The Mists of Avalon

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Holy shit, that was my brother?

Published in 1983 (and taking place in the same universe as Bradley's two previous novellas, Web of Light and Web of Darkness, nowadays often jointly published as The Fall of Atlantis), The Mists of Avalon is a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It is notable among the many, many variants in Arthurian legend due to its approach--the story is told not only through the eyes of a woman, but through the eyes of one of the biggest villains in the legends. The narrator for much of the book is Morgaine (Morgan le Fay or Morgan of the Fairies), who tells Arthur's tale (and her own) against the backdrop of approaching war with Rome and the Saxons, as well as religious war as Christianity threatens to destroy Avalon and Goddess worship in Britain. However, a substantial number of chapters are told from the points of view of other women, such as Igraine (the mother of Morgaine and Arthur), Viviane (the high priestess of Avalon, Igraine's sister, and Morgaine and Arthur's aunt), Morgause (the younger sister of Viviane and Igraine, aunt of Morgaine and Arthur, and adoptive mother of Mordred), and Gwenhywfar (a.k.a. Guinevere).

Bradley was critically lauded for taking the Arthurian saga and making the characters three-dimensional. Up to this point, women were the biggest evils in the many variants - Morgan le Fay was an evil enchantress, as was Nimue, and Guinevere generally shouldered most of the blame for her extramarital tryst with Lancelot. This book attempts to rescue or make the women real, and not just one-note evil characters. In fact, none of the women mentioned in this paragraph have any wish to do harm to Camelot or Arthur.

Six books (as of 2018) came after this, all of them prequels. While working on the edits to The Forest House (1993) (also known as The Forests of Avalon), which was the first prequel, Bradley suffered the first in a series of debilitating strokes that destroyed her ability to focus for any length of time. The book was completed by her sister-in-law, Diana L. Paxson. They also collaborated on Lady of Avalon (1997); however, Paxson states that while she consulted with Bradley on the plot of Priestess Of Avalon (2000), Bradley was far too ill with congestive heart failure to contribute any writing to the work. Bradley died on September 25, 1999, four days after having a heart attack. Since Bradley's death, Paxson has written three more books in the Avalon series: Ancestors of Avalon (2004), Ravens of Avalon (2007), and Sword of Avalon (2009).

The main characters:

  • Morgaine: Protagonist, priestess of Avalon, and half sister to Arthur. Daughter of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and Igraine.
  • Arthur: King Arthur. Caught between oaths to the Lady of Avalon and the spread of Christianity.
  • Viviane: High Priestess of Avalon and sister to Igraine and Morgause. Manipulates things behind the scenes, but does everything to try to save Avalon.
  • Morgause: Sister to Igraine and Viviane. Plots to put her husband or one of her sons on the throne.

This was made into a miniseries in 2001, starring Julianna Margulies (ER) as Morgaine, Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family) as Viviane, and Joan Allen (Pleasantville) as Morgause.

