Tuesday, December 14, 2004
I wish to thank the following people for their generosity. Robert D Denham, John P. Fishwick Professor Emeritus of English at Roanoke College, Dr. Joe Velaidum, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island and Associate Professor of English of Hastings College, Antje S. Anderson. It is a testament to their dedication as educators to help a student from far away that they have never even met. For their wisdom, patience and the wonderful packages, all my thanks.
"The great mass of humanity neither knows nor cares about magic and they have the right to keep things that way- to not be troubled by forces outside the scope of their daily lives, or manipulated by forces they have no way of resisting.”
Colin Maclaren from Heartlight by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Feminism versus Frye in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s
The Mists of Avalon
Morgan Le Faye, or Morgaine, from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, is a multifaceted character in literature. One can view her from a variety of perspectives, each author sees a different side of the jewel that is Morgaine, and that angle provides the inspiration for how they present her in their version of the Arthurian legend. Bradley is thought to have used Morgaine as a “reflector,” “narrator” and “protagonist” in her adaptation. (Thole, p. 80) Historically, Morgaine represents King Arthur’s disturbing sister. In Malory’s Le Morte D’ Arthur, she tries to kill her brother. In Ireland, she was regarded as Morrigan or the Irish battle goddess. The poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight depicts her as an old enchantress who can spirit the green knight to Camelot. Bradley herself represents Morgaine as a “sister, lover, priestess, queen.” (Mists, p. 9) The intertextuality or relationship of one version of a story to another provides Bradley with enough facets to reveal the most complicated and comprehensive version of Morgaine.
Instructors in women’s studies programs laud this book as a feminist narrative, recommended feminist reading, and a windfall for feminist community. Undoubtedly, Morgaine, and therefore Bradley, serves as an icon of the feminist spirituality movement, though this distinction is not without its problems. Lee T. McClain wrote that Bradley’s “re-creation of the legend in terms acceptable to a liberal and feminist readership reflects twentieth-century culture’s increased support of female strength and power.” However, McClain admits that this re-creation, “brings up its own set of attendant anxieties.” McClain argues that Bradley breaks with the chivalrous tradition of Arthurian literature and diminishes Guienevere’s “role” in breaking up the brotherhood of the round table. The “scapegoat” of Bradley’s tale and that of other feminist revisionists of the Arthurian tale is “the religious hierarchy… of the Christian priests.” (McClain, p. 199)
Readers of The Mists of Avalon also channel this story into the categories of Fantasy, Science Fiction, Lesbian, Spiritual, and Revisionist Arthurian literature. For the purposes of this paper, we will visit arguments in Feminist, Lesbian, and Revisionist literature. Arguments about the book, and Morgaine’s character, range from the academic to the unlettered. Critics view her persona in this novel as if she were a jewel for their cause. They typically focus on particular facets such as elements of character or genre while ignoring others. Their extrinsic analysis takes them out of the story to other bodies of knowledge, which they then apply to this narrative. Each genre is arguable; however, insular reviewers fail to take into account the place this entire work can stand within the universe of literature. Certainty, this book, and the entire Avalon series by Bradley encompass several genres and critical theories. The theories of Northrop Frye, in his all-inclusive Anatomy of Criticism, illuminates how Morgaine manages to integrate other archetypes within her character without limiting her to any specific critical theory. Frye concludes that there are “Narrative categories of literature broader than, or logically prior to, the ordinary literary genres.” (AC, p. 162)
Frye argues that all literature springs from other literature and in his first essay, Theory of Modes, he sanctions the necessity of literature breaking free from the historical boundaries of genres by illuminating how a literary work can cycle through each mode. Heroes may also spill out of their traditional molds. Romance characters can exist that do not always remain static. Romance can be tragic or comic depending upon the needs of the author. Frye’s third essay, Theory of Myths, explains four main plot structures, or "mythoi" that literature contains: comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. Furthermore, he clarifies in his structure of archetypal imagery, that readers can understand symbols, motifs, characters, and events that appear in all literary works within the framework of a mythical divide between a heavenly, ideal world and a dreadful, demonic world.
Frye claims that those legends that we call myths merely present their arrangements in their most articulate shape. Frye does not use the term myth to define an untrue narrative; instead, myths are the core of all literature, the kernel of truth or the seed of conception inside the realistic adaptations. In contemporary literature, the same archetypal arrangements exist as in mythic literature, but they are displaced myths to accommodate our present need for plausibility. “Frye sees all fictional literature as displaced myth, i.e. as containing implicit mythical archetypes of which the author and most of his readers may be quite unaware.” (Hough, p. 71) While The Mists of Avalon can take its place as a tale in Frye’s romance mode of the first essay, there exists within this structure the flaw of archetypal and myth displacement, and the personality transformations the typical romance hero would never experience. The feminist undertones of the work fail to overcome the structures of archetypal imagery that illustrate the fall of a tragic hero. I maintain that this story is a not a feminist work or a romance. When we view it through the higher magnification of Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, fabulous realistic details stand out and the story falls into the Irony mode of Frye’s first essay and further into the fourth phase of the tragic and Ironic mythoi of Frye’s third essay. The setting, narration, and character roles of the hero support this distinction.
Frye states that myth “unites ritual and symbol, giving action to thought and meaning to action.” Displacement of myth dilutes the ritual; “The narrative patterns of literature represent the absorption of ritual action into literature.”  Bradley’s revision of the Legend of King Arthur echoes the attitude of Frye because she expects the reader to recognize the archetypes present in other literature, especially Arthurian literature. “This intertextual knowledge evoked on the reader’s part is extended to the expectation that the reader will recognize the character’s numerous references to stories from antiquity.” (Thole, p. 84) Comprehending literature is the focus of criticism, according to Frye, “…the Critic’s function is to interpret every work in literature in the light of all the literature he knows.” (TEI, p. 44) Examining the Arthurian canon is an effective way to make connections between the literary works, “in literature you don’t just read one poem or novel after another, but enter into a complete world of which every work of literature is a part.” (TEI, p. 27)
Character of a Hero
Typically, characters in a romance do not change; they enter and exit the story without any discernable transformation of their personality. They are static. Morgaine, as the hero in The Mists of Avalon, is a dynamic personality who undergoes alterations throughout the text. However, the diffusion of the modes of historical literature and the displacement of myth in Frye’s theory of myths allows the shift towards realism and the ironic.&n This circulation is the means by which Bradley reintroduces the character of Morgaine to society, unbaptized by the traditional label of witch or enemy of the quest.Indeed Bradley recognizes those earlier archetypes and attempts to transform Morgaine into a more tolerable and heartbreaking hero. Through the lens of Frye, Morgaine is both the apocalyptic trinity of the divine world and the pharmakos of the demonic form in the human world. (See figure 1) As a multifaceted character, Morgaine does not represent a simple, stereotypical figure. She functions both as protagonist and as narrator to her own quest. She “observes the events” as they happen and exerts political power. (Thole, p. 94)
Bradley shows faces of Morgaine that are never seen in the established canon of Arthurian literature outside of Firelord by Parke Godwin. Nonetheless, Morgaine was not the hero of Firelord, and in The Mists of Avalon, she is. Morgaine is the narrator of the novel. It is clear from the very beginning that this is her story and the chronicle of the powerful women that surround Arthur, told from her own sight-gifted knowledge. She is the “primary point of view …a credible narrator [and] gives reasonable explanations for her actions.” (Hopson, p. 105) This contention is supported by the prologue of the text where Morgaine offers an explanation for her ability to present the eight women’s viewpoint, “I have always held the gift of the Sight, and of looking within the minds of men and women; and so in all this time I have been close to all of them. And so, at times, all that they thought was known to me in one way or another.” (Mists, p. x) The eight women that I am referring to are, “Morgaine herself, her mother Igraine, her aunts Viviane and Morgause, her sister in law Gwenhwyfar, and less prominently, further relatives and in-laws: Elaine, Niniane and Nimue.” (Thole, p. 79)
Frye offers a place for Morgaine in the ironic historical mode of literature, “In which the poet's attitude is one of detached objectivity.” (GLC) The oracular style of her opening “Morgaine speaks” places her as the poet of the contained tale. She frequently understates her impressions and even appears unemotional during her eleven narrations. Her prologue in the tale is free of sentiment and establishes her as a reliable narrator:
“In my time I have been called many things: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen. Now in truth I have come to be wise-woman, and a time may come when these things may need to be known. But in sober truth, I think it is the Christians who will tell the last tale. For ever the world of Fairy drifts further from the world in which the Christ holds sway. I have no quarrel with the Christ, only with his priests, who call the Great Goddess a demon and deny that she ever held power in this world. At best, they say that her power was of Satan. Or else they clothe her in the blue robe of the Lady of Nazareth– who indeed had power in her way, too– and say that she was ever virgin. But what can a virgin know of the sorrows and travail of mankind?” (Mists, p. ix-xi)
Morgaine as the Eiron
Frye uses the term Eiron to describe heroes that function as the protagonist in a story. While I believe that Morgaine is the Eiron of an ironic tragedy in The Mists of Avalon, if we look at the character of Morgaine through the perspective of each mythoi (plot structure) we can see she is primarily the Eiron in at least three of the plot structures and loosely in the comic mode. It is her journey and her quest that we follow.
