Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

'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!


• 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.

68 Comments / Post A Comment

RustBeltFag@twitter (#206,926)

So happy you reviewed this book! There is a disturbing correlation between Classic Trash picks and my favorite books as a child & adolescent. I actually DID read this at 11 or 12 and I did not actually turn into a hippie (though I did spend a few happy years living with them in a co-op as an undergrad).

Did anybody catch the TV movie? The production values seemed a little too cheesy for my taste, but I'm curious to know if it was any good.

maghrebi (#236,579)

@RustBeltFag@twitter It's kind of a hot mess. It has sets-made-of-particle-board level production values, plus Julianna Margulies was about 2 decades too old to be convincingly playing a teenage girl.

Antennapedia (#161,290)

@maghrebi @RustBeltFag@twitter Yeah, but it does have that scene where Juliana Margulies is trying to contact someone- I forget who, Morgause maybe?- via the well and can't get her, prompting the friend I was watching this with to shout "God, pay your well bill, you asshole!"

Also, this book spawned a genre she and I refer to as "Ovarian Legends", IE, Arthur for chicks.

Olivia2.0 (#1,716)

I did read this book when I was maybe 14? Oh god I loved it so much I must have read it over again 3 or 4 times in a row. I remember reading it on a family vacation to Florida and being like the SUN NOOOOOOOOOOOOO. I may re-read!

Nicole please also tell us more about natural childbirth, because I like to be scared!

Mr. B (#10,093)

My mom had all three of us sans drugs! She was very adamant about it with the OB/GYNs! It had nothing to do with any new-age nonsense, though (she was, and is, a practicing Catholic and registered Republican, though she did vote for John Kerry) — she just didn't want us to be born high. Which, thanks, Mom!

melis (#1,854)

ohhh god I cannot believe you didn't warn me this was going up today

melis (#1,854)

i hate the mists of avalon so so so so so so so much

@melis Silly melis! Always saying "hate" when you mean "love."

melis (#1,854)

NO, because, okay, HOW DO YOU RUIN something like "mega gay and witchy retelling of Camelot." MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY KNEW HOW TO RUIN IT. With her 500-page digressions on Gwynhywfynnhyrssr's agoraphobia and literally no plot happening for like a thousand years.

@melis I always mix her (Gwenhywfynnhyrssr) up with the lady horse from "The Horse and His Boy."

melis (#1,854)

@Nicole Cliffe@facebook Oh great, thanks for reminding me that book exists too.

Bittersweet (#765)

@Nicole Cliffe@facebook That was Hwin. Her male horse buddy was Bree-hee-hinny-brinny-hooey-hah. (Sorry, melis. If it makes you feel better, I agree with you about the digressions and no plot.)

cherrispryte (#444)


@cherrispryte I was hoping it would be like "Dune," which I was able to force Melis into liking through sheer force of will, but she's being a TOTAL WANG ABOUT MISTS.

melis (#1,854)

@Nicole Cliffe@facebook DID YOU KNOW all priestesses from the isle of Avalon are born with the intrinsic gifts of future-sight and being MEGA TRIPLE BORING ALL THE TIME

hedgehog (#15,866)

@Bittersweet It's hoohy, not hooey. #Iwinandalsolose

Bittersweet (#765)

@hedgehog Oh man, I wrote it out from memory and couldn't remember how 'hoohy' was spelled. Time to read The Horse and His Boy for the thousandth time. /loser lament

Hello Salty@twitter (#225,935)

Totally read this at 11, as a boy though. Did not change my life but it was awesome. Still feel funny when I read about the deer-channeling scene in ways that I am still not, two decades later, mature enough to handle yet.

riggssm (#760)

@Hello Salty@twitter I also read it as a boy (maybe 12 or 13) during my fascination with all things Merlin. (Mary Stewart did it best, fyi.) Only vague memory I have is of two guys doing gay sex to each other in a tower (Lancelot and Mordred?). First time I'd ever run across that in literature.

I love Arthurian legend (Mary Stewart's Crystal Caves trilogy, from Merlin's perspective, is possibly the best thing ever) but only recently got around to Mists of Avalon. I love it but after weeks and weeks of reading I'm only halfway through!

