The Mists of Avalon

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For the TV miniseries adaptation of the book, see The Mists of Avalon (TV miniseries).
The Mists of Avalon
Mists of Avalon-1st ed.jpg
Cover of the American first edition
Author Marion Zimmer Bradley
Cover artist Braldt Bralds
Country United States
Language English
Series Avalon
Genre Fantasy novel
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date
January 1983
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback) and audio-CD
Pages 876
ISBN 0-394-52406-3
OCLC 8473972
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3552.R228 M5 1982
Preceded by Priestess of Avalon

The Mists of Avalon is a 1983 novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley, in which she relates the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the female characters. The book follows the trajectory of Morgaine (often called Morgan le Fay in other works), a priestess fighting to save her matriarchal Celtic culture in a country where patriarchal Christianity threatens to destroy the pagan way of life.[1] The epic is focused on the lives of Gwenhwyfar, Viviane, Morgause, Igraine and other women who are often marginalized in Arthurian retellings. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are supporting rather than main characters.

The Mists of Avalon is in stark contrast to most other retellings of the Arthurian tales, which consistently cast Morgan le Fay as a distant, one-dimensional evil sorceress, with little or no explanation given for her antagonism to the Round Table. In this case Morgaine is presented as a woman with unique gifts and responsibilities at a time of enormous political and spiritual upheaval who is called upon to defend her indigenous matriarchal heritage against impossible odds. The Mists of Avalon stands as a watershed for feminist interpretation of male-centered myth by articulating women's experiences at times of great change and shifts in gender-power. The typical battles, quests, and feuds of King Arthur's reign act as secondary elements to the women's lives.

The story is told in four large parts: Book One: Mistress of Magic, Book Two: The High Queen, Book Three: The King Stag, and Book Four: The Prisoner in the Oak. The novel was a best-seller upon its publication and remains popular to this day. Bradley and Diana L. Paxson later expanded the book into the Avalon series.

Plot[edit]

The Mists of Avalon is a generations-spanning retelling of the Arthurian legend that brings it back to its Brythonic Celtic roots (see Matter of Britain). The plot tells the story of the women who influence King Arthur, High King of Britain, and those around him.

The book's main protagonist is Morgaine, priestess of Avalon, who is King Arthur's half-sister. Their mother, Igraine, is married to Uther Pendragon after Morgaine's biological father, Gorlois, is killed in battle. Rumors spread in Avalon that before Igraine knew her husband Gorlois was killed, Uther consulted with Merlin who used his magic to transform the king into the likeness of Gorlois and thus gain access to Igraine at Tintagel. He spent the night with her and they conceived a son, Arthur. Morgaine witnesses Uther Pendragon's accession to the throne of Caerleon after his predecessor, Ambrosius, dies of old age. Uther becomes her step-father, and he and Igraine have a son, Arthur, Morgaine's half-brother.

When Morgaine is eleven years old and Arthur six, an attempt of murder is made on Arthur's life. Their maternal aunt, the high priestess Viviane, arrives in Caerleon and advises Uther to have Arthur fostered far away from the court for his own safety. Uther agrees, and also allows Viviane to take Morgaine to Avalon, where she is trained as a priestess of the Mother Goddess. During this period, Morgaine becomes aware of the rising tension between the old Pagan and the new Christian religions. After seven years of training, Morgaine is initiated as a priestess of the Mother, and Viviane begins grooming her as the next Lady of Avalon.

Some months after her initiation, Morgaine is given in a fertility rite to the future high king of Britain. Their union is not meant to be personal, but rather a symbolic wedding between the future high king and the land he is to defend. The following morning, Morgaine and Arthur recognize each other and are horrified to realize what they have done. Two months later, Morgaine is devastated to find that she is pregnant.

After Uther dies in battle against the Saxon invaders, Arthur claims the throne of Britain despite questions about his legitimacy (he had been conceived within days of Igraine's marriage to Uther Pendragon). Since Arthur must now defend Britain against the Saxons, Viviane has Morgaine make him an enchanted scabbard that will prevent him from losing blood and gives him the sacred sword Excalibur. With the combined force of Avalon and Caerleon, Arthur repels the invaders.

