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. At each stage of Morgaine’s life, Bradley paints a complex portrait of a vital but troubled woman who might have been a goddess but becomes instead a queen. Bradley also creates new dimensions and probing portraits of other familiar figures from the legend—Viviane, Gwenhwyfar, Morgause, and Igraine. The main character, however, is always Morgaine, not the other women, not even Arthur, and the story essentially belongs to her.
Nevertheless, even Morgaine cannot overshadow the principal theme of the novel—the power struggle between the bishops of Christ and the priestesses of Avalon, which is also a struggle between masculine and feminine values. The Christian religion is a masculine religion that, at least in the hands of the priests, emphasizes rules and rigidity. Because it focuses on a world beyond, Christianity can seem life-denying, and it is certainly a religion whose priests emphasize the supremacy of a male God while denigrating women as the source of sin. In contrast, the Druid religion of Avalon emphasizes life, the feminine, the Earth. Its chief figures are the Goddess, her priestesses, and the chief priestess, the Lady of Avalon; it is a religion of creativity and expansion, not of punishment and repression. If there is tension between the Christian and the Druid perspectives, however, there is also throughout the novel an emphasis on the necessity of resolving the tension, of the importance of a Jungian blending of the best of the masculine and feminine values. Thus, there is a thematic justification for Bradley’s emphasis on feminine psychology—a justification beyond the new perspective the feminine emphasis gives to familiar characters in a familiar tale.
The novel is divided into four parts. In the first section, “The Mistress of the Mists,” Bradley introduces all of the principal female characters; she also begins her narration of the events that will bring Arthur first to triumph and then to ruin, in the process furthering the growth of the Christian religion and hastening the decline of the ancient worship. At the beginning of The Mists of Avalon, however, as in the tale as told by Sir Thomas Malory, Arthur does not even exist. What does exist is a dream that all of Britain shall one day be loyal to a single king, who shall rule a kingdom united from the Orkney isles in the north to Cornwall in the south, a king who will hold sway over territories as diverse as Wales and Less Britain. The dreamer is Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, who rules as High Priestess of Avalon, the holy site of the Druid worship that existed long before the Romans brought Christianity to England. Viviane dreams of a king who will be born of dual royal lineage and linked by parentage to both the Christian and the Druid faiths.
To bring the dream to fruition, Viviane first chooses her sister Igraine to bear the future king, Arthur, and then chooses Igraine’s daughter Morgaine to play the role of virgin priestess in an ancient rite whereby Arthur will become king of the Tribes. When Viviane devises her plan, Igraine is a young woman married to an aging duke, Gorlois of Cornwall; Morgaine is a young girl, the only child of Gorlois and Igraine. When Uther Pendragon, a Christian, is crowned High King of Britain, Uther and Igraine...