The story of King Arthur is one of the great literary cycles of the Western world, with versions in every language, written in every period since the Middle Ages. What Marion Zimmer Bradley did in The Mists of Avalon was to provide a new perspective on its meaning by telling the story from the point of view of the women in the story.
The major character is Arthur’s half-sister Morgaine, heir through their mother to the line of priestesses who rule the holy isle of Avalon. She provides commentary and transitions, and the events of her life are the framework for the story, which is told in four parts. Mists of Avalon has now been in print for more than twenty-five years. But for anyone who has not already read it, here is a summary.
In Book One, “Mistress of Magic” we learn how the Merlin arranges for King Uther to beget Arthur on Igraine, sister of Viviane, who is the high priestess of Avalon. Viviane, brings Igraine’s daughter Morgaine to Avalon to be trained as a priestess there. She meets, and falls in love with the young Lancelet, but he has no interest in her. When King Uther dies, Viviane arranges for Morgaine to act as priestess to the hero acclaimed by Avalon as sacred king at the rite of the Running of the Deer, and it is not until they have slept together that she realizes he is her little half-brother, Arthur. Horrified to find she is with child, she quarrels with Viviane, whose machinations got her into this situation, and runs away from Avalon.
Book Two, “The High Queen” tells how Morgaine bears her child and leaves him to be raised by her aunt, Queen Morgause of Orkney. Gwenhwyfar is married to Arthur, but falls in love with Lancelet and he with her. When Morgaine finally does try to return to Avalon, she fails, and ends up instead in faerie, where she spends several years before returning to Arthur’s court at Camelot. Desperate for a child, she asks Morgaine for magical help, and ends up sleeping with both Arthur and Lancelet in one bed.
In Book Three, “The King Stag”, Viviane takes Mordred to be trained at Avalon. Later, she is killed by a madman. Lancelet is tormented by guilt for his relationship with Gwenhwyfar. Morgaine gives young Elaine a charm to make Lancelet think she is the queen so that he will have to marry her. She bears his son, Galahad, and a daughter, Nimue, who she agrees to send to Avalon. When Gwenhwyfar learns that Arthur begot a son on Morgaine, she blames their sin for her own lack of a child. It is no longer possible for Morgaine to stay at court, and she is married to the old King Uriens of North Wales, though she is attracted to his son, Accolon. As his queen, she begins to practice magic once more and regains the powers of a priestess. Meanwhile Mordred is growing up and beginning to desire his heritage.
Book Four, “The Prisoner in the Oak” brings all these relationships to the inevitable conclusion. Pressured by his own guilt and Gwenhywfar’s insistence, Arthur ceases to protect those who follow the Old Religion, breaking the oath he swore when he was given Excalibur. Even the Merlin of Britain believes that the triumph of the new religion is inevitable. Mordred becomes a warrior and achieves an ambiguous status at court. To restore the old ways, Morgaine incites Accolon to challenge Arthur, and when that fails, she takes the scabbard that had protected Arthur from wounds, and estranged now from everyone she once loved, believes her life at an end. But the Merlin persuades her to return to Avalon, where she stays until she learns that he has taken the Grail and other holy things to Camelot, believing that the holy things must be in the world. To prevent the priests from using the Grail in a Christian mass, Morgaine calls down the power of the Goddess. All present feel it, then the holy things are taken out of the human world. Arthur’s knights scatter, seeking it. Nimue, now grown to a beautiful maiden, seduces the Merlin and brings him back to Avalon to be punished. Without his wisdom, and without his knights, Arthur comes to depend on Mordred, who engineers the betrayal of Lancelet and Guinevere and at last rebels against his father. To Morgaine these things come as distant rumors until the day the barge brings Arthur to Avalon and he dies in her arms. Morgaine lives on in an Avalon that is almost entirely severed from the world. But she returns once more to the mortal isle of Glastonbury, where she sees that the shape of the Virgin Mary, the Goddess is still worshiped, and will endure.
