Book Review: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

All right, all right already. I finished the book. It took me two months to do it, but I read it, so I might as well sit down and write this review. You guys been bugging me about it, so I guess I have no choice.

What did I think of the book?

I don’t know. I’m still sorting out my thoughts on it.

In some ways, I didn’t like the book. I didn’t like the way that it challenged my Christian beliefs. There were so many things in this book that had me mentally screaming: “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” before my brain stepped in. LaShawn, calm down. Of course it isn’t true. It’s FICTION.

But there’s more than that. As much as I like Authurian retellings, I didn’t particularly like this one. I know Bradley wanted to tell the story from the women’s point of view, and it does sound pretty intriguing. She uses Morgaine as the main protagonist, but other women also tell the story: her mother Igraine, her half-sister, Morgause, her aunt Viviane, who is also Avalon’s Lady of the Lake, and of course, Queen Gwenhwyfar.

There’s just one slight problem in using the women of the Arthur legend. They’re boring. They’re incredibly, incredibly boring. Igraine’s history was the least boring–it shows her trapped within a tolerable marriage when she learns that she will instead marry her lover at the cost of her current husband’s life. She struggles with being a pawn of Avalon and loving Uther, her lover. But once the book switches over to Morgaine’s life, things slam to a halt. Morgaine grows up at Avalon, meets Merlin, thinks a lot on how Christianity sucks and serving the Goddess is far nobler, falls in love with her cousin Lancelot, have sex with her half-brother Arthur under the influence of a pagan rite…

And that was the other reason I couldn’t stand this book at first. Part of the time, it felt like the characters did nothing but argue with each other “God!” “No, Goddess!” “No, GOD!” “NO! GODDESS!” The other part of the time was “HAVE SEX WITH ME!” “NO! I MUSTN’T IT AIN’T RIGHT! BUT I FEEL BAD, SO I WILL!” There’s a scene where after Arthur and Gwenhwyfar are married, Lancelot abruptly decides to make out with Morgaine, a very unpleasant image came to my mind. I saw Bradley watching “Days of our Lives” and scrabbling madly, Okay so lets have Morgaine start lusting after Lancelot, who’s lusting after Gwenhwyfar…and then we’ll marry Gwen to Arthur, who doesn’t know that Morgaine is carrying his child…and at some point, I should have Gwen and Arthur and Lancelot do a threesome…”

Ugh. There were times that I almost gave up on the book. Just for that alone. But I was determined to finish it. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment or something.

The sad thing is, most of everyone’s actions are done out of love. When Gwenhwyfar wasn’t being a naive, shrill Christian fundamentalist harpy, (and sadly, that’s how she’s portrayed), she is truly tormented over being in love with Lancelot because she’s been taught that she is only supposed to be in love with her husband (never mind that she had no say in her arranged marriage). Morgaine is broken over what happened with Arthur and runs away from Avalon, torn over her guilt of handing her son over to fosterage. She even gets caught in fairy world for a few years (I actually found that interesting), but mostly, she sits and spins and sees visions from the Sight, but doesn’t really do anything other than sit and mope and spin…

Things do change from soap-opera-like to more Shakespearian Tragedy-like when actions from the first half of the book come home to roost and everyone starts to die. Oops…gave it away there, didn’t I? But really, people are dying, left and right, and even then the bitter war of paganism vs. Christianity continued even there.

I guess what really got me about this book is that this wasn’t so much a retelling of the Arthur legend but only a bunch of Authurian characters sitting around arguing about Christianity and Paganism, so much so that it felt like the book was really a debate in disguise of a story. Since reading the book, I read Bradley’s reasons for why she wrote the book, which can be found on her webpage. I think she wanted to hold a mirror up to the church (and not just the medieval church, who certainly did corrupt the teachings of Christ–but also the church of today) and show what an outsider would think of Christianity based on what that person saw of the church. If this was a commentary or an article, I’m sure that she would have gotten a lot of interesting feedback from the theological world.

Unfortunately, people don’t read commentaries or articles for entertainment. They just don’t care to think that hard. So I think Bradley decided to couch the concepts she struggled within the retelling of the Arthur legend through the women’s point of view. But I don’t think she did it all that well, at least to me. Because most of her Christians portrayed in the story come across as uneducated, arrogant, oath-breaking, bigoted weaklings. Meanwhile, the pagans come across as noble in their intentions, open-minded, loving, respectable and wise. At least, on the surface (there are a lot of things that the pagans did in the name of the Goddess that made me shudder). Those pagans who do come to Christianity, such as Igraine and Kevin, don’t really say why they do so. (And as far as I know, Igraine only ‘appeared’ to convert, but she remained a pagan at heart.)

But this isn’t a theological paper. It’s a book review. So what do I think of the book? Questionable. In many places, boring as hell. In other places, a lot of headshaking. Would I recommend it? Not really, though I wouldn’t mind looking into what others think of the book. I’ve heard that many attacked The Mists of Avalon for being anti-Christian and having an extreme pro-feminine agenda, and yet I also heard that Madeline L’Engle praised the book. It is the type of book that gets me thinking, that’s for sure.

I will say one thing. Being a woman, it’s oh so tempting to fall into this book’s theology, that paganism is on the same level as Christianity. There’s a part of me that is enthralled by ritual and the respect of nature, women dancing in moonlight, that sort of thing. I believe, and here is LaShawn’s very own personable opinion, that one could be a pagan Christian, lighting candles and being champions of nature. I think there are many ways to worship him. But I cannot say, God, Goddess, it’s all the same thing. That’s just not what I believe.

I don’t know. At this point, I would give a rating to the book, but seeing that I’m still trying to figure it out, I honestly can’t. If I’m forced to, on the book’s literary merit, it rates two 1/2 out of five chalices, but what is the power that’s holding the chalice? God or something else?

Feh. I think I’m thinking too hard on this. I’m going to go rent Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That will put things back into perspective.

 3/13 edit: Found an critique on the newly redeveloped Internet Review of Science Fiction called “The Magic Mundane: Re-examining the Supernatural in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon“. There are some places that your eyes will cross from the large words, but otherwise, I found it an interesting take on the book. Check it out, why don’t you?