Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon has been on my reading list for some time now, ever since my husband and I rented the television mini-series last year. A few months ago, as part of my course on women writers, I wrote a term paper on the idea that the fantasy genre is a perfect vehicle for promoting gender equality. Mists was one of the novels that was consistently mentioned and highly regarded as an example of the genre serving a feminist purpose, rocketing it to the top of my reading list.
Mists joins a tradition of exploring the Arthurian legends, a tradition that includes hundreds of works and spans centuries, but differs from the vast majority of these treatments in that its concerns with the cultural mainstays like King Arthur and Sir Lancelet are secondary to the women of the legends. The story centers itself on the life of Morgaine, Arthur’s half-sister and priestess of the isle of Avalon, where old magics hold sway amid an increasingly Christianized Britain. The lives of the other women in the Arthurian stories are also focal points of the story: Morgaine and Arthur’s biological mother Igraine, Morgaine’s foster-mother Viviane, Arthur’s wife and queen Gwynhyfar, Morgaine’s aunt Morgause, and Lancelet’s wife Elaine.
The unique perspective would not be nearly as notable if the Arthurian tradition didn’t have such a lengthy history of misogyny. In works dating from the medieval period to the present, the best a woman in an Arthurian tale can hope for is to be sidelined, to be a name in a text notable only for her marriage or mothering of an important male. Her unfortunate sisters are cast as villains prone to open malice or astounding weakness, particularly in matters of self-control and morality. In The Reclamation of a Queen, Barbara Ann Gordon-Wise traces the literary history of Gwynhyfar, perhaps the most maligned of Arthurian women. Gwynhyfar’s improper sexual desires serve to bring down her husband’s paradisial kingdom in many of the works in which she plays a part while her most frequent partner in crime–Lancelet, the most beloved of Arthur’s knights–tends to be regarded favorably, despite his illicit activities in the Queen’s bed. Her inability to provide Arthur with a son and an heir is also scorned by literary history for its weakening of Arthur’s kingdom. Saddled with the lowest of expectations–to be an obedient wife and provide a child to her husband–Gwynhyfar fails at both, and literature has judged–and continues to judge–her harshly for it.
Morgaine is generally a more active villain, with the fact that she bore a child to Arthur–her half-brother–usually used as proof of that. Despite the fact that it takes two to tango, Arthur’s role in that pregnancy tends to go unexamined or is excused by Morgaine’s skill in deception and trickery. Relying on a motif that goes back to the moment that Adam first bit into the apple, he is an innocent victim of the wiles of a woman. Their son Mordred goes on to destroy the peace that Arthur has so carefully wrought. Once again, the vile actions of a woman destroy the accomplishments of a man.
To say that women have been mistreated throughout the history of literature is to state the obvious, and bemoaning the lack of gender equality as it is reflected in the literature of medieval Europe is pointless. What is disturbing is the tenacity with which these negative depictions of women have held their places in literature and other forms of entertainment, despite their coming to light in a society that is supposedly moving toward gender equality. In this, fantasy literature holds its unique power for promoting the empowerment of women.
To write historical fiction or even fiction set in the modern day is to be constrained by gender expectations and inequalities that are represented in the interest of accurately depicting reality. I have had conversations with people who complain about stories masquerading as historical fiction that attempt to level the gender playing field by showing empowered women where, in all likelihood, there would have been none, or who portray cultures with much more progressive attitudes toward gender than they in fact had. I am forced to agree, even as I lament that harmful stereotypes of women must be thrust forth again and again in literature because of it. Herein, fantasy literature possesses a unique advantage. In its most elemental definition, fantasy literature changes an aspect of reality (without concern about the mechanism of that change, unlike science fiction) and follows that change through to its conclusion. Fantasy literature is perfect for exploring a world that is not constrained by inequality towards women or that–as with Mists–turns patriarchy on its head to show what a matrifocal civilization might look like. Throughout this, there is no need to “suspend disbelief” as one must when encountering the same ideas in most historical fiction or fiction set in the modern day.
I picked up Mists for my interest in it as a piece of feminist fantasy literature. However, I found its feminist cant secondary to and dependent upon its tendency to look critically upon organized religion. While there is no doubt that Mists is meant to criticize patriarchal institutions–the Christian church in its more conservative incarnation receives particularly scathing treatment–then I felt like it looked unfavorably on both the Christian and the pagan institutions shown in the novel. Although the critiques of Christianity were much more noticeable, the institutions of heathen Goddess worship of which Morgaine and Viviane are part are certainly far from glorified. To the contrary, Mists shows both faiths–Christian and pagan–to be uplifting, positive entities in their purest forms. When tethered to power, ambition, and moral certitude, however, both institutions wreak terrible harm.
