The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Well, it’s frequently cited as being one of the quintessential fantasy novels, and even more frequently cited as being one of the greatest pagan-themed fiction pieces ever written. So, I finally got around to reading it.
Before I commence the actual review of the book itself, I really have to say: I was a bit disappointed, not in the book itself, but because I now realise where so many NeoPagans get their “theology” from. From a FANTASY novel. And because it’s pseudo-historical fantasy (though pretty realistic, and interestingly done), people seem to think that the way that Bradley has portrayed the pagan theological beliefs in the novel is the way they were actually followed. Hence all this “oh, ancient paganism involved the belief that humans create the Gods, and that all Gods are really one Goddess” (i.e. soft polytheism). True, soft polytheism is also mentioned in Apuleius’ “Golden Ass”, but I know a LOT more NeoPagans who’ve read Bradley than have read Apuleius. So I’ve come to realise that so many people genuinely derive their theological beliefs from a fantasy novel – there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but the fact that people confuse this with actual ancient pagan belief is a bit irritating.
On with the actual review.
Overall, I found it a very absorbing book; there was a fantastic blend of traditional (read: medieval) Arthurian legend, reworked in a highly believable way to make it suit the period and the agenda of the author, i.e. portraying the conflict between paganism and the introduction of Christianity. The characters were well written, with the exception of Gwenyhfar, who was solely (and, I feel, rather unfairly) represented almost singularly as being a stupid, weak-willed, overly pious woman. Obviously, this was largely to create a contrast between her and the stronger, more intelligent, conniving pagan women, but still, the dichotomy was both obvious and little over the top.
Stylistically, I failed to be impressed. There were quite a few colloquialisms that just didn’t work: obviously, one hardly expects Bradley to fully capture the language of the period, that would require insane amount of research, but a more consistent style would have been better. That being said, at least it wasn’t all “thee” and “thou” in the pretentious-fantasy style. Her vocabulary is perhaps slightly lacking, and the book tries to be full of beautiful description, but fails; her narrative pacing is absolutely flawless, but occasionally she digresses into long description in the wrong places. Also, she tends to repeat herself in a manner that leaves you thinking “what the hell, I swear I have read this EXACT paragraph before!”, due to the characters having to retell their story to different people. Speaking of which, there are periods that are very, very dialogue heavy, to the point of being irritating: these primarily occur during the pseudo-theological debates between pagans and Christians, which leads me to my next point.
Wow is this a didactic novel! There’s a difference between having a subtle agenda that influences the form and direction of a work, and having a blatant agenda that must be forced down the reader’s throat at every opportunity. The conversations between Taliesin and Patrickus in particuar are almost unbearably loaded with the “OMG PAGANISM IS SUPERIORITY TO CHRISTIANITY IN EVERY WAY!!!!” argument. In fact, the majority of “discussions” between Christians and pagans in the novel are presented in the same didactic, imperious manner, obviously used as nothing more than a vehicle for the author’s thoughts, since they add little to the plot, and are so ridiculously worded that they seem highly out of character and woodenly absurd. Given that this book has apparently given so many NeoPagans their very theology, it really wouldn’t surprise me if it also functions as the origin for many of their anti-Christian arguments.
On a small tangent, I loved the brief mention of the story of Tristan and Isolde, I wish Bradley had written a version of that too. It’s one of those small nuances which, as with much of the book, will appeal more to those who have a solid understanding of the Arthurian legends, as well as 4th-6th century British history.
I forgot to mention: after reading the reviews of this book on Amazon.com, I was struck by the fact that quite a number of people were criticising it because it was “too depressing”. And, in a way, they’re right: it IS a ‘depressing’ book, in that the characters act for Machiavellian reasons, doing what they think is necessary to achieve their means. Not to mention the fact that things don’t really end happily for any of the main characters. However, I don’t think this detracts from the story; maybe I’m just a cynic, but sometimes it’s nice to read REALISTIC novels, that deal with human realities (such as the practically-perpetual theme of unrequited love). So maybe it’s not the cheeriest of reads, but that allows it to more thoroughly explore real human depth and motives.
Despite it’s flaws, I really did enjoy the novel, and I’ll probably be reading more of Bradley’s work in the future. The plot was completely engaging, and it was nice to read something that treats paganism sympathetically, even if the militantly pro-pagan agenda did get a bit old (though that may just be because I’m sick of hearing ill-thought-out, and stupid, arguments on the part of real life NeoPagans). The characters were flawed but ultimately loveable in many ways, and they were nothing if not realistic. It’s an absorbing read, and lends itself greatly to those with an imagination and penchant for historical fantasy or Arthurian legend. Altogether, I’d give it 8/10.