Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Mists of Avalon - First Discussion

Long ago, in a blog far, far away, I began a book club blog. The work we were due to discuss those many moons ago was The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, but time and responsibilities threw me off course. There were a number of readers at my previous blog who were going to partake in that discussion, and I hope they will find it here. For those of you who weren’t aware of the discussion, I hope you’ll stay and contribute. If you’ve read the book, I’m sure you’ve got some insight to share, and if you haven’t you might find it’s one you’d like to pick up.

The Feminine Perspective

I’ll break this up into a number of discussions, because it’s a lengthy book with a myriad of topics to discuss. Today, I’d like to begin with the obvious feminine perspective and reverence to the sacred feminine. On my first reading of the novel I thought it was brilliant, not only for the writing itself but in the author’s ability to take such a well known patriarchal saga and tell it in a new light with deference to its women. That’s not to say that the women are all viewed as good or right, but that their unique vantage point is brought to the front.

Take Morgaine, who history and most retellings cast as the evil adversary. This Morgaine is fully fleshed out, her story is compelling and motives are explained. This Morgaine is not the petty seductress but instead, she herself has been manipulated into her position and the way in which she manages these situations for which she has little power become the crux of women’s fortitude in a male dominated society. I found it revealing, too, that the goddess and priestess used their religion to permit them some form of power over their lives, which were otherwise largely out of their control… but I think the conversation of religion should be relegated to one whole discussion, possibly the next one.

Then, too, the depiction of all of these characters as being more in depth, where even their negative traits and actions are understandable, may have more to do with the sensibilities of society at the time of this novel’s writing than it does in truth have to any feminine characteristic. No longer can we paint one evil character with no means or motive other than evil – to make them breathe we need to understand them and how they came about.

The women here all come with their personal sets of baggage and position. Beauty is often depicted as superior, but obviously so because of the male dominated world rather than its actual credit. What I mean to say here, is through Morgaine’s eyes, beauty is enviable because the world believes it so and she wishes to be viewed as such. I also noticed fatal flaws in those characters deemed beautiful; dreadful unhappiness or an inability to flourish in some way. The two most powerful and knowledgeable of the main female characters are Morgaine and Vivien, both of whom are viewed as small and fairy like, and often called ugly or at least not beautiful. While both of these characters have some semblance of power, they are still very much at the mercy of other forces in many things, such as Vivien’s inability to have true love and her driving need to manipulate those around her for what she believes is the greater good.

Then you have Ingraine, who is both beautiful and inherently good, but whose life is smothered in guilt. When you take a careful look at Ingraine you realize that the powerful women of her life have taken away her choices, and most likely her hope for true love or happiness. Yes, she spent most of her life completely in love with her husband, but that love was the result of a spell more than fate… We find that it wasn’t in fact her fate to be with him, but Vivien’s doing… That love led her to withdraw from all other things, most notably her own children. Her reverence to the new religion led her to forever blame her childbearing problems on her own actions, which were again largely out of her control. But for me, looking at her love for Morgaine prior to her first husband’s death, and then her removal from them after, I can’t help but see her life as very sad and unfulfilling.

Morgause is another of great beauty, but she has no love for anything but power and herself. And then we have Gwenhwyfar, who is both beautiful and good, but is tormented for her entire adult life by the love of a man who she cannot have and the inability to have children which she desperately wants.

Of course, the non beautiful characters have no easy road, either. So I wonder whether the real distinction here is between beauty and non beauty, so much as it is a testament that these outward things have no real bearing on our trials in life. Beauty will not make the road lighter. What do you all think of the feminine portrayal here, or any of the topics above?


silken said...

It is an interesting take on an old story. I found myself throughout the reading to be going to look up the traditional accounts as they have been told, just to kind of compare notes. With it being a legend that has been told so long and many times, this is an intriguing new approach.

It was intersting having it told from Morgaine's perspective. As you point out, she is usually the "bad guy". I know that in a children's book series that my kids have loved (The Magic Tree House) Morgan Le Fey is the one who gave the kids in the story the ability to travel to all the places they go. So in those stories as well, she is painted as more of a "good guy".

As for beauty, well, it truly is in the eye of the beholder. And in some ways there is beauty in each of us. But at the same time, there is the non-beautiful in each of us as well. I of course am not talking of outward appearances here. Often when I know someone who is really good, they become more physically attractive as time passes. The same goes for the opposite scenario-if someone is a real jerk, they become increasingly less attractive, even physically, over time.

