The Mists of Avalon: An Attempt at a Feminist Retelling of the Arthurian Legends

Mists of Avalon

The Mists of Avalon started out as a novel that was published in 1983 by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and in 2001 it was adapted into a TNT mini-series. I have sadly never read the book, but I did watch the mini-series when I was younger and recently got the opportunity to see it again. As a child I was enchanted by the mini-series, but now as an adult I have some criticisms for what is meant to be a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends.

Probably the best thing about The Mists of Avalon is that everything is very much focused on the women of the story. While Arthur and Lancelot are still relatively prominent, all of the other male characters, from the Knights of the Round Table to even Merlin, are relegated to the background. It’s nice to have a version of such a classic tale that actually focuses on the female characters. The character at the forefront of the story is Morgaine, known as Morgan le Fay, who is often portrayed as a villainous woman in most versions of the Arthurian legends and who helps bring about the ruin of Arthur and his court. In this, Morgaine is simply Arthur’s sister who has been trained as a priestess of Avalon during a time when the old pagan traditions are coming into conflict with the ever-growing Christianity.

The story follows Morgaine from a young age, when she witnesses her father’s death and her mother’s marriage to Uther Pendragon, the new High King. She and Arthur are extremely close, even after they are separated by the wizard Merlin and Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, to undergo separate training. When they both complete their training, Viviane and Merlin convince them to participate in “the Great Marriage” rites of Beltane, where the two are unknowingly tricked into sleeping together. When Morgaine finds out and discovers she is pregnant with Arthur’s child, she abandons Viviane and goes to live with her Aunt Morgause, where she secretly gives birth to Mordred. Morgause, knowing that Mordred is Arthur’s son, manipulates Morgaine into leaving her son behind and leaving for Camelot, giving Morgause full rein over raising him. A grown-up Mordred attempts to get Arthur to name him successor, but when it becomes apparent how evil Mordred has become, Arthur stands against him, eventually resulting in both their deaths. Morgaine then takes Arthur’s body to Avalon, before Avalon disappears, along with the religion of Avalon, as Christianity takes hold.

Morgaine & Viviane

While Morgaine takes center stage, several other female characters play major roles. Gwenhwyfar (which is still pronounced Guinevere, maybe this is the traditional spelling—I don’t know), has a storyline which is very similar to what it is in the Arthurian legends. She is married to Arthur, but is in love with Lancelot, which she is constantly struggling with. She has also been unknowingly cursed by Morgause and is unable to have a child with Arthur. Gwenhwyfar becomes continually distraught as she is unable to produce an heir and is worried that the reason she and Arthur can’t have children is because she has sinned against God. The sisters Viviane, Morgause, and Igraine are the three other main female players. Viviane, the shrewd and political Lady of the Lake, is the high priestess of Avalon. She is often viewed as coldhearted by others because she is willing to do anything to ensure the survival of Avalon and the worship of the Goddess. Morgause is the youngest and most ambitious; she doesn’t care for Viviane, largely because she views Viviane as constantly passing her over and underestimating her. While Morgause does seem to care for her other family members, especially Morgaine, she does eventually manipulate Morgaine to gain control over Mordred so that she can shape him to her purposes. Igraine is largely a mother figure, but a far more complex one than we usually see in pop culture. She loves Uther deeply, is very spiritual, seems to practice both pagan and Christian ways of worship, speaks her mind, and of course cares very much for her children, Morgaine and Arthur.

While I adored this series when I was younger, after watching it again I realized that for a story that was meant to be a feminist retelling, many of the women, especially our main character Morgaine, have very little agency. Morgaine is forced to leave her mother and Arthur and go with Viviane to train as a priestess. She does love being a priestess, but then is tricked by Viviane and Merlin into sleeping with Arthur. She does choose to keep the child she had with Arthur and to leave Viviane after she finds out, but she is later manipulated by Morgause into leaving Mordred with her. And since Morgause is a villain and most people know what happens to Mordred, it makes one of Morgaine’s few decisions seem wrong — as if she had listened to Viviane and let her train Mordred in Avalon, then all the tragedy could have been avoided. She is also later tricked by Gwenhwyfar into marrying the very old king of Wales. After the king’s death, she decides to return to Avalon, only to discover that she is locked out because she rejected Viviane. Morgaine eventually reconciles with Viviane and the two attempt to stop Mordred and Morgause, but this leads to both her aunts dying and Arthur and Mordred killing each other. Much of the mini-series seems to be all the characters being manipulated by either Viviane or Morgause. So, it comes off very much like the original Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, where the fairies are the ones fighting and Aurora and Philip are just caught in the middle. This is a huge issue, especially when it gives your main character an almost complete lack of agency. While I never enjoyed the sexist portrayal of Morgaine as an evil witch in the other Arthurian legends, as the evil witch she seems to at least be able to freely make her own decisions.

