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The Mists of Avalon: The Women Behind King Arthur

Kate Wrigley period 3

The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, is not only an example

of a Medieval Romance, but also tells the story of the women who stood behind

King Arthur during his infamous reign in the Middle Ages. This novel explains

the reasoning and decisions that Arthur made in the women’s perspective. The

Mists of Avalon is a twist on the Arthurian tales as told by the four women

instrumental to the story: Gwenhwyfar, his wife; Igraine, his mother; Viviane,

the Lady of the Lake, High Priestess of Avalon; and his sister and lover,

heiress to Avalon, Morgaine. The story is told by each, as they saw it happen.

The struggle between Christianity and the religion of Avalon is a central part

of the story, and Arthur’s loyalty to and betrayal of Avalon another part.

In this novel, the legend of King Arthur is for the first time told

through the lives, the visions, and the perceptions of the women central to it.

The Arthurian world of Avalon and Camelot with all its passions and adventures

is revealed as it might have been experienced by its heroines: by Queen

Gwenhwyfar, Arthur’s wife; by Igraine, his mother; by Viviane, the majestic Lady

of the Lake, High Priestess of Avalon; and, most important, by Arthur’s sister,

Morgaine, who has come down to us as Morgaine of the Fairies, a sorceress who,

in this epic retelling of the story, plays a crucial role both in Arthur’s

crowning and destruction. Above all it is a story of profound conflict between

Christianity and the old religion of Avalon.

The term “Medieval Romance” does not necessarily mean that the piece

using it contains any sort of “romance.” Most Medieval Romance pieces told the

tales differently from those of the realistic novel. In other words, the plots,

like those of the romance, (1) divide into sharply separate episodes that often

do not seem joined in in any obvious causal fashion and (2) generally take the

form of tests that they must pass to attain some goal. Frequently, (3) the

generally male protagonist

fails tests, which often involve acts of moral and spiritual perception, until

such point that he finally follows advice. Also, the pieces stress honor and

courage, but use much emphasis on the characters rather than the over-all plot.

Instead of concentrating on the women and the “peasant folk,” or poor people,

the piece concentrates on the “gallant” knights or the kings and their courts.

They also do not span over the entire life of a certain individual. This book

contains the certain traits that a Medieval Romance contains. It has a heroine,

in this case the female , Morgaine. It also contains the supernatural powers

that were believed in during the Middle Ages. Also it has activity and

adventure that the knights of the round table take part in. Though it is

written in an entirely differently fashion than most Medieval Romances, I would

consider it an example because over-all, it contains most of the important

traits that those types of pieces contain. Even though,The Mists of Avalon

also contradicts many of these typical traits that are commanly used/defined as

writings of the Arthurian legends.

The Mists of Avalon, as stated before, tells the story of the women

behind Arthur’s throne, but in a different way. In this novel, the women have

the strength and power to control their men, and unlike any other Arthurian

legend/story, they are also the heroes. However, this novel does contain quests

and the same heroes as most of the Medieval Romance stories, but the women are

portrayed as the heroes over the strong and brave knights that actually did

control High Britain in that era. The four women that tell most of the story,

Morgaine, Igraine, Viviane, and Gwenhwyfar, feel that they are the reason why

the men, who were greatly honored back then, had positions in society as high as

they did.

Most Medieval Romance novels only tell the story of certain individuals

(males) and their great accomplishments either in battle or on a great quest.

They do not follow a story over the years of many characters lives. They do not

even follow the typical “plot” where there is an introduction, a rising action,

a climax, a falling action, and a resolution. This novel does, as it introduces

all the main characters where were supposably alive during the Arthur reign. In

the beginning we meet not only the women who tell the story, but also the

important knights that we learn of today. We learn of the love and jealousy

that Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar feel towards each other, each having something the

other wants. We also discover that, as a climax, Arthur will have no children

by Gwenhwyfar and Avalon will lose its trust in Arthur and will begin to go

against him so that his strength as a great king will not be as strong. In the

end, we learn how Arthur pays for his sins of incest in the Christian world, but

also how the people of Avalon defeat him and make him aware of his broken

promise to remain to true to Avalon.

