Through the feminine voice of her character Morgaine, Marion Zimmer Bradley retells the story of King Arthur, presenting readers a new voice in the fate of a pagan religion, Druidism.
In her brilliant work, The Mists of Avalon, the two female characters, Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar, portrayed with vivid personality, present the compelling confrontation between Christianity and Druidism through their confused sisterhood.
Bradley differentiates Druidism from Christianity by comparing Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar, examining the complicated ideal of cultural difference. And by exploring the complicated power struggle between men and women, Bradley concludes that Druidism has not been absorbed into Christianity completely, but remained in another form of incarnation.
Druidism, as one of the pagan religions, is the leading power of the Land of Avalon. In the book Mists of Avalon, Druidism, a pagan religion, fades away as the priests and bishops come to power. The cultural ideal encourages women to free themselves from patriarchal morals and restrictions. The religion symbolizes the feminine power that had been repressed in the Christian world. It is also considered as the Goddess religion.
Bradley’s character Gwenhwyfar is the perfect image of a Christian woman.
By her attachment to some male family member, she surrenders to patriarchal restrictions. As a daughter, her father gives her away in marriage to Arthur. In fact, se was given as an extra with a gift of horses.
The parallel between Gwenhwyfar and the horses implies her weakness. She will always be in the power of some man. She thinks “Once I must do as I am bid, like any woman” (Bradley 382). This bitter realization shapes her Christian identity. Later she uses the fact that she conceives a possible heir to ask Arthur to replace the old banner with a Christian banner. The banner weaved by her own hands reflects her Christian belief. By letting Gwenhwyfar win the argument with Arthur, Bradley implies that the only way a Christian woman can access power is to hold the power of creation. For Gwenhwyfar, her faith grants her power. Her power remains as Christianity prevails, suggesting Gwenhwyfar’s power despite weakness.
In complete opposition to Gwenhwyfar’s weakness, Morgaine holds an independent mind. Facing the public disapproval of on Arthur and Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar collapses to the ground. But Morgaine says to her “Don’t give them this satisfaction! You are a queen, what do you care what some fools scrawls on a banner” (Bradley 709). Her strong character stands out. In her role as the priestess of Druidism, she symbolizes matriarchal freedom. In her strong character, weakness exists only in a thwarted mission. After the failure of Accolon’s challenge, she flees home, waiting to die to escape from her mission and responsibilities. This failure brings her awareness to achieve later success. As Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar become sister-in-laws. Their character reveals the nature of the cultural difference.
In their sisterhood, Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar are unable to understand their difference, thus creating barrier to their friendship. Hughes states,"The sisters in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s the Mists of Avalon searches for sisterhood, for identity, for an understanding of self through an understanding of a sister double. Unfortunately Gwenhwyfar and Morgaine catch only a glimpse of the true meaning of sisterhood, as they are never quite able to accept the other’s differences and are therefore unable to form identities based upon their relationship as sisters." (Hughes 27)
Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar are not able to accept the other’s differences. Gwenhwyfar sees Morgaine as an evil sorceress. She considers Morgaine’s conducts filthy and sinful. Morgaine’s strong character makes her capable of representing the voice of her religion in Arthur’s court. Always trying to defend the existence of Druidism, she sees Christianity as her enemy. By seeing the Christian woman Gwenhwyfar as her rival instead of sister, Morgaine fails to create identities based upon their sisterhood. The feminine sympathy once bound them together as sisters. Even they never realize the importance of accepting each other’s difference, their feminine identity brings them together, creating a momentary gratitude. Their mixed gratitude and hatred represents the complicated confrontation between the two cultures.
