Alyce from At Home With Books features one of her favorite reads each Thursday and this week my pick is…
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
From Amazon: Even readers who don’t normally enjoy Arthurian legends will love this version, a retelling from the point of view of the women behind the throne. Morgaine (more commonly known as Morgan Le Fay) and Gwenhwyfar (a Welsh spelling of Guinevere) struggle for power, using Arthur as a way to score points and promote their respective worldviews. The Mists of Avalon’s Camelot politics and intrigue take place at a time when Christianity is taking over the island-nation of Britain; Christianity vs. Faery, and God vs. Goddess are dominant themes.
From Wikipedia, if you want a bit more plot info: Mists of Avalon is a generations-spanning retelling of the Arthurian legend, but bringing it back to its Brythonic roots. Its protagonist is Morgaine, who witnesses the rise of Uther Pendragon to the throne of Camelot. As a child, she is taken to Avalon by High Priestess Viviane, her maternal aunt, to become a priestess of the Mother Goddess and witnesses the rising tension between the old pagan and the new Christian religions. At one point, she is given in a fertility ritual to a young man she will later learn is Arthur, her half-brother. She conceives a child, Gwydion, or “bright one,” later called Mordred, or “evil counsel” in the Saxon tongue.
After Uther dies, his son Arthur claims the throne. Morgaine and Viviane give him the magic sword Excalibur, and with the combined force of Avalon and Camelot, Arthur drives the invasion of the Saxons away. But when his wife Gwenhwyfar fails to produce a child, she is convinced that it is a punishment of God: firstly for the presence of pagan elements, and secondly, for her forbidden love for Arthur’s finest knight Lancelet (Lancelot). She increasingly becomes a religious fanatic, and relationships between Avalon and Camelot (i.e. Morgaine and herself) become hostile.
When the knights of the Round Table of Camelot leave to search for the Holy Grail, a young man seeks to usurp the throne: Mordred, bastard son of Arthur and Morgaine. In a climactic battle, Arthur’s and Mordred’s armies square off, and in the end Avalon and Arthur are magically removed from the circles of the world. It is Morgaine alone who lives to tell the tale of Camelot.
My thoughts: I read this book many years ago but I remember it so vividly. The character of Morgaine is wonderfully strong and fanatical at the same time but still likable. In many of the stories she’s a cruel shrew bent on revenge, in this book she has her moments, but she’s doesn’t go for the deep end. And I love that this Arthurian story is told from the perspective of the women. Women play a major role in Arthurian legend and sometimes are not given proper credit for the strength they bring to the story.
This book is actually a series — Book One: Mistress of Magic, Book Two: The High Queen, Book Three: The King Stag, and Book Four: The Prisoner in the Oak. The version I own contains all four and is a behemoth of a book at 876 pages. I also own a few other Bradley books in the Avalon series but this is by far my favorite.
This book was made into a TNT movie but I read the book before the TV miniseries but did watch it, and if I remember correctly, it didn’t disappoint. Of course, I’m one of those odd people that doesn’t mind movie and TV adaptions even if they are different from the book so don’t count that for much.
This is a fantasy novel, and yes, there are faeries and magic and Merlin and Lancelot but it’s also contains an interesting take on religion and the pull between keeping old customs and beliefs alive while others makes moves to take over the old with the new. It’s Paganism and Christianity and the fight between old worlds and new views. It’s also a violent story at times but I tend to think of that as normal when a story is based in this time period, about 5 A.D., so don’t let that be a turn off.
While I know that fantasy can be an acquired taste, I think this is one book that can make you a fan.