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Today, I’m pleased to interview Scott Telek, author of The Swithen, an ambitious new fiction series that plans to depict in detail the psychology of the characters in the Arthurian legend while retelling that legend.

So far, Telek has published the first three books in the series: Our Man on Earth, The Sons of Constance, and The Void Place. Today he’ll tell us a bit about the series and his overarching plans for it.

Tyler: Welcome, Scott. It’s a pleasure to have you here today. I must say I think you are the most ambitious Arthurian novelist I have met so far. You plan to retell the entire Arthurian legend and so far have produced three books and Arthur isn’t even born until the end of the third one. How many books do you intend to write and what is your overall plan for the series?

Scott Telek, author of The Swithen series

Scott: Thanks Tyler, I’m happy to be here as well! I know the series is very ambitious, but…you’ve got to dream! I was just struck by the need to slow down while reading these stories—especially in Malory, where world-shattering events go by in a flash—and think about what these people might be feeling and thinking, and it occurred to me that you could write a really interesting series that puts the meat on the bones in a way that makes the people seem real, not just symbols and figures.

Right now I have planned out twenty-five novels to tell the entire story, and really, even that is not enough. There are ones where I’m thinking “How am I possibly going to get all of this into one book while giving the story the proper weight?” And please note that I am leaving out Tristram entirely.

The ultimate goal is to produce a really deluxe telling of the Arthurian legend, which illuminates all of its scope, weirdness, and majesty. We will also have birth-to-death life stories of all the major characters—because I plan to write childhoods for Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Mordred—and then they will all twist together into this incredible tapestry. I also want to provide a long, intimate arc to Arthur and Guinevere’s marriage and the affair with Lancelot. And then the interlocking stories of all of the minor characters and how the events ripple across generations. And then you have the inherent monumentality and shattering scope of the work, so—I can’t lose! I have the entire story laid out, so it gives me the opportunity to focus and tighten it in a way that makes its greatness clear to people who would never look into the sources.

Tyler: Can you explain why you chose the title The Swithen to describe the series. What does it have to do with the Arthurian legend?

Scott: The word itself has nothing at all to do with the Arthurian legend, but a lot of the good titles were already taken! One of the major goals of this series is to further unify the story into one cohesive narrative, and the one event that looms over everything is the Grail Quest. And I was struck—shocked, actually—that what is often portrayed as the ultimate, awesome achievement of the knights is actually them getting their asses kicked, and the ruin of the Round Table. They basically discover that their entire way of life, which was great to bring the country out of chaos and into civilization, is now no longer needed and they should just piss off. There is that devastating line when one of the holy figures they encounter says that they should “go back to their waste countries and kill each other.” Which they ultimately do!

So it struck me that this is like the burning of a field to make it fertile for the next generation, and then I found this old Norse word “Swithen,” which means exactly that. It’s about this devastating realization that everything you’ve done is great, now get out of the way and make room for the next generation. So to me it amplifies one of the major themes that is already there. Uther got the Swithen speech in The Void Place, and reacted poorly, as you saw, and poor Arthur is going to get it for sure, and have to deal with its implications. I find I like to force my characters to face the harshest possible existential realities, and poor Arthur…he’s really in for it. But he can also stand up to it, which is why he’s Arthur.

Tyler: I mostly want to discuss the newest book, The Void Place, but before we do that, will you give us a little background about the first two books?

The Void Place, book 3 in the Swithen series, delves into how King Arthur was conceived by magical means.

Scott: I decided that the story of Merlin’s conception sounded like a great book. A woman’s family is killed off one by one by a demon, then her talking baby saves her at the trial for her life—sounds like a hit! I was also fascinated by starting a retelling of the Arthurian legend from this point, which positions the entire thing as the result of a failed attempt by the devil to deceive mankind, and thought that was a fascinating way to look at it.

The second book takes Merlin from his mother’s side, through kings Vortiger and Pendragon, and right up until Uther is about to lose it over Igraine. It is a bit of a “middle” book, as it meanders and doesn’t have one solid story, but I love it and it has some great Merlin moments, like when Pendragon has let a man test him by asking when he will die, and Merlin says to Pendragon, “Do you think I don’t know how this fool will die? I see his death very well—and yours, too!”

