Friday, June 08, 2007

Mists of Avalon

from the diary: “Thursday 1/28/88

“I’m farther than midway thru Mists of Avalon.”

When I worked Christmas 1984 at a bookstore in Santa Rosa I remember Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon was a bestseller. It looked interesting – a retelling of the King Arthur legends from the perspective of the women, particularly the previously-imagined-as-villainous Morgan Le Fay. In Bradley’s version Morgaine (as she spells it) represents the pre-Christian religion of the British Isles and Arthur the ultimately victorious new religion. Also a therapist had told me there was a nice bedroom scene in which Arthur and Lancelot get sweaty.

The book disappointed me. Reading random excerpts (thanks to Amazon’s “search inside” feature), perhaps it was the prose that bored me. I don’t remember the bedroom scene being a thrill either (I couldn’t find it via an Amazon search).

When Kent saw I was about to write about Mists of Avalon he enthused. So, for those for whom the book worked, here is an essay Bradley wrote concerning her thinking. Among other things she says, “The Romans never got over their dismay and disbelief at finding Celtic tribes ruled by women; they insisted on calling the war-leaders of the tribes the ‘Kings’ and never were comfortable with their client queens. …[W]hen Christianity came to the Empire, with the third-century Christian Fathers and their completely neurotic insistence on the evil of woman (Jerome and Augustine went far further than the most repressive of the Old Testament writers about women's wickedness), all the elements were present for fertile cultural conflict.

“This was what I saw in the Arthurian saga, with the emphasis on those mysterious figures, the Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay. … When I read Malory [author of the earliest King Arthur narrative, Morte d’Arthur] I noticed specially that Morgan le Fay, and the Lady of the Lake (with her many "damsels") were frequently portrayed as Arthur's friends and allies -- but equally often as his antagonists. … [I]f Malory disapproved so much of these women, why did he not simply expunge them from the mythos, as he did with so many other elements of the ancient Celtic folk-tales that he grafted on to the doings of his 5th-century historical hero chieftain. My theory is that he could not, because in the originals, now lost, Morgan and the Lady of the Lake were absolutely integral to the whole story and it was unthinkable to tell tales of Arthur without also telling tales of the women involved. This whole thing took place in a Celtic milieu, after all, where the women were integral to the whole thing. … [T]hey were at the heart of the whole cultural and religious shift at that time, from Goddess-oriented, female-validating religion to God-oriented, Middle Eastern/Oriental woman-fearing religion.”

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