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Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magnificent novel, The Mists of Avalon, although it is a retelling of the ancient Arthurian myths, is a novel that has definite connections to views from the women’s movement, particularily their beliefs toward patriarchial religions and the future downfall of Christianity.

In The Mists of Avalon, we have all the renowned characters of King Arthur’s Court, the love of Gwenhwyfar and Lancelet, Arthur’s battles against the Saxons, the quest for the Holy Grail, and all the other traditional storylines that are found in Arthurian legend.  But if this novel had only been meant as a retelling, there would have been no purpose for its being written.  Instead, the novel retells the Arthurian legends from the women’s point of view, something that has never been done before, and it is done more splendidly than anyone else could have ever imagined.

But why did Marion Zimmer Bradley decide to retell the Arthurian legend from the feminist perspective, and what purpose did she think it would serve?  I believe she wished to express her own views on religion, in contrast to how far she thought the negative reactions of the women’s movement toward patriarchal religions were practical.

When the women’s movement began, one of its major goals was to overthrow the patriarchal society in which women lived.  This patriarchal society was largely formed as a result of the Jewish and Christian religions.  These religions worship the god, Yahweh, and because He is a male god, they hold the belief that men are superior to women.  Examples of this sexist behavior can be found in the Bible and the Judaic Christian traditions.  One example is the tale of Adam’s first wife, Lilith.  Because she refused to have Adam lie on top of her, therefore allowing him to be the dominant figure in the relationship, Lilith was thrown out of the Garden of Eden.  The Jewish tradition then turned her into a witch who curses men with sterility and wet dreams.  The first woman who sought to be liberated was cursed and ridiculed by men (Goldenberg  72-3).  Other examples can be found in the epistles of St. Paul when he tells women to be submissive to their husbands.

“Wives should be submissive to their husbands as if to the Lord because            the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of his body the church, as well as its savior.  As the church submits to Christ, so wives                             should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5: 22-4)

Marion Zimmer Bradley is a feminist who believes we must rewrite myth and history;   women should no longer be portrayed as evil because of things they did which were in conflict with patriarchal society;  instead, they should be credited for all the good they have accomplished for mankind.  This includes rewriting myth so that women, who were misunderstood by patriarchal societies, are not perverted in the retelling of the story as they have been in the patriarchal versions;  instead, in rewritten myth, the women should be depicted as they very probably were, rather than how patriarchal societies chose to view them.  By retelling the story through the character of King Arthur’s sister, Morgan Le Fay, known as Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon, Bradley shows how the Arthurian legends were distorted by male writers.

The front page of the novel begins with a quote from Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, saying “Morgan le Fay was not married, but put to school in a nunnery, where she became a great mistress of magic” (Bradley n.p.)   Then in the prologue, Bradley allows Morgaine to speak for herself and refute Malory’s statement as being untrue:

“In my time I have been called many things:  sister, lover, priestess, wisewoman, queen.  Now in truth I have come to be wise-woman, and a time may come when these things may need to be known. But in sober truth, I think it is the Christians who will tell the last tale.  For ever the world of Fairy drifts further from the world in which the Christ holds sway.  I have no quarrel with the Christ, only with his priests, who call the Great Goddess a demon and deny that she ever held power in this world.  At best, they say that her power was of Satan.  Or else they clothe her in the blue robe of the Lady of Nazareth – who indeed had power in her way, too – and say that she was ever virgin.  But what can a virgin know of the sorrows and travail of mankind?” (Bradley ix)

These words begin the enticing novel, which then goes on to show us who the real Morgaine was … a priestess of the Great Goddess, and a woman who fought to preserve her religion against the spread of Christianity, which claimed the Goddess was evil and that Christianity was the only true religion.   Morgaine, as a priestess of Avalon, is a devotee of a matriarchal type of religion because her religion worships a Goddess, rather than a God.  Whenever a patriarchal religion such as Judaism or Christianity came into contact with a matriarchal religion, it tried to transform the matriarchal religion’s beliefs to be in agreement with their own.  What the patriarchal religions could not convert into their own beliefs, they then perverted to makeit appear evil.  In many cases, this meant that patriarchal religions believed religions where a goddess was worshipped had to be evil simply because women are evil.

And of course, women inherited this evil from Eve when she sinned in Eden.

