When I picked The Mists of Avalon up at a used bookstore for almost nothing, it was for sheer escapism. Being middle-aged rather than the typical teen drawn to such books (or so I thought anyway), I fully expected that I would tire within the first few pages and go back to my Anna Karenina or some other classic. Well, color me surprised.
Let me be candid about what this book is NOT. It is not a “great literary work”. It is not historically faithful. And, it is not even pure fantasy fiction. So, if those are the things you’re looking for, please move on along. But, if you like books where aspects of these genres are blended beautifully into something of its own merit, then perhaps, like me, you will enjoy this. And, if you enjoy mythology–whether of the Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Celtic or Orphic traditions–you will sink into this story as helplessly as I did. (By the way, if you are not familiar with at least some of these mythic traditions, you will not get many of the allusions throughout the book–even something as simple as the act of weaving by some characters harkens back to Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey.)
This is not Arthur’s story. This is Arthur’s sister’s story, as the New York Times Review says. It is a revisionist retelling from the perspective of 5 key women: Viviane and Morgaine as the Priestesses of the old religion (pagan Goddess worship), Igraine and Morgause as the matriarchs who have to watch helplessly as their children struggle with both the old and new, and Gwenhwyfar as the proponent of the new religion (male-biased and female-prejudiced early Christianity). The women are not meant to be sympathetic. They are really representative of the religions that they stand for through the wrenching moral/amoral choices they make about how to live their lives. Morgaine, Arthur’s sister and the central protagonist, lives in both the old and new worlds–Avalon and Camelot–the mythic and the real. We see the story unfold through her omnipresent perspective, but there is ample time given to all principal characters. Yes, even the men. I found that there was plenty about Arthur, Lancelot, Gawaine, Mordred, Merlin et al to keep things balanced.
We dive a little deeper into the struggles that the British went through during those early centuries of the Roman and Saxon invasions. Their old religion, ways of living, etc., were being wiped out and replaced by the Romans and Christianity. And, even as they were coming to terms with living side-by-side with the Romans and accepting Christianity (adding various aspects of their old religion to it so that it would be more palatable), the Saxon invaders got more aggressive and brought their new ways. In fact, that was a key factor in bringing the Brits and the Romans together finally in Arthur’s Court–dealing with the new common enemy. Towards the end of the book, even as the Saxons were starting to assimilate and gain Arthur’s trust and alliance, there were new invaders from the North (Vikings, etc.), forming the new threat, and for which they would need new heroes and heroines. Along the way, in addition to the big themes of religion and war, the story also explores social and gender hierarchy, sexuality, crime, and punishment.
So, it is this history that Zimmer Bradley shared through the perspectives and struggles of these women. How they were initially afraid of the changes, then they fought back with the only weapons that they could (manipulation, sex, self-righteousness, betrayal, revenge, theology, sorcery, etc.) and then they surrendered in the ways that only women in those times could (succumbing to male desires, piety, death, the nun’s veil, etc.). And, being women, they could not show their fears, defenses and surrender in the same ways as the men. So, yes, there is a lot of emotional drama and conflict. I thought it was just right to move the story along and not overly-so. There are also brief theological debates sprinkled throughout, particularly whenever the main characters assembled at Arthur’s Court for some celebration or other. Again, I found these to be both revealing of the characters’ motives/natures and moving the story along appropriately. Not overdone at all.
In the end, your particular reading tastes will dictate whether you are drawn to this book or not. For me, I am glad I finally read it. Towards the final third, I could n0t put it down and pulled an all-nighter just to get to the end. And, when I was finished, it was like leaving people I had become deeply attached to. I miss them even now.
But, that’s me.
(Oh, and, please please do not bother watching the TNT miniseries that is supposedly based on this book. I watched it after reading. It was awful. Awful does not even begin to describe the mess that it is. And, with the talent they had–Angelica Huston, Juliana Margulies, Joan Allen–one would have thought… well, let’s just say that these fine women will not be highlighting this mishap on their acting resumes.)