There was a time when a traveller, if he had the will and knew only a few of the secrets, could send his barge out into the Summer Sea and arrive not at Glastonbury of the monks, but at the Holy Isle of Avalon; for at that time the gates between worlds drifted within the mists, and were open, one to another, as the traveller thought and willed.
Of all the stories inspired by Arthurian legend, perhaps none has had a greater social impact than Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. This may sound like an extreme statement, for the tales of Arthur include a masterpiece of Middle English dialect, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Spenser's nation-building saga, The Faerie Queene ; Malory's chivalric drama, Le Morte D'Arthur; Tennyson's lyrical Romantic epic, Idylls of the King; and the popular musical Camelot , associated in the U.S. with John F. Kennedy's brief presidency. And these are only a very few of the retellings. Yet I can't think of another besides Mists of Avalon that contributed so greatly to the emergence of a spiritual movement.
The Faerie Queene might have helped define an empire, and the imprisoned Malory might have translated French source material which would later be borrowed by hundreds of writers, but Marion Zimmer Bradley created a sacred text. Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of women first discovered the mysteries of the Goddess through Bradley's Celtic fiction, following the path to Bradley's own mentor Starhawk or to Diane Stein, Doreen Valiente, Marian Green and other contemporary practitioners of Wicca and witchcraft.
Others moved on to similar female-oriented retellings of traditional religious stories, like Clysta Kinstler's The Moon Under Her Feet -- Christ's story from the perspective of Mary Magdalene -- and Anita Diamant's The Red Tent -- Jacob's story recalled by his daughter Dinah. The publication of The Mists of Avalon represents a critical juncture for the New Age movement and in the personal histories of innumerable readers.
It's a little intimidating to try to review a book that some consider a sacred text. The three novels which follow it help put it in perspective; although The Forest House, Lady of Avalon and Priestess of Avalon are all prequels, and none comes close to equaling the majesty of Mists, I'd still recommend reading them in the order in which they were written, lest the fantasy-novel pitfalls of the later books diminish the incredible power of Bradley's mythology. Priestess of Avalon, completed by Bradley's close associate Diana L. Paxson, sticks more closely to recorded history and has a different tone than the other novels, though some may find the story of Saint Helena more relevant personally and politically than the fantasy world of its predecessors.
The Mists of Avalon tells the story of Morgaine -- daughter of High Queen Igraine, niece of Lady of the Lake Viviane, romantic rival of Arthur's queen Gwenhwyfar. The once and future king is, of course, a central character, but this story does not revolve around him. It begins with Viviane's vision of a united Britain, led by a High King who will remain faithful to the Great Goddess while keeping the peace with the followers of Christ. From this vantage, Camelot rises and falls with the fortunes of its women; the nobility of Arthur, the courage of Lancelet, the foresight of Merlin are balanced by the power and cunning of Viviane, her sister Morgause, and the niece whom she hopes will succeed her as Lady of the Lake.
Trained as a priestess, Morgaine dedicates her life to the Goddess, but Viviane betrays her niece's trust by choosing her to play the virgin bride in a ceremony where Arthur, wearing the mask of the King Stag, deflowers her. Horrified and confused when she discovers that her baby brother was her lover, the pregnant Morgaine flees Avalon, ultimately leaving her son Mordred in the care of her aunt Morgause.
Meanwhile, at Camelot, Gwenhwyfar becomes desperate to give Arthur a legitimate heir. Though raised Christian, she turns via Morgaine to the Goddess, who grants her heart's desire by having Arthur suggest that he and his wife share their bed with his cousin and friend Lancelet in hope of producing a child. Yet when she fails to conceive, Gwenhwyfar blames her ongoing barrenness on her husband's pagan loyalties, and demands that he fly the banner of the Cross rather than that of Avalon. Thus, the Chalice of the Druids becomes the Holy Grail, and the Fellowship of the Round Table scatters in a misguided quest for Christian salvation.
Because of her training, Morgaine can pass between the veils that separate Avalon from the world of men, but even she is susceptible to the seductive realm of Faerie, where she becomes lost for a day and loses several years of her life in the outer world. But this is not a fairy tale, no more than it is a radical feminist rewrite, as a few stodgy critics have complained. Barbara Walker's archetypes of the Virgin, Mother and Crone dominate in turn, but this has always been their story as much as that of Arthur, Lancelet, Gawain and Galahad. Indeed, at the end of the medieval Sir Gawain, the reader discovers that the events of the novel were put in play by Morgan in an effort to warn Arthur's knights of the dangers of pridefulness.