“…it was through a woman that mankind had fallen into original Sin, and every woman must be aware that it was her work to atone for that  Original Sin in Eden.  No woman could ever be really good except for  Mary the Mother of Christ;  all other women were evil, they had never had any chance to be anything but evil” (Bradley 268)

In The Mists of Avalon, not only are women evil, but the Christian priests whose religion is replacing the religion of the Great Goddess in King Arthur’s Britain, are imposing evil interpretations upon Morgaine’s religion.  As Christianity compares all women to Eve, thus making them evil, so “the priests say that their Goddess is that same old serpent of evil whom our Lord drove from the Garden of Eden!” (Bradley 554).  What the priests are doing to the Goddess in Celtic Britain is exactly what their forebears in the patriarchal Jewish religion did to the matriarchal societies they came into contact with.  Archeological evidence shows that the worship of a Goddess at one time was common throughout most of the Western world, and probably existed even before the patriarchal religions.  Joseph Campbell believes the Goddess, which was originally an Indo-European belief that spread throughout the ancient world, survived longer and in a closer to the original form in Ireland than in any other part of the world.    Campbell discusses how  the patriarchal religions did not always wipe out the belief in the mother goddess, but instead they rewrote the belief in the mother goddess for their own benefit.  In the Levantine, before the Jewish people came in and rewrote the story of Adam and Eve to their own advantage,  there existed a belief in a goddess whose consort was a serpent;  this serpent’s title was Ningizzida, “Lord of the Tree of Truth” (Campbell 9).  The goddess and her serpent consort also had a son who had to follow a “quest for release from the bondages of birth, disease, old age, and death” (Campbell 16).  Joseph Campbell goes on to explain how this family, which was worshipped throughout the Middle East, was transformed by a patriarchal religion into the Biblical Adam and Eve story.  The goddess was transformed into Eve, and because she listened to the serpent, she became evil.  Ningizzida, “Lord of the Tree of Truth,” is of course, the serpent who already ate of the apple, and because he is wise, therefore the patriarchal religions decided that he was also sinful.  The son of Ningizzida and the Goddess is probably the Adam of the Bible story.  In the Biblical version, Adam is then made to be the spouse, rather than the son of Eve.  Whereas his mother should be dominant over him, the patriarchal religion then did something even worse, by stating that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib, therefore again stating that men are superior to women. (Campbell 29-30)

In The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley shows how this old Mother Goddess/ Serpent religion which had been wiped out by patriarchal religions in the Middle East, was still in existence in fifth century Celtic Britain.  Along with the worship of the Goddess, the serpent was also preserved in the Celtic religions.  In The Mists of Avalon, the kingmaking involved the king taking part in the Beltane festivals.  At this festival, the king would marry the land and pledge to support the holy isle of Avalon.  As a symbol of their support, kings would be given serpent bracelets or tattoos around their wrists.   At one point in the novel, Morgaine states that the story of how St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland is really a way of saying he drove out the Druids – which are the serpents of wisdom (Bradley 769).  The druids were renowned for their wisdom, and therefore their connection to serpents is not surprising;  furthermore, the connection of serpents to wisdom can obviously be seen as stemming from the old story of Adam and Eve, where the serpent is wise from eating of the apple, no matter whether you look at the Biblical or the more ancient version.  Furthermore, the idea of the apple as providing wisdom was also preserved in the Celtic world, because the name of the holy isle, Avalon, comes from the welsh word “aval” meaning “apple” (Westwood 21), and this isle was said to be filled with apple trees, as Bradley describes it in her novel.

In the novel, King Arthur’s reign is a time when Britain and the Celtic religions are in danger of succumbing to the patriarchal religion of Christianity.  Since Britain is one of the last strongholds of the “true religion,” the religion of the Great Goddess, Morgaine cannot allow Christianity to rewrite the Goddess and her religion as evil or to reinterpet it to suit their conventions.

Throughout the early part of the novel, Morgaine does not agree with the Christian priests, but she also feels that everyone has a right to believe what they want.  However, when her brother, King Arthur, marries Gwenhwyfar, the trouble begins.  King Arthur has been sworn to protect the isle of Avalon and promote the worship of the Goddess, since Avalon helped to set him on his throne.  Yet at the same time, he allows Christianity to exist in his realm, believing that all men have the right to choose their own religions.  However, Gwenhwyfar is a very strong Christian woman, and like the Christian priests, she believes that the Goddess and all religions other than her own are evil.

After several years of marriage to Arthur, Gwenhwyfar is still unable to produce an heir to the throne.  Her strong Christian faith leads her to believe that the reason she cannot have a child is because God is angry with Britain since the pagan religions are still allowed to exist in it.  Gwenhwyfar thinks that if Arthur truly makes Britain a Christian land, then God will look with favor on Britain, provide an heir for the throne, and continue Britain’s stability.  When Arthur’s army goes out to battle against the Saxons, Gwenhwyfar convinces her husband not to carry the banner of Avalon, but only the banner of Christ into battle.  After much argument, Arthur agrees with his wife, but this makes many of his people, who are followers of Avalon, angry enough with Arthur to desert his army.  Even with reduced numbers, Arthur still succeeds in winning a major victory against the Saxons.  Gwenhwyfar convinces him that it is God who has given him this victory because he has put away the old pagan ways and carried the banner of Christ into battle against the pagans.  When the King of Britain forsakes Avalon, which he has sworn to protect, by becoming a Christian, the religion of the Goddess cannot expect to survive.

