Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Second Discussion on Mists of Avalon - Religious Duality

This is the second post on the book club discussion of the Mists of Avalon.

You can find the first discussion on the Sacred Feminine, here

For today’s discussion I’d like to start with the religious connotations inherent in the text. Duality seems to permeate the story in many ways, and my reading of it almost seems to take the pagan ideal of both male and female, god and goddess, and transplant that into the dueling philosophies discussed in the text. While the Priestesses of Avalon centered solely on the goddess, only making passive mention of the horned god and almost relegating him to a position of doing their bidding and then going away... the Christians and their one God became the Patriarchal symbol.

I found it interesting that the women, though possibly on purpose as the main idea was to focus on the female perspective... but the women were painted in the more accepting, less judgmental light. The character of Viviane said repeatedly that the God of Christianity wouldn’t allow for any other gods, while their view was that there was room for all belief... The thing I found interesting here is that their obvious contempt for all things Christian, marked their words as hypocrisy... at least for me.

We talked at length about the bending over backwards for the feminine perspective in this rewrite of Arthurian Legend in my last post. I do love the writing and I think the story itself was ingenious in bringing a new light to an old tale... But because the focus on the feminine permeates all aspects, I think that topic will come up here, and in any discussion about the text. Here’s what I’m wondering. Do you think it was intentional, to show these female characters hypocritically in relation to their behavior toward the male dominated religion? And what do you make of the negative inferences that Christianity bound its women to a life of powerless servitude? Do you find that to be an honest rendition of the time period or as another means to draw negativity toward Christianity while highlighting pagan virtues?


Katherine Huether said...

I read this book several years ago and also saw the miniseries. I found the feminine perspective interesting. I took a class in college called Medieval Epic and Romance and I read a lot of the Arthur tales - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and others. (Which means that I read this book several years longer than I thought!) I want to reread it so I can think about your questions! BTW- I just discovered del.icio.us and I tagged you!

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Katherine,

How are you? Thanks for tagging me, I haven't yet figured that one out, though I do have you blogrolled.

Prior to this discussion it had been quite a while since I read this one, too. I do love the writing, so many nuances to think about.

Come back to the discussion any time, I should be posting one or two more discussions on this one in the near future and we'll see if we can get a blogger to take up the next book club blog after this one.


Sun Singer said...

If there was no long-standing traditional version of the Arthur story, perhaps the exclusively feminine focus would be less a matter of discussion.

While this focus might, in part, echo views Ms. Bradley may have had about the patriarchal organised Christian church, it does--I think--work well within the novel.

Morgaine's Celtic world was matriarchal. Christianity was not only threatening her religion but her entire way of life. I cannot imagine why she would have anything good to say about the invading patriarchal system, much less why we would expect it of her.


Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Malcolm,

Thanks for stopping - and with such good points... You're right, I doubt we'd be nearly as taken back by the intense feminine perspective if it was not the Arthurian Legend, which most everyone has at least passing knowledge of in the traditional sense.

Morgaine's feel on Christianity, oddly enough, didn't strike me in the same way as Viviane's, because Viviane made a point multiple times in the text of stating that the Christian God left no room for others... while her actions and obvious disdain left no room for the Christian God, either. But again, your point on why they would feel this way is more than valid... it also made me think of something else here -

I wrote a poem, forever and a day ago, I think I was around 19 about man's knowledge and advancement taking the place of religion and driving out, essentially, morals... I think it's fitting in this context, too, because even though this narrative trades one set of beliefs for another religion, it's really the extinction of a people and a faith we're talking about...

I'm going to dig around and see if I can find the poem in one of my old journals to post.

hifidel said...

Once again, I am chiming in pretty late. Sorry for that.

I thought the duality in religious views was interesting, and in some ways troubling too. Arthur seemed to be the only one interested in integrating the two traditions (fitting since he is often supposed to be the one who brought Britain and Rome together in one person). I did constantly notice the hypocrisy in Morgaine and Viviane regarding the notion of "tolerance," even though they never used the term. I do think there is a tendency in all of us to go to extremes. And, often, when we demand tolerance of others, we don't realize just how intolerant our talk about their intolerance can sound. I don't know if the book intentionally highlighted that, but I certainly think it is there for us to see. Rather plainly.

