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Through the Mists, Part I

CINESCAPE takes you on a mythical journey through the AVALON books of Marion Zimmer Bradley

By Stephanie Crawford     July 11, 2001


THE MISTS OF AVALON by Marion Zimmer Bradley
© Del Rey
The worlds of both women's fiction and fantasy lost a great figurehead in 1999 when Marion Zimmer Bradley passed away at the age of 69. Ms. Bradley left behind many great novels, from gothic-styled works to science fiction, but she is probably best known for her books on Britannic and Arthurian legend: THE MISTS OF AVALON, THE FOREST HOUSE, THE LADY OF AVALON, and the newest installment, PRIESTESS OF AVALON, completed from extensive notes by Diana L. Paxson, Bradley's sister-in-law and writing partner. Brought once more to the forefront by the release of PRIESTESS and the airing of the TNT original miniseries based on THE MISTS OF AVALON, Bradley's novels are experiencing a resurgence of popularity. The stories of Arthur, his Round Table, and the women behind his throne are finding readers once again.

THE MISTS OF AVALON was a radical rethinking of the Arthurian mythos, presenting the familiar tales from a woman's point of view for the first time. Morgaine, until Bradley's novel known mostly as a villainess, a witch, or an enemy of the throne, comes brilliantly to life as a woman caught between worlds: the spiritual and the physical, the Christian and the Goddess-centric, even between the world of Avalon and our own. Bradley harnessed these contrasts and used them to present a rich and textured world-view of a Britannia in dramatic flux.


INTO THE MISTS
THE MISTS OF AVALON (1983) retells all of the Arthurian legends in a strikingly different tone, focusing on the struggle of the women of the Goddess versus the fanatical priests of an invading God. Bradley also plays on the names of the characters of legend, some of whose stories do not agree with their supposed personas, to explain the existence of several characters with similar names. For example, Viviane, Niniane, and Nimue are all different derivations of the same name, as are Morgaine and Morgause. The priests were the recorders of history, and the ultimate winners of the battle, so it is easy to surmise that the women of the Goddess were cast in an unfavorable light by the history as seen and recorded by the priests.

TNT's miniseries of The Mists of Avalon based on the book by Marion Zimmer Bradley.



Simply put, MISTS is a story about a kingdom driven from behind the scenes by smart and powerful women. The story centers on the female figures surrounding Arthur's throne: Igraine, his mother, a priestess of Avalon; Morgaine, his older sister, heir to the Lady of the Lake and the mother of his child; Morgause, his aunt, and wife to Lot of Lothian; Gwenhwyfar, his reluctant wife, a creature of the priests and the nunnery in which she was raised; and Viviane, the mysterious Lady of the Lake, who presented Arthur with the sacred sword Excalibur from the Holy Regalia of the Druids. These women use their various powers and influence, bringing force to bear on Arthur and turning the tide of the politics of Camelot in ways that best suit their needs.

Perhaps THE MISTS OF AVALON owes its classic status to the fact that, for the first time, Bradley brought this legend's female characters to the forefront in a poignant fashion, with all their flaws and foibles intact. Bradley's characterization is flawless, and we never once pause to doubt that Arthur's court really existed. The women of MISTS are as complex as any woman's soul, and Bradley never once takes the low road by resorting to stereotypes or static characters. Even secondary characters display change and texture, which although creating a rather ponderous tome of 800+ pages makes for riveting reading. Getting lost in MISTS is truly a pleasure.


THE FOREST BECKONS
Bradley's focus on the power of women was a thread that would continue through the rest of the AVALON books. After Camelot, the power of women in spheres other than the home took a drastic decline with the rise of Christianity, so in the first sequel, THE FOREST HOUSE (1994), Bradley extended the timeline back to further depict the times when descent was matrilineal and the Goddess was supreme. Although written as the second of the novels about the priestesses of the isle of Avalon, THE FOREST HOUSE establishes a basis for the other three novels, grounding its roots firmly into the bedrock of British history.

THE FOREST HOUSE by Marion Zimmer Bradley



Loosely based on the Bellini opera NORMA, a story of a Roman officer and a Druid priestess, THE FOREST HOUSE explains the early history of Avalon and its genesis from the Roman-destroyed remains of Vernemeton, the titular Forest House. Bradley dropped the timeline back from the seventh century to the first, depicting the Roman occupation of Britannia. In the time of THE FOREST HOUSE, the Druids still hold a great deal of power and Rome is still establishing sovereignty over their unwilling British subjects. Gaius, a young half-Roman, half-British man, comes to the family of the arch-Druid Ardanos accidentally, and is nursed back to health by the Druid's granddaughter Eilan, who falls in love with him. Forbidden to marry Gaius, Eilan enters the Vernemeton, or Forest House, a haven for Druid priestesses. In the most simplistic terms, this is a tale of two lovers torn apart by fate and their respective cultures.

Although THE FOREST HOUSE is pleasurable to read, particularly for Bradley fans, it doesn't offer the same depth of character and richly textured plot that made MISTS a classic. THE FOREST HOUSE is still vital, however, because it establishes a beginning, and the roots of THE FOREST HOUSE bring a lushness to the entire series.

The Journey Continues in Part II of "Through The Mists..."















THE MISTS OF AVALON

Grade: A

Author(s): Marion Zimmer Bradley


Publisher: Del Rey


Price: $15.95

 

















THE FOREST HOUSE

Grade: B

Author(s): Marion Zimmer Bradley


Publisher: New American Library


Price: $15.95

 

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