However, as Gwenhwyfar strives to satisfy the Christian restrictions, she fails to achieve a perfect union of her desires and morals. By doing so, she introduces the first step of incarnation of Druidism. In her paper, Hughes states,
Gwenhwyfar defies both the patriarchy and the church in her affair with Lancelet. Later, by renouncing Lanclot’s love and returning to the convent, Gwenhwyfar accepts patriarchal Christianity for the imperfect religion that it is when it cannot accept the love of a woman for a man other than her husband. And Morgaine, likewise, learns to accept that there is more to religion than a narrow believe in one God or Goddess. (Hughes 25)
Because of her Christian belief, Gwenhwyfar is constantly haunted by her guilt of loving another man. However, she cannot avoid caring about Lancelot’s thoughts. In her pregnancy she fears that “he will look upon me big with Arthur’s child, and he will think me ugly and gross and never look on me again with love and longing” (Bradley 357). Although Gwenhwyfar knows that she must be faithful to Arthur, Gwenhwyfar cannot help her feeling toward Lancelot. This strong, compelling emotion questions her faith. As she accepts Lancelot’s love, Gwenhwyfar defies the church and its Christian values. What if a Christian woman finds some other truth beyond her initial understanding? Gwenhwyfar learns to accept the imperfect religion. When Christianity refuses to answer her, she secretly admits the imperfection of Christianity. This realization initiates the introduction of Druidism into Christianity.
The sisters’ difference indicates that difference in the two conflicting cultures will continue to exist. As Gwenhwyfar learns the imperfection of Christianity, she is able to understand, if not accept, Morgaine’s religion better. Morgaine, at the same time, learns to understand her sister with her feminine sympathy. Jealous vanishes; hatred dissolves. Their ultimate success at forming identities based upon their sisterhood brings Christianity and Druidism together.
Bradley proves her point not only by analyzing the two women’s connection, but also in terms of gender. While women hold the power behind patriarchal society, the Christianity brings down women’s equal power.The gender power becomes entangled, implying the entangled cultural ideals.
In his article “Gender Anxiety in Arthurian Romance”, McClain argues that “For centuries, women helped to cause the downfall of chivalric masculinity; in The Mists of Avalon, masculine Christianity causes the downfall of both the chivalric brotherhood and women’s equal power” (McClain 198).
Even though the High King rules over Britain, the mysterious land Avalon holds all the power to the kingdom. By replacing the Druid banner with Christian banner, Arthur refutes the power given him by the Goddess. The Christian banner is weaved “with prayer that Arthur and the cross of Christ may triumph over the Saxons and their pagan Gods” (Bradley 385).
By placing Christianity over other religions, Arthur causes a downfall of what originally was women’s power. It appears that Christianity brings down the power of Druidism. However, as the search of the Goddess continues, traces of Druidism can be seen in the entangled cultural ideals.
With the search of the Goddess, the Druidism power behind the throne secretly controls all of Britain. However, the Christian priests and bishops fail to realize this power. They prohibit the talk of the Goddess.
Gwenhwyfar, for example, is raised in Christian convent. In Gwenhwyfar’s first encounter with Morgaine, she perceives her as an evil symbol with no place in her land. By keeping the pagan religions outside British Isle, the priests and bishops keep out women’s power. In Britain, women’s power is repressed, brought down by the male society members.
The attitude toward women resembles the attitude toward pagan religion. Gwenhwyfar says “A day will come with all false Gods shall vanish and all pagan symbols shall be put to the service of the one true God and his Christ” (Bradley 718). Christianity cannot allow any pagan religion to exist along side it. But the priests cannot see that women also hold the ultimate power to men through their power of creation. This power will never cease to exist. It means to tell us that Druidism will continue to exist; even Christianity represses its existence, because it essentially holds power to all of Britain.
By giving women the power to access male roles, Druidism does not perceive Christianity as an evil religion.
In Hildebrand’s article, she states that “The portrayal of the Goddess herself carries the echoes of patriarchy” (Hildebrand 117). The goddess religion empowers women with male characteristics. Women take the duties of men. There are also important males in Druid society. The men also hold important positions and duties. The echoes of patriarchy within the Druid society foretell the inseparable destiny of Christianity and Druidism.
