Final Staff

Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
Dave Noonan


  • Mishell Baker
  • Bluejack
  • Amy Goldschlager
  • Emily Lupton
  • R. K. MacPherson
  • Scott James Magner
  • Robin Shantz

Copy Editors

  • Sarah L. Edwards
  • Yoon Ha Lee
  • Sherry D. Ramsey
  • Rena Saimoto
  • Paula Stiles


  • Marti McKenna
  • Bridget McKenna


  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

February, 2008 : Criticism:

The Magic Mundane

Re-examining the Supernatural in Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon

Marion Zimmer Bradley's reconstruction of medieval Britain in The Mists of Avalon is problematic. The literary, psychological, and sociological knowledge that informs contemporary identity cannot divorce itself from our readerly ideas about realism, mimesis, and the narratives of history. As Erving Goffman points out in Frame Analysis, "It seems that we can hardly glance at anything without applying a primary framework, thereby forming conjectures as to what occurred before and expectations of what is likely to happen now" (38). This notion is central to an examination of Bradley's text because her vehicle of insight, the Arthurian myth, is rooted in antiquity and tradition; her treatment of the myth is subject to the same cultural criticism that awaited other contributors to the tradition such as Barthelme and Twain.

This cultural criticism, however, proved worth the risk in The Mists of Avalon, in that—‌in addition to the novel achieving a generally appealing story—‌a number of marginalized readers (i.e. Neo-Pagans, feminists, and other progressive thinkers) finally found themselves in a mythic tradition from which they had previously been absent. Bradley's version of the Arthurian myth concerns itself less with adapting the legend to fit within her time and more with adapting her time to fit within the myth, a fact that does not escape Carrol L. Fry in "The Goddess Ascending: Feminist Neo-Pagan Witchcraft in Marian Zimmer Bradley's Novels": "Bradley uses the timeless matter of Arthur as the basic story line and she intertwines the Neo-Pagan monomyth with it in symbiotic fashion. The result is a . . . powerful feminist statement. The symbiosis of myth, then, rises to ideological statement" (75). While a surface reading of the text progresses through supernatural events and identities with which only a speculative fiction audience might be familiar, a deconstructive reading reveals the mundane underpinnings of Bradley's fantastic elements—‌a revelation that appeals to other contemporary understandings of literature, psychology, and sociology. This deconstruction, in turn, demonstrates what Bradley's reconstruction of medieval Britain does for a contemporary understanding of medieval thought, as well as what it does for post-modernists' understandings of themselves. Another way to say this is that Bradley's myth makes appropriate allowances for the current state of the realist tradition, and extracting this realism from the "magic" gaps in the novel only situates the novel more solidly as a contemporary re-negotiation of the myth

Bradley's attempt to root her novel's validity in medievalism also anchors in it to the mimetic tradition with what it reveals about the sociological frameworks (such as the Neo-Pagan monomyth and contemporary gender theory), embedded in the text. The Arthurian myth becomes a critical lens by which to examine The Mists of Avalon's sociological frameworks.


In her essays on Neo-Paganism in The Mists of Avalon, Carrol L. Fry isolates the Neo-Pagan monomyth in the novel—‌a task I will not attempt here. Neo-Paganism provides a point of departure for understanding some of the sociological frameworks that inform the novel. It is not surprising that Neo-Pagans responded quickly and positively to The Mists of Avalon, given their feminist predispositions: "Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Neo Paganism as a cultural movement is the powerful feminist core of their belief. Since the 1960s, the Neo-Pagan emphasis on the Goddess and the priestess as leader of the coven have exerted a potent attraction for feminists" (Fry, 69-70). Lisa Tuttle argues, in her entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, that prior to the incorporation of feminism in speculative fiction, the movement's devotees were forced to content themselves by criticizing fairy tales "for their culturally normative function" (394). Tuttle goes on to say that "In the past, female magic users were seen in archetypal terms, according to their effect on the hero of the tale. Either they were evil or, as "good [fairies]", they were effectively de-sexed by being presented as extremely small, old, ugly or immaterial" (394). The market was effectively ripe for new stories that empowered women and expressed feminist views of how the fantastic participates in myth. Bradley, deciding to fill the void herself, followed the feminist movement to one of its manifestations among speculative fiction readers, Neo-Pagans1. By paralleling Neo-Pagan ideology (presented in the novel as the Old Religion of Britain—‌a link most Neo-Pagans would willingly endorse2, Bradley, perhaps unwittingly, dragged post-modern epistemology into her novel when she embraced the mythopoeia of such a contemporary religion.