Morgaine, Viviane, & Morgause

Speaking of evil witches, while the story wanted to paint Morgaine as something other than the sexist role she fulfills in the other Arthurian legends, sadly, the mini-series puts Morgause into practically the same role. Morgause hates Viviane, is power-hungry, raises Mordred to do her bidding, and curses Gwenhwyfar. By the end of the mini-series, Viviane even calls her an evil sorceress, and there is some implication that Morgause doesn’t even worship the Goddess anymore, but some other evil god. Morgause does have a lot of complexity to her, at least at the beginning of the miniseries, but in the end making her a straight-up evil character doesn’t help the feminist message of the series.

Despite all of this, the female characters are still the main focus and receive a lot of complex characterization. Morgause does actually care about her sister Igraine and even seems to deeply care about Morgaine, but her flaw is her lust for power, causing her to eventually manipulate her niece. Viviane is the exact opposite. She seems very cold and political in her quest to save Avalon, but Morgaine sees a softer side to Viviane as she works with her, and the two eventually reconcile after Viviane realizes the harm she has caused Morgaine. Morgaine’s relationship with Arthur is the most powerful and poignant of the series, and you truly feel for them as they grow and change, but try to maintain their relationship. Even Gwenhwyfar, who acts hostile to Morgaine at least in part because of her religious prejudices, eventually reconciles with Morgaine in a really great moment of women supporting, forgiving, and accepting each other. But depth and good characterization aren’t the same as agency, which all the women, with the exception of maybe Viviane, seem to lack throughout the series.

Furthermore, the story was extremely entertaining and interesting, but that doesn’t necessarily make it feminist. It makes me want to actually read the book. From what Wikipedia has told me, there is a lot that was in the book that wasn’t in the mini-series, and those missing parts could potentially have fixed a lot of the series’ problems, especially when it comes to Morgaine. So while I recommend watching the Mists of Avalon if you can, it is still definitely problematic. Maybe I’ll put the book on my summer reading list and see if it’s any better.

Morgaine


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4 thoughts on “The Mists of Avalon: An Attempt at a Feminist Retelling of the Arthurian Legends

    • Oh my God! I had no idea. When I researched things after watching the mini-series I only looked up the book, and there was no mention there about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s life. What an awful person! I guess I won’t be buying the book then.

  1. This book was my everything. I first read it when I was 14 and since then I would spend one weekend a year (near my birthday) devoted to re-reading it. I didn’t watch the miniseries as I was afraid it wouldn’t do the book justice. Then a year or two ago I found out what an incredibly awful person MZB was, and I cried. I feel dirty by association, which is not logical, and none of my RL friends understand why I am so upset by learning that she was a pedophile, but I invested a lot of myself into that world created by MZB. Everyone tells me I am over-reacting, that the author is separate from the books, but they aren’t. To me buying her books supported her, which supported her lifestyle and her pedophila. Which brings up a lot of questions about how separate is the author from their works. With social media today – with authors interacting with readers on twitter, facebook, etc – it is really hard to remain ignorant about the personal views the authors hold – are they proud members of the KKK, are they pro NRA, are they vehement supporters of the LGBT community? Where is the line where our reading choices are informed by the personal beliefs of the author instead of the subject matter of the book and the quality of the writing? In order for me to feel safe do I need to vet the author before ever reading a word they’ve written? That’s a level of absurdity I’d rather not ascribe to, but… This obviously also applies to other art forms, like music as well. Knowing a singer physically abused his wife/gf/child/bf/parents, can I set that aside and listen to his songs? I’m not saying that authors/musicians/etc in the past weren’t horrible people, I just think it was easier in the past to remain ignorant of who they were, and I struggle with whether that’s a good thing or not. Knowledge is power, but sometimes knowledge is just plain painful.

  2. The more Welsh spelling of Gwenhwyfar (it is also spelled in other ways…non-standardized spelling for the win!) is still fairly close to its medieval anglicization in Gwenevere in terms of pronunciation.

    Parts of the miniseries were well done, I thought, but others not so much…

    The book–despite the horrible aspects of MZB and other members of her family–was certainly better than the miniseries, but also problematic in its own ways from a historical, literary, and religious viewpoint…Wicca didn’t exist in 6th century Britain, and there was a very messy mixing of Irish–and even Indian!–things in the book that are all made to appear “Celtic” when such mixing wouldn’t have been possible for all sorts of reasons…and yet, some read this book as “history” and as “how it really happened,” which is awful for various other reasons…

    In terms of not supporting horrible people by patronizing their work: since MZB is dead, still, you could get it from a library, or from a used bookstore, and that wouldn’t be putting any funds toward her estate.

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