The Shameful Book Club: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

This was my fantasy pick for 2017.

Right off the top I want to acknowledge that Marion Zimmer Bradley and her husband have been accused of some really awful child sexual abuse. I did not know that when I bought this book, but I probably won’t be buying anymore of her work. If I feel the need to read further in the series (which I don’t), I will borrow the books.

This audio book is fifty hours long. FIFTY HOURS. LONG. Y’ALL. So understandably it took some time to get through.  I’ve been riding a serious witch high lately, learning about moon religions and pagan practices. The world has been very scary, and I haven’t felt very powerful as a human and especially not as a woman, but learning about these practices and the honoring of female strength has really been uplifting for me. That’s why I selected this one for my April fantasy read in 2017. Mists of Avalon seemed like just what I needed at this point in time. I was not 100% correct, however.

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A print of Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallot hung in my childhood home and had a profound effect on me. I always loved the Aurthurian legends, but this painting made me think, “What about the women?”

So as many know, Mists is a retelling of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table told from the perspective of the powerful women involved in putting Arthur in power and working toward saving their country and identities. It’s pretty much a badass version of the saying, “Behind every great man is an even greater woman.” I don’t know where that saying came from, and I generally hate it, but in this context it’s pretty interesting. Another incredibly interesting (or depressing) thing about this book (and series) is how it examines the demise of the old religions, the pagan traditions, and the matriarchal attitudes that were more common before Christianity became the law of the land.

This was a great turning point for Britain. The Romans had taken off, pulling all their resources and protection. The Saxons were attacking like crazy, and the fractured clans scattered throughout the country did not get along. They needed to be unified, and Arthur is said to have done that. Religion had a huge role to play, according to Bradley’s telling. Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, saw an opportunity to unite not only Britain, but also the competing religions that fought for power over the people of the land. She embarks on a massive and impressive game of (3D) chess to make sure the right people take power in order to ensure a peaceful transition to the next era.

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LOVE THIS MINISERIES <333

Side note: we all know that Arthur and his knights are just an allegory for Jesus and his disciples, right? And the Arthurian Legends probably came about as a way to help the Britains be ok with their changing situation and embrace of Christianity?

Ok, so because this book was so long and it took me legit nine months to listen to it, I have forgotten a lot of the specific details I wanted to discuss. I will try to talk about them as best I can, but overall I was a bit frustrated with this book. As I said earlier, I’ve been on the hunt for some female empowerment, and not just that, some literal female power. I wanted to read a book about priestesses of Avalon kicking ass and taking names! Now, I’m no fool. I have seen the miniseries and I know that this story does not really go well for the practitioners of the pagan traditions. The old ways are eradicated and what is left is absorbed into Christianity. This is exactly what happened in real life. Anyone who tries to tell you differently is an idiot, don’t be friends with them.

Getting to my point, however, this book was a lot of fail for women. The women of Avalon, who once had so much power and respect, are beaten down relentlessly over the course of those 50 hours by mostly men, but women too. Gwenhwyfar is very familiar to me right now. She’s the white feminist. She’s the white woman who voted for 45. She’s the evangelical woman who actively works against her sisters’ healthcare and reproductive rights. She’s the woman who cried wolf in order to get black men locked up. She’s so fucking dangerous.

But Morgaine and the other women descended from Avalon are not above reproach, far from it. Morgause, Morgaine’s aunt, is very manipulative and cunning. She works the patriarchal system to her advantage, and if that means throwing a fellow lady under the bus then she is more than happy to do it.

The men in this book turn from allies to #NotAllMen to Richard Spencer. At first everyone is cool with the Goddess. Men revere Her and find strength in Her. They fully participate in the rites and give enormous respect to the Lady of the Lake. But as Arthur’s reign continues and Christianity is pushed more and more by people like Gwenhwyfar, the more that respect declines. As the old faith disappears, so do the values of that faith.

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The ethereal Anjelica Huston is so perfect as Viviane

There is a moment where Viviane goes to King Arthur’s court to advocate for the old ways, for Avalon, and to remind Arthur of the means with which he rose to power in the first place. Christianity and men (seeing a way to claim even more power) had been slowly wiping out the old practices, and it was becoming more and more hostile for those who still followed them. Now, forgive me if I’m misremembering. I usually mark my books and take notes to remind myself of my thoughts, but that’s harder to do with an audiobook.

As I remember it, the old Merlin had died, and in his place was Kevin (seriously, his name is Kevin), a bard-turned-holy man. Kevin was, up to this point, one of the few men left who truly believed and defended the old faith. As Viviane stood before the court, delivering this very impassioned speech, Kevin just straight up turns his back on her and Avalon and pulls a ‘Welllllll Christianity isn’t all that bad and this is the way society is headed so we might as well roll with it’ stunt. This is coming from legit the High Priest of Avalon! His role should be to defend the old ways with his life, but power corrupts.

915ZqRQRwVLIt is also in that scene where Viviane, the most powerful presence in the realm who was responsible for the rise of many of these men, is murdered. It was a very powerful scene for me and felt rather symbolic. When did men stop trusting women? When was it that women lost our power and society started to revolve around men? Listening to her get up there and be her all-powerful self only to be completely destroyed was a bit too close to home. It made me think of all the times I would speak up during a meeting to say something totally practical and important to the conversation, only to be ignored in the moment but have my ideas taken and used by the men in attendance (without credit). Or all the times I told men that yes, I have this skill, yes, I can drywall this bathroom, yes, I can write, yes, my work is worth respect, yes, I am worth respect…and just be ignored or not trusted. This scene also made me think of many huge moments in women’s history, include the 2016 election. Not uplifting.

There is a lot in the Mists of Avalon to unpack, and maybe I’ll reread it one day and dig deeper into those things. I know that this transition was necessary, that the ebb and flow of society helps to keep society functioning. When all was said and done, the British people became united and self-sufficient. Christianity had a huge role in that, so it was the right tool for this particular job. And while Morgaine does get some justice and ends up inadvertently furthering the love and respect for Mary (the Goddess stand-in within Christianity), it was frustrating to listen to the ultimate shift of respect in society. Women, nature, gentleness, love…it all was replaced by men, untouchable power, aggression, and war.

Have you read Mists of Avalon? What did you think? Did you keep going with the series?

 

 

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