Title: The Mists of Avalon
Author: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Date Started: June 20, 2014 Date Finished: September 6, 2014
Rating (out of 5): ★★
Every book has a story: The Mists of Avalon is one of those book that I felt obligated to read. It has gone down as a major contribution to the fantasy genre and as a strong impression made on behalf of female fantasy writers. Reading it was a study in fantasy literature… and maybe that’s why it felt a bit like homework.
But this is my truth; I who am Morgaine tell you these things, Morgaine who was in later days called Morgan le Fay.
In all the many, many, many hours I spent reading The Mists of Avalon, I mentally wrote this epic review that could nearly rival the books itself in scale and bitterness. Now that I’m done… I kind of just want to throw my two cents in and be done.
I don’t mean that to sound quite as bad as it does. (Maybe I do…) When The Mists of Avalon was on a roll, it was fantastic. It was tragic and romantic and violent and vengeful and all those things I tend to like. However, in between the fantastic bits tended to be 200 pages of Morgaine wanting Lancelet, but not being able to have him; Gwenhwyfar wanting Lancelet, but not being able to have him; Morgaine hating Gwenhwyfar for looking at Lancelet like that; and Gwenhwyfar hating Arthur for looking at Morgaine like that. These are not bad plot points or character developments. These feelings lead to some truly harmful and horrible things done between two women who could have been friends – who probably should have made the effort to be friends considering how the pressures of court life weighed on both of them. But I think if you collect all of the passages that include this kind of behaviour, which covers decades of characters’ adult lives, it comes to be over half of the 800+ page book. And that got really tiring at around page 300.
There’s a great story beneath all of that, about Morgaine and her struggle to return to the literal magic of her childhood, a struggle that leads her too far into her own pride and out of the Goddess’ hands; about Gwenhwyfar living between two men who love her and who love each other; about Viviane and Igraine and Morgause, three sisters who are the personifications of power and obedience and ambition. But that story gets diluted by jealousies and bitterness that with every mention become more and more petty and undermine the strengths of their characters.
The exercise of The Mists of Avalon is that it is the epic legend of Arthur and his Round Table, all from the perspective of female characters. The male characters make many appearances, and certainly exert a lot of force on the story. In fact, perhaps they are saved from my sour feelings by virtue of not featuring in the book as much as their female counterparts.
I lugged this big book around with me for two months. I did take a two-week break because I was going on holidays and no way was I taking The Mists of Avalon on an airplane. I happened to read the much more travel-friendly Outlander during that time in preparation for the premiere of the TV series, but that’s another story for another time. I finally finished reading The Mists of Avalon because last Saturday, I parked myself at Starbucks and did not leave until I had finished that book. Because I wanted it to be over. And that’s not how I wanted to feel about The Mists of Avalon, but there it is.
I think maybe The Mists of Avalon is crushed under its own epic scale. It goes on long enough for heroines to become empowered, sulk/hate other characters, go bad, sulk/hate other characters, decide they will never attempt anything ever again, sulk/hate other characters, try to reclaim their power, and by then I was too exhausted by their pettiness to care anymore. I welcomed the deaths and the fadings-away of the ending.
I’m glad that I read it. It’s one of those books I felt that, as a fantasy writer, I needed to read for the sake of my own education. And I’m relieved that it’s over, and I can’t say it’s something I’ll ever have the will to revisit. Despite all that, though, I think I will always keep it in mind. Point, Marion Zimmer Bradley.
I’m just going to leave this here for anyone who needs cheering up after that.