The problem, however, awaited Bradley in her chosen subject: the legend of King Arthur. Her work might accomplish much for the feminist gap in speculative fiction by supporting itself with the respect traditionally lent to the Arthurian legend, but only if the story could validate its "new" feminist paradigm. Feminists had only recently begun finding themselves behind the wainscoting of historical texts3, and for Bradley, writing to fantasy readers, an effective way to validate the paradigm was with the notion that religion can be an empowering institution. Historically, religion has been central to the Arthurian myth, and the link between Neo-Paganism and the Old Religion of Britain offered Bradley's text a perfect opportunity. Carrol L. Fry illuminated this idea when she reported that "Most covens practice what they call high magic," and that "For most pagans, the point of the ceremony is to 'draw down the moon,' a process by which the priestess and priest (if there is one) become the incarnation of the Goddess and the Horned God" (69). The idea of becoming a deity certainly begs a post-modern conception of divinity (in the Western Tradition, at least). This belief, in turn, would need back-formative validation (for acceptance by a wider audience), which Bradley's story might accomplish by re-visiting texts that support the new mentality. C.S. Lewis, in The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, identified this phenomenon when he examined the motives of his love religion: "What is new usually wins its way by disguising itself as the old" (11). Not only does The Mists of Avalon acknowledge this in its treatment of courtly love, it does so with its self-validating strategies as well. The strength of the women in Bradley's Arthurian society parallels the attitude of perseverance that many female readers found themselves forced to adopt—‌a topic Judith Fetterley explores in "the resisting reader"—‌as they chafed under educators that forced them to read as men.4 This persevering struggle is the very means by which Bradley's myth integrates the new feminine mentality into the Arthurian tradition. John Clute, in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls this narratological strategy The Pariah Elite:

A group which, though despised and rejected by society, remembers and preserves the secret knowledge necessary to keep the world from ultimate thinning. In other words, members of [pariah elites] are despised and rejected precisely for that which they retain: their knowledge of the Secret History of the World, their talents, their memory of the elder gods, their familiarity with the old true names and the real map of the territory . . . but they sometimes do more than retain the past; it is always possible that the pariah elite may be the secret masters of the world. (745)

With a framework established for the women Bradley would empower in The Mists of Avalon, she could concentrate on reconstructing the Arthurian myth. The resulting clash between a legend with medieval roots and a contemporary retelling left phenomenological gaps—‌in the forms of magic—‌that slipped into the story when Bradley, as a contemporary writer, opened the door and admitted realist sensibilities. Examining these gaps reveals how contemporary thinkers may be doing more harm than good when they attempt to historicize medieval thought for realist epistemologies: "If Christianity did, as Pagans insist, co-opt Paganism, Bradley seems bent on returning the favor in this novel" (Fry 338). Christianity becomes one of several sacrifices (such as traditional gender roles and anachronistic epistemology) as Bradley's reconstruction tries to disguise itself as Lewis's "old."


One might easily argue that this essay begs its own questions because the material in question is, after all, fiction. The important distinction, however, is that the readership, the feminist movement, Neo-Paganism, and the importance of the Arthurian myth are all non-fictional issues. Determining this essay's relationship with these realities begins by assembling an informed critical strategy.

To that end, I adapt an apparatus from Erving Goffman. Responding to William James's Principles of Psychology, Goffman constructs a theory in Frame Analysis by which we may gauge the relativities of contemporary reality:

[James] made a stab at differentiating the several different 'worlds' that our attention and interest can make real for us, the possible subuniverses, the 'orders of existence' . . . in each of which an object of a given kind can have its proper being: the world of the senses, the world of scientific objects, the world of abstract philosophical truths, the worlds of myth and supernatural beliefs, the madman's world, etc. Each of these subworlds, according to James, has 'its own special and separate style of existence,' and 'each world, whilst it is attended to, is real after its own fashion; only the reality lapses with the attention. (2, emphasis in original)

It is important to note—‌since Bradley's Arthurian ontology relies so heavily on Neo-Pagan systems of magic—‌that Neo-Pagans define their "magic" in keeping with the sensibilities of a doubtful-yet-hopeful, post-modern mentality: "Definitions of magic vary, and range from claims of power over the physical realm to changes in consciousness levels" (Fry 336). There is room, Fry reports, in the Neo-Pagan cosmology for both belief in the supernatural and belief in mundane, psychological agency: ". . . the coven ceremony creates some kind of power, be it psychokinetic changes wrought in the physical realm, or behavior modification" (336, emphasis mine). Psychokinetic changes wrought in the physical realm fit nicely with a fantasy-reading of the novel; behavior modification, however, makes Bradley's reconstruction more palatable to thinkers outside her immediate audience. These behavioral modifications are precisely what Goffman refers to when examining individual psychology within larger sociological contexts. (One can act in the roles of student and teacher both in the same day, each of which entails its own behaviors, mentalities, and activities.) Bradley's magic so closely resembles Neo-Pagan practices that what applies to them (Neo-Pagans) in this sense can also be applied to the novel's characters. A few examples should solidify the apparatus, particularly if we bear in mind that magic in The Mists of Avalon is typically considered a divine activity.

