Gregory's Reviews > The Mists of Avalon

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
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Jan 01, 09

bookshelves: historical-fiction, fantasy

What can I say about this book? I understand that this is largely considered to be one of the great classics of modern fantasy literature. But personally, I found it to be a tedious, repetitive, grossly innaccurate affair that has little redeeming value. To be fair, I have to applaud Bradley for the sheer audacity of what she attempts to accomplish with this book: it's not an easy job re-conceiving the vast array of Arthurian legends. Perhaps she merely bit off a lot more than she could chew. But nevertheless, this book wound up being one of the great disappointments of my reading career.

The entire point of Bradley's book seems to be not really to tell a story, but to push a neo-feminist, neo-pagan point of view. Her arguments, that Christianity ruined egalitarian earth-loving Celtic cultures and shackled women under a male-dominated cultural power supported by the Church, are repetitive and monotonous. Her book becomes far more concerned with repeating this argument over and over again, and the plot suffers greatly. Even if you do agree with some of her points (which I do), you find yourself becoming quite aggravated by her tiresome diatribes well before the book is half finished. Any basic writing instructor will tell you that when setting out to write a story, don't try to make a point. If your writing is good enough, it will make that point clear for you, while leaving your reader to determine their own conclusions. Obviously, Bradley never got this piece of advice or simply chose to ignore it.

The other grave fault of the books is that Bradley's perspective is based on a lot of New Age, Neo-pagan pseudo-history than any real research. Either she didn't know any better, or just as likely, she chose to ignore historical fact. Now I can allow for a healthy amount of artistic interpretation to history, especially when you take into account the Arthurian period, which is itself layered in so much myth and speculation. But Bradley goes beyond the acceptable levels of "stretching the facts," and instead weaves such blatant misrepresentations that it makes one cringe. For one, Celtic cultures were hardly the peaceful, egalitarian, feminist examples that Bradley portrays them to be. Their religious organization was male-dominated, and they engaged in human sacrifice and even ritual rape. In her attempts to color Christianity black she entirely overlooks the contributions the Church made in bringing peace to war-torn Britain. And, perhaps her most horrendous and unforgiveable sin, is in her portrayal of St. Patrick, who becomes Arthur's bishop in the later half of the book. Not only did Patrick never become a bishop in Britain (or hold any real post there whatsoever), but Bradley again overlooks the fact that while in Ireland on his mission of conversion, Patrick actually allowed for female bishops and priests and created perhaps one of the most egalitarian versions of the Catholic Church.

These points aisde, what about her actual portrayal of the Arthurian legends? Bradley's characters are mostly one-dimensional, alas. There is very little narrative structure, and most of the "action" of the novel occurs within the characters. As mentioned, she seems a lot more interested in making her socio-philosophical point than in telling a real story. The great events of the Arthurian tales are mostly glossed over, though she does have some interesting and intriguing re-interpretations of some of the episode. Unfortunately, these are few, and the end of the book is especially anti-climactic. Arthur's tragic death and the dissolution of the dream of Camelot is merely a footnote.

The final verdict? Read this book if, like me, you are very interested in the Arthurian cycles and their re-interpretations throughout history. This is one of those works that, while painful to plod through, should at least be attempted in order to gain a better understanding of the modern impact of Arthur and his exploits. However, beyond that cultural context, this book hardly stands out. If you are looking for a unique, intriguing, and multidimensional treatment of the Arthurian legends, then I recommend you seek out T.H. White's The Once and Future King.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Jessalyn God, you put this is far better words than I ever could have. I applaud you, sir(?).


Constable Reggie I repeat Jessalyn's words. The preachiness and repetition bothered me no end. As I was reading, I kept thinking that if MZB had written To Kill A Mockingbird, the book would be 850 pages long, 300 of which would be Mayella Ewell brooding about her home life and dithering about whether to accost Tom Robinson or not; we would be getting a self-righteous, spelled-out lecture on racism every two pages; Jem, Dil, Boo and Atticus would be horribly boring, ineffectual characters; and worst of all, if Morgaine is anything to go by, Scout would be a passive, insufferable, holier-than-thou pill.
And I kept thinking through the time I was reading this book that I should be reading The Once And Future King instead...


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