Ok, so it’s a long, LONG one (nearly 900 text-heavy, smaller font pages)! But SO worth the time commitment! Awarded five stars on Goodreads.
Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-99) has created a brilliant and truly distinctive take on the Arthurian Legend most of us history lovers know so well. Because instead of King Arthur’s story, this version focuses on the women who played such powerful roles in his life. Arthur, Lancelot, Uther Pendragon, and other men are all present, but in secondary roles.
Now, for a warning. The novel has quite a cast of characters, that may initially seem difficult to track (particularly since a couple of the names are so similar):
• Igraine, Arthur’s mother, married to the Duke of Cornwall, but pursued by the powerful King Uther Pendragon.
• Morgaine is Igraine’s young daughter with the Duke of Cornwall.
• Morgause is Igraine’s younger sister
• Vivienne, Igraine’s half sister, the high priestess of Avalon
• Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) who becomes Arthur’s wife
Suggestion: As you first meet each character, make yourself a cheat sheet, with the names and relationships of the key players. If you keep it nearby, it will help keep everyone straight until you get familiar with everyone.
This book also delves into the story of the struggle between the traditional Pagan religion of the Celts and the newer and rapidly spreading Christianity. This was an aspect I had never associated with the legend of King Arthur. But it adds a deep dimension to the telling of the story and gave me a deeper understanding of why events unfolded as they did.
Another aspect that sets this book aside from others about Arthur, is Bradley’s writing style. She has managed to conjure up something reminiscent of old English. Though easier to understand. It took me about 100 pages to get completely comfortable with it, but I came to see how much this style added to the experience of reading. Because every time I opened the book, the combination of story and language felt like time travel, instantly transporting me back to the time of King Arthur. It’s difficult to explain just how immersive reading this novel came to feel.
I am not generally a fan of science fiction (what Bradley is mostly known for) and was therefore not familiar with her before this book. But I did go on to read the other novels in the series she wrote relating to King Arthur. This one is the first (and in my opinion the best and a not-to-be-missed novel), published in 1983.
There are also:
• The Forest House (1993) written WITH Diana L. Paxson
• Lady of Avalon (1997) written WITH Diana L. Paxson
• Priestess of Avalon (2000) written WITH Diana L. Paxson
*There are four more books written by Diana L. Paxson ALONE (after Bradley’s death), but I didn’t read those.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will include here that following Bradley’s death, two of her children accused her of child sexual abuse, which has subsequently marred her overall reputation among fans. Just so you know.