Tyler: Merlin is at the center of the first three books. What would you say was your greatest challenge in depicting him, and what did you have the most fun with?

Scott: I know you’ve been enthusiastic about this incarnation of Merlin, which I very much appreciate. I actually didn’t intend him to be so ruthless when I started. I think I pretty much conceived of him as the standard supportive but cantankerous wizard, and basically perfect and always right, as we usually see him. But then in the first book, I had that idea that because he sees across time, he doesn’t really care about individual people. That was supposed to be just a characteristic, but as the series went on, that developed into this ruthlessness to get Arthur born no matter what the cost, which leads to him being somewhat the villain of The Void Place. But also…it opens up an arc for Merlin, and areas where he still needs to develop, and we will see in the future that he has learned from what happened with Uther, and tries a different approach with Arthur.

One thing you might find interesting that you would not necessarily get from the books is that I see this contemporary resonance between Merlin and the young tech moguls, like Mark Zuckerberg or early Steve Jobs. They created these world-changing technologies when they were young, but they didn’t have the maturity to think through the vast implications of how they might affect people and society. They also see the world only through data, just as Merlin only sees events, and there’s the question of whether there is something in people that can’t be summed up in data, just as Merlin is starting to discover that there may be more to people than simply knowing what they do, and is finding that the world, and people, are far more complicated than it seemed when he was a child—just as Mark Zuckerberg is finding, right now.

Tyler: I don’t want to overlook Meylinde, Merlin’s mother. You didn’t have much to work with from the legend as a framework with her, so why did you feel it so important to make her an integral part of the series?

Scott: Again, not planned. The first story is really a parable about faith, and the first book is about how her baby develops into the Merlin we know, so I thought that it would be cool if there was a human component—his mother—behind who Merlin becomes and his sense of morality and humanity. In the legend, she never receives a name, and is dropped entirely once Merlin leaves her. But then I couldn’t stand to just drop her, and once I found a way that she can stay in the series but still be true to the legend—which is that Merlin goes to her when he has to be away from people—I started to develop this idea that she would be Merlin’s moral advisor, and the only one that he shows true vulnerability with. And I will say that I have something planned for her in which she will leave a very influential mark on the entire series.

Another aspect I didn’t intend, but I am quite happy with, is that the simple act of giving names and complex psychologies to women who are little but symbols and passive figures in the legends is a bit of a feminist act, and makes this series much more contemporary. Now the women, and their thoughts and feelings, are given equal importance to the men, which places the genders on much more equal footing, and completely re-orients the legend, which is very man-focused. Arthur’s adoptive mother, Lady Ector, is also never given a name, and barely mentioned in the legend, but in my series, she too will be a tremendously influential character.

Tyler: In The Void Place, the novel opens with Uther as king. Merlin has already set up the Round Table. I was a bit surprised by this since I tend to think it doesn’t happen until Arthur’s reign. Did you draw on sources for it happening during Uther’s reign?

Scott: The Vulgate Cycle has Merlin create the Round Table in the first part of Uther’s reign, just as you see at the end of The Sons of Constance. Then when Uther dies it goes to King Leodegrance, and then Arthur receives it when he marries Guinevere. The other thing is that Uther creates the first generation Knights of the Round Table, and then some of them go on to serve Arthur when he takes over.

One of the things that I love about the Arthurian legend, and I think is one of its major themes, is the passing on from generation to generation. Objects are passed on, but so are conflicts and alliances, and values and ideals, and Arthur has to deal with some conflicts that began in his father’s time. So I really wanted to capture that here, with the passing on of the Round Table and the first generation of knights, and this connection between Uther’s generation and Arthur’s. And you’ll see as we go forward that Uther’s knights, like Ulfius, come from a time that is more mercenary and brutal, and we will see Arthur develop an ideal of knighthood that is more refined, honorable, and chivalrous.

Our Man on Earth, the first book in the Swithen series, tells the story of Merlin’s birth and childhood.

Tyler: There are a few characters in The Void Place I don’t remember from the Arthurian legend, such as Ulfius and Riger. Are they your own invention, and why did you feel the need to include them?