Morgaine, of course, is furious that her brother has betrayed the holy isle.  The final straw for her is when peace is made with the Saxons, and Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, which is part of the holy regalia of Avalon, is flipped upside down to form a cross, upon which the Saxons and King Arthur swear an oath of peace.  Morgaine knows that if her religion continues to be treated with such disrespect, and the sacred regalia of Avalon continues to be desecrated, her religion will disappear.  She makes an attempt to kill her brother and establish her lover and fellow worshipper of the Goddess, Accolon, upon his throne, but instead Arthur slays Accolon, and Morgaine flees to Avalon where her brother can not reach her.

After several years of hiding, Morgaine decides that she must return to Camelot one last time to remind Arthur of his vows, by force if need be, and to try and preserve the religion of Avalon and the Goddess.  With her fellow priestess, Raven, she disguises herself as a peasant woman and journeys to Camelot.  The two priestesses arrive on Pentecost, the greatest feast day in Britain, when King Arthur hears petitions from his people.  On this particular feast day,  the Church and kingdom are celebrating Christianity’s conquering of the old pagan ways in Britain.  To solemnize this event, a mass is going to be held, and the bishop intends to use the holy cup of the Druids in the Mass to symbolize that Christianity has defeated the evil pagan ways.

Already, the sword of the Druid Regalia has been used sacriligeously, and Morgaine cannot allow such an act of sacrilege to also occur against the holy cup.  As one woman, there is not much she can do to stop it, but she prays to the Goddess to use her as a means to prevent this from happening.  Suddenly, her body is literally taken over, and she is transformed into the Goddess.  She picks up the holy cup of Avalon, and holding it in her hands, she appears as the Goddess before all of the court.  Morgaine floats about the room in the form of the Goddess while she brings the cup to everyone in the court and they drink from it;  they drink the holy water of the sacred well of Avalon, drink from the cup which represents the cauldron of Ceridwen, the Goddess, which is the cup of life.

After everyone has drunk from the cup, through the power of the Goddess, Morgaine makes the cup disappear from the court and return to Avalon so it can never be under threat of desecration again.  Morgaine then resumes her regular form, but this remains unnoticed by everyone because they are too overwhelmed at the miracle.  Before anyone realizes what they have actually seen, the bishop goes around the room telling everyone they have seen Mary, the Mother of God, and that the cup which they have all drunk from is nothing less than the Holy Grail, the cup which Christ used at the last supper.  Everyone believes this, and when Gawaine notices that the vessel is gone, the knights become determined to bring it back to Camelot, thus beginning the famous quest for the “Holy Grail.”

Meanwhile, Morgaine returns home to Avalon.  Years continue to pass as she hears tales of how the knights have left Camelot on their quest and how many of them have died.  Eventually, she also hears that Mordred, Arthur and Morgaine’s son who was conceived in an act of incest before Arthur and Morgaine realized they were brother and sister, attempted to steal the kingdom from Arthur, resulting in both father and son being slain.

Morgaine goes to Arthur as he is dying; she takes the holy sword, Excalibur, from him and throws it into the lake where it will forever be safe from the Christians.  As her brother now lies dying in her arms, she is no longer angry at him for his betrayal of Avalon.  He is simply her brother, the same brother who lay in her arms as a child.  While his kingdom is torn by war, and he lies dying in his sister’s embrace, he asks:

“Morgaine, was it all for nothing then, what we did, and all that we tried to do?  Why did we fail?”

[Morgaine replies,] “You did not fail, my brother, my love, my child.  You held this land in peace for many years, so that the Saxons did not destroy it.  You held back the darkness for a whole generation, until they were civilized men, with learning and music and faith in God, who will fight to save something of the beauty of the times that are past.  If this land had fallen to the Saxons when Uther died, then would all that was beautiful or good have perished forever from Britain.  And so you did not fail, my love.  None of us knows how she will do her will – only that it will be done.” (Bradley 867-8)

In the epilogue, Morgaine goes to Glastonbury to visit the graves of her brother, Guinevere, and her aunt, Viviane, who had once been Lady of the Lake.  They are all buried at Glastonbury, a Christian abbey.  Yet, despite the spread of Christianity throughout Britain, Morgaine is not upset.  This visit is an awakening for her – particularily when she is surprised to see that among the Christian saints, St. Brigid is venerated at the abbey.

