Let's see now. Gorlois marries Igraine, who loves Uther, by whom she bears Arthur, who inadvertently sleeps with his sister Morgaine during the Druidic fertility rites as organized by their Aunt Viviane, Lady of the Lake, and Taliesin, the Merlin. However, Morgaine loves Lancelet (Lancelot), who yearns for Queen Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) but is shocked to discover that he also has a yen for Arthur, who obligingly arranges tea for three in the royal bed in hopes of acquiring an heir to the throne, unaware at the time that he has a son by Morgaine--well, that about covers the first half of the book. Only the confirmed romance addict is likely to stick around another 400 pages to see how it all turns out.
Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of a number of solid science fiction and Gothic novels, expresses the intention in her acknowledgements to "stop playing it safe by writing potboilers." It would be untrue to say that she's still playing it safe, but "The Mists of Avalon" (a Literary Guild alternate selection) only partially transcends the "potboiler" epithet and will probably appeal to much the same audience as her earlier books.
Part of the trouble is that she has chosen a subject which, treated in a standard fashion, has all the elements of daily afternoon television fare. What's more, in seeking to "outgrow categories in writing," she enters the lists against centuries full of other writers who dealt unforgettably with the Arthur legend. It seems a shame, for the author's goals are chivalrous, her research is obviously extensive, and less formidable competition might have left her in command of the field.
For 800 years, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Mary Stewart (not to mention Monty Python), artists have told and retold the familiar stories about the historically obscure sixth-century warrior king, in all their convoluted variations. As moralistic tale, as romance, as legend soaked with ancient enchantments, the poignant vision of Camelot's golden moment in the sun before western history's plunge into the Dark Ages is perpetually stirring and has inspired incomparable treatment: Thomas Malory's medieval "Morte d'Arthur," Tennyson's cautionary epic "Idylls of the King," T.H. White's brilliant, idiosyncratic "The Once and Future King." But, as archeological and historical research begins to yield up growing evidence for the historicity of this fabled king and his interregnum of peace between the Roman and Anglo-Saxon upheavals in Britain, the legend comes down to earth in "The Mists of Avalon," which mixes more than it stirs. When comparisons are made, it is indeed all too imitable, for it neither improves substantively on the old ideas nor builds up immemorial new ones.
Nevertheless, Bradley shows strength in several areas. In a novel approach, she tells her story from the viewpoint of the women in it, especially Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar, who stand in opposition as symbols of the old and the new. She memorably depicts the inevitable passing of times and religions by her use of the imagery of different simultaneous worlds, which move out of consciousness as their day ebbs. Bradley also compares head-on the pre-Christian Druidism of Britain and the Christianity that supplants it, a refreshing change from some modern writers who tend to take refuge at awkward moments in cryptic metaphysics. However, since nobody's quite sure what comprised ancient Druidism, she invents her own idealistic version, a blend, except (one hopes) for human sacrifice, of trendy up-to-date insights about feminism, tolerance and living in harmony with nature. You can't help but wonder how Christianity as represented (and sometimes misrepresented) here ever managed to replace that little women's commune in the wildwood.
Because of the feminine slant on Camelot, there is very little knightly adventure. Lancelet says modestly, "My works and deeds have been made into song because the true tale is not exciting enough to tell by the fireside in winter," and, presumably telling the true tale, the author takes him at his word, completely ignoring him and his colleagues in their battle mode. Instead, there are far-off fairy horns, magic, sudden rushing winds, foggy weather, and body auras, but it all seems strangely static, set pieces the reader watches rather than enters. Aside from a couple of lackluster jousts, everything is intrigue, jealousy and personal relationships, so that finally we are left with more bawling than brawling.
Another major weakness is the length of the book, which leads to pedestrian conversation, repetitive brooding ("What of the King Stag when the young stag is grown?") and redundant activities (sex as religious experience). In this case, Bradley might better have listened to one of her minor characters who ponders, "There is a magic that comes with yielding . . . but there is a deeper magic which comes from . . . damming up the stream."
Perhaps it is a sign of the reductionism of our times that nobody in their pages looks larger than life. I still remember silently protesting the agony of that hand rising out of the water to receive Excalibur and mark the end of Camelot in "The Boy's King Arthur," but those old N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle pictures of mythic, improbable beauty and flawed invincibility no longer apply. Everyone here is probable, and they'll emerge from "The Mists" strangely shrunken. The women are silly, inconsistent, and/or malicious, hardly up to their excellent press. Arthur's nice, Gwenhwyfar's a neurotic prig, and Lancelet sounds like a male model. Nobody very tragic in that lot. Even worse, Merlin is a wise cipher, all the incumbent Ladies of the Lake have professional problems, and the only dragon in the country turns out to be slimy.
In the end, against everybody's best intentions, all the mists of Avalon boil down to the same toil and trouble--a huge pot of soup that tastes suspiciously of soapsuds.