Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Mists of Avalon

1982, 1984 Del Rey edition
Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Mists of Avalon
Bought newish for $10.95
Worn paperback

I can't remember exactly when I got this book, but I'd guess my late teens or early twenties, let's say the late 1980s.  At that time I was drawn to Goddess religions, especially Celtic, and I bought the book for that reason, more than because of the Arthurian legends, which I knew only third- or fourth-hand anyway.  I've read the book a few times since, though not often, mostly because it's a heavy book, literally and figuratively.  And yet, it is in a sense shallow as well.

I still find it a interesting story, and it does evoke what I know of the misty, mystic allure of Britain.  (For instance, I've been to Tintagel, which is a bit kitschy nowadays, but with very dramatic cliffs.)  There's a large but manageable cast, fleshed out to varying degrees.  Much of Bradley's history is anachronistic, but she blends it into the fantasy with panache.  The central character of Morgaine convincingly ages from three to roughly sixty.  And I like the motif of spinning and sewing that, yes, weaves throughout the novel.

Now for the negatives, what kept me from giving this a B or even a B+.  First off, as the longest book I've reread in roughly a century (maybe since, oh, Anna Karenina) it could've used a better editor.  Not only are there redundancies and sometimes unnecessarily muddled chronologies (not just when Morgaine is in the Land of the Fairies), but just on the basic level of word usage there are some glaring errors.  I caught "cruel" for "curl" and "atone" for "intone, and a laugh-out-loud passage where Arthur says he must greet elderly courtiers, because his legs are young, "and some of them are grey and aging."

I also feel that the character of Gwenhwyfar (AKA Guinevere) could use some work.  At times, Bradley slips into Ivanhoe-like blonde vs. brunette stereotyping, made worse by the anti-Christian/pro-Pagan bias.  And even the bad things about Gwenhwyfar aren't consistent.  She's shy and agoraphobic, particularly in her youth, and yet sometimes she's very bossy, including Schaflily scolding other women for speaking up.  And at one point, she goes to talk to her supposed half-brother, Meleagrant, even though it means riding under the open sky and dealing with a brutal man.  This leads to Meleagrant raping her and then, in a plot development out of the worst of fanfic, her having comfort-sex with Lancelet.

She and Lancelet have already been to bed a few times, beginning with a threesome with Arthur.  Bradley presents Lancelet as more in love with Arthur than with Gwenhwyfar, although the bi/homosexual themes are mostly in the background.  (Morgaine is involved with another priestess, but not much is done with this.)

Although the book is pro-Pagan, I have to say that Paganism doesn't really come across well in this book, especially as shown in the characters of Morgaine and her aunt Viviane, both Ladies of the Lake.  The latter in particular manipulates people, playing with lives like knucklebones, as Morgaine says.  But Morgaine, too, in time meddles with more romances than Mary Worth, and even indirectly murders people who stand in her way.  Yes, the Goddess is dark, dealing in death as well as life, but all this scheming seems so pointless and cruel.  Also, I got tired of hearing so much about Fate, as if Free Will is a bad idea and you can only act by taking away the freedom of others.  (Ironically, this is what Susan Griffin says about pornography, that it pretends that abusing others is freedom.)  If Paganism is just as much about being in the hands of God(s) and/or their earthly representatives as Christianity is, what's the point?

All that said, I can still see why this book led me to other books by Bradley, most of which I no longer own.  I read two of her Avalon sequels and found them very disappointing.  I never quite liked the Darkover series.  (Although in fairness, I'm not a sci-fi fan.)  And there were two or three others that just didn't have the, well, magic of this story.  But we do have Firebrand coming up in 1987, so we'll see how she deals with the women of The Iliad.

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