Although the pagan faith shown in Mists is Goddess-centered and treats women as higher than men in its institutions and traditions, it certainly is not a pro-woman institution. Morgaine’s mother Igraine is the most shining example of a woman treated as a tool in order to advance her sisters in a male-driven world. Igraine is given in marriage to Gorlois–a Roman much older than she whom she detests and who treats her with disregard bordering on contempt–and she is given by her own sister Viviane, a priestess of Avalon who otherwise affirms the superiority of women. It is clear, though, that this does not include all women so much as it includes women in power. When it is to Viviane’s benefit, she is no better than Gwynhyfar’s father, who gives his daughter to Arthur in marriage as part of a parcel of horses; Igraine, likewise, is used to buy Avalon favor with the Romans. Deserted by her sisters, Igraine’s life becomes focused on pleasing men, and it is no surprise that she dies in a convent, scorning her own daughter Morgaine for her autonomy. In contrast, Lancelet and Gwydion (Mordred) are both connected to Avalon and the Lady of the Lake, and neither is used as a pawn quite in the way that Igraine (and, to a lesser extent, Morgause) are used.
Likewise, Morgaine’s treatment of Kevin the Bard at the end of the novel also shows the pagan institutions as comparably brutal as the Christian church. (Actually, at this point, they are probably more so, but the novel hints at the end of the growing fervor of the Christians that will, presumably, lead into the extreme fundamentalism that characterizes the Middle Ages and continues, to an extent, today.) Kevin is most guilty of not being a religious fundamentalist; his aim is to bring the two religions together as much as possible and to preserve the old ways in conjunction with the flourishing Christianity. To Morgaine and others with a fundamentalist bent, this is unacceptable. Morgaine’s brief embodiment as the Goddess at one of Arthur’s feasts demonstrates the potential of the Britons to receive the old powers, but her refusal to compromise threatens to drive the faith in its entirety into oblivion. When Kevin is discovered to have used the regalia of Avalon in conjunction with Christian ceremonies, he is decried as a traitor, and the original sentence is that he should be brought alive to Avalon (through the trickery of the priestess Nemue, who in the process of ensnaring him must also herself fall in love with him) and there flayed and shut alive inside of a tree.
Even as she herself hands down this sentence, Morgaine is tormented by doubts. For all that she despises Kevin’s actions, he has been her friend and lover, and she wants to do him no harm. When he is delivered into her hands, she makes the decision to grant him a quick death, even if it means that she herself must bear his punishment as a traitor to Avalon. Morgaine’s refusal to play a part in cruel malice is viewed–by her at least–as a weakness; she feels that she has failed in her duty to her Goddess. In despair at Kevin’s fate, Nemue commits suicide. Again, in pursuit of their aims, the machinations of the religious elite have led to the destruction of a woman.
Throughout the novel, Kevin’s sentence remains the most explicit example of such cruelty, though Mists hints that such “blood sacrifices” were once commonplace and that ordinary people (or criminals in their places) were expected to lay down their lives in rituals to ensure a good harvest or in homage to the Goddess. The elite and powerful were, of course, exempt, unless they were traitors, in which case they were subjected to the same cruelties that would become part and parcel of their religious successors, the Christians. This seems to show, again, the short-sightedness of religious institutions, no matter what name they use in worship, and the dehumanization to which they are inclined when they believe that larger spiritual matters require it. Mistreatment of women is a part of this.
So, in the end, what did I think of the book? It is not without flaws, in my opinion, but overall, I really, really enjoyed it. I felt that the feminist purposes were a little too explicit in places, borrowing too heavily from modern discourse common on this subject (particularly in the earlier sections of the book, when Igraine is growing accustomed to living in a patriarchy and often thinks like Gloria Steinem being made to live among the Amish) and would have liked had I felt less like I was being told what to feel about this rather than being shown Igraine’s life and permitted to draw my own conclusions. (Yes, the old adage “show don’t tell” rears its warty head!) Morgaine was constantly realizing that another character was “the only friend she’d ever had” or “the only one she’d ever loved,” which would have been fine except that I think she realized this, independently, of Kevin, Lancelet, Viviane, Gwynhyfar, and Arthur. Since I am prone to this sort of hyperbole and waffling over affections in my own fiction, it leaped out at me here. And the ending happened much too fast. Mordred becomes a delightfully wicked character, and I looked forward to his climactic scene with Arthur but … there wasn’t much there. His betrayal should have been so much more memorable given the skill with which Ms. Bradley constructs his character and installs him in the hearts of those in Arthur’s court. I felt like the book rushed much to fast to its conclusion. Maybe the copy I had from the library had pages missing? It did feel that way.
But, for the past month, there were times when I would want to forsake other activities and things that needed to be done in order to read this book. It is not only an ingenious rendering of one of the most familiar tales in Western mythology but also highly entertaining. I give it 3.75 E.L. Fudge “Elves Exist” cookies out of four.