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On Sale: July 15, 2001
Pages: 912 | ISBN: 978-0-345-44816-3
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A Literary Guild Featured Alternate
Here is the magical legend of King Arthur, vividly retold through the eyes and lives of the women who wielded power from behind the throne. A spellbinding novel, an extraordinary literary achievement, THE MISTS OF AVALON will stay with you for a long time to come....

Excerpt


Even in high summer, Tintagel was a haunted place; Igraine, Lady
of Duke Gorlois, looked out over the sea from the headland. As
she stared into the fogs and mists, she wondered how she would
ever know when the night and day were of equal length, so that
she could keep the Feast of the New Year. This year the spring
storms had been unusually violent; night and day the crash of
the sea had resounded over the castle until no man or woman
within could sleep, and even the hounds whimpered mournfully.

Tintagel . . . there were still those who believed the castle had been
raised, on the crags at the far end of the long causeway into the sea,
by the magic of the ancient folk of Ys. Duke Gorlois laughed at this and
said that if he had any of their magic, he would have used it to keep
the sea from encroaching, year by year, upon the shoreline. In the four
years since she had come here as Gorlois's bride, Igraine had seen land,
good land, crumble into the Cornish sea. Long arms of black rock, sharp
and craggy, extended into the ocean from the coast. When the sun shone,
it could be fair and brilliant, the sky and water as brilliant as the
jewels Gorlois had heaped on her on the day when she told him she bore
his first child. But Igraine had never liked wearing them. The jewel
which hung now at her throat had been given her in Avalon: a moonstone
which sometimes reflected the blue brilliance of sky and sea; but in the
fog, today, even the jewel looked shadowed.

In the fog, sounds carried a long way. It seemed to Igraine, as she
stood looking from the causeway back toward the mainland, that she could
hear footfalls of horses and mules, and the sound of voices-human
voices, here in isolated Tintagel, where nothing lived but goats and
sheep, and the herdsmen and their dogs, and the ladies of the castle
with a few serving women and a few old men to guard them.

Slowly, Igraine turned and went back toward the castle. As always,
standing in its shadow, she felt dwarfed by the loom of these ancient
stones at the end of the long causeway which stretched into the sea. The
herdsmen believed that the castle had been built by the Ancient Ones
from the lost lands of Lyonnesse and Ys; on a clear day, so the
fishermen said, their old castles could be seen far out under the water.
But to Igraine they looked like towers of rock, ancient mountains and
hills drowned by the ever encroaching sea that nibbled away, even now,
at the very crags below the castle. Here at the end of the world, where
the sea ate endlessly at the land, it was easy to believe in drowned
lands to the west; there were tales of a great fire mountain which had
exploded, far to the south, and engulfed a great land there. Igraine
never knew whether she believed those tales or not.

Yes; surely she could hear voices in the fog. It could not be savage
raiders from over the sea, or from the wild shores of Erin. The time was
long past when she needed to startle at a strange sound or a shadow. It
was not her husband, the Duke; he was far away to the North, fighting
Saxons at the side of Ambrosius Aurelianus, High King of Britain; he
would have sent word if he intended to return.

And she need not fear. If the riders were hostile, the guards and
soldiers in the fort at the landward end of the causeway, stationed
there by Duke Gorlois to guard his wife and child, would have stopped
them. It would take an army to cut through them. And who would send an
army against Tintagel?

There was a time-Igraine remembered without bitterness, moving slowly
into the castle yard-when she would have known who rode toward her
castle. The thought held little sadness, now. Since Morgaine's birth she
no longer even wept for her home. And Gorlois was kind to her. He had
soothed her through her early fear and hatred, had given her jewels and
beautiful things, trophies of war, had surrounded her with ladies to
wait upon her, and treated her always as his equal, except in councils
of war. She could have asked no more, unless she had married a man of
the Tribes. And in this she had been given no choice. A daughter of the
Holy Isle must do as was best for her people, whether it meant going to
death in sacrifice, or laying down her maidenhood in the Sacred
Marriage, or marrying where it was thought meet to cement alliances;
this Igraine had done, marrying a Romanized Duke of Cornwall, a citizen
who lived, even though Rome was gone from all of Britain, in Roman
fashion.

