This book has sat on my shelf since its first year of print (1983), but because of the rich detail and dramatic intrigue contained within still manages to fascinate after several re-readings. Legends surrounding King Arthur have been easy for people to change and shape to fit the contemporary way of thinking and The Mists of Avalon is in some ways just another example of just how much the story can be varied. There is one detail that makes it stand out from any of the other variations I’ve read. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and so many of his adventures. Accordingly I’d always believed the popular idea that Morgaine was evil, Arthur was good and Gwenevere was as weak as Arthur was strong.
Rather than being told from an omniscient or masculine viewpoint this narrative is centred on Morgaine, therefore the book turns many of those preconceptions around as Bradley managed to create an entirely fresh but equally fascinating story. As the focus shifts from the political and physical struggles faced by the men in court to the emotional and personal ones faced by the women, she provides us with a rich account of the effects these battles cause and to what life was like within the castle walls.
The frame narrative is provided by Morgaine in a prologue to the story. She narrates in the first person intimating she’s now an old woman and alluding to the legends that’ll be attributed to her and her role in the demise of Camelot, and the Church’s role in the disappearance of Avalon. Her opening lines suggest that despite this knowledge she wants people to hear her version of events. In this book Morgaine is not a cruel and evil hag overcome with jealousy for her brother. She’s a wise and intelligent woman with a deep love for her country and its people. Far from spoiling the story this offers up a refreshing perspective of the conflicts in court as Morgaine struggles and strives to maintain the old ways and prevent the church from taking over.
Many of the popular motifs of the legend are still adhered to. Arthur’s birth is still seen as being as essential to the making and survival of Great Britain yet despite this Arthur’s own voice is minimal in the story. From the outset he’s portrayed as little more than a needy child who seeks comfort from his elder sister whenever his mother withdraws her affection. Morgaine is always portrayed as a fully formed character, even at seven years old she’s more than capable of looking after her young brother, even though she’d rather not. She admits that she “would have killed the crying thing and thrown him over the cliffs,” but she understands that her mother cares what happens to him and undertakes the role demanded of her. So from the outset any preconceived notions of Morgaine’s character are dismissed leaving the reader to construct their own opinion of her and the world she lives in.
When Morgaine leaves Tintagel to study in Avalon under the Goddess Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, her rapidly changing opinions reveal her inner turmoil and enable the reader to create an increasing empathy with her character. Through this narrative many reasons are offered to explain why Morgaine has come to be known as she is today, a power hungry sorceress.
The novel was first written and published at a time when feminist activism was beginning to have more influence in society and Bradley could have portrayed Avalon as an ideal world run by women for women. She chose not to and instead created a world as full of hardship and endurance as the quest for the Holy Grail. Morgaine does not live in a co-operative society operating in harmony while the men are away at war but in a society where everyone has a pre-ordained role. In Avalon everyone’s fate is decided by the Goddess who is as unbending as any monarch.
At times an omniscient narrative is used to present events from the points of view of other central characters in the plot but always returns to Morgaine to offer her opinion on the events unfolding as Arthur’s decisions affect her and the future of the country. While this encourages the reader to be more involved in Morgaine’s situation, the narrative neatly manages to convey that there’s an element of self-denial in the choices that Morgaine makes. Although she protests that she has no choice in her fate because the Goddess has ordained it, the reader is somehow left believing that she’s strong, wilful and capable of making her own choices when she wants to.
Morgaine remains protective towards Arthur and spends many years trying to shield him from devastating truths. Despite doing her best to protect him she seems to endure a life full of hardships and self- sacrifice experiencing little pleasure although she is almost always independent.
Another way in which the book differs from so many of the other versions is that it doesn’t so much focus on what the death of Arthur will mean to the land but more on the problems that the loss of magic and the power of the church will bring. Indeed this well researched novel illustrates how the Christian church gradually imposed its ideals in society, not just on the role of women but also of men.
Although it’s a long story taking place over Morgaine’s life time and Arthur’s reign, it successfully and skilfully weaves the narrative around the theme of family, matriarchal society and how essential this is to everyday life making it an excellent choice for young women. Such a long story is more suited for the teenage market rather than for very young girls, and as it concentrates so heavily on the female protagonists, I can’t see it holding much interest to young male readers.
Changing the public perceptions of Morgaine’s character results not in a loss of intrigue, but in a far more colourful and engaging portrait of the life of a woman living in ancient times. Not surprising then that it’s still in print and selling after thirty years.