…and I’m not really sure what to make of this one, guys.
(Disclaimer/Content Warning: The following post will contain discussions of sexual assault, incest, and pedophilia. Those who are sensitive to those topics should proceed with caution.)
For those who aren’t aware, The Mists of Avalon was written by Marion Zimmer Bradley and published by Alfred K. Knopf Inc. in January of 1983. It is a retelling of Arthurian legend told from the female characters’ point of view. While Guinevere, Morgause, Igraine, and others get their focus, the story’s main plot follows Morgaine (aka Morgan Le Fey) as she tries to save her Celtic pagan faith from the Christians who want to stamp it out, including King Arthur himself.
While the book was highly praised when it first came out, including from the likes of Isaac Asimov and Jean Auel of Clan of the Cave Bear fame, it has increasingly come under scrutiny in recent years thanks to certain disturbing revelations that came from Bradley’s daughter, Moira Greyland, in 2014.
It turns out that Marion Zimmer Bradley led a double life as an incestuous pedophile who started sexually abusing Moira when she was only three. Not only that but Bradley’s husband, Walter H. Breen, operated an entire pedophilia ring, which he even involved his children in with Bradley’s approval. Bradley had known about Breen’s pederast tendencies even before they married in 1964 and even helped him edit his writings in defense of pederasty.
Thankfully, this madness ended in 1990 when Moira herself (thirteen at the time) reported her father to the police. The charges stuck, and he died in prison three years later. Bradley, who faced no prison time for her crimes, suffered a series of strokes over the following decade and died of a heart attack in 1999.
“But what does any of this have to do with The Mists of Avalon?” you may find yourself asking. A lot, unfortunately. And frankly, I don’t even know where to start with this one!
Perhaps the most appropriate place to start would be how the book handles the Igraine/Gorlois/Uther subplot that kicks off the whole mythos. A little context first: Viviane is the Lady of the Lake, which in this retelling of the myth means she’s the high priestess of Avalon, located in a parallel universe hidden behind the titular mists. As Christianity slowly becomes the dominant religion in the British Isles, Avalon’s pagan faith is being forgotten, and the isle is slowly drifting away from the “real world,” so to speak.
And what is Viviane’s solution to this problem? First, she works with the archdruid Taliesin (who goes by the title the Merlin) to convince (i.e., gaslight) Igraine to ditch Gorlois and, after he dies in battle, get with her “destined true love” Uther Pendragon. Then, shortly after their son Arthur is sent north to protect him from assassins, Viviane takes Morgaine to Avalon.
She spends seven years training Morgaine in Avalon’s ways, and shortly after her initiation, she drugs her and Arthur and forces them to have sex as part of their Beltane ritual!
This is where Arthur’s bastard son Mordred comes into the picture, who in this version is intended to be the real savior of Avalon in case Arthur surrenders to the Christians. And how exactly does Viviane intend to secure Mordred’s claim to the throne?
Yeah, we never really learn exactly why Viviane thinks the common people will accept Mordred as king over Arthur. She seems to believe that the commoners will automatically accept whoever is backed by Avalon… even though the common people turning away from Avalon to the point that it is literally fading away is what kickstarts the plot in the first place! By the time she decides to initiate this plan in Book III Chapter 3 by announcing Mordred’s parentage in front of Arthur’s court, she’s murdered by one of her nephews, so we never find out what her endgame is.
Although honestly, the more I thought about it, it makes perfect sense that the Avalonian religion is being abandoned because Bradley’s description of it makes it sound downright satanic! Rituals like the one where Mordred was conceived appear to be regular occurrences, and the priestesses seem to have no qualms about letting underaged children participate in their Beltane orgies. This makes it rather difficult to take Bradley’s criticisms of Christianity seriously when they aren’t the ones claiming that incest and statutory rape are holy acts. And not only that, but it’s also implied at several points that human sacrifice and even cannibalism are regular features of this religion.
And don’t think I’m criticizing paganism itself here and/or mindlessly defending Christianity. For one thing, I have a lot of problems with organized religion myself (which I may explain in another blog post sometime in the future). Normally, I think paganism is a perfectly reasonable alternative for those who question the Bible but can’t bring themselves to become agnostic or atheist. But Bradley’s version of paganism bears absolutely no resemblance to the ancient Celtic peoples’ Druid faith. It’s more akin to Wicca or any other new-age faith of the 70s and 80s, except with Bradley’s fucked up ideas about sexuality and incest placed front and center.
But what about the feminism, you might be asking. Is this book a least a good feminist tract? And, I admit, I’m just an incredibly sheltered and moderately privileged white guy who has yet to reach the age of thirty. Even with that in mind, though, I’m going to have to venture a guess and say…
Before I explain myself, let me ask you this: What exactly is the point of feminism? Maybe you believe the point is that women deserve to be valued as more than babymakers and housewives. Or maybe you believe that it is that women deserve to be allowed to make their own choices. Perhaps the #MeToo movement makes you emphasize the need to prioritize women’s safety over men’s feelings.
