The legend of King Arthur and the Round Table has been told many times. Over the years, it has been rewritten as the story of an injured American trying to modernize medieval England, turned into a comedy starring shrubberies and flesh wounds, and adapted into fantastical role-playing games. This year has seen a reboot, The Kid Who Would Be King, which features a twelve-year-old schoolboy who awakens the evil sorceress Morgana Le Fay in a game of make-believe. Still, not much has been told about the women of King Arthur—the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters who watched the story unfold. In her high-school series The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley explores the famous legend from a new point of view.
Although Bradley tells the story from the perspective of several characters, The Mists of Avalon is told entirely by women. This twist gives the author freedom to address issues pertaining more exclusively to women. Among other topics, Mists of Avalon addresses pregnancy—from Morgaine’s unwanted child to the various miscarriages of Gwenhwyfar—as well as abuse, arranged marriages, gender roles, and stigma, all in a way that flows so naturally with the prose. The same goes for the women themselves: each woman is unique. Take Morgaine: in this series, she isn’t the evil sorceress Morgan Le Fay. Instead, she grows from a small, neglected child, becomes a priestess, and finally grows up to be a strong—if troubled—woman seeking to follow the will of the Goddess. Furthermore, by following each character from infancy to old age, the book allows each character’s personality to shift over time, as well as her interests, motivations, and love interests. Knowing each woman as a child, mother, sister, and aunt creates a living, breathing portrait of each character.
Mists of Avalon also presents a refreshing new perspective on religion. Through the series, the characters struggle to reconcile their different faiths—a new religion, Christianity, is gradually spreading through Britain, while the old Celtic religion of the Great Mother struggles to keep its dominance. And yet, despite their similarities, the believers cannot see past their differences. In the impassioned minds of the characters, there is no compromise. This creates a mental knot: it is easy to recognize the reckless, irrational way the characters approach religion, but it is also difficult to separate yourself from the narrator’s opinions. Unfortunately, the contradiction goes beyond the books’ pages: we still approach religion in the irrational, impassioned way the characters do. This method of dealing with different beliefs has often resulted in violence: the Crusades are one example, but take the much more recent troubles in Northern Ireland, or the church shootings in the United States. By reinterpreting the past, Bradley gives a fresh perspective to an age-old problem.
The Mists of Avalon is not an average retelling of the legend of King Arthur. In her series, Marion Zimmer Bradley goes far beyond comedic fight scenes or boys playing make-believe: by exploring a man’s story through a woman’s eyes, it reveals an unsettling tale of history and the human mind.
High school fantasy, ages 14 and up.