The Mists of Avalon

Ok, so it’s been a while since I wrote a book review. I was intending this to be a regular feature of my blog, but it seems I’ve only really done one so far. I suppose that one was a book I felt very intensely about, though. So maybe I’ll only review books that mean a lot to me, politically and emotionally (and intellectually, lol).

With that in mind….

The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

9780140177190

I’ve just finished re-reading this book for the nth time (I tend to do that). Essentially, it’s a re-telling of the Arthurian legend, but told from the perspective of women. It’s more than that, though. It’s a challenge to everything you thought you knew about the foundations of our society. It’s a powerful argument against the tyranny of Christianity, and it’s a bloody frustrating read!

We follow several different women through the familiar (and in some places, not so familiar) stories of King Arthur and the Round Table. Morgaine of the Faeries (Morgan Le Fey in most tellings of the story), Gwenhwyfar (Arthur’s Queen, generally known as Guinevere), Igraine (Arthur’s mother) and other characters lead us through the generations and through the central struggle between the old religions of the Druids and of Avalon, who worship the Mother Goddess, and the new, Christian religion, with its priests.

Looking at Christianity from this perspective; that of a threat to the traditional ways and worship of Britain, paints it in a completely different light to the way we are used to seeing it: as a key component to British culture. To the Priestesses of the Mother Goddess, Christianity is the only religion that the followers of the Goddess and the Druids cannot weather, as it is the only religion that proclaims that its God is the only true God, and all other Gods are tricks of the devil. The depiction of Eve as the root of all evil, and women as an extension of that evil, goes directly against the matriarchal society that ruled before the Romans brought Christianity to Britain.

In the traditional, pagan world that is being phased out by Christianity, tribes, villages and kingdoms are run by women, living incarnations of the Goddess, who protects her people as the Mother Goddess does. A king is a war duke, useful for protecting the people in times of war, but it is not his job to govern his people or their consciences.

The central narrative of the book concerns the struggle to prevent all worship of the Mother Goddess from being stamped out by the intolerant Christian priests…and this is where we get to the frustrating bit. Because (spoiler alert!) we all know who wins. The Christians do. We know this because, until the late 20th century, it was unthinkable/illegal for anyone in Britain not to follow the Christian religion. We know this because we became a country with a monarch who we are expected to believe was placed there by God. We know about the huge numbers of innocent people killed in the Crusades, we know about Witch Trials, we know about Catholics and Protestants killing each other for the crime of believing in a slightly different version of Christianity.

The world in which the Mists of Avalon takes place is, of course, imagined. To an extent. But it’s true that, pre-Christianity, none of the religions practised in Britain were religions of one intensely jealous god. Many religions had multiple gods and demi-gods, many religions had no gods at all, and, more importantly, the religions were able to tolerate and live peaceably with each other. When I read the Mists of Avalon, I can’t help wondering what our world would be like now if the pagans had won the fight for Britain’s religious conscience, all those years ago. I can’t help wondering how many thousands of people wouldn’t have suffered violent deaths.

Possessing The Secret of Joy


MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING – This post contains descriptions of Female Genital Mutilation and therefore comes with a trigger warning

I recently read Alice Walker’s ‘Possessing The Secret of Joy’. The book is a kind of follow-up to her incredibly famous ‘The Colour Purple’, which follows the life of Celie, an African-American woman who is raped by her stepfather and has two children by him, children that he takes from her in the opening pages of the book.

‘Possessing The Secret of Joy’ follows Tashi, the African woman who marries one of Celie’s lost children (a man called Adam). It is briefly mentioned in The Colour Purple that, before leaving Africa, Tashi chooses to undergo the ‘female initiation’, as well as getting tribal markings cut into her face, in order to preserve her sense of identity as a woman of the dying Olinka tribe upon arriving in America. ‘Possessing The Secret of Joy’ focuses entirely on that incident and its repercussions, which seriously damage, and eventually end Tashi’s life.

The ‘female initiation’ mentioned in The Colour Purple, is, in fact, female genital mutilation, a fact that I entirely missed out on when I read The Colour Purple at 12, 14, 16, 18, 22 etc etc.

This book profoundly affected me as a child and young woman, initially giving my Christian beliefs colour and life (and taking away the image I always had of a white guy in a beard in the clouds as ‘God’), and, once my faith left and I became pretty much an atheist, giving me perhaps my first understanding of the importance of feminism, and of the equal rights movement.

This book started my journey (as a white person) to understanding the effects of racism, a journey that for me started with The Colour Purple, Noughts and Crosses, To Kill A Mockingbird, Roots etc.

