Friday, December 4, 2015

Everybody sucks: a theological review of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon

Jewish date:  22 Kislev 5776 (Parashath Wayeshev).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of John Damascene (Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Mechagodzilla (Church of the Subgenius), Bona Dea (ancient Roman religion).

Everybody sucks:  a theological review of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

One of the most persistent stories in the English-speaking world is the legend of King Arthur.  The most famous telling is Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (published in 1485).  Since then the legend and select parts of it have been retold many times, including:  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Idylls of the King, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (itself made into movies), Mr. Merlin, Merlin (the miniseries), Merlin (the TV series), Prince Valiant, The Once and Future King, and The Sword in the Stone.  (This list is nowhere near complete.  The lists on Wikipedia are huge.)

An aspect of the legend of King Arthur which is often not explicitly stated—and yet is relevant to this blog—is that it is a Christian story.  Arthur is a Christian king supported by Christian knights.  One thread of the story is the quest to find the Holy Grail (the cup which Jesus drank from in at the Last Supper), humorously depicted in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Even if someone interprets the legend in such a way to downplay the religious aspect—and many interpreters do that—the Christian nature of Arthur and his court remains as a subtext.

Every interpretation the legend gives it a new spin, and eventually a Neopagan interpretation was produced in the form of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, a rewriting according to Neopagan matriarchal pseudo-history.  The spin was novel enough that the book was on The New York Times bestseller list, and a miniseries was made based on the book.  All the well-known elements of the story (and even some lesser-known elements) remain intact, just reworked to fit a different set of assumptions.  Rather than putting Arthur in some idealized British past age, the story is set in Britain not long after the Romans have left.  At the start of the story, the island is a patchwork of small kingdoms and tribes.  There is no overall unity, and there is constant threat of invasion and war.  Avalon is recast as a pagan religious site, populated mostly by priestesses and their acolytes studying to be priestesses.  The Lady of the Lake becomes the high priestess, and the Merlin the high priest.  (The definite article is not a typo.  Two Merlins, Taliesin and his successor, Kevin, appear in the story.)  The whole plot deals with the struggle between paganism and Christianity in Britain.  Christianity has already become the favored religion in many courts, and it continues to spread.  As paganism is abandoned, Avalon slowly slips into the mists and away from the rest of the world; it may only be reached deliberately by magic.  In this religiously divided world, all the major characters belong to one religion or another, a few being pagans pretending to be Christians or religiously confused.  (Other religions are somehow absent.)

Morgaine (as in Morgaine le Fey) is promoted to central character and becomes a pagan priestess of Avalon, eventually becoming the high priestess.  Arthur becomes king by “sacred marriage”; he sleeps with his half-sister Morgaine as a proxy for the Goddess and marries the land.  (That business about him marrying the land is not a typo.)  Arthur has the problem of trying to satisfy both a Christian aristocracy and pagan peasants.  (Or so we are told.  Much is written about the aristocracy, but peasants receive little screen time.)  When Arthur gets too Christian under the influence of his wife Gwenhwyfar and thus fails to live up to the pagan priestesses’ hopes, Morgaine plots his downfall according the cycle that sacred kings are supposed to undergo:  they reign for a time under the consent of the real, female ruler, and when they falter, they are ritually killed and replaced.  (See The Golden Bough.)

The writer displays a consistent hatred for Christianity.  The pagans repeatedly claim that all gods are the same god—a typical Neopagan claim—but this claim runs afoul of the fact that Christians for the most part do not believe this, both in the book and real life.  It should go without saying that the Neopagan claim of the existence of a goddess who is all goddesses has even less Christian acceptance.  There is a little lip service towards ecumenicism (e.g., Taliesin claims to have attended mass and taken communion), but Christians get depicted badly, and the more dedicated they are to Christianity, the worse they are depicted.  Thus Christian priests and nuns are depicted as mean, rigid, life-hating, patriarchal people.  Christians are intolerant, obsessed with sin, and hypocritical, especially about sex.  One cannot even finish reading a sentence about one of these people without feeling revulsion.  Only by embracing Neopagan ideals can a Christian gain favor in the eyes of the author.  Very prominently, Gwenhwyfar is so seriously Christian that she pushes Arthur to Christianize himself, his court, and by extension Britain—and she is treated for the most part as the enemy.  However, when she slips up and commits adultery or at least emotional intimacy with Lancelet—behavior which is acceptable to Neopagans but not Christians—and maybe feels a bit ecumenical is she treated sympathetically.  Symmetrically, Kevin starts off as a good (though secret) pagan, completely approved by the author, but then he decides that the way to deal with the Christianization of Britain is to use pagan religious articles in Christian ceremonies—which is treated as unconscionably evil.

