Women's Perspective of King Arthur's Court, "The Mists of Avalon"
"The Mists of Avalon" by Marion Zimmer Bradley
"The Mists of Avalon", by Marion Zimmer Bradley, is an enchanting retelling of the enduring legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It differs from other books on this topic because the story is told from a woman’s point of view, in this case, Morgaine, Arthur’s half sister, and the last priestess of the goddess who presided over the mystical island of Avalon.
In some stories she is known by the more familiar name of Morgan Le Fay. Morgaine has been raised in the Pagan traditions in this magical place where both nature and women are worshiped, and Arthur is very familiar with them, though he has been raised in the Pendragon Court. The mists that surround the Isle of Avalon are so thick that many are unable to find it, and most need to have psychic abilities, or the sight, to aid them in locating this place. When the goddess or Lady of the Lake allows passage to a visitor who has the sight, a barge arrives at the shore of the lake to ride them across to the other side.
The time period portrayed is the era during which Christianity is beginning to spread as far as Britain, because Joseph of Arimathea built the first Christian church honoring the Virgin Mary in Glastonbury, across from the Isle of Avalon. Priests started to travel to the area to preach and spread the word of the Christ, but the inhabitants of Avalon still practice Beltane and other Pagan festivals. Women have little power, and are just used in arranged marriages to assure peace between tribes, and to bear sons for their kings.
As the story begins, Igraine, a young priestess from Avalon, is sent to marry a man many years her elder, in a place that she has never seen. She is expected to give up her Pagan ways then, but sees a vision from her mother Viviane, who is also the Lady of the Lake. Viviane reproaches Igraine for giving up her gift of the sight, and tells her that she will bear the next king of Avalon. It is imperative that he be someone who can unite and command loyalty from both the Pagan and Christian factions of British peoples.
Lady of the Lake
The Pendragon Court Era Begins
Shortly afterward, Igraine notices the handsome knight Uther Pendragon when the men return from war, and he becomes her lover. Uther speaks of the temple of Avalon and the great turning of the wheel of life, death, and rebirth. Igraine sees a vision through his eyes as they stand on the barren plain we now know as Stonehenge, the place where the rituals were held for centuries. Uther has the symbolic snakes tattooed on his wrists, which represent the kundalini energies that aid in visions and help to give protection in battle.
As their shared vision continues, Uther is being crowned as king, as he is someone who will uphold the important mysteries and symbols of his Pagan upbringing. Unbeknownst to Uther and Igraine, the Lady of the Lake, Viviane, already sees that there must be more heirs to the throne from Avalon, and risks a pregnancy later in life to bear a son named Galahad, whom is sent to Uther’s court to learn the knightly arts.
Young Galahad is the younger brother of Lancelet, who was also brought up with the Pagan ways. Soon the men return to war, and Igraine receives a coded message that Uther will return from battle at midwinter. Her elderly husband dies in battle, leaving Igraine free to be queen of Uther Pendragon’s court. Igraine is already pregnant with Uther’s son Arthur at the time, but although the priests are cruel to her, the people are happy to have an heir from Uther.
Young Arthur is reared at the court, until he suffers a treacherous blow to the head. The plotting, evil, and lies are beginning already, and Viviane, the High Priestess, sees that she must come to heal Arthur, and take him to Avalon for a time until he is more mature and can defend himself. Uther and Igraine’s daughter Morgaine is also sent to Avalon, told by Viviane that she will be taught in a convent. But she has seen how gifted Morgaine is in the ways of the goddess, and really takes her to Avalon to learn the high priestess rites and arts.
The priests teach hell fire and damnation to anyone who dares to speak of the old ways, though they have the hard task of spreading a word that some do not want to hear. Young Lancelet is also sent to Avalon to be taught by Merlin, alongside of Arthur. The fact that all three of these young people happen to be in the misty Avalon together one Beltane when they come of age has repercussions in all their lives that will never be overcome.
Merlin and Morgaine Want Pagan Traditions
Merlin, the magician and wise man from Avalon, often visits the court, as he is an accomplished harpist and both his music and advice is welcome in this court. Merlin speaks to Igraine of his fears about the dying Pagan traditions, and tells her, “The priests of the holy isle took an oath, four hundred years before, promising they would never drive the people of Avalon from their lands. But in their prayers, they have sought to drive the Pagan gods away with their god, and enforce their Christian wisdom over the former Pagan wisdom. In the whole world there must be only one god, and the two worlds are drifting apart.”
The priestesses and inhabitants of Avalon believe in reincarnation, that each person has many lives to experience all things and to balance their karma. When the priestesses are old enough, they are rewarded with a tattoo of a crescent moon on their foreheads, showing their allegiance to the goddess and nature, similar to the snakes that adorn the arms of the men of Avalon. Merlin truly believes that people can agree that there is only one god, whatever a person decides to call him or her. But he is troubled as he sees fanatical Christians working hard to win over the minds and hearts of all the people, with their religion of fear, intolerance, and sin. He is not entirely closed to their message, but wishes to see them agree that there is more than one way to worship.
Morgaine continues to learn at Viviene’s side at Avalon, where she practices her magic and her psychic skills become even stronger. She is delighted to see Lancelet when he arrives on the barge to visit Viviene. He does not really view her as his real mother, since he has been reared at the court, and is somewhat frightened of this stately priestess of the goddess. Avalon is such a mystical place, it seems that even time is different there, and the little fairy folk follow the visitors around.
