The myth of King Arthur has come a long way since its origins in fifth-century Britain. From war chief to High King to hunky Clive Owen, each iteration has entered a new element into the public mythology. But what if the story of King Arthur is not Arthur’s story at all?
The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s most famous work, takes the legend from the hands of the king and gives it to the women who have always haunted the edges of his myth. Moving through multiple points of view and spanning decades, this 800-page book chronicles the lives of Arthur and his contemporaries. The most famous aspects of the Arthurian Legend—the round table, the sword in the stone, the holy grail—are present, but peripheral. In this telling, Arthur himself is not all that important; Bradley focuses instead on the trials, triumphs, and tragedies of the women in Arthur’s life, from his mother Igraine, to his wife Gwenhwyfar (an alternate spelling of Guinevere), to Morgaine, Arthur’s dear sister and eventually his deadliest enemy. These keenly crafted characters struggle with issues of love and honor, piety and sacrifice, the tradition of the old and the seductiveness of the new. Morgaine in particular must decide whether to follow her heart or her duty as Priestess of Avalon.
The Mists of Avalon is evocatively written and deeply compelling, and gives a woman’s perspective to a time with very few female voices. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of The Rings to be a England’s founding myth; The Mists of Avalon serves as a founding myth for women, queenly and cowardly, magical and mundane, who are just as integral to the thread of history as the men who, up till now, have written it.