Our next nomination for The Great Fantasy Novel comes from Teresa Frohock, author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale.
I don’t know how to tell you about this novel without gushing—I mean seriously gushing. The Mists of Avalon has everything: an excellent story, beautiful prose, magic, adventure, religion, and a host of memorable characters.
Good books entertain, but great books work on multiple levels; if ever there was a fantasy novel that boasted a multifaceted story, it is The Mists of Avalon. Bradley’s themes of love and honor seem fresh and new each time, and I suppose that is what makes this one of the greatest fantasy novels for me—the very timelessness of the story.
Bradley tells her version of the Arthurian legend primarily through Morgaine’s eyes as she tries to save her religion and the Celtic old ways from extinction. Morgaine’s strength is in her intelligence and her determination to win at any costs. Yet Bradley renders her as a very human character, multidimensional and flawed.
Morgaine’s antagonist is Arthur’s young wife Gwenhwyfar, who turns to the new religion, Christianity, in desperation. Gwenhwyfar believes the pagan rituals that Arthur refuses to relinquish are the root cause for her inability to conceive an heir. As she slides deeper into Christian fanaticism, she and Morgaine become embroiled in a psychological and ideological war over which religion will rule Britain. Gwenhwyfar succeeds in bending Arthur to her will and drives Avalon into the mists, yet she never succeeds in the complete annihilation of either Avalon or the old ways.
Bradley gives new and believable motivations to all of the characters, women and men alike, and she brings the time period to life with skill. From the thrushes on the floors to placing a cat in the birthing room, Bradley weaves the details of the era into the story flawlessly. Magic is given a subtle treatment, and she embeds Avalon’s mysteries into the world very organically. One of my favorite scenes is Morgaine weaving Avalloch’s death—the scene is poetic in its execution and in many ways, the perfect metaphor for lengths that Morgaine will go to in order to preserve Avalon’s ways.
The Mists of Avalon was such a sensation for me when I read it as a young woman. Women were no longer scenery by which the men passed on their way to greater deeds. The women plotted and moved through the story with their own rhythm and motives. I read it again in my thirties and forties, and each time, the story took on new dimensions.
When I was asked to contribute to this series, this is the first novel that popped into my mind and it remains as one of my all-time favorites more than thirty years after I first read it. I find something different and new each time I read The Mists of Avalon, and it is that very timelessness that makes this one of the greatest fantasy novels that I have ever read.
This article is part of our search for “The Great Fantasy Novel.” For more information on this project or to nominate your own favorite fantasy novel, please take a look at the introduction article. Do you agree or disagree with this nomination? Let us know in the comments below!