The Mists of Avalon
Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1982
Here is the magical legend of King Arthur, vividly retold through the eyes and lives of the women who wielded power from behind the throne. A spellbinding novel, an extraordinary literary achievement, The Mists of Avalon will stay with you for a long time to come. (From the publisher.)
The book was adapted into a 2001 film for TV, starring Angelica Houston and Julianna Margulies, Joan Allen, and Sam Neill.
• Birth—June 30, 1930
• Where—Albany, New York, USA
• Death—September 25, 1999
• Where—Berkeley, CA
• Education—B.A., Hardin-Simmons College; University of
• Awards—Locus Award for best fantasy novel, 1984
A prolific storyteller from the time she was old enough to talk, Marion Zimmer Bradley had an enormous impact on the science fiction and fantasy genres, imagining centuries of technological and culture clashes in the colonization of a distant planet in her Darkover series and recasting the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the women in his life in her 1983 masterpiece, The Mists of Avalon. (From the publisher.)
Marion Zimmer Bradley was writing before she could write. As a young girl, before she learned to take pen in hand, she was dictating stories to her mother. She started her own magazine —devoted to science fiction and fantasy, of course—as a teenager, and she wrote her first novel when she was in high school.
Given this history of productivity, it is perhaps no surprise that Bradley was working right up until her death in 1999. Though declining health interfered with her output, she was working on manuscripts and editing magazines, including another sci-fi/fantasy publication of her own making.
Her longest-running contribution to the genre was her "Darkover" series, which began in 1958 with the publication of The Planet Savers. The series, which is not chronological, covers several centuries and is set on a distant planet that has been colonized by humans, who have interbred with a native species on the planet. Critics lauded her efforts to address culture clashes — including references to gays and lesbians — in the series.
"It is not just an exercise in planet-building," wrote Susan Shwartz in the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers. "A Darkover book is commonly understood to deal with issues of cultural clash, between Darkover and its parent Terran culture, between warring groups on Darkover, or in familial terms."
Diana Pharoah Francis, writing in Contemporary Popular Writers, noted the series' attention on its female characters, and the consequences of the painful choices they must make: "Struggles are not decided easily, but through pain and suffering. Her point seems to be that what is important costs, and the price is to be paid out of the soul rather than out of the pocketbook. Her characters are never black and white but are all shades of gray, making them more compelling and humanized."
Bradley's most notable single work would have to be The Mists of Avalon. Released in 1983, its 800-plus pages address the King Arthur story from the point of view of the women in his life — including his wife, his mother and his half sister. Again, Bradley received attention and critics for her female focus, though many insist that she cannot be categorized strictly as a "feminist" writer, because her real focus is always character rather than politics.
"In drawing on all of the female experiences that make of the tapestry of the legend, Bradley is able to delve into the complexity of their intertwined lives against the tapestry of the undeclared war being waged between the Christians and the Druids," Francis wrote in her Contemporary Popular Writers essay. "Typical of Bradley is her focus on this battle, which is also a battle between masculine (Christian) and feminine (Druid) values."
And Maureen Quilligan, in her New York Times review in 1983, said: "What she has done here is reinvent the underlying mythology of the Arthurian legends. It is an impressive achievement. Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Celtic and Orphic stories are all swirled into a massive narrative that is rich in events placed in landscapes no less real for often being magical."
Avalon flummoxed Hollywood for nearly 20 years before finally making it to cable television as a TNT movie in 2001, starring Joan Allen, Anjelica Huston, and Julianna Margulies.
Two years before she died, Bradley's photograph was included in The Faces of Science Fiction, a collection of prominent science fiction writers, such names as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. Under it, she gave her own take on the importance of the genre:
"Science fiction encourages us to explore... all the futures, good and bad, that the human mind can envision.
• Aside from her science fiction and fantasy writing, Bradley also contributed to the gay and lesbian genre, publishing lesbian fiction under pseudonyms, bibliographies of gay and lesbian literature, and a gay mainstream novel.