She shrugged the cloak from her shoulders; inside the court it was
warmer, out of the biting wind. And there, as the fog swirled and
cleared, for a moment a figure stood before her, materialized out of the
fog and mist: her half-sister, Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, the Lady
of the Holy Isle.

"Sister!" The words wavered, and Igraine knew she had not cried them
aloud, but only whispered, her hands flying to her breast. "Do I truly
see you here?"

The face was reproachful, and the words seemed to blow away in the sound
of the wind beyond the walls.

Have you given up the Sight, Igraine? Of your free will?

Stung by the injustice of that, Igraine retorted, "It was you who
decreed that I must marry Gorlois . . ." but the form of her sister had
wavered into shadows, was not there, had never been there. Igraine
blinked; the brief apparition was gone. She pulled the cloak around her
body, for she was cold, ice cold; she knew the vision had drawn its
force from the warmth and life of her own body. She thought, I didn't
know I could still see in that way, I was sure I could not . . . and
then she shivered, knowing that Father Columba would consider this the
work of the Devil, and she should confess it to him. True, here at the
end of the world the priests were lax, but an unconfessed vision would
surely be treated as a thing unholy.

She frowned; why should she treat a visit from her own sister as the
work of the Devil? Father Columba could say what he wished; perhaps his
God was wiser than he was. Which, Igraine thought, suppressing a giggle,
would not be very difficult. Perhaps Father Columba had become a priest
of Christ because no college of Druids would have had a man so stupid
among their ranks. The Christ God seemed not to care whether a priest
was stupid or not, so long as he could mumble their mass, and read and
write a little. She, Igraine herself, had more clerkly skills than
Father Columba, and spoke better Latin when she wished. Igraine did not
think of herself as well educated; she had not had the hardihood to
study the deeper wisdom of the Old Religion, or to go into the Mysteries
any further than was absolutely necessary for a daughter of the Holy
Isle. Nevertheless, although she was ignorant in any Temple of the
Mysteries, she could pass among the Romanized barbarians as a
well-educated lady.

In the small room off the court where there was sun on fine days, her
younger sister, Morgause, thirteen years old and budding, wearing a
loose house robe of undyed wool and her old frowsy cloak about her
shoulders, was spinning listlessly with a drop spindle, taking up her
uneven yarn on a wobbly reel. On the floor by the fire, Morgaine was
rolling an old spindle around for a ball, watching the erratic patterns
the uneven cylinder made, knocking it this way and that with chubby
fingers.

"Haven't I done enough spinning?" Morgause complained. "My fingers ache!
Why must I spin, spin, spin all the time, as if I were a waiting-woman?"

"Every lady must learn to spin," rebuked Igraine as she knew she ought
to do, "and your thread is a disgrace, now thick, now thin. . . . Your
fingers will lose their weariness as you accustom them to the work.
Aching fingers are a sign that you have been lazy, since they are not
hardened to their task." She took the reel and spindle from Morgause and
twirled it with careless ease; the uneven yarn, under her experienced
fingers, smoothed out into a thread of perfectly even thickness. "Look,
one could weave this yarn without snagging the shuttle . . ." and
suddenly she tired of behaving as she ought. "But you may put the
spindle away now; guests will be here before midafternoon."

Morgause stared at her. "I heard nothing," she said, "nor any rider with
a message!"

"That does not surprise me," Igraine said, "for there was no rider. It
was a Sending. Viviane is upon her way here, and the Merlin is with
her." She had not known that last until she said it. "So you may take
Morgaine to her nurse, and go and put on your holiday robe, the one dyed
with saffron."

Morgause put away the spindle with alacrity, but paused to stare at
Igraine. "My saffron gown? For my sister?"

Igraine corrected her, sharply. "Not for our sister, Morgause, but for
the Lady of the Holy Isle, and for the Messenger of the Gods."

