Friday, October 07, 2011

[Lisa's Take] The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)

When I was 13 or so and just starting to get pretty hard-core into fantasy, I remember my mom borrowing The Mists of Avalon from the library to read. It seemed like it was always in a place of honor at the library - I was constantly noticing it and wondering about it. When my mom brought it home I grilled her with great curiosity, but received tepid feedback; something to the tune of "oh, it's not really worth the time" or "you probably wouldn't like it." Given my reverence for my mom's opinions, I shrugged and never thought twice about it.

Years later, Mists of Avalon comes onto my radar as part of NPRs top 100 fantasy and sci-fi novels. I decide that regardless of teenage experiences, it is probably pillar of fantasy I should have read - and frankly after reading Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, I'm looking for some Arthurian Legend that's a little better (I was only middlingly impressed by Crystal Cave). So I pick up Avalon, and discover that my mother is quite clever - what better way to keep a 13-year-old from getting over her head in sex and mature themes than by feigning indifference? Well played!

Anyway, I digress. Mists of Avalon is a re-telling of Arthurian legend over 70-years that are best well known - that is to say, from about the time Uther hooks up with Igraine until the end of Arthur's reign. For an added twist, the story is told entirely from the perspective of the women of the legend - primarily Morgaine (Morgana le Fay) but also Igraine, Guinevere, and others. After finishing the book I delighted in reviewing Arthurian legend (something I've never before taken much interest in) on wikipedia and comparing how Bradley interpreted the core events of the tales.

Mists of Avalon is not a page turner - it is sedate and composed; it never rushes or hurries, but likewise it never lags. It has pulses and crescendos, but never races towards one event or another. It reads very much like life, with passions and tragedies, but also with the every day. The characters are all incredibly real, an effortless mix of good and well-meaning tempered with jealousy and flaws. There aren't really any villains in the book; you can understand why each character takes the actions they do, and it's always perfectly reasonable (be it inspired by envy or misunderstanding or a hope that they are Doing the Right Thing).

I would not have appreciated this book at 13, and 15 years later I feel like I can only appreciate it in part. I think this is one I might need to revisit in 30 years when I have more life experiences under my belt. On this reading it was engaging and moving, but I can see where it would move me more when I've had more applicable experience (motherhood (or not), growing old, etc). I'm also... not entirely sure how this book would be received by a male audience. I feel like any comment I make is going to raise hackles, so maybe I'll just push it on JD and see what he thinks (though given his reaction to the delicious Victorian drama Tooth and Claw, I have some idea of how that will go).

My goodness - I had a lot to say about Avalon! I still have a lot in my head, honestly; it was a very thought-provoking read, and I have the great and overwhelming desire to go read Once and Future King now. Arthurian Legend Obsession - Go!


Hank said...

For a while during high school and college I was a bit of an Arthurian legend geek and read just about everything Arthur I could get my hands on.

The Mists of Avalon are definitely towards the top of my list (the top is currently taken by Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Trilogy).

The other reason I wanted to write is that you got me reading Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle, and I wanted to thank you for that. Although like you I am now waiting impatiently for the third book.

Elfy said...

I reread it for the 2nd time last year. It was better on the 2nd read, although her strong neo pagan stance which at times verged on preaching became rather wearisome. It's a worthy entry in the Arthurian fiction genre. Parke Godwin's Firelord is my favourite retelling of the legend.

LisaBit said...

@Hank - I picked up the first book in the Warlord Trilogy at your recommendation. When I start craving more Arthurian legend in a month or two, I will consume it with relish, I'm sure ;) Glad you enjoyed Rothfuss - he's definitely a staple of the fantasy genre

@Elfy - yeah, almost any book that preaches religion of any type grates on me a little. I can see where you're coming from, for sure.