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The Mists of Avalon Paperback – May 12, 1987
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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.
Young and old alike will enjoy this magical Arthurian reinvention by science fiction and fantasy veteran Marion Zimmer Bradley. --Bonnie Bouman
"[A] monumental reimagining of the Arthurian legends . . . Reading it is a deeply moving and at times uncanny experience. . . . An impressive achievement."
--The 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."
--The Cleveland Plain Dealer
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Morgaine is the main protagonist. And unlike in most retellings, she’s not an evil sorceress. Instead, she’s an initiate of Avalon, a mythical island that’s home to a sect of Goddess worshippers trying to stave off Christianity’s growing influence over Britain. Bradley includes the familiar love triangle between Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, and Lancelet (a.k.a. Lancelot), but the contest of religions is the core struggle in The Mists of Avalon. Viviane, Lady of Avalon when the story begins, places Arthur on the throne so that he may serve his Christian and non-Christian subjects alike. But Gwenhwyfar convinces him to become ever more Christian, and Viviane and Morgaine consider this conversion a betrayal of the oaths he swore to win the crown. In the years that follow, Avalon sets itself against Camelot and grows intolerant in kind.
Not everyone is as narrow-minded about religion, however. Morgause has little use for gods or goddesses, while the druidic Merlins (plural, in this version) believe all deities are one. Such a diversity of viewpoints is also present in how Bradley portrays the different spheres of influence available to women in her historical fantasy of early Britain. In Avalon, Morgaine and Viviane lead a matriarchal society. In the North, Morgause defies convention and rules as a queen who takes lovers as she wills. But in the South, Igraine and Gwenhwyfar (mostly) accept their priests’ advisements that they should be content to stay in their castles and make children and clothing for their husbands.
The overall story is more philosophical than I’m used to for a tale of King Arthur. It’s also slower; The Mists of Avalon spans generations and glosses over the usual knightly contests and heroic deeds. But if you want a Camelot that makes you think, Bradley’s seminal work is worth a read.
For my review, I won't get into the actual story line or historic facts VS. mythology and fiction (many reviewers have already gone that route). I want to express my overall impressions of this book, because the feelings this book evoked caused 10+ rereads!
The writing in this book is incredible. It sucks you right into the time period and character's minds. You really feel you're there with them experiencing everything. There is historical accuracy mixed in with fiction, little elements like clothing and food that are woven throughout the story in a way that's not tedious to read, but adds to the feel of the book. It's like stepping into a time machine. The interpersonal relationships are masterful and you really become part of the story. When you think of King Arthur myths, this is the type of story you envision. One that makes you question your beliefs about magic, mystery, and humanity -- that in my mind is perfect historical fiction. The author poured her heart and soul into this book, and it shows on every single page.
Bottom line, it's not a book ... it's an experience.
I won't be reading the next two books in the series, and since this one is considered a masterpiece anyway, there's no need. However, I heard through a friend that there's an '80s miniseries starring Angelica Huston as Morgaine and that quite lights my fancy! I'll have to check that out.