Arthur, who was born later in the first or four books in The Mists of

Avalon, grows up to be High King of Britain after his father, Uther Pendragon,

dies. In this Era, there were two religions that the people studied. One was

under the Christian vows, or the one God, that we know today. The other was

under the Goddess, who the people in the mysterical world of Avalon believed was

responsible for man and all of its creations. In the Christian beliefs, the

women were believed to be the ultimate sinners for first deceiving and

disobeying the Lord’s world. Under this belief, they were always made to feel

as though they had sinned, while the men could do no wrong. In the beliefs of

Avalon, the Goddess was not male as God was believed to be, and the followers of

the Goddess believed that the women were good and should be the leaders of the

lands. In the Christian beliefs there were “priests,” and in the Avalon beliefs,

there were “priestesses.” The males were, obviously, the priests, as the

females were priestesses. Even though the believers in Avalon thought well of

the Christians, the Christians despised the people from Avalon and thought of

them as evil.

Viviane, the High Priestess of Avalon (can be compared to the Bishop,

who is male), also Arthur’s grandmother, thought the reason Arthur came to be

king was because of the people of Avalon. She believes that the reason he has

lived through as many battles as he has, and because he remains king was because

of the magic of Avalon. the Christians, however, feel that it was by the faith

of God that Arthur has reigned so long with only minor injuries in his battles.

Viviane, as well as Morgaine when she becomes a priestess, think that it was

because of the women that Arthur remained so strong. In typical Arthurian

legends, only the Christian male beliefs were talked about, because the women

were not important.

In the old Avalon ways, the heir of the throne was given to the sister’s

first born son. In the Christian ways, the rights were given to the father’s

first born son. Once again, in the old Arthurian legends, the ways of Avalon

were not mentioned simply because the women were not the heroes, nor did they

play a major part in the legends. In The Mists of Avalon, Morgaine was brought

up as a believer in the Goddess, and her virginity was given to a young man in a

sacrifice called the “Great Marriage.” Morgaine’s great marriage was with a

young man whom she thought she had known, but was not sure. When they were ”

done,” the young man recognized her as his sister whom he had not seen in many

years. Morgaine’s virginity was given in sacrifice to her younger brother

Arthur. After she realized what she had done, not by her choice, she fled from


Unbeknownst to her the reason why Viviane had arranged this with her,

Morgaine fled to the custody of her older sister Morgause. She was pregnant

with Arthur’s child, a child that she did not want. Viviane had purposely done

this to Morgaine so that the old ways of Avalon could be protected, so that the

sister’s first born son would be king. Morgaine was not aware of this. She had

the child, and then she left it to grow up in Morgause’s kingdom to be fostered

as one of Morgause’s own children. As time grew on, the boy, Gwydion, grew

strong and eventually became one of Arthur’s nights, but no one knew of Arthur’s

only son except for Viviane, Morgaine, and Morgause. Morgaine wanted to keep it

this way, lest the court finds out of the incest, not thought of as incest in

Avalon, but thought of incest in the Christian beliefs. So, Arthur reigned as

king with no sons as Gwenhwyfar was barren.

Gwenhwyfar meanwhile, thought that the reason she could not have

children was because of a mysterious sin of Arthur’s or hers. Arthur just

thought that maybe he could not “plant the seed” properly. Even though

Gwenhwyfar tried, she could not bare a child to Arthur. She did not even love

Arthur, but she cared for him greatly. Instead her love was for Sir Lancelet, a

famous night we know of today even. Arthur knew of this love, and therefore

allowed Gwenhwyfar to pursue it only because he wanted a son that he could call

his own. In the falling action, Arthur learns of his son, and he also pays for

his sinning by doing Christian penance, further betraying Avalon. After this,

Morgaine must decide how to either make Arthur realize what he has done, or

overthrow him.

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