Morgause looked down at the patterned floor. She was a tall, sturdy
girl, just beginning to lengthen and ripen into womanhood; her thick
hair was reddish like Igraine's own, and there were splotches of
freckles on her skin, no matter how carefully she soaked it in
buttermilk and begged the herbwife for washes and simples for it.
Already at thirteen she was as tall as Igraine, and someday would be
taller. She picked up Morgaine with an ill grace and carried her away.
Igraine called after her, "Tell Nurse to put a holiday gown on the
child, and then you may bring her down; Viviane has not seen her."

Morgause said something ill-tempered to the effect that she didn't see
why a great priestess would want to see a brat, but she said it under
her breath so that Igraine had an excuse to ignore it.

Up the narrow stairs, her own chamber was cold; no fires were lighted
there except in the dead of winter. While Gorlois was away, she shared
the bed with her waiting-woman Gwennis, and his prolonged absence gave
her an excuse to have Morgaine in her bed at night. Sometimes Morgause
slept there too, sharing the fur coverlets against the bitter cold. The
big marriage bed, canopied, curtained against draughts, was more than
big enough for three women and a child.

Gwen, who was old, was drowsing in a corner, and Igraine forbore to wake
her, stripping off her workaday dress of undyed wool and hurrying on her
fine gown, laced at the neck with a silk ribbon Gorlois had brought her
as a fairing from Londinium. She put on her fingers some little silver
rings she had had since she was a little girl . . . they would go only
on her two smallest fingers, now . . . and hung a necklace of amber
which Gorlois had given her about her neck. The gown was dyed rust
color, and had an overtunic of green. She found her carven horn comb,
and began to pull it through her hair, sitting on a bench and working
her comb patiently through the tangles. From another room she heard a
loud yelling and decided that Morgaine was having her hair combed by her
nurse and didn't like it. The yelling stopped suddenly, and she supposed
that Morgaine had been slapped into silence; or perhaps, as sometimes
happened when Morgause was in a good temper, Morgause had taken over the
combing herself, with her clever, patient fingers. This was how Igraine
knew that her young sister could spin well enough when she chose, her
hands were so clever at everything else-at combing, at carding, at
making Yule pies.

Igraine braided her hair, clasped it on top of her head with a gold
clasp, and put her good gold brooch into the fold of her cloak. She
looked at herself in the old bronze mirror her sister Viviane had given
her at her wedding, brought, they said, all the way from Rome. She knew,
lacing her gown, that her breasts were once again as they had been
before: Morgaine had been weaned a year now, and they were only a little
softer and heavier. She knew she had her old slimness back, for she had
been married in this gown, and now the laces were not strained even a
little.

Gorlois, when he returned, would expect to take her to his bed again.
Last time he had seen her, Morgaine had still been at the breast, and he
had yielded to her plea that she might continue to suckle the child
through the summer season when so many little children died. She knew he
was discontented because the baby had not been the son he craved-these
Romans counted their lineage through the male line, rather than sensibly
through the mother; it was silly, for how could any man ever know
precisely who had fathered any woman's child? Of course, these Romans
made a great matter of worrying over who lay with their women, and
locked them up and spied on them. Not that Igraine needed watching; one
man was bad enough, who would want others who might be worse?

But even though he was eager for a son, Gorlois had been indulgent,
letting her have Morgaine in her bed and continue to suckle her, even
keeping away from her and lying nights with her dressing-woman Ettarr so
that she would not get with child again and lose her milk. He too knew
how many children died if they were weaned before they could chew meat
and hard bread. Children fed on gruel were sickly, and often there was
no goat's milk in the summer, even if they would drink it. Children fed
on cow's or mare's milk often got the vomit and died, or suffered with
the flux in their bowels and died. So he had left Morgaine at her
breast, thus postponing the son he wanted for at least another year and
a half. For that at least she would always be grateful to him, and not
murmur, however quickly he got her with child now.

Ettarr had gotten herself a belly from that visit, and gone about
preening herself; would she be the one to have a son by the Duke of
Cornwall? Igraine had ignored the girl; Gorlois had other bastard sons,
one of whom was with him now, in the camp of the war duke, Uther. But
Ettarr had fallen sick and miscarried, and Igraine had enough intuition
not to ask Gwen why she looked so pleased at the event. Old Gwen knew
too much of herbs for Igraine's perfect peace of mind. Some day, she
resolved, I will make her tell me exactly what she put into Ettarr's
beer.

