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Magic, Sex, and Christians: Rereading the Classic "Mists of Avalon" on its 30th Anniversary

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Marion Zimmer Bradley's massively popular Arthurian fantasy The Mists of Avalon. Alas, I was unable to read this iconic novel when it was first released, due to being about two years old at the time.

A decade later, however, I found The Mists of Avalon and fell head over heels. I was a twelve-year-old Catholic girl. My best friend's mom called my mom to get her okay before lending me this novel, and no wonder. Sibling incest! Pagan orgies around bonfires! Extramarital sex before a husband's very eyes, nay, at his request! I read it—all 876 pages—several times during the next couple years.

I was not alone: Mists has stayed in print for three decades and inspired passionate devotion. It has also triggered plenty of ironic eye-rolling. Now that I'm not twelve anymore, I find myself deeply sympathetic to both reactions.

For those of you who haven't read the book or whose memories of it have receded into the appropriately misty past, here's a quick overview: Mists retells the legend of King Arthur, considering the familiar plot from the perspectives of its female characters. Instead of placing kings, knights, and war at the heart of the story, Mists fleshes out Morgaine (in this version, Arthur's sister), Gwenhwyfar (aka Guinevere), and three sisters: Igraine (Morgaine and Arthur's mother), Morgause (an intelligent and sexually liberated queen), and Vivian (high priestess of Avalon).

This is a long book with a complicated plot. Essentially, though, it's about queens and priestesses, mothers and sisters and aunts, and sex and birth and death. In its world, patriarchal Christianity battles against a woman-centered pagan tradition of goddess worship and nature's rhythms. It's a sad novel, because (spoiler alert!) patriarchal Christianity wins. Oh, and also because of various characters' fatal flaws, most notably Vivian's tragic-puppeteer-style approach to her loved one's lives.

By the time I returned to the book after a two-decade separation, my memories of it were vague and I was in a very different place in my life. I'd amassed a considerably enriched sexual history (though nothing like as fancy and depressing as the stuff featured in the novel!), a doctorate in English literature, a husband, a child, and a whole lot of feminism. I went back to the book this month to understand what I'd seen in it as a child peering into adulthood.

The sex, yes, was fascinating, and the relatively few racy scenes loomed large in my memory. But that's not all that mesmerized me. This was the first book I ever read that explicitly acknowledged menstruation, childbirth, and abortion. I loved its rich setting, its magic, and its exploration of power. And perhaps its early-'80s touchy-feely woman-power Goddess-worship vibe resonated for me somehow. It was heavy on the drama. It was, frankly, a bit maudlin. And so was I, at age twelve.

Writing this, I suddenly wonder whether I failed to return that beloved loaner copy to its rightful owner, my friend's mother. How else would I have the dog-eared paperback on my shelf all these years later?

Rereading The Mists of Avalon as an adult, though, I knew that the novel is a favorite choice for feminist reading lists. It makes it onto these lists, one assumes, because:

• Women! In epic fantasy! This is mildly exciting even today, but think back to the early 1980s and it's even bigger news. By breaking into male-dominated science fiction and fantasy, and by writing woman and girl characters, Bradley and her contemporaries changed these genres in ways I value.
• It recasts a tale central to Western culture's understanding of itself to focus on the traditionally-totally-flat mothers, sisters, wives, and witches. It complicates a story of Western civilization as fundamentally about manly men doing heroic stuff. This novel helped popularize a lively feminist tradition: rewriting histories, fairy tales, and other culturally-significant narratives from marginalized peoples' perspectives.
• It dramatizes the notion that History might be better understood as histories, that perspective matters, that vast swathes of human experience—here, specifically women's experiences and women's bodies—get left out of our go-to stories about the past.
• It takes a story about male sexual desire and imagines that perhaps women also experience desire.
• It pushes against various stereotypes, complicating types including The Beautiful Prize, The Evil Witch, The Wicked Queen, The Seductress, and The Devout Widow.
• It undermines the chivalric ideal, including the bit about patriarchy being awesome for women because it shelters and protects our vulnerable little selves.
This is not to say that the novel is a perfect rose of fictional feminism. Indeed, Bradley insisted that the book was not feminist. When the word "feminism" was uttered, she seems to have pictured radical feminists complaining that her work was not feminist enough or in the right ways.

And that sounds like fun, right? Let's have a go at complaining about the ways The Mists of Avalon falls short!
For starters, the maiden/mother/crone schema—the romanticized, nostalgic vision of women set against Madonna/whore—has its own problems and imaginative limitations. A pretty darned straightforward gender binary holds immense power in this world, not just socially but spiritually. And the book arguably casts toxic relationships amongst women and anxiety over one's reproductive role as "immutable and inevitable parts of female existence."