Morgaine remains conscious of the legends that have sprung up around her, that she has been called a witch and blamed for the fall of Camelot. History, she knows, will be written by the victors, so the misogynistic strain of Christianity that eradicated the Druids will judge her in the end.
This is a story filled with bloody battle and death, and sex in permutations approved by the Goddess but not the God of the Christians. In addition to her brother, Morgaine loves her cousin Lancelet, who realizes during the lovemaking intended to produce the much-desired royal heir that he loves not only his Queen but his King. Morgaine helps Elaine trick Lancelet into marrying her, but in compensation she demands their daughter Nimue to train as a priestess, causing the girl to carry out the seduction and betrayal of the weak-willed Merlin she has come to love. Morgaine also has a passionate affair with her stepson Accolon, who tries and fails to combat Arthur in the name of the Dragon of Britain.
As the power of the Goddess diminishes and Avalon recedes into the mists, violence and tragedy become the mark of Arthur's reign, rather than Viviane's dream of a united kingdom where Avalon and Glastonbury could coexist.
The Forest House leaps back centuries to an era before Avalon, when priestesses are trained in the Druid wood while Romans fight to dominate Britain. Eilan, daughter of the Druid Bendeigid and a priestess in her own right, falls in love with and bears a son to the half-Celtic Roman commander Gaius Marcellius.
But their Druid and Roman fathers both work to separate the pair. Gaius learns that he must marry a girl from Londinium to ensure a dynastic succession, while Eilan discovers that the Arch-Druid's wishes may not always mirror those of the Goddess. As the conflict between Britons and Romans becomes further complicated by the emergence of Christianity, Eilan worries that her son Gawen and his mixed ancestry will find no place among her own people.
Though Eilan is a strong and compelling woman whose erotic visions of the Goddess leave a striking impression, the foretelling of her tragic future lends a melancholy tone to The Forest House. This mood seems more pervasive than the darkness in The Mists of Avalon, even though readers know that both stories must end unhappily. In this case, we know the Forest House will be abandoned for Avalon, and from the somber tone of the aged priestess who narrates the end of the tale, we suspect it will not be under joyous circumstances.
There are also fewer compelling figures than in Mists of Avalon, and very few admirable men, with numerous secondary characters whose relationships become difficult to recall without referencing the map and dramatis personae included. Though this prehistory of the rites of the Goddess makes for compelling reading, it never attains the mythic status of its predecessor.
Lady of Avalon attempts to bridge the gap between the events of The Forest House and those of The Mists of Avalon , beginning with the youth of Eilan's son Gawen and ending with the ascendance of Viviane. Interweaving history and myth in a near-seamless tapestry, Lady of Avalon takes up the story of Caillean, the first Lady of Avalon, who fled the Forest House when the politics of the various tribes and Roman invaders converged to destroy that sanctuary of the ancient religion.
In their new home, the Druid priests and priestesses are free from struggles with the Romans and foreign invaders, but a new menace is growing in the small Christian community which shares the island with the priestesses. Though Father Joseph of Arimathea and some of his band tolerate different belief systems, the Christians grow increasingly evangelical, with particular venom for the matriarchal power of the Lady of Avalon.
Just as Gawen is torn between Druids and Christians, the harsh realities of the Roman army and the otherworldly lure of the realm of Faerie, so Avalon becomes the site of struggle between the various worlds comprising Britain in that era. When the Christians attack a Druid holy site, the Faerie Queen helps Caillean draw Avalon behind a veil of mists, shrouding it from the world.
Then the story jumps forward almost two hundred years, to the time of another Lady of Avalon, Dierna, in an era when the Roman grip on Britain has weakened and allowed the Saxons to invade. The most historically interesting section of the novel, Dierna's story also provides the most satisfying love story, as she supports politically and adores privately the British-born Roman Carausius, who becomes Emperor of Brittania. The reincarnation of personalities and archetypes allows for the development of a cycle that crescendos toward the eruption of power and majesty that will characterize Camelot at its peak.
