The Mists of Avalon
1. Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
The Mists of Avalon revolves around a number of dualities: male/ female, Christianity/druidism, duty/desire. How are these duali-
ties represented in the book? Can you think of others that were
2. How does the book strive to challenge common stereotypes? How does it reinforce them?
3. Is Gwenhwyfar a sympathetic character? In your opinion, does Marion Zimmer Bradley treat physical beauty in a positive, negative, or neutral manner? Explain.
4. How responsible is Arthur for allowing the spread of Christianity and ultimate disappearance of Avalon? Was he simply being an honorable husband to Gwenhwyfar? Did you find the Arthur, Lancelet, Gwenhwyfar tryst disturbing? Although Arthur was an indisputably potent leader, can he, in the end, be deemed an effective one?
5. It seemed in several instances that Morgaine disappeared when
she was most needed. Was she ultimately successful in represent-
ing the Goddess? Would you say that she was a victim to her fate or that she ultimately rose to meet it? What parallels can you draw between Morgaine’s life and Igraine’s? Between Morgaine and Viviane?
6. The Merlin seems to play an ambiguous role in the story. Do you agree with this statement? In your opinion, was he motivated more by his faith, or by pride and ambition?
7. Throughout history, did the spread of Christianity really lead to a diminishing of tolerance? Does the Goddess have a place in today’s world? Do you think that Christianity ever held woman as the principal of evil?
8. What symbolism, if any, would you apply to the dragon slain by Lancelet? What is the symbolism behind Excalibur? The Grail? The Holy Thorn?
9. At the end of Mists, did you feel that the Goddess had truly been absorbed into Christianity?
10. How has Mists changed your perception or understanding of the Arthurian legend? How has it changed your perception of women’s roles in the making (and telling) of history?
From the Trade Paperback edition.
912 pages; ISBN 9780345448163
Title: The Mists of Avalon
Author: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Even in high summer, Tintagel was a haunted place; Igraine, Lady of Duke Gorlois, looked out over the sea from the headland. As she stared into the fogs and mists, she wondered how she would ever know when the night and day were of equal length, so that she could keep the Feast of the New Year. This year the spring storms had been unusually violent; night and day the crash of the sea had resounded over the castle until no man or woman within could sleep, and even the hounds whimpered mournfully.
Tintagel . . . there were still those who believed the castle had been raised, on the crags at the far end of the long causeway into the sea, by the magic of the ancient folk of Ys. Duke Gorlois laughed at this and said that if he had any of their magic, he would have used it to keep the sea from encroaching, year by year, upon the shoreline. In the four years since she had come here as Gorlois’s bride, Igraine had seen land, good land, crumble into the Cornish sea. Long arms of black rock, sharp and craggy, extended into the ocean from the coast. When the sun shone, it could be fair and brilliant, the sky and water as brilliant as the jewels Gorlois had heaped on her on the day when she told him she bore his first child. But Igraine had never liked wearing them. The jewel which hung now at her throat had been given her in Avalon: a moonstone which sometimes reflected the blue brilliance of sky and sea; but in the fog, today, even the jewel looked shadowed.
In the fog, sounds carried a long way. It seemed to Igraine, as she stood looking from the causeway back toward the mainland, that she could hear footfalls of horses and mules, and the sound of voices—human voices, here in isolated Tintagel, where nothing lived but goats and sheep, and the herdsmen and their dogs, and the ladies of the castle with a few serving women and a few old men to guard them.
Slowly, Igraine turned and went back toward the castle. As always, standing in its shadow, she felt dwarfed by the loom of these ancient stones at the end of the long causeway which stretched into the sea. The herdsmen believed that the castle had been built by the Ancient Ones from the lost lands of Lyonnesse and Ys; on a clear day, so the fishermen said, their old castles could be seen far out under the water. But to Igraine they looked like towers of rock, ancient mountains and hills drowned by the ever encroaching sea that nibbled away, even now, at the very crags below the castle. Here at the end of the world, where the sea ate endlessly at the land, it was easy to believe in drowned lands to the west; there were tales of a great fire mountain which had exploded, far to the south, and engulfed a great land there. Igraine never knew whether she believed those tales or not.