The difference between reality as it exists for Morgaine when she prepares for Arthur's king-making ceremony and how it exists the day after (when she decides her senses had been heightened by the presence of the goddess) highlights the plasticity of reality in the novel and brings us closer to the most important aspect of Goffman's frames: the shock of shifting between them:

About an hour after dawn they awakened her. Now, in contrast to the tranced unawareness of the previous day, she was wide awake and sharply aware of everything—‌the cold fresh air, the mists stained with pink where soon the sun would rise, the strong smell of the little dark women in their garments of badly tanned skins. Everything was clean-edged and brilliantly colored, as if fresh this moment from the hand of the Goddess. (172)

Later, during the ceremony itself, the frame-layering becomes problematic when a shard from one of Morgaine's other reality-frames stabs into the event:

And for an instant, some small part of Morgaine, dizzy and drunk and only half in her body at all, remarked coldly that she certainly must be mad; she, a civilized and educated woman, princess and priestess and kin to the royal line of Avalon, Druid-taught, here painted like a savage and smelling of freshly shed blood, enduring this barbarian mummery. . . . (177)

As with other supernatural practitioners an informed reader would be familiar with (i.e. real-world Neo-Pagans, adherents of mystery religions, practitioners of altered states of meditative consciousness), the priestesses of Avalon typically make their transitions between frames by meditation, chanting, gesticulation, ritual preparation, or drug use. When they do not, these priestesses (or others invested with the "Sight") suffer psycho-somatic trauma, a fact that accounts for the majority of Bradley's women fainting, swooning, and falling ill as often and as suddenly as they do. Discussing Alfred Schutz's response to William James's original ideal of layered realities, Goffman gives us the first mention of the trauma or "shock" that occurs when suddenly shifting from one reality-frame to another:

There are as many innumerable kinds of different shock experiences as there are different finite provinces of meaning upon which I may bestow the accent of reality. Some instances are: the shock of falling asleep as the leap into the world of dreams; the inner transformation we endure if the curtain in the theater rises as the transition in the world of the stageplay; the radical change in our attitude if, before a panting, we permit our visual field to be limited by what is within the frame as the passage into the pictorial world; our quandary, relaxing into laughter, if, in listening to a joke, we are for a short time ready to accept the fictitious world of the jest as the reality in reaction to which the world of our daily life takes on the character of foolishness. . . . (4)

Often, the transition of Bradley's characters from one reality-frame to another (for example, shifting from mundane reality into the priestess-frame) occurs smoothly enough to avoid any trauma, but an awareness of its possibility assists us in delineating one frame from another.

With the idea of frame-shifting in place—‌and keeping the possibility of straightforward behavioral modification in mind when Bradley's magic-users believe themselves psycho-kinetically altering reality—‌other supernatural events in the novel begin to fit more readily into a materialist perspective. Identifying which real-world phenomena cohere with the novel's "magic" offers models by which we can measure the effect of Bradley's reconstruction on a contemporary readership; this also reveals what such post-modernist integration may be doing to contemporary understanding of medieval thought.

I have divided my study into two categories (an inadequate but necessary measure) according to the most frequently recurring types of magic in the novel: Avalon (specifically its removal from reality), and the Sight (specifically its unreliability). Other, miscellaneous entries will appear as needed within these larger categories.