The Goddess is the most intriguing character in both The Forest House and Lady of Avalon, but she's frustratingly aloof, and her rituals receive scant historical explanation, being described through a gauzy romantic veil like the one that surrounds her Holy Isle. In Lady of Avalon, Bradley's conceptions of male and female power seem particularly rigid; she reinforces images of women as nurturers and men as warriors, which in turn bolster a social pattern that is both patriarchal and heterosexist. Despite the scant historical documentation on Celtic matriarchal power, beliefs about the Goddess, and the routines of priestesses, a less essentialist viewpoint would have allowed more balanced characters, as in The Mists of Avalon , where there are strong men and weak men, powerful women and victimized women, all of whom balance free choice with the fates imposed by their deities.
Moreover, Mists left the origins of Druid religion largely veiled; too many mentions of Atlantis in the subsequent prequels make the books seem less mythic and more like Bradley's colorful fantasy novels.
The last of the prequels, Priestess of Avalon, does a stunning job of recapturing the legendary power of the original, which is most remarkable because Bradley died before its completion, leaving the manuscript in the care of fellow fantasy writer and Priestess of the Elder Troth Diana L. Paxson. Helena, daughter of a deceased High Priestess, arrives in Avalon at age 10 after growing up among Romans, There she will reclaim her identity as Eilan (purportedly a reincarnation of the earlier Eilan), but she comes into conflict with her aunt, the High Priestess Ganeda, particularly when she falls in love with Flavius Constantius and takes the place of another priestess in his bed during a ritual marriage.
Ganeda exiles Helena, who becomes the mother of Constantine, destined one day to govern Rome. Though she undergoes much suffering, Helena seeks solace on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she learns the ancient wisdom that all gods and goddesses are one and the same, even as her son begins to convert Rome to Christianity.
Told in the first person like The Mists of Avalon , Priestess brings rich imagery to its prophetic scenes and makes the powers of the priestesses accessible to non-initiates. A spiritual outcast for most of her life, Helena lives in the world of carnal love, heartbreak and suffering that holds sway in the world outside Avalon's magical shores, where even plagues can be kept at bay. Just as Mists restores the Goddess to her place in the Arthurian canon, Priestess suggests that even the most famous woman in Rome might have continued to worship the Goddess, to see her in Asherah trees in the Holy Land and on Italian frescoes where Venus has been transformed into the Virgin. Helena does not fight for the unity of British pagan beliefs and Christianity so much as she embodies its inevitability.
This is not a book destined to spark a spiritual revival the way Mists did -- indeed, "Avalon" appears in the title of this final novel primarily as a selling point, and the world of Faerie exists far from the one through which Helena moves. But this powerful female heroine provides an admirable role model, and her story yields a more colorful adventure tale than any of the previous installments in the Avalon saga, as Helena travels throughout the Roman Empire and makes friends across numerous cultures, stations and religious backgrounds.
Some readers have objected to the domination of Christian beliefs and images found throughout the novel. As a non-Christian, I found the historical exploration of how the Goddess came to be subsumed in the Virgin to be quite illuminating, though I understand why others feel betrayed when Helena declares her belief that the Goddess truly dwells only within the women who follow her. But in the end, the call of Avalon is stronger to Helena than Constantine's Christian edicts.
This has particular poignancy for modern pagans and other non-Christians who live in a world like Helena's, where Christian beliefs and politics touch nearly every aspect of our lives. It also has a more optimistic, open feel than the miniseries The Mists of Avalon , which finds Britain enshrouded in darkness and the Virgin Mary as the only remaining vestige of the once-supreme Great Goddess.
Whether one comes to Avalon to see the faeries, the Goddess, the empowered women or the legendary history of Britain, one cannot help but be affected by Bradley's powerful myth-making. Even historical purists who find the novels too New Age-y will be moved by the multifaceted characters and their earnest attempts to reconcile faith and hope with the harsh world of the early Christian era. For some readers these books will merely be remembered as grand adventure tales, but for others, Avalon will become a life-altering experience. Come when you have the time to stay, to find yourself obsessed with Arthurian romances, Celtic history or Goddess lore, to discover the world beyond the mists.
Green Man Reviews