Like any writer using traditional sources so prolific in variations and interpretation as the King Arthur legends, Bradley has chosen those details that serve her purpose best. She has made a new story from a very old one primarily, however, by changing the perspective from masculine to feminine. By doing so, she also dramatizes some contemporary criticisms of male-dominated Christianity, particularly its well-documented bigotry and intolerance of other religions, and its specific doctrine that sin and damnation came into the world through the disobedience of the primordial female, Eve, the mother of all living.
The author makes sensitive and elaborate use of symbols, recognizing that both literary and religious symbols actually do share a common source in pre-Christian history. The novel is haunted by paired principles and characters that seem to be radically different but are complementary parts of the whole. The nervous Christian priests insist that “God is one,” intending to exclude all others; the wise Merlin of Britain, high priest of Druids, counters with “All gods are one,” meaning that the one goes by many names. The Holy Isle of Avalon exists within hailing distance of the Christian sanctuary at Glastonbury, but it recedes farther and farther into the mists as its understanding of the world fades from human consciousness.
Not only are male and female both partners and adversaries, but also important characters of the same gender seem to have a mysterious bond representing rival claims to the same destiny. Thus, the darkly beautiful Morgaine, intent on ensuring Arthur’s loyalty to the Old Religion, has a formidable adversary in the radiant Queen Gwenhwyfer, who eventually induces Arthur to disregard his vow to protect goddess worship. King Arthur has an unknown darker self, the son he never knew, festering in bitterness that his kinship to the high king goes unrecognized and, if revealed, would be shameful in the eyes of Christians. Mordred does not look like blond-haired Arthur but like black-haired Lancelet, who is Morgaine’s cousin.
The love between Arthur and Lancelet has an ambiguous dimension as well, since they both love Queen Gwenhwyfer—all three even share the same bed occasionally. The plausible explanation for this planned adultery is that Arthur decides that he himself must be responsible for his wife’s inability to bear a child and is willing that she should conceive by his best friend. Readers of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess will remember, however, that the master-myth of the Old Religion was the rivalry between the God of the Waxing Year and the God of the Waning Year for the love of the Great Goddess. The two gods are but two aspects of the same dying and resurrected god of the vegetation in relation to the feminine source of all life. It is an added irony that the Christian queen (perhaps an unsuccessful stand-in for the Goddess) is barren, in spite of sexual opportunities from both her lovers.
One of the most interesting uses of symbol is the ambiguous figure of the crippled bard Kevin, who becomes the Merlin of Britain after the retirement of Taliesin. Taliesin was known far and wide for his wisdom and his commanding presence, and he was honored even among Christian kings and priests. Beside him, Kevin seems to be almost a gargoyle, a changeling or ugly mutant born of the attempted blending of two cultures. Yet Kevin is the best harper and the sweetest singer in all Britain, and these abilities are considered the gift of the Goddess.
Beneath his public role, Kevin is a suffering, lonely, sometimes bitter man, but he is still wise in his distorted way....
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Morgaine knows this intuitively and even accepts him as a lover, though later she curses him as a traitor to the Goddess and condemns him to death. It was Kevin who stole the chalice from the altar of the Goddess at Avalon and gave it to the priests as the cup used by Christ in the Last Supper. It was his contribution to the wave of the future. All that is left now of Avalon is the lingering poetry and the song—and for women, perhaps, a haunting sense of diminished capacity with the passing of the Great Mother.