“But Brigid is not a Christian saint, she thought, even if Patricius thinks so.  That is the Goddess as she is worshippped in Ireland.  And I know it, and even if they think otherwise, these women know the power of the Immortal.  Exile her as they may, she will prevail.  The Goddess will never withdraw herself from mankind.”  (Bradley 875).

Because the church has made Brigid a saint, another example of how patriarchal religions distort other religions to fit their own needs, the Goddess will live on in Christian form.

As the novel ends, Morgaine prays to the Goddess:

“Mother,” she whispered, “forgive me.  I thought I must do what I now see you can do for yourself.  The Goddess is within us, yes, but now I know that you are in the world too, now and always, just as you are in Avalon, and in the hearts of all men and women.  Be in me too now, and guide me, and tell me when I need only let you do your will….” (Bradley 876)

Morgaine realizes that even if the Goddess is not apparent in the world, she still exists there.  The same is true with the holy chalice of the Druid Regalia.  It is no longer in the world, but in the holy isle of Avalon, yet as Morgaine knows, “It is in Avalon, but it is here.  It is everywhere.  And those who have need of a sign in this world will see it always.” (Bradley 876)

The belief in the Goddess has returned to mankind because of the women’s movement.  Women are angry at patriarchy, and part of the patriarchal religions which have kept them down.  They are tired of a male God who works the way that men want Him to, and they are equally tired of hearing that women are evil as the Bible claims they are.  Because of this dissatisfaction with Christianity and other patriarchal religions, women are rediscovering the ancient Goddess whom the patriarchal religions oppressed and destroyed, just as men oppress women.  Because the Goddess has reemerged and women are turning to her, seeing themselves as having the Goddess within them, many in the women’s movement  believe patriarchal religions will come to an end.

Christianity is trying to make peace with the women’s movement by showing verses in the Bible that praise women, or state that God is not just a God for men.  One of the most often quoted verses for this purpose is that “in Christ ‘there is neither male or female’” (Goldenberg 80).  Christianity is trying to make God appear androgynous so He can be a god for both men and women.  The women’s movement, however, doesn’t seem to be buying this idea.

Today there is a large number of women seeking to become priests, ministers, or holders of other positions in the clergy which have traditionally been held by men.   Many denominations, including the Catholic Church, are against having women enter the clergy.  Pope Paul VI made a statement in 1977 that if women were to play at being priests, then they would play at being God, and Christianity can only afford to have men in that role (Goldenberg 7).  The women’s movement interprets this as men’s fear that women will take over religion and destroy the male god.  Women intend to do this.  They firmly believe that “Every woman working to improve her own position in society or that of women in general is bringing about the end of God” (Goldenberg 10).  When women become liberated, men will realize they are no longer the supreme rulers on earth, and if they cannot rule on earth anymore, shouldn’t they also realize that they can no longer rule in Heaven (Goldenberg 9)?  But men should not fear this – by toppling Yahweh and Christ, men will finally be able to free themselves from their Oedipal prisons, their fear of a supreme male figure which keeps them from being whole, self-reliant men themselves (Goldenberg 31,36).

Will this happen?  Will Christianity and other patriarchal religions fall because of the women’s movement?  Although there are women in favor of the fall of Christianity, there are also members of the women’s movement who believe the Goddess must be brought back, but at the same time, the continual presence of male gods won’t be harmful to women.  Women may even be able to find some value in keeping old patriarchal gods and finding places for them in religion (Goldenberg 82).  There are also some women who want to keep a male god simply so they have someone to yell at and blame for things that go wrong, and then they can turn toward the nurturing, caring Goddess for comfort.  In a way, even these ideas are being stolen from Christianity or at least rewriting it;  whereas now we have God who is good, and the Devil who is evil, if these women get their way, then God will become the bad guy, and the Goddess shall be the one mankind, and womenkind, turn to in their time of need.  Even if these changes take place, to put a single deity in charge of evil is a Christian tendency (Goldenberg 82), yet it is a tendency the women’s movement may not want to give up if they want to continue blaming men.