Scott: The story of the knight who tests the Siege Perilous is in the Post-Vulgate Cycle, as is the idea that Merlin was said to be dead. I didn’t think this knight had a name, but upon a little research I found that he is called Riger le Brun in another version, and Riger is a fine name, so I went with that. Everything about his character was made up by me, as a foil to Uther and someone who would play on his uncertain feelings about Merlin. I also added the loose idea that Uther’s failure with the seat in some way causes, or leaves Uther in a state to fall into obsession over Igraine.

Ulfius is in Malory, very slightly, but is a medium-sized presence in the Post-Vulgate Cycle, where he is named Ulfin. He does act as go-between with Igraine and he does arrange the marriage, as you see in The Void Place. I just…for some reason, I just adore Ulfius. There is a line in Malory that while Arthur has to keep pulling the sword again and again, he goes to live with the knights, including Ulfius, and that one line will become the entire basis of Book 5, because I am so taken with the idea of the teenage Arthur hanging with these adult knights and learning the ideals of knighthood and what knights need from their king, so that’s going to be really fun.

The other thing that Ulfius touches on is what I mentioned about aspects continuing through generations…. So Ulfius is Uther’s best friend, and he’s going to be a good friend and mentor to Arthur and he will go on to fight alongside Arthur in his wars against King Lot and the others. So he’ll be offstage for Book 4, but very present for Books 5 and 6, and…there’s one more thing about Ulfius that makes him very special, but I can’t tell you without ruining a surprise.

Tyler: Do you feel Uther is justified in his feelings toward Merlin? They seem to have a love-hate relationship?

Scott: I’m curious to see how people react to my version of Uther, since he’s usually considered fearsome and admirable, and here he’s very insecure and self-centered. And also his relationship with Merlin is quite strained. My main source, the Vulgate Cycle, tries to have it both ways, saying on the one hand that they had great love for each other, while on the other Merlin will not speak to Uther by the end. That’s all from the legend, as well as that they must do penance and that Uther’s hands and feet swell and he physically withers away.

As far as their poor relationship, this all grew out of my conception that the kings would feel that Merlin has taken away any agency they have, because they are just enacting his plans, not having ideas of their own. There is also the issue of them knowing that there is this greater king to come, which is, of course, Arthur. Between Books 2 and 3, you see that Pendragon wrestles with this, but ultimately accepts Merlin’s advice and his final act is one of generosity toward Arthur. Uther is self-centered, and resents the coming of Arthur. It’s meant to contrast their approaches toward a king’s service to the country—is it about serving others, or is it about their own glory? And both of these approaches is leading up to how Arthur will handle it, and how Arthur will feel about Merlin.

You notice by the end of this novel people are asking Merlin “What if Arthur hates you?” And Merlin’s relationship with Uther is meant to highlight the ways in which Merlin will have to adjust his approach, learn humility and learn to be more gentle with humans and their emotions if he is going to keep Arthur from turning away and rejecting him.

Tyler: We meet Viviane for just a brief moment in The Void Place. I assume she is to enchant Merlin later. I’m curious why you chose Viviane over Niniane or Nimue as the enchantress. I believe Viviane was a name Tennyson invented. In The Void Place, it seems like she already has supernatural powers from the brief encounter she has with Merlin, so can we expect some differences in the story with her since usually Merlin teaches her magic.

Scott: I also have her appear in a dream to Meylinde in Our Man on Earth. Viviane was the first Lady of the Lake, and is killed by Balin, then Nimue is brought to the court later. I believe Viviane is named in the Vulgate Cycle. My choice to include her so soon has to do with larger things I’m cooking up to go across the entire series, and one of those has to do with the coming of Christianity and the driving out of Paganism and magic.

One thing—one amazing thing—that is in the Vulgate Cycle but not in Malory, is the fact that Nimue lives in an illusory lake, where she rules a matriarchal society, and that is where she raises Lancelot after she kidnaps him. This whole history of Lancelot—and his connection with one of Arthur’s biggest life mistakes—is heavily explored in the Vulgate and you had better believe it’s going to be delved into here, because I like it as nasty and complicated as possible! One entire book of this series is planned to be Lancelot’s youth, with Lionel and Bors, in Nimue’s magical lake, so there’s a lot to come in terms of the Ladies of the Lake. Viviane’s appearances are just the tip of the iceberg, and placed there to build toward something major that is coming.

