Warning before we start – there’ll be mentions of real life crimes in this one, involving children.
Some explanations are in order. I know we’re all meant to be living in a Death of the Author world but some things don’t die. It’s one thing to pretend Kate Bush wasn’t a Theresa May fan, or that you didn’t see that one post describing Patrick Rothfuss’s unfortunate-looking fundraising shenanigans, and another thing to turn a blind eye to actual crimes – and not just lying about prostitutes. Marion Zimmer Bradley falls under the ‘actual crimes’ umbrella, and honestly I don’t have much time for the people I see in Facebook comments and similar yelling at anyone who mentions her crimes when her name comes up in recommendations, because “no author is perfect”. I think this is something people should be informed about before reading or purchasing Bradley’s work.
Yes, it would be lovely to read it without the knowledge at the back of your mind. Yes, it is unfair that we can no longer have the experience of a “pure” first reading. But that cat is well and truly out of the bag – Bradley herself, by her actions, has made it impossible to enjoy her work without a bad taste in your mouth.
As far as I can tell, you can’t have multiple cuts in WordPress (oh for the halcyon LiveJournal days!) so unfortunately I couldn’t separate out the bad stuff in a way that’s easily skippable.
Marion Zimmer Bradley was accused of child sexual abuse and of assisting her husband in abusing children (he was convicted, but the allegations were only made after Bradley’s death). They were considered serious enough that her publisher now donates all proceeds from selling her work to Save the Children.
I found my copy of The Mists of Avalon at a jumble sale, and I like a bit of Arthuriana and a big fat fantasy book, so I went for it. I hadn’t read any Bradley before though I recognised the name, and I did wonder if she was “the bad one”, knowing vaguely that among the old classic fantasy authors there was “a bad one”, but only looked her up once the purchase had been made.
So, in brief. Did I feel weird about reading it with a baby, given that most of my reading time lately has been while breastfeeding or during contact naps? Yep! Sometimes it felt pretty uncomfortable. Why did I read it then? I was curious. That’s pretty much it. I like Arthuriana anyway, and I was curious, not least because she was “the bad one”. That might say less than flattering things about me. That’s okay. Does it feel worse now that I actually have my own child? This is something that’s occurred to me, like I have absolutely no resilience to anything involving child suffering, fictional or non-fictional, and I don’t know why. After all, I used to be a child, which you’d think would be even more visceral? Becoming a parent has just given me an additional angle, I think. Now there’s a small person I’m responsible for, and I’m the thing standing between him and a lot of bad stuff (and of course won’t be able to stand between him and every bad thing, but let’s cross that awful bridge when we come to it; doubtless it’ll be the first time he trips and falls over, or he’ll roll out of bed or something and my heart will be shattered into a zillion pieces), and yeah, it does feel different. Imagining how something so awful could happen to my little person is different to imagining it happening to me. Not worse or better, but different.
The other big question I guess is how much do Bradley’s crimes influence her writing, or spoil it, or how much of that taint can you see through it? There are bits of The Mists of Avalon that definitely read much more uncomfortably through the lens of what she did. But it’s stuff where, if you didn’t know, it would just read like The Usual Fantasy Bullshit, if I’m honest. You know the type of thing, dodgy sex things in terms of age and/or consent, that usually gets excused by “But it’s historically accurate!” while we all ignore the magic and dragons. It feels like some of Bradley’s stuff may well have informed her portrayal of certain relationships and encounters (one event in particular stands out, a brutal and completely extraneous rape of an explicitly young girl by an explicitly old man mentioned in an almost throwaway few lines during a particular pagan rite which honestly just made it all the more gratuitous and uncomfortable, because cutting it would have lost nothing of value), though I don’t think everyone who writes such dodgy stuff in their “””historically accurate””” fantasy is a criminal in real life.
I think that’s mostly all I have to say about that?
So on to the rest of it.
