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Literature / The Mists of Avalon

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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.

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.


The Mists of Avalon provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Like any other variant on Arthurian legend.
  • Aerith and Bob: Running the gamut from familiar - Arthur - to medieval and acceptable - Lancelet, Morgaine - to alternate spellings - Gwenhwyfar - and then Kevin.
  • Affably Evil: Morgause usually comes off as genuinely nicer than both of her sisters and often than Morgaine or Gwen as well. Not being Holier Than Thou helps a lot.
  • Anachronism Stew: Assuming that this story happened during the first wave of the invasions of the Angles and Saxons and the time the historical Patricius (AKA St. Patrick) was alive, it would have taken place in the 5th century. However:
    • There is mention made of Moorish Spain. Muhammad (the founder of Islam) would not even be born till 597 AD. Islam was not founded till the 7th century. And Spain was not invaded by the Muslims till the 8th century!
    • There is also talk about praying to Mary with a string of beads. In other words, a rosary. Which was invented by St. Dominic in the 13th century.
    • The Catholic priests profess belief in witchcraft. Up until the 14th century, however, the Catholic Church actually taught that believing that human beings could have supernatural powers was itself heretical.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Neither Igraine, nor Vivane has much patience for Morgause. Also Morgaine sees Arthur this way, until realizing that their mother didn't abandon her for him - she abandoned them both for Uther.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: All over the place. From the Avalonion perspective normal lovemaking, as opposed to simply procreating like animals, is strange and unnatural. To the point that Morgaine grows bitter towards Lancelet for engaging in foreplay.
  • 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.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Pretty much every line out of Viviane's mouth. The entire reason for Arthur's existence.
    • Invoked by the fairy queen when trying to convince Morgaine to give up her unborn child for adoption: the young stag must kill the King Stag. The chain of the prophecy is broken in the most tragic possible way when Arthur and Mordred kill each other, leaving no one to become High King or act as the representative of the God.
  • 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.
    • Averted with the Druids and priestesses of Avalon, whose religion requires them to study medicine, astronomy, music and history, and ultimately subverted in the case of Christianity, which serves to preserve the learning, spirituality and the last vestiges of goddess-worship into the Dark Ages and beyond.
  • 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"). 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.
    • Meleager's attitude toward his "dear sister" Gwen seems disturbingly predatory. It culminates with him raping her. And we never learn whether he was her half-brother or not.
  • Chick Magnet: Lancelot. Almost any woman (including one of his aunts) who sees him, seems to lust after him.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Done both to the reader and in-universe: plenty of things which seem normal to the Dark Age-era British characters are distasteful or even taboo to modern sensibilities, while within the text, the characters’ wildly differing moral and cultural ideals cause conflict and friction.
  • 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...
  • Did They or Didn't They?: Bradley's writing style creates a lot of scenes and even entire pairings that only become apparent on the fifth reading. Like Morgaine and Raven.
  • Disease by Any Other Name: A brief passage of Gwenhwyfar reflecting on her childhood and later life indicates to the reader that she probably suffers from agoraphobia.
  • 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.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: Preparing a Love Potion for Lancelot, Morgaine wonders if it doesn't resemble rape for Elaine, despite the fact that she asked for that elixir (since Lancelot wouldn't be able to resist sex even if Elaine changed her mind). That's correct, but she doesn't sacrifice one thought to how it would resemble rape for Lancelot.
  • Doorstopper: Even the paperback would make a decent doorstop or bludgeon in a pinch.
  • Elective Mute: Early in the book Morgaine meets Raven, a young seeress, who has taken a vow of silence and dedicated her voice to the Goddess.
  • 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.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: The nature of the men's admiration for Lancelot either is implied to, or explicitly stated to be homoerotic.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Despite her back-stabbing ways, Morgause is shown to genuinely care for Igraine, Morgaine, Lot and her sons to the point where Gareth's death and Mordred's subsequent abandoning of her leaves her shocked and broken.
  • 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.
  • Female Misogynist: Gwen insists that women should Stay in the Kitchen, that is, while bending Arthur to her will. It's however implied that it's mostly her self-loathing caused by her inability of having a child, she once accuses God of hating women and shows frequently a repressed envy of Morgaine and Morgause's freedom.
  • 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.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Any queen who refuses to Stay in the Kitchen is seen in that way, and also the Ladies of the Lake. Gwen is looked upon unfavorably because of her affair with Lancelot, though it's probably the least harmful thing she's done.
  • Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?: Lancelot of all of people. Although he's attracted to women just fine, it's stated that he became a ladies man to prove to himself he wasn't gay after spending some time in the army, he had allegedly composed a poem about love between two knights, and even his great love for Gwen seems to be an outlet for his even greater love for her husband.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Gwen accuses the Christian God of being this.
  • 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. Balin and basically any priest with a speaking role as well. Viviane sometimes fulfills this role for the other side of the conflict, and Morgaine comes to be just as bad.
  • Holy Is Not Safe: It is death to touch the Holy Regalia unprepared.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: The standard even between heroic characters.
  • Informed Attribute: We never see Gorlois treating Igraine as an equal, even before things between them go to hell.
  • 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.
  • Kick the Dog: Morgaine's treatment of Uriens. Even overlooking her affair with his son - after all, Uriens was also bedding other women, and at this point of the story the incest factor was really comparatively minor - she led two of his sons to death and then tried to kill the grieving father when he (quite correctly) blamed her.
  • Kissing Cousins:
    • Morgaine's crush on Lancelot. Though they never fully seal the deal.
    • Arthur and Lancelot, who are also first cousins, apparently got interested in each other during this Three-Way Sex with Gwenhwyfar. Lancelot in particular is confused about the nature of his feelings for Arthur.
  • 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 traced through the mother.
  • 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.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Viviane has a very no-nonsense approach to fulfilling The Goddess' will, down to manipulating Morgaine and Arthur to commit incest and conceive a child out of it.
  • 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.
  • Mirroring Factions:
    • One of the main themes of the book: “All gods are one God, and all goddesses are one Goddess.” Morgaine views the tradition of Christian cloistered nuns and monks with disgust, seeing it as a perversion of the natural order and a denial of fertility and life. However, she has no such qualms when it comes to her fellow priestess Raven, who, similarly to a nun, observes a vow of silence, lives in total seclusion and has vowed to remain a perpetual virgin. The text even says that Raven does this in order to better hear the Goddess and heighten her spiritual powers, which is precisely why nuns and monks remove themselves from the world and dedicate their lives to prayer: they are seen as closer to God, and even today many Christians write to nuns to ask for prayers of intercession.
    • On a more positive note, Taliesin and Kevin are both great lords of the druids and respect the Christian God and see value in Christian traditions and rituals, even if they are not the ones they themselves know, and several characters state that it is neither wrong nor blasphemous to worship the Goddess in the form of the Virgin Mary.
    • More generally, Morgaine despises the Christian faith as being narrow-minded, violent and having unnatural ideas about sex and gender roles, while at the same time being more or less a religious extremist who refuses to accept that Britain's religious traditions are changing, causing the deaths of several people in her attempts to preserve paganism, and belonging to a culture whose ideas about "normal" sex include things that we would consider incest or rape.
    • Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar in general are actually portrayed really similarly despite Morgaine's disdain for her. As mentioned above, Morgaine denigrated Gwenhwyfar's religious extremism while ignoring her own. Both women spent most of their childhood in religious convents. Both were placed in some kind of union with Arthur for the purpose of conceiving an heir. Both were in love with Lancelet. Gwenhwyfar is barren. Morgaine is barren after her traumatic delivery with Mordred, and once estranged from him, is effectively childless (in a sense, Morgause is responsiblefor both of them being "childless"). Gwenhwyfar envies Morgaine's freedom and independence. Morgaine envies Gwenhwyfar's happy marriage and domestic life. Both women would likely have been much more content spending their lives in their respective convents, and both return to those convents at the end of their lives.
  • Mistaken for Servant: In one scene, Viviane mistakes Morgaine for a servant girl when seeing her from behind, but quickly realizes her mistake upon seeing her clothes are made of expensive materials.
  • Morality Kitchen Sink: Nobody is pure good or evil in this book. Morgaine is an Anti-Hero, Viviane is just straight-up Blue-and-Orange Morality, Gwenhwyfar is a Well-Intentioned Extremist, Arthur spends most of the book being manipulated, Patricius genuinely believes he's doing the right thing. Even Kevin, probably the least sympathetic of all the Loads and Loads of Characters, talks Morgaine out of what basically amounts to suicide; she notes that he's the only person who's never tried to manipulate her.
  • Mr. Fanservice: In the miniseries, for sure: Accolon, Arthur, Lancelot.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: King Lot of Orkney and his wife, Morgause, both sleep around, and are both fully aware of it. But they're still each other's best friend and confidante, and she is heartbroken when he dies.
