- - - King Arthur: Literature of the LegendsMarion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart- - - - -

Explorations in Arthurian Legends

A Literature Review

Part 9: Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart

The two modern giants in the field are Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart. Bradley focuses on the women in the legend; Stewart focuses on Merlin. Both go to great lengths to strip the tales of medieval trappings, instead returning to the historical setting.

First to Bradley. She began with The Mists of Avalon, which took the Arthurian tenet and turned it on its head. This book speaks to the reader from the minds of the women: Gwenhwyfar, Morgaine, Igraine, Viviane, Morgause, and a host of others. We see Arthur's begetting and birth through Igraine's eyes; we see Morgaine's early training as a priestess in Avalon, ending with her ritual mating with Arthur, her brother at a Beltane celebration; we share Gwenhwyfar's trepidations at being the wonderful Arthur's queen and symbol of purity and quiet strength and her subsequent shrinking from that responsibility into the waiting arms of Lancelet; we see young Gwydion (Mordred), the product of the Beltane mating, eventually bring about Arthur's downfall.

Lancelet is herein the son of Viviane, the Lady of the Lake. Bradley also treats Merlin distinctly differently. Merlin is a title. In this book, it is held by two men: Taliesin and Kevin. The latter it is who is spirited away by Nimue.

Also getting a different treatment is religion: Paganism and Christianism are in distinct contrast, headed by Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar, respectively. Throughout the book, we see glimpses of the religious struggles that must have gone on every day.

Bradley recently wrote two prequels: The Forest House and Lady of Avalon. In the former, we see the beginnings of the priestess cult in Roman Britain; in the latter, we see the rise of Viviane and Merlin, whom Bradley names as Lancelot's grandfather.

Mary Stewart focuses on Merlin in three books (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment) and on Mordred in The Wicked Day. She has also written a novel set in Arthurian times called The Prince and the Pilgrim.

In The Crystal Cave, we see Merlin being tutored in the Crystal Cave by the sage Galapas and serving as seer for his father, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and his uncle, Uther Pendragon. For the latter, Merlin moves the Stonehenge stones from Ireland to Salisbury Plain.

The Hollow Hills has Merlin following events of Arthur's growth from afar. Merlin, though, is seeking for the vehicle for Arthur's ascent to the throne: He finds it in the sword of Macsen Wledig. But for all his planning, Merlin cannot foresee Morgause's seduction of Arthur.

The Last Enchantment sees Arthur's reign in a tailspin and Merlin going mad after being poisoned by Morgause and eventually succumbing willingly to Nimue's charms. Interestingly, Bedivere it is who seduces Guinevere.

Mordred appears quite sympathetic and an unwitting instrument of fate in The Wicked Day. The book, in fact, is written from his point of view. He grows up ignorant of his surroundings but is told soon enough. He assumes the role quite reluctantly. Nonetheless, Morgause has her revenge on Arthur.

These two are by no means the only famous modern authors to tell and retell the Arthurian stories. The final chapter of this Literature Review gives glimpses of some more. Click here to go there.
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More on Bradley and Avalon

 Princesses and Priestesses in The Mists of Avalon

The Changing Role of Women in Arthurian Literature

Books by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Well-rounded look at The Mists of Avalon

Another well-rounded look at The Mists of Avalon

MZB Fan Magazine

MZB Biography

More on Stewart

Chapter One of The Prince and the Pilgrim

Books by Mary Stewart

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