The mythos of myth provides the setting for the Eiron Morgaine as a Christ figure. Her life as a priestess or representation of the goddess means that her maidenhood and possibly her life are forfeit for the survival of the kingdom and the worship of the old ways. The romance mythos, with its archetypal theme of marvelous adventures, is a revival of a medieval tale where the Eiron Morgaine is quasi-divine and magic happens. We see her on her quest journey and in her supernatural calling of the mists.
In tragedy as the Eiron, Morgaine is the soothsayer or other agent of the wrathful goddess. She seeks to get the scabbard back from Arthur and she tries to recover the holy chalice. She also uses her magic to go into the spirit of the great sow and kill Urien’s firstborn son and heir, Avalloch. This placement illuminates her as the agent of catastrophe in the Bradley’s book. There is another strong Eiron in this story, not oddly enough; it is Gwenhwyfar, who “pushes forth the inexorable destruction of Camelot. Driven by a maddened piety by her continued barrenness and by guilt over her unconsummated love for Lancelet, Gwenhwyfar begs Arthur to break his oath with Avalon.” (Quilligan, pp. 29-30)
The comedy mythos does not really apply in this case but for the sake of argument Morgaine as the eiron would play the role of vice or scheme-hatcher. In her different roles during the story, she can assist her other roles. Morgaine, as the priestess, can help Morgaine as the goddess by removing obstacles in the path of the old worship.
These opposing views of Morgaine only add to the versatile proportions of her character. The goddess story that overshadows the legend of Arthur is the method that complicates Morgaine’s personality. Morgaine, in her identity as the Spring Maiden, functions as a figure of renewal -- the young, vital heroine of spring -- in Britain’s clash with religion. Concurrently, she is associated with demonic rituals, witchery and, conflict. Later she is also depicted as the Mother, Wise- Woman, and finally as the Death Crone. She represents the many faces of the Goddess.
Many readers, in an attempt to classify this tale, point toward feminism as an appropriate genre. Salkoff, in Changing Attitudes Toward Devotion and Duty in Western Literature, asserts that Bradley recognizes the opportunity to make a feminist statement using a decidedly un-feminist tradition.” Salkoff goes on to exclaim that it is “representative of contemporary ideas… [and] deserves to be read as a feminist work.” (Salkoff. pp. 73-4) Dawn E. Owen, author of Battling the Dragons: The Heroic Journey of the Ladies of Avalon, writes; “The Mists of Avalon is considered by most readers to be a feminist work.” Contemporary Literary Criticism lists Bradley’s works and takes the position that “ an undercurrent of feminism runs throughout the Darkover series…Bradley’s feminist interests are also evident in her recent non-Darkover novel, The Mists of Avalon.” (CLC, p. 26) Feminism represented in literature, according to Introduction to Modern Literary Theory, focuses on establishing “a feminist literary canon or theories seeking to re-interpret and re-vision literature (and culture and history and so forth) from a less patriarchal slant.” (Siegel, 2003)  Undoubtedly, Bradley re-visions the legend of Arthur, completely from the perspectives of women. Meredith Jane Ross acknowledges that the Mists of Avalon “chronicles the suppressed history of a matriarchal Celtic culture.”
On the other hand, Owen opposes that the assumption that Mists of Avalon is a feminist work because the “success of each woman’s journey (Viviane, Morgaine and Niniane) is determined by how she responds to her inner archetypes and the external dragons she faces.” The dragons Owen refers to are “a multitude of pride, self-centeredness, and self-destructiveness to judgmentalism, intimacy problems and controlling others.” Owen considers that the three heroic women in this story “Do not allow their archetypes to strengthen and enlighten them.” (Owen, p. 117) The women do not win their fight against the Christian Patriarchy; Viviane is killed because she “challenges the very foundations of Christian belief by insisting that the patriarchy be tolerant of Goddess worship.” Morgaine also fails in defeating the Christian patriarchy and her attempts to conform to the expectations of society force her into a war against herself. In the end she “fails and finally, accepts that the world has changed.” (Owen, p. 188) Niniane attempts to declare her independence of the male-dominated world. Mordred “insists that she give up her personal power…threatening the Patriarchy results in her death.” (Owen, pp. 118-119).
Heather Bennett, in her dissertation Feminist Literature or Patriarchal Paradigm, argues against the classification of The Mists of Avalon as a feminist work. “Instead of providing role models, Bradley’s novel serves to reinforce many patriarchal standards.” In her working definition of feminist Literature, Bennett claims that Feminist literature examines the roles that women play “As individuals and as members of society.” She preserves expectations that a feminist work fulfill specific requirements, “Most importantly, it should create positive female role models and affirming images of societal changes from the traditional patriarchy that has for so long held women in one place.” (Bennett, p.14) After reading The Mists of Avalon and the other three books in the Avalon Series, The Forest House, Lady of Avalon and Priestess of Avalon, it is easy to sanction Bennett’s comments if we were inclined to consent to her definition. She states that feminist texts above all else must not “Perpetuate the tradition of oppression of women in a Patriarchal culture.” (Bennett, p. 20)
The very hidden and separate settings of the Isle of Avalon and the Forest house are a reaction to the dangerous world of men. The priestesses cannot protect themselves; although they have the ability to wield great power, they cannot rule freely but live in secluded settings that cannot easily be breached by society. When the priestesses’ safety is threatened in The Forest House, Eilan sends forth Caillean as founder to provide a safe haven on the Isle of Avalon. The Fairy Queen removes Avalon from the world of men because of the implied threat from the patriarchal society. Bennett affirms that Bradley “believes in the importance of role models, and the novel must provide them, or fail as a feminist work.” (Bennett, p. 20) While the women of Avalon in Bradley’s stories are generally more dominant and influential than other women in this period, they do not succeed in overthrowing fixed stereotypes or the limits of their ingrained personalities.
In essence, it appears that if a feminist is reading this book, they will find a way to identify it a feminist work, however, a hard line approach to feminism will obstruct the narrative’s placement in the feminism genre. “Bradley creates likable, yet pitiable, characters who initially seems to move past the anti-self and gain the true notion of self, but ultimately do not. As a result, she creates characters who declare by their every action, every word, every feeling, that the patriarchy is alive and well, and will not be deterred by characters who are destroyed by their own actions.” (Bennett, p. 102) Furthermore, any other efforts to classify a work according to genre only tend to supplant other possibilities. Frye’s literary theory provides an “umbrella for all critical methods. When we look at literature from his viewpoint, we have a panoramic perspective, lacking in other approaches that allows us some sense of the unity of all literature.” (CAC, p. 36)
Lesbian and Homosexual Literature
Bradley does not address the lesbian and gay experience directly. She buries it within the framework of the novel almost as an afterthought. While some critics feel The Mists of Avalon is an overwhelming statement of homosexuality, others believe that such depictions are wholly secondary to the story, and not strong enough to sustain an alternate readership. James Noble, in his essay Feminism, Homosexuality, and Homophobia in the Mists of Avalon, alleges that readers are “startled” by Bradley’s representation of “Lancelot as a latent homosexual.” Noble explains that homosexuality is “a form of sexual expression as alien and incomprehensible to patriarchy as female sexuality and as subject to cultural myths, stereotypes and misapprehensions that have long needed to be explored.” (Noble, p 288)
We can argue Bradley’s inclusion of lesbianism and homosexuality as displacement of the myth of the patriarchy, Frye suggests that a “full critical analysis” (AC, p. 158) will always want to take into account of the latent content lying beneath the manifest (i.e. displaced) content.” (Denham, p. 65) The latent content that Noble refers to, are scenes in the novel that depict Lancelet as unable to relate to Morgaine as a woman, “He cannot engage in intercourse with her.” (Noble, p. 289) Other latent content refers to the relationship Lancelet enjoys with the king and queen. Lancelot’s first sexual tryst with Gwenhwyfar occurs not during their many years of close friendship and temptation, but only at the invitation of King Arthur and through the magical charm given to Gwenhwyfar by Morgaine. Lancelet admits to Morgaine that women in general do not hold the usual interest for him as they do for other men, “there were few women who could rouse me even a little.” Lancelet goes on to explain himself “with her, I know myself all man.” (Mists, p. 481) Unfortunately for his character, he doubts his own manhood due to his extraordinary love for his King. “But you do not know all, “he tells Morgaine:
“As we lay together-never, never had anything so-so.” He swallowed and fumbled to put into words what Morgaine could not bear to hear. “I- touched Arthur- I touched him. I love her, Oh, God I love her, mistake me not, but had she not been Arthur’s wife, had it not been for-I doubt even she-“He choked and could not finish his sentence.” (Mists, p. 482)
This episode is the basis of Noble’s argument that Bradley attempts to “demythologize Lancelot’s sexuality.” (Noble, p. 291) Nevertheless, he notes, “She falls short of the mark. Bradley’s representation of Lancelet’s situation “would seem to be a clear-cut case of patriarchal homophobia posing as sympathetic liberalism.” Noble clarifies that the depiction of Lancelet as a homosexual is only the surface picture and not the tone of the story. Alden offers a more Fryeian explanation for the inclusion of this homosexual inclination: “Once again, Bradley weaves into knighthood a basic human and realistic angst, violating a taboo in most narratives.” (Alden, p. 108)
The patriarchal view of homosexuality survives in Arthur’s denial of any such implications of his friendship with Lancelet. When Gwenhwyfar accuses Arthur of having homosexual feeling for his friend, the disbelieving King staunchly denies such a relationship. Arthur is utterly incredulous. He threatens his wife in his fury, “you are certainly mad, my lady…say that again…and wife or no, love or no, I will kill you my Gwenhwyfar!” (Mists, p. 547)
Marilyn R Farwell categorizes The Mists of Avalon as a “heroic lesbian narrative.” Farwell presumes that Morgaine is a “self conscious lesbian who makes her own decisions and decides her own fate.” The priestesses of Avalon are similar to the lesbians in Sally Gearhart’s The Wanderground, because both stories exhibit a group of women existing at one with nature in a territory safe from the male-dominated City.” (Farwell, p. 137-8) Farwell, following the ideology of Maureen Fries, makes the distinction between female heroes, heroines, and counter heroes. She writes that Morgaine is a counter- hero since she is “the most subversive… [she possesses] the hero’s superior power of action without possessing his or her adherence to the dominant culture.” Farwell states that the reaffirmation scene between Raven and Morgaine is a renouncing of Morgaine’s former heterosexual passions. “Yet never, “she says of this reunion with Raven, “have I known what it is to be received simply in love.” (Farwell, p. 148) When Morgaine received initiation as a priestess, Farwell recognizes lesbian undercurrents between Raven and Morgaine. She cites the passage “She could feel the warmth of Raven’s body near hers, though they nowhere touched one another.” Since this passage exposes nothing about homosexual love, Farwell combines it with other passages to preserve her feeble position. She writes that this passage is “highly charged,” and full of potential lesbian imagery.” Further passages she uses to back up her assertions take place near the end of the novel, on pages 765 and 766. Morgaine “ held Raven against her, touching her, caressing her, their bodies clinging together in something like frenzy…trembling in a strange sacramental rhythm.” Farwell states that “the images of the world shaking imitate an orgiastic frenzy… [And] simulated lovemaking.” between the two women. (Farwell, p. 148) The lesbian scenes in this novel are “pivotal” and represent a return of Morgaine’s power because “they happen at crucial times.” Allowing that the lesbian scenes are short, “only several pages in a book of 876 pages,” Farwell is disinclined to discredit them and focuses instead on how the reader should view them. “They can be viewed as innocent but intense religious rituals devoid of real sexuality or as curiosities in a long book that might need curiosities to sustain itself.” The suggestion of doubt undermines Farwell’s position.