• Bradley rewrote some editions of her Darkover series to accommodate real advances in technology.
• Her first stories were published in pulp science fiction magazines in the 1950s. (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)
A monumental reimagining of the Arthurian legends.... Reading it is a deeply moving and at times uncanny experience.... An impressive achievement.
New York Times Book Review
Marion Zimmer Bradley has brilliantly and innovatively turned the myth inside out...add[ing] a whole new dimension to our mythic history.
San Francisco Chronicle
Gripping.... Superbly realized.... A worthy addition to almost a thousand years of Arthurian tradition.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
The Mists of Avalon is a beautiful book. The characters are alive, multi-dimensional; I really care about them.
A most original interpretation of the matter of Britian by way of Celtic religion and the Great Mother...a remarkable feat of imagination.
I loved the book so much I went out and bought it for a friend, and have told many people about it. Why did no one ever think before to tell the story of King Arthur from the perspective of the women!
Masterfully plotted and beautifully written. The Mists of Avalon sheds new light on old characters—especially Morgan of the Faeries, Merlin, Lancelot, and Guinevere. An epic novel of violence, lust, painful loyalties, and haunting enchantments.
There is no such thing as a true tale. Truth has many faces and the truth is like to the old road to Avalon; it depends on your own will and your own thoughts, whither the road will take you." The Mists of Avalon is a story of another time and place. It's the legendary saga of King Arthur and his companions at Camelot, their battles, love, and devotion, told this time from the perspective of the women involved. Viviane is "The Lady of the Lake," the magical priestess of the Isle of Avalon, a special mist-shrouded place which becomes more difficult to reach as people turn away from its nature- and Goddess-oriented religion. Viviane's quest is to find a king who will be loyal to Avalon as well as to Christianity. This king will be Arthur. Gwenhwyfar, Arthur's Queen, is an overly pious, fearful woman who successfully sways her husband into betraying his allegiance to Avalon. Set against her is Morgaine of the Fairies, Arthur's sister, love, and enemy - and the most powerfully believable person in the book - who manipulates the characters like threads in a tapestry to achieve her tragic and heroic goals. The Mists of Avalon becomes a legend seen through new eyes, with details, majestic language, and haunting foreshadowing that hold the reader through its more than 800 pages
Gloria Bauermeister - 500 Great Books by Women
1. The Mists of Avalon revolves around a number of dualities: male/ female, Christianity/druidism, duty/desire. How are these dualities represented in the book? Can you think of others that were presented?
2. How does the book strive to challenge common stereotypes? How does it reinforce them?
3. Is Gwenhwyfar a sympathetic character? In your opinion, does Marion Zimmer Bradley treat physical beauty in a positive, negative, or neutral manner? Explain.
4. How responsible is Arthur for allowing the spread of Christianity and ultimate disappearance of Avalon? Was he simply being an honorable husband to Gwenhwyfar? Did you find the Arthur, Lancelet, Gwenhwyfar tryst disturbing? Although Arthur was an indisputably potent leader, can he, in the end, be deemed an effective one?
5. It seemed in several instances that Morgaine disappeared when she was most needed. Was she ultimately successful in representing the Goddess? Would you say that she was a victim to her fate or that she ultimately rose to meet it? What parallels can you draw between Morgaine’s life and Igraine’s? Between Morgaine and Viviane?
6. The Merlin seems to play an ambiguous role in the story. Do you agree with this statement? In your opinion, was he motivated more by his faith, or by pride and ambition?
7. Throughout history, did the spread of Christianity really lead to a diminishing of tolerance? Does the Goddess have a place in today’s world? Do you think that Christianity ever held woman as the principal of evil?
8. What symbolism, if any, would you apply to the dragon slain by Lancelet? What is the symbolism behind Excalibur? The Grail? The Holy Thorn?
9. At the end of Mists, did you feel that the Goddess had truly been absorbed into Christianity?
10. How has Mists changed your perception or understanding of the Arthurian legend? How has it changed your perception of women’s roles in the making (and telling) of history?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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