As Morgaine's unborn child grows within her, so do her feelings of anger and betrayal toward Viviane, who she believes tricked her into bearing a child to her own half-brother. Unable to stay in Avalon any longer, she leaves for the court of her aunt Morgause, queen of Lothian, where she bears her son, naming him Gwydion. Spurred by her husband Lot's ambition and her own, Morgause tricks Morgaine into allowing her to rear her son. To escape Lot's unwanted advances, Morgaine leaves Lothian and returns to Arthur's court as a lady-in-waiting to the high queen, Gwenhwyfar. She does not see Gwydion again until he is grown and a Druid priest.

When Gwenhwyfar fails to produce an heir, she is convinced God is punishing her for her sins. Chiefest among them, as she believes, are her failure to persuade Arthur to outlaw pagan religious practice in Britain and her forbidden love for Galahad, Arthur's cousin and finest knight, who is also known as Lancelet. Although Lancelet reciprocates Gwenhwyfar's love, he is also Arthur's friend and an honorable man. This situation causes terrible suffering to both Lancelet and Gwenhwyfar.

On the eve of a decisive battle against the Saxons, Gwenhwyfar prevails upon Arthur to put aside his father's Pendragon banner and replace it with her own Christian banner. As her religious fanaticism grows, relations between Avalon and Camelot grow strained. Still, in her desperation over her failure to carry a child to term, she asks Morgaine for help, threatening to have an extramarital affair so she can become pregnant. In an attempt to keep Gwenhwyfar from doing so, Morgaine reveals that Arthur already has a son, though he does not know it.

After the battle, Arthur moves his court to Camelot, which is more easily defended than Caerleon had been. Seeking to free both Lancelet and Gwenhwyfar from the forbidden love that traps them both, Morgaine tricks Lancelet into marrying Gwenhwyfar's cousin, Elaine. Some time later, during a heated argument with Arthur over their lack of an heir, Gwenhwyfar breaks Morgaine's confidence and tells Arthur he has a son. In growing suspicion and horror, Arthur summons Morgaine and orders her to tell him the truth. Morgaine obeys. Now believing that the lack of a royal heir is God's punishment for Arthur's union, however unwitting, with his own half-sister, Gwenhwyfar urges Arthur to confess the encounter to the bishop, who imposes strict penance upon him. Then she and Arthur arrange for Morgaine to marry into Wales, far from Camelot. But because of a misunderstanding, Morgaine, who had thought she would be marrying the king's younger son Accolon, a Druid priest and warrior, finds herself betrothed to King Uriens of Wales, who is old enough to be her grandfather. Arthur yearns to meet his son Gwydion and perhaps foster him at Camelot, but each time he brings up the subject with Gwenhwyfar, she refuses to discuss it.

Morgaine marries Uriens and moves to Wales, but in time begins an affair with Accolon. The "old people" of the hills, who keep to the old pagan ways, regard Accolon and Morgaine as their king and queen. King Uriens suspects nothing, but Accolon's older brother, Avalloch, begins to; at one point, he confronts Morgaine in private and tries to blackmail her into sleeping with him as well. Morgaine sends Avalloch out on a boar hunt and is magically present when the boar kills him. In his grief for his eldest son and heir, Uriens abstains from pork for the rest of his life. Morgaine tells Accolon, who is now Uriens's heir, of the sacred marriage she made with Arthur years before. She adds that they must take the kingdom back from Arthur and the Christians and bring it back under the sway of Avalon. The attempted coup fails and Arthur kills Accolon in single combat. As Uriens recovers from the shock of losing a second son, Morgaine leaves Wales forever.

Gwydion, now grown, goes to the Saxon courts to learn warfare far from Arthur's eye. Impressed by his cleverness, the Saxons name him Mordred ("Evil Counsel"). Years later, at a Pentecost feast at Camelot, he introduces himself as Queen Morgaine's son and Queen Morgause's foster son, though he calls Queen Morgause "Mother" and Morgaine by her name. Because of his close resemblance to Lancelet, he must often tell people that Lancelet is not his father. To earn his knighthood with no suspicion of preferential treatment, Gwydion challenges Lancelet to single combat during a tourney and they fight. As they start to fight in earnest, Gwenhwyfar, who has warmed to Gwydion in the meantime, protests and Arthur interrupts the match. Lancelet makes Gwydion a knight of the Round Table, naming him Mordred.

When the knights of the Round Table leave to search for the Holy Grail, Mordred attempts to usurp the throne. In a climactic battle, the armies of Arthur and Mordred fight and Arthur is mortally wounded. Morgaine takes the dying Arthur through the mists to Avalon, reassuring him that he did not fail in his attempt to save Britain from the approaching dark times. Arthur dies in her arms as the shoreline comes into view. Morgaine buries him in Avalon and remains there to tell the tale of Camelot.