The Mists of Avalon is the story of King Arthur, reaching before and reaching a little after, pulling together multiple of the legends into one epic narrative. It’s told from a few different perspectives, centring that of Morgaine (or Morgan Le Fay, or Morgana, or Morganna, or Morgaina, etc.), and actually all of the perspectives we get are female. We’re watching the rise and fall of Arthur through the eyes of his sister and lover (yeah, more on that later) Morgaine, his mother Igraine, his wife Gwenhwyfar (of course she uses the fancy old spelling! I can only imagine how obsessed I would have been with this book if I’d read it as a teen), and his aunt Viviane.
is one of those quintessential early 80s fantasies with an air of the sort of gothic that lends itself to crystals and neo-paganism and a certain kind of mystical feminism, and honestly, if I’d read it as a teen I can imagine it being extremely formative to me. As it was, with some of the shine taken off, and being a bit older, it was still very good, but some of the wise and noble pagan stuff came across as almost having a fandom bent, like Bradley was really into old English paganism, and I felt the way I imagine other people feel when their culture is exoticised. I don’t think England often gets exoticised in this way, at least not as far as I’ve seen. The fact that a lot of this exoticisation is almost certainly based on not very much evidence (according to her introduction, Bradley seems to have done a lot of reading, but I don’t know what the state of the research on Celtic culture in the British isles was in the 80s (or whenever she was doing her reading – maybe even the late 70s and how much of it was based on anything other than guesses and vibes) makes it a bit more uncomfortable. Especially when it takes the form of “incest is actually fine and good and it’s just the Christians who have a stick up their arses about it”. I don’t know, it was kind of interesting and perturbing in equal measure to realise that’s what someone thinks of us.
Bradley does a really good job at the passage of time and the evolution of the characters’ worldviews and mindsets with it, which is a skill a lot of authors don’t have. She really builds up a Golden Age, and then lets it recede into the past. It’s very well done.
Morgaine, who grows up very pagan and is feared and despised by the Christians, goes through phases of hostility, isolationism, reluctant alliance, and resignation towards them, and it feels like a natural progression as the times change and as Morgaine herself grows older. Gwenhwyfar undergoes a very dramatic character arc as well, from a shy, pious girl to an unhappy, childless wife. Her religion continues to inform her life very deeply, and though there is absolutely a degree of authorial favouritism there (despite the delicate truce of the ending, the vast majority of the story is quite happily “Christianity Bad”) it also feels quite compassionate towards Gwenhwyfar at times. Rather than her being evil, it’s kind of sad that she’s been stunted by her religion so that she feels education is not for her, and that she makes all of these destructive (even self-destructive) choices.
It does kind of skirt the line of King Arthur being simply too pure for this world and brought low by an evil woman, but King Arthur isn’t too pure for this world; he makes foolish choices, he reneges on promises, he can never quite measure up to his own legend. The love triangle (if you can call it that) between him, Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet (Lancelot) is done in quite an interesting way – Arthur is heavily implied to be unable to produce a child, or Gwenhwyfar unable to carry a child to term, and there’s Gwenhwyfar, besotted with Lancelet, and Arthur, who knows it, and Lancelet who loves them both. Lancelet struggles with his bisexuality (never explicitly named) and his Christianity (having turned away from his mother Viviane’s religion). At one point Arthur suggests to Gwenhwyfar that she should sleep with Lancelet and conceive a child that way – as Lancelet has sired children of his own already, they know it would be possible – and it just makes things worse between them; pious Gwenhwyfar is horrified. The LGBT elements (or B at least, I suppose, which is not the way these things usually go) are explored quite… delicately? subtly? tamely by today’s standards, certainly, and without any of the language available to us both in the modern world and in the 2020s. But coy or not, the struggles feel raw and personal, even though we don’t get to see into Lancelet’s head (Morgaine has a lesbian experience with another acolyte on the isle of Avalon, Raven, and is quite ambivalent about the whole thing, though she doesn’t regret it, and Arthur, Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet have A Thing once that they never speak of again, but it is mostly Lancelet).
So, that was The Mists of Avalon. I enjoyed it for what it was, on the whole. But I don’t think I can recommend it in good faith.