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The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Sphere, 1982, 1009 pp.

The Mists of Avalon is one of the most famous retellings of Arthurian legend. Bradley sets out to tell the story from the point of view of the women involved, and like other such books, she gets some weighty drama with this approach. Another example would be the play within a story of Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, where Tepper told the story of the women of Troy. Both tales, Arthurian and Trojan, are tragic in the extreme for the female characters involved. The story of Troy is relatively well known in Western culture but has not been subject to a multitude of new interpretations so it was easy for Tepper to create a fresh approach. For Bradley, however, the situation is a little more difficult. Frankly, the thought of reading yet another Arthurian novel has become more than I can bear, and Bradley gained my consideration only because her book predates most, but not all, other such books. For the reader in 2001, a survey of Arthurian novels reveals a vast wasteland of flat prose, cribbed ideas, the type of rigid thinking that has for many years also characterized Tolkien imitators, cardboard characters, and a general lack of innovation and creativity that can be best described as soulless. The Mists of Avalon shares a few flaws of this legion of the uninteresting, most especially the trait of using minute spelling variations for character names -- for example, Bradley uses Gwenhwyfar for Guinevere -- as if to cloak the fact that something is being reused. Worse, The Mists of Avalon stands apart from other Arthurian novels by making a few mistakes of its own.

Bradley's book begins with the story of the generation before Arthur, spending about 125 pages on it, a considerable portion of Book One, Mistress of Magic. A young girl named Igraine is sent from Avalon to marry Gorlois, lord of Tintagel. Igraine gives birth to a girl named Morgaine. The Lady of Avalon, Viviane, comes to visit Igraine, and tells her that she must accompany Gorlois to London for the king-making council so that Igraine will meet Uther. The High King Ambrosius is dying and Uther is one of the possible successors. Uther and Igraine fall in love, and end up marrying upon the death of Gorlois. Igraine gives birth to a boy too soon after the marriage; this boy is Gwydion, later known as Arthur, and half-brother to Morgaine.

Some time passes. Arthur is raised without knowledge of his parents, and Morgaine goes to Avalon to be trained there as a priestess in the old ways. Avalon grooms Arthur to be High King, especially in the manner of keeping those with old beliefs happy. So he must do the ritual hunt and the marriage to the land. Morgaine is the priestess who presents herself as an aspect of the goddess for the ritual marriage, and Arthur only recognizes her the morning after. Nevertheless, he goes on to be crowned, and Book Two, The High Queen, largely tells the story of how Arthur comes to marry in the eyes of the church. This is where the main ideological conflict of the book takes into high gear. Gwenhwyfar is religious, and does her best to bend Arthur to the idea of Christian domination of the entire realm. There are also about four subplots happening all throughout, and Book Three, The King Stag, and Book Four, The Prisoner in the Oak, spend time in almost every corner of the country and with almost every member of the large cast of characters. Many of the typical moments of Arthurian legend are presented here as well, with Bradley's own twist. So the hunt for the Holy Grail occupies the time of the knights of the round table, but there is a secret and tricky explanation for its initial appearance. Arthur's illegitimate son Mordred -- in this case, conceived with his half-sister Morgaine -- comes back to haunt him. And the story does end with downfall and despair.

The Mists of Avalon is a lengthy book, and the sheer weight of page after page has the effect of magnifying the flaws. First of all, the book sets out to focus on the lives of the women and it only does a halfhearted job. Sometimes the narrative does feel genuinely new, but other times it succumbs to the same dumb glamour of noble hearted idiots riding on horses and killing people who disagree with them. Secondly, the main ideological split of the book presents serious narrative problems. The female characters are largely on the side of Avalon and the old pagan ways, with the exception of Gwenhwyfar about whom I will talk more in a minute. But the book is in a medieval context, in which Christianity pushed aside other beliefs. So the pagan women are on the losing side, as the mists around their retreat grow thicker and the Christian priests stamp out the unbelievers. Yes, Viviane, Morgaine, and the others are tragic heroes, and the book is a swan song for their way of life, but the series of mistakes that leads to their downfall is only that, a series of mistakes and not a tragic flaw. Worse, Gwenhwyfar, probably one of the three most significant female characters in the book, is a villain by the anti-Christian rhetoric of the book and a poor villain at that. Bradley's Gwenhwyfar is one of those bothersome characters who pester the protagonists constantly -- the closest comparison I can think of occurs in the Harry Potter books, in which minor villains, i.e. immature bullies at school, give Harry a hard time every day. This feels like filler even in something as short as a Harry Potter book, and stretched out over a thousand pages like in The Mists of Avalon, the experience becomes incredibly tiresome.

The Mists of Avalon is an exhaustive retelling of Arthurian legend, nearly a subgenre of its own at this point. For fans of the story of Arthur, Bradley's retelling is worth reading but as I have pointed out, a great deal of stamina is required and there are some notable flaws along the way.

Miniseries Note: A recent miniseries version of The Mists of Avalon was made, written by Gavin Scott and directed by Uli Edel, and running at about three hours. This adaptation is quite a muddle. It's saddled with all of the weaknesses of Bradley's book, and falls into a number of traps of its own making. The women in the main roles are played by name actors, but even they are hampered by contradictions and flaws in the plot, both from novelist and screenwriter. Things start off promisingly, with an efficient setup of the plot, and a clear sense of how the characters are related. Some nice touches elucidate the medieval setting. But as the story progresses, the epic story gets lost in, among other things, long moments of boredom, gaps in the chronology, and uneven aging effects for the actors. This last might seem like a petty thing to mention, but detracts severely from credibility when the miniseries tries to cover 40 or 50 years.

In the book, Bradley tried her hardest to make Arthurian legend yield up some interesting roles for women, and it was always an uneasy fit. What's more, the blame for the tragic end of the era of Camelot shifted from Arthur to women in the story, with a small dollop of guilt for the intolerant Christians who chased out all the friendly, politically correct pagans. In Bradley's version, Gwenhwyfar was the largest cause of the problems, due to her love triangle with Lancelot, but mostly her Christianizing influence on the court of Arthur. In this miniseries version, Gwenhwyfar's role is drastically reduced, and the downfall of the kingdom belongs more to Morgause's ambition, and secondarily, personal mistakes made in the relationship between Viviane and Morgaine. The gaps in chronology only hinder our understanding of this modified version of Bradley's story. Excision is only to be expected in going from 900 pages to three hours, but the changes made only worsen an already problematic situation.

What we're left with on-screen simply isn't consistent enough, isn't interesting enough to make the three hours go by enjoyably. The Mists of Avalon simply cannot be recommended.


First posted: October 28, 2001; Last modified: March 2, 2005

Copyright © 2001-5 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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