But how does The Mists of Avalon fit in with this desire to topple God and bring back the Goddess?  Marion Zimmer Bradley certainly believes that patriarchal religions have rewritten pagan religions to be evil, rather than the beautiful things that many of them were.  Her argument with Christianity, told through Morgaine’s voice, seems to be that the Celtic religions and the Goddess are needed because Christ is not enough for a religion to be.  The Celtic religion was very similar to Hinduism in that it also believed in the concept of reincarnation.  At one point in the novel, Morgaine and Arthur’s mother, Igraine, has the thought “Christians said they were free of the superstitions of the Druids, but they had their own, and Igraine felt that these were even more distressing, being separated from nature” (Bradley 48).  In truth, Christianity does not seem very connected to Nature because mankind is not supposed to be in communion with Nature, but the master of it, and therefore, above it.  However, Morgaine feels the need to commune with Nature because “Those who live in close kinship with the earth need something more than salvation” which is all that Christianity offers (Bradley 681).  Morgaine believes Christianity does not work because fear of priests, or God’s wrath “or anything else, will ever keep mankind from committing sins,” …. “but only when they have gained enough wisdom in all their lives that they know that error is useless and evil must be paid for, sooner or later” (Bradley 783).  Morgaine believes Christianity’s beliefs are wrong, that as a religion they have forgotten the true Mysteries, the ones which her religion follows, but then she realizes:

“They have not forgotten the Mysteries,” she said, “they have found them too difficult. They want a God who will care for them, who will not demand that they struggle for enlightenment, but who will accept them just as they are, with all their sins, and take away their sins with repentance.  It is not so, it will never be so, but perhaps it is the only way the unenlightened can bear to think of their Gods.”

Lancelet smiled bitterly.  “Perhaps a religion which demands that every man must work through lifetime after lifetime for his own salvation is too much for mankind.  They want not to wait for God’s justice, but to see it now.  And that is the lure which this new breed of priests has promised them.” (Bradley 808).

Morgaine, like her modern day counterparts in the women’s movement, seeks to overthrow Christianity, and make sure the Goddess is remembered, but by the end of the novel, she is no longer advocating this.  As at the beginning of the novel, Morgaine realizes that she has “no quarrel with the Christ, only with his priests…” (Bradley ix).  It is not necessarily the God the Christians worship who has made women subordinate to men, but the men who are in charge of running that religion.  As Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “The first step in the elevation of women under all systems of religion is to convince them that the Great Spirit of the Universe is in no way responsible for any of these absurdities” (Daly 13).  Morgaine realizes that “the God they both worshipped was greater and less bigoted than any priesthood” (Bradley 118), and that “our differences make no difference at all to God” (Bradley 38). At the end of the novel, she has gone even a step further by stating,  that whatever is the will of the Goddess, it will happen, and no matter how mankind fights for or against this will, it will come to pass if it is what the Goddess wants to happen.  Perhaps this is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s view of the women’s movement and their feelings toward religion.  Patriarchal religions have repressed women and matriarchal religions.   Perhaps the women’s movement is right and we should pray to the Goddess instead of God, and perhaps God will be toppled, but Morgaine herself has no real argument with God, only with the religions that claim it is God who says women are evil and inferior.  Marion Zimmer Bradley may choose to believe in the Goddess, yet at the same time, she doesn’t seem to believe we have to get rid of God and Christ.  In one sense, she doesn’t take a definite stand on which side is right.  Instead she seems to be saying that whatever the truth is, and no matter what the women’s movement or any other groups say, what the Goddess, or Supreme Being wants to happen is what will happen.

Upon the publication of The Mists of Avalon, the reviewers did nothing but rave.  Isaac Asimov called it “The best retelling of the Arthurian saga I have ever read.  Completely compelling” (New York Times Book Review 8).  Other reviewers compared the novel to Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels written in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, and also as of equal or greater value to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (Cassada 2351).  Even Christian reviewers applauded the novel.  One female Christian said that the novel raised fundamental questions about the relationship of the old Goddess religions to Christianity, and that it “Offers a feminist critique of patterns of power, sexuality, and salvation which the Christian Church and contemporary society take for granted.” (Zikmund 490)

The Mists of Avalon gives all of its readers a lot to think about, whether they are Arthurian Scholars, Christians, women seeking liberation, or simply lovers of books.  Members of the women’s movement, who are waiting for the fall of Christianity and patriarchal religions, believe that once this downfall occurs, patriarchal religious texts will no longer be useful in the new religions which are established.  Men and women will both have to find new stories and new scriptures (Goldenberg 120).  For many Christians, who may see this downfall coming, and for the women’s movement who wish it will come, The Mists of Avalon may very well become one of these texts.

Works Cited

Bradley, Marion Zimmer.  The Mists of Avalon.  New York:  Ballantine Books, 1984.

Campbell, Joseph.  The Masks of the Gods:  Occidental Mythology.  New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

Cassada, Jackie.  Rev. of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Library Journal 107 (1982):  2351.