She went down to the kitchen, her long skirts trailing on the stone
steps. Morgause was there, in her finest gown, and she had put Morgaine
into a holiday dress, dyed saffron, so that the child looked dark as a
Pict. Igraine picked her up, holding her with pleasure. Small, dark,
delicately made, so small-boned it was like handling a little soft bird.
How had that child come by her looks? She herself and Morgause were tall
and red-haired, earth-colored like all of the Tribeswomen, and Gorlois,
though dark, was Roman, tall and lean and aquiline; hardened from years
of battle against the Saxons, too filled with his Roman dignity to show
much tenderness to a young wife, and with nothing but indifference for
the daughter who came in the place of the son she should have borne him.

But, Igraine reminded herself, these Roman men considered it their
divine right to have power of life and death over their children. There
were many, Christians or no, who would have demanded that a daughter not
be reared, so that their wives might be free at once to give them a son.
Gorlois had been good to her, he had let her keep her daughter. Perhaps,
though she did not give him credit for much imagination, he knew how
she, a woman of the Tribes, felt about a daughter.

While she was giving orders for the entertainment of guests, for wine to
be brought up from the cellars and for the roasting of meat-not rabbit,
but good mutton from the last slaughtering-she heard the squawk and
flutter of frightened hens in the court and knew that the riders had
come across the causeway. The servants looked frightened, but most of
them had become resigned to the knowledge that the mistress had the
Sight. She had pretended it, using clever guesses and a few tricks; it
was just as well that they should remain in awe of her. Now she thought,
Maybe Viviane is right, maybe I still have it. Maybe I only believed it
was gone-because in those months before Morgaine was born, I felt so
weak and powerless. Now I have come back to myself. My mother was a
great priestess till the day of her death, though she bore sev- eral
children.

But, her mind answered her, her mother had borne those children in
freedom, as a Tribeswoman should, to such fathers as she chose, not as a
slave to some Roman whose customs gave him power over women and
children. Impatiently, she dismissed such thoughts; did it matter
whether she had the Sight or only seemed to have it, if it kept her
servants properly in order?

She went slowly out to the courtyard, which Gorlois still liked to call
the atrium, though it was nothing like the villa where he had lived
until Ambrosius made him Duke of Cornwall. She found the riders
dismounting, and her eyes went at once to the only woman among them, a
woman smaller than herself and no longer young, wearing a man's tunic
and woolen breeches, and muffled in cloaks and shawls. Across the
courtyard their eyes met in welcome, but Igraine went dutifully and bent
before the tall, slender old man who was dismounting from a raw-boned
mule. He wore the blue robes of a bard, and a harp was slung across his
shoulder.
Marion Zimmer Bradley|Author Q&A

About Marion Zimmer Bradley

Marion Zimmer Bradley - The Mists of Avalon
Marion Zimmer was born in Albany, NY, on June 3, 1930, and married Robert Alden Bradley in 1949. Mrs. Bradley received her B.A. in 1964 from Hardin Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, then did graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1965-67.

She was a science fiction/fantasy fan from her middle teens, and made her first sale as an adjunct to an amateur fiction contest in Fantastic/Amazing Stories in 1949. She had written as long as she could remember, but wrote only for school magazines and fanzines until 1952, when she sold her first professional short story to Vortex Science Fiction. She wrote everything from science fiction to Gothics, but is probably best known for her Darkover novels.

In addition to her novels, Mrs. Bradley edited many magazines, amateur and professional, including Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, which she started in 1988. She also edited an annual anthology called Sword and Sorceress for DAW Books.

Over the years she turned more to fantasy; The House Between the Worlds, although a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club, was "fantasy undiluted". She wrote a novel of the women in the Arthurian legends -- Morgan Le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and others -- entitled Mists of Avalon, which made the NY Times best seller list both in hardcover and trade paperback, and she also wrote The Firebrand, a novel about the women of the Trojan War. Her historical fantasy novels, The Forest House, Lady of Avalon, Mists of Avalon are prequels to Priestess of Avalon

She died in Berkeley, California on September 25, 1999, four days after suffering a major heart attack. She was survived by her brother, Leslie Zimmer; her sons, David Bradley and Patrick Breen; her daughter, Moira Stern; and her grandchildren.