Characters[edit]

  • Morgaine — Narrator, protagonist. Her character is capable of second sight (a gift of her Goddess) and transfiguration. Portrayed as a tragic character, Morgaine is torn between her loyalty to Avalon and her unfulfilled love for Lancelet, although she has other lovers in the book, notably Arthur, Kevin, and Accolon. She often considers herself the victim of fate, having no choice in the decisions she makes in life. She is doomed to witness the demise of the old ways of Avalon, but in the end makes peace with certain aspects of Christianity, as she sees that she never fought the religion itself, but rather the narrow-minded views of some of its priests. She concludes that some memory of the ancient beliefs of Britain will live on, feeling that the Goddess she worshipped did not die with the coming of Christianity: rather, the Goddess just took another form in the image of the Virgin Mary.
  • Uther Pendragon is the nephew and War Duke of the dead High King Ambrosius and an ambitious warlord who falls in love with Igraine. After being betrayed by his ally Gorlois (out of jealousy rather than for political reasons), he killed him and became the High King of Britain. He fathered King Arthur and died when Arthur was in his teens.
  • Igraine is the wife in turn to Gorlois and Uther, a younger half-sister of Viviane, and the mother of Morgaine and Arthur. Originally named "Grainné, for the Goddess of the Beltane fires",[2] Igraine was brought up in Avalon and married at the age of fifteen to Duke Gorlois of Cornwall, a mostly unhappy union for her. She is destined by Viviane and Taliesin to betray her husband, seduce Uther and produce the saviour of the Island of Britain (her son King Arthur). At first, she rebels, stating she is not a breeding mare, but ultimately falls in love with Uther and helps him defeat his enemies. However, the guilt about Gorlois torments her to the end. Igraine adores Morgaine before Uther enters, but she then ignores Morgaine when she and Uther marry and when Arthur is born.
  • Gorlois is Igraine's husband and Morgaine's father. Because Igraine was so young when they married, their relationship has been strained, but Gorlois did his best to make her feel comfortable, giving her gifts and letting her keep her daughter Morgaine. Igraine does not see how he loved her until it's too late. When Gorlois suspects that Igraine has an affair with Uther, he turns on her, accuses her of being a whore and a witch, and even breaks his oath to Uther. In the end, Uther kills him for treachery.
  • King Arthur is the son of Igraine and Uther and younger half-brother to Morgaine. He is portrayed as a strong king, who marries Gwenhwyfar by arranged marriage. His compassion for his suffering wife — who is tormented by her childlessness and her love for Lancelet — ultimately becomes his downfall. A twist is that he is actually aware of Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet's affair, and how unhappy both are to continually betray him, but looks the other way because he loves both his wife and his best friend too much to make them unhappy. It is suggested that, while he does love Gwenhwyfar, his deepest love is saved for Morgaine.
  • Gwenhwyfar is Arthur's beautiful but unhappy wife. She is brought up by a cold, unloving father, which left her with a deep inferiority complex and intense agoraphobia. Failing to produce an heir and unable to be with the love of her life, Lancelet, she falls into a deep depression and — hoping for salvation — becomes an increasingly fanatical Christian. Gwenhwyfar and Morgaine are depicted as polar opposites.
  • Lancelet is Arthur's First Knight, Viviane's son (by Ban of Benwick) and Morgaine's cousin and first love. He is an extremely gifted and handsome warrior, but has a lifelong fear of his mother. He and Gwenhwyfar are utterly infatuated, but neither has the courage (or ruthlessness) to elope. He also loves his cousin Arthur, and perhaps loves Gwenhwyfar even more because she is so close to him. He is conflicted because of his bisexuality and his infatuation with both Arthur and Gwenhwyfar.
  • Mordred, a.k.a. Gwydion, is the illegitimate son of Morgaine and King Arthur. He is an unscrupulous, cunning intrigant, but in contrast to mainstream versions his motives are understandable. He sees his father Arthur as corrupt and decadent, and is convinced that he has to remove him to save Camelot. It is strongly hinted that his childhood under the cold, cunning Morgause makes him think the way he does. Mordred does share one notable trait with his mother Morgaine: he truly believes that he is a pawn of fate, with no real free will to choose his path in life. This is possibly due to the influence of the fatalistic Saxons. At one point, Mordred even lists his father's good qualities and admits that he admires Arthur in several ways. Nevertheless, Mordred remains committed to pulling his father down from the throne of Camelot.