Tyler: Scott, what have you most enjoyed about writing this series so far, and what would you say has been your biggest challenge?

Scott: The biggest challenge is definitely working the chronology out to the degree that I know enough of what is coming that I can insert it into the story at the appropriate point. Sometimes when reading this stuff, it’ll say “this happened two years earlier,” and I have to figure out when it happened in relation to other things, and what else was happening then. For example, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—which I am going to work into this narrative—the Green Knight appears a year before Gawain goes off to visit him, so…is his first appearance in one book, and the resolution in another? Or do I just say “a year ago, this happened”? And what else was going on at that time? So it’s a huge challenge.

The three books so far have been largely before the main story begins, so I have had some time to lay out what’s coming. I have a huge Excel spreadsheet with a page each for each of the books, as well as character notes and suchlike, and have things like “Viviane dies here” and “Gawain comes to court,” as well as what the beginning and ending will be, the theme of each book, and I list each character and say what their age and mental state is at that time in the story so I can give them compelling arcs over the whole series. I am writing individual novels, but also one huge novel where each book is just a chapter.

Which leads us into what I have enjoyed the most, and will enjoy, which is the prospect of creating this huge, very intertwined tapestry of characters and this massive, truly epic story. I really look forward to creating a very rich life story for Arthur from his birth to his death. And ultimately we’ll have about sixty years in the lives of a great number of connected and intertwining characters, which will be an incredible thing. Books 2 and 3 were the first where a set of characters went from one book directly into another, and I really enjoyed the resonances and added meanings that the additional space can bring. By the time we get ten books in, I think that’ll be amazing, and by the time we’re twenty books in, I think—I hope!—that the accumulated weight of the story and the characters’ histories will be incredible and overwhelming.

Tyler: Spoken like a true novelist, Scott. I love how detailed and intertwined all your plans are. For me, personally, that is the great fun of writing fiction and especially a series, building all these layers and interconnections between characters and book after book. So that said, of course, I’m anxious to know when we can expect the fourth book. Will you give us a preview of what to expect in it?

Book II of the Switchen Series, The Sons of Constance tells the tale of Merlin’s dealings with Vortiger, Pendragon, and Uther.

Scott: I’ve already started writing it, and I’m really into it. The tone will be much more lovely and gentle, and it will be kind of a Young Adult novel, about Arthur’s childhood and the formation of his character. None of the sources give any information about Arthur’s childhood, and the big challenge to create something different than T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone or other versions of his boyhood.

I’ll tell you that Sir and Lady Ector will be fleshed out in depth, as will Kay and Arthur’s relationship with him. This is what I was saying is the best part of writing this series, because I am writing their boyhood relationship knowing they will be together their entire lives, and there is so much to come. Arthur will be struggling with feeling that he doesn’t belong with this family, as well as having to swallow that he will be Kay’s squire, not a knight himself. So like Our Man on Earth was with Merlin, in this we will see the formation of Arthur’s character. Books 4 through 6 will be formative experiences and adolescence for Arthur, and he will not be a mature adult king until Book 7. And there are some other things I have planned that I hope will be a very surprising, unusual way of coming at the familiar story we all know.

Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Scott. Can you tell us where we can go to get more information about your books or to purchase them?

Scott: I sure can! The books are available in ebook and paperback at Amazon and other retailers, and the easiest hub to get to them all would be to visit the website for the series.

Tyler: Thanks again, Scott. Best wishes for the continuation of your truly breathtaking series.

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Scott Telek’s The Void Place is the third book in his new Swithen series, following Our Man on Earth and The Sons of Constance, which have previously been reviewed here at Children of Arthur. The purpose of these novels is to explain the psychological motivations behind the characters’ sometimes-inscrutable actions, while remaining completely faithful to the Arthurian legend, and so far, I think Telek is successful in creating insightful reasons for many of his characters’ behaviors.

The Void Place, book 3 in the Swithen series, delves into how King Arthur was conceived by magical means.

