Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499
Bradley’s story blends the supernatural and the ordinary to create fantasy. The Goddess of Avalon is not simply an unseen force but also an aspect of living women. At times, reincarnation and karmic destiny drive the plot, and throughout the story, psychic visions, called Sight, give glimpses of the future and of several pasts, including one in Atlantis. Faeries kidnap lost travelers, Druids forge the legendary Excalibur, and ceremonial magic is a part of daily life. In short, Bradley’s tale depicts a fantasy world fraught with mysticism and mythic figures.
A complex novel about the mythical King Arthur, The Mists of Avalon joins a distinguished body of late twentieth century Arthurian fiction. Like T. H. White’s two-part story—The Once and Future King (1968) and The Book of Merlyn (1977)—Bradley’s novel translates medieval concepts into images that twentieth century readers can understand. Unlike White’s account, Bradley’s rendering of the myth tells little about the specifics of war and battle, focusing instead on characters and their intricate relationships. In doing so, The Mists of Avalon resembles Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy—The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973), and The Last Enchantment (1979). By salvaging the character Morgaine from her traditional role as an evil sorceress, Bradley’s novel adds a decidedly feminist voice to a body of literature that includes White’s and Stewart’s more male-oriented narratives.
Female characters in The Mists of Avalon have much in common with their late 1970’s and early 1980’s counterparts in popular feminist fantasy and science fiction. Similar to the women in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), the priestesses of Avalon live in their own world, trace their family histories through their mothers, and contend with male outsiders. Like the Tribeswomen in Suzy McKee Charnas’ Motherlines series, Bradley’s women collectively challenge conventional gender roles and redefine the meanings of “mother” and “mothering.” Although they struggle against men, the women of Avalon seek what neither Russ’s nor Charnas’ female utopian societies value: egalitarian alliances with males. Nevertheless, when necessary, Bradley’s women defend Avalon as fiercely as might the female knights in Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s “The Prodigal Daughter” (1981). Like much of the female-authored fantasy literature of its time, The Mists of Avalon reclaims political power for women. It goes a step further, however, by making Goddess worship the core of women’s power as well as the commanding force behind the legend of King Arthur.
The Mists of Avalon was published twenty-five years into Bradley’s career, and it builds on feminist themes in her earlier works, especially the well-known Darkover series. Bradley, in fact, may have modeled the women of Avalon after such characters as her Free Amazons in The Shattered Chain (1976). Lengthier and more historically sophisticated than her previous fantasy novels, The Mists of Avalon also marks Bradley’s conscious attempt to write more scholarly fiction. That shift produced another feminist mythological fantasy, The Firebrand (1987), and demonstrated that she can outgrow categories in writing.