Although she admits the weaknesses inherent in her earlier conjectures, Farwell does not permit her readers to take these erotic scenes for granted. “The counterstory to Christianity’s single trajectory of good (male) triumphing over evil (female) is a lesbian story which repositions women as autonomous and desiring agents because they are in primary relationship to one another.” (Farwell, p. 150) I view the inclusions of the lesbian scenes as another attempt by Bradley to challenge the patriarchy. Her various revelations of alternate lifestyles and views are strengthened when they are all combined in the structure of this novel. Separately, the contrasting views flounder, as inept as fish out of water, to maintain an influence or voice of their own.
The Mists of Avalon as Revisionist literature and Adaptation
The Mists of Avalon dismantles the Arthurian legend and proffers an alternative visualization in its place. Revisionist stories reconcile the author’s values with those of the original story. Authors approach the original legend of Arthur from a variety of genres and perceptions. “What generally characterizes the Arthurian novel is a pronounced interest in looking at the story of Arthur from ever-new narrative and ideological angles, and in providing ever-new causal connections between the plot elements adapted from medieval sources. (Thole, p. 8)
Malory’s version of the Arthurian tradition transforms into “White’s Tory romanticism” and Twain’s satirical translation of romance. Revisionist authors include sections of information to lend depth to the original stories; they re-imagine the events of the originals to satisfy their “different ideological perspectives.” (Ross, pp. 473-4) Misdirection and denial often serve as the reason that authors may revise a tale. It is safe to assume that most authors seek to revise the course of historical or legendary events to create an innovative and stimulating transfiguration. They may do so to simply validate their own principles and beliefs, to hide the beliefs of those who have gone before, or to make an unpalatable version of events more reconcilable to conventional readers. Perhaps Bradley sought to de-vilify Morgaine by explaining her character’s actions in a reasonable manner. “Bradley presents her characters as pawns acting out the will of the mother goddess.” (Ross, p. 475) This author misdirects the blame from the evil Morgaine of legend and places it squarely on the shoulders of the goddess or gods.
Causality is one of the central themes of Bradley’s Avalon series. Each of her novels explicates a particular historical period and how legendary figures came to be. The Mists of Avalon “marks one of the most radical reworkings of the traditional Arthurian legend stories.” (Salkoff, p. 71) A matter of some conjecture, the inside-out view of the myth of Christianity is attributed as one basis for Bradley’s revision while other critics place the emphasis on the theory of a “feminist reworking.” (Ross, p.397) In all cases, revisionism represents the “advocacy of the revision of an accepted, usually long-standing view, theory, or doctrine, especially a revision of historical events and movements.” (OED)
Bradley cannot destabilize the entire patriarchal society that surrounds Malory’s tale; she undermines “the masculine bias” of former versions. (Ross, p. 400) Her subversion does not entirely succeed as the “Arthurian novelist operates under constraints unknown to most authors of historical fiction. He or she cannot diverge too much from the enormous body of legend…for fear of straining the reader’s credulity.” (Ross, p. 400) Bradley leaves some residue of the accepted ideals of the period intact. For example, Morgaine does not follow the laws that other women follow and Gwenhwyfar views her as an imperfect woman. Morgaine rarely achieves a personal connection with anyone in Bradley’s adaptation; she is socially detached and can only briefly connect to her closest peers by disguising who she truly is. It is only with Raven that she feels “received simply with love.” (Mists, p. 640)
“The Arthurian plot consists of a number of basic elements which are relatively stable, but almost utterly devoid of the coherence of modern plots, because the connections between the segments are additive rather than casual.” (Thole, p. 5) However, Bradley replaces replication with inventiveness and her emphasis is on the causality of numerous elements in the central plot arrangement. Readers are educated in the compelling and legitimate motivation for the actions of the “enigmatic necromancer” of Malory’s text. In Malory’s text Morgaine hates Arthur without cause, while Bradley positions Morgaine as the defender of the Goddess religion, and as an advocate of its return to Britain at any cost.” (Farwell, p. 153)
Frye’s Historical Modes
The Mists of Avalon is typical of the Romance mode of Frye; it is a revival of a medieval tale complete with the hero’s quest. Frye advocates certain elements that comprise the romance mode, “The hero of the romance mode moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended…Terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established.” (Anatomy, p. 33) “In romances, the young hero [typically] goes through an initiation, during which he goes down into a dark place of danger, wages a struggle, and then reappears with new and greater power.” (Jewkes, p. 189)
Morgaine as a young girl is the least likely hero who meets her spiritual guide in Viviane. The transformation of the conventional Arthurian tale is the means that Bradley uses to represent the least likely hero as a girl/woman in a patriarchal society. Viviane as a guide introduces Morgaine to the journey to serve the goddess and along the way; the young hero undergoes physical and psychological tests. “Morgaine is the happy Innocent until…Igraine and Uther marry.” (Owen, p. 29) She recognizes herself when she meets Viviane. She had always thought herself ugly until she realized that Viviane was beautiful. “The love and trust Morgaine feels for Viviane allows Viviane to become Morgaine’s rescuer.” (Owen, p. 32)
The testing phase of Morgaine’s quest takes the form of extreme periods of fasting and the elimination of meat and alcohol from her diet. She vows obedience to the will of the goddess and renounces speech for a period of one year. She spends many years learning how to become a priestess by memorizing the oral history of the druids and learning the sacred rituals. Morgaine must pass trials the likes of which ordinary humans could not. She learns how to call the mists and how to control her chakras, revealing signs of the future in the scrying pool. Ordinary women in this tale do not have the ability to conjure sendings of themselves or enact sacred theatre.
She gains unwelcome knowledge through sexual experience that thrusts her out into the wilderness, “Despair beat at her.” (Mists, p. 181) Morgaine feels homeless and heartsick when she discovers she is pregnant by her brother; she withdraws from society while renouncing her journey and earlier vows to serve the goddess. As she leaves Avalon after forsaking her position as priestess, she “[feels] as if I were waking from a long dream. I had asked, looking for the first time upon Avalon, “Is it real?” and I remembered what Viviane had answered me: “It is more real than any other place.” But it was real no more.”
Out of touch with her earlier convictions, she cannot cross the threshold back to her former powers until she is summoned from the land of fairy by one who serves as her new guardian in the character of Raven. After this life-affirming encounter, Morgaine is able to start back on the path to life. She becomes reborn as the goddess and manages finally to reach some crucial understanding that signifies that her quest is over.
“ No, we did not fail, what I said to comfort Arthur in his dying, it was all true. I did the mother’s work in Avalon until at last those who came after me might bring her into this world. I did not fail. I did what she had given me to do. It was not she but I in my pride who thought I should have done more… Her work was done.” (Mists, p. 876)
Morgaine as the hero of the Romance mode is very close to the Myth mode and close to the high mimetic mode. Frye does not dispute this contradiction in a narrative; he allows the prism-like relationship between the modes. As Morgaine journeys through her quest, we can see how her character incorporates the heroic elements of all of Frye’s modes. As the Mythic hero in the first and second portions of the quest, she represents the trinity and the divine.
