Archive for August, 2008

The Mists of Avalon


Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Arthurian books are quite simply one of the most frustrating books I have ever read. The first time I read them, I found myself in a simmering rage for days, until the last book was done, and I put it quickly away.

This time, I found myself beginning to feel sorry for the characters, but I still wanted to knock some sense (and also spine) into them.

Essentially the books are a re-telling of Arthurian legend from the points of views of the major female characters. The books link paganism with eco-feminism in the society of Avalon, composed of priestesses to the Mother Goddess who represents the land. They represent older cultures and civilisations, sworn to plurality that exist before Christianity sweeps the land, preaching of a single god and singular good.

While the theme is an interesting one, the debate gets a bit repetitive. By the end of the books Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar have yelled more or less the same arguments at every other character in the book – Morgaine is the spokesperson of Avalon, and Gwenhwyfar that of Christianity at its narrowest.

While I couldn’t quite dislike Morgaine – her frustration with the book parallelled and fed mine – Gwenhwyfar is reduced to a caricature of piousness-cum-adultery who is no longer quite real.

There are four things about this book that make it such a frustrating thing to read:

1) We all know how it ends. Everyone dies or is miserable and war breaks out. There is nothing we can do about it, except wait for it. And Bradley *really* makes us wait.

2) The massive MPD that doesn’t miss a single character. This isn’t that much of a flaw – it is reasonably realistic, after all, and trauma has a way of making people behave uncharacteristically. Which brings me to:

3) For the characters, the books are one long trauma. It goes with the general theme of unavoidable tragedy, no doubt, but after a while the heaviness of the tragedy begins to pall – it is no longer tragic but just plain irritating.

4) The characters’ blind faith is a bit unlikely. Given that the sensibility is frequently pretty modern, even post-modern, and that Arthur and his companions are primarily *soldiers*, I find it a bit ridiculous that everyone is so religious. The conflict of faith is reduced to a (slightly simple) conflict between the pantheistic followers of the old Druidic religions and the monotheistic followers of Christ.

Personally, I would’ve found a conflict between faith and a lack of it a lot more interesting. The only main character who is frankly non-godly is Morgause – and her character is a strangely uneven. She is simultaneously sensuous and calculating, perceptive and utterly blind, and the scenes from her point of view don’t seem to quite add up to her actions. After three books that show her as pragmatic, shrewd, worldly, and ultimately someone who won’t randomly knock down the applecart, Book Four! Morgause is a fairy-tale witch. She plots frantically toward world domination, spills blood lavishly for a stupid spell to talk to her spies in Arthur’s court, she coos psychotically at Mordred. After three books that establish to us that Morgause couldn’t care less about anyone’s sex-life except her own (including her husband’s) she is suddenly there plotting to catch Gwenhyfar and Lancelot in bed together.

At some point, it is as if all Bradley’s good intentions towards the women characters, and all her reasonableness in making everyone’s motives understood are suddenly swept away by the demands of the very plot she is trying to subvert: Morgause is the evil witch everyone made her out to be, because if she isn’t then who is going to precipitate the final tragedy?
Mordred, likewise, flashes from sarcastic but earnest to Evil Plotting Child of Incest!, because if he isn’t why would he kill poor senile well-meaning Arthur?

The book’s frustrating-ness is inherent in its structure – both the reader and the characters are bereft of free will, as the story goes to its inevitable end.

The other thing I don’t like – and this is linked with the first one – is the way the characters keep refusing to take any responsibility for their actions. When he’s discovered in bed with Gwenhwyfar, Lancelot *kills* Gareth and a bunch of other people before running away with her. Later, he blames the whole episode on Mordred – and not say on the fact that he’d been sleeping with someone else’s wife for 30 years – for spying on him, and Gwenhwyfar ascribes the murder to what an awesome knight her Lancey-poo is.
Morgiane *murders* her stepson (so he won’t tell his father and her husband that she’s having an affair with his son) and calls it the “will of the goddess” ?! And Accolon, the brother with whom she is having the affair, buys it!!!
It was at that point that I decided that the bad end I knew was coming to everyone was richly deserved.

