Marion Bradley’s 1983 novel The Mists of Avalon is very simple to describe. It retells the Arthurian Legends through the eyes of the female characters, primarily Morgaine, Igraine, Viviane, Morgause and Gwenhyfar. What Bradley achieves is a lot harder to express.
The story spans generations and is not only a dramatic retelling of the epic and well-known legends of the Round Table but one of the most emotional and nuanced pieces of fantasy that I have ever read.
There is little point in me retelling the plot. I personally knew the stories being told pretty much inside out by the time I came to read Bradley’s version. The absolute genius of the piece is how every aspect of the story is at once familiar and somehow fresh. She adds new and unexpected emotion to legends that I had learnt as a girl.
Most poignant is the book’s exploration of religion, depicting the waning of Paganism and the rise of Christianity. It shows Priestess Morgaine’s struggle to keep her religion alive in the face of the patriarchal Christianity threatening to wipe it out. Yet no side is presented as entirely at fault during the conflicts and the main negativity is perpetrated by people with heart-breaking good reasons, such as Christian Gwenhyfar’s desperate desire for children. The emotional pay off when Matriarchal Morgaine’s meets with the young Christian nuns in the Chapel to the Virgin in the epilogue is intense and stays with you.
In many ways, albeit in a fantastical manner, the novel feels grounded in history. The constant references to the past time of the Romans and the accurate descriptions of feudal life, ground it in a perfect fantasy history that is easy to buy into.
The relationships are deep and, at times, downright steamy. Anyone thinking George RR Martin had some sort of patent on incest had obviously never picked up this novel. The honesty of the love depicted is raw and compelling. Even characters that I worked very hard to hate – Gwenhyfar is so patently at fault many times – are given such detailed reasoning and emotional journeys.
Arthur himself is relegated to second place as the women take the forefront of the story, beginning with his mother Igraine, then moving to follow Morgaine, his half-sister, and Gwenhyfar, his Queen. That does not mean the depiction of Arthur is half-baked. In fact the Knights of the Round Table and their King are vividly portrayed, especially their comradery and affection for each other. The portrayal of their love is sometimes simple and pure compared to the emotional rawness of the women’s struggles.
Yet there is no doubt who the story is about. Themes of motherhood (both the desire for it and the rejection of it), matriarchy and female relationships run deep in the text. It does not try to tell you that one way of being a woman is the right way – only that all these different characters are deeply relatable.
What is so heart-breaking is the sure knowledge of the way the story will end. Bradley plays off this familiarity the readership would no doubt have with the legends of Arthur and it is difficult to call the novel anything but a tragedy.
Yet the story is full of hope and magic and every facet of the range of human emotion. This is the sort of book that you live as you read it and die a little bit as each beloved character dies. Don’t pick it up lightly.