“As I went to the shore to summon the barge, it seemed to me that the little dark people were all around me and that I walked among them as the priestess I had been. I stood in the barge alone, and yet I knew there were others standing there with me, robed and crowned, Morgaine the maiden, who summoned Arthur to the running of the deer and the challenge of the King stag, and Morgaine the Mother, who had been torn asunder when Gwydion was born, and the Queen of North Wales, summoning the eclipse to send Accolon raging against Arthur, and the Dark Queen of Fairy, or was it the Death-Crone who stood at my side? And as the barge neared the shore, I heard the last of his followers cry, “ Look- look, there, the barge with the four fair queens in the sunrise, the fairy barge of Avalon” (Mists, p. 867)
According to Frye, the hero of the myth mode is a God or divine being, “Superior in kind to other men and to the environment.” (AC, p. 33) Morgaine can control the environment through the calling of the mists. She can shape and change reality from the isle of Ynis Witrin to the Isle of Avalon and can overcome spatial problems by viewing events as they are happening far away.
The knowledge portion of the quest takes place in the romance and high mimetic modes; she is a quasi-divine hero, superior in degree to other humans because she is of the royal family and a priestess of Avalon. Morgaine is slightly superior to her environment in her magical abilities. High mimetic heroes are generally involved in plot lines that depict them as flawed. The Mists of Avalon plot allows its hero to fall in stature from a respected priestess to a feared witch. Not only does Morgaine lose her innocence by the act of incest with her brother, her prideful nature in defying the will of Viviane as the goddess is her flaw. “[F]or here and now, I tell you that you have worked upon me and played me like a puppet for the last time!…As for this child which you moved heaven and Earth to bring to the light, I will not bear him in Avalon for you to gloat at what you have done.” (Mists, pp. 228-229)
Because Morgaine casts aside her vows of obedience and the symbols of her office, she is unable to return to Avalon for many years. Morgaine also loses her innocence in the act of giving birth to her son. She does not choose to raise him herself, but allows her Aunt Morgause to foster him for her. This critical refusal to accept the birth of herself as a mother is another flaw in Morgaine’s character. While other women typical of the period sent their children to fosterage, they did not do so when their children were just born. Morgaine feels failure as a mother figure and not until she re-establishes a relationship with a guardian on her quest can she feel motherly feelings towards a child.
As the hero of the Low Mimetic mode Morgaine succumbs to the forces of society by hiding her crescent tattoo under her hair and pretending that she is merely one of the Queen’s ladies. She is suffering a figurative death in this portion of the quest. All the majesty of her persona as the goddess is sublimated by the desire to appear as a normal woman in society. Her disastrous sexual encounter with Lancelet shocks her into the realization that she has strayed far from the path of the light. “What have I been doing all these years, away from my goddess?” she asks herself. (Mists, p. 326) This period of the quest is where Morgaine wanders in the land of fairy for an extended period because she cannot call the Barge of Avalon. This circulation into the demonic world leads us to the Irony cycle of Frye’s historical modes.
In the Irony mode, Morgaine’s role is the Pharmakos for all that is wrong in Arthur’s court. Frye defines pharmakos as the “character in an ironic fiction who has the role of scapegoat or arbitrarily chosen victim.” (AC, p. 367) Gwenhwyfar blames Morgaine for her inability to conceive. The queen believes that Arthur needs to renounce all pagan ways and persons in order for her to gain God’s favor of an heir for the kingdom. Morgaine does not realize she is being banished until it is too late- she accepts marriage to Uriens instead of fighting for her right to choose Accalon. At this point, she follows her brother’s commands and personifies the weak hero of Frye’s Irony mode. She is the victim that Gwenhwyfar claims in her battle for the domination of Christianity. This tragic fictional placement in Irony depicts the story of the fall of Morgaine by her own weakness. She must be cast out so that Gwenhwyfar’s dreams may live.
Her quest is not over, gaining power from her position as the renewed goddess in King Urien’s kingdom, Morgaine reestablishes her link to the land and the people of the hills. She launches herself back into the rituals and practices that she had abandoned in Avalon and these acts mark the path she takes on her passage back to her former status as the hero of Frye’s Myth mode. Frye makes it clear that the poet’s function is to remember, and Morgaine serves are the memory in this story. As the narrator telling it from the first-person perspective, she outlines her “marvelous journey.”
Now that we understand why The Mists of Avalon fits so neatly into Frye’s romance mode, it is imperative to look at why romance is not the dominant plot of the book. It is in fact, Ironic with strong resonances of the romantic and tragic modes. Although Morgaine as the poet “remembers,” the central theme of this book incorporates the central theme of Irony, it is a “vast panorama of history,” told through her perspective. (Denham, p. 12) The theory of romance is dependant upon static characters. In Mists, Morgaine is one of the most dynamic characters I have ever encountered. A static character does not transform throughout a romance, and the reader's understanding of that character does not develop, while a dynamic character undergoes some kind of change because of the action in the plot. (Bedford, p.53) Although Bradley’s plot allows all the elements of the quest, there is actually too much ironic tragedy to claim it for Romance.
Frye’s third essay contains structural parameters that place The Mists of Avalon in the fourth phase of the Ironic Mythoi. Another element that is inherent in the story is the extreme realism of the characters and the tragedy of the story line. Realism is stronger than romance in Bradley’s version. The story persistently moves away from innocence. The comic and romance modes preserve a vision of innocence of experience while the tragic and Ironic modes support a push towards experience, realism, and “man’s acceptance of inevitability.” (Denham, p. 65)
Irony or Satire
According to Frye, the mythoi of Satire requires humor, so we can dispose of this classification once we recognize what the principal intention of the existing satirical elements are. The Mists of Avalon is not a humorous work, although Bradley takes a stab at debunking the patriarchal society and highlights the ridiculousness of Gwenhwyfar and her ladies, there are no laughable situations, merely tragic recognition reminiscent of the 2nd phase of the Ironic mythoi. “The breaking up…of fossilized beliefs… [and] pedantic dogmatisms. (AC, p. 233) There is a satiric aspect visible because The Mists of Avalon is a reworking of the Arthurian tale with a feminist view. Although I have declared that Mists does not succeed as a work of feminism, there are feminist facets present nevertheless. The women have cast themselves as the accepted civilization according to certain feminist agenda points such as “cooperative teamwork and feminine-based religions.” Bradley takes the predominant male myth in the once and future king and subverts or femininizes it into the once and future priestess but “these actions do not comprise the primary motive of the work.” (Reynolds) Ross believes that the revisioning of the Arthurian legend by Bradley and White weakens the original tale by Malory since “ through their exhaustive character analysis and accumulation of mundane detail they lower Malory’s characters and events from the heroic level of romance to the merely human.” (Ross. P. 474)
Therefore, if feminism, romance, and satire are not particularly applicable to this text, it remains that Irony is what is left to us. Bradley “refuses to allow her works to wander into politics unless true concerns of realistic characters bring them there. Her emphasis is on characters, not political themes.” (Contemporary Authors, p.107) The realistic nature of Bradley’s revisionist story marks it for Irony, but we must firmly establish what placement this work would occupy in Frye’s parallel phases of the mythoi.
According to Figure 13 provided by Robert Denham, The fourth phase of the Ironic Mythoi finds its parallel in the fourth phase of the Tragic Mythoi. The typical phase of the fourth phase of irony involves implicit tragedy in the case of the fallen hero. “A tragic hero is very great as compared with us, but there is something else, something on the side of him opposite the audience, compared to which he is small.” (AC, p. 207) Morgaine as the hero of The Mists of Avalon, willingly gives up her exalted position as priestess and successor to the position of Lady of the Lake in revolt against the nature of her service to the Goddess worship. Although treated differently later on the story, one of the most fate-ridden moments in this story illuminates the actual failure of Morgaine’s tragic quest. She allows her will to overshadow that of the goddess.
She requests audience with Arthur to give back the sword Excalibur unless he uses it as a symbol for Avalon and not the work of priests. When he refuses, she knows that she will be the hand of the goddess, “Yet he has called upon the goddess, if she wants his sword to come and take it. Be it so then; Lady, may I be your hand.” and wishes Arthur “had chosen to deal with me instead.” (Mists, p. 718) This critical moment is like a crack in a precious sapphire, the flaw in the jewel that represents Morgaine leads to the destruction of her beloved brother and her exile from all who knew and loved her in the world outside of Avalon.
