The Mists of Avalon

The Mists of AvalonAt my suggestion, our daughter Emma at age 14 read Marian Zimmer Bradley’s epic feminist reframing of the oft-told Arthurian legend and was profoundly affected and inspired by its story, scope, and deeply drawn heroic but flawed characters. It was a much more sophisticated tale than most, because it was not about good and evil (with characters falling obviously into one of those two categories), but rather a story where a number of compelling characters wrestled with doing their duty and following their heart in a highly challenging transitional and high-stakes context.

Bradley takes the basic story of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and the search for the Holy Grail and embeds it in a larger context of the transition of ancient Britain from pagan worship of The Goddess to a patriarchal Christianity. Her version of this tale is told mainly through the eyes of three of the female characters – Morgaine (often called Morgan Le Fay), Viviane (the Lady of the Lake), and Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) – who are generally more plot devices than fully realized characters in the more conventional tellings of this legend.

Morgaine, who in those more conventional versions of the story (with obvious “good guys” and “bad guys”) is often portrayed as a villainous sorceress, is the flawed heroine and protagonist of Bradley’s version of the story. She struggles with the conflict between her own desires, including her love for Lancelot, versus being true to her pedigree as a defender of the old pagan order fighting its eclipse by an encroaching Christianity.

For our daughter Emma, reading this book was kind of a literary coming of age of sorts. She was exposed to things beyond what she had encountered before; including a story so deep, wide and profoundly sad, that for a long time after finishing the 800 plus page book she felt she could read nothing else. Emma, who had herself gained a love of creating deeply drawn fictional characters of her own, was now reading the weaving’s of a master at the development of complex characters who were not simply good or bad, but a frustrating mixture of both motives selfless and selfish, and behavior both good and bad.

The protagonist Morgaine particularly resonated with Emma. Here was a young woman coming of age herself, blessed with independence and struggling to develop the agency to effectively chart a course, follow her heart, while being swept up in a larger cause that was her birthright but about which she was at times ambivalent, or at least not completely engaged. That cause was what she inevitably realized was a quixotic quest to resist the transition from the “old school” religion of the Goddess and the fairie people it championed, to the coming patriarchal Christianity bringing a new order of hierarchy and male dominance. Morgaine was forced to wrestle with to what extent she should continue to fight for a cause that was most likely doomed, and once accepting the mantle of the high priestess of Avalon, could she play her hand so expertly to achieve that one chance in a thousand of success. In the end the cause that she had finally agreed to champion failed, and she had to make her peace with that.

Emma had been first drawn into reading literary epics by the Harry Potter books, about another at times ambivalent protagonist wrestling with accepting the mantle of his destiny in perhaps a more straightforward struggle between good and evil. When she was younger I had read to her and her brother Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Herbert’s Dune among others, and she still recalls being freaked out by the latter’s behemoth sand worms. But Rowling’s seven book epic was her first great on-her-own reading effort, and after digesting the Harry Potter saga she was hungry for more and willing for me to turn her on to more grown-up fare, like Varley’s The Gaia Trilogy and Asimov’s own seven-book Foundation epic.

Varley’s trilogy introduced her to her first (I believe) larger than life female protagonists and heroines of mythic proportions and a made up world mind-bogglingly fantastical and outlandish to include both zombie priests and a fifty-foot Marilyn Monroe. The protagonists, Cirocco and Gabby, wrestled with much deeper personal dramas than Emma had been previously exposed to, including alcoholism and ennui, sexual assault, and even death and resurrection. But in the end of Varley’s extended tale, Cirocco and Gabby triumphed in their way, and the reader could close his third book, Demon, with a sense of all being well, at least in his phantasmagorical world.

But Bradley’s work did not deliver such gift-wrapped satisfaction in the end. Patriarchal Christianity was prevailing in Arthurian England, while the Goddess religion, the fairie people it championed, and the temple of Avalon that was its focal point, were receding forever into the mists of obscurity. Though this is a work of fiction and fantasy, it could well be very close and at the least emblematic of the transition Europe went through from pagan roots to Christianity, and from perhaps a more partnership orientation including women with agency and independence to a more male-dominated patriarchy.

And here is a young woman reading this tale and looking around her at a contemporary America where she is perhaps still a second-class citizen (because of her gender) in a culture that is in many ways still glaringly patriarchal. What will be her fight, and what indeed is her chance of success?

After finishing Mists of Avalon, I believe it took Emma a year or more before launching into any new significant reading project. I guess the book can be staggering in its way, particularly perhaps to a younger reader, with the depth of its sadness and the stunning craft of its characters and complicated story. Sometimes after a profoundly life changing experience (or the vicarious equivalent one can get reading a story), it can be hard to move on to something new. It’s like you feel uncomfortable abandoning the characters or fully make peace with the (vicarious) grief you might still be feeling.

Since reading the book at age 14 and so stretching her literary and philosophical horizons, she has plunged into many new projects stretching her developmentally in many other ways, including working a nearly full-time job and pursuing classes in music, art and fiction writing to fill her days, among other things. It will be interesting as our daughter moves forward now in her own fantasy and sci-fi writing, how reading Bradley’s book impacts her own storytelling and her own voice.

I continue to be a great believer in taking all opportunities to fire a young person’s imagination, while still being sensitive to giving them the liberty of charting their own course. I guess if I really think about it, I’m a great believer in firing everyone’s imagination, younger or older. I am certainly ready to live in a world with as much imagination in play as the human race can generate.

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