My last read is The mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Let me start off by saying that the book is brilliant. It brings up so many themes, and so many characters, situations, and life as a whole, such that at some points it’s overwhelming.
The mists of Avalon is a retell of the Arthurian Legend, seen through the eyes of the women in that time, more or less legendary. Unlike other Arthurian stories, it does not involve battles and heroism almost at all. It focuses on feelings, religion, politics, and life.
The story starts very early, with Arthur’s mother, in her youth, while she is married with the Duke of Cornwall, Gorlois. We see her, Igraine, and her connections with the Lady of the Lake. We are slowly introduced to the fantasy world that the author created: Avalon, a mystical island, available only to the Priestesses of the Goddess, a very old druidic religion, that has discovered also the use of supernatural: the second sight, a possibility to see the future, not exactly in a very clear way, but in a glimpse of what will probably happen. Igraine is the sister of the current Lady of the Lake, Viviane, who is much older and wise, and has been taught as a priestess of the Goddess ever since her childhood. Their father is Taliesin, a very old man, currently standing in the office of Britain’s Merlin.
We are also introduced with a very young Morgan le Fay, named in this story Morgaine, the daughter of Igraine, who is initially just three years old.
The main story of the book develops initially by the visit from Viviane and Merlin to Igraine, asking her to bear the future great king of Britain. However, they impose her that the father of this child must be Uther Pendragon, currently one of the small kings of Britain, under the rule of Ambrosius, the current high king, old and crumbled, without a current heir.
We can understand that the Avalon, represented mostly by the Lady of the Lake, has a very strong will, that can sacrifice anything to achieve it’s goals. Viviane is very much into politics, and wishes to reunite the country under one single banner that will protect it’s citizens both from Saxon invasion, barbaric invasion, but also protect the followers of the Goddess from the invading Christian belief, brought by the Romans. Avalon understands that this religion cannot be stopped, and wishes to live in harmony, to find a king that will protect all the people, regardless of their religion.
The story unfolds with Igraine going to Londinium, to the council of the high king, where she witnesses his death, and the fight for the throne. She meets Uther Pendragon, who she initially finds despicable, but she soon understands that Uther is the man she was actually ment to be. She was married to an old man at a very young age of 15, and could not find anything pleasant in her marriage, except her child Morgaine. She understands with her small use of second sight, that she and Uther were meant to be, and that they were together in many previous lives, only to reunite again and again, now and in the future.
Uther is named high king, but Gorlois notices the fact that his young wife has eyes for him, and betrayes the king, thing that only brought his doom, as Uther will kill him, and claim Igraine as the high queen for his new throne. From this relationship, Igraine gives birth to young Arthur, a child that will become the future high king, even if it was rumored that Igraine become pregnant with Arthur before her marriage with Uther actually happened.
The first volume of the book ends with Arthur escaping a few murder attempts, probably by his aunt Morgause, sister of Igraine and Viviane, who becomes queen of Orkney and having four sons, who are next in line for the throne. Viviane intervenes, and takes Arthur to be raised far away with foster parents, for his education and protection. She also takes Morgaine to be raised as a priestess of Avalon, leaving Igraine without her both childs, unable to bear another, with her husband Uther, the king, who has a reign full of wars with Saxons, unable to really unite the whole country under his banner.
From this moment on, Morgaine becomes the main character of the book, who, even if in most legends is an evil witch or enchantress, it is revealed to us as an innocent young lady.
We see in this chapter a lot of pain, for the women who are married against their will, their try for disobedience, but only in the end being forced to follow their path, bear children, and follow a higher purpose, even if this means sacrificing themselves.
Years passed, as Arthur and Morgaine grown, Morgaine being now a young lady. She learns to be a priestess, staying only in Avalon, learning how to use the second sight and using herbs and learning to read and write, read the stars, and some kind of old spells that can affect people in different ways.
She meets her cousin, Lancelot, who is son of Viviane, her new foster mother. Lancelot is of an extreme handsomeness, which makes young Morgaine fall in love with him, a feeling that followed her for the rest of her life. Morgaine is ugly, small, brunette, thing that made everyone mock her in her childhood, calling her Morgaine of the little people. She always had an inferiority complex, that made her resent herself. She spends one day with Lancelot, in Avalon, being together and seeing a handsome young man, opening up new desires in her heart, and Lancelot already was already Lovelace, enjoying ladies’ company. Even if her virginity was promised to the Goddess, as arranged by her foster mother, she almost subsides to her desire for Lancelot, but Lancelot manages to hold himself, and does not take advantage of her, leaving her untouched for the desire of the Goddess, in who’s hands is the faith of Morgaine. They get lost in the mists, and find a young Guinevere, who also falls in love with Lancelot at first sight, and he is also charmed by her. Morgaine feels completely empty, dumped, ugly, and starts to hate them both.
