Rameau Reviews: The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley

I’ve been actively reading and reviewing books for a year and a half now. In that time, my criteria for rating a book on the one to five stars scale has changed a couple of times. A few things still hold true. The book has to be exceptional and leave an indelible impression to get a five star rating from me. Three stars remains my meh-rating. It’s a book that I can objectively call a good one, something I might have even enjoyed reading, but it’s also something I can easily forget and move on.
My one star rating however, that’s changed the most. At first it was anything and everything I simply didn’t like. If the offences added up to a certain point I’d give it a one star rating no matter what redeemable qualities I’d find in it. But as I read more and actually started thinking about it, I realised there are books that aren’t even worthy of that single star, books that are, to me, beneath contempt. To compensate, I adjusted my personal rating scale and now one star is reserved to books that induce burning white rage in me.
I’ve given good ratings to books with characters I’ve hated when I enjoyed the story, and I’ve given good ratings to books with stories I’ve hated even when I loved a character or two. For me, the style matters little, but dammit, it matters.
And I’m not talking about the clunky language that in a way fits the subject and the legend, but takes a while to get used to.
Ms. Bradley set out to write a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the female perspective, and in that she succeeded. She managed to put together a logical and a somewhat coherent version of the events that put King Arthur on his throne in Camelot and brought him down from it, and she managed to tell it with female voices. Igraine, Viviane, Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar, Morgause, all these women claw their way from the footnotes of myth and become three dimensional people—not just characters, but people—with worries and joys of their own.
Admittedly those joys were short-lived, but that’s partly why I loved the story. It’s why I love the legend as I do all things heart-rending.
However, as wonderfully flawed all these people were with their virtues and their unbridled ambitions, none of them really had a choice in the matter. Ms. Bradley didn’t write people, women or men, who made the best of their unfortunate circumstances. She wrote people thrown about by the fates and whims of their deities. Morgaine’s last defence is that she never had a choice and that she was merely the Goddess’ instrument.
And that’s why I hate this book.
All the characters, as Ms. Bradley paints them, are passive. None are active. None make choices and then take responsibility for their actions. They’re all thrown into untenable situations where something must break and either give them that what they most wish or take it all away from them.
Igraine marries because she doesn’t have a choice. She goes to convent, because she can’t bear to face the sister who forced her hand.
Gwenhwyfar also marries, because she doesn’t have a choice. She first surrenders to her lover because she doesn’t have a choice. The only stupid choice she makes is so that the author has an excuse to make the pious lady into an adulteress without making her choose it.
Morgaine, the worst offender, chooses nothing. The closest she comes to making up her own mind is when she flees Avalon, but after that she promptly becomes the meekest of them all. She, who should be the fearsome Lady of the Lake and High Priestess of the Goddess, how can she be a vehicle of her Goddess’ will when she does nothing but allows others act around her?
Catalyst, you say? This isn’t a chemical reaction where one substance remains unchanged. People change, people make choices that change them and others around them. Unless, of course, you’re a character in The Mists of Avalon.
But times were different then and women nothing but chattel, you say? There’s difference in being victimised and being a victim. All Morgaine and the others had to do to win me over, was not to see themselves as victims. All they had to do was to endure what was thrown at them and choose to make the best of it. All they had to do was to choose.
Only Morgause and Viviane come close to choosing anything, and how are their choices rewarded? Why of course, they are the great villainesses whose actions lead to a family tragedy after a family tragedy. Their actions bring an end to all those things they love and they don’t live to see the aftermath or acknowledge their responsibility.
Telling a story from the female perspective doesn’t make it feminist; writing capable women doing things, being active, and making choices does. This book is something worse; it’s a pretender.
There are many things I appreciate in this book, one thing I don’t is how it all was told. That matters. Dammit.


Series:  Avalon #1         

 Chronological order #7

Pages: 912

Publisher:                                        Del Rey

ISBN:                                              0345441184

Published:                                       2000 (orig. 1983)

Source:                                           Library

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66 thoughts on “Rameau Reviews: The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley

  1. Anachronist says:

    I suppose I was too engrossed in the different twists and turns to notice the passive attitude of the characters but I suppose if I thought about it more I would come to a similar conclusion. Predestination is such a bleak theory after all, making all your efforts useless.

  2. Anachronist says:

    I suppose I was too engrossed in the different twists and turns to notice the passive attitude of the characters but I suppose if I thought about it more I would come to a similar conclusion. Predestination is such a bleak theory after all, making all your efforts useless.

  3. Aurian says:

    I've read this in my teens, and can't much remember of it, but in that time I devoured everything and anything Arthurian and mythologic. I don't think I would enjoy it very much at this point in life.

  4. Aurian says:

    I've read this in my teens, and can't much remember of it, but in that time I devoured everything and anything Arthurian and mythologic. I don't think I would enjoy it very much at this point in life.

  5. Melliane says:

    I didn't know this one but saw this author a lot. I think I have one book in my TBR pile. I'm sorry it wasn't for you, it's always difficult. but thanks for the discovery.

  6. Melliane says:

    I didn't know this one but saw this author a lot. I think I have one book in my TBR pile. I'm sorry it wasn't for you, it's always difficult. but thanks for the discovery.

  7. Jenny Girl says:

    I understand what you're saying, I just never got any of that from this story. I loved it immensely. It was quite some time ago, but I felt like because of the deities, mystical forces, and the times, these women were left with limited choices. I also remember thinking how badly the Church despised all other religions and women. Or am I getting my Dark Ages books confused?Excellent review in any case 🙂

  8. Jenny Girl says:

    I understand what you're saying, I just never got any of that from this story. I loved it immensely. It was quite some time ago, but I felt like because of the deities, mystical forces, and the times, these women were left with limited choices. I also remember thinking how badly the Church despised all other religions and women. Or am I getting my Dark Ages books confused?Excellent review in any case 🙂

  9. rameau says:

    I've come to the conclusion that certain books and stories should be read during the teen years. After that (most) people grow up and lose patience with melodramas and certain other things that we've come to consider classics.

  10. rameau says:

    I've come to the conclusion that certain books and stories should be read during the teen years. After that (most) people grow up and lose patience with melodramas and certain other things that we've come to consider classics.

  11. rameau says:

    Thank you. I don't think you're getting anything confused. Christianity or more accurately its priests as portrayed in this book did despise women and other religions. And as I've said before, I can understand why you'd love this book. There were many thing I did like and appreciate, but unfortunately I didn't buy the portrayal of women and how they viewed themselves. Even people who have limited choices, who are slaves even, do dream of rebellion and freedom. Had they been truly happy in accepting things as they came and being obedient to their superiors they wouldn't have considered themselves as victims. It's in the human nature to dream of better things and circumstances, these characters didn't.

  12. rameau says:

    Thank you. I don't think you're getting anything confused. Christianity or more accurately its priests as portrayed in this book did despise women and other religions. And as I've said before, I can understand why you'd love this book. There were many thing I did like and appreciate, but unfortunately I didn't buy the portrayal of women and how they viewed themselves. Even people who have limited choices, who are slaves even, do dream of rebellion and freedom. Had they been truly happy in accepting things as they came and being obedient to their superiors they wouldn't have considered themselves as victims. It's in the human nature to dream of better things and circumstances, these characters didn't.

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