I still don't have a copy of the book in front of me, but I need to go back and find that passage that I mentioned in my earlier comment. Somewhere or another toward the end of the book, it seems that I remember there being a lenghty passage about Morgaine beginning to recognize her own tendency toward intolerance, and to even have a bit of feeling that perhaps she didn't have it all right after all. I thought that this was telling, in view of the fact that so much of the book was so insistent on the strictly feminine viewpoint. For Morgaine to begin to admit that there might be more to it than the view she'd held to so adamantly gave the book some nuances that I did feel it was lacking for much of the earlier parts where the whole discussion seemed so polarized.

I did find the depictions of Gwen and Igraine very intriguing. Igraine was supposed to have understood the sacred feminine, yet turned her back on it for the new, restrictive religion of Christianity. And of course, she was depicted negatively when shown through Morgaine's perspective. That made it interesting because for the first part of the book, she was the character whose perspective we shared. I thought that was a brilliant narrative device. At first, though, it did make me feel rather manipulated as a reader. Just as we came to sympathize with the character, we were shown how "wrong" it is that she turned her back on the tradition of which she had been a part for this horrible, restrictive thing called Christianity. Brilliant, but manipulative.

I thought Gwen was handled in an intriguing way too. Her whole fear of open spaces was an obvious comment on femininity, I thought. It was all about how restricted and confined a life she lived as a Christian woman. And, too, empty spaces are so often seen as a representation of the feminine, and that is what she feared.
And then, of course, there is her barrenness... but that seems to be a whole new can of worms.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Shelly,

Don't worry about being late - but I'm so glad you stopped in. We've talked at length, in different discussions, about the importance of setting the work aside from the author and reading it as its own special entity. This particular piece seems hard to do that with, because I keep trying to reason out the motive... but then, maybe it's just the way the story goes rather than a statement of personal means...

There are a lot of symbols brought up in the telling which give the reader nuances to ponder. I go back and forth with this, because it seems so sided against patriarchy and Christianity that you almost want to lean that way just to balance the scales... at the same time, the human element of falability is a common thread in every character regradless of which religious caste them fall into.

I hadn't thought much of Gwen's fear of open spaces before you mentioned it - though you're right it can be read that way... I had originally taken it as another depiction of her innocence or naivete.

Her barronness is evident, but both the pagan and chrisitian ideals here seem to blame this on the mother's sin... not much too love there as a feminist... I noted the same thing in Ingraine's inability to conceive after Arthur, and Morgaine's inability to conceive after the child from beltane... Regardless of the religion, all of these women seem to take this inability as a punishment for their own shortcomings - or in Morgaine's case, a sin she had no control over to begin with...

Thanks for the intersting perspective, as always, you move the conversation in ways I couldn't have acheived on my own.

spinayarn said...

Hi Merry, I intended to come to this discussion when it started, but let it slip from my thoughts. That may be telling, because I love the book discussions we have had in the past, but I did not like the book much, primarily because of the topic being discussed here.

By the second page of the book I knew I was going to take a beating as I read it. I mean, the Christian perspective is so much a part of me I cannot help but take it personally when it is being, in my opinion, maligned.

One of the last questions in your post is regarding Christian women being relegated to a life of powerless servitude. If a tradition that calls itself Christian relegates women to such a life, it reveals itself to be less than Christian. I know a few mighty women of faith. It is a shame that some feel repressed, but it is not at the hands of biblical Christianity.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Ralph,

I would have to agree with you, it is not a Christian Tenet to relegate any people, that includes women, to a lower status than others... though, I have to add, women throughout history have had much to contend with as far as equality, and that social stigma, I think, bleeds over to religion - though all human failing bleed over to religion at some point and I don't think the religion itself should be held accountable for its followers' sins.

That being said, here's a take that wasn't brought up but that your comment brought to mind; Christianity, at its base, admonishes ego. It is servitude and humility to which we should strive, leaving human ego and perception of control by the wayside to allow ourselves trust in God's will.... Maybe, with this in mind, the thought of subservience in women can be somewhat misleading - because today's society as a whole largely misunderstands the attribute of service; believing the stripping of ego to be a negative.

spinayarn said...

that is a good point merry. My bride is one of those strong and capable Christian women I was alluding to in the thoughts last week. She is as devoid of ego as anyone I know, there is no act of service she feels is beneath her. Some would consider her submission to Christ a debasing position. She believes it is the most exalted role any of us, male or female can fill!