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Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930 - )

The Mists of Avalon
Alfred A. Knopf, 1982


The block-buster novel that was largely responsible for the current popularity of Arthurian fiction, The Mists of Avalon is revered by fans of Bradley and of the Arthurian legends alike. I, however, do not share their enthusiasm for the tale. The Mists of Avalon is fantasy fiction masquerading as an historical novel, and I frequently found myself wondering why Bradley had insisted on naming her characters after figures in the Arthurian legends instead of simply setting the entire tale on a fantasy world. The story does not follow the original legends very well at all. Lancelot, in particular, suffers drastic changes in Bradley's version of the story. The preeminent knight of the Round Table, who is always described as one of the tallest, most handsome, and fairest of Arthur's knights, who always hales from the Continent, and who is usually the son of King Ban and Elaine of Benwick turns up in The Mists of Avalon as Lancelet, a member of a pre-Celtic indigenous race of Britain, dark-skinned and considerably shorter than his legendary counterpart. Bradley portrays Morgaine as a priestess of an ancient religion who is supposed to be viewed as heroic for attempting to destroy her brother, Arthur, and his attempts to build a Christian kingdom. This misses the entire point in the legends, where Morgan figures as the gadfly of the Round Table who is constantly testing and inspiring Arthur's knights to be the best Christian knights that they can be. What Celtic-origin hypothesis research Bradley perused before penning her opus was largely that favored by modern Wiccans rather than what is esteemed by the scholarly community. Some things that appear to be historical are simply the creations of Bradley's fertile imagination. The pseudo-historical setting that Bradley creates for her story is wildly inaccurate historically. The Britain she depicts is far too pseudo-Celtic and not nearly Roman enough to correspond to what we know about sub-Roman Britain. The religion she describes is a hypothetical reconstruction that certainly did not exist as a major power on Glastonbury Tor in the sixth, or even in the fifth, century. Bradley's supposedly strong portraits of women actually cater to historically misplaced stereotypes. Bradley's female characters have none of the power nor authenticity of these same figures as they were rendered by Gillian Bradshaw, Parke Godwin, Barbara Ferry Johnson and other Arthurian/historical novelists. These and other problems arise from the fact that while Marion Zimmer Bradley was a master of fantasy fiction, the historical novel was not her best medium. Still, the book is well loved by modern readers and is a staple in many courses about the Arthurian legend. - Linda A. Malcor 10/99

- Linda A. Malcor, 10/1/1999

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