I did find the powerful/sacred female to be a huge theme in the book. I have never read anything with such characters I guess. I caught myself at times recognizing how the "old people" and people of the land could easily identify with the femininity of religion. Not sure if I am able to really state what I mean to state (been awhile since I've read it and don't own it to refer back to) but I just remember thinking how the "old folks" (not meaning age here, but the ones of the old traditions) were still very tied to their acgricultural roots and festivals and how they were the only ones able to cling to the preistesses as a source of power. Some of the meshing of "Christianity" and the "old religion" were a little blurry for me, but I could really see how that part of the legend could have impacted the people who really lived through those times. Sorting out what Chrisitanity is/was and how that fit in with their understanding of what they had been taught before. (should I be saving this for the religion discussion??)

ok, enough...Anyway, don't know if any of that made was an interesting story.

I'll try to post some links back to this discussion. Hopefully everyone who wanted to participate will find it!

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Stacey,

No you don't have to save anything, the religion aspect and I think duality will be the next blog, but I'm perfectly happy to start the conversation here. I am sorry it took so long to get back to this, I should have just gone ahead with it at wu and picked a different book had I gotten the position that I applied for... ah well. I don't think you need a copy of the book for the discussion, though I know it's nice when you can pull up particular passages to point out.

The Sacred Feminine and portrayal of the priestesses did intrigue me a great deal during the reading, and I'm still unsure how much of that is historically pulled and how much is a direct depiction of the time period in which it was written. I know the author was a feminist and I want to say either Pagan, or something akin to Wicca, which might have played into the elegant depiction of magic.

I did think, too, that is was a wonderful turn on an old story. By the way, my daughter loves the Magic Treehouse series, and my son is just getting to the age for it - I sort of wondered whether the author had read Bradley, to also think of LeFey in any way other than negative.

Thanks for putting up the link, I put one on the old blogs and mentioned it to another blogger I've been frequenting named Green Chiles and Roses (you'll find her in my blog roll) - Actually, you would really like her blog I think, and she's also a Texan.

Sun Singer said...

I found this a compelling, albeit revisionist, look at the old patriarchal story. Bradley paints a reasonable picture here, one that in some ways appears more believable than the traditional accounts.

It was difficult for me to come to this story without being overtly aware of the fact that myth, religion, and society in general have been disastrously skewed toward patriarchy. So, as I read this, I kept wondering if the story was getting bent just a little too much in the opposite direction. That is to say, it's night and day different from the traditional accounts and, I think, might have been a stronger book had it granted a little more substance to the version of the story we already knew. That way, the two accounts might have flowed seemlessly together rather remaining separate but equal.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading the book and wish Bradley had remained with us long enough to further explore her themes.


WordVixen said...

I found her version of the Arthurian legends absolutely amazing. I remember the first time I read it, I was so drawn in that I was seriously considering converting to paganism as a result!

The femine aspect was definitely very strong (though it is as well in what other of her work I've read), and I think she simply wasn't comfortable writing from a man's perspective. She gave the full view of each of the major players, though she did perhaps focus more on the weaknesses than most authors would.

As a side note, Marion Zimmer Bradley was a founding member of the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronisms-, and, according to legend, also named it at their first event.

silken said...

We got to see some members of the SCA "practicing" one day. As we drove past an area park, we happened upon them. of course we stopped for a while! very interesting side note...

spinayarn said...

I am glad I came back and found the book discussion under way. It was my favorite element of the writing up community. I learned a lot there, and already a lot here in this one.

I guess I am nothing if not a tratidional chauvinist, because I had to force myself to push on through to the end of the book with the, for me, over the top pushing of the Sacred Feminine.

Merry Jelinek said...

I would have to agree, Sun Singer, in some ways this telling is probably more accurate of a depiction than some of the older tales. But then, it does lean a little too much toward the feminist mind set. Overall, though, I really enjoyed the telling.

Word Vixen, I didn't know anything about the SCA, thank you for filling us in. I did find her magical depictions really well done and I think, probably, because they were akin to the author's own religious practices she paid special defference to their appearance.

Spinayarn, you are not even close to chauvenistic. I wondered when we picked this book whether or not you might enjoy it. The revision and obvious pagan leaning can rub the wrong way, especially for a preacher, I'd imagine. If it makes you feel any better, the difference between the depictions of men and women annoyed me at times as well.

