Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"The Mists of Avalon" Marion Zimmer Bradley

It is a time of change in Britain. Immigrants bringing their foreign ways expect women to surrender the power they have held in the Isle, to resign from politics, to adopt to the newcomers' standards of modesty, to submit to the religious rule of men and their Middle Eastern religion of peace. The time is the fifth century, and the invaders are Christians and Anglo-Saxons who will ally to dominate the matriarchal Pagan and Celtic society of ancient Britain. The story is the Mists of Avalon, an epic Arthurian novel of love and war, spanning three generations of British women, told from the viewpoint of Arthur's sister Morgaine (Morgan la Fey) and the women of Avalon and Camelot.

Published in 1983, this well-reviewed novel, the product of years of research by award-winning author Marion Zimmer Bradley, was a best seller for four months in hard cover and over four years in its paper back release. While the novel is set in a world of fantasy, its magic plays a tertiary role, behind that of the women whose lives it realistically portrays and the men who play a supporting role in its lovingly crafted plot.

Morgaine is a tragic heroine, struggling against enemies, convention, and even family and friends to maintain her rights and champion the freedom of the people from priestly suppression of their long-cherished way of life. Morgaine, a priestess of Avalon, finds that the power she assumes from her religious role comes at a heavy personal cost. Bradley fleshes out Morgaine as a full person, with loves and losses, triumphs and painful compromises, a hero with whom we sympathize and for whom we root as she battles for her cult, her family, for Britain, and for herself.

Bradley spent years researching the Arthurian legends and the Druidic and Early Christian religion of the Isles. Much is speculation. But the book is one of the most real works of fiction you will ever read. The story is one of people and their values set in a time which happens now to be mythical. Magic plays the most minor of roles. Suspension of disbelief will not trouble the most hard-boiled reader. Neither is this romance, which has been called a feminist tract by some, a "woman's" book. It is a full-fleshed work of high literature, comparable in scope, conflict, characterization and fullness of theme to Ayn Rand's Fountainhead or Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

There is a made-for-television adaptation of this novel. While I have heard it highly praised, I found it an unwatchable farce compared to the original. The book is one of my top ten favorites, and is recommended without reservation.

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