Thursday, October 28, 2010
The Mists of Avalon - Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Mists of Avalon is a re-telling of Arthurian legend told from the perspective of the Arthurian women. The main narrator is Morgaine, more commonly known as Morgan Le Fey, and the story spans her entire lifetime. Through her and other narrators including her mother Ivaine, Gwenhwyfar (aka Guinevere), Morgause, and Vivaine, we learn the story of the rise and fall of Camelot, and of the individual lives and choices that shaped an era.
You may remember Morgan Le Fay from the original myth as being an evil sorceress and Arthur's enemy. In fact, the original myth has very clear good and bad guys. This book is much more morally ambiguous, with rich characters that are neither good nor bad, but simply human. Morgaine is not an evil sorceress, but she is a priestess and a pagan, as is the Merlin, who is head of the druids. The Mists of Avalon is above all else the story of the shift from the druidic pagan religion that worshiped the Goddess and embraced plurality to the early Christian church that worshiped one God and sought to convert other people to their religion. As the Goodreads description says, "Christianity vs. Faery, and God vs. Goddess are dominant themes." In the end of the book the main character comes to terms with Christianity, but throughout much of the book there is a strong hostility towards the kind of Christians that were present at the time. This means that the main characters are openly scornful of the sin-and-damnation kind of Medieval Christianity that had no tolerance for other religions, was built on guilt, and taught that women were by nature sinful. If you are easily offended by a positive depiction of paganism, sexual freedom, or people who don't like those aspects of Christianity mentioned above , then I suggest you don't read this book.
That said, I do not think this is a book that no Christian can enjoy. My good friend Daniel is Christian, and he loved it. I am personally non-religious, and I think it is a strong credit to Mrs. Bradley that while I was reading even I wished that women were really witches and had sacred power and celebrated the pagan rites. The real strong point of this book for me is that it is convincing. When I heard the Merlin say that all Gods are the same God and that we should all join together in our different worship styles, I honestly believed him and agreed with him. When I heard Morgaine talk of people seeing the Goddess in her, I wished that people would see the Goddess in me too. When she talks of the sexual morals of the pagans (which are much more free and life-affirming that those of the Christians from that time period) I agreed with everything she said, and was scandalized that anyone could think differently. Now, I have not converted to paganism by any means. I say these things to tell you how I felt in the moment reading this book. It is a powerfully engrossing experience. I don't think that I've ever been sucked into a book as much as I have with this one.
The fact that this book is so enchanting makes it all the more tragic. I've always thought that Arthur was the greatest tragic character. In the original myth all he wanted was to create peace in his kingdom and for all of his friends to be happy, but in the end the people he loves become his downfall and he lives just long enough to see his kingdom destroyed. I came into this book preparing to care for Arthur like I always have. I wasn't prepared to care for everyone else too. Somehow, Bradley made me care for and understand every single character in this book, so if one character betrayed another I felt honestly sorry for both of them. I loved Arthur, yes, but I also loved Lancelot and Morgaine and I at least understood Gwenhwyfar, even if I disagreed with her for most of the book. I loved the Merlin, but I also loved Nimue. Usually when a character you love is hurt by someone in a book you can take a strange sort of comfort in the fact that the person who hurt them was bad or evil and you never liked them anyway. That's what bad guys are for. But in this book there are no bad guys, and so there is no end to the sadness. I was expecting Arthur to be a tragic hero, I wasn't expecting everyone else to be one too.
While this book is very long and can often get heavy with religious debates and political maneuvering, it is absolutely worth every page. Arthurian Legend is already excellent in and of itself, but this book expands on it it ways I never thought possible, and in doing so it creates human beings out of previously mythical figures. Every part of the myth suddenly makes sense and comes to life in a way it never has before. After reading this book, you will never look at Arthurian legend the same way again.
Rating: a solid 4 stars