Frye asserts that the fourth Phase of Irony includes a central figure where hybris and harmartia are a part of the hero’s character. The hybris and harmartia of Morgaine’s character can be found in her pride and arrogance and in her lack of faith in the will of the Goddess. She is proud of the work she can do as a priestess to defend her country. “Although she tried to remember that she was only a vessel or power and not the power herself, that the power came from the Goddess, Morgaine was young enough to fell exalted when she was conducted in silence to the secret place where work like this must be done, and surrounded by priestesses who were to anticipate her every need…” (Mists, p.197) She goes back on the oath she made as a priestess to “use her life as the Goddess shall decree.” (Mists, p. 141)
The parallel mythos of Tragedy conforms to the “all-too-human hero” in Bradley’s account. “First person Arthurian narratives are not numerous, but the technique is appealing, because it permits the “humanizing” of characters who are historically remote.” (Ashe, p. 199) It is effortless to connect to Morgaine as she experiences feelings and emotions common to women of any age or period. She feels abandoned by her mother when Igraine is newly married to Uther. She chafes with resentment against having the responsibility of looking after her brother. Morgaine lusts after Lancelet, and suffers her place as puppet to the machinations of the Merlin and the Lady of the Lake. As any religious individual, she doubts her faith for a time when she cannot comprehend the sacrifices she must make for it. “I had failed, failed, failed! I was false to the goddess, if indeed there was any Goddess except for myself; false to Avalon, false to Arthur, false to brother, and son and lover…and all I had sought was in ruin.” (Mists, p. 867) The story is full of the pathos of tragedy, we see Morgaine as a suffering creature, subject to those who have stronger will, during the Pentecostal feast where the Saxons come to form a permanent treaty with Arthur, she is horrified that he is using Excalibur as the symbol of the cross. As angry as she is, she does not sacrifice herself to prevent the perversion of a symbol of Avalon, “ She struggled silently, [against Uriens] but old a Uriens was, he was a warrior, and Morgaine a little woman…she said loud enough that Gwenhwyfar could certainly hear, “Viviane died with her work unfinished. And I have sat idle while children unconceived grew to manhood and were knighted, and Arthur fell into the hands of the priests!” Morgaine backs down when her lover Accolon begs her to keep silent and deal with Arthur alone. (Mists, p.711)
Verisimilitude & Displacement of Myths
Graham Hough, in An Essay on Criticism, stated, “Myth provides literature with its formal structure.” Hough articulates Frye’s belief that “the god becomes a hero or a sage, the scapegoat becomes a suffering human being.” “The original mythological stories, autonomous, non-realistic, springing from the basic tendencies of the human mind, enter into various degrees of relation with realism, and are accommodated to the representation of ordinary experience.” (Hough, p. 149) Looking at figure 1, one can find the representation of the original myth in the apocalyptic class and the movement to the demonic class in each of Frye’s categories of archetypal imagery. Earlier beautiful images in The Mists of Avalon shift toward the demonic as the story unfolds. The beautiful serpents on Arthur’s arms, given to him at his king-making on Dragon Island, fade over time and then become associated with witchcraft and a worship not approved by the puritan-like priests.
(Figure 1) Demonic elements dominate the text of The Mists of Avalon. The apocalyptic class represents undisplaced myth “full of radical metaphors.” (Tomkins) The anagogic is the three inner classes. According to Frye, “writers adapt or modify their stories so as to make them follow the laws of probability.” The cyclical clockwise movement away from myth in the theory of modes “is a movement towards verisimilitude.” Therefore, the more realistic the content of a story, the farther away from myth it travels. (Denham. P, 64) Moral acceptability is one element of displacement. Dislocation of myth, time-honored principles, and ideals is a form of displacement that occurs in the winter mythoi of satire and irony, not in the romance mode.
Denham, in his account of Frye’s perception of displacement, writes that, “An archetype with typically immoral connotations can be deliberately reversed by the poet through the technique that Frye calls “demonic modulation,” or as Frye himself states “ the deliberate reversal of the customary moral associations or archetypes.” (AC, p. 156) “This means that an image or concept from the demonic world like a serpent or incestuous relations can be displaced in the direction of the moral. It means also that the symbols take their meaning from their context.” (Denham, p. 65) Bradley reworks the act of sexual union between men and women. Morgaine defends the ideology that is vital to her religion. Her calm assertions that the actions of her people (other priestesses) are righteous, lend credence to her position and give life to Frye’s assertions that the typical demonic symbols can transform to the ethical by the perspective in which they are revealed. Morgaine clarifies, “In Avalon the highest virtue was to give your body over to the God or Goddess in union with all the flow of nature.” (Mists, p. 217)
Bradley attempts to show the incestuous relationship between Morgaine and Arthur in light of its relationship to the will of the goddess and the preservation of the holy line of Avalon. Morgaine seeks to reassure Arthur after he discovers he has had sexual relations with his own sister, “We are not brother and sister here, we are man and woman before the Goddess, no more.” Viviane pragmatically justifies her decision to join the siblings in the great marriage, “Did I leave you for too long among the Christians, after all, with their talk of sin? “she said. “Think child. You are of the Royal line of Avalon; so too is he. Could I have given you to a commoner? Or, could the High King to come be so given?” Such justifications of incestuous relationships are contrary to the accepted worldviews; however, they are no longer demonic in this setting because we are looking at them from the underside. The fourth phase of Ironic Tragedy looks at tragedy from below, “from the moral and realistic perspective of the state of experience.” (AC, p. 237)
“This inverted view of the story…dominates the novel.” Thole explores other demonic modulations in her dissertation, though she does not consciously utilize Frye’s theories. For example, Arthur’s parents are not brought together by “Uthur’s brutal war and intrigue to get the wife he wants against her will” as in Malory’s interpretation, instead the bond between his parents is one of star-crossed recognition and “mystically enhanced mutual love…Merlin’s entrapment by Nimue appears as a ritualistic religious punishment instead of a trick played on a doting magician by his lover disciple (Morte Darthur, IV,1 MISTS, IV, 11).” (Thole, p. 80)
Displacement of Myths implies that the story contains myths available for dislocation. The Myths inherent in this story are sexual myths, one of which I have already discussed above, and variety of mythic Arthurian and literary traditions such as the patriarchy, the Christian belief system, the long-established line of succession, the role of the lady of the lake, and the fixed villainous role of Morgaine, among many others not named here.
The patriarchal society is turned on its ear in Bradley’s version. She supports a matriarchal society, with typically strong mythical male figures acting as the pastel backdrop for the colorful women in the narrative. We are never privy to the male point of view; hence, males in this story do not appear to be very strong. The only strength they are given is when the women capitulate to accepted modes of behavior in the patriarchal system. In The Mists of Avalon, young King Arthur as the Stag King is still just the consort of the Virgin Huntress, subject to her will to protect him during his testing. She has to power to enchant the deer so that he can become the horned one. The priestesses do not bow to him, “a lady of Avalon bends the knee to no human power.” (Mists, p. 200)
Arthur receives the sword of the holy regalia and the magical scabbard from Viviane. This act establishes the Isle of Avalon as the seat of power. Although she is transferring power to him in the act of giving him the sword and scabbard, it is certain that he cannot thrive as king without support from this corner. Certain other Arthurian adaptations do not support this theory, in the Malory variation; Arthur as squire pulls it from the stone for his brother Kay during the tournament to select the new high king. King Uther defers power to Viviane during his death sending, “So, Viviane we meet for the last time…what you spoke always came true. And you are the only one to make it sure that the next High King of Britain can take what is rightfully his.” Uther operates under the mistaken impression that the Pendragon blood is all Arthur needs to assure his succession, however, Vivian debunks this misconception by proclaiming, “Arthur is King through the old royal line of Avalon. He needs no Pendragon blood to take his rightful place as the high king.” (Mists, p. 193) The pageantry surrounding the transference of the sword Excalibur to Arthur in Mists contains a promise from Arthur to “be guided by the sacred magic of those who have set you on this throne.” (Mists, p. 203)
Priestess women function as saviors in Bradley’s canon of Avalon. Morgaine shed her blood on the magical scabbard to protect Arthur. When she later takes the scabbard away from Arthur, he no longer has her mystical protection or support. Igraine uses her talents in scrying to warn Uther that he must be prepared for an ambush by Gorlois, her thoughts speak to him in a form of mental telepathy, “You must arouse, and make ready to march, or you are doomed!” (Mists, p. 94) Lancelet fears his mother Viviane, even though he does not capitulate to her will, “When she is angry she is still frightening- when I was little, I used to believe that when I was not with her she took off her mortality and was the Goddess indeed.” (Mists, p. 148)
The myth of the wounded King is displaced with the images of pagan rituals and customs. According to Arthurian legend, a mortal blow indicated that the Wounded King no longer “possessed the ability to regenerate the land, then what was traditionally seen as the king's bond and allegiance with the feminine form of 'Sovereignty' would be threatened. This threat in itself leading to the land becoming a wasteland, a union that could only be healed by someone else and not the king himself.” Indeed, we see evidence of this myth even in The Mists of Avalon. “Morgaine, take me to Avalon, where you can heal me of this wound-take me home, Morgaine.” (Mists, p. 868)
Bradley’s King also makes a marriage with the land; he mates with the spring maiden to regenerate the crops. However, the primary sovereignty comes from the royal blood of Avalon and the rites that spring from the worship of the Goddess. The Beltane fires and midwinter ceremonies of Mists are the settings of ritualistic lovemaking and life affirming celebration that insure the return of the spring and the rebirth of the countryside. The responsibility of regeneration is on the worship of the goddess, not the tame politics of court life and the health of the king. The people of the hills and the rustics in the country who persist in the ancient beliefs know that as long as there is a priestess of Avalon celebrating the rites, they will be assured of continuity and rebirth.
