy, Bradley invokes elements of the fantastic in The Mists of Avalon—several marvelous elements assist the various characters throughout the text. These fantastical events are most profound in the practice of magic which is attributed to Morgaine and Merlin, and in the magical phenomena embedded within the plot: dragons lurk in forests, hands emerge from lakes bearing swords, magical islands suspend time, and people are granted immortality. Fantastic elements are at the base of all Arthuriana, no matter which author writes or rewrites the myth. What does differ, however, is the treatment of magic within distinct texts; the notion of magic takes on different meanings within individual artistic representations. Moreover, these meanings are central to the issues addressed as magic often plays a central role in visual representations of women, sexual transgression, and gender stereotypes. Thus, through the use of magic (and in making The Mists of Avalon "Morgaine's story" instead of "Arthur's story"), Bradley is able to put women's issues, concerns, and developments at the forefront, ultimately challenging this male-centered traditional tale.
One of the most important examples of this can be seen in the treatment of the Grail Quest. The male-centered physical quest to be reunited with the Grail is not a focus of The Mists of Avalon. Instead, Bradley reinforces her female focus of the text (traditionally...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Religion, sexuality, and magic are important components of the Arthurian legends. Closely connected, all three of these motifs reflect cultural attitudes and social value systems experienced by the society of specific periods. Christianity has traditionally played a central role in the legend of King Arthur; however, for contemporary literature, as well as contemporary culture, the notion of a goddess figure has once again become important. The concept of woman as deity is becoming more acceptable as popular interest in Goddess Worship, Wicca, and Neopaganism continues to grow. Whether the literature of the period dictates cultural attitude and change, or whether cultural attitude and change affect literature is less important than the fact that these changes have occurred. Aided by feminist thought, progressive cultural perceptions now exist concerning sexuality, gender, and religion. The treatment of female characters has changed a great deal over the years, leading authors such as Marion Zimmer Bradley to reconceptualize prominent women such as Morgaine le Fay and further reaffirm notions of the powerful female.
1. Marion Zimmer Bradley's account of the story of Arthur differs greatly from traditional tales. While there are several contemporary versions of the legend of King Arthur, The Mists of Avalon seems to be unique in its feminist focus. Why do you think Bradley chooses to set up Christianity and paganism in opposition as a major theme of...
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Arthurian legend, perhaps more so than any other long-lasting myth spawned in the Middle Ages, has adopted the medieval attitude toward sexuality and religion as an integral part of the stories themselves. After all, Camelot falls in the end due to Arthur's participation in what Christians would call the most diabolic sin—incest. Mordred, conceived incestuously by Morgaine and Arthur, must come back to destroy the golden city. A land ruled by a king with such a grave sin on his conscience cannot possibly survive; Camelot cannot survive because the sins of its king have become the sins of the land (the notion of the land carrying the sins of its king is also seen in Tennyson's Idylls of the King and the Fisher King stories of this century). Marion Zimmer Bradley's feminist publication The Mists of Avalon introduces Camelot to its reader by recreating the female characters associated with the mythical kingdom. In so doing, Bradley moves radically away from traditional male-centered plots and instead puts at the forefront the women of Camelot. Bradley portrays Avalon as a matriarchal island ruled by woman. Further, the politics and social history of Avalon are dominated by a long heritage of powerful and aggressive women. While Bradley addresses some of the same motifs as her predecessors (religion, temptation, adventure, loyalty, and kinship), it is clear from both the perspective of the narrator and the treatment of these themes that contemporary...
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The literary history of Arthur is a complicated one. While the sources are obscure, the English tradition begins in 1136 with Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain. Arthur becomes ruler of the Western world in Monmouth's text, a hero among the men and women of Britain at a time when they needed one. Although his work was met with some skepticism at the time of its publication, in general it was believed to be true and scholars once used it as their basis for an account of the early history of Britain.
In 1155, Wace, a Norman clerk who followed Monmouth's work closely, produced Roman de Brut. In this book, Wace adds a detail familiar to modern readers of Arthurian Legend—the Round Table. His work was translated into English by a Worcestershire priest, Laymon. Laymon was pro-British and anti-Saxon. As a result of his Christian faith, he identified strongly with the British who represented Christianity in their fight to suppress the heathen Saxons.
Arthur reached his greatest fame when early twelfth and thirteenth-century French writers began to show an interest in his story. Around 1179, Cretien de Troyes wrote Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart and Yvain, or The Knight with the Lion. It is in The Knight of the Cart that Cretien introduces, for the first time, the idea of courtly love. In this tale, Lancelot is rebuked by Gwenivere when he hesitates to ride in an executioner's cart in order to...
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Although The Mists of Avalon was written first, Bradley wrote two prequels to the text after its publication in 1985. The first, The Forest House, concerns itself primarily with a pagan Britain and its first introduction to Roman authority. Similarly, Lady of Avalon follows the story of The Forest House and depicts the island of Avalon and the various Ladies who ruled there. In addition, Priestess of Avalon, published posthumously after the author's death in 1999, is the concluding volume in the Avalon series.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Antioch Review. XLI, Summer, 1983, p. 370.
Arbur, Rosemarie. Marion Zimmer Bradley. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1985. Criticism and interpretation of Bradley’s entire body of work, except for the most recent publications (after 1984). Includes both primary and secondary bibliographies. Arbur praises The Mists of Avalon for combining the powerful elements of fantasy with the factuality of the historical novel.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. “Experiment Perilous.” In Experiment Perilous: Three Essays on Science Fiction. New York: ALGOL Press, 1976. Deals with changes in science fiction, such as the explicit treatment of sex, fuller characterization, and more careful coverage of emotional and psychological experience.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. “The Heroic Image of Women: Woman as Wizard and Warrior.” In Sword and Sorceress. New York: Daw Books, 1984. Describes and analyzes this variation of the usually male-oriented “sword and sorcery” fantasy literature.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. “My Trip Through Science Fiction.” Algol 15, no. 1 (Winter, 1977): 10-20. A professional autobiography. Interesting comments on her early sense of alienation and the impact upon her of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.
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