Daly, Mary.  Beyond God the Father:  Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston:  Beacon Press, 1973.

Goldenberg, Naomi R.  Changing of the Gods:  Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 1979.

New York Times Book Review 11 (1983):  8.

Westwood, Jennifer.  Albion:  A Guide to Legendary Britain.  Gr. Brit:  Grafton, 1985.

Zikmund, Barbara Brown. “Favorite Books and How They Influence.”  Rev. of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Christian Century  104 (1987):  490.

Note: The above article was written in 1993, prior to Bradley’s death in 1999.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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This final volume of Helen Hollick’s trilogy took me a little while to get into, and I thought it dragged a bit in the middle, but while reading the last couple of hundred pages, I didn’t want to put it down as I waited to find out how it would all turn out, and despite my not being crazy about the writing style, overall, I felt satisfied with the ending, and it certainly fulfilled my interest in depictions of King Arthur’s children.

When the previous volume, Pendragon’s Banner, ended, Arthur and Gwenhwyfar’s three sons were all dead but Gwenhwyfar was pregnant. When this novel opens, Arthur and Gwenhwyfar have a little girl, Archfedd.

Arthur has two other children (not counting all the bastards he apparently has who don’t figure in the story): Medraut, who lives with his mother, Morgaine, and is just a small child; and Cerdic, son to Winifred (Arthur’s divorced first wife), who is entering his teen years.

Arthur goes to Gaul to fight for Rome, and in the process, gets involved with a woman named Mathild. He is then believed to have been killed in battle, and his own men believe him dead, but some women realize the king is still breathing so they bring him to Morgaine, who cares for him but then also drugs him so he stays with her. Arthur has no desire to leave her anyway because just before his battle, he had heard in a letter from his uncle Ambrosius that Gwenhyyfar had died. He doesn’t know that Gwenhwyfar recovered from her illness, so his spirit is broken and he has no desire to return to Britain to reclaim his throne. Everyone in Britain assumes he has died and Ambrosius rules the country now.

Meanwhile, Mathild, whom Arthur had an affair with, returns to Britain and immediately marries Arthur’s son, Cerdic. She soon after has a child named Cynric, whom it is believed is really Arthur’s, not Cerdic’s. When Cerdic’s mother, Winifred, accuses Mathild of the child being Arthur’s and not Cerdic’s, Mathild reveals that Arthur is not dead. This news spreads to Gwenhwyfar, who travels to Gaul to find her husband and try to understand why he has never returned to Britain. She, in the meanwhile, has taken Bedwyr as her lover because she has believed Arthur to be dead.

This section of the story where Arthur doesn’t return home and they search for him drags on for a couple of hundred pages, and although it is revealed Morgaine is drugging Arthur, I still found it hard to understand why he has no desire to return home. Of course, once Arthur and Gwenhwyfar meet, he decides to return to Britain and being king, taking his son Medraut with him.

What interested me from this point was how everything would turn out and whether Arthur’s children would outlive and succeed him. Cerdic has by this time turned against Arthur and they end up waging war against each other. Meanwhile, Archfedd taunts Medraut that he will never be king, and even when he marries, he doesn’t have any children. Archfedd marries a man named Natanlius, by whom she has first a son named Constantine and then other children. While the text doesn’t state so at the end, obviously Constantine is the successor taken from most endings of the story although his role is never stated to be significant in this novel.

Meanwhile, Cynric also grows up and has three bastard daughters as well as a wife who gets pregnant. He and Cerdic have a falling out in regards to waging war on Arthur, but nevertheless, it is obvious that Hollick intends them to be depictions of the historical Cerdic and Cynric, founders of the royal house of Wessex.

Hollick ends the novel with a Battle of Camlann. While she changes around some things, in the end, Arthur dies and his descendants do live on. (I have left out a lot of the story details here so as not to give it all away but simply to discuss how Hollick treats Arthur’s children.)

Significantly, this novel makes Arthur’s descendants the future royalty of England. The royal family of England has, at least since the twelfth century, tried to claim descent from King Arthur (I have an entire chapter about these claims in my book King Arthur’s Children). Geoffrey Ashe proposed more than a quarter century ago that Cerdic might be the son of Arthur-Riothamus (a contender for the historical King Arthur). Cerdic’s Celtic rather than Saxon name has been a reason for such suggestions. Cerdic doesn’t appear in the early versions of the legend, but he is of the correct historical period so such suggestions are plausible. Hollick is the first novelist to take these suggestions and apply them to her fiction.

