Tolkien Gestures Book 11: The Mists of Avalon

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, we reach the Great Fantasy Boom of the 1980s, and the one of the first great Revisionist stabs at Arthurian Myth.

I failed.

I knew this would be a test – looming there in the mid-order. 1000 pages of small print, a doorstop epic retelling of Arthurian Myth and i knew, just knew, that i was going to be sink or swim at this. And at page 600ish, I gave up.

I had a few problems with The Mists of Avalon but they all come down to one thing in the end. It’s dull. Really, really dull.

OK, so the general premise of the book is two-fold, both good ideas. First to rebalance the classic Arthurian myth by focusing on the female characters, particularly villianess (traditionally speaking) Morgan le Fey and make them proper, real characters. And in Morgainne’s case, not so much a villain. The second is to take the myth into a “real” place, more grounded than the usual knights in shiny armour nonsense and make the story live in a pseudo-historical Dark Ages Britain. And in fairness, they’re both pretty successfully handled within certain limits.

The second part is the easier to address. Setting the book not long after the withdrawal of Rome from the British Isles, and placing it firmly as a story about the transition between “old” Pagan Britain and “new” Christian Britain is a sweet spot for Arthurian Myth, and I’ve always liked the idea of Arthur as paying homage to, and caught between, both traditions. And stories of transition, of the world changing are often interesting if well balanced, and the steady dose of realism actually helps with a story riddled with politics and intrigue. And the idea of “historical fantasy” is a pretty decent one, with low, myth-style magic rather than gosh-wow-magic-missile magic is something I think leans more towards my tastes.

And as the first part, well yes, when Mists decides to focus on a character its complex and mostly interesting – Morgainne, as stated, is very well done. But the focus on the female characters quickly becomes too exclusive in many ways and in a strange way it relegates the men to the sort of side-show, two dimensional walk-ons that the women used to be. I’m not sure if that’s the point, but I’d loved to seen those characters explored more fully, especially as key decisions and events take place off camera all too many times.

But back to the dullness. With anything that doesn’t involve the main female characters not appearing in the book, there’s a lot of skipping around filled in with “a few years passed. Arthur kicked the crap out of the saxons, moved castle and did lots of cool stuff.” sort of writing being replaced with…well i don’t really know. Hundreds of pages of stuff but very little of it has actually stuck. Possibly the final straw was Morgainnes excursion in happy-fairy-sex-land which pretty much served no purpose other than to write some soft-core sexyfuntime and explain why she vanishes for 5 bloody years. Given that much is made of no-one knowing where she was, i expected a decent, interesting answer, other than one that seemed to serve no purpose to either plot or character development.

And the religion thing, whilst I’m at it. I get the “Pagans good, Christians Bad” thing is fairly central to the book, but it’s clumsy and heavy handed, and a damn sight less interesting than a more balanced take would be. Especially poor bloody Guinevere (sorry, “Gwwynheffywyrhyr”) who is upgraded in this tale from the woman who loves to two men and unwittingly helps doom Camelot by being a weak woman to….being a blonde bobblehead fundamentalist christian (baaad!) who helps doom Camelot. Given the decision to make her and Arthurs inability to have an heir be expressed as a series of pretty grim miscarriages, to then essentially criticise her in subtext for seeking answers in the religion she was raised as (shes not terribly bright, you see) seems pretty harsh to me. Especially when the answer espoused by the allegedly more sympathetic and equitable Pagan camp is to “put her away” and replace her. Oh and if Arthur won’t they’ll make sure she keeps miscarrying. Lovely people.

I’m not actually sure if the Pagans are supposed to be good guys – their soft-focus rituals and historically-questionable sense of sexual liberation makes me think that you’re supposed to be inclined towards them but in many ways their actually pretty nasty people. After all, Vivianne, the Lady of the Lake, directly manipulates Arthur and Morgainne into unknowingly conceiving Mordred (cus it’s only those silly Christians with the messed up attitude to child-bearing incest!) then gets raised, weaponised, to replace his own father. Hell the treatment of Igraine, her own daughter is pretty shocking as she’s dropped, picked up, and then dropped again as he womb is needed for heir breeding.

And finally – moving the sex of Arthurian myth from subtext to text gets pretty wearing too. There is no relationship in the whole story that isn’t sexualised. With no child actually raised by their parents, and no siblings raised together, and no friendships between its characters, every relationship is about sex. And i mean sex, rather than love as it’s all done in a sort “he loves her who loves him who loves him who loves her” sort of way, like they’re sat around Dark Ages Britain scribbling hearts on their textbooks.

So yeah, lots of niggles combined with not a lot happening and really, i couldn’t be bothered any more…with a third of the book to go, i put it down, and never picked it up again. I suspect it will stay that way, unless i need to prop a door open.

Next up – I had to include at least one epically long cliche-fest saga in the list, and it’s next. David Eddings, with Pawn of Prophecy.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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  1. I am actually a huge fan of The Mists Of Avalon, even though I have not read the book. There was a television film with an awesome cast made years back which I managed to catch on television, which I would highly recommend. I think that, having read your review of the book, there are a heck of a lot of differences between the source material and the adaptation, the most prominent of which I would say is the fact that you seem to get a “Christians bad, pagans good” feel from the book, whereas the film pretty much says that everyone is as good and bad as each other. Check out the Wikipedia entry on the film: I would recommend watching it. It is three hours long, much like any historical epic or drama these days, and manages to pack all of those books into one lump-sum, so to speak, keeping the highlights, and dropping the dreary, or at least so reviews tell me. A lot of fans of the source material dislike it, but the film itself has a dedicated following, including myself of course, and there are some fans of both, so you may enjoy the live action adaptation as opposed to the book.

  2. Actually, I should have noted that it was originally released as a television miniseries, which was then converted into a film for DVD distribution. I also should mention that every episode has been uploaded by several different parties onto YouTube, so you need naught hunt for a DVD release and then decide that you dislike it.

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