'The Mists Of Avalon': Free To Be In Camelot

(Trill of exultation.) The Mists of Avalon, which I somehow managed not to read until two or three years ago, has a very peculiar place in my heart. Regret and relief, it might be fair to say? I can guarantee that this is a book I would have taken far, far too seriously if I’d read it when I was eleven. As it stands, I completely tore through it and wore more dresses for a while and dragged out my Loreena McKennitt CDs and took a lot of baths with Lush products and pretended to be a servant to the Goddess, but in that awkward, slightly-embarrassed, self-conscious way you do when you’re nearly thirty and still unable to erect productive boundaries between yourself and the written word. Oh, children, but if I’d read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s epic Camelot-ian yarn at eleven… what then? What would have happened to the WORLD?

I would not be here talking to you, that’s for sure. I would have gone Full Hippie. I would no longer be grudgingly purging myself of body hair, I would have a wide selection of natural deodorants (I do hear great things about Soapwalla), I would be living in… hm. That’s an interesting question! I guess I would have stayed in rural Canada, or somehow made my way to Portland, or Austin. And then become either a lesbian barista or one of those people who speak Gaelic. It sounds pretty great, now that I’m thinking about it. Either way, I would have become a pagan. There is not a doubt in my mind that I would have become a pagan. Like, finish the last page, go to the nearest womyn’s bookstore, purchase Wicca for Dummies, and then ALL THE CANDLES. Because this book is a Goddess-y, witch-y, magik-y, glorious mishmash of feminine power and clitorises (clitori?) and heavy green dresses and ancient blah blah. Everything you enjoyed about The Dark is Rising sequence, but with hard-core eroticism. I mean, it’s not all GOOD eroticism, or anything. The book is over a thousand pages long, and it’s just not possible to maintain exclusively erotic sex scenes without mixing it up a little with inadvertent incest, and dream-sex, and sex-with-people-who-are-channeling-deer, and so on.

What DID happen to me, as an adult, as a direct result of The Mists of Avalon, though, was natural childbirth. If you asked me why I gave birth without drugs, I probably said something like “blah blah cascade of interventions, blah blah Ricki Lake, blah blah baby can do drugs in college like non-God intended,” but the real answer was “because I really, really love The Mists of Avalon, and wanted to insert a Bad-Ass Goddess note into my birthing experience.” It pretty much worked, too! I mean, at a certain point (I am not necessarily endorsing the decision to eschew the epidural; it is kind of a clusterfuck), all that weird stuff does kick in. So, if you’ve ever had any curiosity about how it would feel to have your brain come apart and transform you into an animalistic, primal creature who taps into your inner (NOT GODDESS, YOU DO NOT BECOME A GODDESS) vole or ferret or some kind of tiny burrow-dwelling creature that writhes and moans and crawls, natural childbirth is for you. Okay, I think I’m making it sound really unpleasant (which it totally is!), but I guess it is also transformative and powerful and stuff. At any rate, when I was going through transition, I had this full-on hallucination that I was Morgaine, fucking the Horned God at the Beltane Fires, which is what happens when you become actually insane from physical discomfort. I am just making this sound better and better!

Anyway, The Mists of Avalon. For the un-initiated, it is a retelling of the Camelot narrative through the experiences of the female characters, with a whole “collision of hawt pagan spirituality with the creeping menace of lame, sexless Christianity” thing that gets eventually mostly worked out with “oh, well, if people are willing to just be cool, then the Virgin Mary could be a face of the Goddess, and maybe Avalon still exists in our hearts and for our super-dope priestesses.” That part is kind of great, though, because I used to always be wandering around popping off about “the Dark Ages,” until I had this boss medieval lit professor who pointed out that, to paraphrase, the world completely sucked for everyone until about fifty years ago, so acting like that particular era was Dark is a little silly, like “and then there were more oil paintings, and there was much rejoicing, but you were still all covered in boils and farming shit for potatoes.”

If you’re a The Mists of Avalon virgin, you may become slightly perturbed by your inability to keep characters straight. I mean, no offense to Marion Zimmer Bradley, who I would totally make Pope, had I my druthers, but, good gravy, somewhere between Morgaine, Igraine, Gwenhwyfar, Morgause, Viviane, Nimue, and Niniane, it becomes a bit of a task to remember who is a Good Witch and who is a Bad Witch (joke! everyone is both awful and okay). And those are just the ladies! The men are even worse, particularly since some of them are their own uncles and there’s some serious pansexual buffet action to boot. Which is the other nice thing about The Mists of Avalon, right, loads of free-to-be-you-and-me goodthinkfulness.

Like all books that try to explain that having magical powers is a double-edged sword, and a curse, and not something to be wished for or taken lightly, you don’t really buy it. Not that the idea of putzing around Avalon in service to the High Priestess forever sounds great, or anything, but obviously having magical powers is awesome and pretending otherwise is a mug’s game. Speaking of the High Priestess of Avalon/Lady of the Lake, it’s good to point out that in this take on Arthurian legend, both “Lady of the Lake” and “Merlin” are like “Shamu,” i.e. positions held in turn by different individuals. Just to confuse you further? And it’s long. Whoo, boy, it’s long. Can we take a minute to mention that very, very classy books and trashy books alike are often really, really long? Like overlapping circles between A Song of Ice and Fire and A Dance to the Music of Time. Long books are the best, though, especially if you have the problem establishing boundaries between fiction and life that we discussed earlier. And, you know, if you’re going to become trapped in a work of fiction, why not make it an overblown feminist exploration of Arthurian legend?

Okay, I know people have strong feelings about The Mists of Avalon, some of which might even be negative (grrrr), so let’s get our discussion rolling with the rollowing questions!

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

• Ugh, on the back of my edition, they call the character “Guinevere” instead of “Gwenhwfar,” like they think extra consonants are too alienating, but if you’re already reading the book it’ll be too late.

• Did you know that Loreena McKennitt’s “The Mummer’s Dance” is the theme song to a telenovela? (“Corpo Dourado”—it only ran for a season.)

• I think we touched on this briefly during The Secret Circle, but please, please weigh in, ex- and current- pagans.

• Do you like Lush products? I know the store is like Yankee Candle on (oh, I was going to say ‘bath salts,’ that’s funny on extra levels!) meth, but until you’ve exfoliated with “Angels on Bare Skin,” you haven’t LIVED.

• Do you ever wonder if, like “Brooklyn Without Limits” on “30 Rock,” Lush is secretly owned by Haliburton, and the joke is on me for basically tithing my income there when I was young and broke and smelled wonderful and had very soft skin and a permanently-slippery tub due to all the bath potions?

• Have you had natural childbirth? You don’t have to!

• Do you have magical powers? Even tiny, tiny ones like growing your fingernails really fast at will?

• Do you know any magical people?

• If Christianity hadn’t showed up to bum everyone out, do you think we’d all be happily building wicker men and Maypole-dancing to this day?

• What would the JFK White House have looked like if THIS was the version of Camelot they were all into?



Previously: Naked Came The Stranger and Gone With The Wind

Nicole Cliffe is the books editor of The Hairpin and the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.