The Mists of Avalon is a 1983 novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley, in which she relates the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the female characters. The book follows the trajectory of Morgaine (often called Morgan le Fay in other works), a priestess fighting to save her matriarchal Celtic culture in a country where patriarchal Christianity threatens to destroy the pagan way of life. The epic is focused on the lives of Gwenhwyfar, Viviane, Morgause, Igraine and other women who are often marginalized in Arthurian retellings. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are supporting rather than main characters.
The Mists of Avalon is in stark contrast to most other retellings of the Arthurian tales, which consistently cast Morgan le Fay as a distant, one-dimensional evil sorceress, with little or no explanation given for her antagonism to the Round Table. In this case Morgaine is presented as a woman with unique gifts and responsibilities at a time of enormous political and spiritual upheaval who is called upon to defend her indigenous matriarchal heritage against impossible odds. The Mists of Avalon stands as a watershed for feminist interpretation of male-centered myth by articulating women's experiences at times of great change and shifts in gender-power. The typical battles, quests, and feuds of King Arthur's reign act as secondary elements to the women's lives.
The story is told in four large parts: Book One: Mistress of Magic, Book Two: The High Queen, Book Three: The King Stag, and Book Four: The Prisoner in the Oak. The novel was a best-seller upon its publication and remains popular to this day. Bradley and Diana L. Paxson later expanded the book into the Avalon series.
The Mists of Avalon is a generations-spanning retelling of the Arthurian legend, but bringing it back to its Brythonic Celtic roots (see Matter of Britain). Its protagonist is Morgaine, who witnesses the rise of Uther Pendragon to the throne of Camelot. As a child, she is taken to the Holy Isle of Avalon by High Priestess Viviane, her maternal aunt, to become a priestess of the Mother Goddess and witnesses the rising tension between the old Pagan and the new Christian religions. At one point, she is given in a fertility rite to a young man she will later learn is Arthur, her half-brother. Unbeknownst to Arthur, Morgaine conceives a child, Gwydion, later called Mordred, as a result of the ritual.
After Uther dies, his son Arthur claims the throne. Morgaine and Viviane give him the magic sword Excalibur, and with the combined force of Avalon and Camelot, Arthur drives away the invading Saxons. But when his wife Gwenhwyfar fails to produce a child, she is convinced that it is a punishment of God: firstly for the presence of pagan elements (a stance which Morgaine deeply resents), and secondly, for her forbidden love for Arthur's finest knight Lancelet. She increasingly becomes a religious fanatic, and relationships between Avalon and Camelot (i.e. Morgaine and herself) become hostile.
When the knights of the Round Table leave to search for the Holy Grail, Mordred seeks to usurp the throne. In a climactic battle, Arthur's and Mordred's armies square off, and in the end Avalon and Arthur are magically removed from the circles of the world. It is Morgaine alone who lives to tell the tale of Camelot.
- Morgaine — Narrator, protagonist. Her character is capable of second sight (a gift of her Goddess) and transfiguration. Portrayed as a tragic character, Morgaine is torn between her loyalty to Avalon and her unfulfilled love for Lancelet, although she has other lovers in the book, notably Arthur, Kevin, and Accolon. She often considers herself the victim of fate, having no choice in the decisions she makes in life. She is doomed to witness the demise of the old ways of Avalon, but in the end makes peace with certain aspects of Christianity, as she sees that she never fought the religion itself, but rather the narrow-minded views of some of its priests. She concludes that some memory of the ancient beliefs of Britain will live on, feeling that the Goddess she worshipped did not die with the coming of Christianity: rather, the Goddess just took another form in the image of the Virgin Mary.
- Uther Pendragon is the nephew and War Duke of the dead High King Ambrosius and an ambitious warlord who falls in love with Igraine. After being betrayed by his ally Gorlois (out of jealousy rather than for political reasons), he killed him and became the High King of Britain. He fathered King Arthur and died when Arthur was in his teens.
- Igraine is the wife in turn to Gorlois and Uther, a younger half-sister of Viviane, and the mother of Morgaine and Arthur. Originally named "Grainné, for the Goddess of the Beltane fires", Igraine was brought up in Avalon and married at the age of fifteen to Duke Gorlois of Cornwall, a mostly unhappy union for her. She is destined by Viviane and Taliesin to betray her husband, seduce Uther and produce the saviour of the Island of Britain (her son King Arthur). At first, she rebels, stating she is not a breeding mare, but ultimately falls in love with Uther and helps him defeat his enemies. However, the guilt about Gorlois torments her to the end. Igraine adores Morgaine before Uther enters, but she then ignores Morgaine when she and Uther marry and when Arthur is born.