  • Morgause is Morgaine's aunt, the younger sister of Viviane and Igraine. "Their mother, who had been really too old for childbearing, had died giving birth to Morgause. Viviane had borne a child of her own, earlier in the year; her child had died, and Viviane had taken Morgause to nurse."[3] She is depicted as a vain, cunning character and in contrast to her sisters, she acts purely for her own gains. She feels no regret in her regular adultery and plans to use both Morgaine and Mordred as vehicles for her power.
  • Elaine is Gwenhwyfar's cousin who eventually becomes Lancelet's wife. Elaine greatly resembles her cousin Gwenhwyfar in looks (albeit not in personality), which plays into her plan to marry Lancelet under dishonest circumstances. Morgaine offers Lancelet to Elaine on the condition that she is given Elaine's first daughter to rear in Avalon. With Lancelet she has three children: Galahad, Nimue, and Gwenhwyfar (named after the queen).
  • Viviane is — for the most time — the High Priestess of Avalon. She is portrayed as a strong religious and political leader; her fatal flaw is her willingness to use others in her quest to save Avalon without thinking of their emotional suffering. She is misunderstood because her family has little contact with her and that she would have to do anything to keep Camelot and Avalon and the priestess of Avalon alive in everyone's hearts. Viviane is killed by her son Balan's foster-brother, Balin.
  • Taliesin (the Merlin of Britain) is the old Archdruid and harpist of Avalon. He is revered by Christian and pagan alike as a wise, kind old man. He fathered Igraine, Morgause and Niniane. His mental health continually deteriorates throughout the story. (In this retelling, "Merlin" is a title rather than a proper name.)
  • Kevin (Merlin of Britain) succeeds Taliesin after his death. He is a horribly disfigured hunchback, having been burned in a fire as a child, but can sing like an angel. He becomes Morgaine's lover and later her worst enemy. Foreseeing the demise of pagan ways, he betrays Avalon. In an ultimate attempt to unite Christianity and Avalon, so Avalon will survive, he brings the Holy Grail to Camelot. To punish him for this atrocity, Morgaine sets up Nimue to seduce and then betray him, and wants to torture him to death as a traitor. But before the torture begins, Morgaine changes her mind and has him executed swiftly out of mercy, and at the same time, a bolt of lightning incinerates the Holy Oak of Avalon. Morgaine understands that Avalon is doomed.
  • Raven is a priestess of Avalon who has taken a perpetual vow of silence. Another original character, she sacrifices herself to help Morgaine save the Holy Grail from Patricius.
  • Accolon is a knight loyal to Avalon, the second son of Uriens, and Morgaine's lover. She wants him to kill King Arthur and so restore the power of Avalon; however, Arthur slays Accolon in direct combat, and Morgaine is disgraced when her role becomes evident.
  • Avalloch is Uriens' eldest son. He intends to rule North Wales as a Christian king, though he is not such a good Christian himself; upon discovering Morgaine and Accolon's affair, he threatens to expose her if she does not sleep with him as well. Morgaine kills him to preserve her reputation and put Accolon in position to inherit the throne from Uriens.
  • Uwaine is Uriens' youngest son and a knight loyal to Arthur. He regards Morgaine as his mother.
  • Nimue is the beautiful daughter of Elaine and Lancelet. As Viviane's granddaughter, she is to be Lady of the Lake when Morgaine dies. She is kept in constant seclusion at Avalon, and Morgaine sees her as the ultimate weapon against Camelot. Nimue seduces Kevin in order to abduct him, but instead falls in love with him and kills herself after she betrays him.
  • Niniane is Taliesin's daughter, making her Viviane, Igraine and Morgause's half-sister. She is a priestess who reluctantly becomes Lady of the Lake after Viviane is slain and Morgaine declines to take her place. Niniane is not as powerful or politically astute as Morgaine or Viviane, and painfully aware of her shortcomings as Lady of the Lake. She becomes Mordred's lover, but when he announces his plans to betray Arthur, Niniane turns on him and he kills her in a fit of rage (whether this is accidental or intentional is never specified).
  • Gawaine is a son of Lot and Morgause and one of Arthur's best Knights of the Round Table. He is known for being very kind, compassionate, and devoted to Arthur.
  • Gareth is another son of Morgause and Knight of the Round Table. He is similar to Gawaine in both looks and personality, only more fearsome in battle. Lancelet is his childhood idol, although it is Lancelet who accidentally kills him.
  • Galahad is Lancelet and Elaine's son and Arthur's heir to the throne. Mordred predicts that Galahad will not live to see his own crowning. Prediction proving true, Galahad dies on the quest for the Holy Grail.
  • Cai is Arthur's foster-brother. After a near fatal accident as a small child, Arthur is sent to live with Cai and his father, Ectorius. Cai and Arthur love each other very much, and after Arthur is crowned, he tells Cai, "God strike me if I ever ask that you, brother, should call me [king]."[4] Cai is described as having a facial scar and a limp, two injuries that he received while protecting Arthur during a Saxon invasion. Cai is made Arthur's knight and chamberlain, and he keeps Arthur's castle for him.