The reason these things annoy me as they do, is because the book is an attractive one. It deals in relationships and conflicts of interest and myth, and the world it creates is sometimes very compelling. The characters are all (to begin with, anyway, before the events of the book tire them out) strong and vital ones – you *want* to know what they think and what they’ll do. Arthur’s loves for and conflicts between Guinevere and Lancelot and Morgaine (and all they each stand for) are dealt with subtly and delicately. You rarely know exactly what his own opinions are, but the pressures on him are built strand by strand, until the whole narrative is taut with them.

And then, somehow, the moment of reckoning never comes. Viviaine, (the lady of the lake who is to confront Arthur over his betrayal of Avalon) is killed. After that, the momentum dissipates and the series never quite regains it. Morgaine is married off and drifts along playing an unconvincing Wicca game, Lancelot and Gwenhwyfar romance boringly and angstily, Morgause and Mordred plot a plot that is strangely empty (it is as if Bradley *knows* they are the bad guys and must go forth and do evil, but until right at the end they do very little other then smirk and make snide remarks), the holy grail is a plot device to kill off Galahad and Kevin the bard (whom I *really* like. More on him later) and Arthur pretty much stops caring about anything except Excalibur, which he hoards with random zeal, simply because its his big sister’s (Morgaine’s) and she wants it too. And everyone gets paranoid about aging.

The only person who deals with their own inner demons – and when I say deals with I mean like a rational adult, not random sulking/mooning/going mad/swooning – is Kevin the traitor Merlin. He is a cripple but somehow he is minimally angsty, unfailingly courteous, thoughtful and kind. It is ironic that his stealing the Grail from Avalon and taking it to Arthur’s court is punished with entrapment and death, while all the other characters get cheerfully (and piously) away with murder.
His path from being a druid to becoming a person who puts peace (even Christian peace) ahead of everything else is depicted as evolving with the times, not as the random fits (also known as the goddess) that take Morgaine, Igraine and Viviane from time to time, until they all become interchangeable.
In the end, when she comes in the barge to take a dying Arthur back to Avalon, even Morgaine can no longer tell which one she is. And while I understand that the whole Great-Goddess-who-is-every-woman-and-maiden-and-mother-and-wise-woman-and-crone deal is important to Bradley, taking away all your protagonist’s character and free will, and reducing her to nothing but a tool of a (possibly loony) goddess is *not* the most empowering story you can tell.


August 26, 2008 at 2:10 pm Leave a comment

life of a leech

One of the few animals i truly truly detest is the leech.
Other than mosquitoes
leeches are the only creatures i kill
with little compunction
or at all.
Kill that is.
And in both these creatures
the thing in killing them
that makes me utterly disgusted
is the blood.
My blood.
Oozing out of the slime
that is the mortal remains
of the leech or mosquito.
it is the human in them that makes them so very unutterably gross.
Compare the dung beetle,
which in itself is a fine and upstanding specimen of beetlehood.

August 20, 2008 at 6:52 pm 4 comments


Its raining and raining and raining. I can’t go out anywhere. My room will soon be flooded, and I shall have to build an ark.

And the animals shall come in one by one
Because my door is narrow
And wipe their paws on my doormat
If I have one
And outside it will thunder
And lightning will hit the conductor
I will so thoughtfully have put up
And with luck some of us may survive
Our excellent deluge
And may even live to find our missing seconds
And the most enthusiastic may even procreate.
And our cleverness in building the ark
Will be thoroughly rewarded
When we have descendants who will laugh
At how primitive and ugly it is.


The animals rumble something which might pass for amen if one was deaf and wishful to think so.

Outside it drips some more.

August 9, 2008 at 6:09 pm Leave a comment

pome day

Once upon a time,
There was a man with a lumpy face;
And a huge-giant-massive nose-cum-upper-lip
All the better with which to sing bass.

Nasally, nasally down the river
He sang a song so free
Nasally, nasally bold and booming
His black eyes flashing beadily.

I wish I were that lumpy man
With his voice so large and wrinkly
I’d row that boat to the end of time
Though my arms be so spindly.

August 7, 2008 at 12:14 pm 1 comment

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