The seeds of this story in Mists lie in the seven islands of the summer country of which the Isle of Avalon is a part. The ceremonial fires start in the summer country and fan across the land. King Arthur obviously enjoys special privilege because he is of the royal blood of Avalon. Because he is royal, when he is wounded, the country goes dark; waiting for the next time a King of such blazing power will come again. Morgaine reassures Arthur on his deathbed, “You did not fail, my brother, my love, my child. You held this land in peace for many years, so that the Saxons did not destroy it. You held back the darkness for a whole generation, until they were civilized men, with learning and music and faith in God, who will fight to save something of the beauty of the times that are past.” (Mists, p. 868)
A form of displacement that is not positive or desired in the continuity of the goddess worship is the tragic supplanting of the “ancient worship’. The Christian members of Arthur’s court, under the religious practices of the priests and the Queen, absorbed many of the traditional pagan rituals into the Christian dogma. The fertility festival of Beltane was traditionally held in May and associated with the pastoral tradition of turning sheep, cows, and other livestock out to pasture. Transformed into Easter and Pentecost, the yearly gathering of the Knights of the Round Table replaced communion with the fairy Folk and the circle dances. Arthur perverted the holy sword of Avalon and the holy cup or grail on celebration days that had formally been for the old worship, not the usurper Christianity. The winter solstice celebrating light became Christmas. The most crucial displacement of the Goddess worship takes place in the epilogue of Morgaine, where she understands finally that the Goddess will wear another face in the future. Avalon is completely demonic and viewed as an unholy land by the sisters of Glastonbury. Morgaine is in despair that the Goddess will never be worshipped again until she is confronted with the “sisters’ chapel.” Mother of Christ, Mary the Sinless is depicted in a powerful form, crowned with a halo and holding her child. Nevertheless, this is not the displacement of the form of the Goddess; it is the little stature of the saint Brigid who epitomizes the deity.
“But Brigid is not a Christian saint, she thought, even if Patricius thinks so. That is the form of the Goddess as she is worshipped in Ireland. And I know it, and even if they think otherwise, these women know the power of the immortal. Exile her as they may, she will prevail. The Goddess will never withdraw herself from mankind…” (Mists, p. 875)
Bradley “alters the grail legend” and “pulls out for examination all the antifeminist beliefs of the Christian tradition, and from the viewpoint of her female characters, they are patently ridiculous.” (Tobin, p. 148) Morgaine, and by association Bradley, displaces critical Christian beliefs by illuminating the world of Goddess worship. We are shown that the religion that worships the goddess is older than Christianity and therefore, more valid. Viviane explains the discrepancy in the religions to Morgaine, “They believe… that there is no Goddess; for the principle of women, so they say, is the principle of all evil; through woman, so they say, Evil entered this world; there is some fantastic Jewish tale about an apple and a snake. By using the word “fantastic,” the mysterious shield that protects Christianity as the religion of two thirds of the world falls away as if it was no more than an implausible story. (Mists, p. 11) Later on, when Igraine is on her deathbed in the nunnery and Gwenhwyfar offers to fetch her a priest, Igraine refuses to be surrounded by such nonsense as priests. Igraine had long since been portrayed as a Christian woman in The Mists of Avalon, but at this most grave crossroads in her life, she repudiates the Christian world by saying,
“ I told you, no…after all these years when I kept silent to have peace in my home, I might tell them at last what I truly felt about them. I loved Morgaine enough to send to Viviane, that she at least might escape them.” (Mists, p. 359)
“In her Arthurian saga, Bradley decenters such Arthurian commonplaces as Christianity and chivalry; she reinterprets her heroine Morgaine as a vision of female power rather than an evil manipulator.” (Tobin, p. 147) Tobin recognizes the male-centered myth that is the basis of almost all of Arthurian literature and states that Bradley “Supplements it with an exploration of goddess religions, witchcraft, and sisterhood.” Indeed, when Gwenhwyfar tells Igraine that she cannot call upon the “goddess of the fiends,” Igraine contemptuously spits out, “The Goddess is beyond all your other gods. Religions may come and go as the Romans found and no doubt the Christians will find after them, but she is beyond them all.” Morgaine also has room to dwell upon the legend behind Christianity. As she travels on her way back to Avalon after her marriage in the great rite to the king stag, she hears the priests talking about the miraculous mother of Jesus and wonders, “What great nonsense that is, how could any woman bear a child without knowing a man?” These mild rebukes by the central characters expose some satire but are more ironic in tonality. Bradley opposes the “andocentric and Christian biases of the legend’s literary history. (Ross, p. 403)
A. C. Hamilton believes, “the central principle of Ironic Myth is said to be the ‘application of romantic mythical forms to a more realistic content.” (Hamilton, p. 151) Bradley adds to the “reality of the novel’s texture by rationalizing many of the supernatural incidents, which she has borrowed from the Morte Darthur.” Not only magic can achieve certain results, but also characters employ astute planning and ingenuity to help certain events along. “Uthur’s conquest of Igraine, for example, is achieved not by Merlin’s magic, but by the cunning of Taliesin and by the credulity of Gorlois’ servants: and the supernatural glow of Viviane’s face at a pagan ritual is caused by a luminous substance smeared on cheeks and brow.” (Ross, p. 405) Supernatural rituals involving the drinking of potions and the burning of “herbs” to help achieve “the sight” combined with days of fasting beforehand, transforms typically mythical, magical powers into the result of deprivation and drugs. The myth mode includes “characters [which] are superhuman beings who do things that happen only in stories”; therefore, the myth mode encloses a “conventionalized or stylized narrative not fully adapted to plausibility or realism.” (AC, p. 366) One might be inclined to argue that the magical characters in any Arthurian tale are mythic, however, Bradley goes far to explore the scientific nature in the training of the druids and priestesses. These former mythicals are revealed as dedicated scholars, knowledgeable of the cycles of the year and the human body, schooled in the uses of herbs for healing and for the casting forth of unwanted babes, and midwifery skills. Irony is not romantic because it is the mode in which all that is mystical becomes explainable.
The character of the lady of the lake also becomes more realistic over time, Niniane, Taliesin’s daughter and Igraine and Morgause's half-sister, took Morgaine's place as Lady of the Lake when she fled Avalon, and thought she was not quite up to the job since she had no talent for “The Sight.” The magic of the Avalon’s bloodline was fading.
“Ironic myth is a parody of romance.” (AC, p. 223) Innumerable details clog the story in The Mists of Avalon. In place of the typical romantic fundamentals of Malory, Bradley substitutes impressions and perspectives of the women for the “colorful pavilions or heroic jousts.” Igraine, in the story of her first visit to court, notices the noise and odors of the city:
“There was a little graveyard there, and behind it an apple orchard, the branches whitened with blossom, pale in the twilight. The scent of the apple trees was fresh and welcome to Igraine, who found the smells of the city intrusive; dogs and men too, relieved themselves in the stone streets. Behind every door was a smelly kitchen midden with everything from dirty rushes smelling of urine and rotting meat, to the contents of the night pots. (Mists, p. 43)”
“ The effect of Bradley’s emphasis on a realistic domestic background is…to diminish its romance.” (Ross, p. 406) While this statement is certainly true, the realism of this story is no less thrilling than a basic myth narrative.
The role of the Lady of the Lake changes throughout Arthurian literature and further displaces the myth of the first telling. “In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, the lady of the lake acts as a guardian and advisor to Arthur throughout his reign. She is instrumental in bringing about the end of Camelot in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and she is concerned with the overall well being of the people of Britain in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.” (Cooper 1) Tennyson uses Vivien as a seductress of Arthur while Bradley utilizes Celtic and druid legends to create Viviane and Morgaine and Niniane. “Even the longevity of the “lady of the lake” and the “Merlin” is explained by the fact that these are eponyms, positions rather than characters, which are filled by several people over the course of half a century.” (Ross, p. 405)
Historically, Morgan le Fay is acknowledged by some as the Morrigan of Celtic myth. She is a fuming evil, vengeful, witch. Malory portrays her as the angry sister of Arthur. Arthur killed one of her lovers, so she tries to kill her brother through the efforts of Accolon. Morgan is the protagonist of Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, and still is the angry sister, but now her anger is because Arthur has betrayed the powers that set him upon his throne. She also feels regret for her actions. The realism of Bradley’s version makes this change necessary. If the Isle of Avalon is the seat of power and not Camelot, it stands to reason that betrayal of the Isle and the Goddess of would be the realistic catalyst for bringing down Arthur’s court.
