Rameau’s review archive: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Rameau’s note: At the time of reading this book, in 2012, I didn’t know about the paedophile scandal in the author’s family. I think I found out that her husband had abused small boys and that Zimmer Bradley had protected him after reading The Mists of Avalon, but I’m not sure. My review, however, stands.



In Marion Zimmer Bradley’s masterpiece, we see the tumult & adventures of Camelot’s court thru the eyes of the women who bolstered the king’s rise & schemed for his fall. From their childhoods thru the ultimate fulfillment of their destinies, we follow these women & a diverse cast of characters that surrounds them as the great Arthurian epic unfolds. As Morgaine & Gwenhwyfar struggle for control over the fate of Arthur’s kingdom, as the Knights of the Round Table take on their infamous quest, as Merlin & Viviane wield their magics for the future of Old Britain, the Isle of Avalon slips further into the impenetrable mists of memory, until the fissure between old & new worlds’ & old & new religions’ claims its most famous victim.

The Mists of AvalonThe Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

This review can also be found on Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell-blog.

I’ve been actively reading and reviewing books for a year and a half now. In that time, my criteria for rating a book on the one to five stars scale has changed a couple of times. A few things still hold true. The book has to be exceptional and leave an indelible impression to get a five star rating from me. Three stars remains my meh-rating. It’s a book that I can objectively call a good one, something I might have even enjoyed reading, but it’s also something I can easily forget and move on.

My one star rating however, that’s changed the most. At first it was anything and everything I simply didn’t like. If the offences added up to a certain point I’d give it a one star rating no matter what redeemable qualities I’d find in it. But as I read more and actually started thinking about it, I realised there are books that aren’t even worthy of that single star, books that are, to me, beneath contempt. To compensate, I adjusted my personal rating scale and now one star is reserved to books that induce burning white rage in me.

I’ve given good ratings to books with characters I’ve hated when I enjoyed the story, and I’ve given good ratings to books with stories I’ve hated even when I loved a character or two. For me, the style matters little, but dammit, it matters.

And I’m not talking about the clunky language that in a way fits the subject and the legend, but takes a while to get used to.

Ms. Bradley set out to write a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the female perspective, and in that she succeeded. She managed to put together a logical and a somewhat coherent version of the events that put King Arthur on his throne in Camelot and brought him down from it, and she managed to tell it with female voices. Igraine, Viviane, Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar, Morgause, all these women claw their way from the footnotes of the myth and become three dimensional people—not just characters, but people—with worries and joys of their own.

Admittedly those joys were short-lived, but that’s partly why I loved the story. It’s why I love the legend as I do all things heart-rending.

However, as wonderfully flawed all these people were with their virtues and their unbridled ambitions, none of them really had a choice in the matter. Ms. Bradley didn’t write people, women or men, who made the best of their unfortunate circumstances. She wrote people thrown about by the fates and whims of their deities. Morgaine’s last defence is that she never had a choice and that she was merely the Goddess’ instrument.

And that’s why I hate this book.

All the characters, as Ms. Bradley paints them, are passive. None are active. None make choices and then take responsibility for their actions. They’re all thrown into untenable situations where something must break and either give them that what they most wish or take it all away from them.

Igraine marries because she doesn’t have a choice. She goes to convent, because she can’t bear to face the sister who forced her hand.

Gwenhwyfar also marries, because she doesn’t have a choice. She first surrenders to her lover because she doesn’t have a choice. The only stupid choice she makes is so that the author has an excuse to make the pious lady into an adulteress without making her choose it.

Morgaine, the worst offender, chooses nothing. The closest she comes to making up her own mind is when she flees Avalon, but after that she promptly becomes the meekest of them all. She, who should be the fearsome Lady of the Lake and High Priestess of the Goddess, how can she be a vehicle of her Goddess’ will when she does nothing but allows others act around her?

Catalyst, you say? This isn’t a chemical reaction where one substance remains unchanged. People change, people make choices that change them and others around them. Unless, of course, you’re a character in The Mists of Avalon.

But times were different then and women nothing but chattel, you say? There’s difference in being victimised and being a victim. All Morgaine and the others had to do to win me over, was not to see themselves as victims. All they had to do was to endure what was thrown at them and choose to make the best of it. All they had to do was to choose.

Only Morgause and Viviane come close to choosing anything, and how are their choices rewarded? Why of course, they are the great villainesses whose actions lead to a family tragedy after a family tragedy. Their actions bring an end to all those things they love and they don’t live to see the aftermath or acknowledge their responsibility.

Telling a story from the female perspective doesn’t make it feminist; writing capable women doing things, being active, and making choices does. This book is something worse; it’s a pretender.

There are many things I appreciate in this book, one thing I don’t is how it all was told. That matters. Dammit.

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9 Responses to Rameau’s review archive: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

  1. I think I am going to delete my rather positive review. Here is one link which explains why.
    Let me add a second one .

    Now let me go and puke in peace.
    ETA: My review is gone. I am not going to read anything penned by that monster ever again.

    • rameau says:

      I don’t think you should delete your review, but you can add a note linking to those articles or simply say your opinion has changed because of this. If you want. Your review made me want to read this book and make up my own mind about it. Without you I might still think it simply as a great book I never read.

      • Thank you for your kind words I don’t think I deserve bc my review was as usual a bit overlong and boring. When I wrote it I knew nothing about the controversies surrounding MZB and her family. I would have done that much (kept it with an addenum) if you hadn’t reposted yours. As it is now I feel one review is more than enough. Let me also add that imvho you did a better job.

  2. blodeuedd says:

    After I read that same thing I was all f no, I will not read anything by her

    • rameau says:

      Right after, my note should have said. I found out about MZB’s husband after I finished reading Mists of Avalon and wikied the rest of the series and the author. None of what I read affected my review, which is why I didn’t mention it before. But to know for sure that she too abused and actively protected other abusers, that earns a warning label.

      • Incest and pedophilia combined – I really cannot understand how come MZB managed to stay under the radar for so long and was never punished. At least her husband went to jail.

  3. heidenkind says:

    Regardless of what the author’s done, I dnf’d this novel because I thought it was effing boring. I never understood the appeal of her novels.

    • It was a bit longish and boring; still I managed to finish it. I even liked it a bit. Now I want to puke every time I think about it.

    • rameau says:

      I can see both sides. It is a very long and sometimes a boring book, but it also has the spell Arthurian legends have always held over people. And it is written from the women’s perspective, even if poorly in my opinion.

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