The Avalon Series

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The Mists of Avalon By Marion Zimmer Bradley

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This book is truly one of epic proportions. Well over 800 pages in length, intricate and highly detailed, you probably won’t get through it in one, or even two, sessions. The premise is really very interesting. Arthurian legends are plentiful, done by everyone from Sir Thomas Malory to Walt Disney to T.H. White. However, I believe Bradley may be the first to take these stories and retell them from the viewpoints of the women who also lived them.

The main "voice" and unifying character in this novel is Morgaine, frequently known as Morgan of the Fairies or Morgan Le Fay, and half-sister to Arthur. All of the well-known characters are here — King Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Mordred, Merlin, the Lady of the Lake — although Bradley uses names and spellings which vary somewhat from the familiar ones. Here also are the fabled events — the finding of Excalibur in the stone, the search for the Holy Grail, the Knights of the Roundtable, and many others.

One of the biggest differences in this novel is that Morgaine is not portrayed as an evil character. Rather, she is a priestess of the Goddess, at a time when Christianity was just beginning to become a force in Britain. The priestesses of Avalon worship the Goddess as mother of all living things and believe that Christianity is a stifling, dead religion, against the natural order of things. Britain may be at war with the Saxons, but there is another struggle taking place as well. The old orders and rituals of Avalon and the Druids are gradually being replaced by the Christian rites. Bradley seems to imply that since Christianity eventually triumphed over the religion of the Goddess, the resulting tales and histories necessarily take a Christian slant, casting those worshipers of the Goddess as villains, witches and other evildoers. This is her attempt to tell the story from the "losing" side.

Although Morgaine has the central role, a great deal of time is given to the other women in Arthur’s life. The story begins with the plight of Ygraine, not yet Arthur’s mother, young and alone in the castle of Tintagel, before her fateful meeting with King Uther. Gwenhwyfar, Arthur’s young bride, also has a voice in this tale, as expected. However, when viewed through Morgaine’s eyes, Gwenhwyfar is hardly the romantic, idealistic figure so often portrayed throughout the legends. Overly religious and neurotic, her influence over Arthur has serious consequences, changing forever his relationship with the priestesses and people of Avalon. Bradley gives the romantic triangle of Gwenhwyfar, Arthur, and Lancelet overtones and nuances seldom considered in other versions. Mysteries and magic, both real and assumed, are present here.

Overall, I would say this was a good, thought provoking book, certainly a must-read for anyone seriously interested in Arthurian legends. My chief complaint was that I felt the book was slow moving in some sections and could probably have been shorter. To be fair, Bradley covers a lot of territory in this novel and does her best to provide a detailed, insightful accounting of events that have taken on mythic proportions. This is definitely not a novel for the fainthearted or casual reader, but if you are looking for something with depth and breadth, get ready to dive in!

Reviewed by: Diane

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The Forest House by Marion Zimmer Bradley

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Although written as the second of what would ultimately become three novels about the priestesses of Avalon, The Forest House actually sets the stage for both of the other novels, beginning as it does in the farthest reaches of British history. Bradley takes the familiar theme of star-crossed lovers and tells it in her own special style.

In the time of The Forest House the Druids still hold a great deal of power and Rome is still fighting to prove their sovereignty over their unwilling British subjects. Gaius Macellius is the son of a Roman father and a British mother. Raised as a Roman, he still retains some of the knowledge and language of his mother’s culture, and strongly resembles his mother’s people. When he is hurt and rescued by native Britons, he is mistakenly identified as a Briton himself. Before he is able to clarify the situation, he realizes he is in the hands of highly placed Druids, enemies to the Romans. One of his caretakers is a young girl, Eilan, daughter of an important Druid leader and granddaughter to the Arch Druid. Before Eilan met Gaius, she dared to hope she might become a priestess of the Goddess. But, after these two young people meet, their hopes for the future change considerably. Despite the odds, each believes they are meant to be together. And it seems perhaps they are, but not in the way they hoped.

On its simplest level, this is a story of two young people, deeply in love but tragically separated by fate and political differences. As historical fiction, Bradley describes a turbulent period in Britain’s history as the strength of the Druids declines and the Romans begin to assert their ultimate dominion over the native tribes. As with most of Bradley’s work, this novel also has a mystical level, describing the ongoing relationship of the Goddess and her people. Bradley’s characters are believable and the plot moves along at a steady pace. She shows how easily fate and circumstance can conspire to close off the alternate paths a person’s life might take until only one choice is left. I thought this book was very well done, probably the best one of the series.

Reviewed by: Diane

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Lady of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

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Lady of Avalon is a forerunner to Bradley’s biggest commercial success, The Mists of Avalon. Written after the success of Mists, Bradley returns to Avalon, but at a much earlier time in history. In all honesty, I enjoyed this novel much more than The Mists of Avalon. This time, Bradley manages to tell the stories of three different women, beginning in 96 AD and ending in 452 AD, in about half the space!

Each of these women’s stories could be a stand-alone novella. Their main connection is that they all, at some point, become the Lady of Avalon, the sisterhood’s highest and most respected position. Common themes run through each section — devotion to duty, personal sacrifices, self-doubt, to name just a few. The book begins with the tale of Caillean, the first Lady of Avalon. Fleeing the destruction of her previous community by the Romans, she arrives at Avalon with a young boy whose bright spirit will return again during the times Britain will need him most. To help ensure that Avalon will continue to be a refuge from the Romans, it is Caillean who eventually shrouds the island in the mythical mists, removing it from the mortal world.

More than seven generations later, Bradley returns to Avalon. Dierna is High Priestess in a land beset by troubles. Although Britain still pays tribute to the Romans, their protection from overseas raiders is sadly lacking. After years of seclusion within the mists, Dierna believes it is time for the Priestesses to return to the world and use their influence for the protection and preservation of Britain. The third and final portion of this tale brings the reader to the time immediately prior to the events that will occur in The Mists of Avalon. Viviane has been raised as the foster daughter of a simple farmer and his wife, until the day Taliesin comes to return her to her rightful place as heir to the Lady of Avalon. Amid personal and religious strife and political upheavals, Viviane must find her own path. This path will ultimately lead to the Holy Grail and the bestowing of a new title, the Lady of the Lake. Her actions will set the course for the mythical figures to come after her — Igraine, Arthur, Morgaine, to name just a few.

I suspect the shorter length of this book influenced my opinion, by contributing to my enjoyment of these three interrelated stories. Each era was filled with enough history to be informative and enough action to be interesting, without a lot of the extra verbiage and minutiae Bradley introduces in her earlier Avalon novel. My only complaint regards the way in which Bradley would drop one section and move on to the next. She introduces a number of interesting supporting characters, but you are never really sure what becomes of them when Bradley is through with the main character’s story. Still, this is true of real life as well, so it is probably more a matter of my curiosity rather than a flaw of Bradley’s. This book is a nice blend of historical and mystical elements and Bradley’s interpretation of the Priestesses and their role in Britain’s power struggles is quite interesting.

Reviewed by: Diane

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