Because King Arthur’s descendants become the established royal family of Britain, I think Hollick’s trilogy is significant for that reason. In addition, while I didn’t care for the writing style, the characters are quite interesting and well-developed. Hollick’s versions of Winifred and Cerdic are two of the strongest villains I have encountered in Arthurian literature, and while Arthur is not very likeable—really Gwenhwyfar was the only character in all the books I did like—she creates some very interesting characters and twists upon traditional characters. It probably isn’t a series I would read again, but it is worth reading.

For more information about Helen Hollick and her Arthurian novels, visit www.HelenHollick.net

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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Pendragon’s Banner: Book Two of The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy by Helen Hollick

(published by Sourcebooks Landmark 2009; ISBN 978-1402218897)

In this second volume of The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, Helen Hollick continues her historical portrayal of the Arthurian legend. Arthur is now firmly established as King of Britain, although he has plenty of opposition, including his ex-wife Winifred, who seeks what is best for her son by him, Cerdic, as well as his own people who oppose his making peace with various of the Saxon peoples.

But in my interest in how modern fiction writers treat King Arthur’s children, I think the results here are fairly predictable for his children based on Welsh tradition, all of whom are Arthur’s children by Gwenhywfar in this novel, namely Gwydre, Amr, and Llacheu. Hollick, following their traditional stories, more or less, has each of them die before Arthur.

In legend, Amr usually dies in battle with Arthur—he is believed to have been the original version of Mordred, but Hollick has other plans for Mordred, named “Medraut” in her story, she can’t allow Amr to have the same ending as Medraut so she has him fall into the river and drown when he’s about two years old (p. 98-102). Amr’s death causes hostility between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, who blames Arthur for not watching him closely.

During Arthur and Gwenhwyfar’s time fighting following Amr’s death, Arthur ends up bedding his cousin, Elen, the daughter of one of Uthr’s sisters. She is demanding and manipulative and claims she is pregnant with Arthur’s child. She also wants more from him than just a fling on the side. When they have a disagreement, Elen pulls a knife on Arthur, resulting in his kicking her in the stomach in defense. It’s unclear whether he’s caused her to miscarry their child, and if so whether intentionally, but it does not matter since she becomes despondent and soon after slips off a cliff. However, as I said in my earlier blog about The Kingmaking, Hollick’s Arthur has few if any qualities that make him likeable.

Arthur and Gwenhwyfar soon after reconcile, but then she loses a son of Arthur’s in childbirth.

The fate of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar’s sons continues to be ill. When Hueil of Alclud, a lover to Morgause, accuses Gwenhwyfar and Bedwyr of adultery, Arthur does battle with Hueil, and in the battle, Llacheu is accidentally stabbed by Hueil. He manages to recover, but soon after eight-year old Gwydre is gored to death during a boar hunt, leaving only Llacheu alive of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar’s children.

When Llacheu becomes deathly ill, Arthur seeks out the Lady of the Lake, Morgaine, desperate not to lose his and Gwenhwyfar’s last son. Morgaine uses her skills to keep the child alive, but Arthur has no idea she is Morgause’s daughter, or that Morgause has ordered her to hurt Arthur. Neither Morgaine nor Arthur know she is also Uthr’s daughter, and therefore, Arthur’s half-sister. Morgaine tells Arthur her mother orders her to sleep with him, although Arthur interprets what she says to mean the Mother Goddess. They sleep together and Morgaine soon after gives birth to Medraut.

Despite Arthur’s bargain with Morgaine, Llacheu ends up being killed in battle when Morgause is involved in a plot to overthrow Arthur. The novel ends with all of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar’s children dead, but Gwenhwyfar pregnant.

Arthur is left with two living sons, Cerdic, by his first wife, Winifred, and Medraut, by his half-sister Morgaine.

Doubtless, Medraut will be a key player, and perhaps the traditional villain in the final book of the trilogy Shadow of the King, but what about Cerdic? My guess is he’ll end up ruling the kingdom when all is said and done and being ancestor to the Wessex royalty that will eventually rule all of England, but I’ll have to read the third book to find out how it all actually turns out.

For more information about Helen Hollick and her Arthurian novels, visit www.HelenHollick.net

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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The Kingmaking: Book One of The Pendragon Banner’s Trilogy by Helen Hollick (published by Sourcebooks Landmark 2011; ISBN 978-1402218880). Available at Amazon.

Somehow in writing King Arthur’s Children, I overlooked Helen Hollick’s The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy. I would like to remedy that by discussing each of the books in the trilogy in separate blogs, beginning here with the first book The Kingmaking.

Modern Arthurian novels can be divided up between those that seek to be truly historical and those that are vaguely historical with fantasy elements. Hollick’s retelling is purely historical. There is no Merlin and no magic in this book, and the same is true of the succeeding two books.

