Literature: The Mists of Avalon

Holy shit, that was my brother?

Published in 1983, The Mists of Avalon is a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It is notable among the many, many variants in Arthurian legend due to its approach - the story is told not only through the eyes of a woman, but through the eyes of one of the biggest villains in the legends. The narrator is Morgaine (Morgan le Fay or Morgan of the Fairies), who tells Arthur's tale (and her own) against the backdrop of approaching war with Rome and the Saxons, as well as religious war as Christianity threatens to destroy Avalon and Goddess worship in Britain.

Bradley was critically lauded for taking the Arthurian saga and making the characters three-dimensional. Up to this point, women were the biggest evils in the many variants - Morgan le Fay was an evil enchantress, as was Nimue, and Guinevere generally shouldered most of the blame for her extramarital tryst with Lancelot. This book attempts to rescue or make the women real, and not just one-note evil characters. In fact, none of the women mentioned in this paragraph have any wish to do harm to Camelot or Arthur.

Several books came after this, all of them prequels. Near the end of her life, Bradley began collaborating on them with Diana Paxson, who took over the series after her death. The novels which they wrote together include: The Forest House, Lady of Avalon, and Priestess of Avalon.

The main characters:

  • Morgaine: Protagonist, priestess of Avalon, and half sister to Arthur. Daughter of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and Igraine.
  • Arthur: King Arthur. Caught between oaths to the Lady of Avalon and the spread of Christianity.
  • Viviane: High Priestess of Avalon and sister to Igraine and Morgause. Manipulates things behind the scenes, but does everything to try to save Avalon.
  • Morgause: Sister to Igraine and Viviane. Plots to put her husband or one of her sons on the throne.

This was made into a miniseries in 2001, starring Julianna Margulies (ER, The Good Wife) as Morgaine, Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family) as Viviane, and Joan Allen (Pleasantville) as Morgause.

