The Mists of Avalon – Christian and Pagan in Camelot
Halloween evokes the notion of the pagan that underlies so many feasts of the year. The Celtic New Year festival, Samhain (So-ween), celebrated on November 1, with its focus on the the fading of the boundary between the living and the dead, became a celebration of Christian ancestors – All Hallows (Saints). It seems simple and straightforward.
The complexity of the pagan world of the British Isles transitioning to Christianity comes to life in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1979 novel, The Mists of Avalon. Critics either condemn or praise this best selling classic as a feminist retelling of the legend of King Arthur. The story is told from the standpoint of the women in a world in transition. Women are losing the power and influence they had under the pagan cult, moving to a subservient passive-aggressive role in a Christianity dominated by men. The Goddess is being supplanted by the God.
What might have been shocking almost 30 years ago – the presentation of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot and their enemies as morally and sexually ambiguous – seems to be a fairly standard deconstruction by our standards. Like our world today, The Mists of Avalon is painted in shades of gray. All of the characters have great strengths and weaknesses, they all make compromises, and they all see their plans brought to naught by forces beyond their control.
In the first chapters of the book, as voiced by Arthur’s half sister and priestess of Avalon, Morgaine, the tone is decidedly anti-Christian and specifically anti-Catholic. Morgaine’s father, Taliesin, the Merlin of Britain, or chief Druid, presents broad overreaching relativism and tolerance, contrasted with the narrow Christian priests, intent on convincing women that they must be subservient and do good to atone for the fact that sin came into the world through the first woman, Eve. (Note: St. Paul said that sin came into the world by the first man, Adam, but that is grist for another post.) Pagans didn’t have a concept of sin, and Christianity would now make everyone slaves of sin and degrade the very nature of men and women as sinful from conception. It all seems somewhat predictable as a standard anti-colonial, neo-pagan, and feminist polemic that is the standard critique of the moral bankruptcy of Christianity.
Toward the end of the book, the tone has shifted significantly, since the human weakness and moral ambivalence of the devotees of the Goddess have become more than obvious. The cult of the Goddess becomes blended into Christianity; as the cult of the Virgin Mary as guardian of the flame of the feminine and the fertility of the earth.
The psychological and spiritual portraits of the men and the women are compellingly complex. It is far from a man-hating feminist rant or an anti-Christian tract. The book actually celebrates the richness of the masculine and the feminine, quite apart from their stereotypical traits. Men and women, pagan and Christian, are both strong and weak, nurturing and exploitative, bold and yielding.
In the end, the will of God and the Goddess is done. It is a long book but well worth the time.