Author Q&A

To the Reader

Below is a letter from Diana L. Paxon, Marion Zimmer Bradley's sister-in-law, fellow author, and longtime collaborator. Her deep friendship with Bradley, who passed away in 1999, and respect for Bradley's writing shines through in her letter, shedding new light on the inspiration behind THE MISTS OF AVALON.

Marion Zimmer Bradley died on September 25, 1999. During the week after her passing, my in-box filled to overflowing with messages from people who mourned her. They came from women and men, science fiction fans and pagans, Anachronists and people from all of the many other communities who appreciated her many novels; but above all, they came from readers who loved The Mists of Avalon.

In Marion, I lost not only a favorite author, but a sister and a friend. I had known her for over thirty years, and when I married her adopted brother, writer Jon DeCles, I became part of her family. For many years my husband and I shared a house with her brother Paul Edwin Zimmer (also a fantasy writer) and his family, and her mother lived with us until she died.

Marion read my first attempt at a novel, and read it again after I followed her advice and re-wrote it. We worked together as priestesses in the Women's Spirituality movement and founded Darkmoon Circle, which is still going strong today. Once I had become established as a writer, we traded ideas and manuscripts. When she wanted to do an anthology of work by people associated with our extended family and virtual writer's colony, she named it after my house, Greyhaven.

But when Marion first announced her intention to do an Arthurian novel I was skeptical. Surely, after T. H. White and Rosemary Sutcliffe's modern treatments of the story, there was nothing left to be said. Nonetheless, she knew that I had specialized in medieval literature in graduate school, and when she came to me for resources, I was glad to give what help I could. Not that she needed much, for she had been steeped in the Arthurian tradition since childhood.

I read the first chapters of what became The Mists of Avalon with a mounting excitement, for Marion had, indeed, found a new approach to the legend, one with particular relevance to the culture of the day. But I should not have been surprised--one of Marion's great gifts as a writer was to say something, at just the right time, that some group of people very much needed to hear. This time, it was an exploration of the role of the women in the legend of King Arthur--and in her hands, it became a deeply evocative story of women's struggles to survive in a masculine world.

In particular, it was a story of a woman's spiritual quest. The spirituality of Avalon derives from the British Mystery tradition, especially as it was interpreted by the occult writer Dion Fortune, whose character, Miss LeFay Morgan, is both a progenitor and descendant of Morgaine. In addition, Marion drew upon Dion Fortune's non-fiction book, Avalon of the Heart. For a time, Dion Fortune lived in Glastonbury, home of the Glastonbury Tor and still a sacred center of pilgrimage for many.

Although Marion traveled to the British Isles several times to visit Arthurian sites and do research, she realized early on that in order to be true to her vision she would have to abandon history, and instead, tell the truth of legend. The brilliant device of placing Avalon halfway between our world and Faerie allowed her to adorn it with structures and a society unknown to archaeology.

The Arthurian legend holds a unique place in the literature of the English language and seems to be capable of infinite reinterpretations. My own version, Hallowed Isle, is more faithful to history, but The Mists of Avalon casts a long shadow, which I avoided only by placing my priestesses in the Lake Country in the north of England!

For years after Mists was published, women continued to come to Darkmoon Circle looking for the College of Priestesses on Avalon. They were not misled, for the quality of interaction among the women, as well as much of the spirituality, reflects the atmosphere in the circle. It was a time of great excitement, as we realized that it was possible to create a religious practice that would meet our needs, and that the Goddess, far from being confined to ancient mythology, was alive, well, and eager to communicate. What Marion was describing in the new book--which she had originally wanted to call Mistress of Magic--was what we were experiencing every time we came together.

But no one expected what happened when The Mists of Avalon was published. Some of its success was no doubt due to the editorial and promotional genius of Judy Lynn Benjamin Del Rey, who got the book reviewed in the New York Times. But the rest has to be put down to Marion's ability to resonate with the zeitgeist. Glowing reviews certainly helped, but what made the book a bestseller was word-of-mouth publicity, and that's what keeps it selling today. People bought and read and loved it, then bought copies for their friends. Suddenly Marion found herself world-famous.

