Mists of Avalon: My Mythic Past

Many moons ago, when Clintons roamed the earth, I was in my first year of college. The broomball ice rink had melted, the grass was greening where it wasn’t yellowed by frat boy pee, and I dragged my mother’s copy of The Mists of Avalon out in front of the dorm with a blanket, and read. And read and read. People would come by, and bother me about stuff like eating and sleeping and classes, and I would wave them on, obsessed with the story I was reading, and the spring, and the sun.

This is by far my favorite reading experience. It was like a drug, like sex, like neither of these things, like itself. I would read, and my elbows would go numb, so I would lay on my back until my thumbs hurt, and then flip over again. I had read some Zimmer Bradley in high school and enjoyed it, Firebrand and the one about trapeze artists, but I hadn’t been swallowed by the story, hadn’t consumed it in turn, like I did with this book. She blew my post-adolescent mind with her view of history, of legend, of the long, dark story of men and women. 

She tells the Arthurian legend, but not in any way I had experienced it before. The protagonist is Morgan la Fey, who is usually one of the villains. Here she is a priestess of the Old Religion, the Druids, trying to hold her own as the Christians insinuate and change the whole of society around her. It’s not one of those perfect pasts; I remember long passages about the mind-numbing banality that is women’s work in any given culture. Gwenhyfar is something of a silly girl, Aurthur a bit of a clueless jock. Morgana prays to the goddess Ceridwen a bunch too, which warmed my heart, as that is what my parents named me. And tattoos! And sex! And a bunch of other stuff that had never, ever occurred to me before, because I was young, and it was spring, and maybe I was a little sheltered, but in a good way. 

Zimmer Bradley broke new ground with this book, in terms of feminist re-imaginings of the classics. She didn’t just put Morgan la Fey in a leather bustier, and have her shoot sex arrows at Arthur. (Hey man, I’m as sex-positive as the next feminist, but I’m pretty sure putting a historical figure in a bustier has nothing to do with wage parity.) She changed the form, used the language and modes of mass produced fantasy for women to utterly subvert the ideas of literature, of women’s literature. 

I don’t know if you’ve watched soaps recently, but mostly characters sit around the kitchen and talk about other characters. It’s like this mirror world, reflected back from the kitchens where the shows are watched. Zimmer Bradley uses this kind of comfortable feminine form to turn the legend upside down and shake all the change out of its pockets. History is important, right? the purview of important men and their important modes of speech. Zimmer Bradley tackles this most manly of subjects using the language of women, and it was a stroke of genius. (Although, the Arthur stuff is maybe the most girly of all the big legends: no unified text, a sort of gossipy, back-and-forth quality of many of the tales, love triangles, love potions. I mean, Knights of the Round Table? You might as well be the Knights of the Giant Metaphorical Vagina. But, whatever.)

I’ve never read The Mists of Avalon again, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s too located in my own private history, too perfect. I have a feeling returning this book would be cringe-inducing, and I’d be confronted by a story in need of an editor and an unsubtle view of men and women and religion. My memory is a way to experience my younger self, and my rating reflects that. It’s spring again, and I’m feeling nostalgic for springs past, for books past, for selves past. You’d probably have to be a naive, confident girl from the Midwest, living at the beginning of the end of the millennium, to love this book like I do. It’s possible you may have whatever oddball collection of character traits that will make you love this book too. I hope so.

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