Fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley caused a pretty big stir with this feminist retelling of Arthurian legend. I think most of my female friends and many of my male friends read it in high school (I did too…though it took me a long time).
Bradley has two connected agendas here. The first is to place King Arthur in a particular historical context. Most popular retellings these days seem to put Arthur in the High Middle Ages. To be fair, this was when Arthur was at the height of his popularity and romances about the famous Guinevere/Lancelot/Arthur love triangle abounded. But I suspect it’s actually because people want knights in shining armor. If Arthur lived (which is certainly debatable) it was in the 6th century – 500 years earlier. By years, it’s the equivalent of putting Crusaders in Civil War garb and giving them rifles. Anyway, Bradley sets this firmly in an earlier time period: the shadow of the Roman occupation still hangs over Britain, and Saxons are invading. She also highlights the conflicts between Britain’s pagans and the increasing Christian presence in the isles, which is a very intriguing and dramatic historical moment that doesn’t get much attention in fiction.
Her second, and more prominent, agenda, is telling the Arthurian legend from a female, and explicitly feminist, point of view. The action centers on Arthur’s sister Morgaine (who you might know better as Morgan le Fay). She’s usually rendered as an evil sorceress, but here she is a priestess and the protector of the mystical island of Avalon. The beautiful Gwenhwyfar (er…Guinevere) also gets a lot of attention; she encourages Arthur to convert to Christianity, even while her own choices are often circumscribed by her position as queen. We also get passages from Arthur’s mother Igraine and her sister, the Lady of the Lake (it turns out that everyone in this book is related – which means there’s incest galore!)
The plot is largely familiar – Excalibur, the grail quest, Mordred, Merlin, and Lancelot and Gwenhwyfar’s affair all figure in, though with unique spins. Everything boils down to the battle between patriarchal and repressive Christianity, and spiritual and feminist paganism. The magic is muted and relates only to the vague powers and spells of the priestesses of Avalon.
The book runs a bit long (thus my struggles in high school), and the dialogue is of the stilted-and-bone-dry variety that can drive me crazy in so many fantasy novels, but this is otherwise a very well-written novel, and the character of Morgaine is fantastically well-drawn. You can tell that Bradley was passionate about this heroine, and I really did grow to love her. The setting and central conflict are also absolutely fascinating. I wouldn’t put this at the top of my too-read list, but it’s certainly a novel that I would recommend to fans of fantasy, and especially to fans of Arthurian legend. But, they've probably all already read and loved it.