I was in 4th grade when I had my first exposure to the King Arthur saga. From thence on I've been an avid fan - you could probably trace my entire fantasy/sci-fi, swords & sorcery, Dungeons & Dragons, mythology, etc. fascination right back to that Sword in the Stone short in that grade school English book. Delving thereafter into Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bullfinch ok before we get too far let's drop back to this selection. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon.
Passing from this mortal coil barely two years ago in 1999, Ms. Bradley has written a number of books to high acclaim, including the well known Darkover series (the first of which being a Hugo Award nominee). Her Heritage of Hastur was a Nebula nominee. Mists of Avalon picked up the '84 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and sat on the NYTimes be-all-end-all of lists for months. That, I believe, is only because it takes about that for the average person to wade through.
For those that don't know, The Mists of Avalon is a(nother) retelling of the King Arthur myth, complete with Lancelet du Lac, Uther Pendragon, Morgan le Fay, Sir Mordred and, of course, the High King of All Britain, Arthur Pendragon. Bradley this time uses lesser known versions of the myth. If you're looking for a solid novel showing in word form the old movie Excalibur (by far one of the darkest movies ever filmed), look elsewhere. Some of the differences between the legends are very great and, at times, strike at the very heart of the well-known mythology. There's no sword in the stone (Excalibur was given to Arthur, not pulled from a stone) although there is a sword ON the stone (but not Excalibur). Morgaine (Morganna, Morgan le Fay) is actually a cool chick, not the incestuous harlot and Camelot downfall she is portrayed as in other legends. The Lady of the Lake is not a disembodied hand in the water - she is a Druid priestesses who gets her head cracked like a coconut at Camelot over an old grudge (the post later being filled by Morgaine). Merlin is not a person but a title, originally being held by the venerable Taliesin at the outset of the novel and later the traitorous Kevin. Oh and there's more, so much more. I like the other versions of the myth much better, but The Mists of Avalon does have some merit.
The good stuff Bradley's prose is quite beautiful. It's wonderfully written and an excellent example of language and vocabulary. She obviously spent much time researching into the Medieval times in which the Arthur saga took place and you will find a complete lacking of any anachronisms whatsoever. The Druidical rites (King Stag ritual, Beltane fires, praises to Ceridwen the Mother) were very well documented and researched and I find them to be quite true to the roots of this religion. Bradley also does a good job of winding out threads of character lives against one another and twists them together like yarn as the story moves along until, at the end, it's all one large thread. Very well played out. Don't expect to get too close to any of the characters with the exception of the women. The tale is told from the viewpoint of the ladies that surrounded the courts. Expect to know, intimately, Morgaine, Guenivere (Gwen, Gwenhwyfar), Igraine, Morgause, Vivianne (Lady of the Lake). You'll know their thoughts, desires, ideas, struggles. The Mists of Avalon is the Lifetime Channel version of King Arthur.
The novel is amazingly long. The drawn out details of each person's mindset makes it that much longer. Putting the whole mythology changes aside from the version that I remember and dealing with Mists of Avalon from a stand-alone perspective, it's a decent story. If you're looking for bloody sword duels via Excalibur and huge dragon fights you're in the wrong place. This version shows the manipulations behind the scenes that lead to the rise and fall of the Pendragon dynasty in Britain. The betrayals are great - you'll see how Mordred dug his way into Arthurs side and slowly turned the knights around against him. You'll see the betrayal of Lancelot by his best of friends. The machinations of Gwen to turn the country over into the hands of the priests. The verbiage used is very high-caliber, so if you've read nothing but pulp fiction all your life and you picked up this novel expect to spend a long time with it. Have some knowledge of Old Englishe vocabulary (used well and correctly, for one of the few times I've seen) and try not to get thrown by the Celtic spellings of some of the names if you're used to the latter versions of Guenivere, Morganna, etc.
Some things of note that I wasn't aware of before that are apparent in this version of the retelling. Guenivere is a closed-minded bitch, Morgaine is a wishy-washy pawn and Arthur is a pussy-whipped crony. High King my ass. If it wasn't for Excalibur and the sword's further-enchanted scabbard he would have been buzzard buffet at the Mount Badon battle or earlier. Lancelot is a weak-minded idiot with the manhood of a fly. The arrival of Christianity in Britain was nothing less than genocide. I quite enjoy the arguments given by Morgaine, Vivianne and Taliesin against the priests. They win the debates, hands down. But because of Guenivere's Hillary-like manipulations behind the Pendragon throne it ends up not meaning all that much in the long run and the bishops poop on the Druids and Avalon fades into the mists where it becomes unreachable from this world.
The interesting touches of "common thought equals reality" are refreshing. As people believe more in the Christian God and forsake the older religion of Ceridwen The Goddess, the latter fades away as unrealistic because there's nobody left to believe in it. Shades of "is the grass really green because it's green or because everyone SAYS it's green?" We'll stop here before we fall into theology.
Overall if you're an avid mythology and fantasy reader who enjoys classical literature styles, even if they tend to drag like a square-wheeled wagon, then Mists of Avalon may be a good journey. But before you step into the book, forego everything you've heard or read of the other, more popular, Arthurian mythologies. It is far less enjoyable when you are bogged down with previously laid ideas of the storyline because you'll find where it drifts away from what you've already read. But overall, it is a well-written novel. Anyone hungering for some classic literature that is a bit easier to understand than Shakespeare might enjoy it.
"The Mists of Avalon" by
Marion Zimmer Bradley
Published by The Ballantine Publishing Group
Copyright © 1982 by Marion Zimmer Bradley