Tuesday, 15 January 2019

A Review of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The moral crux of the issue is that the author, Bradley has been accused of child abuse by her children and was, with absolute certainty, at least a long-term facilitator for her husband Walter Breen who was an effective, charismatic and systemic pederast for decades. The details, especially around Breen, are awful. He should have been shot in the head a long time ago.

So we are enmeshed in evil from word one.

Read on if you want to.

Mists is a female-centred re-telling of the Arthurian myth. So instead of Mallorys 14th century tournaments and knights or Whites 20th Century totalitarian parallels, we get a vision of Wicca from the 70s and 80s.

The version it most closely mirrors is Cornwells Pendragon trilogy, which often struck me as a kind of masculine alterverse to this.

The story is based around a network of women and sees the world from their perspective. Men move in and out of the narrative like clouds moving across the sky - doing things in another world as distant from the experience of the main characters as the misty fey dimension they sometimes also inhabit. Battles, tactics, logistics and a lot of 'high level' discussions fade into the distance or go behind a curtain.

The world as the women see it is largely a network of relationships and desires. A network of homes as well. Women stay behind castle walls, or on magic islands. Sometimes they move between them or are forced out of them but it is like a web of nodes spread over the land. In the courts and family spaces, the dramas expand in the psychological space until the space between a fireplace and the door, or the width of a bed is as great as the length of an enemy coast.

This sense of being constrained, of being trapped and of the difficulty of travel is most extreme in the most traditionally feminine character, Gwenhyfar, a delicate agoraphobe who, for the first part of her life, only feels safe in the smallest of contained spaces, for whom the outside world is a terrifying void. But even the more dominant and confident women often think twice about the utility of travel.

This is the nastiest Guinevere I have read. Most male writers have complex and mixed feelings about her but she usually comes out as somewhat heroic. To Mallory she was a 'true lover', White tried his best, somewhat against his instincts, Cornwall gave us a spike-heeled, somewhat monstrous, but still heroic, bold intelligent and charismatic woman.

Bradleys Gwenhyfar is a dislikeable, neurotic, agoraphobic, manipulative bigot. That is not all she is ands the book takes its time (1000 pages of it), giving us a good 360 view of all of the main characters over time, and many of her darker qualities are shared by other characters to some degree. Most are manipulative to some degree, its a major theme in the book, and even the main character is revealed as being in some way, a more intelligent, cultured fanatic. But Gwenhyfar is not only nasty but weak in a largely viscerally unpleasant way. I do wonder if I was meant to dislike her as much as I did, and if Bradley hated her as much as it seemed she did. (She is also blonde, Bradley does not like blondes.)

The generational quality of the book, showing us a good 80 years of history, with the tail-end of one generation, the entirety of another and the start of a final generation, gives us ample time to jostle together people, letting them fall into a range of different relationships with each other over time and letting different aspects of their characters come to the fore. Its neatly done. Towards the end, characters who previously barely tolerated each other are drawn towards each other by the mere solidarity of age. They are the only survivors.

On bigotry; the book makes much of the rise of Christianity and its replacement of pre-existing goddess worship, and Christianity is definitely the bad guy religion here. Or more aptly, the more darkly grey guy religion. This dislike of Christianity is the only major theme Bradley has in common with Cornwall. Both write as if a pre-existing paganism is being overtaken by a new faith and both seem to prefer whatever they see as the original pagan way.

(This is a pair of brief nerd complaints since its insane to complain about realism in a sub-genre where pretty much everything is some variety of 'made up' BUT - Firstly I'm pretty sure the Romano-Britains were already largely Christian by the time the Saxons turned up, and the Romano-Britons lost, meaning that Christianity actually got replaced with horse-head saxon paganism. Second - the moon & goddess pagan business does seem to have actual psychic powers, scrying and actual dimensional twisting it can do, which is pretty common in this kind of story, with Christianity playing the part of the reality-enforcing or magic-dispelling paradigm, but if the pagans have actual magic powers and the Christians either don't or aren't in tune with theirs, then how do the Christians win? Also, medieval Christianity had magic and miracles up the whazoo, but that is not the version we get in these stories, instead we have something like the tonality of a kind of pre-protestant Protestantism. Anyway, rant over.)

