When the late Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon was published in 1983, Bradley (1930 – 1999) had already made a splash in the public’s fantasy reading consciousnous with her Darkover Series which she introduced in The Planet Savers in 1958. For a less experienced, less widely known author, tackling and re-imagining the legends of King Arthur and the Round Table from a femine perspective would have been a great risk.
After all, whoever writes about King Arthur is not only up against Thomas Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1485), Edmund Spenser’s epic Elizabethan poem ”The Faerie Queene” (issued in 1590 and 1596) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s twelve-part Victorian series of poems “Idylls of the King” (issued between 1856 and 1885), but some well-received modern versions of the story as well. Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck’s “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights” (posthumously published in 1976), Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy (1970, 1973, 1979) and T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King” (1958) probably top the list. Based on White’s novel, the musical “Camelot” had already made a hit on Broadway in 1960 and as a film in 1967.
In her 1983 New York Times review of “The Mists of Avalon,” Maureen Quilligan wrote, “Of the various great matters of Western literature – the story of Troy, the legend of Charlemagne, the tales of Araby – none has more profoundly captured the imagination of English civilization than the saga of its own imperial dream, the romance of King Arthur and the Round Table.” We continue to be fascinated with versions and off-shoots of the story whether they surface in nonfiction accounts such as “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” (1982), “The Da Vinci Code” (2003, film in 2006) or the continuing novels in the Avalon Series written by Diana L. Paxson.
The myths, whether you see them as illustrations of the hero’s or heroine’s journeys or as tales of struggling peoples of a bygone era, feature larger-than-life personages fighting the powers of darkness and opposing armies in quests focused on personal transformation and/or an ideal society. Merlin’s teachings appear and re-appear in various guises (such as Deepak Chopra’s “The Way of the Wizard: Twenty Spiritual Lessons for Creating the Life You Want”) as lessons for seekers on the mystical path, while King Athur and his knights have been presented—through tales of glory and folly—as archetypes to follow after or to be wary of.
Quilligan, in noting that Bradley looked at the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the women involved, said, “This, the untold Arthurian story, is no less tragic, but it has gained a mythic coherence; reading it is a deeply moving and at times uncanny experience.”
The stories of Arthur, his Knights, Merlin, Viviane, Gwynyfar, Morgaine, Igraine, and old Uther Pendragon come to us with such strength that it’s difficult for lovers of fantasy—perhaps even the general public—not to suspect there is a truth or a reality to them that cannot quite be proven. We react to the stories as though the authors are interpreting real events. Perhaps we’ll never know whether there was or wasn’t a King Arthur who had anything in common with the stories we read and rell about him, but we hope there was.
What great myths, though! They bring us the best and the worst we can be as humans with hints of the kind of magic many of us hope in our heart of hearts exists alongside our technological world of science and logic. The myths are a part of our shared vision of the world and humankind, waiting, ever waiting for more interpretations, versions and re-imaginings.