The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

The Mists of Avalon

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 system still in need of refinement.

When the Holy Grail (which was really the ancient chalice of the Goddess) appeared in that charmed company at Camelot, moved around...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 religions and how they may have affected the status of women lends a special glow of plausibility to imaginative projections into the legendary or pre-Christian past.

Bradley’s long experience as a writer of fiction gives her a considerable advantage over a more polemical feminist writer such as Barbara Walker, who has only recently tried to dramatize in novel form her convictions about a goddess religion. Although Walker’s scholarly works, such as the massive Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983), are truly impressive, her novel Amazon (1992), about a warrior woman from ancient times, magically transported by the Goddess to modern America, seems to be a polemic about the failings of modern civilization rather than a sensitive revelation about what it might feel like to be a woman in a nonpatriarchal culture. Bradley can educate the heart more indirectly but also more convincingly about the cost to women of a rigidly patriarchal religion.

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In keeping with the genre of fantasy, Bradley invokes elements of the fantastic in The Mists of Avalon—several marvelous elements...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Religion, sexuality, and magic are important components of the Arthurian legends. Closely connected, all three of these motifs reflect...

(The entire section is 398 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Arthurian legend, perhaps more so than any other long-lasting myth spawned in the Middle Ages, has adopted the medieval attitude toward...

(The entire section is 890 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The literary history of Arthur is a complicated one. While the sources are obscure, the English tradition begins in 1136 with Geoffrey of...

(The entire section is 994 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although The Mists of Avalon was written first, Bradley wrote two prequels to the text after its publication in 1985. The first,...

(The entire section is 82 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Mists of Avalon is set to be released in 2001 as a miniseries directed by Ulrich Edel.

(The entire section is 17 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 327 words.)