Yes; surely she could hear voices in the fog. It could not be savage raiders from over the sea, or from the wild shores of Erin. The time was long past when she needed to startle at a strange sound or a shadow. It was not her husband, the Duke; he was far away to the North, fighting Saxons at the side of Ambrosius Aurelianus, High King of Britain; he would have sent word if he intended to return.
And she need not fear. If the riders were hostile, the guards and soldiers in the fort at the landward end of the causeway, stationed there by Duke Gorlois to guard his wife and child, would have stopped them. It would take an army to cut through them. And who would send an army against Tintagel?
There was a time—Igraine remembered without bitterness, moving slowly into the castle yard—when she would have known who rode toward her castle. The thought held little sadness, now. Since Morgaine’s birth she no longer even wept for her home. And Gorlois was kind to her. He had soothed her through her early fear and hatred, had given her jewels and beautiful things, trophies of war, had surrounded her with ladies to wait upon her, and treated her always as his equal, except in councils of war. She could have asked no more, unless she had married a man of the Tribes. And in this she had been given no choice. A daughter of the Holy Isle must do as was best for her people, whether it meant going to death in sacrifice, or laying down her maidenhood in the Sacred Marriage, or marrying where it was thought meet to cement alliances; this Igraine had done, marrying a Romanized Duke of Cornwall, a citizen who lived, even though Rome was gone from all of Britain, in Roman fashion.
She shrugged the cloak from her shoulders; inside the court it was warmer, out of the biting wind. And there, as the fog swirled and cleared, for a moment a figure stood before her, materialized out of the fog and mist: her half-sister, Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, the Lady of the Holy Isle.
“Sister!” The words wavered, and Igraine knew she had not cried them aloud, but only whispered, her hands flying to her breast. “Do I truly see you here?”
The face was reproachful, and the words seemed to blow away in the sound of the wind beyond the walls.
Have you given up the Sight, Igraine? Of your free will?
Stung by the injustice of that, Igraine retorted, “It was you who decreed that I must marry Gorlois . . .” but the form of her sister had wavered into shadows, was not there, had never been there. Igraine blinked; the brief apparition was gone. She pulled the cloak around her body, for she was cold, ice cold; she knew the vision had drawn its force from the warmth and life of her own body. She thought, I didn’t know I could still see in that way, I was sure I could not . . . and then she shivered, knowing that Father Columba would consider this the work of the Devil, and she should confess it to him. True, here at the end of the world the priests were lax, but an unconfessed vision would surely be treated as a thing unholy.
She frowned; why should she treat a visit from her own sister as the work of the Devil? Father Columba could say what he wished; perhaps his God was wiser than he was. Which, Igraine thought, suppressing a giggle, would not be very difficult. Perhaps Father Columba had become a priest of Christ because no college of Druids would have had a man so stupid among their ranks. The Christ God seemed not to care whether a priest was stupid or not, so long as he could mumble their mass, and read and write a little. She, Igraine herself, had more clerkly skills than Father Columba, and spoke better Latin when she wished. Igraine did not think of herself as well educated; she had not had the hardihood to study the deeper wisdom of the Old Religion, or to go into the Mysteries any further than was absolutely necessary for a daughter of the Holy Isle. Nevertheless, although she was ignorant in any Temple of the Mysteries, she could pass among the Romanized barbarians as a well-educated lady.
In the small room off the court where there was sun on fine days, her younger sister, Morgause, thirteen years old and budding, wearing a loose house robe of undyed wool and her old frowsy cloak about her shoulders, was spinning listlessly with a drop spindle, taking up her uneven yarn on a wobbly reel. On the floor by the fire, Morgaine was rolling an old spindle around for a ball, watching the erratic patterns the uneven cylinder made, knocking it this way and that with chubby fingers.
“Haven’t I done enough spinning?” Morgause complained. “My fingers ache! Why must I spin, spin, spin all the time, as if I were a waiting-woman?”