- Gorlois is Igraine's husband and Morgaine's father. Because Igraine was so young when they married, their relationship has been strained, but Gorlois did his best to make her feel comfortable, giving her gifts and letting her keep her daughter Morgaine. Igraine does not see how he loved her until it's too late. When Gorlois suspects that Igraine has an affair with Uther, he turns on her, accuses her of being a whore and a witch, and even breaks his oath to Uther. In the end, Uther kills him for treachery.
- King Arthur is the son of Igraine and Uther and younger half-brother to Morgaine. He is portrayed as a strong king, who marries Gwenhwyfar by arranged marriage. His compassion for his suffering wife — who is tormented by her childlessness and her love for Lancelet — ultimately becomes his downfall. A twist is that he is actually aware of Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet's affair, and how unhappy both are to continually betray him, but looks the other way because he loves both his wife and his best friend too much to make them unhappy. It is suggested that, while he does love Gwenhwyfar, his deepest love is saved for Morgaine.
- Gwenhwyfar is Arthur's beautiful but unhappy wife. She is brought up by a cold, unloving father, which left her with a deep inferiority complex and intense agoraphobia. Failing to produce an heir and unable to be with the love of her life, Lancelet, she falls into a deep depression and — hoping for salvation — becomes an increasingly fanatical Christian. Gwenhwyfar and Morgaine are depicted as polar opposites.
- Lancelet is Arthur's First Knight, Viviane's son (by Ban of Benwick) and Morgaine's cousin and first love. He is an extremely gifted and handsome warrior, but has a lifelong fear of his mother. He and Gwenhwyfar are utterly infatuated, but neither has the courage (or ruthlessness) to elope. He also loves his cousin Arthur, and perhaps loves Gwenhwyfar even more because she is so close to him. He is conflicted because of his bisexuality and his infatuation with both Arthur and Gwenhwyfar.
- Mordred, a.k.a. Gwydion, is the illegitimate son of Morgaine and King Arthur. He is an unscrupulous, cunning intrigant, but in contrast to mainstream versions his motives are understandable. He sees his father Arthur as corrupt and decadent, and is convinced that he has to remove him to save Camelot. It is strongly hinted that his childhood under the cold, cunning Morgause makes him think the way he does. Mordred does share one notable trait with his mother Morgaine: he truly believes that he is a pawn of fate, with no real free will to choose his path in life. At one point, Mordred even lists his father's good qualities and admits that he admires Arthur in several ways. Nevertheless, Mordred remains committed to pulling his father down from the throne of Camelot.
- Morgause is Morgaine's aunt, the younger sister of Viviane and Igraine. "Their mother, who had been really too old for childbearing, had died giving birth to Morgause. Viviane had borne a child of her own, earlier in the year; her child had died, and Viviane had taken Morgause to nurse." She is depicted as a vain, cunning character and in contrast to her sisters, she acts purely for her own gains. She feels no regret in her regular adultery and plans to use both Morgaine and Mordred as vehicles for her power.
- Elaine is Gwenhwyfar's cousin who eventually becomes Lancelet's wife. Elaine greatly resembles her cousin Gwenhwyfar in looks (albeit not in personality), which plays into her plan to marry Lancelet under dishonest circumstances. Morgaine offers Lancelet to Elaine on the condition that she is given Elaine's first daughter to rear in Avalon. With Lancelet she has three children: Galahad, Nimue, and Gwenhwyfar (named after the queen).
- Viviane is — for the most time — the High Priestess of Avalon. She is portrayed as a strong religious and political leader; her fatal flaw is her willingness to use others in her quest to save Avalon without thinking of their emotional suffering. She is misunderstood because her family has little contact with her and that she would have to do anything to keep Camelot and Avalon and the priestess of Avalon alive in everyone's hearts. Viviane is killed by her son Balan's foster-brother, Balin.
- Taliesin (the Merlin of Britain) is the old Archdruid and harpist of Avalon. He is revered by Christian and pagan alike as a wise, kind old man. He fathered Igraine, Morgause and Niniane. His mental health continually deteriorates throughout the story. (In this retelling, "Merlin" is a title rather than a proper name.)
- Kevin (Merlin of Britain) succeeds Taliesin after his death. He is a horribly disfigured hunchback, having been burned in a fire as a child, but can sing like an angel. He becomes Morgaine's lover and later her worst enemy. Foreseeing the demise of pagan ways, he betrays Avalon. In an ultimate attempt to unite Christianity and Avalon, so Avalon will survive, he brings the Holy Grail to Camelot. To punish him for this atrocity, Morgaine sets up Nimue to seduce and then betray him, and wants to torture him to death as a traitor. But before the torture begins, Morgaine changes her mind and has him executed swiftly out of mercy, and at the same time, a bolt of lightning incinerates the Holy Oak of Avalon. Morgaine understands that Avalon is doomed.
- Raven is a priestess of Avalon who has taken a perpetual vow of silence. Another original character, she sacrifices herself to help Morgaine save the Holy Grail from Patricius.