The time comes when the festivities of Beltane, the fires of Beltane and the fertility rites take place, according to the old religion of Britain, the old druidic ways. In this time, both women and men drink, get crazy, and spend the night randomly in different beds, only to offer themselves and their body and mind to the Goddess. This ritual has taken place since ancient times, in order to please the Goddess, to bring fertility to both the grain fields, and to women’s wombs.
The time comes when Viviane asks Morgaine to be part of the ritual. She prepares herself, for what she has known that was going to happen ever since her training started. She was to be the Goddess herself, take her body, for the King Stag, a man who would pass this ritual such that it will be raised and his powers increased for his challenges ahead. Basically all this ritual was like a coronation for the King Stag, who actually becomes the king of the old people, the coronation in the old druidic ways. After their night together passes, with passion, being freed through sexual intercounter, they find out the harsh reality, that the King Stag must be the high king of Britain, Arthur himself, who has not met his sister since he was 5 years old, now was the first man in his sister’s life, and the same for her, being the first woman he was ever with, his own sister. Even if we are initially outraged by the incest, and the same happens for Morgaine, we are explained that the ritual is between the Goddess and King Stag, who takes up their both bodies, and offers the fertility to both of them. They both feel ashamed of what happened, especially when they did it again in the morning, before they knew who they were, without the protection of the ritual.
Arthur is given Excalibur, a meteorite sword, together with a magical sheath done by Morgaine, and oaths to protect Britain under the Pendragon banner, to be a rightful king for both Christians and Avalon followers.
Morgaine is outraged, and starts to hate Viviane, realising she is merely a pawn in her purpose, a sacrifice that Viviane will make about all her family, to serve her purpose.
Morgaine goes to Arthur’s coronation, when her aunt Morgause feels something is wrong with her, and realises that Morgaine is pregnant. Even Morgaine wants to deny it, but she understands this is true, that she bears her brother’s child. She wants to find the proper herbs to make an abortion, but on the way she has a vision telling her not to do it. She runs from Avalon, being upset on Viviane, for what she did to her, and the only place she finds is her aunt’s castle, in Orkney, at Morgause, to have her pregnancy and birth.
Arthur was raised as a Christian child, and considers himself Christian, even if he respects the old ways. He raises the Pendragon flag and starts to build an army, with the help of Lancelot, his cavalry captain, and his cousins, Gawaine, the son of Morgause, and his foster brother, Cai, who grew together with him.
Meanwhile, Morgaine gives birth to Gwydion, the incestuous son, with great labor pain, almost bringing her to death, being told by the midwives that she will never bear child again. Morgause convinces her that her son is best to be raised by someone else, and Morgaine leaves him, without seeing him again for many years to come. Morgaine suffers, but knows this is best for Gwydion, to not be found out by anyone at Arthur’s court.
She is back at the king’s court, to witness Arthur’s wedding, with young Guinevere, which he took for wife as the only way to get her father’s horses, the army which he always desired, to be able to beat the Saxons.
Years pass, and we see how slowly Guinevere starts to impose things to Arthur, she controls him, and makes him more and more Christian, as she herself becomes more fanatic, and she starts to hate the Pendragon and Avalon. We can see how the little education , as Guinevere cannot read nor write, turns her into a fanatic. Arthur is too soft , and Guinevere, as she cannot bear a child, losing several pregnancies, blames the witchcraft of Avalon for this, she convinces Arthur to drop the Pendragon banner and fight under the cross only.
Arthur ultimately defeats the Saxons and long reign of peace starts, under the Christian banner, and the old ways begin to be slowly forgotten. Viviane is getting older, losing her second sight, Merlin as well, and Morgaine gets lost in the fairy world for several years.
Morgaine returns and wastes her time at the court, for long time. Gwydion starts growing, and is taken to Avalon by Viviane to be raised as a druid.