“Every lady must learn to spin,” rebuked Igraine as she knew she ought to do, “and your thread is a disgrace, now thick, now thin. . . . Your fingers will lose their weariness as you accustom them to the work. Aching fingers are a sign that you have been lazy, since they are not hardened to their task.” She took the reel and spindle from Morgause and twirled it with careless ease; the uneven yarn, under her experienced fingers, smoothed out into a thread of perfectly even thickness. “Look, one could weave this yarn without snagging the shuttle . . .” and suddenly she tired of behaving as she ought. “But you may put the spindle away now; guests will be here before midafternoon.”
Morgause stared at her. “I heard nothing,” she said, “nor any rider with a message!”
“That does not surprise me,” Igraine said, “for there was no rider. It was a Sending. Viviane is upon her way here, and the Merlin is with her.” She had not known that last until she said it. “So you may take Morgaine to her nurse, and go and put on your holiday robe, the one dyed with saffron.”
Morgause put away the spindle with alacrity, but paused to stare at Igraine. “My saffron gown? For my sister?”
Igraine corrected her, sharply. “Not for our sister, Morgause, but for the Lady of the Holy Isle, and for the Messenger of the Gods.”
Morgause looked down at the patterned floor. She was a tall, sturdy girl, just beginning to lengthen and ripen into womanhood; her thick hair was reddish like Igraine’s own, and there were splotches of freckles on her skin, no matter how carefully she soaked it in buttermilk and begged the herbwife for washes and simples for it. Already at thirteen she was as tall as Igraine, and someday would be taller. She picked up Morgaine with an ill grace and carried her away. Igraine called after her, “Tell Nurse to put a holiday gown on the child, and then you may bring her down; Viviane has not seen her.”
Morgause said something ill-tempered to the effect that she didn’t see why a great priestess would want to see a brat, but she said it under her breath so that Igraine had an excuse to ignore it.
Up the narrow stairs, her own chamber was cold; no fires were lighted there except in the dead of winter. While Gorlois was away, she shared the bed with her waiting-woman Gwennis, and his prolonged absence gave her an excuse to have Morgaine in her bed at night. Sometimes Morgause slept there too, sharing the fur coverlets against the bitter cold. The big marriage bed, canopied, curtained against draughts, was more than big enough for three women and a child.
Gwen, who was old, was drowsing in a corner, and Igraine forbore to wake her, stripping off her workaday dress of undyed wool and hurrying on her fine gown, laced at the neck with a silk ribbon Gorlois had brought her as a fairing from Londinium. She put on her fingers some little silver rings she had had since she was a little girl . . . they would go only on her two smallest fingers, now . . . and hung a necklace of amber which Gorlois had given her about her neck. The gown was dyed rust color, and had an overtunic of green. She found her carven horn comb, and began to pull it through her hair, sitting on a bench and working her comb patiently through the tangles. From another room she heard a loud yelling and decided that Morgaine was having her hair combed by her nurse and didn’t like it. The yelling stopped suddenly, and she supposed that Morgaine had been slapped into silence; or perhaps, as sometimes happened when Morgause was in a good temper, Morgause had taken over the combing herself, with her clever, patient fingers. This was how Igraine knew that her young sister could spin well enough when she chose, her hands were so clever at everything else—at combing, at carding, at making Yule pies.
Igraine braided her hair, clasped it on top of her head with a gold clasp, and put her good gold brooch into the fold of her cloak. She looked at herself in the old bronze mirror her sister Viviane had given her at her wedding, brought, they said, all the way from Rome. She knew, lacing her gown, that her breasts were once again as they had been before: Morgaine had been weaned a year now, and they were only a little softer and heavier. She knew she had her old slimness back, for she had been married in this gown, and now the laces were not strained even a little.