- Accolon is a knight loyal to Avalon, the second son of Uriens, and Morgaine's lover. She wants him to kill King Arthur and so restore the power of Avalon; however, Arthur slays Accolon in direct combat, and Morgaine is disgraced when her role becomes evident.
- Avalloch is Uriens' eldest son. He intends to rule North Wales as a Christian king, though he is not such a good Christian himself; upon discovering Morgaine and Accolon's affair, he threatens to expose her if she does not sleep with him as well. Morgaine kills him to preserve her reputation and put Accolon in position to inherit the throne from Uriens.
- Uwaine is Uriens' youngest son and a knight loyal to Arthur. He regards Morgaine as his mother.
- Nimue is the beautiful daughter of Elaine and Lancelet. As Viviane's granddaughter, she is to be Lady of the Lake when Morgaine dies. She is kept in constant seclusion at Avalon, and Morgaine sees her as the ultimate weapon against Camelot. Nimue seduces Kevin in order to abduct him, but instead falls in love with him and kills herself when she betrays him.
- Niniane is Taliesin's daughter, making her Igraine and Morgause's half-sister. She is a priestess who reluctantly becomes Lady of the Lake after Viviane is slain and Morgaine declines to take her place. Niniane is not as powerful or politically astute as Morgaine or Viviane, and painfully aware of her shortcomings as Lady of the Lake. She becomes Mordred's lover, but when he announces his plans to betray Arthur, Niniane turns on him and he kills her in a fit of rage (whether this is accidental or intentional is never specified).
- Gawaine is a son of Lot and Morgause and one of Arthur's best Knights of the Round Table. He is known for being very kind, compassionate, and devoted to Arthur.
- Gareth is another son of Morgause and Knight of the Round Table. He is similar to Gawaine in both looks and personality, only more fearsome in battle. Lancelet is his childhood idol, although it is Lancelet who accidentally kills him.
- Galahad is Lancelet and Elaine's son and Arthur's heir to the throne. Mordred predicts that Galahad will not live to see his own crowning. Prediction proving true, Galahad dies on the quest for the Holy Grail.
Bradley on her book
|“||About the time I began work on the Morgan le Fay story that later became Mists, a religious search of many years culminated in my accepting ordination in one of the Gnostic Catholic churches as a priest. Since the appearance of the novel, many women have consulted me about this, feeling that the awareness of the Goddess has expanded their own religious consciousness, and ask me if it can be reconciled with Christianity. I do feel very strongly, not only that it can, but that it must... So when women today insist on speaking of Goddess rather than God, they are simply rejecting the old man with the white beard, who commanded the Hebrews to commit genocide on the Philistines and required his worshippers daily to thank God that He had not made them women... And, I suppose, a little, the purpose of the book was to express my dismay at the way in which religion lets itself become the slave of politics and the state. (Malory's problem ... that God may not be on the side of the right, but that organized religion always professes itself to be on the side of the bigger guns.) ... I think the neo-pagan movement offers a very viable alternative for people, especially for women, who have been turned off by the abuses of Judeo-Christian organized religions.||”|
The Mists of Avalon is lauded as one of the most original and emotional retellings of the familiar Arthurian legend. Bradley received much praise for her convincing portrayal of the main protagonists, respectful handling of the Pagan ways of Avalon and for telling a story in which there is neither black and white or good and evil, but several truths. Isaac Asimov called it "the best retelling of the Arthurian Saga I have ever read", and Jean Auel noted "I loved this book so much I went out and bought it for a friend, and have told many people about it." The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls the book "a convincing revision of the Arthurian cycle," and said that the victory of Christianity over the "sane but dying paganism" of Avalon "ensures eons of repression for women and the vital principles they espouse." It won the 1984 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and spent four months on the New York Times best seller list in hardcover. The trade paperback edition of Mists of Avalon has ranked among the top five trade paperbacks on the monthly Locus bestseller lists for almost four years.
TV series adaptation
The Mists of Avalon was adapted for television into a TNT miniseries in 2001, directed by Uli Edel.
Extended Avalon series
Main article: Avalon Series
Bradley, along with Diana L. Paxson, later expanded the book into a series, including The Fall of Atlantis, Ancestors of Avalon, Sword of Avalon, Ravens of Avalon, The Forest House, Lady of Avalon, and Priestess of Avalon. J.S. Morgane's The Spirituality of Avalon discusses the religious aspects of the Avalon series and gives insights into a modern Western understanding of spirituality and its construction in epic fantasy fiction.
- 1983, USA, Knopf ISBN 0-394-52406-3, Pub Date January 1983, hardcover
- 1984, USA, Del Rey Fantasy (an imprint of Ballantine Publishing Group) ISBN 0-345-31452-2, Pub Date May 1984, trade paperback