An important aspect of considering mundane explanations for the magic in the novel is the reason for doing so in the first place. The realist spirit of skepticism becomes crucial in any consideration of contemporary re-negotiations of the Arthurian myth if skeptics, like others, are to find themselves in real-world mythic traditions. As such, an important passage in the novel regards the Goddess-powered magic of the Avalonian priestesses. The most telling remark comes from Morgaine near the end of the novel: ". . . the Goddess was real while mankind still paid homage to her, and created her form for themselves" (Bradley 809). Bradley's characters often attribute surges of emotion or uncharacteristic thoughts to the supernatural (i.e. the effect of Kevin Harper's music on his audiences), the state of which is yet another of the frames in the novel. This parallels the blurred distinction between madness and the Sight: two clear instances concern first Lancelet while he is questing for the grail (a story we only receive after the fact) and second the old woman who brings news to Igraine while she is cloistered at Tintagel. Furthermore, some of the novel's key moments, such as the trip Morgaine takes with Arthur, Accolon, and Uriens into the fairy country, become ambiguous regarding magic-or-mundane verdicts when revelations of character madness follow them. The narrator remarks, following the fairy-country episode, that "Morgaine knew that she was at the edges of delirium" (735), complicating Avalon's "magic" removal from common reality.

A realist understanding of the Holy Isle concerns the growth of ideological divisions between the Old Religion and Christianity. When Taliesin and Viviane, Merlin of Britain and Lady of the Lake, respectively, visit Igraine at Tintagel during the novel's opening, Taliesin recounts how followers of the Old Religion and Christians used to co-exist but that, with Christianity's growing dominance, the two no longer get along as peacefully: "Avalon, the Holy Isle, is now no longer the same island as the Glastonbury where we of the Old Faith once allowed the monks to build their chapel and their monastery" (12-13). What follows is some vague philosophic explanation regarding the dualism of reality in Britain (i.e. the reality of the Old Faith and the reality of Christianity) that makes no mention of how the old Holy Isle has come to be as it is now. This insight comes instead from considering the conceptions of the common folk: (1) the Holy Isle is the domain of the druids and the priestesses of Avalon, and therefore a locus of magic; (2) it is perpetually enshrouded in fog; (3) it is so near to the Isle of Glastonbury, upon which exists the Christian monastery, that an uninitiated traveler would end up at Glastonbury if he or she tried to find Avalon. It stands to reason that if the old druids and priestesses of Avalon permitted the Christian monks to build a monastery on one of their islands (and there are several in Avalon, as reported throughout the text) that, when they could no longer live peacefully with the monks, those druids and priestesses evicted Glastonbury from their archipelago. According to the argument that the two realities are almost identical, Glastonbury is not the mirror of Avalon as claimed. Later in the novel, when Morgaine travels to Glastonbury in her old age, she sees that the two are, in fact, topographically different. As the devotees of the Old Faith began to diminish in power and number, they would have, in effect, begun to "fade" from existence in much the same manner as the Merlin suggests. Support for any actual thinning of Avalonian reality, however, is conspicuously absent.

Following the establishment of Avalon-as-otherworld, subsequent episodes in the novel take their examples from the rules Taliesin set down for Igraine at Tintagel. The first instance of a priestess of Avalon calling down the mists (one may not enter Avalon unless escorted by a priestess) can serve as example for all instances, as they unfold each time in roughly the same manner. When Morgaine escorts Galahad (later to be called Lancelet) to Avalon, we get our first glimpse of what occurs when a priestess magically lifts the supernatural mists: "Up went her arms into the arch of the sky; down, with the mists following the sweep of her trailing sleeves. Mist and silence hung dark around them. Morgaine stood motionless" (143). Morgaine becomes appropriately fatigued following the magical act, an act Galahad "validates" when he crosses himself—‌Galahad was himself reared in Avalon and is therefore fully versed in the "truth" of priestess magic. He believes in it as much as he believes in sunlight. However, Morgaine herself explains away the magically induced fatigue when she remarks mentally "Of course I am faint, I have not yet broken my fast" (143, italics in original). Subsequent episodes involving the calling down of the mists—‌elsewhere in the novel, the islands are repeatedly described as enshrouded by "fog"—‌involve no more dramatics than this episode. The testimony of outside observers that magic is, indeed, going on is, of course, suspect, as when Morgaine brings the five-year old Nimue to the island for training.

The child responds with apparent alarm to the calling down of the mists, but we must wonder what else a five-year old Christian-reared child would do when her elder (sorceress, no less) aunt gesticulates into the air and guides a barge into impenetrable fog.6 The issue of Avalon's removal becomes even more problematic later when Lancelet accidentally wanders into Avalon without an escort. Though it may be argued that he was reared in Avalon and therefore knows how to enter it, he has not done so in decades and is in no state of mind for the supposedly mentally rigorous discipline of summoning down the magic mists: "'I told you I came hither because my mind played tricks on me. Without thinking, I called the Avalon barge to me and came here'" (811). It would seem, if one is not aware of the danger and sorcery surrounding Avalon, one has no trouble entering. If, however, a would-be traveler attempts such a journey as an informed resident of Britain, the deed would be too devilish and frightening to even attempt.

