Details: (c) Marion Zimmer Bradley 1982; Pub Ballantine Books 1984; ISBN1 0-345-31452-2
Verdict: The mists of Avalon has occasional flashes of brilliance, unfortunately rather diluted.
Reasons for reading it: darcydodo recommended it. I hadn't read much fantasy before I met Darcy, and in some ways this book typifies the sort of things I find uncomfortable with the genre.
How it came into my hands: I bought it second-hand in the Berkeley flea-market when I was visiting darcydodo in January. That was some book-shopping trip! (I also got two very useful items of clothing, one purple and one velvet for $6. I don't normally get excited about buying clothes, but that was something!)
1 I've included an ISBN number so that anyone who wants to look up the book can do so easily. I don't like the increasingly prevalent custom of linking all book titles to amazon.com; why should I give them gratuitous advertising? Anyone who cares that much probably has their own favourite online book shop.
The concept of The Mists of Avalon (henceforth called MoA) is very clever: retelling the Arthurian myth from the pov of Morgana le Fay (called 'Morgaine of the fairies' in MoA). Like a lot of generic fantasy it concentrates on the characters and relationships more than the plot; this is something I appreciate.
What's great about MoA is a handful of really powerful scenes and very evocative imagery. I found myself dreaming about the transition between the prosaic world and the magical world of Avalon, and I'm not a visual person so it's rare for any book to make that sort of impression on me. There are several scenes of loss, separation, betrayal and thwarted love which brought tears to my eyes; the characters come across as thoroughly human in their experience of pain. The description of the 'Great Marriage', ritualized sex between Morgaine and Arthur reenacting a marriage of pagan gods, is very compelling.
The theme I found particularly interesting was the transition between Pagan / Druidic religion and Christianity. The 'old religion' is particularly well conveyed, both as a force in people's lives and as a spiritual reality. (I have no idea whether the book's descriptions are historically accurate, but to a large extent this doesn't matter.) Bradley is less good on Christianity; she appears to be so unshakeably against monotheism that she is incapable of allowing Christianity any good qualities. Apart from the inherent prejudice, this makes it implausible that anyone would ever want to be Christian!
But the effect of the Christianization of the country in the course of a couple of generations is extremely interestingly explored. I rather liked the (fantasy) idea that since Christianity denies the existence of any magical realms, it caused Avalon to grow less easily accessible from the prosaic world as the meme achieved cultural dominance. And there is quite a lot of clever, more realist stuff about the way that Pagan rituals become incorporated into Christianity and given new symbolism.
Some cute ideas. I liked the comment that the story of St Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland is actually about his defeat of the Druidic priesthood, for whom serpent-dragons were a religious symbol. The use of 'Merlin' as a title rather than a personal name, and relating it to the bird. And the suggestion of a threesome between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot rather tickled me. (Does anyone who's good at that kind of thing want to describe the scene in detail?)
What I don't like about MoA is mainly that it's way too long to sustain itself, and that it degenerates into soap opera-style melodrama at least as often as it manages to transcend that sort of trashiness. (The scene of the final catastrophic argument between Morgaine and the Merlin Kevin is a particularly bad example.) I had the impression that it doesn't quite know whether it's meant to be literature or trashy romance.
For all its flaws it's readable; I read it mostly on a very long coach trip (Dundee to Lille in a day and a half, ugh), and it was accessible enough for me to take it in when the coach stopped at three in the morning and I was barely able to keep my eyes open to read. And it's gripping in the same way a soap opera is gripping; it was easy enough to get caught up in the story.
I was going to do some comparing of MoA with other versions of the Arthurian myth that I've read, but this is too long already, so I'll leave it at that.