Only downside of Kindle: you have no idea what you're getting into.

jfruh (#713)

Are we talking about "ex-pagans" as in people alive today who used to be pagans but are now kinda embarassed about it, or about people actually living in Camelot Time (~400s-500s AD, to the extent that Camelot Time had any historical basis)? Because lumping together all polytheistic European religions together as "paganism" is a thing that really irritiates me, actually, especially when it comes to Neo-Pagans who seem to believe there was some kind of unified lore or belief system! It's very ahistorical. And in fact the "Britons," whom Arthur and his peeps are I guess supposed to represent, would have been Christians, since they had been part of the thoroughly Christianized Roman Empire , whereas their Saxon antagonists (not sure if the Saxons ever make it into Mists of Avalon) would have been pagans, though maybe your earth-mother-pagan types would have labelled them "Germanic masculine pagans" or something. ANYWAY, ABUSES OF HISTORY MAKE ME CRANKY BLAH BLAH

Mr. B (#10,093)

@jfruh Now let's talk about how Stonehenge was built by "the Druids"!

swizzard (#329)

@Mr. B LOL! Everybody knows it was aliens.

Mr. B (#10,093)

@swizzard That gentleman has one interesting hairdo!

JanieS (#228,605)

@jfruh YES BUT – if I hadn't gotten in to goofy ahistorical floof like this, I would never have gotten interested in the historical stuides that lead me to discover the myriad ways in which it was all wrong!

lfrank (#236,549)

I love the 'Mists of Pennsylvania Ave' angle! I'm envisioning Jackie as the agoraphobic Gwyn (obsessed with interior decorating because she can't go outside?) and maybe Marilyn Monroe as the pagan Morgaine? JFK seems far too heterosexual to be Arthur here…who could be his Lancelet?

bowlofpeanuts (#236,550)

I had natural childbirth! It was . . . gritty. But, awesome!

LooseBaggyMonster (#234,747)

The last thing this book would do is inspire me to undergo natural childbirth! What if I gave birth to a Mordred?

NorieY (#232,373)

Oh man – I DID read this book when I was 12, and, yes to your prediction. To be fair I was kinda a big hippy to start with, but this book totally pushed me over the edge. Big, flow dresses all the time, explored paganism, BOUGHT ALL THE CANDLES. It did not last, although I still have a love of long flowly dresses, and I would be lying if I said I didn't have a fairy door in my house.

Soapbox Dirty (#233,767)

DEAR LAWD, thanks for blowing the dust off this relic and reliving all its menstrual cup inspired, Paganish glory. I DID read this book when I was 14 and spent way too much money on pot, Nag Champa and soothsayers thereafter. But you have to separate the G@ddess place from the Phish place. I've never been a hackysack owning, barefoot twirler with cheap primal drums pounding in my head, thank-you-very-much, in spite of my teenage penchant for the THC. But perhaps this book taught me to smile knowingly at those who did.

cherrispryte (#444)


Cause yeah. Read everything Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote when I was between the ages of 15 and 17. Then came the candles, tarot cards, book of secrets, casting circles, and developing deep emotional attachments to bits of cheap silver jewelry with dragons on them. (Which I totally am not wearing right now. These two rings I literally haven't taken off, except to make babka, for 13 years? I DID NOT BUY THEM BECAUSE OF THIS BOOK.)


Also sexual liberation, final and total break with Christianity, etc.

JanieS (#228,605)


cherrispryte (#444)

@JanieS Fuck yes! … they also have a kickass plus size section of "vaguely hippie or steampunk but still mostly appropriate for non cosplay occasion" dresses, which is part of why I unabashedly love them.

JanieS (#228,605)

@cherrispryte Oh, it's exactly how I remembered! Plus steampunk! <3

JanieS (#228,605)

This book mayyyybee helped turn me into a pagan. For a while. Though I could never get it to stick due to my undying love for chemical detergents and aluminum-based antipersperants. (I am not wearing a pentacle necklace even as I type this. Hush.)

JennyBeans (#7,034)

Read this at 11. Kind of didn't get the sex parts? I mean, I know there were sex parts, but I think I maybe skipped those? Because I re-read it when I was older (but still, like, 10+ years ago) and was basically like "oh! wow! sex!"

I also wish I'd thought about Mists of Avalon (or the similar things I read for about 10 years) when I was pregnant. That would possibly have made me get all goddessy and powerful when the OB said "42 weeks! thus induction!" which then led inexorably to, yes, a c-section. I was in pitocin-ified labor for 30 hours, but had to get an epidural about halfway through because I was feeling way-not-primal/goddessy. BUT I bet if I'd been at home in a bathtub, instead of in a hospital room with a billion IVs and monitors, it would have been awesome.

