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The Mists of Avalon - Marion Zimmer Bradley

I hesitated to review such a darling of the fantasy genre. I have encountered fanatical devotion to a piece of fiction before, but the affection for this book possesses-- or possessed until two years ago-- a religious pitch that I haven’t seen even in Lord of the Rings fans. Thus it was naturally a source of great heartbreak for fans to hear of the crimes that their heroine had committed, and understandably left many of them wondering what to think, not just of Bradley, but of her book, so I thought I would offer up some thoughts. Before enumerating the novel’s flaws, I will first say that in its pages Bradley did transcend her megalomania to a degree. She wrote a solid, accessible book in which the heroine learns something valuable about taking one’s preconceptions too seriously, but due to selective historical research and lack of literary inventiveness, the improvement was not a superlative one. Bradley offers a handful of insights concerning her core themes of evolving religious beliefs, but lacks the nuance provided by other fantasists.

 

The first opportunity that Bradley missed when writing this novel, was her use of anachronism. Now, anachronism was a part of chivalric literature even in the 16th century when Malory wrote his version of the Arthurian Myth. This is why Arthur and his knights fight in tournaments even though tournaments were not likely held in the fashion depicted until 500 years or so after the time Arthur allegedly lived, and why they wear armor that was likewise not invented until almost 1,000 years after that time. So anachronisms are not necessarily flaws. They can be a useful device for making the story more accessible. They can also make the characters, plot, theme, and symbols more focused and purposeful, but they can also make these elements dull and reductive.

 

To give an example of how anachronisms can go wrong, we can observe a debate that has been going on in The Society for Creative Anachronism, the living history group that Bradley helped found and name in the 1960’s. One of the society’s more noted members, David Friedman commented on this schism in his essay, “A Dying Dream.” In it he discusses the opposing attitudes of the society’s participants when they gather in period costumes at events modelled after medieval festivals and tournaments. There are some participants who view these events completely literally: that is to say as gatherings of present day hobbyists playing pretend, and they don’t bother to hide their present day awareness during the event. Others construct an allegedly true-to-period persona, and refuse to break character all throughout the event. While Friedman places himself in the latter category, he admits to the error which those in the second group potentially open themselves: those who acknowledge the charade for what it is often have the potential to create a costume, a recipe, or a craft with greater authenticity than someone who takes the feeling of authenticity at face value, and thereby commits all kinds of unintentional-- and ironically uncreative-- anachronisms in the process. You can’t, after all, create an authentic piece of medieval art unless you first acknowledge that it comes from a time very different from your own, and that a painstaking degree of research will be necessary to create it rather than resting on one’s preconceptions even if that may appeal more readily to one’s emotions.

 

So what anachronisms does Bradley use in The Mists of Avalon, and does she use them well? Bradley’s only anachronisms per se are actually the theonyms she uses. For example, she refers to The Horned God instead of Cernunnos, and the Goddess instead of Eostre or the Matres. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with using 20th century synonyms for medieval gods. However, we must ask ourselves what aspects of the Celtic beliefs that inspired Bradley did she fail to mine for her novel, and what did it potentially take from her characters, plot, and theme? After all, while purpose and focus are admirable in a novel, so too are scope and a sense of strangeness, especially in a 900 page epic that has to provide many challenges and revelations for the hero. The Britain through which we travel in Bradley’s novel is one in which only two religions vie for the collective soul of the land: Goddess worship and Christianity. But Britain wasn’t home to just Christians and followers of the Matres. It also nourished more localized cults, limited to small regions or even to a specific city or landmark, along with veins of animism potentially having run through the spiritual landscape.

 

Knowing that these other beliefs existed or at least could have existed, one must ask why Bradley only depicted the two most obvious and formal religions in a novel that is specifically about how personal, unpredictable, and multifaceted spiritual belief can be? Why are the religious rites in Uriens’ kingdom exactly the same as they are in Avalon, and as far as the reader is given to understand, everywhere in Britain? What might have happened if, when Morgaine moved to Wales, she encountered a completely different set of rites, customs and deities, or encountered the same core beliefs, but with a touch of regional personality that separates it from the religion that we have already seen depicted? Had Bradley done so, it would have gone a long way in more gradually and more fully exploring the central theme of spiritual belief and how many forms and names a goddess or god may take. This would have given Morgaine a series of revelations about the nature of belief leading up to her exchange with the sisters at the abbey in the novel’s final pages, and thereby lent her final revelation more weight and believability. Instead we have a series of arguments between Taliesin and Patricius or Kevin and Morgaine that, having made their cases early on, swiftly become mawkish and redundant. While Bradley does mention different classes of Christians and Druids intermingling peacefully, Greek gods and heroes, and the Roman influences still present on the island, it’s all relegated to stuffy-sounding dialogue rather than integrated into the characters and plot.

