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
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.