The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

mistsI first read this book when in highschool, and had only vague memories of it, so when I spotted it in friend’s book collection while housesitting I was curious to read it again. Turns out, I also forgot what a slab this book was – my friend’s deceptively small edition stood at mammoth 1,000 pages. That’s a long time to spend on one book, but overall it was worth the re-read.

The Mists of Avalon is a retelling of the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the female characters, chief of which is Morgaine, half-sister to King Arthur and a priestess of the holy island of Avalon. At the heart of the book is a conflict between the pagan, matriarchal Celtic religion of old and the rise of Christianity, which threatens to take over Britain and drive Avalon into the mists, out of humanity’s reach and memory. The fight against this decline defines Morgaine’s life, as she finds herself alternately a pawn and a main player. Gwenhwyfar, the Christian princess who ends up marrying Arthur, is Morgaine’s foil, as she tries to sway her husband towards a strictly Christian rule. Other than the religious strife, the book is also an epic story of love and family and features all the familiar elements of the Arthurian legends: Excalibur, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin, incest, Lancelet and Gwenhwyfar’s doomed passion, and so on. But it’s the women who truly rule the story and get the fullest, richest portrayals. Even Gwenhwyfar, arguably the least likeable character with her piety and occasional shrillness, has sympathetic, vulnerable moments where you can at least understand her motives and why she is the way she is.

It’s fair to say that, seen through the eyes of Morgaine and other characters, the patriarchal, expansionist and intolerant Christianity doesn’t come out looking good for most of the book, but in the end the book’s view is not as simplistic as, Pagan Goddess = rocks, Christianity = sucks (and I get an impression that living with the Goddess, who can clearly be as cruel and despotic as any pagan deity, wasn’t all rainbows and flowers and feminine power). If you’re familiar with the Arthurian legends you know there’s death and tragedy galore; there’s also a deep sense of melancholy and sadness that permeats the second half of the book, not just over the loss of the old ways, but also the loss of youth, family and friends, and the missed chances of happiness.

The novel is not without flaws; the last pages feel terribly rushed as the story, which prior to that travels at a sedate pace, suddenly races through a series of crucial events like an out-of-control truck. I remember looking at the width of the pages left and thinking, uh this story doesn’t look anywhere near over yet, how is it going to wrap everything up? While in other places earlier on, the book can be bogged down with pages and pages detailing the everyday chitchat between the characters that’s not particularly interesting or illuminating. Also near the end, a character who previously was ambitious and vain at worst, suddenly turns full-on eeeevil for no reason other than the plot necessity. But these are minor quibbles, as the world and characters of the book are truly worth a visit (or a repeat one).

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