So people are divided by religion, with the goddess-worshipping beltane fire-orgy faith engaged in by the main characters slowly but inevitably losing ground to the rising Christianity. The version of Wicca shown is one (I think) pretty-much invented in the 70s by feminists and so we get the super-female moon goddess being replaced by the (here) super patriarchal Christ. This drives many of the worst actions in the book, as people are trying to defend, or expand, their belief system, and that justifies anything.

Despite the Christians being broadly closed-minded and ignorant, their bigotry remains more general. Most of the specific bad actions are engaged in by the heroes, the Goddess worshippers, in pursuit of what they regard as absolutely necessary goals.

The price of this is a main theme of the book.

Sex is rough in Mists of Avalon. Everyone is stricken with deep sexual desire and nobody gets to sleep with who they want. Our heroine Morgaine is first into Lancelet, who isn't into her, then ends up accidentally marrying the father of the guy she really wants (towards the end of the book, reality seems to warp to an almost comedic extent in order to keep the main cast sexually miserable). Lancelent is into Gwenhyfar, but probably largely because he is either bisexual or a massively supressed homosexual who is in fact into Arthur. Arthur is into Morgaine, after being tricked into sleeping with her with moon-magic. Gwenhyfar is into Lancelet, who is not her husband. Morgause is into pretty much anyone she can get over, and is cheerfully utterly amoral for most of the book and really the only person actually enjoying her life, until the end, when her beauty leaves her.

All of this psychosexual stuff is not exactly foreign to the Arthurian mythos, but it carries a rathe long dark shadow behind it. Combined with Whites issues and Mallorys rape arrest, I kind of feel like I need to stop reading this stuff.

Are the Gods real in Mists of Avalon?

Many characters believe in Christ or The Goddess. The Wicca priestesses do seem to have some kind of ability to perform limited magic. But its left open that the capacity for this might be part of everyone, that it is a kind of psychic technology and that you could probably do it without any worship at all, and Morgause proves this in the latter part of the book.

*Something* seems to be real. There are actual miracles and appearances from ancient godheads, past lives and karmic entanglements. Fucking ATLANTIS shows up. People certainly do a lot for their gods, engaging in all kinds of questionable activities.

But the gods themselves are silent. Their faces are dark. Neither their causes nor their concerns are our own, their morality is not ours. Or there is nothing there at all.

The Mother Goddess comes the closest to being 'real', but if she is she is at least complicit in her own annihilation (or temporary quiescence) and she uses her worshippers like chess pieces held in frozen hands, something they extend to their inferiors.

A lot of this is about the pain of intelligence and the costs of manipulation. Most characters are prisoners of others manipulation and intent, some 'nice' like the first Merlin and Arthur, some not so nice, and almost all of them manipulate and use each other, usually for what they consider very good, utterly necessary, causes.

The long generational view of the story means these people live long enough and think deep enough to realise that is the case, and see how these actions have warped them. It’s played out most viscerally towards the end of the book when the maiden Nimue is sent to essentially assassinate Merlin with beauty. He has transgressed against the Goddess in a major way and Morgaine, our heroine, and the Merlins ex-lover, knows he has to be punished.

Nimue is given his psychological profile, which Morgaine has as they used to be lovers, and sent to manipulate, seduce and bring him back to be skinned alive.

To do this she uses magic which she knows will bind her to him as it binds him to her. Therefore, to do her duty, she must kill someone she loves, to betray herself.

Nimue was brought into the Goddess cult by Morgaine, who was likewise brought in by her own half-monster manipulative mother figure Vivaine. Nimue is the closest thing Morgaine has to the daughter she always wanted.

Nimue does her job. Morgaine is unable to order her former lover to be skinned alive, instead he is simply killed. Nimue drowns herself. Morgaine loses her former lover and her proxy-daughter in one swoop, and the Goddess is avenged.