Writing[edit]

Marion Zimmer Bradley stated about her book:

About the time I began work on the Morgan le Fay story that later became Mists, a religious search of many years culminated in my accepting ordination in one of the Gnostic Catholic churches as a priest. Since the appearance of the novel, many women have consulted me about this, feeling that the awareness of the Goddess has expanded their own religious consciousness, and ask me if it can be reconciled with Christianity. I do feel very strongly, not only that it can, but that it must... So when women today insist on speaking of Goddess rather than God, they are simply rejecting the old man with the white beard, who commanded the Hebrews to commit genocide on the Philistines and required his worshippers daily to thank God that He had not made them women... And, I suppose, a little, the purpose of the book was to express my dismay at the way in which religion lets itself become the slave of politics and the state. (Malory's problem ... that God may not be on the side of the right, but that organized religion always professes itself to be on the side of the bigger guns.) ... I think the neo-pagan movement offers a very viable alternative for people, especially for women, who have been turned off by the abuses of Judeo-Christian organized religions.[5]

Reception[edit]

The Mists of Avalon is lauded as one of the most original and emotional retellings of the familiar Arthurian legend. Bradley received much praise for her convincing portrayal of the main protagonists, respectful handling of the Pagan ways of Avalon and for telling a story in which there is neither black and white or good and evil, but several truths. Isaac Asimov called it "the best retelling of the Arthurian Saga I have ever read", and Jean Auel noted "I loved this book so much I went out and bought it for a friend, and have told many people about it."[6] The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls the book "a convincing revision of the Arthurian cycle," and said that the victory of Christianity over the "sane but dying paganism" of Avalon "ensures eons of repression for women and the vital principles they espouse." It won the 1984 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and spent four months on the New York Times best seller list in hardcover. The trade paperback edition of Mists of Avalon has ranked among the top five trade paperbacks on the monthly Locus bestseller lists for almost four years.[7]

TV series adaptation[edit]

The Mists of Avalon was adapted for television into a TNT miniseries in 2001, directed by Uli Edel.

Extended Avalon series[edit]

Main article: Avalon Series

Bradley, along with Diana L. Paxson, later expanded the book into a series, including The Fall of Atlantis, Ancestors of Avalon, Sword of Avalon, Ravens of Avalon, The Forest House, Lady of Avalon, and Priestess of Avalon. J.S. Morgane's The Spirituality of Avalon discusses the religious aspects of the Avalon series and gives insights into a modern Western understanding of spirituality and its construction in epic fantasy fiction.[8]

Release details[edit]

  • 1983, USA, Knopf ISBN 0-394-52406-3, Pub Date January 1983, hardcover
  • 1984, USA, Del Rey Fantasy (an imprint of Ballantine Publishing Group) ISBN 0-345-31452-2, Pub Date May 1984, trade paperback

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Book review of The Mists of Avalon (video)". BlueRectangle.com/Pacific Book Exchange, LLC. 2007. Retrieved 2010-06-24. 
  2. ^ Bradley, Marion Zimmer (1982). The Mists of Avalon. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 19. ISBN 0-345-31452-2. 
  3. ^ Bradley, Marion Zimmer (1982). The Mists of Avalon. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 11. ISBN 0-345-31452-2. 
  4. ^ Bradley, Marion Zimmer (1982). The Mists of Avalon. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 11. ISBN 0-345-31452-2. 
  5. ^ Bradley, Marion Zimmer (1986). "Thoughts on Avalon". Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust. 
  6. ^ Critical praise ~ ReadingGroupGuides.com
  7. ^ Arthur Through Women's Eyes: The Mists of Avalon ~ Space.com
  8. ^ Morgane, Judith S (2010), The spirituality of Avalon the religion of the Great Goddess in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Avalon cycle, München AVM, ISBN 3-89975-768-8 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]