Giving the women of Arthurian legend their due

Mists of Avalon

Based on the book by Marion Zimmer Bradley; I read the book when I was doing research for my Morgan le Fae capstone project (in order to complete my Creative Writing major; and at 876 pages, I am pretty sure it is the longest book I’ve read). It has greatly influenced elements of the fantasy series I am planning: how the Faerie kingdom works, heck it’s influenced character names. I also made a deal with my brother; he said he wouldn’t read it since it was about women, I found that sexist. In return, I would read Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy and a Clive Cussler book. And after having Morgan le Fae vilified by almost every other version of the tale; mainly since she is a female with magic (Merlin has magic, but since he’s a man, he’s good…that bothered me a lot in Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga), I cheered that this presented the characters in a better light (well, more so in the film than in the book; the book is heavily pro Morgaine and the Old Ways).

The film was actually made for TV in two episodes. It stars Anjelica Huston (she was the stepmother in Ever After) as Vivianne, Julianna Margulies as Morgaine, Joan Allen as Morgause, Samantha Mathis (she’s older Amy March in Little Women) as Gwenwyfar, Caroline Goodall (the mom in Princess Diaries) as Igraine, Edward Atterton (he plays jerkass Atheron in an episode of Firefly) as Arthur (he’s nicer in this role), Freddie Highmore (he’s the lead in The Good Doctor amongst other roles) as young Arthur, and Hans Matheson (Lord Coward in Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes, and Thomas Cranmer in The Tudors) as Mordred. Loreena McKennitt’s Mystic’s Dream features in the movie several times (I was already familiar with the artist when I watched the movie).

The film is really told as a flashback by Morgaine. She tells us that most stories about Arthur are lies and the true story is not known. The story takes place in a time of violent upheaval in Britain; the Saxons are invading. They need one great leader to unite them all. A major point of contention is the Old Ways worshipping the Mother Goddess and the new religion of Christianity. The Old Religion embraces Christianity, able to coexist. Christianity…not so much. Morgaine’s father was a Christian man, Goloris, Duke of Cornwall. Her mother was Igraine, who still secretly followed the Old Ways. Igraine’s sister Morgause lived with them and she was more open about following the Goddess. Their eldest sister is Vivianne, the Lady of the Lake. She and Merlin come to Cornwall to speak to Igraine. The current king, Ambrosis is old and due to name a successor, but they’re looking further ahead to the future. They’ve seen one who will unite Britain, but he needs to be born to two who follow the Old Ways. Igraine is to bear the king, but not by Goloris; instead to one who bears a dragon tattoo. Morgause offers, but Vivianne shuts her down. Igraine refuses. But she and Goloris attend the king, where she meets Uther Pendragon, and man who bears a dragon tattoo. He sees her afterwards and they speak of a recognition they both feel; they were lovers in a former life. Igraine still tries to resist, but it doesn’t help that Uther is named Ambrosis’s successor. Goloris notices Uther’s interest in his wife and he is turned against the High King.

But Igraine later has a vision of Goloris attacking Uther and acts to warn Uther. The two men face on the battlefield. The magic weakens Igraine. The next day, Merlin comes to Cornwall with Goloris, who goes up to see his wife. Morgaine also has the gift of Sight and realizes that the man is not her father. Goloris’s men bring his body back to Cornwall and it is apparent that the man with Igraine is Uther. He takes Igraine and Morgaine to Camelot and makes Igraine his High Queen. They do seem to love each other and it’s cute when Uther sits alongside Morgaine as they wait for Igraine to give birth. Morgaine gains a little brother, Arthur, whom she loves dearly. Their time of happiness comes to an end when Vivianne and Merlin show up; both children must be fostered. Morgaine and Arthur both cry when they’re separated; Arthur goes with Merlin and Vivianne takes Morgaine to Avalon.

women of mists of avalon
Morgause, Morgaine, Vivianne, and Igraine

Avalon lies near Glastonbury, where the Christians have erected a monastery. To get to Avalon, one must pass through a lake covered in mist. A powerful priestess can part the mist. The Old Religion teaches balance between good and evil; the Mother Goddess rules over Nature and all Nature is sacred. Morgaine acquires power over the elements and joins the sisterhood. Igraine sees this and whispers to Uther “she’s been taken.” A visitor comes to Avalon once Morgaine is an adult; she hopes it is Arthur but instead it is her cousin, Lancelot, son of Vivianne (his father is never mentioned in the film and mentioned once in the book). Lancelot wishes to have his mother’s blessing to fight alongside the other knights against the Saxons; she wishes that he would stay in Avalon. She sends Lancelot and Morgaine to the Stone Circle. Morgaine is attracted to her cousin, but then they hear the bells of Glastonbury and Lancelot catches sight of a pretty young nun and asks Morgaine to part the mists. The young Christian is Gwenwyfar; Lancelot asks her to stay in Avalon a while, but Morgaine returns the mists. Lancelot leaves.