From a feminist perspective, The Colour Purple horrified me with its portrayal of misogyny and violence, then beautifully showed me the joy of female relationships and independence.

Back to ‘Possessing The Secret of Joy’. I’d like to say that this book touched me, that it affected me, that it made me cry. But I can’t. Of course, it did all of those things. But it was deeper than that, it was more than making me upset or sad. It was more than feelings. This book attacked me and shocked me to the core. It shoved itself down my throat, beautifully, and made me swallow the bitterest pill I’ve ever swallowed.
I didn’t have a good understanding of female genital mutilation before I read ‘Possessing The Secret of Joy’. Now I understand all too well what the practise is, what it entails, what brought it about and the horrific lifelong pain and suffering it inflicts on the women who survive it. The women who survive it, because a lot of them don’t. A central part of the book revolves around Tashi’s buried memory of her sister bleeding to death after being mutilated as a young child.
We need to take female genital mutilation seriously. You may be wondering why I’m typing it out each time, instead of using the common abbreviation (FGM). I’m typing it because, before I read this book, female genital mutilation was, to me, a shadowy practise that I thought had something to do with cutting the clitoris so it didn’t feel pleasure, possibly removing the labia, I wasn’t sure. I really didn’t know anything.
Female genital mutilation refers to the utter decimation of the female sex organ. Practises vary, but can include: Cutting (with knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass and razor blades) out all of the clitoris (that is not inside of the vagina), cutting off the labia, and holding the vagina together (often with a thorn), so that the wound heals either partially or entirely over, giving the young girls who make up the majority of victims with a tiny hole and absolutely no way of finding pleasure.
This is done so that the girl will not be tempted to have sex before marriage, but, more importantly, it is done so that, when she is married, the girl’s husband will get to enjoy the inherent tightness that comes with rupturing the wound that is the sewn-together sides of her scarred vagina.
We can’t use abbreviations to marginalise female genital mutilation. We can’t excuse it with cries that it is in line with any religious belief. We can’t allow women who have survived it to be the only figureheads and initiators of every campaign to stop it. Mainstream politicians and decision-makers should concern themselves with stopping this disgusting ‘practise’. We can’t allow the fact that 20,000 girls in the UK are at risk of female genital mutilation every year, despite it being criminal for nearly 30 years, and yet there had never been a prosecution for it until this year.
Finally, we can’t give any airtime to the MRA cry of ‘what about the meeennnsss???’. Yes, male circumcision happens. Yes, it’s not pleasant. Yes, men should be able to choose whether or not they want it, instead of it being performed on them as children. But no way, absolutely no way, should male circumcision get an equal platform, as a human rights issue, as female genital mutilation.
Female genital mutilation is not cutting off a piece of skin which has no little/no effect on the function/pleasure capability of the sex organ. Female genital mutilation disables women. It leaves them unable to pass urine, defecate, have a period, have sex, have children and even walk, without pain. It is lifelong. It is constant. ‘Possessing The Secret of Joy’ has a passage that refers to the after affects of female genital mutilation:
“Her own proud walk had become a shuffle. It now took a quarter of an hour for her to pee. Her menstrual periods lasted ten days. She was incapacitated by cramps nearly half the month[…]cramps caused by the near impossibility of flow passing through so tiny an aperture as M’Lissa had left, after fastening together the raw sides of Tashi’s vagina with a couple of thorns and inserting a straw so that in healing, the traumatized flesh might not grow together, shutting the opening completely[…]There was the odor, too, of soured blood, which no amount of scrubbing[…]ever washed off.”
I don’t care about your religious views. I don’t care about your worries for modesty or cleanliness in women. The systematic torture and sometimes death of young girls, resulting in them living lives in pain, any capability to feel pleasure stolen from them before they’ve even had the chance to discover it, is evil. It is evil and it must be stopped. I’m all for tolerating and making allowances for religions, but are you really saying that a relationship with a god that may or may not be imaginary is more important that millions of (actual) mutilated little girls?
When I finished ‘Possessing The Secret of Joy’, I cried. But that really doesn’t cover it adequately. When I finished ‘Possessing The Secret of Joy’, I sobbed. Great, racking sobs that took hold of my body and made me curl up in bed, wanting to hide from the pain that is inflicted on women every day. It was hard getting out of that bed. I felt as if there was no point, as if the fight was impossible to win, as if female genital mutilation, and the thousands of other methods that are used to torture and kill women and girls every day – because they are female – were winning, and as if women, and feminism, could never win.
I still don’t think, deep down inside, that women can win. But I got out of that bed anyway, because even if we can’t win, I will never stop fighting.
possessing-the-secret-of-joy