Gorlois, when he returned, would expect to take her to his bed again. Last time he had seen her, Morgaine had still been at the breast, and he had yielded to her plea that she might continue to suckle the child through the summer season when so many little children died. She knew he was discontented because the baby had not been the son he craved—these Romans counted their lineage through the male line, rather than sensibly through the mother; it was silly, for how could any man ever know precisely who had fathered any woman’s child? Of course, these Romans made a great matter of worrying over who lay with their women, and locked them up and spied on them. Not that Igraine needed watching; one man was bad enough, who would want others who might be worse?
But even though he was eager for a son, Gorlois had been indulgent, letting her have Morgaine in her bed and continue to suckle her, even keeping away from her and lying nights with her dressing-woman Ettarr so that she would not get with child again and lose her milk. He too knew how many children died if they were weaned before they could chew meat and hard bread. Children fed on gruel were sickly, and often there was no goat’s milk in the summer, even if they would drink it. Children fed on cow’s or mare’s milk often got the vomit and died, or suffered with the flux in their bowels and died. So he had left Morgaine at her breast, thus postponing the son he wanted for at least another year and a half. For that at least she would always be grateful to him, and not murmur, however quickly he got her with child now.
Ettarr had gotten herself a belly from that visit, and gone about preening herself; would she be the one to have a son by the Duke of Cornwall? Igraine had ignored the girl; Gorlois had other bastard sons, one of whom was with him now, in the camp of the war duke, Uther. But Ettarr had fallen sick and miscarried, and Igraine had enough intuition not to ask Gwen why she looked so pleased at the event. Old Gwen knew too much of herbs for Igraine’s perfect peace of mind. Some day, she resolved, I will make her tell me exactly what she put into Ettarr’s beer.
She went down to the kitchen, her long skirts trailing on the stone steps. Morgause was there, in her finest gown, and she had put Morgaine into a holiday dress, dyed saffron, so that the child looked dark as a Pict. Igraine picked her up, holding her with pleasure. Small, dark, delicately made, so small-boned it was like handling a little soft bird. How had that child come by her looks? She herself and Morgause were tall and red-haired, earth-colored like all of the Tribeswomen, and Gorlois, though dark, was Roman, tall and lean and aquiline; hardened from years of battle against the Saxons, too filled with his Roman dignity to show much tenderness to a young wife, and with nothing but indifference for the daughter who came in the place of the son she should have borne him.
But, Igraine reminded herself, these Roman men considered it their divine right to have power of life and death over their children. There were many, Christians or no, who would have demanded that a daughter not be reared, so that their wives might be free at once to give them a son. Gorlois had been good to her, he had let her keep her daughter. Perhaps, though she did not give him credit for much imagination, he knew how she, a woman of the Tribes, felt about a daughter.
While she was giving orders for the entertainment of guests, for wine to be brought up from the cellars and for the roasting of meat—not rabbit, but good mutton from the last slaughtering—she heard the squawk and flutter of frightened hens in the court and knew that the riders had come across the causeway. The servants looked frightened, but most of them had become resigned to the knowledge that the mistress had the Sight. She had pretended it, using clever guesses and a few tricks; it was just as well that they should remain in awe of her. Now she thought, Maybe Viviane is right, maybe I still have it. Maybe I only believed it was gone—because in those months before Morgaine was born, I felt so weak and powerless. Now I have come back to myself. My mother was a great priestess till the day of her death, though she bore sev- eral children.
But, her mind answered her, her mother had borne those children in freedom, as a Tribeswoman should, to such fathers as she chose, not as a slave to some Roman whose customs gave him power over women and children. Impatiently, she dismissed such thoughts; did it matter whether she had the Sight or only seemed to have it, if it kept her servants properly in order?
She went slowly out to the courtyard, which Gorlois still liked to call the atrium, though it was nothing like the villa where he had lived until Ambrosius made him Duke of Cornwall. She found the riders dismounting, and her eyes went at once to the only woman among them, a woman smaller than herself and no longer young, wearing a man’s tunic and woolen breeches, and muffled in cloaks and shawls. Across the courtyard their eyes met in welcome, but Igraine went dutifully and bent before the tall, slender old man who was dismounting from a raw-boned mule. He wore the blue robes of a bard, and a harp was slung across his shoulder.