Thursday, 18 October 2012

Rameau Reviews: The Mists of Avalon - Marion Zimmer Bradley


I’ve been actively reading and reviewing books for a year and a half now. In that time, my criteria for rating a book on the one to five stars scale has changed a couple of times. A few things still hold true. The book has to be exceptional and leave an indelible impression to get a five star rating from me. Three stars remains my meh-rating. It’s a book that I can objectively call a good one, something I might have even enjoyed reading, but it’s also something I can easily forget and move on.

My one star rating however, that’s changed the most. At first it was anything and everything I simply didn’t like. If the offences added up to a certain point I’d give it a one star rating no matter what redeemable qualities I’d find in it. But as I read more and actually started thinking about it, I realised there are books that aren’t even worthy of that single star, books that are, to me, beneath contempt. To compensate, I adjusted my personal rating scale and now one star is reserved to books that induce burning white rage in me.

I’ve given good ratings to books with characters I’ve hated when I enjoyed the story, and I’ve given good ratings to books with stories I’ve hated even when I loved a character or two. For me, the style matters little, but dammit, it matters.

And I’m not talking about the clunky language that in a way fits the subject and the legend, but takes a while to get used to.

Ms. Bradley set out to write a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the female perspective, and in that she succeeded. She managed to put together a logical and a somewhat coherent version of the events that put King Arthur on his throne in Camelot and brought him down from it, and she managed to tell it with female voices. Igraine, Viviane, Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar, Morgause, all these women claw their way from the footnotes of myth and become three dimensional people—not just characters, but people—with worries and joys of their own.

Admittedly those joys were short-lived, but that’s partly why I loved the story. It’s why I love the legend as I do all things heart-rending.

However, as wonderfully flawed all these people were with their virtues and their unbridled ambitions, none of them really had a choice in the matter. Ms. Bradley didn’t write people, women or men, who made the best of their unfortunate circumstances. She wrote people thrown about by the fates and whims of their deities. Morgaine’s last defence is that she never had a choice and that she was merely the Goddess’ instrument.

And that’s why I hate this book.

All the characters, as Ms. Bradley paints them, are passive. None are active. None make choices and then take responsibility for their actions. They’re all thrown into untenable situations where something must break and either give them that what they most wish or take it all away from them.

Igraine marries because she doesn’t have a choice. She goes to convent, because she can’t bear to face the sister who forced her hand.

Gwenhwyfar also marries, because she doesn’t have a choice. She first surrenders to her lover because she doesn’t have a choice. The only stupid choice she makes is so that the author has an excuse to make the pious lady into an adulteress without making her choose it.

Morgaine, the worst offender, chooses nothing. The closest she comes to making up her own mind is when she flees Avalon, but after that she promptly becomes the meekest of them all. She, who should be the fearsome Lady of the Lake and High Priestess of the Goddess, how can she be a vehicle of her Goddess’ will when she does nothing but allows others act around her?

Catalyst, you say? This isn’t a chemical reaction where one substance remains unchanged. People change, people make choices that change them and others around them. Unless, of course, you’re a character in The Mists of Avalon.

But times were different then and women nothing but chattel, you say? There’s difference in being victimised and being a victim. All Morgaine and the others had to do to win me over, was not to see themselves as victims. All they had to do was to endure what was thrown at them and choose to make the best of it. All they had to do was to choose.

Only Morgause and Viviane come close to choosing anything, and how are their choices rewarded? Why of course, they are the great villainesses whose actions lead to a family tragedy after a family tragedy. Their actions bring an end to all those things they love and they don’t live to see the aftermath or acknowledge their responsibility.

Telling a story from the female perspective doesn’t make it feminist; writing capable women doing things, being active, and making choices does. This book is something worse; it’s a pretender.

There are many things I appreciate in this book, one thing I don’t is how it all was told. That matters. Dammit.




Series:  Avalon #1         
 Chronological order #7

Pages: 912

Publisher:                                        Del Rey

ISBN:                                              0345441184

Published:                                       2000 (orig. 1983)

Source:                                           Library

33 comments:

  1. Wow, thank you blogger for messing up that last part..oh well.

    Thanks for the review Rameau!

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    Replies
    1. That was an interesting glitch. Blogger never ceases to fail.

      Thanks for taking it. I've been lazy reader lately.

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    2. I am glad that you read something again then so I could get a juicy review :)

      Delete
  2. How a story is told is usually a game-changer. I haven't read this book but I've been aware of it for a while. Sorry it didn't work for you.

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    1. I think I decided to read this when I read Anachronist's review and do I agree with her about the story itself. It's a great story, just dull and patronising.

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  3. I won't be picking this one up any time soon! I appreciate your thoughtful review.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. It's something I'd grab from a library shelf and spend a half an hour reading before deciding whether to borrow it or not. The issues that bothered me might not bother you as much.

      Delete
  4. I'm not thrilled with passive characters, so I think I'll pass on this one.

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    1. They are the great weakness in the story, but if you like the legend it's worth a glance.

