Marion Zimmer Bradley creates King Arthur’s story from a female-centric viewpoint in The Mists of Avalon. Instead of focusing on the men—Arthur, Lancelet, the various Knights—she uses the perspectives of the women in their lives. Her main characters are Arthur’s wife Gwenhwyfar, sister Morgaine, his mother Igraine, and a variety of aunts and great-aunts.
Gwenhwyfar and Morgaine are two sides of a battle without swords. Morgaine was raised on the mystical (and misty) island of Avalon. She was taught the old religion, which worships the Goddess. And Gwenhwyfar is deeply Christian, having been schooled at the convent in Glastonbury, practically next door.
Both women are dedicated to their beliefs, and to encouraging King Arthur and his court to adopt or maintain them. But Morgaine is fighting a losing battle, and she even gives in for a time. She lives at court, tries to fit in with Gwenhwyfar and her ladies. But she’s still more Goddess worshipper than Christian.
In addition, Bradley gives us the various love triangles in the life of the royal court. By chance, Gwenhwyfar meets Lancelet early in her teens. But her father pledges her to Arthur, hoping the High King will favor his minor King status. Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet pine for each other over the decades.
And Morgaine has secrets of her own, including a religious rite through which she becomes pregnant with her son. She travels between her aunt and uncle’s court in Lothian and Arthur’s court at Carleon and Camelot. And, she also finds herself in Avalon and even Fairy lands. Bradley is clearly more fascinated with Morgaine and her life, including internal dialogue and far more detail about it.
I read and listened to omnibus versions of this group of four books. It was nearly 900 pages and 51 hours. Tapping into either reading method helped me get through it more quickly, and it still took me about a month!
Bradley strikes a balance between intense description, action, and character-driven narratives. The combination worked for me. I felt connected to all the main characters, and that I knew enough about the most important minor ones as well. Never did I feel bogged down in descriptions of place, although sometimes her expositions of religious conflict grew tedious.
Morgaine is one part devious, one part caught in forces out of her control, and one part lost soul. Gwenhwyfar is a doe-eyed young wife who becomes a bitchy mean-girl queen, with a generous side helping of pious zealot. The complexity of both women drove me to keep reading through all four books. I never truly considered stopping part way through.
As a kid, I watched the 1960s movie Camelot a few times. Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, and Robert Goulet are etched in my mind as Gwenhwyfar, Arthur, and Lancelet. But Bradley does so much more than the movie, venturing into unique, feminine territory in her version. Still, I had to go back and find a synopsis of the movie to compare.
If you like legends combined with historical fiction, and don’t mind settling in for a long read, give this book a try. You could pair with virtually any modern tale of political and romantic wrangling in a courtly setting. Or try the Arthurian / urban fantasy series The Heirs of Camelot by Jacqueline Simonds.
A note about the author
When I was about halfway through the book, a Goodreads friend commented on my status update. She said it was hard for her to read any Marion Zimmer Bradley, knowing what she’d done. What she’d done? I had no knowledge of the abuse accusations leveled against her by her daughter. So off to Google I went. It’s disturbing and awful. I had to make the decision whether to continue reading. Ultimately I did finish the book, but not without reservations. I don’t think I’ll read more of her work. This was enough.