Morgaine is prepared for the Beltaine rights, the Great Marriage. She will play the Virgin Huntress and bed the Great Hunter. They are both masked. Afterwards, Morgaine hopes that the man was Lancelot…well, about a minute after that we see the man in question washing up. Not Lancelot. The man expresses his desire to see the woman again to Merlin, Merlin names the man Arthur. (Uh oh). Arthur must set out for Uther, who is the midst of battling Saxons. Arthur arrives in time to block a blow to the king, but he still dies. A vision of Vivianne instructs Arthur to take up the sword, Excalibur, a sword from Avalon; though he must swear to obey the Old Ways. He rallies the troops and wins the fight. Morgaine returns to Camelot for her brother’s coronation. He swears to deal fairly with both Druid and Christian; he will rule a kingdom united. Her aunt Morgause has wed King Lot of Orkney (in the Scottish Isles). Lot even mentions that if one man could save Britain, it’s Arthur. Igraine plans to retire to Glastonbury and ask for forgiveness for her actions against Goloris. The priest assures Morgaine that her mother has friends among the Christian community and they will take care of her. Arthur is thrilled to see his older sister again. He tells her that he intends to marry Gwenwyfar, but there is another woman that occupies his thoughts: he knows not her face or her name; they were both masked. Morgaine realizes with horror what happened. She confronts Vivianne, who holds that everything has been done in the name of saving Avalon. Vivianne hopes that Morgaine will follow her as Lady of the Lake. Morgaine rejects the offer; she will still follow the Goddess, but not Vivianne; she will never set foot in Avalon again. She will keep the child she now carries, but she will not let Vivianne train.

In the meantime, Arthur has put Gwenwyfar in the care of Lancelot. They are ambushed and once they escape, they speak of the brief moment they had between Avalon and Glastonbury. They cannot fight their attraction to each other and passionately kiss (more uh oh).

Morgaine takes refuge with Morgause in Orkney. Lot urges his wife to let the child die so their son will be Arthur’s successor (a nephew would take precedent over a cousin). Morgause, for some unknown reason, uses dark magic to curse Gwenwyfar; she will bear no sons for Arthur. The woman intends to follow her husband’s instructions, leaving the babe in front of an open window in the middle of winter. But in a fever after giving birth, Morgaine reveals to Morgause that the boy’s father is Arthur. Morgause has a cunning plan; be the influence on the boy and then when he ascends the throne, it will be her will done in the kingdom. Morgause dislikes Vivianne and doesn’t trust her (doesn’t make Morgause a good person, but it’s one redeeming quality she has, that she does not blindly follow what Vivianne decrees.) The Morgaine telling the story as flashbacks comments that it was this point that altered the fate of Britain forever; a new dreadful power was born. Several years later, Morgause suggests that Morgaine returns to Camelot to see her brother. Morgause will keep Mordred with her in Orkney (not the best idea).

morgaine and arthur
Sister and brother reunited

So Morgaine returns. Arthur is once again pleased to see his sister again (I find it adorable, their sibling affection…we should all know by now that it’s one of my favorite relationships shown). Gwen attempts to befriend Morgaine, though she admits the other woman frightens her since she follows the Old Ways. She summons the courage to ask her sister-in-law for herbs and spells to help her conceive; it is her greatest wish and desire to give her husband a son. Morgaine visits Lancelot; she still harbors affection for the young man (though I notice that the adults of the film barely age, not till the very end). She also knows of the affection that Lancelot shares with Gwen. Lancelot declares he loves Arthur more. Unknown to the pair, Arthur is watching from above. Another of Arthur’s knights, Accolon catches Morgaine’s attentions. He too follows the Old Ways. At the next Beltane, Morgaine gives a charm to Gwen to help her conceive. Following the information he has gained, Arthur asks Lancelot to bed his wife with him (he’s also a bit drunk when he asks this, but states that he wouldn’t be able to ask if he wasn’t drunk). A child conceived in the king’s bed will be the king’s child; he feels he is at fault for their childless state (nope, Morgause’s fault). All three agree. Accolon follows Morgaine and they spend the evening together.

Afterwards, Lancelot is upset with Morgaine for the charm. “How can I go back to the way things were?” Morgaine counsels he is not to blame for loving Gwen. But to help the situation, Morgaine arranges for Lancelot to marry Elaine, a young lady who is attracted to Lancelot. At the wedding, Gwen confronts Morgaine that her charm failed, there is still no child. She feels guilty for even turning to magic and the circumstances of that night. So she plots. She notices that Morgaine seems happy with Accolon. Accolon’s father, King Uriens of North Wales attends at the wedding and is an important ally of Arthur. Arthur wishes to reward his old friend, who wishes to marry. Gwen suggests Morgaine as a match (this is when I begin to dislike Gwen). Arthur has his sister’s best interests in mind and they ask Morgaine, but Gwen deliberately keeps mum on who exactly Morgaine is agreeing to marry. Arthur is shocked at Morgaine’s acceptance, but announces the betrothal. Morgaine is surprised to find herself engaged to the father, not the son. But she carries on and moves to North Wales. She finds that she is actually happy there.