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  5. Even if you go with the theory that those were the times and women didn't have choices...it just makes for a boring story if the characters don't do anything, make choices or develop/evolve in any way.

    Basically we just end up following them around, watching them like a fly on the wall.

    Sorry this one didn't work for you.

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    1. Someone pointed out on Goodreads that even chattel dream of rebelling, but I didn't feel like these women did that. Morgaine for example was spared of making mistakes by the men acting according to plans discussed earlier. How was she to learn from something she didn't do?

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  6. Well it sucks to wade through over 700 pages for little pay off and passive characters. I am sorry this didn't meet expectations but I am glad you read it and steered me away!

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    1. I'm glad I could help.

      It wasn't an utterly wasted effort. I did get to read a coherent version of the Arthurian legend.

      Delete
  7. I remember reading and hating some scenes just because the heroines didn't have any choice, not really. Overall I assessed this book much higher but I admit it was a bleak read.

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    1. I remember that, and your review. And I agreed with you on many of the positive things. I just couldn't enjoy them as you did because of the passive characters.

      It wasn't just that the the story was bleak or that the women didn't have any choice; it was that they didn't think they had any choice. It's different to read a story you know how it's going to end because it's a legend and that's how it's supposed to end, and reading a story you know how it's going to end despite how it's being written.

      I didn't feel like Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar, and the others were writing their own story and living their own lives that just happened to sum up to the unfortunate downfall of Arthur and Camelot. I read a story that was destined to end in a certain way and everyone including the characters themselves knew it.

      And I think a better writer would have managed to give me that illusion that the story could have ended differently and that it was just bad luck Arthur died in the end.

      Delete
    2. I suppose I was too engrossed in the different twists and turns to notice the passive attitude of the characters but I suppose if I thought about it more I would come to a similar conclusion. Predestination is such a bleak theory after all, making all your efforts useless.

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  8. I wont be picking this book up then.

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    1. I'm glad my suffering spared someone else's pain.

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  9. I actually liked this book. Mostly because it took a story I never warmed and made it better. She didn't change the outcomes, just the characters. They were passive in the original too. I think it has become feminist because before they touted Gwen (who I never liked) because she was meek. They also vilified Morgaine because she was strong (sound familiar?). So, MZB took these characters and, to me, exposed them for who they were... flaws and all. I liked that so much better.

    However, not comparing it to the first... you certainly have a point. ;)

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    1. Oh, I can understand that. And I did like huge parts of it, it just wasn't enough for me. I've not read that many interpretations of the legend and if you say they were meek and passive in the original too, I'll believe you.

      The point is that as much as Ms. Bradley might have improved upon the characters by exposing and exploring their flaws, I don't think she went far enough. I think she stopped a couple of steps before the finish line.

      And while Ms. Bradley might have redeemed Morgaine and showed her as something other than a simple villain, she did shift the blame onto two other women and vilify them. I don't understand how that helps the cause.

      Delete
  10. It's too bad the female characters were passive like that. I watched the film version of this one and enjoyed it.

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    1. It annoyed me to no end. At first it was understandable but as they grew and aged it became less so and started truly to irritate me. I haven't seen the film, and glancing at the cast list, I'm not absolutely convinced I want to. But I'll keep it in mind.

      Delete
  11. Well, I loved this book and thought the author wrote one hell of a story.

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    1. True, absolutely. I'm glad you liked it better than I did.

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  12. I'm sorry you didn't like this one. I never read it and it really doesn't seem like a book I'd be interested in anyway. Thanks for the honest review.

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    1. Thanks. It was the legend that lured me in. That and a promise of strong women.

      Delete
  13. I've read this in my teens, and can't much remember of it, but in that time I devoured everything and anything Arthurian and mythologic. I don't think I would enjoy it very much at this point in life.

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    1. I've come to the conclusion that certain books and stories should be read during the teen years. After that (most) people grow up and lose patience with melodramas and certain other things that we've come to consider classics.

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  14. I didn't know this one but saw this author a lot. I think I have one book in my TBR pile. I'm sorry it wasn't for you, it's always difficult. but thanks for the discovery.

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    1. You're welcome and I hope you like the book better than I did.

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  15. I understand what you're saying, I just never got any of that from this story. I loved it immensely. It was quite some time ago, but I felt like because of the deities, mystical forces, and the times, these women were left with limited choices.
    I also remember thinking how badly the Church despised all other religions and women. Or am I getting my Dark Ages books confused?

    Excellent review in any case :)

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    1. Thank you. I don't think you're getting anything confused. Christianity or more accurately its priests as portrayed in this book did despise women and other religions.

      And as I've said before, I can understand why you'd love this book. There were many thing I did like and appreciate, but unfortunately I didn't buy the portrayal of women and how they viewed themselves. Even people who have limited choices, who are slaves even, do dream of rebellion and freedom. Had they been truly happy in accepting things as they came and being obedient to their superiors they wouldn't have considered themselves as victims.

      It's in the human nature to dream of better things and circumstances, these characters didn't.

      Delete

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