The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
I missed this book when first published in 1983, and missed the TNT miniseries made of it in 2001. To tell the truth, I didn’t even realize it was about Camelot until I hit the first page.
Having already been through various versions of the Arthurian legends, from Le Morte d’Arthur, by Malory to T. E. White’s The Once and Future King (which inspired The Sword in the Stone) this massive (900+ pages) book offered a unique perspective on the story.
The story is told through the perspective of Morgaine (Morgan le Fay), who normally stands out as the evil half-sister who hates Arthur for vague reasons. They also have a son together which other books are two polite to spend much time explaining.
Bradley places her story in a time of massive transition. The book is set generally around the middle to late 5th Century, judging by St. Patrick’s appearance in the book. He supposedly landed in Ireland in 432 AD. The Romans have withdrawn from England as the empire generally collapses. They have left behind a burgeoning Christianity which stands in great opposition to Druidic traditions. At the same time Saxons from what are now Northern Germany and Denmark have been migrating onto the island to steal whatever land they want, and Viking warriors have been making forays into cities along the east coast.
This conflict between the earth religion of the Druids and Christianity is one of the main themes. Arthur and Morgaine are both the children of Igraine. Morgaine’s father was Igraine’s first husband. Arthur, of course, is the son of Uther Pendragon. When there’s an assassination attempt on Arthur’s life at age six, he is ushered off to be fostered by a Christian family. Morgaine is taken to Avalon where she studies to become a priestess in the old religion. Through some plotting by Viviane, the high priestess of Avalon, virgin Morgaine is chosen to take part in a fertility ritual in which a priestess and the future king are masked and have sex, a representation of the king wedding his country and making it fertile. It isn’t until the next morning that the two realize each other’s identity. Morgaine later gives birth to Gwydion, later named Mordred by the Saxons. Gwydion is fostered out at a young age.
The conflict continues when Arthur returns after Uther’s death and is married to Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere). She is extremely Christian and will constantly push Arthur to transform Britain toward that religion throughout the book.
As with other versions of the legend, Arthur’s best knight Galahad (also known as Lancelet) and Gwenhwyfar have immediate chemistry. Both manage to remain faithful until, after several years of Gwenhwyfar remaining childless, Arthur allows his cousin and his wife to try to create his heir. Arthur, who has no idea that his night with Morgaine brought a child into the world, makes the humble assumption that he may not be able to father children.
Some parts of the legend, such as the romance, will seem familiar. Others offer a different perspective on the story, such as “Merlin” being a title of the Archdruid of Avalon. In the early part of the book this is Tallesin, the father of Igraine and making him the grandfather to both Morgaine and Arthur. Through his presence in the book he tries to point out the similarities of the two religions, maintaining that there is one God celebrated in various ways. The latin priests are having none of it.
The principle split between Morgaine and Arthur occurs mostly because of Gwenhwyfar. When Arthur sets out to fight the Saxons she convinces him to use a banner with an image of Mary and a cross in place of the traditional dragon representing the Pendragon as king of the British kings. In another incident he uses Excalibur, a protective gift of Avalon, to swear in several new knights. Setting the point toward the floor it creates the shadow of a cross. At this point Avalon demands the sword’s return.
Condensing a 900 page story into one page is nearly impossible. In general, the book is wonderful. There’s not much attention paid to swordplay or battles. The focus is on people and their personal and political relationships. It shows the life of a tremendously charismatic and talented king trying to form a nation surrounded by internal and external threats, and a nation facing a transition of belief from the old ways to a new one. This last is eventually reconciled, even to Morgaine, who accepts that Mary of the Christian religion is another face of the Goddess worshipped at Avalon. Through the book the birth and death of Camelot are contained, with great respect for the heart of the legend while adding new perspectives and more fully-rounded characters.