This was not what she had expected, especially when people began to phone her in the middle of the night wanting spiritual counsel. Morgaine herself could not have fulfilled all the expectations being laid upon the author of The Mists of Avalon. Marion continued to write, but she began to withdraw from public life.

Her health was also beginning to fail. To the heart trouble from which she had suffered for many years was added diabetes, and then a series of strokes. She managed to complete the first draft of The Forest House, a story based on the opera Norma that she had wanted to tell for many years, but it showed the effects of her illness, and she asked me to help her revise it. We were both pleased with the result, even though there was not much we could do to make Gaius nicer--his character, after all, is based on the opera's tenor role.

As I discussed the book with Marion, I came to understand the place of the Avalon mythos in her work much more clearly. Not only were the characters in Forest House ancestral to the later people of Avalon, but Marion considered several of them to be reincarnations of the major characters in her early occult novel, which was eventually published as The Fall of Atlantis. That suggested a further development of the mythos, and we proposed a new project, Lady of Avalon, which takes the characters through three incarnations; the first section being a continuation of the story line in The Forest House, while the third tells of the youth of Viviane and helps explain how she got that way. Our last collaboration, Priestess of Avalon, surrounds the middle section of the previous book with the story of Helena the mother of Constantine. In Priestess of Avalon, I have taken the opportunity to try and show not only Helena's spiritual quest, but Marion's religious position, which was that of a student of the Mysteries who could find truth and inspiration in both Christianity and paganism. The vision at the end of Mists in which the Goddess takes the form of the Virgin Mary expresses a truth beyond dogma. --Diana L. Paxson
March 26, 2001

Praise

Praise

"[A] monumental reimagining of the Arthurian legends . . . Reading it is a deeply moving and at times uncanny experience. . . . An impressive achievement."
--The New York Times Book Review

"Marion Zimmer Bradley has brilliantly and innovatively turned the myth inside out. . . . add[ing] a whole new dimension to our mythic history."
--San Francisco Chronicle

"Gripping . . . Superbly realized . . . A worthy addition to almost a thousand years of Arthurian tradition."
--The Cleveland Plain Dealer


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion


  The Mists of Avalon revolves around a number of dualities: male/ female, Christianity/druidism, duty/desire. How are these duali-
ties represented in the book? Can you think of others that were
presented?

 

2.  How does the book strive to challenge common stereotypes? How does it reinforce them?

 

3.  Is Gwenhwyfar a sympathetic character? In your opinion, does Marion Zimmer Bradley treat physical beauty in a positive, negative, or neutral manner? Explain.

 

4.  How responsible is Arthur for allowing the spread of Christianity and ultimate disappearance of Avalon? Was he simply being an honorable husband to Gwenhwyfar? Did you find the Arthur, Lancelet, Gwenhwyfar tryst disturbing? Although Arthur was an indisputably potent leader, can he, in the end, be deemed an effective one?

 

5.  It seemed in several instances that Morgaine disappeared when
she was most needed. Was she ultimately successful in represent-
ing the Goddess? Would you say that she was a victim to her fate or that she ultimately rose to meet it? What parallels can you draw between Morgaine’s life and Igraine’s? Between Morgaine and Viviane?

 

6.  The Merlin seems to play an ambiguous role in the story. Do you agree with this statement? In your opinion, was he motivated more by his faith, or by pride and ambition?

 

7.  Throughout history, did the spread of Christianity really lead to a diminishing of tolerance? Does the Goddess have a place in today’s world? Do you think that Christianity ever held woman as the principal of evil?

 

8.  What symbolism, if any, would you apply to the dragon slain by Lancelet? What is the symbolism behind Excalibur? The Grail? The Holy Thorn?
 

9.  At the end of Mists, did you feel that the Goddess had truly been absorbed into Christianity?

10.  How has Mists changed your perception or understanding of the Arthurian legend? How has it changed your perception of women’s roles in the making (and telling) of history?


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