On rereading Marion Zimmer Bradley

I’m currently working on a bit of a project about gender essentialism in fantasy, particularly surrounding gender and magic use, and that’s entailed reading, and rereading, a lot of fantasy to explore the way different creators approach the subject. One of the first texts I delved into was a classic of the genre: The Mists of Avalon, put into my hands by a school librarian many, many years ago. It’s also a text that is impossible to reread without considering Marion Zimmer Bradley’s history of child abuse and sexual assault, which came to light in 2014, 15 years after her death.

Thus, rereading the book became a really complicated and interesting exercise for me. As a young reader, I adored it, and it was one of my favourite works of fantasy, a doorstopper that delved into the lives of women and depicted a range of rich, complex female characters who lived with considerable social and sexual autonomy. When I was very young, many of the nuances of the book slipped over me, but it’s The Mists of Avalon that set me on my obligatory high school pagan phase, and it was a book that profoundly coloured the way I read fantasy (and Bradley’s Darkover novels, which also contain heavily sexualised themes).

One of the reasons it was important for me to reread was because of its influence on the field. I was also deeply interested because of the gender essentialism: The Mists of Avalon is about cis people, and there are only two genders. Most of those people are also straight, though there are a few queer love scenes. This is a book set in a world where (cis) women control the flow of magic and where their bodies are an important source of energy and power, where men pay homage to women but things like ‘moon blood’ and mothering are a critical component of practicing magic.

That’s why it became such a beloved ‘feminist’ text in an era when a lot of feminism was about resisting male control, and asserting pride over things that have historically been sources of shame and unease. For women to take control of their periods and talk about them openly is a huge deal. As is open discussion of mothering, and miscarriages. As is talking about women’s sexual desire, putting it in the front seat of the narrative. It’s the epitome of gender essentialism in magic and precisely the kind of work I am using to illustrate the way many ‘feminist’ texts explore magic use and who has power and where it comes from.

It was also important for me to read because I haven’t picked up any of Bradley’s books since the news about her history of abusing and molesting children, including in concert with others, came to light. The narratives from people like her own daughter are really chilling to read, as is her daughter’s note that she didn’t want to say anything for fear of ruining her mother’s legacy, a reminder of the incredible control abusers maintain over their victims. It takes immense courage to name an abuser, especially when people think of that abuser as a feminist icon, even if from an earlier wave of feminism.

‘Those who knew me, knew the truth about her, but beyond that, it did not matter what she had done to me, as long as her work and her reputation continued,’ she told The Guardian. That’s a very old and familiar pattern — as the story broke, it was clear that people tolerated incest, child molestation, and abuse because it came from their beloved icons, even when they were confronted with actual legal proof that horrible things were going on. When we learn terrible things about people we think of almost as gods, it can cause intense internal conflict — and I certainly would not have bought a copy of the book (though it’s not like she profits from royalties now), but I did want to reread it, because I wanted to see how the story shifted in light of my awareness of her past deeds.

And reader, let me tell you, it did. Not just in explicit scenes where children or near-children were involved in sexual activity with dubious levels of consent, and not just in references to molestation made casually by the characters as though it were a part of life, as in references to ‘Greek love’ that clearly implied adult men should be raping boys. No, it was a larger, big picture thing, because it came through in the overarching themes of the book.

Yes, to some extent, The Mists of Avalon is about empowered female sexuality. But if you read a little deeper, there’s actually a lot of disempowerment there, with women raped, or pressured into sexual activity, in the name of the Goddess. In the scene where Morgaine has sex with her half-brother, for example, she’s obeying the will of the Goddess and performing a ritual, and in that context, we are assured, this is all reasonable — that anyone who criticises it is engaging in shaming and narrowminded thinking. Set aside the fact that she can’t really consent to participate, any more than other women throughout the book who are expected to sleep with men in the service of their faith. Or the scene where Lancelet is drugged and tricked into having sex with Elaine. Or the scene where Uther appears to Igraine in a highly deceptive guise to ‘take’ her in order to assert his place as High King.

There’s plenty more where this came from, with a theme suggesting that people are ’empowered’ and exercising choice in sex scenes where they really aren’t, and where the reader who feels uncomfortable with this is painted as someone contaminated by lower-level Christian thinking, unable to comprehend the high holiness of raping children in the fields and forcing girls to have sex with their brothers. This is, we know from legal depositions, how Bradley thought — that children, especially teenagers, were fully capable of exercising consent and sexual autonomy and thus that it was impossible to rape, pressure, or intimidate them into having sex. They must want to have sex, after all, they’re old enough. Things like power imbalances, physical force, or societal pressures don’t matter.

It made for very unpleasant reading in light of my awareness about the author’s beliefs about sexuality, especially among children and young people. The truth about who she really was certainly wasn’t hidden: It was embedded in her books, and not as subtext, either. People who were aware of what was going on could see it playing out again and again in her books — both those set in the Avalon universe and Darkover — and yet still, they did nothing, while readers might have spotted the undertones, but not fully understood their context. In a sense, The Mists of Avalon feels more like forensic evidence than fiction, and a reminder that when we learn terrible things about artists, rather than casting their work aside, we should probably be examining it again, if for no other reason than to learn to identify warning signs that we can use when evaluating other works.

Image: North Avalon Colour, Tim Donnelly, Flickr