I’m not big on classics. I’m trying to get over this as I read through my Arthurian collection. I probably can’t call myself a true King Arthur enthusiast if I never read (at least what I consider to be) the Big Three: Mists of Avalon, The Once and Future King, and Le Morte D’Arthur. And while I had heard things about Mists of Avalon, things that made me very wary about reading it, it seemed like a good place to start- being the youngest of the three books. I’m sure my perception of this book was colored by my dislike of books that are hailed as classics, things I had read about the book before ever picking it up and the movie. I tried to go into this book with an open mind. I can’t speak to my success or failure on that. All I know is that I did not like this book.
Warning for Spoilers and Language and over 2,000 words under the cut
The Pros: This book probably sports the largest cast of female character I have ever seen in an Arthurian retelling. I liked how Bradley took roles that are often attributed to only one character within the legend and would spread it out between a handful (Viviane, Niniane and Nimue for example).
Note- before we get into the cons, I know the main complaint against this book is the theological discussions- God vs. Goddess vs. who gives a shit- that go on throughout this book. I did not. I am very much ‘meh’ on the theological discussion. It was just there as an excuse for... well, you’ll see.
The Cons: And I hope you have some time on your hands.
I have to start with the characters, because they drove me absolutely bonkers throughout reading this. While in third person, we only see the story through the eyes of the female characters. We’re in their heads-- hearing their thoughts on these legendary events. We start with Igraine. Her thought process runs thus:
Igraine: “While old, my husband is good and kind to me/no, he is a stinky old man and I hate him/no, he is good and kind and I will not betray him for Avalon/no, he is a old man and cruel to me and Uther is young/no, I am a good wife and will not betray my husband/but Uther/SEX!!!!” (I kid you not, after marrying Uther all Igraine wants to do is have sex with him- nothing else matters to her).
The first 100 pages of the book are spent listening to Igraine as she flip-flops back and forth on whether or not she should betray Gorlois and sex it up with Uther. Then we move on to Viviane and her narration is her flip-flopping between doing the will of the Goddess or betraying young Morgaine, whom she views as a daughter, to a terrible fate in service to the Goddess. Then we move on to Morgaine, who wants to do the will of the Goddess and keep herself a virgin till the Goddess wills she gives it up or have sex with Lancelet. Then we get to Gwenhwyfar, who wants to be a good wife to Arthur but she also wants to have sex with Lancelet (we spend far too much time listening to women complain about how they can’t have sex with Lancelet).
Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar are touted as being stark opposites- of being symbols of the duality nature of the book and representing the Old Ways/Christianity war that is taking place. Superficially, they are opposites. Morgaine is of the Old Religion, Gwenhwyfar is a Christian. Morgaine is dark, Gwenhwyfar is fair. Morgaine loves being a part of nature, Gwenhwyfar is afraid of being outside.
But that’s as deep as their polarity gets. Their actually characterization is very similar (with the exception of Morgause, all the characters are similar). Both spend the entire book hurting the people they care about most after spending pages and pages and pages contemplating the pros and cons of their actions and waffling back and forth between wanting to cause another pain and not wanting to hurt and eventually justifying their decisions to hurt as ‘god wanted me to do it’. Oh, and both want Lancelot to bang them into oblivion.
Look, I’m down with dark anti-heroes or indecisive characters. What I’m not okay with is every single character in the goddamn book being like that (and even more galling—they never learn or grow from their shitty actions ending in disaster). Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar, Morgause, Viviane, Niniane, Nimue, Elaine, Igraine—they’re all terrible people. And they all spent pages and pages and pages trying to justify their terrible actions to both themselves and the reader—except Morgause. She was awesome. She was an unapologetic bitch and I loved every moment I got to spend in her head. She was what she was and she never tried to convince me she was something different. And through all her terrible actions, she had my upmost respect because at least she was honest about it and never tried to hide behind a god.
Eventually I got to the point where I was basically reading this book as a crack fic. There were several meltdowns throughout the story where the shitty actions of the characters, which up to that point had been done behind each other’s backs, would be brought to the forefront. Then they would all fight and call each other names and there would be some honesty between all of them before they went back to making each other miserable behind each other’s backs again. I lived for these moments (my favorite was the one caused by Gwenhwyfar’s guilt over her threesome with Arthur and Lancelet- pure gold if you’ve stopped taking this book seriously). Unfortunately, to my great frustration, the meltdown after Mordred reveals Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet’s betrayal to the entire court is never shown. For me, this made the ending super anti-climatic (Okay, look. I need to comment on this. The idea for this blog came to me while reading this book—because it made me so angry that I wanted an outlet to shred it to bits. But the ending is so anti-climatic and bleh that it suck all my righteous anger right out of me. I can’t even shred this book the way I wanted to and that makes me so... ARGH!)
Okay, a few other cons that I feel the need to comment on. First is the Merlin. In Mists of Avalon, Merlin is a title for the messenger of the Gods and is held by two men in the course of the book. The first is named Taliesin which—okay, fine. That is a name often attributed to Merlin or someone close to Merlin. That’s perfectly acceptable. I’m fine with that. The second is named Kevin. Really? Kevin. In a book where you’re using Gwenhwyfar instead of Guinevere and creating clever excuses for the names Arthur (originally named Gwydion in text), Lancelet (instead of Lancelot) and Mordred (also originally named Gwydion), you’re going with the name Kevin. A 20th century anglicized version of the Irish name Caoimhím. Why couldn’t you have used Caoimhím (assuming Kevin is Irish- I’m not sure). I mean, St. Patrick is in this book and the Latin name Patricius was used instead so... It just seems really silly that in a book that is using more ancient variations of character names and is coming up for reasons for the more modern ones, we’re using the name Kevin. Who isn’t even a character in the Arturian mythos to begin with. I DON’T UNDERSTAND!