Alhough I did not write any part of The Mists of Avalon, perhaps I can help provide some context. When she first announced that she intended to write an Arthurian novel I was dubious. Between The Once and Future King, and Sword at Sunset, the two major treatments of that subject published during the preceding period, it had seemed to me that there was nothing new left to say. There were times during the writing when Marion herself wondered if she could bring off the project. The decision to focus on the stories of the female characters, which most previous treatments of the legend had left untold, was a stroke of genius, and the fact that this was the Arthurian legend, the most enduring myth in English–perhaps in all European–literature, meant that it reached a far larger audience than any of Marion’s genre fiction had done before.
By the time she wrote Mists, Marion was a well-established author, well-known in the science fiction/fantasy community and had been able to support her family by her writing for many years. By the mid-70’s, her husband was earning enough to allow her to take her time instead of rushing the next book out. The result was a breakthrough with Heritage of Hastur. The Darkover books that followed were longer and more serious, and she began to explore feminist themes. This also allowed her to finally finish The Catch Trap, a novel about two gay men who are trapeze artists in the circus, her most carefully researched and in some ways her best work. It was published by Ballantine in 1979. This established a relationship with editor Judy-Lynn Del Rey, who encouraged her to tackle the Arthurian story.
When Marion began work, I loaned her my texts from graduate courses in Arthurian literature and shared what I knew. After that, all I could do was hold her hand during periods of discouragement and cheer when the story began to flow. Fairly early in the writing, she realized that historical accuracy would conflict with the tale she needed to write, but as the story of King Arthur has always existed, at least partially, somewhere beyond history, her liberties were justified. Some years later (yet still some years ago), I was discussing the book with John and Caitlín Matthews, the well-known writers on Celtic Shamanism. We ruefully agreed that there was no evidence for a religious system such as Marion described in what we know of Celtic religion. However, they pointed out that Marion had hit upon a number of concepts which were similar to those expressed in an unpublished essay on the legend by the famous occult author Dion Fortune. Thus, while The Mists of Avalon is not historical, it holds elements of spiritual truth that transcend history.
Marion’s working title for the book was Mistress of Magic, but the publishers felt that “mistress” might give the wrong impression, and so that title was given to the first part of the book, and Marion’s wonderfully evocative invention of the protecting mists provided the general title of The Mists of Avalon. When Marion turned the book in, Judy-Lynn replied that the only things wrong with it were “the beginning, the middle, and the end.” Marion, who was used to turning in a book and then forgetting it, rewrote. Among other changes, she made the book much longer. After having studied Arthurian literature, past and present, in college, I had thought it impossible to find anything new to say about the story, and was amazed and impressed by the results of taking the female point of view.
Judy-Lynn was not only an excellent editor, but a brilliant publicist, who saw the book’s potential and got it reviewed in the New York Times. Word-of-mouth took it from there and the rest is history. Suddenly Marion was famous, appearing (with a picture of her in a witchy cape that the photographer swore they would never use) in People magazine and smiling with gritted teeth when people told her how much they liked her (singular) book.
Marion had the gift of speaking to the zeitgeist of saying things that were badly needed at just the right time. What she had to say about feminism and the Goddess were what a great many women badly needed to hear. Unfortunately some of them thought of her as their own personal high priestess, with expectations that even Morgaine would have found it hard to fulfill. That, and her declining health, caused her to gradually withdraw from the pagan and science fiction communities.
But Mists has become a classic, and continues to speak to readers to this day. The Arthurian story stands alone, and no sequel is possible. The Mists of Avalonconcludes the saga of Avalon, but the community Marion described as living there is clearly the culmination of a long and rich tradition. The books that we, and now I, have written about the sacred isle are an attempt to explore how that tradition came to be.
For an essay in which Marion discusses her treatment of Christianity in the book, see her essay “Thoughts on Avalon”