The Kingmaking begins with Vortigern ruling Britain and Uthr Pendragon seeking to overthrow him. When Uthr is killed, Arthur eventually takes his place and the rest of the story will ultimately lead to the event of the book’s title. Anyone who reads an Arthurian novel basically knows what’s going to happen since there is a general structure to the legend that influences all modern fiction writers of Arthurian lore, but the legend has room to stretch and Hollick does her fair share of stretching within the legend’s boundaries while retaining her historical focus on what may have been likely to happen, much of it based in historical research and theories by Arthurian scholars.

One interesting change Hollick makes centers around Morgause’s role in the novel. Uthr is married to Morgause’s sister Igraine, but Morgause is Uthr’s mistress on the side. Morgause has had many daughters by Uthr but she has always exposed them to die. Morgause despises Arthur, not realizing until Uthr has died that he is Uthr’s son, but thinking he is only Uthr’s bastard-born nephew. Morgause’s hatred for Arthur causes her later to attack him sexually. The result is not quite what readers might expect, but it deeply shapes Arthur’s future character.

Arthur later admits that his disgust over what Morgause did to him has resulted in how he mistreats women. He is not a gentle man, but rather one who takes women whenever he chooses, determined not to let them exert any feminine power over him. He impregnates a slave girl (p. 160), and he later says he knows he has many bastard daughters (p. 220). Arthur ends up marrying Vortigern’s daughter, Winifred, as a political alliance, and by her he has a sickly daughter who dies soon after birth (p.313). Arthur, however, hates Winifred and is in love with Gwenhwyfar throughout the book.

Eventually, Vortigern dies and his son Vortimer assumes the kingship, but Arthur is on the road to gaining it for himself. During this time, he abandons Winifred and marries Gwenhwyfar. Both women then have sons by him. Gwenhwyfar’s son Llacheu is born first (but in what we would call a bigamist marriage today) while Winifred’s son Cerdic is born a few weeks later. Both women want to see their own sons acknowledged as Arthur’s heir. Winifred threatens to complain to the Pope to make sure Cerdic is acknowledged, but Winifred is half-Saex (Vortigern’s wife Rowena had been the daughter of the Saex leader Hengest) while Llacheu is fully British born. Arthur is disgusted at the thought of having a partially Saex child and lets Winifred know the British people will rally around Llacheu when the time comes.

That Arthur should have sons is unusual but not a new idea as I’ve shown throughout King Arthur’s Children. Llacheu is a traditional son of Arthur in the early Welsh legends and is usually attributed to being Gwenhwyfar’s son as well. More surprising is that Cerdic is credited as Arthur’s son. Hollick, in her “Author’s Note,” states that she is not the first to suggest Cerdic (who is a historical King of the Saxons) was Arthur’s son, but I believe she is the first novelist to do so. The idea was originally suggested by Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe in The Discovery of King Arthur (1985). [see the family tree for Ashe’s theory at http://www.childrenofarthur.com/. Finally, years after Morgause sexually forced herself upon Arthur, she is revealed to have had a daughter named Morgaine. Hollick does not reveal whether the daughter is Uthr or Arthur’s, but it’s a good bet it is Arthur’s daughter considering she exposed her other daughters. While Morgaine is a girl and not likely to inherit the throne, no doubt Morgause has kept her alive to serve as a way to hurt Arthur down the road. (Having not yet read the second book in the series, at this point I am pondering whether Morgaine is really a he and the future Mordred while Morgause is hiding the child’s sex while biding her time. My discussion of the next two books will reveal the details.)

While I was a bit put off by Hollick’s writing style, primarily the way she uses verbs in her sentences, I did find The Kingmaking to be entertaining reading, both for its depictions of Arthur’s children as well as the rather brutal and rough Arthur. I did not find Arthur likeable, but I did like Gwenhwyfar, and I am curious to see how the story will turn out. In her “Author’s Note,” Hollick states that because Lancelot and Merlin were the creations of later twelfth century Norman romancers, readers will not find them in her books since she wants to provide a historical portrait of what could have actually happened. While Merlin was actually established in Welsh tradition so I don’t understand this reasoning (other than perhaps Hollick saw no use for Merlin in a historical rather than fantasy novel), if there is to be no Lancelot, then I am curious to see how Camelot’s fall will be brought about. Will Gwenhwyfar find herself another lover, or will Morgause’s plotting be sufficient to bring about Arthur’s downfall? It’s on to reading Book II: Pendragon’s Banner to find out.

For more information about Helen Hollick and her Arthurian novels, visit www.HelenHollick.net

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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