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The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley

MistsOfAvalonCoverMarion Zimmer Bradley is a somewhat interesting figure, in my opinion. She boasts an enormous catalogue of published works, The Mists of Avalon being her best-known work. What I find particularly interesting is that it is called a “feminist” work, but I think that label is inappropriately applied. I’m not certain this book is all that empowering. It’s a tough subject for me to write about, as I have just about no right to comment on it, but I can at least attempt to justify my reasons for thinking the label of “feminist fiction” has been misapplied here.

In essence, I think that Feminist literature would be work that portrays powerful female characters who are empowered not by their nature as women, but by the strength of their characters. For example, The Mists of Avalon follows the tales of Arthur from the perspectives of the women associated with him, but it paints them with a very unflattering brush. They are petty, weak, conniving, and oftentimes foolish, frequently blaming their ineptitude on the “folly of women”. That, to me, doesn’t seem very Feminist. I think you can see where I’m coming from here.

This has been a very interesting experience for me as I learn to create believable characters in my own work. I recently realized, to my horror and shame, that my novel had two female characters planned for it, and knew I needed to rectify that error, if only to give my story more depth. I thought that, by reading The Mists of Avalon, I’d learn how to portray female characters in a way that was not derogatory but still believable. I was very, very worried that I’d fall into the trap that so much of Fantasy Literature falls into in the portrayal of its female characters: that of the belittled women of the middle-ages. (It’s important to note that many works of fiction that emulate this era also emulate the terrible conditions of the lives of women at the time, and it might not necessarily be fair to fault the authors for painting a somewhat unflattering picture of a somewhat unflattering time.)

I’ve read books that have fantastic, strong female leads (Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series is chief among these,) and I thought that I had to mimic his particular style of character building in order to safely ride the fine line of believable characters and the risk of offending a reader, but reading The Mists of Avalon has illuminated a (somewhat obvious) factor that I simply forgot to consider as most important when creating characters. Brace yourselves.

Women are people. As such, they can run the full gamut of personality types. Some people are awful. Women are people. Many people in fiction are awful (to create necessary conflict upon which to base a story.) Ergo, some women can appear in fiction and be deeply flawed, or evil, or good, or smelly, or scary, or beautiful, or anything.

This is common sense, but it was an honest fear of mine. I simply had no idea how to begin approaching writing female characters. What I needed to learn was that I should focus on writing a character who is strong and a womannot strong despite or because of her womanhood. A character certainly can be strong because of their gender, in some respects, but that’s not the kind of subject matter I want to tackle in my fantasy novel, nor is it a subject I feel I have a right to tackle.

This is a difficult subject to write about in general since, though we live in a good time, inequality is still rampant and tensions often run very high. I’ll leave this subject behind to talk about the actual content of the book now, but I feel these are important thoughts to share. Thanks for reading the warbly bits of the post.

Anyway, I wasn’t crazy about The Mists of Avalon. It’s important to familiarize oneself with Arthurian legend (and I intend to immerse myself into more of it sooner than later), but man these people are frustrating. It also was, by and large, an 800 page argument between Pagans and Christians. The same conclusion was reached time and again, yet the bumbling dolts had to continue arguing about it ad infinitum, bringing no new material evidence to the table as to why their faith was more important or real. I grew vastly more frustrated with the argument of the Medieval Christian perspective, because it was significantly more restrictive and the believers had to make countless concessions to logical fallacy pointed out by the almost childish Pagans, who delighted in semantic arguments, rather than presenting anything substantive as to why there was any benefit to loving the Goddess.

The book was almost entirely political and religious argument, unrequited lust, foolish mistakes, and misty vistas. For 800 pages. It got a little trying at times. Lancelot is handsome. I get it. Gwenhwyfar is overly pious to the point of insanity. Great. Morgiane is essentially as bad as Guinevere but on the Pagan side of the argument. Fabulous. Morgause is pretty much a hussy (the books words, not mine). Mmhmm. It was interesting and held my attention for a while, but eventually the shenanigans grew tired and I found the reading to be something of a chore. There are more characters and they’re all fairly one-dimensional, and the better characters died off early in the story. Tragically, the characters I liked best were the Druids, because they were the most reasonable of the bunch. They were big proponents of the following ideology: “What does it matter, what we call our gods? We all worship the same thing with a different name.” This argument frustrated the Clergymen and Priestesses alike.

I kid you not, I often found myself growling in frustration at these characters. Sometimes, that can be a good thing, but I assure you that in this case it wasn’t.

The writing itself has some really strong points, but it was very heavily weighed down by frequently repeated imagery, to the point where it lost its magic. I’m going to read The Once and Future King, as well as some other Arthurian tales soon. It might be that I’m frustrated not with The Mists of Avalon, but with the genre as a whole. That remains to be seen. Like I said, this seemed like an important read to me, but outside of “research” purposes, I wouldn’t recommend it too highly.


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