Sady Doyle sums up “Mists of Avalon”

Morgana says "Oh, PLEASE"

The book says that the problem with Christianity is that it won’t tolerate other religions. It implies, however, that the problem with Christianity is that it’s a stupid jerk religion for assholes. The ladies in Avalon get psychic powers and meaningful jobs and top-notch liberal arts educations, whereas we manage to make it about three whole chapters into the book before a Christian dude beats his wife and things get all “be silent, you accursed scold” this and “have you put some spell upon my manhood, you accursed bitch” that and “you see what comes of your willfulness, my lady” the other. To argue that the book ultimately teaches religious tolerance is like arguing that old movie serials ultimately taught the importance of cooperation between virtuous maidens and dudes with capes and handlebar moustaches who enjoyed tying maidens to train tracks. Of course, medieval Christianity was deeply misogynist and intolerant, and so was medieval Britain. The crucial addition is a magic island full of twentieth-century Women’s Studies majors who can tell everyone else what they’re doing wrong and allow readers to feel superior in between the many sex scenes. 

YES THIS. This sums up all many of my problems with Mists, in a humourous yet eloquent fashion. Ten points to Sady Doyle. (Link goes to an article entitled ‘The Fantasy of Girl World: Lady Nerds and Utopias, which does have one major flaw, and that is the assumption that all spec-fic is escapist nerd wish-fulfilment. Which, er, leaves me wondering what to do with The Handmaid’s Tale.)

Gwen and Morgana, looking right at youThe thing is, I loved Mists as a teenager! LOVED IT! For some reason I never really questioned the “pagans good / Christians evil” logic of Mists (and much other historical-fantasy lit). Despite being a very devout little Christian, it wasn’t until my last year of high school that it crossed my mind that there was anything odd about this paradigm at all. Mind you, nor did I question the weird mythologies surrounding “Celtic” Christianity in some religious circles (whack some knotwork on it! Mention St Bridit! Lo and behold you’re cool and feminist now!), so I think we can just call all this critical-thinking-fail on my part.

Then I went to university! And learned the error of my ways. The Celts are not magical, my friends. Also, not all Christians are evil. And being a Celt does not exempt you from the putative evils of Christianity and/or the patriarchy.

Other fun things about my experience with Mists as a teenager:

Arthur and Lancelot, laughing and toasting one another-I was really, um, surprised by the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot scene. And I thought it was really cool and edgy and boundary-crossing and a fascinating concept, this idea that each of them was really as much into the other as they were into the woman they supposedly wanted! And yet for some reason it took me until last year to read Between Men. This was clearly an opportunity lost.

-I got really annoyed with her handling of Guinevere! And everyone’s else’s (that I could get hold of; so, Malory and onwards). She’s always such a wet blanket!* And I was really peeved that MZB, who spent so much time and effort rehabilitating Morgan, basically wrote off Guinevere and used her as a cipher for Teh Evils of Teh Patriarchy.

Gwen, with crown

So I set out to fix this! I was going to write an Arthurian novella about Guinevere, and she was not going to be a wet blanket! This turned out to be way too hard to do when I had little to no access to medieval sources and was getting tangled on the idea that there was a “real” Arthurian legend. So I gave up and wrote terrible teenage poetry instead.

And now I am at university, and I am trying to wrangle a chapter into shape, and it is about how Guinevere is actually more interesting than Arthur. In short, the main thing that’s changed since I was sixteen is that I now hate Mists much more than I did before.**


*Another reason to love the BBC’s Merlin. Gwen is not a damp rag!

** Also, my poetry is worse now than when I was sixteen. Disappointing.


6 Responses to “Sady Doyle sums up “Mists of Avalon””

  1. Garrett Says:

    Mists is one of the uniquely frustrating books that irked me intensely with its tendentious, anti-Christian form of feminism (which as you said is identified with Paganism while Christianity is strictly aligned with misogyny) but held my attention for all seven hundred or so pages because it was so well written. Guinevere was easily my least favorite portrayal, but all of the characters are one-dimensional, self-centered, and comport themselves as moody adolescents; Lancelot was the only one I didn’t absolutely hate by the end.

    What is your favorite Arthurian retelling? Aside from Malory, Charles Williams’s “Taliessin through Logres” is intricate and profound, and though it demands a lot of attention and integrating oneself into Williams’s personal mythology (think the Blake of “The Four Zoas” or “Jerusalem”) it is certainly worth the effort. As I kid, I loved “The Lost Years of Merlin” and obviously T.H. White.

    Also, I absolute LOVE BBC’s Merlin (aside from Morgan la Fey and Queen Maab with their ridiculous coiffures and horrendous accents). Worst Arthurian movie: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (starring Sean Connery as a very hairy Green Knight), which makes the Beowulf movie seem accurate.

    Good luck with your chapter! Guinevere has always been one of my favorite characters (one of the many reasons I share your annoyance with MZB) and she deserves a fair and complex treatment.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      What is your favorite Arthurian retelling?

      Am I allowed to say Monty Python? As a kid, I liked… lots of dubious things. The Disney Sword in the Stone, for example. The two-part TV special entitled “Merlin” which has nothing to do with the BBC show of the same name. I think I also really liked Stephen Lawhead? But I can’t remember many details of any of those, now.

  2. Jeff Says:

    One of the problems, I think, with Mists is that while it was a big deal when it was published, even a casual fantasy reader coming to the book in 2010 has seen MZB’s take on religion, feminism, etc., in countless derivative movies and books.

    “The assumption that all spec-fic is escapist nerd wish-fulfillment” interests me. Last year, when I taught SF and fantasy for the first time, one of the things my student and I were struck by was the extent to which fantasy in particular often starts with escapism and wish-fulfillment but winds up pulling back from it or examining its limitations.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      fantasy in particular often starts with escapism and wish-fulfillment but winds up pulling back from it or examining its limitations

      I think fantasy as a genre has been going long enough now that, as a genre, it can sustain a level of self-criticism. That, to me, is one of the most interesting developments in the genre 😀

  3. withneedle Says:

    If you are looking for mind candy books, you might try Sharan Newman’s Guinevere trilogy. It’s been some years since I’ve read them, and I don’t know what I’d think of them now, but I remember liking them. They are fantasy of a quiet, almost domestic sort, which plays out oddly against the Arthurian legend and might explain their non-popularity.

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