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