The Sight7

My study of the Sight (the gift for divine sorcery) pays little attention to "Sight-dreams." The women (and occasionally men) who experience prophetic or Sight-based dreams have been too often reared into the epic lore that underpins the Druidic or hieratic philosophy of Avalon, meaning this information, regardless of any magic involvement, has been given to them mimetically by others. It is as much a part of their dreams as anything mundane would be. Prophecy in dreams is an effect of circumstance: "Next to consider is 'fortuitousness,' meaning here that a significant event can come to be seen as incidentally produced. An individual, properly guiding his doings, meets with the natural workings of the world in a way he could not be expected to anticipate, with consequential results" (Goffman 33). It is the dreamer's participation in symbolic dreams of epic motifs or of faraway happenings in the waking world that I liken to Goffman's "incidental production."

Episodes of the Sight (often accompanied by doubt and contradiction) typically happen to the characters rather than because of them. In The Meme Machine, noted skeptic Susan Blackmore succinctly expresses the spirit of suspicion that critics should bring to this examination: "Stress is reduced when control over a situation is increased—‌and if real control is not possible, an illusion of control will do" (183). Morgaine espouses this idea more than once in the novel, most notably at its conclusion:

I stood in the barge alone, and yet I new there were others standing there with me, robed and crowned, Morgaine the Maiden, who had 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 Dead-crone who stood at my side? (867)

Melinda Hughes, writing on Sisterhood and doubling in The Mists of Avalon made the same observation regarding Morgaine's awareness of multiple, overlapping frames: "Although Morgaine at this point willingly acknowledges the four sides of her 'Self' as equivalent to the four dimensions of the goddess—‌maiden, mother, warrior, crone or wise-woman, it is not until she truly understands and accepts the dimension of the wise woman that she can acknowledge that the Virgin Mary is merely another dimension of the goddess" (26). Be that as it may, Morgaine's awareness that there are not four other women standing with her that is important here. Goffman's frames are indeed at work, and Morgaine does a remarkably post-modern job of recognizing this.

Morgaine, by this point, realizes that there is no Goddess. Few conclusions but the mundane one remain, then, when she experiences the Sight following this realization: "She cared little to look into her magical mirror, but now and again when the moon was dark she went to drink of the spring and to look into the waters. But she saw only tantalizing glimpses: the Companions of the Round Table rode this way and that. . . ." (803). Although she is catching only glimpses with her scrying, they are appearing nonetheless, and this offers insight into what she has been Seeing all along. Viviane's thoughts from earlier in the novel assume a more important meaning now that Morgaine has finally come to the same conclusion after her:

This I have known since first I trod the path—‌a time comes when there is only despair, when you seek to tear the veil from the shrine, and you cry out to her and know that she will not answer because she is not there, because she was never there, there is no Goddess but only yourself, and you are alone in the mockery of echoes from an empty shrine . . . There is no one there, there was never anyone there, and all the Sight is but dreams and delusions. . . ." (352)

Telling instances of the Sight often follow mental anguish or emotional duress, and though these instances are legion among all of Bradley's Sighted protagonists, one woman will suffice to validate this critical perspective. When Igraine "Sees" an image of Uther, he appears exactly as he did in a dream some days prior. Igraine has been effectively imprisoned by her husband Gorlois in the cold and forlorn Tintagel with little to occupy her mind. A conclusion she could naturally draw herself, one supposedly Sent by Igraine regarding a pattern to feminine suffering, suggests flights of Igraine's imagination and rings of Susan Blackmore's remark about control and its illusions. Igraine experiences all of this magic as the only alternative to simply giving up to the despondency laid upon her by her oppressive husband. A similar, haunting scene comes to mind, one of relaxation therapy in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," and the delirium that results when Igraine attempts to actively seize the Sight to warn Uther of Gorlois's military plans evinces how easily exertion sends her to madness. Furthermore, it seems no coincidence that the protagonists who regularly exhibit the Sight are all of one more or less direct family line. Though women of other families clearly live and work in Avalon, it is only those members of the royal line of Avalon who narrate their experiences. Not only are these women regularly exposed to hardship and mental stress, they also (though they are only characters) share common genetics, leaving few enough conclusions regarding a predisposition for neuro-chemical imbalance, especially since the Sight so selectively visits the people of Bradley's Britain.

