Reconsidering The Mists of Avalon

On the Further reading page of this website, among a number of other significant Arthurian texts, I recommend Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Yesterday the section read:

Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon (1983)
A necessary corrective to White’s public-school boyishness, Bradley’s epic revisionist version sees the Arthurian story through the viewpoints of its women, notably Igraine, Morgause, Morgan le Fay and Guinevere.  It’s less feminist than is sometimes imagined, though, and the mystical guff about Atlantis becomes annoying.

Today that last sentence has become:

It’s less feminist than is sometimes imagined, though, and parts of it are troubling in the light of recent allegations about Bradley’s personal life.

Somehow, given the accusations of violent and incestuous abuse made against the late Bradley by her daughter, the mystical guff seems suddenly less of an issue.

The allegations against Bradley haven’t been proven in a court of law,  of course, and there’s now no reason why they ever would be. Whether we believe the upsetting childhood memories of a woman who has no obvious reason to lie and who’s making herself very publicly vulnerable by giving her account, is a matter of individual judgement. Personally, I’m don’t see how any of us can have the confidence to dismiss it, and this seems to be the consensus except among the most partisan fans of Bradley’s work.

I must admit I have some misgivings, then, about continuing to recommend The Mists of Avalon to readers of The Devices. The book deals, sometimes rather graphically, with aberrant sexuality including rape, incest and relationships involving varying degrees of psychological and physical abuse. Knowing (or believing, or suspecting) what we do now, it’s difficult to approach these passages without some disquiet.

I’ve never, in fact, been a huge fan of The Mists of Avalon (my thoughts on first reading it in 2012 aren’t altogether flattering, and I seem to have given it a rather harsh two stars on Goodreads). The temptation simply to disown it at this point is a strong one, but I think that would be to sell the book short. Regardless of its author’s character, it’s been massively influential on presentations of the Arthurian story (and on fantasy in general) over the past few decades, and its more-feminist-than-usual take has been an inspiration and comfort to many readers — including, from what I gather, some who have themselves been victims of abuse.  Those qualities may be subjective, but they aren’t imaginary. For so many readers to have found them in the book, they must be there to be found.

The principle of separating the art from the artist is a questionable one. The Guardian frames the question at length, and The Washington Post re-examines The Mists of Avalon in an effort to answer it, but they don’t have any definitive answers, and nor do I. (The commonality between reality and art in this instance is surely relevant, though: I imagine that few of the fans pledging never to read another of Bradley’s novels boycott the elegant fonts designed by self-confessed paedophile rapist Eric Gill.)

In the end, the decisive factor was that my Arthurian reading list also recommends Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory. Malory was, most historians agree, a convicted rapist who wrote his masterwork in prison.  It’s difficult to resolve at this remove exactly what ‘rape’ involved in Malory’s case (since the party whose consent was legally required for sex to take place would not necessarily have been the woman’s), but contemporary records also accuse him of robbery, kidnapping and affray. Yet to exclude Le Morte D’Arthur — a book as crucial to the evolution of the King Arthur story as The Lord of the Rings is to modern fantasy, or The War of the Worlds to science fiction — from such a reading list on the grounds of its author’s character would be virtually impossible.

The Mists of Avalon isn’t anything like as seminal as that — much of what it does is merely rewriting Malory from a neopagan perspective, and that of his neglected women — but its lesser influence is nonetheless crucial in our modern context. The book’s reputation may well founder in the future, but that influence will remain. Meanwhile Bradley, like Malory, is dead, and cannot profit in any way from the continuing popularity of her work.

In fairness, then — and it’s a fairness owed to the book and to its appreciative readers, not to its author — The Mists of Avalon has to stay.

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