But he is happy to revisit the beauty and magic of Avalon, the music of the harps, and to find his cousin Morgaine, who has grown to be quite a beauty. They climb the Tor one afternoon, and begin to feel their first stirrings of sexual arousal. Before they are able to act upon it, they hear the voice of a frightened child cry out, and hurry to help her. It turns out to be Gwenhwyfar, and they escort her back to the convent, never guessing how their destinies will be so entwined with hers.
Mists of Avalon Book
The Fateful Beltane Ceremony
Morgaine has been told that she must remain a virgin at the request of the goddess until the time is right. When it is, a virgin huntress must give her maidenhood to the horned one, or the king stag, the consort of the huntress. This is a time-honored tradition in Avalon. Viviane tells Morgaine that she has been chosen to be that consort this year. The maidens wound her hair in garlands of berries and spring flowers, paint her body, clothe her, give her beautiful necklaces and a gown, and gift her with the blue crescent moon on her head in preparation for this special Beltane.
At sunrise, Morgaine is led to carry on the tradition that went back as far as the druids. The young man being led towards her is tall, fair haired, and powerfully built. He is also painted and wearing deer skins, and has antlers attached to his head. Morgaine feels a new and different kind of awareness flow into her body. But as the sight is getting her confused, she sees older versions of this Beltane ceremony from times past, and also feels her own virginity being taken by the king stag, the fair haired and blue painted young man who joins with her in a cave.
They fall asleep after the deed is done, drowsy from what they have been given to drink in the potions. When they awake in the morning, they are both surprised to find they are only a young woman and a young man, not priestess and king stag. They decide that since they have been together already for the sacred ceremony, why deny themselves the pleasure of joining once more as mere mortals? They make love tenderly, and tears fall gently as they do. But then the spell is broken, and they recognize each other as Arthur and Morgaine!
How could the goddess require this of them? Arthur is sickened and ashamed to find he has slept with his half-sister, as he has been schooled in the Christian ways, even though his roots are in Avalon. Viviane finally explains that both partners had to be of the royal bloodline of Avalon. She knows from the sight that Uther Pendragon has died in battle, and there was no time to waste, Arthur is heir to the throne and now the high king of Britain. Morgaine did what the goddess demanded of her, and although Viviane thought they were drugged enough never to recognize each other, it could not be helped now.
Morgaine is furious, but has sworn her life to do as the goddess wishes, and is now a high priestess herself. She sews an enchanted scabbard for the magical sword Excalibur, imbued with her powers. Merlin insists that Arthur swear that he will commit his life to preserving the old Pagan and fairy customs alongside of the Christian ones. Merlin prepares Arthur for the day that he wishes to see, when the druids, priests, and everyone will worship the same god, for Merlin believes there is only one deity, but different people use different names for this being. Poor Arthur tries to console himself with the thought he really slept with a red haired goddess at the Beltane ritual, but Morgaine has the powers to be maiden, mother, and crone or wise woman all at one time, and appears larger and different in these roles. When she later finds that she is pregnant with Arthur’s child, she lies by omission.
The Legend of Camelot Endures
Arthur quickly returns home to his role as king and he marries Gwenhwyfar as his queen, and although it is a match that unites people temporarily, her strict adherence to the tenets of Christianity gradually eat away at Arthur, making him torn between his wife and his duty to uphold the Pagan traditions. His queen is portrayed as a whiner who is afraid of her own shadow. Arthur is much beloved in his lands, as both a fair man and a great warrior. Gwenhwyfar’s marriage gift to Arthur is the famous Round Table, made so that when matters of importance are discussed, no one person sits at the head of the table, so each person’s voice can be equally heard.
His kingdom of Camelot grows stronger and wealthier as the years go on, and many merry occasions are celebrated as the knights and their beautifully decked out ladies join Arthur around the table. Arthur’s best friend and confidant, Lancelet, is very good looking and attracts the eye of many a maiden. Unfortunately, he has eyes only for Gwenhwyfar, and she for him, which causes many a problem. Arthur loves Lancelet as well, they have been best friends all their lives, and he is not blind to the way Lancelet and Gwenhwyfar look at each other. One further sadness is that Gwenhwyfar is never able to carry a child to term, so Arthur has no legal heir to the throne, as far as he knows. He has a plan to try to remedy this situation, one that causes further jealousies and treacheries in the court.
Gwenhwyfar’s stict adherence to the Christian laws, as interpreted by the terribly stern and unyeilding priests she keeps around the palace, prove to be the bane of everyone’s existence around the court. Yet she is a hypocrite in her own actions and not as pious as she would have everyone believe. Merlin keeps hoping that people will finally come to their senses and realize that there is only one god for the whole earth, no matter what he/she is called.
Arthur is so generous and beloved by all the knights who serve him, and it is almost agonizing to see him want to honor his vow to Merlin to preserve the old customs, but have to adapt to a changing world and Christianity in order to preserve his kingdom. As we all know, times and customs are always changing. Many already know how this story ends, and how the very people who made Camelot the shining beacon of beauty, goodwill, and luxury it was, are the very ones who bring it to ruin by their selfish scheming and actions.
This reader was enchanted within the first few pages of this wonderful re-telling of the story of the Knights of the Round Table told from the point of view of the women who loved them. The book is truly a magical spell in itself, and draws the reader in just as surely as any charm from the priestesses of the island of Avalon. This tale will keep you enthralled from start to finish, and make you yearn to follow your heart to the gentle slopes of Avalon and disappear in its mists for awhile to escape the demands of everyday life.
Knights of Round Table
© 2011 Jean Bakula