I also feel the need to comment on the feminism of the book. Mists of Avalon is heralded as the feminist retelling of the Arthurian Legend. While content of the book severely falls short of my standard of feminism, I do consider it a feminist book and an important one. The book is a product of its times (published in 1982). I know many people consider this a derailment but I don’t. I consider how, at the time of writing it, Bradley was the first author to tell the story of King Arthur from the female perspective and no other. She was the first writer to spend more time focusing on the female characters within the legend than the male ones. And while she may have failed to do those characters justice, she opened a door. Helen Hollick specifically wrote her Pendragon’s Banner series as a rebuttal to Mists of Avalon (apparently she threw the book against the wall- <3 Helen Hollick). Does Persia Woolley’s Guinevere Trilogy get published without Mists of Avalon coming first? Does it get republished? What about Nancy McKenzie’s books or Sarah Zettel’s books or Anne Eliot Crompton’s? Does Gerald Morris include kickass female characters in the Squire’s Tales books if Bradley hadn’t first brought attention to all the female characters within the legend that were often overlooked up to that point? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that Mists of Avalon was instrumental in igniting the interest in the female characters of the legend. And for that, I consider it a feminist text and an important one.
That doesn’t mean the book isn’t without its flaws. As I said earlier, all the female characters are portrayed as indecisive backstabbers (with the exception of Moraguse- who is just pure evil). We are told that the females have feelings of tenderness and love towards another—that they feel bad for their actions despite all the malice behind it because of these feelings—but it’s never shown. Rarely do these women perform an act of kindness to each other and when they do, their thoughts are filled with hatred towards the other. All of them spend a great deal of time thinking about which man they want to jump into bed with (usually that man is Lancelet). Gwenhywfar, the more submissive woman, has two men utterly devoted to her while the more confident women like Viviane and Morgaine never form any great attraction to any man and when they do, it’s not reciprocated (Lancelet). Niniane is murdered by Mordred, her lover. Nimue is sent to enchant Kevin so the ladies of Avalon can execute him for his betrayal, but the spell backfires and she falls in love with him—committing suicide after he is killed. And Morgause is evil so therefore she sleeps around. It’s the same old tired, stereotypical garbage that feminists now-a-days are pushing back against. And Kevin, who I saw as the embodiment of all the worst aspects of the patriarchy (He is supposed to be the messenger of the Goddess, but he uses his power to undermine her and undermine the power of the ladies of Avalon, constantly disrespects Viviane and Morgaine and talks down to them like they’re children, complaining like a Nice Guy® about how he isn’t getting any and is an overall bitter asshole) is spared a violent and brutal execution because Morgaine once loved him so much ::gags::.
So, the timing and idea of the book- yes, feminist. The overall content of the book- not so much.
I give this book one out of five stars. While the premise is important and the book has done so much for the modern interpretations of the King Arthur legend, the content, story and characters were maddening. I didn’t connect with any of the characters (I only liked Morgause because she was so different from everyone else- not for any redeeming qualities in character) and didn’t enjoy moving from one petty action to the next without the characters ever learning or growing.
On the Rape:
Seeing as how I spend a great deal of my time over at Pardon My Sarcasm raging about feminist issues, I can’t let these reviews go by without commenting on how rape is portrayed within the context of Arthurian stories. Of the 43 Arthurian texts that I’ve read, I can only think of six instances of rape. Three of those are Guinevere (the others are Morgan, Mordred and Galahad) and two during her abduction by Meleagant. In the original legend by Chretien de Troyes, Meleagant tries to rape Guinevere and is stopped by his father (this later allows Meleagant to accuse Guinevere if infidelity with Lancelot- this would have been difficult if he had raped her). I’ve read eight versions of the abduction and in only two, rape occurs. Mists of Avalon is one of those two (The Kingmaking by Helen Hollick is the other). And it’s handled really badly.
So you’ve just been brutally raped and beaten by Lord Meleagant (who up to this point was claiming he was your half brother). You know what’s going to make all the feelings of shame, betrayal and fear fly out of your head as though nothing bad had ever happened? Sex with Lancelet. Right after he’s murdered Meleagant in front of you. And only a room or two away from where your rapists body grows cold. I’m telling you—this will fix everything.
That whole scene was so ridiculous I can’t even. This is the second time I’ve seen ‘sex with Lancelot heals all horrors of being raped’ and I don’t think I can stomach seeing it ever again. Mercedes Lackey (a student of Bradley) was slightly more offensive in Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit (Spoiler: In which daily sex with Lancelin tots healed the months Gwen spent being raped by Arthur and Mordred). And then, of course, the rape is pretty much never referenced or thought upon again and Gwenhwyfar goes merrily along having sex with both Arthur and Lancelet for many years to come without any problems. Bleh, no thank you. Yet another reason why this text isn’t very feminist.