This novel once again has Merlin at its center, though he is off stage for much of it. Merlin has told Uther that the greatest king is yet to come, which makes Uther feel like he is just a placeholder king, and as a result, he’s rather depressed and feeling inferior. Merlin has also set up the Round Table and even created the Siege Perilous and warned Uther not to let anyone sit there until the one destined to do so arrives. Uther, however, doesn’t like Merlin telling him what to do, and he also finds himself being pestered by Sir Riger, a knight who didn’t make the cut to sit at the Round Table. When a rumor spreads that Merlin has died, Riger convinces Uther that they need no longer listen to Merlin so he should get to sit in the Siege Perilous. I’ll let readers read for themselves what happens when Riger tries to sit there. I’ll just say I thoroughly enjoyed the situation surrounding wondering whether the Siege Perilous was truly perilous.

Eventually, Uther shakes off his doldrums when Duke Gorlois brings his wife Igraine to court. I was struck by Telek’s depiction of Gorlois as handsome, strong, and sensuous—not the old man he is often depicted as. Gorlois and Igraine are very much in love, and she has no interest in Uther when he begins expressing interest in her.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by describing what happens next—Uther convinces Merlin to help him sleep with Igraine, which Merlin does by enchanting Uther to look like Gorlois. What is more subtle is how Merlin manipulates Uther into doing exactly what he wants—it’s like trick child psychology where he tells Uther he mustn’t pursue Igraine, only to get Uther to pursue her, so that Arthur can be conceived. Ultimately, this leads to questions of whether Merlin is justified in his actions—is his manipulation wicked, or is he doing God’s work by setting in motion events to culminate in Arthur’s reign? Interestingly, his mother Meylinde, as in previous novels, steps in to serve as his moral conscience when he, in her eyes, misbehaves. Meylinde’s moral compass provides a lot of depth to the novel and restrains Merlin from doing whatever he chooses, thus providing some excellent internal conflict for him as well.

Besides the main storyline, several characters make minor appearances in the novel that will be developed more fully in future novels. These include Igraine’s daughters, Morgause and Morgan. Early in the novel we get a glimpse of Morgan’s future. She is only a child, but she has already poisoned a playmate, a situation that is quite funny, even if sinister. When the novel ends, she is engaged at age ten to marry King Uriens, and she is being sent to a nunnery until she is fourteen when the marriage can take place. I already think she will be a great villain and hope to see more of her soon.

I enjoyed the moments of humor in this novel, especially in the first half when Uther feels so frustrated by Merlin’s control over him. I admit I felt the pacing a bit slow in the middle as we waited for Uther to seduce Igraine, perhaps simply because I knew what was coming and was impatient for more twists on the traditional story. I especially enjoyed that in this version, Igraine never even learns that it was Uther who was disguised as Gorlois, although she does realize it was not Gorlois who conceived Arthur upon her that night. However, I was pleased by the shenanigans surrounding keeping Igraine’s reputation in place for having a child with a man who wasn’t her husband, including the arrangements for Sir Ector and his wife to raise the child and how they were depicted.

The novel ends with Merlin setting things in motion for Arthur’s reign, including the sword being planted in the stone. The land must now wait fourteen years without a king until Arthur is ready to claim his kingdom. The next novel in the series is intended to depict Arthur’s childhood.

This novel is also the first to provide the overall plan for the Swithen series. Telek plans twenty-five novels total, leading all the way to Arthur’s death. Previously the longest Arthurian series to my knowledge has been Patricia Kennealy-Morrison’s The Keltiad, often referred to as “Celts in Space.” She planned eighteen novels in her series, although to date only eight have been published and one collection of short stories, and only three of those novels really centered on the Arthurian legends while the rest were other retellings of Celtic legends. (Jack Whyte has actually written nine novels in or connected to his Camulod Chronicles series, although he never aspired, to my knowledge, to double-digits for his books.) We’ll see if Telek will someday hold the record. As long as he keeps writing them, I’ll be eager to read them.

More information about Telek’s Swithen series can be found at https://theswithen.wordpress.com/.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s LegacyMelusine’s GiftOgier’s PrayerLilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other books. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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The Sons of Constance is the second book in the new Swithen series by Scott Telek. The first book Our Man on Earth, tells the story of Merlin’s conception, birth, and amazing ability to speak as a young child and defend his mother against the charge of sexual immorality when she claims he is the son of the devil. In this second novel, we see Merlin at age ten, at the time when traditionally in the legends, King Vortigern seeks to have him killed to offset the continual falling down of his tower. Telek’s purpose is to write a series of Arthurian novels that remain faithful to their originals “by retaining the plot, story, and weirdness of the original legends from nearly a thousand years ago, but filling in the character and psychology in ways that are compelling to modern readers.” So far, I believe he’s been successful in this endeavor.