Bradley also goes out of her way to make Christians look like a bunch of idiots.  Morgaine steps in when Kevin tries to use pagan religious articles in a Christian ceremony and turns the experience into a full-blown ecstatic pagan ceremony.  The Christians are unable to comprehend what has really happened, so they interpret it as a Christian revelatory experience involving the Holy Grail.  Many of the knights then set out on a fruitless quest to find the Grail.  If this makes no sense to you, do not be surprised.  It makes no sense in context either.

If this negative treatment of Christians sounds familiar, I have written reviews of books betraying such attitudes before.  Philip Pullman created his own deliberately perverse version of Christianity for His Dark Materials, and Ayn Rand depicted everyone who is not selfish as contemptible.  The technique is simple:  portray the hated group in a negative light at all times, thus making the favored group look good.  The technique is purely rhetorical, not rational or logical.  A fictional story is not constrained to be realistic.  There are some Christians who are jerks in real life, but when Christians are consistently jerks without a good reason for all the Christians in the setting to be jerks, the story comes off as biased.

To be fair, Bradley is under no delusion that being a pagan automatically makes someone good and pure.  (Contrast Pullman and Rand, who are that delusional.)  But Bradley goes overboard in depicting pagans as something other than idealized saints.  The central pagan character, Morgaine, wavers a good deal in her devotion to the Goddess and spends a number of years completely derelict in her duties.  She sleeps regularly with Kevin without the benefit of marriage, and then later has an affair with her stepson Accolon; the latter is rationalized by him being a pagan and them claiming to do so for religious reasons.  She sends Accolon to kill Arthur for abandoning paganism, but Arthur wins the battle and kills Accolon.  For Kevin’s treason, Morgaine orders the young priestess Nimue to seduce Kevin to return him to Avalon for execution.  While Nimue is successful, she falls in love with Kevin in the process; overcome by guilt, she commits suicide.  (What?  Was sending an assassin with a sword too hard?)  As a heroine, Morgaine leaves a lot to be desired—and she is arguably the best portrayed pagan in the entire book.  The others are no better morally.  (Do not get me started on Morgause, who abandons all principle and practices blatantly black magic.)

Even bizarre jumps of logic are not limited to Christians.  Morgaine has her own episode at the end of the story in which she looks upon the Christians around her and finally sees something positive.  Her beloved Lancelet, at the end of his life, has retired to a monastery and was ordained as a priest shortly before his death.  And Morgaine herself sees enough of paganism among nuns—the only time nuns are portrayed positively—with their communal living and their veneration of Mary and Bridget.  Why this suffices her is never stated; anyone with a basic knowledge of Christianity knows that even Mary, despite her high status, is not considered a goddess, while God is most certainly considered a god.  Thus it takes great intellectual dishonesty to see pagan duotheism in Roman Catholicism. 

Perhaps the most bizarre jump of logic is the one that isn’t made.  The way to keep a religion going is to encourage people to believe in it and practice it.  But Morgaine and her fellow priestesses barely do so.  Morgaine on a number of occasions warns Arthur to keep his pagan coronation oaths, and when he fails to do so, Morgaine plays politics and seeks his downfall—as if killing Arthur would show that paganism is the truth.  Never do the pagan priestesses even discuss trying to spread paganism.  There are no pagan missionaries trying to show the people that paganism is the truth in any way, shape or form.   Since the Christians, unlike the pagans, evangelize, it is little wonder that they win out in the end.

Where The Mists of Avalon fails miserably as a polemic is that it never shows what is so great about paganism or how it is better than Christianity.  The focus on paganism in this book is whether or not it is going to survive.  Why it should survive is not really dealt with.  Demonstrating the truth of paganism is not considered at all.  Even as a moral system, no attempt is ever made to show that paganism is better (according to any criteria) than Christianity.  Hence, as accordance with the title of this review, everybody sucks.

Overall classification:  Pretentious, dreary fantasy novel.

Theological rating:  D.

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