God, this was 13 months ago and I still have to talk about it constantly, without end, because I'm so mad about it. UGH. sorry, medicated births are the worst (unless you want one, in which case that is your choice) don't let them do it to you.

themosthumble (#236,657)

@JennyBeans (((((hugs))))) I really feel for you. The way we can be coerced so easily by doctors can feel like (and be) such a violation.
I had natural birth twice (I detailed my experience down below). First time was difficult and I had a shitty midwife who I stayed SO pissed at. Second time was awesome, due in large part to great midwife support. It was seriously healing.
*unsolicited advice: If you ever have another baby, find the best support people to see you through.
And be proud that you made it thru such an awful ordeal, for the sake of your baby. THAT is goddessy in itself!

Saralyn@twitter (#12,501)

Oh man. I never became a pagan or anything (although I did take a slightly mystical detour to my Catholicism when I was a young teen, thanks probably in equal parts to Mists of Avalon and an obsession with Joan of Arc), but I did love this book (and, admittedly, the miniseries) SO HARD. It was my first accidental encounter with feminist literature or erotica of any kind. The latter made me more than a little uncomfortable at 13, but it was totally awesome.

Otterman Empire (#224,124)

Is this a safe place to talk about my pentacle choker? Because I wore it for *years*.

Amphora (#231,928)

@l'esprit de l'escalier add a baby tee, black velour overalls, and Doc Martens and you have my favorite outfit at 13.

Rianne R@twitter (#232,384)

I have never read this.
I love all of the following: Arthurian retellings, erotica, feminist versions of shit (see: The Penelopiad)

Clearly something has gone terribly wrong.

Rianne R@twitter (#232,384)

@Rianne R@twitter also on the list of things I love – absurdly long books. I read too fast, most books are done and over with in a day or two.

Amphora (#231,928)

@Rianne R@twitter The Penelopiad is way better anyway, since Bradley has no concept of concise writing. Have you read The Red Tent??

KateKari (#230,354)

Read it when I was 11! Went through a lengthy hippie phase that lasted into my 20s and was very enjoyable. It remains something I'm affectionately nostalgic about, since my Grown-Up Self turned out to be into tailored dresses and heels, minimalist home decor, and secular humanism.

But it really did shape my understanding of Arthurian legend, and it laid the groundwork for my feminist worldview. My mom loves it too, which is kind of cool. This article definitely made me want to re-read it, put one something flowy and embroidered, and light some incence, for old time's sake.

Amphora (#231,928)

@KateKari I read it when I was 12 and felt totally scarred – I had NO IDEA sex could be that..eeek. Great vocabulary builder, though. That was the first time I saw the word "phallus" (which came in handy later that year when I read Clan of the Cave Bear).

aphrabean (#231,420)

I was wondering what book I should take with me on my week-long vacation to the dappled woods of the Pacific Northwest, and I think this has decided it.

hallelujah (#193,489)

As a heavily & complicatedly pregnant person with ZERO interest in (or ability for) unmedicated childbirth, I appreciate this commentary SO GODDAMN MUCH. Also, I think I'll add this to my maternity leave reading list. Thanks Nicole!

maghrebi (#236,579)

Well, I read this at age 13, but having a mother who was WAY too into Arthurian legend, Tolkein and weird British stuff (her 1972 yearbook quote was "Frodo Lives!", she named me after the lead actress from Poldark and my sister after Lady Elaine) kinda insulated me from the hippie phase.
Honestly, MOA is Flowers in The Attic with swords and hearth fires, no?

Maja D.@twitter (#236,581)

So glad I'm not the only one who read it when I was a little to young to totally get it. Tragically, the book was recommended to me by a boy who I like-liked, but a LOT, and I scoured the pages looking for his hidden message to me. Some budding feminist I was!

@Maja D.@twitter That's adorable.

When I was 23 I moved for a summer into an old house in the countryside with a bunch of people. We were not really hippies, more like sensible, practical activists. In the house, which was previously inhabited by some cultish Ananda Marga-hippies there was a copy of The Mists of Avalon. Some of us read it. By the end of the summer, we had stopped our sniggering at the previous hippies and making fun of the altars. Some of us even performed a ritual in some ruins nearby. I went full hippie after that, pagan, dreads for six years, ecovillage life in NSW Australia. What more to say? Don't read the book unless you have the chance to Go Hippie!

Bittersweet (#765)

I read this at 16 but was then also deep into ballet class, Dynasty, Agatha Christie and Duran Duran so none the hippie stuff stuck. Thanks, Joan Collins and Simon Le Bon!

Bittersweet (#765)

@Bittersweet OK, so maybe I did tarot cards a little.

Otterman Empire (#224,124)

Uh-huh. Now the real story is revealed!

