I'm sure that everyone has at least heard Arthurian Legend: the story of a King of Britain and his wife Guinevere. The story of the Knights of the Round Table and Lancelot have been told time and time again in various forms, but Marion Zimmer Bradley creates a new viewpoint in The Mists of Avalon, telling the story from the perspective of the women: Viviane, the Lady of the Lake; Morgaine of the Fairies (usually known as Morgan le Fay); Igraine, sister of Viviane and mother of Morgaine and Arthur, Gwenhwyfar (usually known as Guinevere); and Morgause, sister of Viviane and Igraine, and foster mother to Mordred, the son of Arthur and Morgaine.
::: Avalon :::
To sum up the enormous sprawling plot of The Mists of Avalon would take almost as long to write as to read the book. Zimmer Bradley begins with a Prologue from Morgaine, but the true story begins in Morgaine's childhood, before Arthur is even born. Avalon is a land of mists and magic; separated from the ever more Christian world, and accessible only by those who seek it and have the power of the Goddess. Viviane, as Lady of the Lake, is the highest priestess of the Goddess, and the religion practiced on Avalon is perhaps closest to what we know today as Wicca. The Goddess provides the earth and nature, and Viviane is charged with doing her will, leaving Avalon only to ensure that the Goddess' plan falls into place.
Her first task is to ensure that Igraine ends up with Uther Pendragon, for the two of them will produce Arthur, who is to be King over both Christians and those who follow the Goddess. Igraine, married to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, balks, but quickly finds herself in exactly the position that Viviane wanted her in, and she is unsure whether she could have changed anything. This first instance of Viviane and the Goddess' will sets the tone for the rest of the novel; for how much of what happens is fate, and how much is left to individual choice?
After numerous attempts on Arthur's life, Viviane returns again, convincing Igraine to let Morgaine come to Avalon for training as a priestess, and send Arthur out for fostering to protect him. The two siblings are separated until Viviane's scheming brings them together at the Beltane fires, and, not recognizing each other, Mordred is conceived.
From this point forward, most of the legend goes according to the story everyone seems to know, although from quite a different perspective. Morgaine is as much a pawn in things as Arthur, and her motives are much less evil than they have always been portrayed. Gwenhwyfar is pious and overly religious, set against the "evil, pagan" ways of Avalon, and pressuring Arthur to move closer to the Church and farther from the promise he made to protect and follow Avalon. Lancelet is tormented between his love for Arthur and for Gwenhwyfar. And the eventual end to the era of the Knights of the Round Table is begun by their quest for the Holy Grail (actually a sacred object of Avalon).
::: Where Were the Women All Along? :::
As someone who grew up listening to the Broadway soundtrack of Camelot, reading The Mists of Avalon was a shock, if a pleasant one. Morgan le Fay has always been such a reviled character of legend that reinventing her as a sympathetic character turns the Arthurian legend on its ear. She is tormented, true, but is far from evil, and her devotion to Avalon is apparent even when she leaves the mystical isle and spends years in the regular world, trying her best to reconcile her own personal ethics with those of the world around her as well as her training in Avalon.
Some reviews have commented on the battle between the old ways of the Goddess and the newer devotion to Christianity that is woven throughout the book. Zimmer Bradley does not seem to make any real judgment about either, contrary to what some people seem to read into the novel. Rather, she seems to be pointing out that refusal to acknowledge other beliefs can be detrimental to both sides. There were many instances in which I would think to myself that if the Christians and those following the Goddess could only accept each other's beliefs, many of the tragedies in the story could have been avoided. Morgaine's eventual acceptance that bits of the old ways would be woven into Christianity (via the Goddess as the Virgin Mary) mirror the actual events (for instance, Christmas being celebrated around the time of Solstice celebrations).
The Mists of Avalon can be a daunting read, at over 800 pages in a large format paperback edition. And admittedly, some passages seem to move much more slowly than other parts of the book. However, even for the most ardent fan of Arthurian legend, this novel never gets boring, and the changed perspective is a fresh read on the legend, and at least to me, seems to be much more logical. The Mists of Avalon is not to be missed, especially if you happened to watch the TNT mini-series that was produced a few years back, which left out much of the politics and background.