Furthermore, the Sight can be simulated, or at least approached, by clearly mundane means. Those who See are often uncertain whether it is the Goddess or merely their imagination that is at play: "Morgaine lay down, without undressing, beside Elaine. In the darkness and silence, as she had feared, her imagination—‌or was it the Sight?—‌made pictures: Arthur with Gwenhwyfar, men with women all around her throughout the castle, joined in love or simple lust . . . now, sharp as the Sight, the picture came to her mind . . ." (319). The Sight can also result as an effect of lighting: "For a moment it seemed that she could see her sister-in-law's pale, passionless face—‌calm, slightly mocking—‌so clearly that she rubbed her eyes; Morgaine laughing at her? No, it was a trick of the light, it was gone" (516). This last example is particularly important because it occurs to Gwenhwyfar, who is not imbued with the Sight, and makes the activity of her mind seem identical to her Sighted kinswoman. Finally, perhaps the most damning injunction against the magic nature of the Sight regards what can be Seen and what cannot: "'I wish I might tell you more, but the Sight comes and goes as it will. God grant it come to a good end, my dear; it may be that I can see no more because by the time your child is born, I shall not be here to see . . ." (356). Igraine, who by this point, renounced the Goddess decades prior still experiences the Sight. If the things she Sees are beyond her scope of conception, then they escape her, just as a commoner would have difficulty accurately envisioning the interior of King Arthur's hall—‌had he or she never been there before. Morgaine, who acts as a far more reliable representative of the Sight than Igraine, comes up against the same Seeing block when she fails to envision the interior of the abbey at Glastonbury: ". . . it was as if a great dark curtain had closed over them with the ringing of the church bells—‌in the last instant of the vision she had seen two litters carrying the wounded men into the abbey at Glastonbury, where she could not follow" (740)—‌presumably because her Sight does not function in a Christian sanctuary but also, perhaps, because she has never been into the abbey or any other like it. She has no model according to which she can assemble a vision, and so her Sight fails.

A final criticism of the powers granted by the Goddess regards their chances for success. Morgaine, speaking to Nimue as she takes her to Avalon, questions her ability to draw down the mists: "And if all does not go well? Morgaine refused to think of that. Doubt was fatal to power, and to the Sight . . ." (635). Confidence is essential to supernatural activity; it figures just as centrally to its operation as does faith in a Neo-Pagan coven, belief when taking the Christian Eucharist, or socialization when switching between frames. Yet, doubt often accompanies episodes of the Sight, and it never dispels the visions Bradley's women experience, even when they wish with all fervency and confidence for it to do so.


In closing, I return to the issue of framing. It is all well and good for this examination that Bradley's women believe themselves supernaturally endowed, but what of the un-Sighted people who are affected by the priestesses' and druids' magic? Are we to assume them all mad or that they are all playing along in a great game of make-believe with the rich and the pedigreed? Not at all. The same society that enforces the belief that the Sighted are channeling divine energy enforces that the un-Sighted are affected by it. If Bradley's reconstructed medieval Britain is merely exposing post-modern truths overlooked by the rest of the Arthurian tradition, then it stands to reason that the fundamental epistemologies of the people of Bradley's medieval Britain are no different than those explored by Nennius or Geoffrey of Monmouth. The post-modern truths that lurked behind the wainscoting of the tradition until Bradley revealed them would have to have done so alongside principles of medieval thought and belief. If actual medievals believed in witches that could fly on hazel sticks and the power of the evil eye, then so, in principle, must Bradley's. As such, just as Bradley's Sighted women shifted from the mundane frame of everyday life within the story, so, too, did those around them shift into the belief-in-the-supernatural frame in response (i.e. responses to the donning of Glamour). The placebo effect need only be intoned, and the behavioral changes brought about by Bradley's parallel-to-Neo-Pagan magic shift readily into the more questionable realm of psycho-kinetic manifestation. This understanding informs the struggle post-modern readers encounter with differences in hard science, socialized reality, and occurrences of the supernatural and exposes the fact that, though medieval thought grappled with these questions differently, it did so all the same.

Works Referenced

Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Bradley, Marion Zimmer. Mists of Avalon. New York: Del Rey, 1982.

Clute, John. "Pariah Elite." Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Ed. John Clute and John Grant. 1st ed. New York: Saint Martin's Griffin, 1999.

Fry, Carrol L. "The Goddess Ascending: Feminist Neo-Pagan Witchcraft in Marian Zimmer Bradley's Novels." Journal of Popular Culture 27.1 (Summer 1993): 67-80.

Fry, Carrol L. "'What God Doth the Wizard Pray To': Neo-Pagan Witchcraft and Fantasy Fiction." Extrapolation 31.4 (1990): 333-346.

Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1986.

Hughes, Melinda. "Dark Sisters and Light Sisters: Sister Doubles and the Search for Sisterhood in The Mists of Avalon and The White Raven." Mythlore 71 (Winter 1993): 24-28.

Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1936.

Tuttle, Lisa. "Gender." Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Ed. John Clute and John Grant. 1st ed. New York: Saint Martin's Griffin, 1999.

Copyright © 2008, Darin C. Bradley. All Rights Reserved.

About Darin Bradley

Darin C. Bradley holds a Ph.D. in Poetics, specializing in the mechanics of "weird" in speculative fiction. When not pursuing independent scholarship, he edits fiction for Farrago's Wainscot as well as literary fiction and poetry for Drollerie Press.

Darin's nonfiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Membra Disjecta, The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, and Strange Horizons. His creative work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Electric Velocipede, Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy, Polyphony 6, Diet Soap, 3:AM Magazine, Abyss & Apex, Astropoetica, and Bewildering Stories. He keeps a website at


Feb 19, 03:52 by IROSF
Are you a Bradley fan? Neo-paganist? Have a comment?

The essay can be found here.
Feb 23, 18:18 by Kate Laity
It's always dangerous to rely on second-hand information -- particularly second-hand information that's so old. Pagans today have a diverse variety of beliefs which you are, at best, over-simplifying. Fry's depiction of pagans is charmingly quaint -- and a couple of decades out of date.

Re: "...the respect traditionally lent to the Arthurian legend" Amongst medievalists, Arthurians tend to be the least respected scholars (perhaps unfairly, admittedly) because of the perception of most of them as less scholarly than romantic. It would be proper, too, to speak of the Arthurian legends as they vary greatly over time and across cultures, from the Welsh legends to Geoffrey's politically motivated "histories" to the more romantic (and proto-feminist) versions by Marie de France, all the way into the later and far different versions like Malory's. Each era creates the Arthur it desires -- for whatever reasons.

As for Xtians co-opting paganism, you don't have to rely on pagans' "insistence" -- the medieval record speaks for itself. See Bede or read Pope Gregory I's letter to Abbot Mellitus for a specific examples.
Feb 26, 17:31 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
On the whole a fairly well written essay, however, as a graduate in Comparative Religions there are a few points that I feel I must argue.

First is the use of the term "Pagan monomyth". Is the author and his sources refering to Campbell's monomyth as espoused in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, The Power of Myth and Campbell's other works? If so, why the modifying term "pagan"? The monomyth theory as developed by Campbell describes how all myths can be reduced to a single scheme (pagan and Christian both), hence the term monomyth. If Bradley is not refering to Campbell's theory, where can I find more information on this "Pagan monomyth" he is refering to?

Campbell's monomyth theory has been rendered more or less obsolete by the simple expedient that it is far too broad to be useful as a academic tool. Those authors working outside the religious studies field often use Campbell without following up on the current state of his theory or how it is regarded by academics in the field. The author's sources are not specifically works on religion or religious history, and while they may be relevant to some of Bradley's arguments, they remain suspect.

I also must take issue with the author's argument that neo-paganism is inherently and uniformly feminist. This is patently untrue. While the modern pagan movement has been feminized somewhat, it would be fallacious so suggest that all neo-pagans and neo-pagan movements are feminist. Here again we run into issues with the author's sources. While I will applaud Bradley for carefully selecting sources that support his thesis, he is a victim of finding only sources dealing with the feminist text of The Mists of Avalon. It would be pointless to argue that Mists . . . is not a feminist text (as it clearly is), and most of the critical work on it is by necessity feminist.

However, by reading the sources cited by Bradley, one would assume that all neo-paganism is feminist (as, it would seem, Bradley has). Neo-paganism is an umbrella term used to describe a wildly varient set of non-monotheist (though some would argue non-Abrahamic, there are mono-theist paganisms) religious reconstructed traditions.

Neo-paganism is not any one thing, nor is it only feminist. Yes, several (and perhaps even a majority) neo-pagan religions are strictly feminist. Several more are heavily weighted towards feminist ideology. There are, however, just as many that are not feminist in any way, and even more that are equally balanced in terms of gender roles. Feminism is an ideology. Several neo-pagan religions are informed or based on this ideology (one could credibly argue that feminism itself is a religion), but not all. Bradley, through his somewhat sloppy terminology, implies this.