The Sons of Constance tells the tale of Merlin’s dealings with Vortiger, Pendragon, and Uther.

If you weren’t fascinated by how Telek depicted Merlin in the first novel, I guarantee you will be here. At age ten, Merlin is wiser than any other man. His great wisdom is the result of his being the son of the devil, as explained in the first novel. The devil granted him the power to know all things from the past. However, God stepped in and redeemed him, and in the process, gave him the power also to know all things in the future, which means he has a great gift for prophecy.

The novel opens in the time of King Constance, who has three sons: Maine, Pendragon, and Uther. When Constance dies, Maine becomes king. He is welcomed as king by the people, being handsome and charming, but it soon becomes apparent that he is more a pretty boy than an able administrator of a kingdom. His primary advisor is Vortiger (Telek drops the “n” because he is following the spellings used in the Post-Vulgate version of the Arthurian legends), and soon the people realize that if they want to get something done, they need to go to Vortiger. Then people start suggesting Vortiger should be king. He responds by saying he can’t be king while Maine is alive, a remark that people interpret as his wanting them to kill Maine. Of course, they do and Vortiger becomes king, while Maine’s brothers flee to the continent to safety.

Merlin enters the story when Vortiger is trying to build his tower and it continues to fall down. His counselors tell him he must sacrifice a boy who has no father in order to appease the gods so the tower will stand. Of course, Merlin is that boy, and he knows of this plot against his life before the counselors even arrive. Anyone who is a fan of the Arthurian legend will know what happens next, and there’s really nothing to Telek’s basic plot that will surprise anyone in that regard, so I apologize for any spoiler alerts that follow.

Merlin reveals to Vortiger that the real problem is that two dragons are lying under the tower, one red and one white, who occasionally move or roll over and cause the tower to fall. Vortiger is finally convinced that Merlin might be telling the truth, so he has his men dig under the tower, and indeed, they do find the two dragons. As Merlin predicts, the dragons wake and fight and the white dragon wins. Vortiger realizes the red dragon is symbolic of who he is since he always wears red, and that his death is approaching.

Arthurian fans will know what happens next. Vortiger dies and Pendragon (or Aurelius Ambrosius as he is often called, although Telek avoids the name) becomes king. In time, Pendragon also dies and Uther becomes king. What is fascinating about the novel is not the plot—truthfully, I thought the pacing of it a bit slow at times—but the psychology of the characters as the chain of events unfolds.

For me, Vortiger may have been the most interesting character in the novel. Telek gets into his mind, showing his guilt and fear over Maine’s death. It’s clear that he did not intend for Maine to be killed, but his words that led to Maine’s death were misinterpreted, and yet, perhaps on some subconscious level he did mean them as they were spoken. In his conversations with Merlin, he comes to realize Merlin’s great knowledge and also to feel guilt over his past. The battle of the dragons he also sees as a prophecy of his death, which leads him to make a rash act that ends in his destruction. I don’t want to give away the details of Vortiger’s death, but I will say that I think Telek has created the most real and sympathetic version of Vortigern to date. Vortigern has always been a rather undeveloped figure in Arthurian legend (except in Helen Hollick’s The Pendragon Banner Trilogy), but here he comes to life as a fully-rounded individual.

Both Pendragon and Uther are also well-rounded characters. Merlin immediately befriends them and helps to establish Pendragon as king, but Pendragon has a counselor, Brantius, who is skeptical of Merlin’s powers, primarily because he doesn’t like that Pendragon listens to Merlin over him. He sets up an elaborate ruse to prove that Merlin is a liar and cannot predict the future, but of course, it backfires on him. Merlin is then angry that Pendragon does not trust him and foretells that one day Uther will be king. This prophecy sets off a chain of events that are more emotional and psychological than action-packed. Telek delves into the feelings of Pendragon in knowing he must die so Uther can have the throne and into Uther’s feelings of guilt over his brother’s approaching death and his unreadiness to be king. Both brothers also are presented as realistic and ultimately noble as a result of the prophecy.