Realistic Setting in place of Romance
The setting of Bradley’s novel is more realistic because she chooses specific time and geographical placements for the events to unfold. Maps of Medieval Britain are provided in the beginning of her book with mythical Isle of Avalon overlying the temporal setting of Glastonbury. The parallel nature of the book includes the land of fairy, which is also at the same location. A break in the mists can bring characters to other worlds not located on authentic maps. “The story takes place around 500 A.D., the accepted time of the historical Battle of Mount Baden, when the Roman withdrawal had left Britain open to the encroachment of Saxon settlers.” Bradley maintains such realistic settings in all of her books about Avalon, if only to preserve their realism. By connecting to events in history that the readers know to be true, she tends to authenticate the legends. She locates the mythical Camelot at “Cadbury castle in Somerset, the historical fortress of an actual fifth-century ruler who was “an Arthur-type figure, if no more”. She details the legendary introduction of cavalry with Arthur’s marriage to Gwenhwyfar. In Bradley’s version, her dowry includes many horses and she has “Lancelet explain in detail the use of the Scythian stirrup in warfare.” (Ross, pp. 401-4) The minutiae do not detract from the excitement of the story line; “what she has done here is reinvent the underlying mythology of the Arthurian legends. It is an impressive achievement. Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Celtic, and Orphic stories are all swirled into a massive narrative that is rich in landscapes no less real for often being magical.” (Quilligan, p. 30)
The artifacts of the story, such as the Grail, take on new meaning as instruments of power for a feminine-based religion. The holy regalia are kept at Avalon, watched over by women, not in a church. The image of knights fighting fierce battles is minimized and finally bastardized in a tame watching over of arms in a church to achieve knighthood. The knights no longer have battles worthy enough to make them quake with fear. A lack of brutal battles, which comprises over half of previous versions, further de-emphasizes the power of the males in the story. The heroic Lancelet is portrayed as an indecisive ninny. “Bradley presents a side of the great Knight lancelet which would probably horrify Malory and Geoffrey.” (Alden, p. 107) Gawaine, jokingly suggests to Lancelet that he “should be one of those old greeks…archilles…whose true love was the young knight Patroclus” (Mists, p. 480)
Arthur cannot stand up to the women in his life, his choices all reflect the pressures placed upon him by the women he loves and fears. Morgaine feels that he is not a smart man or as strong as he should be for a king, “Bradley’s Arthur, both Christian and the son of Avalon, seems to make everyone happy. Morgaine believes this particular trait held the secret to Arthur’s popularity with his knights but she also fears it is a weakness in Arthur.” (Alden, p. 106) Of Arthur she thinks: “…he held simple truths and sought for no more.” (Mists, p. 620) Arthur is persuaded to put aside the banner of the Pendragon in favor of the banner of the Christians, which his wife obstinately finished in time for the Battle of Mount Badon. “It is another example of his wish to please.” (Alden, p. 107) Gwenhwyfar uses her miscarriage to engage his sense of pity. “The male characters are all altogether less important as the women… with the exception of Kevin, the men seem to be the women’s marionettes.” (Thole, p. 91) Novelists adapt the Arthur legend to fit their own “thematic concerns.” Ross states that the disparity between stylized traditional materials…and the particularized form of the novel causes each work to shade inevitably into ambiguity and irony.” (Ross, p. 2)
Frye wants students of literature to be aware that the “meaning of imagery” needs to be recognized and the “failure to take displacement of this sort into account can cause faulty interpretations.” The mythos of ironic literature is concerned principally with a "realistic" level of experience, such as parody or the false appearance of romance. Such irony may be tragic or comic; when comic it is normally indistinguishable from the usual meaning of satire. (Denham, p. 65) I contend this text is an ironic tragedy; ironic for the reasons named above and tragic for the pathos of the hero and the reasons that follow:
“Horrified to learn that this incestuous union with her half-brother has made her pregnant, Morgaine leaves Avalon, abandoning her duty as High priestess and sowing the seed of future tragedy.” (Quilligan, p. 11) Morgaine’s flight from Avalon “is only the first of many moves in which plan and individual desire clash and mutually destroy each other.” (Thole, p. 100) Other incestuous unions are the seeds of tragedy; Gwenhwyfar has intercourse with her half- brother, Meleagrant, although he rapes her. Her ineptitude in the handling of his invitation for a dialogue with her is like the knock of doom upon the door. This rape gives Gwenhwyfar the excuse to have sexual relations with Lancelet when he rescues her. She rationalizes this adulterous act as a purification rite to protect herself against the brutal reality of the rape and a rebellion against God for not gratifying her for her piety. “[F]or all her faithfulness, she had only come to this; God had rewarded her for her virtue and self-restraint by betraying her into Meleagrant’s hands for rape and Brutality.” (Mists, p. 598) Her despair allowed her to turn her heart against God long enough to satisfy her longing for Lancelot.
“God did not reward me for virtue. What makes me think he could punish me? And then a thought, which frightened her. Perhaps there is no God at all, nor any of the Gods people believe in. Perhaps it is all a great lie of the priests so that they may tell mankind what to do, what not to do, what to believe, give orders even to the King. (Mists, p. 598)
In reality, this traitorous union was foretold by the attraction the couple felt for one another upon their first and second meetings. The inevitability of adultery predicted her marriage to Arthur would fail “Although Elaine’s intrigue separates the lovers for years; they are reunited because of their insuppressible longing for each other. This, in turn, provides Mordred with a reason for his fatal intrigue against them.” (Thole, p. 100)
“Arthurian novels are adaptations, specifically adaptations that transfer the prefigured material across genre borders, from medieval romance to the modern novel.” (Thole, p. 4) Thole unknowingly is supporting Frye’s theory of Modes. Adaptations carry the reader away from myth, on through the circular pattern of romance, high mimetic, and low mimetic to irony and realism. Irony, not feminism, is what distinguishes this adaptation. Frye concludes that there are “narrative categories of literature broader than, or logically prior to, the ordinary literary genre’s.” (AC, p. 162) Demonic modulations of the accepted norms are the key to understanding that this tale is above feminism and more about challenging many accepted ideals. “Bradley’s nostalgic look back to a Golden Age of Matriarchy, and the reconciliatory tendencies manifest in the ending of her novel are difficult to integrate into a progressive, confrontational feminism.” (Thole, p. 76) The heroic protagonist Morgaine is a pawn of fate and a formidable, justice-seeking oracle that tries to manipulate events. Such a curious melding of two characters become fetters that bind her to a tragic quest that cannot be fulfilled. “Merlin and Viviane hope to save Britain from the invading Saxons, but hey also work to preserve their freedom and the freedom of others to worship as they please.” (Alden, p. 57) In the end, Morgaine and this part of the quest are betrayed by Kevin Harper, Arthur Gwenhwyfar and king Uriens.
Critics agree that the form of Bradley’s adaptation decenters Christianity and sexist Arthurian institutions. “One of the most striking changes Bradley makes to the Arthur story is the reinterpret Morgaine as s powerful heroine rather than the evil manipulator of Arthurian tradition.” (Tobin, p. 149) Frye creates a literary universe that survives author’s translations and displacements, transcends individual critical concerns and cultural associations. Frye encourages a multiplicity of perspectives and approaches.
In other words, to be able to “…see the factor which lifts a work of literature out of the category of the merely historical.” (Denham, p. 65)
In Frye’s essay On Teaching Literature, published in 1972, he notes “Literature shows various degrees of displacement of myths in the direction of the plausible, the moral or the “real” The Mists of Avalon is no exception. Today’s readers demand more realism than our predecessors did. In an age when it can take 5-10 minutes to decide which laundry detergent to use based upon the various choices available to us, it is inconceivable that fiction readers would settle for a basic story line with undisplaced myths. The Mists of Avalon is a richly embroidered tale that contains most of Frye’s modes and mythoi in some form. There is a visible shift away from the apocalyptic world to the demonic. Bradley succeeds in trying to pull as many different versions of the Arthurian canon into a synthesis that makes sense to a sophisticated reader. “Looking at the Arthurian legend from the other side, as in one of Morgaine’s magical weavings, we see all the interconnecting threads, not merely the artful pattern.” (Quilligan, p. 30) When we look at tragedy from below, as in the fourth phase of Frye’s Ironic Mythoi, we are “viewing a medieval tapestry from the backside.” (Ross, p. 397) Details not evident on the face spring to life, “Bradley tries to retrieve not only the historical Arthur lost within the lists of folktale and romance, but also a matriarchal religion and culture lost within the mists of a historical past.” (Ross, p. 401) Demonic modulation allows normally malignant content to be transformed into a desired state. In one of many references to wisdom in Bradley’s story, Merlin tells a young Igraine:
The Christians seek to blot out all wisdom save their own; and in that strife they are banishing from the world all forms of mystery save that which will fit into their religious faith.” (Mists, p. 12)
Realism and displacement of time-honored ideals form a barrier that differentiate this work from romance, although the warp might be legend, Bradley weaves in motifs of detailed explanations and causality for mysterious events and fabulous figures.
The pathos of the characters mark it as a tragedy, we are able to commiserate with the losses the hero faces, because we are aware of her suffering. “The typical tragic hero is somewhere between the divine and the “all too human.” (AC, p. 207) Since the story is told from the perception of eight women, through the sight-gifted narration of Morgaine, it is a convincing multiple-perspective recounting of the Arthurian legend. The mythical figure of the witch loses its sense of the demonic and becomes worthy of consideration “As a priestess of the Goddess on Avalon, a woman bears the label of wise-woman.”Robert D. Denham page 61 of Northrop Frye And Critical Method.
Alden, Melinda J. "From Witchery to Wisdom: The Transformation of Morgan Le Fay in the Mists of Avalon." Diss. East Tennessee State U, 1992.
The new archetypal image of Morgaine is presented by Alden along with comparisons between Bradley's and Malory's depiction of knights. Alden briefly talks about the importance of myth and shows the progression and transformation of the character of Morgaine. This is helpful to me, because I am arguing that the Hero character of Morgaine changes in my thesis, and that creates the problem of placing Mists in the romance mode.
Ashe, Geoffrey, and Norris J. Lacy. The Arthurian Handbook. N.p.: Garland, 1988. 198-199.
If you are a fan of the King Arthur legend, you should definitely read this book. It contains the origins of the Grail legend, a critical survey of Arthurian history, historical facts, and discussions on Arthurian subjects, and a glossary of Arthurian characters, motifs, and places. The chapter on modern literature was slightly helpful to me; however, I did not have time to thoroughly examine the entire book. For my purposes, it talked about Bradley's ability not to dilute the legend as she presented a complex story line.