Hilary Kitz@twitter (#236,587)

I read this when I was 13, and had "already seen ghosts". Results: tonnesss of ouija. Like a lot. Mostly talked to a girl named Babs (WW3 will be in 2063, with floods) and to Satan, obviously. Later results includ candles, baths, pot, reiki, cooking with lots of burning spices, telling my bf Monday (time not name) that I was secretly psychic. He said he was too because he talked about the borg all day and then i watched Star Trek. I was too nice to explain that just meant I was still/more psychic/a witch.

pigforker (#235,728)

This article was the funniest thing I've read in recent memory, and I am praising all the pagan deities that I did not get my hands on this book when I was 11! I am very excited about reading it now however. I need a book to sink into the way I used to obsess over Star Trek in the old days.

Plus I'm about 20 weeks into my first pregnancy & was hoping to go natural, so any inspiration is welcome!

Otterman Empire (#224,124)

I'm at 35 weeks, and honestly . . . What Nicole says makes me want to get an epidural right now… Just in case.

SO MUCH YES. Reading MoA several times over as a tween led to nascent feminism; folk music; used clothes; Tarot cards; and rejection of organized religion in favor of casting circles with friends (one of whom still has a pentagram Duck-taped to the floor of her room in her parents' house, under the rug). "The Craft" coming out at roughly the same time did not help.

This book got me so overexcited that when, on the subway, I saw another girl reading it, I developed an instant, insatiable crush on her. With extraordinary magical mental powers, I directed her to talk to me. She did! She asked me, "What time is it?" "It's 4:00!" I said, and then babbled about how much I loved MoA as I was leaving the car. After the doors closed, I realized it was 11:30.

rabbitheart (#236,594)

I definitely did a book report on this in the fifth grade in front of my whole class and my teacher was MORTIFIED. Retroactively apologizing into the Internet.

knittinglawfin (#236,595)

Um, yeah. This contributed to a lengthy Celtic hippie phase, which included learning Gaelic. Ciamar a tha sibh an nocht?

ample pie (#16,622)

I never did the Celtic hippie thing, but I read this and all of its sequels, and I'm pretty sure that flowed (ha!) directly into the reading of Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf at age 15.

Speaking of epic books that maybe had lots of parts my 14-year-old self couldn't handle, The Far Pavilions anyone?

SarahDances (#236,618)

Re: relief and regret

"I'm sure you do feel a little bit of both. But I know damn well you feel one more than you feel the other. The question was, which one?"

That's all I came down here to say. Oh, and that I read it at ~13 and it totally kicked off a pagan phase for me. Dead on!

BoxMeowBox@twitter (#236,636)

OMG, you keep selecting my favorite haute trash. Loved this book. It made me tap my inner goddess, get in touch with the earthly powers, etc. I still want to go to that hill and see if I can summon up a glamour and pass through.

My mom has been after me to read this book since I was about 10 years old. I refused out of a rebellious hatred of the Fantasy genre specifically designed to hurt both my parents. (Seriously, guys, I only watched Lord of The Rings for the first time like 2 years ago. And that's because of a WEDDING VOW I made to my husband.) But I'm converted and watching Game of Thrones like it's crack, and I kinda miss the camptastic Starz "Camelot" series with Joseph Feinnes and that girl from Mallrats. So maybe I should pick this up, finally?

I did try the natural childbirth thing. For about 26 hours. And then I was like, "You know? I think I'll take that epidural."

themosthumble (#236,657)

Oh man, this sounds like a guily pleasure that I need to get all up on! It feels like I've been seeing this book everywhere for all my life, but for some strange reason never thought to read it. And that's the type of shit I could totally get lost in.
But really I skipped down here before reading the comments to say Nicole! Natural childbirth the second time round was SO much better and more empowering!
[sidenote: I generally refrain from sharing all this for fear of being taken for a natural birth nazi who thinks all women should do it. I don't, geez everybody! But I'm a little stoned and feel like sharing on this Friday nite ok?]
So the birth of my first son 3 yrs ago was long and arduous. Oh my god I just wanted it over, until finally, FINALLY it was. I didn't hallucinate that I was screwing a demon or anything (holy shit), but I get it. And it was still freakin amazing and awesome and I would do it again…
BUT when my second son was born almost 6 months ago, it was unbelievably faster, easier and super empowering! I felt so in control of my body and so much like the baby and I were working together. Almost a teeny bit goddess-like? It was an incredible high. I could go on, but I'll stop myself!
I would understand a woman who's birthed naturally once be all, "I've done the strong primal woman thing already. Drugs please." But that's my experience, for what its worth.
Now where's my library card?

themosthumble (#236,657)

@themosthumble *a little bit stoned on this SATURDAY nite. shutup.

timsparks47 (#236,695)

why some people hate avalon, I think its great :)

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