Guinevere is torn between her duty to Arthur and her faith to the Christian god, and her love to Lancelot. Arthur loves them both, and stars wondering if he is to blame for her miscarriages. He encourages her to even go to bed with Lancelot, try to to have an heir.
Morgaine takes Kevin , the bard, the next Merlin, as a lover. Kevin is handicapped, mutilated, but is a great singer, and has a strange intelligence.
Viviane comes to Arthur’s court, to ask that Arthur returns Excalibur, as he has broken his oath to protect all the people of Britain, only to be murdered in front of him, by a foster son who accuses her of witchcraft. The fall of Viviane leaves deep marks in Morgaine, and this is the beginning of the end for Avalon, as nobody is left there to become the next Lady of the Lake. Morgaine is too frightened to return to Avalon, which is left behind the mists. Morgaine and Arthur argue after Arthur gives Viviane a Christian burial, unsuited for the Lady of the lake. She also fights with Kevin, who agrees with Arthur. Taliesin also passes away soon enough.
Morgaine makes a court plot to get Lancelot married, with Elaine, Guienevere’s cousin, and manages to do so, thing that only brought hate from both Lancelot and Guinevere. Morgaine cannot forget what happened in their youth, and before Guinevere’s wedding, when Lancelot refused her when she offered herself to him. She does it with the promise of having Elaine’s first daughter as a priestess of Avalon.
Morgaine falls for Accolon, a young son of a king Uriens, an old man. Guinevere has revenge, by asking Arthur to give Morgaine in marriage to Uries. Morgaine is fooled, thinking it’s Accolon, but gets to be married with an old man and taken away.
She starts to live another period of her life without meaning, until she is reunited with Accolon, who was raised as a priest in Avalon, and knows the old ways. From this moment on, Morgaine turns into a darker side. Until now, we were compelled to feel sorry for her. But Morgaine performs rituals with Accolon, fertility and King Stag rites, compelling him to become the next king, until her son Gwydion could be old enough to claim his throne. She even uses her Goddess powers to kill Uriens’ older son who finds out about her.
She tricks Arthur travelling to Cornwall, manages to take Excalibur from him, and gives it to Accolon. Her plans are destroyed, and Arthur kills Accolon and gets back Excalibur, once again winning and keeping his throne.
Morgaine loses a pregnancy, even if she thought she could never have another child, and becomes ill and solitary for long time, her plans being in ruins. She is convinced by Kevin to return Avalon, to find Niniane, another of Taliesin’s daughters as Lady of the Lake. She finally meets her son, Gwydion, an arrogant and smart young man, who fought with the Saxons, nicknamed by them Mordred. Niniane does not want to be the lady of the lake, is not suited for this, and takes Gwydion as lover. Gwydion has a secret plan to approach Arthur and taking his throne..
One of the most painful and most disturbing chapters of the novel is about Nimue, Elaine and Lancelot’s daughter, raised as a priestess in Avalon. Kevin, the Merlin, steals the holy Grail of Avalon, to be used in Christian rituals at Arthur’s court. Morgaine is so blinded by his betrayal that wants him dead, and sacrifices everything. She goes with Raven to the court, Raven being the oldest priestess and one who raised her, which brings Raven’s death, and orders Nimue to go to the court, seduce Kevin, the old mutilated man, bring him to her bed, and then to Avalon to be tortured.
Nimue starts to perform the seduction, to make Kevin fall in love with the beautiful young girl she is, but the spell has double effect, she also has to feel the love for him. She offers herself to him, and takes him to his death, and has no choice but to betray someone, either Morgaine and Avalon, or Kevin. She does her duty, Kevin is killed, and Nimue downs herself in the lake. It’s the most dramatic moment of the novel, when the last Merlin is killed, and the last hope of Avalon suicides.
Morgaine realises she accomplished nothiing, that the old ways will die, together with her, and finds herself an old woman, isolated, with nobody in Avalon, witnesses Lancelot’s crazyness and death, Guinevere’s retirement to monastery, and the death of both Gwydion and Arthur, in their last fight for the throne.
The mists of Avalon is amazing, brings a whole new perspective on the Arthurian legends, and is a clear finger pointed towards Christianity, towards the new ways, and how the death of a religion, of a whole world, brings despair and the feeling of being completely unable to stop the inevitable fall.
We feel sorry, we feel proud, we feel sad, many feelings twisted in this book, which brings the world to a change, and the set of a new era.