While I thought it was brilliant that she could find such a different perspective to tell the story through, I found the depiction of Arthur rubbed against my own sensibilities. I never got a full sense of his stregths or accomplishment and the telling seemed to have him led through his life as if through no movement of his own. Even his prowess in battle was explained as the result of the magical workings of women, such as his scabbard - it wasn't enough that the sword was enchanted, he could not take a wound unless they allowed it...

Then, too, while the way in which his incestuous relationship with Morgaine came about went a long way to exonnerate her character as blameless - I could not help but think that the author was not true to the character in his reaction. Raised as Christian without the sensibilities of the Priestess (even with these, Morgaine was still shamed) - instead he remains with some elaborate bond to Morgaine from this experience, which struck me as a more female response to the loss of virginity than a male one.

hifidel said...

I'm sorry to be late in the discussion, and it might be hard for me to post long comments now while I am away. But I am glad to get here and see the excellent discussion going on.

I had somewhat mixed feelings about the feminine perspective. Like Merry and Sun Singer, I felt sometimes that this aspect of the book was overdone. I think that the power of Arthur is lost, which is the one complaint I have in regards to the feminist movement, or any other that tends to overcorrect a power imbalance. If the imbalance was wrong before, overdoing it in the other direction doesn't make it right -- it is still imbalanced then. I felt, in some places, that the book tended toward this. Most notably in the stripping Arthur of almost all power except that given by the women in his life, as Merry notes.

I did enjoy some of the domestic scenes that were highlighted in the text. I thought that was one of the fun things brought about by the feminine perspective. The emphasis on weaving and its connection with both magic and writing is one that has almost become stereotypical amongst feminist story-tellers. And it is a connection that I enjoy.

Merry, I am thinking of your comment about Arthur's response to the loss of virginity, and how that is more typically a feminine response than a masculine one. It does seem to fit with the agenda (perhaps "perspective" is a more appropriate word) of the novel -- to show Arthur as powerful because he does not deny the feminine, and only losing power when he does deny the feminine power of Avalon.

One thing I did finally come to terms with, and I wish I had a copy of the book with me for this, was that towards the end of the novel, Morgaine seemed to realize that she hadn't been all right aobut the whole thing either, any more than, say, Lancelot was. It seemed that, toward the end, she began to see that there had been, on her side, an overemphasis on the feminine, even seeking to drive out or crush the masculine. I wish I had it here to cite the specific passage I am thinking of, but wasn't there a point where she reflected that she, too, had not had the whole picture? That seemed to me to give the text a little more ambiguity and questioning nature than what the earlier representations of the sacred feminine had done. It seemed, almost, to say that the sacred feminine is only sacred when it is properly in balance/relationship with the sacred masculine.

Well, I might be reading that into it. A lot has happened since I read it, and I don't have a copy here. Perhaps I am mistaken.

Anyway, nice start to the discussion!

silken said...

I like your take there believin (hifidel, sorry) that it is all about balance (the sacred feminine is only sacred when in balance w/ sacred masculine) well put

Merry Jelinek said...

Thanks for joining in, Shelly, and don't worry about being late at all, we'll just be crawling though these discussions as I haven't had time to post regularly, myself.

There are a lot of ways to read into the over feminine vantage point... we might also make the leap that the inability of the patriachal church and matriarchal Avalon to balance both feminine and masculine was at the root of their demise in the story. Adding another layer in that the point was that their human failings led them to a one sided view, which caused their destruction.

For me, even though this story is legend rather than actual history, the leaning so fiercely toward the feminine rubbed me the wrong way because it discounted the women who lived in these times. By rewriting their lives in a way the allowed them more power, it almost seemed to me to prove the patriarchal discounting of their lives at the time. What I mean to say is, these women had stories, poignant lives of sacrifice, love, life, work, and joy. Rewriting their thinking or station seems to me to discount the contribution they really made in the living... And their stories might have been poignant enough without feminist meddling.

hifidel said...

That's it exactly, Merry. Very well stated. I think that, more often than we like to acknowledge, our overreacting on one point or another, or reacting inappropriately, does more to lend that point of view credibility than we should. It reminds me of something Jacques says in As You Like It -- that an insult can only sting if you own it. If you don't acknowledge the insult as applying to you, then it doesn't hurt.