Review from Goodreads
My relationship to this book has changed drastically since I learned of the accusations against Bradley by her own daughter, but much of what I had felt about it in the past remains the same. Being the story of the struggle between paganism and Christianity, and in this context of matriarchy vs. patriarchy, much in the story still deeply resonates with me. This is a book I first read in high school when I was early on in my transition from Christianity to paganism and still seeking ways to empower myself as a girl after living so many years in the shadow of a church that disdained me for being a girl. A story which highlights the erasure of women from history by telling exclusively their perspectives is a powerful thing for someone in that position, and indeed a powerful thing for thousands of others in different moments in their lives, judging by the on-going popularity of this book.
The book does remain powerful. It’s an epic, running at almost 900 pages in exploration of the private lives of some of the most influential female characters in the Arthur myth. It does an amazing job of rooting the reader in the world occupied by these characters, and teasing out their motivations, playing their perspectives off of each other to create an interplay of insights. It is, in many ways, a masterwork. The sheer humanity of the characters in this book is brilliant and fascinating. Somehow I never picked up on what seemed obvious in this latest reading, that Gwenhwyfar is mentally ill (suffering acute agoraphobia through the majority of the book). Similarly, I somehow never picked up on the fact that the priestesses of Avalon are clearly just as much at fault if not more so than the Christian conversion of the land for their own downfall: Viviane is consistently alienating her allies, many of them her own flesh and blood, with her aloof and holier-than-thou disposition, and the priestesses are shown to send their sons away from Avalon for fostering, resulting in many of the sons of Avalon ending up in the hands of Christian homes. Morgaine herself simultaneously falls prey to those around her and fails to rectify her situation due to a dazzlingly human blend of pride, shame, and hurt.
These are all things that I cannot help but admire and deeply respect in terms of writing. From the perspective of a writer, these are things that I seek to emulate. I reread the book now, in large part, to help give me an idea of how to approach one of my own projects that lives in a similar vein. But I couldn’t help but read the book with the specter of Bradley’s abuse or, at the very least, enabling of abuse, looming over the narrative.
Many people in speaking about reading this book with the knowledge of Bradley’s abuse against her daughter highlight a specific passage about the rape of a young girl witnessed by Morgaine in an altered state of consciousness. This scene is often described at the moment in the book which takes on a new and more disturbing tone when read with knowledge of Bradley’s abuse, but for me this was only one moment which became troubling with the new knowledge. Another piece that unsettled me as I worked my way through the novel was the relative vividness of a rape scene as a compared to any of the numerous consensual sexual encounters which occur throughout the novel. There are plenty of reasons why an author might focus so much detail on a violent scene — to really draw out or highlight the horror, being one major one I can think of off the top of my head — and yet there is a shyness in the way the story looks away from those consensual acts that, when compared with the painful detail of the rape scene, makes that painful detail feel more voyeuristic than noble in its cause.
It was strange, reading this book for the last time before saying goodbye to it. Since I was fifteen this book has easily been one of the most meaningful books in my life, both in terms of my growth and development as a feminist and in my early and clumsy attempts to find myself on a new spiritual path. In the wake of my initial reading of The Mists of Avalon I greedily collected used copies of all of the other books in the Avalon series, and books related to it, hungry for more stories about powerful pagan women fighting their way through a world not made for them. I craved those stories, they were empowering, they were vital to my development. Looking back and knowing what a huge role the work of an abuser had in my early and fumbling attempts to understand and find myself is uncanny and unsettling. The idea that I in any way supported someone who could do something so monstrous is distressing. I can’t put away what the book meant for me when I was younger, or the ways in which it still resonates with me now, but I can put the book itself away and never turn to Bradley again, be it for inspiration as a pagan woman or even for writing advice. So this, I guess, is what I’ll do.