 

Compare Bradley’s awkward two-sided approach to religious belief with that of comic book writer, fantasist, and ceremonial magician Alan Moore:

"‘Ah! Well the thing about magic that appeals to me is its difference to religion. The two words are very different. “Religion” is from the Greek or Latin root religari, which is the same root as “ligament” and “ligature,” and so it means “bound together in one space.” Now that always feels a bit unnatural to me. It seems very unlikely that any two human beings on the face of the planet would believe, be bound together, in exactly the same thing. So…alright, magic is a language but perhaps a better analogy is to say: Each religion is a language, and magic is linguistics. In the sense that, if you are a linguist, there’s no such thing as a “false language.”’"

In Bradley’s novel there is only a minimum of variance from character to character in their beliefs, and how they view those beliefs in relation to those of the other characters.  Most of Bradley’s narrative perspective rests with Morgaine and Guenhwyfar, and so we spend the lion’s share of the novel looking through the eyes of someone who thinks their religion is the one true religion, and the only other religion that matters in the story is an insulting facsimile or a misanthropic falsehood. Rather than a multi-layered exploration in which each new story beat reveals some new religion or “language,” we get a repetitive exchange between two religions that are “bound together” in the same conversation over and over again.

 

Another, simpler tool Bradley could have used to spice up her novel would have been a sense of lightheartedness or satire. Alan Moore also has something to say on that score, and how it relates to the way we approach the ontological implications of the gods we worship:

"The first experience I had, and this is very difficult to describe, but it felt to me as if me and a very close friend of mine, were both taken on this ride by a specific entity. The entity seemed to me, and to my friend, to be…[sighs]… to be this second-century Roman snake god called Glycon [...] Now, the only references there are to him, which are very disparaging, are in the works of the philosopher Lucien… Lucien explains that the whole Glycon cult was an enormous fraud, and that Glycon was a glove puppet. And I’ve got no reason to disbelieve that whatsoever. It sounds absolutely true, that yeah, the false prophet Alexander, who was the person putting on the Glycon show, had a large tame boa constrictor and he had the head of it tucked under his arm and draped over his shoulder he had a speaking tube that had been designed to look like this inhuman longhaired snake’s head with articulated jaws so that it would seem to speak. Yeah, that sounds about right. [chuckles] Of course, to me, I think that’s perfect. If I’m gonna have a god I prefer it to be a complete hoax and a glove puppet because I’m not likely to start believing that glove puppet created the universe or anything dangerous like that. To me, the IDEA of the god IS the god. It doesn’t matter what form it takes."

Rather than take a similarly humorous approach, Bradley strikes a tone of deadly earnest that sometimes moves one to genuine emotion, but nearly as often just bores or frustrates. Bradley does does deliver a self-revelation to her heroine by the end, and does concede that truth can come from surprising sources, but the book does not feel very magical in the sense that Moore offers. Only two religions are ever given center stage in the action, only two “languages” are used to speak about spiritual matters, and there is no pleasant undercurrent of subversive humour to help communicate just how inexhaustible the modes of communicating with the spiritual world truly are.

 

As I mentioned briefly before, this lack of breadth, nuance, and humor in spiritual expression manifests itself most in the dynamic between its protagonist and its antagonist, which is where the novel ought to be strongest. Ideally the antagonist should be someone who can offer the best possible opposition for the protagonist, not just on a political level, but on a moral level as well. The best antagonists don’t just oppose the hero physically, they force the hero to reevaluate their whole basis for right and wrong action. While Guenhwyfar does possess enough status and power to challenge Morgaine on a political level, she is not an insightful enough opponent to make a very strong case for Christianity on a moral level, which makes Morgaine’s acceptance of its value at the conclusion feel awkward and contrived. Bradley should either have given Guenhwyfar the smarts to go toe to toe with Morgaine, making for a more compelling conflict, or given the role of chief antagonist to Kevin or some other intellectual equal. By writing the two main characters in the way she did, Bradley lavished pages and pages on an antagonist who serves more to flatter the protagonist than to challenge her.

 

All in all the book was not without its moments. There are some good uses of the different points of view in the novel to redeem the shortcomings of the protagonist/antagonist dynamic. Though Morgaine is clearly the author’s favorite, she is able to extend some empathy towards Arthur, Guenhwyvar, Lancelet, Morgause, and the rest. Unfortunately these strengths are only enough to make the book readable rather than superior, and shouldn’t superior be what we ask for whenever possible? If you’re someone who has not read the book, and was considering giving it a try, Alan Moore is not the only fantasist to explore the themes Bradley does, and Bradley is not the only female fantasist to have explored them at all. Evangeline Walton’s reimagining of the Mabinogion gives a far more elegant take on the consequences of a matrilineal society giving way to a warrior ethos-driven patriarchy. If you want sexually explicit, but more well thought out feminist reimaginings of old magical tales, I would probably check out Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber collection. And if you are an Anglophile with a love of alternative, female-centric supernatural histories, then you should probably pick up Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories.

 

Final Score: 5.8/10

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