As a grown-up feminist, I regard Mists with far more ambivalence than I did as a doe-eyed ball of angst. I'm even tempted to mock its self-seriousness. And yet I find that my younger self won't allow me a too-cool-for-school approach to this text. For all the novel's flaws, its magic and its big dramatic emotions still draw me in when I start paging through the story yet again.

 

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Comments

8 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Me Too!

Oh man, I had pretty much the exact same experience as you. Your last sentence says it all "And yet I find that my younger self won’t allow me a too-cool-for-school approach to this text. For all the novel's flaws, its magic and its big dramatic emotions still draw me in when I start paging through the story yet again." So much love for that book, I paced around the woods in my backyard trying to 'feel the earth's power' for weeks after reading it.

You've brought the book back

You've brought the book back in all its adolescent-angsty glory. I probably haven't read it in about 25 years but it definitely changed my view of the Arthurian legend. It was ground-breaking in many ways and just a fun read. Perhaps I'll have to give it another go.

You've brought the book back

You've brought the book back in all its adolescent-angsty glory. I probably haven't read it in about 25 years but it definitely changed my view of the Arthurian legend. It was ground-breaking in many ways and just a fun read. Perhaps I'll have to give it another go.

I haven't read this book in

I haven't read this book in years, either, but yeah, as a young teenager it definitely had an impact. Interestingly, this was pretty much the first take on the Arthurian legend that I read (it just hadn't come up before, aside from my mom reading us "The Once and Future King"), so it probably colored my whole understanding of that drama. I was kind of sympathetic to Morgan le Fay ever after, for example, even when she was presented as the unredeemed villain.

Oh, the memories!

I haven't read this book in years, either, but yeah, as a young teenager it definitely had an impact. Interestingly, this was pretty much the first take on the Arthurian legend that I read (it just hadn't come up before, aside from my mom reading us "The Once and Future King"), so it probably colored my whole understanding of that drama. I was kind of sympathetic to Morgan le Fay ever after, for example, even when she was presented as the unredeemed villain.

I have such memories of

I have such memories of finding and reading this book in a cabin on a little island off the coast of Maine. I was probably 14 and completely devoured it. Somehow it was exactly what I needed to read at the time, and the experience of reading it by the sea on an island with no cars was absolutely perfect. Haven't picked it up since then, maybe this will be a good summer to reread it.

Surprise!

Enjoyed this post. It may surprise you that I've never actually finished reading this book! I *should* be all about it--Goddess, yay! Priestesses, yay! Sheroic women, yay! Patriarchal critique, yay! Plus, I've read so many other authors (some of those 80's woman-power, Goddess books I love so much!) who say that this book changed their lives or had a transformative influence, etc. Instead, I tried to read it for book club last year and found myself completely bogged down and just flat-out bored with it (perhaps because we'd also read Child of the Northern Spring that same year and two re-writes of the Arthur tale through the eyes of women was just too much back-to-back, Mists felt very deja vu-ish, even though I expect it is really the reverse that is true). Anyway, I quit reading it about 1/3 of the way through and have never picked it up again. Perhaps I should skim through looking for those orgies... ;-D

A once 15 year old Catholic boy

I find your first coming upon this book as a 12 year old Catholic fascinating, as I was about 15 when I discovered this book, and I was (and am still) a Roman Catholic, but I was a boy, and am now a 22 year old man. However, I have long loved this book, perhaps found the sexuality too explicit, but never let that stop me from seeing the beauty the author is expressing - the real beauty sexuality can hold. I found the book extremely interesting because, as a Catholic, I had a high interest in paganism and things of this nature, as my heritage and my upbringing was primarily Celtic, and I had integrated much of what the book would call the "Old Wisdom" with my "New Wisdom." I am still the same way. What I really loved, was the author's honest attempt to have the characters tackle 'truth', and what men and women, and pagans and Catholics, would have believed at the time... perhaps. :) The author doesn't bash the Christ, and her characters tell us not to - but she did recognize the failings and the humanity of the Christian Priesthood, which may have been portrayed accurately for the time period. The things that I found odd were how she thought that Christians taught that women, and feminity, were somehow the source of evil, or the female principle was evil, because the Catholic Church doesn't teach, and never taught, that. I mean, we even call the apple & snake narrative the "Sin of Adam." And, the other thing I was somewhat disturbed about was the author's lack of understanding of Mary, the Blessed Mother and her role in Scriptural history and Catholic belief, to the point where she reduced her to a statue in a blue robe, capable of being turned into merely an archetype rather than a real person. Otherwise, I was, and am, a feminist and I will re-read this book forever. I loved your article! :)