Disappointed with The Mists of Avalon
Guest Review By Leigh Wood
After a few Darkover reads and two or three viewings of TNT’s telefilm The Mists of Avalon, I decided to take up the heavy read of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s first Avalon novel. I debated purchasing the hard back online, but a friend found a $3 trade paperback edition second hand, and I was set. It was a hefty book, and I was tempted to read The Lord of the Rings again instead, but once I was on page one I couldn’t stop.
Bradley’s tale focuses on the women from the King Arthur legends. We open with Igraine, the future mother of Arthur. After her sister the Lady of the Lake Viviane sets Igraine up with Uther Pendragon, the Lady takes Igraine’s daughter Morgaine to Avalon. Morgaine grows to a fine priestess, but Avalon is changing, and as Arthur and his wife Gwenhwyfar struggle to have a child, their court becomes more and more Christian. Who’s way of live will prevail?
I did some research on Marion Zimmer Bradley before I read The Mists of Avalon. I was surprised to find her connections to modern and Neo Pagan organizations, in addition to questions about her sexuality. What should that matter? I’ve read every other King Arthur book, and I hope I wouldn’t be deterred by such labels. Unfortunately, Bradley lets her politics into the novel. Pages and pages are nothing but religious banter from priests and merlins or gossiping women. Sin, Sex, Men versus women, Bad Christian priests, Good Druid Priestesses.
Often the point of view the reader is supposed to be following at the time isn’t even involved in the conversation. Often she is merely listening, taking the reader out of the carefully crafted set up and locales. Some readers might enjoy the theological debates. Its no matter whether the reader is of a Christian bend or a Pagan bend, merely the loss on the entertainment scale. If I wanted to read philosophical debate, I’d read a nonfiction book about the histories, struggles, and colonization of Britain and how it effected religion.
Another strike against The Mists of Avalon is its seemingly old styled grammar and lack of editing. I thought this was the novel that made MZB, well, MZB. How then did an epic novel with such poor transitions, formatting, and point of view come to print at Del-Rey? Today’s editors are all about strict viewpoints and clear scene transitions. Not occasionally does Bradley change views from scene to scene, but at every opportunity available, the reader is asked to head hop to all involved in the conversation. We’re subject to what every knight at the round table thinks, along with what every Druid or priestess psychically sees or feels. Its annoying, confusing, sometimes overwhelming enough to read a sentence two or three times, and most important of all, it detracts from the intimate relationships the characters are trying to establish.
The simplest way to break down the characters-and there are a lot of them, but that’s understandable when one is trying to give all bits of Arthurian legend its due-is to take the novel in the Morgaine versus Gwenhwyfar storyline. Early in the read, I liked Morgaine-even after I was tempted to put the book down over its condoning of incestuous relationship between Morgaine and Arthur. In Book Three, however, I came to dislike Morgaine. Her obsession with plans and plots against the King’s Court put Bradley’s Morgaine right back to the bad girl Morgan Le Fay. After reading so much about the Goddess and who is the Goddess or who could be the Goddess, I just stopped caring. Earlier in the book, we went through these same questions with Viviane as Lady of the Lake. Both women ask where the line is between themselves and The Goddess, and if they are doing her will or their own. For such a key factor in The Mists of Avalon, I found this debate silly, even absurd. How many times is this question going to be asked before someone realizes that its not up to any person to presume any God’s will? That’s what I’ve always loved about Arthur stories. It’s so Titanic. For all its grandiose plans, Camelot never seems to learn its lesson.
Now then, if I am so wishy washy over Morgaine and the Goddess, surely I must favor quote unquote good Christian Gwenhwyfar. Unfortunately, she’s just as bipolar. We meet Gwen as a timid agoraphobic child and are forced to ride along as she becomes a bitter hypocritical fanatic. Anything and everything becomes a sin to her, even though she is constantly trying to justify her love affair with Lancelet. Gwenhwyfar finds Morgaine so evil, but the Queen of Camelot’s over pious demands on priests, penance, and her barrenness as a punishment for Arthur’s incestuous sin is too much. I want to smack her more than sympathize with her. The only chance I felt near sympathizing with little Gwen was the chapter in which she’s kidnapped and raped by Meleagrant. Hundreds of pages of just talk or women waiting around the spinning, the one time we get any sort of serious movement in the story-and its resolved in one chapter.
Too often The Mists of Avalon falls into the “Morgaine Speaks” fail safe. Whenever Bradley wants to explain something quick or move the time and place, she lapses into this omnipresent Morgaine speech. Even the end of the book disappointingly resolves itself here. In the biggest show don’t tell mistake of all, instead of reading the battle between Arthur and Mordred, we’re there for a summary from Morgaine. After thinking the book was redundant and played out before Book Four, I was further dissatisfied as a reader by Bradley’s cop-out ending. It’s a bad feeling to give the reader-if the author skips to the end so easily, why can’t I? Did I just waste a month on near 900 pages for nothing?
TNT is not my favorite network. Notorious for bad editing on film showings and way too many commercials, the network actually got it right for their original The Mists of Avalon event starring Angelica Huston, Juliana Margulies, and Joan Allen. I am very tempted to get the DVD for the additional scenes and features, for the 3 hour series broke down Bradley’s novel to its essential bits. All that I found over the top and played out in the book is gone from the film version. I dare say its superior to the book, and certainly a better viewing experience compared to the tiring read.
All right so it seems I’ve shredded The Mists of Avalon beyond reproach. Not so. Bradley’s accurate display of Druid material, Christian Scripture, British locales, and Roman history give life to the book. Her descriptions of England and its native lore often had me stopping my read and opening the encyclopedia for more on Cornwall, Lothian, and Glastonbury. Indeed her use of Arthurian tales is exhaustive. Although I was a little peeved by too many similar names: Morgaine, Igraine, Viviane, Ninane, Elaine, Gawaine, Uwaine-oiy! Bradley seems to have re-authenticated Arthurian tales by giving them a truly English, un-Frenchified feeling. As a kid I read anything Arthur I could find. Howard Pyle, T.H. White, even the Sunday Comics’ Prince Valiant In the Days of King Arthur. At the time, these reads seemed so big kid to me, but looking back, they were fairly juvenile. There may have been more women and less Arthur (and no Valiant!) than I might have liked, but The Mists of Avalon is perhaps the only mature Arthurian read, with a no holds barred approach on sex, relationships, and religion. I don’t think I’m a prude, but an open mind is a must when braving this 1982 best seller.
The Mists of Avalon is not for everyone. Readers of purely Christian material or those easily offended should definitely bypass Mists for its frankness, and truly not even teens should tackle this hefty read. I myself don’t intend to read the rest of the Avalon series, including The Forest House, Lady of Avalon, Priestess of Avalon with Bradley, then continued by Diana L. Paxson with Ancestors of Avalon and Raven of Avalon. My interest in the book was Arthurian. No doubt Arthur fans have already discovered The Mists of Avalon, but the book is worth a try for any mature fan of historical fantasy, myth, and magic.