The Mists of Avalon
Bored with the few popular versions of the Camelot and King Arthur legend? Having read The White Goddess, seen the movie Camelot, and suffered through the film Excalibur, are you convinced there must be something better? Let me introduce you to a treasure- Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (Knopf, New York 1983). This mystical book shows the circumstances that led to the rise and fall of Camelot. The story is told by two often maligned characters in the traditional story: Morgaine, Avalon Priestess and Arthur's half-sister, and Gwenhwyfar, Christian princess and future queen of Camelot. The two women's personal griefs, joys, and struggles are explained in this relatively feminist (especially compared to the other versions!) portrayal of the times. Tangled in the two women's search for happiness is the political and spiritual transition of Britain from Goddess-centered religions to organized Christianity.
The Mists of Avalon follows Morgaine from child to priestess on the mystical Isle of Avalon, bastion of the Goddess-worshipping priestesses and druids of the Old Religion. The title describes the magical protective mists which surround the island, making it invisible to all but the initiated or strongly psychic. With the feminist consciousness of the current era, we see Morgaine struggle with not fitting female physical and behavioral stereotypes, addressing issues of aging, and describing how men (and women) respond to women in positions of power. Morgaine's life is shaped by her desire to serve her religion and the Goddess, and to preserve the Old Religion while watching commonfolk and royalty discard it in favor of Christianity.
We travel with Gwenhwyfar from innocent child who first meets Arthur when she inadvertently crosses the the protective mists of Avalon to her transformation as a guilt-ridden Christian queen. Her deep desire for a child and fear that pagan "magic" caused a miscarriage leads her to beg Arthur to turn his back on the Old Religion, catalyzing the infamous fall of Camelot.
For everyone the least bit interested in Wiccan (witchcraft) or pagan rituals who is not looking for a "how-to" manual, this is the book for you. Part of the magic of the book is seeing the transformational process of person to priestess, as well as how the "old Religion" affects the practitioner's world view. Those interested in the historical rise of organized religion and the discrimination against the pagan tribes in Britain will be fascinated with the portrayal of the societal shift away from woman-centered, sex and pleasure positive beliefs to the woman-as-source-of-all-evil mindset and the need for perpetual atonement. There is also food for thought in seeing how this version differs remarkably from the "traditional" one, and how history depends on who is documenting it. I am reminded of the traditional St. Patrick's Day legend that Patrick valiantly drove the snakes out of Ireland. Some claim that "the snakes" were the pagan tribespeople.
Historians might shudder at historcal fiction like this, but this is a book worth suspending that critical voice. Bradley describes some of her research, including what little material is available on the actual religious practices of pre-Christian Britain. To complement this, she researched with current practitioners, including the author Starhawk.
This book's size is daunting (870 pages) but The Mists of Avalon is a very easy read, and is segmented so it can be easily picked up or put down as time allows. Once you begin this book, however, it will be difficult to put down, as you will fall under its spell. Yow won't want to put it down. Whether reading it as a supplementary or primary source of information about Camelot, as an introduction to Wiccan ritual, or for sociological information on the supplantation of pagan religions by Christianity, do not miss this book!
Thanks to Avalon Druid Order's Website for some of the information.