Bradley, Marion Z. Lady of Avalon. New York: Viking Penguin, 1997. 1-460.
I used this as background material on the character of the Lady of Avalon.
Bradley, Marion Z. Priestess of Avalon. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. 1-394.
I used this as background source information to understand the priestesses of Avalon.
Bradley, Marion Z. The Forest House. New York: Viking Penguin, 1993. 1-417.
I used this for background information on The Mists of Avalon.
Bradley, Marion Z. The Mists Of Avalon. New York: Del Ray /Ballentine Group, 1982. 1-876.
I chose this text to apply Northrop Frye's Theories. It was helpful in understanding Frye because so many of the elements he presents in his arguments are present in this story. I could actually see certain arguments come to life.
Carley, James P., and Martin B. Shichtman, eds. Culture and the King: the Social Implications of the Arthurian Legend. Albany: State University of New York P, 1994. 289-296.
This book is a collection of essays in honor of Valerie M. Lagorio- who worked in Arthurian romance and medieval mysticism. I found the essay by James Noble to be helpful to my research as he examines the potential for homosexuality in my chosen text.
Denham, Robert D. Northrop Frye and Critical Method. University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State UP, 1978. 1-223.
Denham includes 24 Wonderful charts illustrating Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. Every time I started to draw Frye, I would be stuck somewhere. Denham's perseverance and access to Frye's personal notes make this book valuable to anyone struggling to understand the modes and structures. He explains all four essays of Anatomy of Criticism and discusses the influence it has on the field of literary criticism. He also discusses prose and verse, which was not as helpful to me, however, his section on applied criticism was interesting.
Farwell, Marilyn R. Heterosexual Plots and lesbian Narratives. New York and London: New York UP, 1996. 1-199.
Farwell discusses the Mists of Avalon as a Heroic Lesbian Narrative that " places women in a "primary relationship with one another at crucial moments in the story." Farwell also relates this text to realism. She mentions Frye only once, I used this text to gain greater understanding of Bradley's text. It will help prove my point that some readers of Bradley will place Mists in the category of Lesbian Narrative.
Foster, Thomas C. How To Read Literature Like a professor. New York: Quill, 2003. 1-299.
This book is very entertaining as well as informative. Frye is mentioned several times in his explanations. Foster introduces Frye's Alazon character and the theory of seasons from the third essay of Anatomy of Criticism. I stated reading it, then put it down to read Denham and Hamilton and when I picked it up again, it was refreshingly easy to read.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy Of Criticism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 1957. 1-354.
Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964.
Hamilton, Albert C. Northrop Frye: Anatomy of His Criticism. Toronto Buffalo London: University Of Toronto P, 1990. 1-207.
I found Hamilton to be helpful in getting to the crux of Frye's arguments in Anatomy of Criticism. At some points, Hamilton cuts through all the surrounding confusion of literary examples and occasionally uses the first person narrative in order to explain what he feels Frye was writing. He goes beyond Frye to Aristotle and discusses Frye's critical method in his conclusion.
Hopson, Kathryn M. "Re-visoning Morgan Le Fay." Diss. The U Of Southwestern Louisiana, 1993.
Categorizes many Arthurian works in 5 critical categories. There is a section dedicated to Bradley and the new paradigm that is Morgaine. She establishes that Morgaine is a credible narrator that presents the "other story." Hopson relates Morgaine's monologue to classical epics and tells us that since she is credible, she can overturn and displace the negative images that have plagued this character in other Arthurian versions. Hopsom identifies the elements of the fantastic, but maintains that it is a realistic narrative.
Man and His Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung. United States Of America: Dell, 1964. 1-387.
Useful in understanding literature in Frye's Polemical Introduction and dream theory in the third essay of Anatomy of Criticism.
Marowski, Daniel G., and Jean C. Stine, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 30. Detroit: Gales Research Company, 1984. 26.
This book contains a Bibilography and description of Marion Zimmer Bradley from various critics. Excerpts of her book reviews are included.
Quilligan, Maureen. "Arthur's Sister's Story." Rev. of The Mists of Avalon, by Bradley Z Marion. New York Times Book Review 30 Jan. 1983: 11-30.
"The only review that shows some sophistication in the analysis of The Mists of Avalon. Thole referenced this review in her look at the critical approaches to this text. I have to agree, this particular review illuminates an understanding of literature and the Arthurian canon from the perspective of a college professor or a scholar of literature.
McClain, Lee T. "Gender Anxiety in Arthurian Romance." Extrapolation 38.3 (1997): 193-199.
Tobin explores the history of the Arthurian legend according to the authors. Tobin notes that as time has moved on, the depiction of the chivalry of the knights has gone underground or has taken a back seat to modern depictions. The character of Guienvere is called into question, her power as the force behind the splitting of the fellowship of the round table wanes with the onset of women writers of Arthurian fiction. Tobin maintains that The Mists Of Avalon "has it's basis in gender" and the pharmakos is chivalric masculinity. Tobin also stresses that Mists is a realistic reflection of "twentieth-century... liberal and feminist literature."
Owen, Dawn E. "Battling The Dragons: The heroic Journey of the Ladies of Avalon in Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon." Diss. Longwood College, 1997.
Owen's dissertation helps explain how the character of Morgaine changes according to setting in the Mists of Avalon. Owen discusses the myths behind the story such as the birth-death-rebirth cycles with their parallel seasonal changes. This particular section relates to Frye, though I have not seen him mentioned yet. Owen uses Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope to support most of her arguments and discusses archetypes.
Peacock, Scot , ed. Contemporary Authors . Vol. 107. Farmington Hills: Tompson Gale, 2002. 43-44.
A bio-bibliographical guide to current writers in fiction, it looks at Bradley as a contemporary author and examines her books. Citing numerous reviews and critical journals, it gives an overall perspective of the criticism of Bradley's novels. I found it helpful because I did not have to look up every critical review on Bradley, I could see what critics had to say and choose the ones that fit my topic for further study.
Ross, Meredith J. "The Sublime to the Ridiculous: The Restructuring of Arthurian Materials in Selected Modern Novels." Diss. U of Madison, 1985.
Ross discusses genres, narrative, and structuring techniques and the use of novelistic conventions. She examines the interaction between Arthurian oral legends and generic conventions of the novel. Ross believes that Bradley changes the tale to “suit her own ideology and view of history."
Salkoff, Jonathon L. "Changing Attitudes Toward devotion and duty in Western Literature." 1990.
This was a Trident Scholar Project approved by the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The study includes an examination of the Mists of Avalon and offers up the result that this revisionist tale is a "sharp condemnation of the tradition of second-class status of women in society. Salkoff relates this book to changing military attitudes towards women.
Sloan, Glenna D. The Child As Critic: Teaching Literature in Elementary and Middle Schools. 2nd ed. New York and London: Teachers College P, 1984. 1-180.
Sloan looks at the unifying principle of literature and is truly a fan of Northrop Frye. She believes that young school children should be exposed to Frye's Theory of Modes and explains them in simplified form to an audience of teachers. I found this book helpful because she discusses the ironic mode and uses references to children's literature. I love children's literature and have read more of it than I have of the works that Frye references.
Tanner, William E., ed. The Arthurian Myth of Quest and Magic. Dallas, Hong Kong, London: Caxton's Modern Arts P, 1993. 1-102.
I needed some research to back up my theory that The Mists of Avalon has a valid Quest theme so that I could place it in the Romance Theory of Modes according to Frye. There is an article in it called Arthur and the Goddess: Cultural Crisis in the Mists of Avalon that was extremely helpful to me. It supports my definition of Morgaine as a multidimensional character, and delves into the sub themes of the book such as "displaced Celtic and Pre-Celtic cultural heritages." This particular essay also points out how the realism of Bradley's revision explains many unanswered questions about the probability of a druid becoming an advisor to a Christian king.
Thole, Antje S. "Refunctionalizing Plot: Malory's Morte Dathur in The Once and Future King and the Mists of Avalon." Diss. U of Hamburg, 1991.
Thole reflects on the “Refunctionalizing” of the King Arthur plot structure. She places special emphasis on Bradley's use of multiple narrators and the "novelistic coherence" of the text. She discusses the shortcomings of other critics that have examined Arthurian literature in modern novels and spends a great deal of time establishing the patterns of setting, time and theme of both Bradley's and White's work. Thole, (now Anderson) employs a rather comprehensive introduction into the adaptation of Arthurian romance into the novel form. I found this dissertation completely by accident. I was browsing the Internet and found a bulletin board entry about the women in Bradley's version. The author mentioned her dissertation, I e-mailed her, and she was kind enough to send it on to me. She also sent me source material for her thesis, by Meredith Jane Ross, as it was unavailable through normal channels.
Tobin, Lee A. "Why change the Arthur Story/: Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon.” Extrapolation 34.2 (1993): 147-156.
This was a great article! Even though she never mentions Frye, I swear she is channeling him. The article was the most helpful source I have found so far that supports my thesis- she writes about the de-centering of tradition and myth in Bradley's adaptation. Tobin writes about de-centered legends and displaced institutions from earlier works. She supports my theory that Morgaine is the hero of the tale and inadvertently bears up my argument that Morgaine as a character changes while others cannot. Tobin lauds Bradley's work as analytical.
Other electronic sites that were helpful
Lectures by Tompkins