Tropes used in The Mists of Avalon include:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Like any other variant on Arthurian legend.
  • Aerith and Bob: Running the gamut from familiar - Arthur - to medieval and acceptable - Lancelot and Gawaine - to alternate spellings - Gwenhwyfar and Morgaine instead of Guinevere and Morgan/Morgana - and then Kevin.
  • Atlantis: Where the priests/priestesses in Britain came from.
  • Author Filibuster: Marion Zimmer Bradley is quite clear on her pro-feminist stance.
  • Beauty, Brains, and Brawn: The three sisters/maternal figures.
    • Beauty: Morgause
    • Brains: Viviane
    • Brawn: Igraine
  • Because Destiny Says So: Pretty much every line out of Viviane's mouth. The entire reason for Arthur's (and Mordred's) existence.
  • Broken Pedestal: Morgaine's for Viviane when she finds out she orchestrated the anonymous sexual tryst between Morgaine and her brother.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Morgaine conceives a child by Arthur, a boy named Gwydion ("bright one"). This is subverted somewhat in that Morgaine and Arthur did not know they were having sex with each other at the time. Morgaine hadn't seen her half-brother since he was 6 and she was nearly 11, both were masked, and both were playing parts in a Sacred Marriage rite.
  • The Chosen One: Guess who. No, really! Guess!
  • Deus Angst Machina: Just about everybody. Especially Morgaine, since she's the main protagonist of the story:
    • Like being sent away as a child from everything she knew and loved.
    • Or being manipulated into incest with her brother.
    • Even being tricked into marrying an old dude...the father of the man she was in love with, no less.
    • And the list goes on...
  • Damsel in Distress: Gwenhwyfar.
  • Dress Hits Floor: (Miniseries version) Gwenhwyfar.
  • Doorstopper: Even the paperback would make a decent doorstop or bludgeon in a pinch.
  • Drunk on the Dark Side: Mordred.
  • The Dutiful Son: Arthur.
  • Elegant Classical Musician: Morgaine considers that there are men who lust after her when she plays the harp in Caerleon. She's good with that harp.
  • Enigmatic Empowering Entity: The Lady of the Lake is a machiavellian politician who supports King Arthur because she believes that it will save her people.
  • Mr. Fanservice: In the miniseries, for sure: Accolon, Arthur, Lancelot.
  • Evil Matriarch: Morgause.
    • Also Viviane, who textually does some horrible things, like arranging for her niece and nephew to have sex with each other, poisoning her terminally ill best friend (who does not agree unequivocally to euthanasia), and cursing Gwen to miscarriage after miscarriage because any child of hers would be raised Christian, meaning that Avalon's candidate for the throne, Mordred, would never gain power.
  • The Fair Folk: Present, and more than happy to either help after extracting a huge promise, or generally fuck things up to get what they want. Presented as powerful, manipulative, and not to be trusted.
  • The Hecate Sisters: Viviane makes explicit reference to the concept of "maiden, mother and crone" when referring to Morgaine, Igraine and herself. Morgaine, at the time, is three, which is a bit young to be considered a maiden.
  • Holier Than Thou: Gwenhwyfar's general attitude against anything Avalon-related.
    • (Though we're supposed to disagree with Gwen, she's right. Avalon, by the text's admission, embraces human sacrifice of daughters and sex rituals that involve drugging the woman. Christianity, for all its flaws, does neither.)
  • Ho Yay: Arthur and Lancelot. Adds quite a different spin to the traditional love triangle...
  • Lawful Stupid: Arthur, most of the time.
  • Iron Lady: Viviane.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: Many pagans in the book comment that they don't mind Christ; their problem is with the people interpreting His words.
  • King Arthur: See The Chosen One.
  • Kissing Cousins: Morgaine's crush on Lancelot. Though they never fully seal the deal.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Lancelot. Could practically be a Trope Namer.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Morgaine sleeps with Arthur once, and conceives. Gwenhwyfar does everything she can for years to conceive, down to betraying her Christianity and asking Morgaine for a magical charm, and cannot. Subverted a little; Gwenhwyfar's infertility is not natural. Morgause has cursed her to have no children, and the curse is not broken until Gwenhwyfar hits menopause.
    • And by "cursed", they mean she planted goons in the castle to mix contraceptive/abortion herbs into her meals.
    • On top of Morgause's contraceptives, however, Viviane and Kevin also decide to use spells to ensure that Gwen never carries a child to term. The reason? If Gwen bears a living child, Arthur will have an heir who is not Mordred, and all of Avalon's plots and machinations will be for nothing.
  • Les Yay: Viviane and Raven. Also, Morgaine and Raven.
  • Living MacGuffin: Gwenhwyfar.
  • The Lost Woods: Prince Bright Night's domain.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, Lancelet, Morgaine, Accolon, Elaine.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: When Arthur caves to Gwenhwyfar's begging requests to fly her Christian banner instead of Avalon's in battle. Though the common soldiers do not care and fight for Arthur anyway, Viviane and Kevin-the-Merlin are enraged by this and regard it as Arthur forsaking paganism and Avalon, even though Arthur was raised as a Christian and his only contacts with Avalon were the Great Marriage (when he was tricked into having sex with his sister) and when Viviane gave him Excalibur and pressured him into taking an oath.
  • MacGuffin: The Holy Grail.
  • Matriarchy: The way things are run in Avalon, where girls are forced to sleep with men they don't know or care about for ritual reasons, bear or abort children according to the dictates of the High Priestess and used their sexuality to lure and betray men they love.... This is Feminism?
  • Merlin and Nimue: Done with unbelievable tragedy.
  • Playing Against Type: You'd think Anjelica Huston would play the evil sister and Joan Allen would play the good one, instead of vice versa!
  • Please, I Will Do Anything!: Gwenhwyfar to Morgaine when she asks her to create a fertility charm to make her conceive, despite Gwen's extreme aversion to anything pagan or magical.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Gwenhwyfar basically pulls this on Arthur during a fight.
  • Rescue Sex: Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet, after her rescue from her rapist-captor (and, he claims, half-brother) Meleagrant.
  • Reincarnation Romance: Subverted. Viviane and Uther may have had one had they not been born a little too far apart and only met when they were both too old.
    • Played straight earlier when Igraine has her epiphany that she and Uther were lovers in a previous lifetime. Uther-in-previous-incarnations got around.
  • Right-Hand Hottie: Lancelot to Arthur.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: The Sacred Marriage ritual; watch out, as your partner might be your sibling.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": Gwenhwyfar, Lancelet, Morgaine, Morgause, Igraine.
  • They Just Didn't Care: The book shows definite signs of this, as characterization contradicts itself from chapter to chapter, the timeline is tangled and involves frequent retcons, and the continuity is nonexistent. This was almost certainly deliberate, as Marion Zimmer Bradley "became irate when they (fans) expected her to remember details and fashion consistency throughout" her Darkover series, which she insisted was not a series; she felt that timelines and continuity confined authors' creativity and therefore should be ignored. (Mind you, she did care about using the book to preach about the goddess. Just not about the details of the story.)
  • Three-Way Sex: Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, and Lancelot.
  • Twice-Told Tale: While it is not strictly necessary to be familiar with Arthurian legend to enjoy the book, it makes a lot more sense if you know the basics of the legends.
  • Villain Protagonist: Morgaine is usually the villain of Arthurian stories.
  • The Voiceless: Raven, a young seeress, has taken a vow of silence and dedicated her voice to the Goddess.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: The fact that Avalon is fading from the world/reality due to people believing in Christianity more is mentioned in the first chapter of the first section of the book. Viviane destroys and/or alienates everybody she claims to love (because she later tells the readers that she has never loved anyone) trying to save Avalon. She fails primarily because she tries extremist solutions rather than simpler and more practical ones.