Bradley, however, seems to disagree with all three points.
Avalon’s forcing of Igraine and Morgaine to bear the children they think will save the isle against their will is treated as necessary, and the women’s objections to it are brushed aside or belittled.
When Morgaine chooses to leave Avalon due to her anger at what Viviane did to her at the Beltane ritual, she is treated as wrong because she refuses to “acknowledge” that Viviane was only doing this to save Avalon.
And we only need to be reminded of the underage sex at the Beltane rituals to see how much Avalon prioritizes its female acolytes’ safety.
Indeed, Bradley’s brand of feminism seems to be exactly the kind that conservative antifeminists often stereotype feminism as: a matriarchy that behaves exactly like the patriarchy, only sexist women are the leaders instead of sexist men.
Not to mention, Bradley seems to be operating under what TV Tropes.com calls the “Real Women Don’t Wear Dresses” delusion. This is basically the belief that women can be girly or badass, but never both, which, ironically, seems kind of misogynistic to me. This is probably best demonstrated by her treatment of Guinevere (or Gwenhywfar, as she spells it).
We’re meant to view Guinevere as a whiny, spoiled brat in this retelling, mostly because of her strident Christian beliefs and the way she constantly forces those beliefs onto Arthur, to the point that she drives a major wedge between Arthur and Avalon when she browbeats him into flying a Christian banner she made at his final victory over the Saxons at Badon Hill, rather than the Avalonian dragon banner.
The problem with this is a) to any sane person, Avalon truly is as evil as she claims it is, and b) it’s tough to hate Guinevere when you learn her backstory. Her father, King Leodegrance, was emotionally abusive to her as a child. However, Bradley tries to brush this off by writing her three sisters as a lot more emotionally stable than her, presumably because admitting that Leodegrance was wrong to treat Gwen the way he did would be admitting her own failings as a parent.
The nuns also abused her in the convent her father sent her to, where she was beaten for even touching a harp because “it’s not ladylike to be a musician.” She also suffers a truly horrifying rape at the hands of her possible half-brother, Meleagrant, in Book III Chapter 4, which Bradley blames Gwen for because she didn’t fight back. This despite the fact that her description of Mel makes him sound like Gregor Clegane.
But what really gets me about that rape scene, aside from Bradley’s gratuitously graphic description of it, is the fact that the Avalonians were plotting to do exactly that to Gwen in Chapter 1 of the same book because they’re backward heathens who think that Arthur will simply sell out Guinevere to Meleagrant because his rape would mean he can legally marry her now.
But Bradley’s bass-akwards idea of what feminism looks like isn’t the only problematic theme running through this story. She tends to dip into uncomfortable racial territory when she describes Avalon’s native people, who are described as small and dark-skinned and always obedient servants. This definitely leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially since, as of the time I’m writing this, my country is embroiled in civil unrest over a racist legacy it has yet to face up to.
Of course, one might wonder why Avalon doesn’t do as the Christians do and preach about their faith to England’s common people. Well, that’s where the classism comes in! You see, the common people are too stupid to handle the inner mysteries of their pagan rape cult, so evangelization is pointless. Instead, they decide just to do whatever they think is necessary to preserve their rituals, even if they make no sense. And it doesn’t matter who gets hurt in the process. You can trust their betters to police themselves if they go too far.
In all truth, I didn’t pick up on a lot of this the first time I read the book. However, I suspect that might be because I found it surprisingly difficult to concentrate while reading this book. This might be because Bradley seems laser-focused on removing all excitement from the story. For all her accolades as a feminist icon, Morgaine barely does anything to forward Avalon’s cause except bitch and moan about how nothing is going Avalon’s way until the final book, where she engineers the fall of Camelot. All of the battles and the knight’s quests happen off-screen, as it were, and all fantasy elements (fairies, dragons, even magic itself) are kept to an absolute bare minimum, presumably because Bradley thinks it would take much-needed space away from her rape and incest apologia.
Look, if this book did have a positive impact on you at an impressionable age, that’s great. No one should be able to take that away from you. But to me, in the end, this is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. And I’m giving this one a 1/10.
Special thanks to the fine people (namely ZeldaQueen, Gehayi, and The Idiot Alchemist) over at Das Sporking. There you will find their incredibly detailed (and incredibly caustic) review of The Mists of Avalon. Be forewarned, though. Their review goes one chapter at a time, and each one is incredibly comprehensive, often picking the book apart paragraph by paragraph. Full disclosure, I haven’t even read the entire thing myself, just the parts I felt were most important to this essay.
If you have a few hours to spare, though, maybe go check it out. Or don’t, it doesn’t really matter to me. See you next time!