Of course, Merlin is the star of the novel, although the depiction of the three kings who precede Arthur are, in my opinion, Telek’s triumph simply because they have been sketchy and not fully detailed in most Arthurian works to date. But Merlin remains fascinating. At age ten, we see him able to change his appearance to that of an adult. We also see him able to open doors in the air so he can pass from one place to another (a type of portal apparently). And he is already predicting that an even greater king will come after Uther and setting events in motion for Arthur’s reign, including creating the Round Table and being concerned with the sangreal. And yet, despite all Merlin’s wisdom, his mother Meylinde still proves herself wiser in teaching him the secrets of the human heart and the true will of God.

The Sons of Constance ends with Uther as king and the realization that he will be a good king, but also a short glimpse at what will come in the third book The Void Place, yet to be published, in which will occur the events that lead to Arthur’s birth. I am looking forward to the next installment in this series.

For more information about the Swithen series, visit https://theswithen.wordpress.com/. The Sons of Constance is available at Amazon in ebook and paperback editions.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other books. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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The new film Anonymous offers one of several theories about whether Shakespeare wrote his own plays. Theories surrounding Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays focus on whether he had enough education to do so and whether a learned man who was a noble, and therefore, feared people would think it beneath him to write the plays, may have asked Shakespeare to take the credit for them. Scholars have debated these questions for years and will continue to do so.

Few people, other than Shakespearean scholars, know that besides the thirty-seven plays generally attributed to Shakespeare, there are a group of “apocryphal” plays that have been attributed to him, either with him being the author in full or in part. Even editions of Shakespeare’s works that include these apocryphal plays do not always include all of the same ones, including The Birth of Merlin. In all, over forty additional plays have been attributed to Shakespeare besides the thirty-seven usually agreed upon as his work.

The Birth of Merlin—the only Arthurian play ever attributed to Shakespeare—first had Shakespeare’s name placed on it when it was published in 1662. The play is noticeably absent from the First Folio of his plays published in 1623. In fact, it was not performed on stage until 1622—six years after Shakespeare’s death. It has been attributed to Shakespeare with William Rowley as co-author. Most scholars believe Rowley wrote the play himself and Shakespeare’s name got attached to it to give it popularity. Rowley was himself a playwright who lived from 1585-1626.

William Shakespare First Folio

The first page of The First Folio, the first collection of Shakespeare's plays. The Birth of Merlin is noticeably absent from it.

After having read The Birth of Merlin, I personally feel it unlikely it was written by Shakespeare. It has some elements typical of Shakespeare—such as iambic pentameter and nobles speaking in verse while commoners speak in prose—but these were common in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. My first thought was that it could be a very early play of Shakespeare’s—at best it might be ranked with his early Titus Andronicus, but even that play is far more dramatic and has a stronger plot. And since it wasn’t performed until 1622, it is unlikely a part of Shakespearian juvenilia—and Shakespeare retired after The Tempest, one of his best plays, so a falling off in his powers seems unlikely if he wrote it at the end of his life—after all, he died at the young age of fifty-two; and again, if he did write it, why would it not have been staged until six years after his death? Furthermore, the play is lacking in the poetic element, the double-meaning word play, or really any scenes that stir the heart or imagination. I have a hard time believing it could be Shakespeare’s play, although his interest in history would have made it a likely topic for him.

Arthurian scholars have often noted the falling off of popularity in the Arthurian legend during Elizabethan and Jacobean times, save for some masques and the Tudors’ attempts to claim a family relationship to King Arthur. The only reference in all of Shakespeare to King Arthur, actually, is in King John where Prince Arthur, upon dying, hopes to rest in “Arthur’s bosom.” We will never know whether Shakespeare ever considered writing a play based on the Arthurian legend or why he may have decided against it. That said, The Birth of Merlin does reflect that the Arthurian legend was still well-known and popular in Jacobean times.

