In The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley tackles the legend of King Arthur. Bradley breathes fresh life into the story by focusing on the women of Arthurian Britain, who tend to be marginalized in other tellings of this story. Arthur, Lancelet, Merlin, and the Round Table knights appear in this story, but only as minor characters.
Avalon is a magical land that exists slightly outside the world of mortal men - surrounded by water and hidden by mystical mists. Only certain people can pass through the mists from England to Avalon and they can pass through only at certain times. Avalon is a matriarchal society ruled by Druid priestesses; the high priestess holds the title "Lady of the Lake". Avalon obeys most of the laws of the natural universe, but it does not exist on a map and the Druids appear to have limited magical powers. At the beginning of this story, relations are good between Britain and Avalon and Avalon is still connected to the world of mortal men. By contrast, the Fairy Lands have become so disconnected with the physical world that time moves at a different rate there and they interact very little with the men and women beyond their borders.
The primary conflict of the story arises because Arthur gains the crown of Britain helped, in part, by the Avalon priestesses, who gave him the powerful sword Excalibur and its magical scabbard that prevents protects him in battle. A few years after gaining the throne, Arthur resolves to make Britain a Christian country, ignoring the Druids who helped him rise to power.
Primarily, the story focuses on Gwenhwyfar, who is Arthur's wife and queen, but who is in love with Arthur's best friend Lancelet; and Morgaine, Arthur's half-sister and father of Arthur's only son Mordred (the child was conceived during a pagan ritual at which neither sibling recognized the other).
The story follows the relationship of Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar, who begin as close friends but later become rivals and finally hateful adversaries, bent on the destruction of one another.
It is Gwenhwyfar who convinces Arthur to reject the Druids and declare Britain a Christian country and it is Morgaine who takes the most offense at this betrayal.
Morgaine is the most interesting character. She is a Druid priestess, eventually rising to become Lady of the Lake - the highest rank among the Druids of Avalon. She comes to hate Arthur for rejecting the Druids; She hates Gwenhwyfar for influencing Arthur to do so; and she hates The her former lover Merlin, who does not act to stop Arthur.
As time passes, Morgaine sinks toward madness, conspiring with her new lover Accolon in a disastrous assassination attempt; and capturing and executing the Merlin. Eventually, she softens her stance and accepts the direction in which the world is moving. Near the end of the story, Avalon has become far less relevant in the politics of Britain and - not coincidentally - it becomes far less physically connected to the real world surrounding it. At the end, an aged Morgaine accepts the fate of Britain and of Avalon as it slips deeper into the mists.
Ms. Bradley adds depth to characters that are marginalized or one-dimensional in earlier tellings of the story. Morgaine becomes a living, breathing person under Bradley's pen, rather than the spiteful witch painted by tradition. Gwenhwyfar is much more than the beautiful object in a love triangle - she is a strong politician and she knows how to bend Arthur to her will.
Whether or not you are a fan of the Arthurian legend, you will enjoy The Mists of Avalon.