This year marks the 30th anniversary of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s massively popular Arthurian fantasy The Mists of Avalon. Alas, I was unable to read this iconic novel when it was first released, due to being about two years old at the time.
A decade later, however, I found The Mists of Avalon and fell head over heels. I was a twelve-year-old Catholic girl. My best friend’s mom called my mom to get her okay before lending me this novel, and no wonder. Sibling incest! Pagan orgies around bonfires! Extramarital sex before a husband’s very eyes, nay, at his request! I read it—all 876 pages—several times during the next couple years.
I was not alone: Mists has stayed in print for three decades and inspired passionate devotion. It has also triggered plenty of ironic eye-rolling. Now that I’m not twelve anymore, I find myself deeply sympathetic to both reactions.
This is a long book with a complicated plot. Essentially, though, it’s about queens and priestesses, mothers and sisters and aunts, and sex and birth and death. In its world, patriarchal Christianity battles against a woman-centered pagan tradition of goddess worship and nature’s rhythms. It’s a sad novel, because (spoiler alert!) patriarchal Christianity wins. Oh, and also because of various characters’ fatal flaws, most notably Vivian’s tragic-puppeteer-style approach to her loved one’s lives.
By the time I returned to the book after a two-decade separation, my memories of it were vague and I was in a very different place in my life. I’d amassed a considerably enriched sexual history (though nothing like as fancy and depressing as the stuff featured in the novel!), a doctorate in English literature, a husband, a child, and a whole lot of feminism. I went back to the book this month to understand what I’d seen in it as a child peering into adulthood.
The sex, yes, was fascinating, and the relatively few racy scenes loomed large in my memory. But that’s not all that mesmerized me. This was the first book I ever read that explicitly acknowledged menstruation, childbirth, and abortion. I loved its rich setting, its magic, and its exploration of power. And perhaps its early-’80s touchy-feely woman-power Goddess-worship vibe resonated for me somehow. It was heavy on the drama. It was, frankly, a bit maudlin. And so was I, at age twelve.
Writing this, I suddenly wonder whether I failed to return that beloved loaner copy to its rightful owner, my friend’s mother. How else would I have the dog-eared paperback on my shelf all these years later?
Rereading The Mists of Avalon as an adult, though, I knew that the novel is a favorite choice for feminist reading lists. It makes it onto these lists, one assumes, because:
And that sounds like fun, right? Let’s have a go at complaining about the ways The Mists of Avalon falls short!
As a grown-up feminist, I regard Mists with far more ambivalence than I did as a doe-eyed ball of angst. I’m even tempted to mock its self-seriousness. And yet I find that my younger self won’t allow me a too-cool-for-school approach to this text. For all the novel’s flaws, its magic and its big dramatic emotions still draw me in when I start paging through the story yet again.