William Rowley, or whoever wrote the play, did know his Arthurian legend. All the basic elements of Merlin’s story, as told in Geoffrey of Monmouth and other authors, are here, with some odd additions. In the play, Aurelius has defeated the Saxons and chosen as his bride Artesia, the sister to the Saxon leader, who ultimately plots to overthrow him and poisons him toward the end of the play. Meanwhile, Joan, a young commoner, has become pregnant and goes to her brother, simply named “Clown” in the play, to tell him of her misfortune; together, they try to find her a husband so her child will not be a bastard. The “Clown” character is typical of comedies of the era and there to add comic relief, although admittedly, the play is not very funny, and it does not fit into standard definitions of comedy or tragedy but rather would have been classified as a “History” play.

Joan does not even know the name of the man who impregnated her, although eventually it is revealed to be the Devil. When Merlin is born, he is already grown and has the start of a beard. The rest of the story follows the traditional one of Vortigern trying to build his castle. Merlin goes to him since Vortigern believes he needs to sacrifice one without a human father to keep his castle from falling. Merlin, however, reveals the dragons beneath the castle. He goes on to reveal that Aurelius has been slain and Uther will become king. He then makes a prophecy about Uther’s descendants, similar to the prophecy in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, including predicting King Arthur’s coming.

Wikipedia states that “The play is rich with visual effects of varying types, including devils and magic and masque-like spectacles. It was clearly designed to provide broad, colorful, fast-paced entertainment.” Among these spectacles is the comet that Merlin interprets to make his prophecies. Having only read the play, and it being unlikely ever to see it performed, I cannot speak to how entertaining it would be on stage, but it is a solid piece of Arthuriana in terms of following traditional stories about Merlin’s birth and youth.

As for Shakespeare, we can only dream what his Arthurian play would have been like had he ever written one. If only….

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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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After several posts on Camelot, which I have to admit is pretty much a flop and I can see why it was cancelled after its first season, it’s time for me to admit that I love Merlin. It is probably my favorite show on television right now, and I suspect it is the best Arthurian television series ever made.

When I first heard about Merlin in 2009 before it began to premiere, I was excited but skeptical, and the first few episodes did not convince me to like the show, but I kept watching.

I had several initial reservations about the program, including:

  • A talking dragon: Seriously! I was expecting cheesiness to result, but instead the show slowly built up the relationship between Merlin and the dragon until the dragon came to play a pivotal role and by the end of the second season was intriguing because of its past and its connection to the old religion.
  • An African American playing Guinevere: No offense intended, but what is she doing in Camelot? And what is Guinevere doing as a servant? And yet, the actress playing her grows on you until you think she’s quite cute and you root for her and Arthur as they fall in love.
  • Merlin himself: Colin Morgan looks like a clutsy boy in the beginning. Where is Merlin’s long beard and robe? Shouldn’t he be older than Arthur? Why do we need a slapstick cheese Merlin instead of a great wizard to awe us? And yet, Colin Morgan is a phenomenal actor–the more I watch him, the more he impresses me.
  • Morgana: For the first several episodes I wondered why she was even in the show. Her role seemed to be pointless and she was tossed in just because she was in the legend. But boy was I wrong. She is an integral part of the program and one of the most intriguing characters, and the actress playing her does a better job even than Eva Green does playing her counterpart on Camelot–although better writing has something to do with that.

I was wrong on all of these points. By the sixth episode or so, I knew I would keep watching. By the second season I was a fan, and now having watched the third season, I am hooked and eagerly awaiting the fourth season and thrilled to know that a fifth season is planned. I’ll go so far as to say that Merlin is my favorite show in a decade–since The Lost World was cancelled.

Merlin succeeds by steady and careful pacing and plotting. Yes, there are some borderline cheesy episodes, such as the troll who farts and marries Uther, and slapstick moments where Arthur throws things at Merlin, but overall, this series succeeds by slowly developing the characters, revealing new things about them, and aligning itself closely yet distantly enough to the Arthurian legend to keep the magic alive without having to worry about historical accuracy because of its fantasy kingdom setting. Camelot is the capital of a kingdom named Albion surrounded by several other countries–they are pseudo-historical, but there is no mention of Britain or France or a time period to make us expect the show is actually historical. At the same time, all the great Arthurian characters are here: Arthur, Uther, Merlin, Morgana, Guinevere, Mordred, Lancelot, Gawain, Percival, often with new twists and development.

In future posts, I’ll analyze some of the splendid ways Merlin plays with the Arthurian legend, but for now, it’s sufficient for me to say: Two Thumbs Up!

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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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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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