One last issue: 'neo-paganist'. This is grammatically and terminologically incorrect. The proper adjective is 'neo-pagan'. 'Pagan' is itself an adjective which (now, and only sometimes) doubles as a noun. 'Neo-paganist' is redundant. Adherents of neo-paganism are 'neo-pagans', their beliefs are 'neo-pagan'. 'Neo-paganist' is the product of a modern tendancy to add suffixes to words which are already adjectives. (Yes, this seems like nit-picking, and languages always evolve yada-yada-yada, but bad grammar sticks in my craw).

Bradley's essay does show a deep reading of the primary text. Of this there is no doubt. Furthermore, he raises several interesting points about M. Z. Bradley's use of magic as a way of delinating contiguous realities. Despite what seems to be a somewhat harsh criticism, I quite enjoyed Bradley's essay. The Mists of Avalon remains one of my favourite novels, mostly because of the feminist (although as M. Z. Bradley portrays it, entirely fictional) take on the non-Christian paganism of Britain. It was, and remains, a wonderful and bold piece of fantasy literature.

Mar 2, 16:58 by Darin Bradley
I'm pleased to see that the article has generated both discussion and correction. It was my primary objective to widen the discourse of representation in the Arthurian Tradition (particularly outside of purely academic circles), and of course I welcome the elaboration of those who specialize in the topic.

I would clarify that when intoning the "respect traditionally lent to the Arthurian legend," I was not referring exclusively to academic communities of discourse; rather, I meant the general reading public's regard for the legend, which, as evidenced by the myth's endurance, has earned a form of narrative "respect." I agree that a more comprehensive study would situate postmodern Arthurian incarnations (including but not limited to The Mists of Avalon) more explicitly in relation to the Mabinogion, The History of the Kings of Britain, the work of Chrétien de Troyes, etc., and I also agree that each era creates the Arthur it desires (which was essentially my argument: for postmodern audiences); however, doing so is beyond the scope of this article in this instance and would have prohibitively lengthened it.

As for the Christian co-opting of paganism, K.A. Laity is absolutely correct: reading any of the lives of the saints (Northumbrian Oswald, for example) in Historia Ecclesiastica is another way (among many) to discover this. For those who are not aware of or have not seen the textual evidence that proves this, however, offering at least one point of departure for examination is, of course, beneficial (in my case, the "pagan insistence").

K.A. Laity and errant371 both point out (quite rightly) that the essay offers the idea that all Neo-pagans are feminists. They are also both correct in pointing out that this idea is patently absurd. My intention was to suggest narrative resonance with Neo-pagans who do espouse feminist ideology; however, as my language was unclear, I wholeheartedly support the correction that both have put forth.
Mar 3, 17:14 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
You are absolutely correct in your argument that each age re-creates the Arthur legends to suit its societal expectations. This is one of the fascinating things about this particular myth. One does not see the Christ myth reconstructed to suit modern expectations (although you do see this happen throughout the early church and during the early middle ages) when you would expect it. The Arthur myth remains adaptable and flexible despite its texts.

One of the most interesting discussions during my undergrad degree occured in my Romance literature class (that is Romance literature originating in the Aquitaine Courts of Love in the early 12th Century and progressing through the Romantic Age of the 19th Century and into contemporary media). An argument was posed that James Bond was the embodiment of the Cold War age Arthur. The discussion was heated on both sides of the issue, but in the end the class decided that the "love and adventure" of the early Arthur legends (and other texts of the time) equated the "sex and violence" of modern media.

In as much as the Arthur legend was re-created by M. Z. Bradley in a feminist mode for a specifically feminist audience (although Mists... appeal is far more broad than that), both her novel and Darin C. Bradley's current essay work admirably. There is indeed a strong resonance between the feminist neo-pagan community and The Mists of Avalon. I have, in fact, encountered a few neo-pagans who have based their belief structure around the ideas in Bradley's novel. Unfortunately, these same few espoused the claim that the 'Old Religion' as Bradley portrayed it was factual history and Mists... was secret wisdom handed down from pre-Christian times!

Having been involved in the neo-pagan movement since the mid 1980s, I can attest the powerful effect that Mists... has had on the movement in general. It is a case of the novel being published at the exact right time, when the zeitgeist of neo-paganism was primed for a work of its magnitude and message.

I would like to thank Darin for his essay and inspiring me to reread Mists... again. It has been a very long time since I last read it, and I will have a copy of Darin's essay to hand when I do. It will make for a more informed reading of the original text, I am sure.

Want to Post? Evil spammers have forced us to require login:

Sign In




NOTE: IRoSF no longer requires a 'username' -- why try to remember anything other than your own email address?

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now!

Problems logging in? Try our Problem Solver