  • Never My Fault: Mordred resents his biological parents because they abandoned him (despite the fact that Morgaine got him Happily Adopted, and many other characters grew up in similar environments), and later Morgause who apparently "corrupted" him (we see them during his childhood and it appears like he is a cunning little brat whom she is trying to straighten out, and all of Morgause's biological sons turned out fine), and finally it's all bad because of this damn Avalon and its Matriarchy!
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Viviane remarks that priestesses, who live secluded in communities of women and wear black robes and veils, are easily mistaken for nuns, and Morgaine sometimes doesn't bother to correct people when they think she is one.
  • Perspective Flip: Arthurian Legend from the viewpoint of the women, and particularly of the women who are more usually depicted as villains.
  • 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.
  • Related Differently in the Adaptation:
    • Morgause is often depicted in the Arthurian Legend as Arthur and Morgan's sister. Here, she's their maternal aunt, also making her Igraine's sister rather than her daughter. This results in Morgause and Morgaine (as Morgan is called here) becoming Decomposite Characters to an extent (usually Morgan and Morgause get conflated); Morgaine is still the mother of Mordred and slept with her own brother to conceive him, but she's depicted far more sympathetically (she and Arthur suffered a case of Surprise Incest) while Morgause is the scheming sorceress and wife of King Lot, who helps raise Mordred and manipulates him into hating Arthur.
    • Morgause was originally Mordred's mother while here she's his great aunt, though she takes him as her ward and is still a mother figure to him.
  • 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.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Pretty much all of the royal characters are shown either actively participating in leading their country or fighting in war
    • Though, in Morgaine's case, it's both a straight and averted case; she is active in her tasks for Avalon, but she utterly neglects her duties as Duchess of Cornwall.
  • Screw Destiny: Igraine, Viviane and Morgaine all attempt this to some degree. None of them are successful.
  • Sex as 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.
  • Silver Vixen: Morgause stays hot into her sixties, and she lives in the reality, when a 20 years old woman is "not that young" and a woman in her thirties is treated like an old lady. She appears to hit the wall at the end of the book. Though it might be that this particular guard just weren't into older women.
  • Spared By Adaptation: A few characters, such as Morgause, escape their canonical fates.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": Gwenhwyfar, Lancelet, Morgaine, Morgause, Igraine.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: Viviane, Morgaine, Lancelot and Mordred; Igraine, Morgause and Niniane; Uther and Arthur; Gwen, Elaine, Galahad and Nimue...
  • Tangled Family Tree: Avalon looks favorably at inbreeding.
  • Take Our Word for It: Invoked by Morgaine in the first-person narration between chapters; she states that she can’t tell the reader about her youth in Avalon training to be a priestess because whatever isn’t secret is obvious, and anything that isn’t obvious is secret.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Yes, Gwen, just go into the lair of your violent, power-hungry alleged half-brother barely escorted. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Gwen's constant jabbing about sin to Arthur really doesn't do anyone any good. Morgause is accused of being this to young Gwydion by the tad judgmental Viviane and Mordred himself, but there isn't any proof. Morgaine is often accused of it as well, usually in regards to Arthur.
  • The Unchosen One: While Igraine is horrified after learning that she has to marry for the second time and give birth to The Chosen One, and Morgaine is understandably even more horrified upon learning that her "destiny" was to bang her brother and produce a child, Morgause would love to pop out some destined children and even offers Igraine to marry Uther instead of her, but is shunned.
  • The Unfavorite: Morgause, to the point that Viviane kicks her out of their The Hecate Sisters assemble, counting Morgaine instead, and mentions several times, that she doesn't really trust and love her despite feeding her like her own baby. Of course, Viviane had some insight about who Morgause would become, but it's hinted it's a bit of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy - Morgaine (the only family member who liked Morgause) theorizes that her youngest aunt might have grown to become such an ambitious Attention Whore precisely because nobody paid attention to her in her youth.
  • Unholy Matrimony: Lot and Morgause get along well. Sure, they are both philandering like there is no tomorrow, but they are both cool with the other one's cheating (Lot is about the only man in the book who doesn't invoke any kind of Double Standard here) and out of bed they like one another best. And they act as the Ruling Couple in Lothien, with Lot admitting freely that his wife is as competent a ruler as he is.
  • 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.
  • Villain Protagonist: Morgaine is usually the villain of Arthurian stories. Then in this story she appears to be a misunderstood heroine... before starting to look like a villain again, in the second half of the book.
  • 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.