This is the moral universe of Mists of Avalon in a microcosm. People know they are using others the way they were used, but they still go ahead. A kind of double tragedy plays out in their lives. Its a particularly dark view of power, responsibility and parenting, a hunger for and resentment of the hyper-dominant parent figure.

Bradleys daughter talks about Bradley the same way Morgaine talks about her mentor/monster Vivaine, but without the warmth. She also plays the harp, as do Morgaine and Vivaine.

Morgaine herself ends her story (visiting) a Christian convent, having betrayed and in some cases helped to murder almost everyone she loves. Bradley seems to have ended up the same way, going back to church. Her daughter seems to have gone full social conservative, not unlike the book.

I really need to stop reading this stuff.


  1. It's been years...decades really...since I last read Mists, but it still sits on my shelf. One of these days, I'll take the time to re-read it...I look forward to seeing it through the perspective that comes with age.

    My remembrance may not be good, but I recall a different take on the pagan-Christian conflict, one that found Morgaine somewhat reconciled to Christianity toward the end (all the characters seem to "mellow" with age and soften their "hardliner" perspectives). Men, and the problems that come with men, especially given a feudal society that supports a certain level of patriarchy, is the real issue for the women of the book...not their respective religions.

    Bradley has several books that deal with the themes of Atlantis, reincarnation, and karma. Web of Light, Web of Darkness is pretty decent.

    I haven't been able to bring myself to read any of her books since I first read of the sexual abuse allegations (circa 2015). It saddened me immensely, not only because MZB is one of my favorite authors, but because of all the help and support she gave to other writers over the years. None of us are perfect but...well, I'm glad she accomplished some good with her life.

    One of these days I'll take the time to re-read Mists. I look forward to that...but I don't know when I'll be able to.

  2. Thank you. I know what my next read will be. I'm not free or moral dilemmas concerning evil people doing good books, but let me deal with it my own way , i.e. buying their stuff once they're dead, or stealing stuff from stores).

  3. the 1981 Excalibur film is extremely good, dreamlike

    1. And no sexual scandal for Boorman...unless you count Zardoz.

  4. I loved Mists when it first came out and again when I reread it in my late 20s early 30s. Today...today I would have a hard time coming to terms with what a horrible person MZB turned out to be.
    I would love to have read more of her stuff, but I have to draw the line somewhere. (Note the "line" is only for me, I am not on some anti-MBZ crusade.)

    I have been thinking for about 15 years now I need something to fit the "Mists of Avalon" shaped hole in my life.

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  6. Jesus! (or mb. Morrighan?) I just bought a book by her at a used bookstore today! I've always wondered about Darkover...I knew nothing about Marion Zimmer Bradley's abuse. This is seriously fucked up and horrible. Strange coincidence that I read this before I started it. This kind of thing makes me feel like the world isn't quite what it seems to be...unsettling. Like a True Detective episode on your bookshelf or something.

  7. I remember having a pretty intense reaction to this book when I read it in my early 20's. I was raised Christian adjacent (we went to many different churches. I was young enough not to remember the different denominations, but there ones where people sang well, ones where they screamed and gibbered, ones where they argued about faith, and ones where they seemed like people already dead. There were also the Jehovah's Witnesses, who were some of the most boring worshipers, worst singers, and strangely pedantic of the bunch. Though they were very kind, up until they disfellowshipped/excommunicated us) and though I can't remember why, I found the conflict between the Christians and the Pagans distressing.

    It was something to do with how much I liked some of the people, and how wrong their version of faith felt. Or what holding to their codes did to them. I think perhaps it was what you referred to with the broad bigotry, and the hard line actions of the protagonists. It all felt terribly nasty, and dark, and inevitable.

    Knowing what I know about the author now, and being again adjacent to similar abuse, I wonder if the theme of perpetuating the cycle of suffering, and using people was an expression of inner demons.

    I'm usually in favor of letting the work stand alone, at least in how I feel about it, and particularly when the artist is dead. Sometimes though, it is disquieting thinking bout the person on the other side of the page.

    1. That was a really interesting comment. Thank you.