Bradley writes “The holy thorn grows on the hills of Avalon, struck by Christ’ stuff into the ground” (Bradley 873). It secretly implies that Christianity is part of Avalon. The Goddess tells her followers that men’s existence is as important as women. The portrayal of Goddess religion intends to include patriarchy values as well. The Goddess religion never thought of parting the Christian God and the Druid Goddess.
By bringing down women’s equal power, the transformation of religion from one to another is about to happen. Repression of a gender’s power initiates this transformation.
Hildebrand writes in her article “The Mists of Avalon presents the change of religion in Britain as initiated not by the gods, but by narrow minded bishop Patricius” (Hildebrand 107). Bradley describes the priests as single-minded and stubborn old men. Their gender implies patriarchal power.
Patricius insists the transformation of religion must take place. Patricius achieves his goal by repressing women’s power. He forbids women to learn reading and writing. By enforcing this education, he brings down Druidism. People of old religion slowly quit.
Arthur says “What is the Goddess to me? When the Goddess rejected me, I sought another God….” (Bradley 866). The refusal of feminine power pushes men into the hands of Christianity. The absence of Lady of the Lake implies the waning power of women. By bringing down women’s power, the Goddess religion transforms into something else.
When Morgaine visits the Christian convent, she sees in the lady’s hand “it is in Avalon, but it is here. It is everywhere. And those who have need of a sign in this world will see it always” (Bradley 876).
Bradley indicates that the Goddess has joined the world in another form. The Goddess lives in women’s power and minds. Margarine realizes “these women know the power of the Immortal. Exile her as they may, she will prevail. The Goddess will never withdraw herself from mankind” (Bradley 875). The Goddess may be Virgin Mary, Brigid, or any symbol that holds the ideal of Druidism. Bradley tells us that even in patriarchal culture, women’s power will prevail. It will never withdraw. She tells us that Christianity does not replace Druidism. It can never replace Druidism. A reincarnation of the feminine voice will continue to prevail. Walking past the veil lying between the worlds, the two religions eventually unites into one that holds both in its ideal.
With the voice of Morgaine, Bradley concludes this novel with her reflective implication of the fate of a pagan religion. It takes a lifetime for Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar to realize the importance of their sisterhood. Their entangled fate leads the inseparable religions into a greater involvement. With the announcement that Christianity shuts out women’s power, it only binds Druidism to itself more closely.
With women holding the great power to patriarchy, they can claim “where the veil lying between the worlds was thin” (Bradley 876). The separation once struggled to bring apart the two different religions becomes thin, until it is no longer a barrier to cross. By understanding the inseparable power of men and women, our strong-willed Morgaine and pious Gwenhwyfar are eventually able to understand their relationship as sisters.
With this very understanding, exile does not end the existence of Druidism. The Goddess will come back, in the form of Virgin Mary, Brigid, Morgaine, or any woman who holds key to that feminine power. Gods or no, the power of Druidism continues to prevail...“For all the Gods are one…” (Bradley 872).
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Ballantine, 1982.
Hildebrand, Kristina. “Priestess of the Goddess.” The Female Reader at the Round Table: Religion and Women in Three Contemporary Arthurian. Uppsala: Ubsaliensis S, 2001.
Hughes, Melinda. “Dark Sisters and Light Sisters: Sister Doubling and the Search for Sisterhood in The Mists of Avalon and The White Raven” Mythlore: A Journal of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and the Genres of Myth and Fantasy Studies. (1993): 24-28
McClain, Lee Tobin. “Gender Anxiety in Arthurian Romance.” Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. 19(1997) : 193-99
Noble, James. “The mists of Avalon: A Confused Assault on Patriarchy.” The Middle Ages after the Middle Ages in the English-speaking world. Ed. Marie-Françoise Alamichel and Derek Brewer. N.Y.: D.S. Brewer Press, 1997. 145-152.
Spivack, Charlotte. “Morgan Le Fay: Goddess or Witch?” Popular Arthurian Traditions. Ed. Sally Slocum. Bowling Green: Popular Press, 1992. 18-23.