This book contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Like any other variant on Arthurian legend.
  • Aerith and Bob: Running the gamut from familiar - Arthur - to medieval and acceptable - Lancelot, Morgaine - to alternate spellings - Gwenhwyfar - and then Kevin.
  • Anachronism Stew: Assuming that this story happened during the time the historical Patricius (AKA St. Patrick) was alive, it would have taken place in the 5th century AD. Yet the story talks about Moorish Spain. Muhammad (the founder of Islam) would not even be born till 597 AD. Islam was not founded till the 7th century AD. And Spain was not invaded by the Muslims till the 8th century AD!
    • Minor example- but the book also talks about praying to Mary with a string of beads. In other words, a rosary. Which was invented by St. Dominic in the 13th century AD!
  • Atlantis: Where the priests/priestesses in Britain came from.
  • Author Filibuster: Marion Zimmer Bradley is quite clear on her pro-feminist stance. She's also pretty vocal about religion.
  • Beauty, Brains and Brawn: The three sisters/maternal figures.
    • Beauty: Morgause
    • Brains: Viviane
    • Brawn: Igraine
  • Because Destiny Says So: Pretty much every line out of Viviane's mouth. The entire reason for Arthur's existence.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Various minor characters espouse Dung Ages-style Christian superstitiousness throughout the story. The trope is also a big factor in the plot-shifting decisions of Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar - at various times in the story, their fanaticism drives them to do things that slowly destroy Arthur's kingdom.
  • Big Fun: Gareth, of the muscular and height variety, once he grows up
  • Broken Pedestal: Morgaine's for Viviane when she finds out she orchestrated the anonymous sexual tryst between Morgaine and her brother.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Morgaine conceives a child by Arthur, a boy named Gwydion ("bright one"). This is subverted somewhat in that Morgaine and Arthur did not know they were having sex with each other at the time. Morgaine hadn't seen her half-brother since he was 3, both were masked, and both were playing parts in a Sacred Marriage rite.
  • The Chessmaster: Viviane
  • The Chosen One: Guess who. No, really! Guess!
  • Dawson Casting: An extreme example, where 13-year-old Morgause at the beginning was played by Joan Allen, who was 44 and looked it.
  • Deus Angst Machina: Just about everybody. Especially Morgaine, since she's the main protagonist of the story:
    • Like being sent away as a child from everything she knew and loved.
    • Or being manipulated into incest with her brother.
    • Even being tricked into marrying an old dude...the father of the man she was in love with, no less.
    • And the list goes on...
  • Distressed Damsel: Gwenhwyfar
  • Divine Parentage: While not exactly divine, the queen of the fairy folk reveals that Morgan, and assumingly all of the royal line of Avalon, are descended from the same lineage as she is.
  • Doomed by Canon: those who have read the Arthurian legends know several of the characters are in for a sad fate
  • Dress Hits Floor: (Miniseries version) Gwenhwyfar
  • Doorstopper: Even the paperback would make a decent doorstop or bludgeon in a pinch.
  • Drunk on the Dark Side: Mordred
  • The Dutiful Son: Arthur
  • Elegant Classical Musician: Morgaine considers that there are men who lust after her when she plays the harp in Caerleon. She's good with that harp.
  • Enigmatic Empowering Entity: The Lady of the Lake is a machiavellian politician who supports King Arthur because she believes that it will save her people.
  • Mr. Fanservice: In the miniseries, for sure: Accolon, Arthur, Lancelot
  • Evil Matriarch: Morgause
  • Exact Words: Gwenhwyfar tells Morgaine that there's a man of the kingdom of North Wales who's a believer in the Old religion who wishes to marry her. Morgaine believes it's Accolon, a knight she has grown affectionate for. It's actually his dad King Uriens
  • The Fair Folk: Their existence is acknowledged early in the novel, though their exact desires and influence on the story are mysterious.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Since the entire story is, of course, based on Arthurian legend, anyone who has read them through will already know how several things will happen beforehand. even though they are told in a slightly different way
  • The Hecate Sisters: Although they aren't sisters, Viviane makes explicit reference to the concept of "maiden, mother and crone."
  • Holier Than Thou: Gwenhwyfar's general attitude against anything Avalon-related.
  • Holy Is Not Safe: It is death to touch the Holy Regalia unprepared.
  • Lawful Stupid: Arthur, sometimes.
  • Iron Lady: Viviane
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Morgaine mostly gets over her crush on Lancelot and helps him to find a suitable bride
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: Many pagans in the book comment that they don't mind Christ; their problem is with the people interpreting His words.
  • King Arthur: See The Chosen One.
  • Kissing Cousins: Morgaine's crush on Lancelot. Though they never fully seal the deal.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Lancelot. Could practically be a Trope Namer.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Morgaine sleeps with Arthur once, and conceives. Gwenhwyfar does everything she can for years to conceive, down to betraying her Christianity and asking Morgaine for a magical charm, and cannot. Subverted; Gwenhwyfar's infertility is not natural. Morgause had planted goons in the castle to mix contraceptive/abortion herbs into her meals.
  • Lineage Comes from the Father: Both averted and played straight; Arthur is considered the heir to the throne by most people through his father, but those who follow Avalon count him as king through his mother's royal blood of Avalon, a lineage which is traited through the mother.
  • Living Macguffin: Gwenhwyfar.
  • The Lost Woods: Prince Bright Night's domain.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, Lancelet, Morgaine, Accolon, Elaine.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: When Arthur caves to Gwenhwyfar's begging requests to forsake Avalon and exalt Christianity. Then the shit really hits the fan.
  • MacGuffin: The Holy Grail.
  • Marital Rape License: Gorlois appears to believe in this, as hinted by Igraine when thinking of the early years of their marriage.
  • Matriarchy: Avalon is one, run by the Lady of the Lake. The Merlin is a male authority figure in Avalon, but he also answers to the Lady.
  • Merlin and Nimue: Done with unbelievable tragedy.
  • Playing Against Type: You'd think Anjelica Huston would play the evil sister and Joan Allen would play the good one, instead of vice versa!
  • Please, I Will Do Anything!: Gwenhwyfar to Morgaine when she asks her to create a fertility charm to make her conceive, despite Gwen's extreme aversion to anything Pagan or magical.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Gwenhwyfar basically pulls this on Arthur during a fight.
  • Rescue Sex: Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet, after her rescue.
  • Reincarnation Romance: Subverted. Viviane and Uther may have had one had they not been born a little too far apart and only met when they were both too old.
    • Played straight earlier when Igraine has her epiphany that she and Uther were lovers in a previous lifetime. Uther-in-previous-incarnations got around.
  • Right-Hand Hottie: Lancelot to Arthur.
  • Screw Destiny: Igraine, Viviane and Morgaine all attempt this to some degree. None of them are successful.
  • Sex as a Rite-of-Passage: The Sacred Marriage ritual, watch out your partner might be your sibling.
  • Shown Their Work: The characters discuss how goat's milk is easier to digest than bovine or equine milk. Modern research shows that goat's milk has very little lactose- and thus it is easier to digest by people with lactose intolerance than bovine milk.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": Gwenhwyfar, Lancelet, Morgaine, Morgause, Igraine.
  • Three-Way Sex: Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, and Lancelot.
  • Twice Told Tale: While it is not strictly necessary to be familiar with Arthurian legend to enjoy the book, it makes a lot more sense if you know the basics of the legends.
  • Values Dissonance: Apparently religious prostitution is oh so much more enlightened than those awful Christians.
  • Villain Protagonist: Morgaine is usually the villain of Arthurian stories.
  • The Voiceless: Early in the book Morgaine meets Raven, a young seeress, who has taken a vow of silence and dedicated her voice to the Goddess.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Arthur's rise, Camelot's fall, and Avalon's secession from the world - but Viviane pretty much destroys or alienates everybody she loves trying.

Alternative Title(s):

The Mists Of Avalon