Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1045

This second novel in Marion Zimmer Bradley's line of precursors to the Arthurian saga of The Mists of Avalon is set in the Romanized Britain of the first until the fifth centuries A.D., ending with the birth of Igraine, mother of Morgaine of the Faeries and of Arthur. Poised at the end of the narrative to become the next High Priestess of Avalon, their older sibling Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, becomes guardian to the infant Morgause, her sister, after the deaths of her own child and her mother, Ana.

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Viviane and Merlin, the transformed Taliesin, have as their mission to preserve the Goddess-lore, including keepership of the Holy Grail, on Avalon until the advent of the Sacred King, Arthur, who will, supposedly, route the Saxons and restore the old ways. Throughout these centuries a succession of Arthur's precursors, from Pendragons such as Gawen, Eilan's child brought from the forest house, who is initiated into the Dragon Path, wounded in battle against the Romans, and sacrificed to create the magic necessary to shield Avalon from the invaders, to historical heroes such as Viviane's lover Vortimer, whose death in the Battle of Rutupiae drove the Saxons temporarily from Britain, creating a path for the coming of Arthur.

Since the fall of the Forest House, when Avalon was hidden behind a wall of mist to protect it from the Roman overlords, the High Priestesses of Avalon had pursued a double path—simultaneously protecting Avalon in its hiddenness, and venturing forth into the world of men in recurring attempts to help steer the fortunes of Roman Britain back to the old ways. The three Priestesses whose regimes are chronicled in the novel—Caillean, Dierna, Ana—carefully negotiate dual allegiance and powers both seen and unseen.

The theme of power—its sources, uses, and misuse—is central to the Arthurian tales and all of Bradley's writing. The powers gathered on Avalon belong to the old way of life, centered in the High Priestess and epitomized in the sacred spring, the silver bowl, and the visions they offer. Drawing their power from the unseen world of Faerie and sunken Atlantis, the Druids are in contact with the Christian community of father Josephus (Joseph of Arimathea, who brought the Grail to Britain) and with Britons still on the mainland. The sacred rites of Samhain and Beltane affirm the unity of the old ways and the natural world, and the rebirth of each spirit again and again in recurring historical times ties the present to the past, as ancient patterns are reenacted.

The doctrine of the immortality and transmigration of souls connects the generations, as Druids see their avatars and acquaintances reappear at different stages of history, and regard death as merely a brief crossing into an Otherworld which is always closely connected to ours. One old Druidess says: "The world turns like this spindle. . . . That good and ill shall follow one another is our only certainty. . . . When the old patterns are repeated, it is in a new way— the face of the Lady changes, but Her power endures; the King who gives his life to the land is reborn to make the sacrifice anew."

In opposition to this cyclical, integrated world view in which all belief and experience is ultimately a facet of One Truth are the more monolithic, linear structures brought into play by current history—the Roman world surely, but also the Christianity in vogue after the death of Josephus, who had embraced other religions as alternative paths to truth, and the constant thirst for power displayed not only by the Romans and the hordes of invaders, including the Saxons, but also by the Briton princes themselves, with their constant intrigues and betrayals, the most famous perhaps being the invitation to the Saxons Hengest and Hora, brought in by Vortigern to help repel barbarian invasions when the southern tribes and their leader, Ambrosius, refuse to help. The tension between these opposites creates the interplay between bonding and betrayal which is the cornerstone of Bradley's historical fiction.

The idea of Druidism itself, part of the long history of popularizing Celtic lore in fact and fiction, is an organizing principle of Bradley's novel. Druids, with their crystal eggs, sacred trees, magic cauldrons, and other accouterments of Celtic lore, embody the ideas of hiddenness and its accompanying ritual and illusion. The female Priests and their male counterparts continue to school the children of the Briton's ruling class as well as the future priests and priestesses of the Goddess, connecting the hidden world of Avalon with the real world on the mainland. The Druids, with their songs, ritual fires, and sacred festivals of Beltane and Midsummer, have power over the natural world, which they manifest in storms and mists, a power which is ritually connected with the power of sexuality and sacrifice. The priestess also sees into the future, a fatal power which can tempt them to manipulate as well as simply prophesy, since they can see themselves not only as participating in, but also creating, destiny itself, a power which creates tragedy in the lives of those who wield it.

The entire history not only of the Ladies and their consorts, but of Britannia itself, is one of complicated personal and political interactions. Although Avalon is still the spiritual center of the realm, Britannia itself is no longer Celtic, since succeeding Briton tribes, as well as the Romans after, have driven Avalon into the mists, and the Britannia which appears in historical form is divided and frayed, a mixture of Briton and Roman. The first avatar of Avalon, Gawen, is himself of mixed heritage, child of the Forest House priestess Eilan and the Roman Gaius Macellius. Briton tribes war against each other, and invasions from outside, not only by Saxons, but by other Celts themselves, force Britannia into alliances first with the Romans, whom Gawen fought, and then with the Saxons, whose conquest under Hengest and Hora provide the backdrop to the middle years. During all this time, the division between Vortigern and his sons and Aurelianus Ambrosius prevents the Britons from uniting to drive the invaders out. Allegiances are never clear in Bradley's work, and during Dierna's time, a Roman, Carausius, is a more true Dragon-prince than any Briton.

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