On Avalon, Vivianne knows that Gwenwyfar tricked Morgaine. She confronts Merlin, but there was nothing the old man could do. Sadly, the time has come for Merlin to die. (In the book, another young man takes up the mantle of Merlin of Britain). Merlin comforts Vivianne that they haven’t failed; they’ve always done what they thought was right for Avalon. But he urges her to find some small measure of happiness. Mordred is their best hope now.

Speaking of Mordred, he has come to manhood. Vivianne appears, asking him to be Avalon’s champion. Arthur cannot be relied on any longer, he is beginning to forget the Old Ways. And he does not have an heir. Vivianne tells the young man that he is the king’s son. Mordred says it cannot be; his mother is the king’s sister. To Vivianne, that doesn’t matter; his blood is strong in magic. When Mordred speaks to Morgause, she cautions that Mordred cannot take the throne now; Arthur’s flame has never burned brighter, his knights will tear apart anyone who challenges him. Instead, he needs to discredit the king. And the best way to do that is through his queen. Mordred weeps; he’d rather love his father like everyone else does. He’d rather love his mother, Morgaine. He is already weary of God and the Goddess and Fate (he’s sympathetic, for a moment). But he drinks to Arthur’s death.

Mordred goes to Camelot, asking to be one of Arthur’s knights. He wins his place when he bests another in a duel. Arthur embraces him happily as his nephew. They’re a bit surprised to learn Morgaine had a child; she does not speak of it as there was sadness in his making (that’s one way to put it). After a while, Mordred confronts Arthur about his due. He asks Arthur to name his successor and reveals the truth of that Beltane ceremony years ago. Gwen begs Arthur to dispute it, but he cannot. Lancelot later finds Gwen crying and she reveals the truth as well. Mordred has planned this and has knights waiting to arrest them when they’re found kissing. The couple escapes. Arthur refuses to pass judgment on the matter; he loves both Lancelot and Gwenwyfar. He leaves the matter to Mordred.

Morgaine intends to return to Avalon after Uriens’ death, but she is attacked and injured. She tries to sail to Avalon, but cannot part the mists. Instead, she comes upon Glastonbury, where a nun spots her. It’s her mother, Igraine. When Lancelot and Gwen ride from Camelot, he takes her to Glastonbury, where she sees Morgaine. She apologizes for separating the siblings, it is her greatest sin, coming between their love. Morgaine is brought up to speed and rides back for Camelot, to save her brother and her son. The Saxon’s final assault on Britain has begun. Morgaine meets up with Vivianne on the road to Camelot. Vivianne confronts her sister Morgause when they arrive. This is not what the Goddess intended. Indeed not, it’s Morgause’s will. Morgause tries to stab Vivianne, but instead she’s the one who falls to the blade. Mordred cuts down Vivianne in retaliation.

Morgaine goes to her brother and rallies him to take up Excalibur again and stand against Mordred. At the battle, Lancelot returns to Arthur, bringing more men, but the Saxons still outnumber them, now with Mordred at the lead. The two face off on the battlefield (why do they take off their armor? Idiots) while Morgaine rides from Morgause’s and Vivianne’s pyres to stop them. Mordred mortally wounds Arthur, and Arthur strikes Mordred down in return. Both have tears in their eyes. Mordred’s last word is “mother” as Morgaine holds him. Arthur asks “take me home, sister. Take me to Avalon.” They set sail. But the mists still won’t part for Morgaine. Perhaps it has been lost due to their disobedience. Arthur offers Excalibur, Avalon’s sword, as a sacrifice. Morgaine throws it into the lake. The mists separate for a moment. “We’re home, Arthur.” But Arthur dies. The mists cover again. The bell of Glastonbury tolls. Avalon has faded from the world of men; only Glastonbury marks the spot now. The Saxons overran Britain and the Goddess was forgotten. Though many years later, Morgaine wonders if perhaps it survived, as the Virgin Mary.

As I summed up in my paper on the characterization of Morgan le Fae, Mists of Avalon delves into greater detail on elements of traditional Arthurian legend. It explains why Excalibur is magical, it includes how the sword ended up in the lake and its connection to the Lady of the Lake. I don’t think it gives great reasoning on why Mordred became evil, aside from influence from Morgause. Honestly, Morgaine should have kept Mordred with her. That could have prevented some problems. He stated he loved his parents and literally a minute later is plotting their downfall. This story gives a reasonable explanation for how a child came from a union between brother and sister, without being completely *squick.* The whole “for the greater good” excuse is annoying. It’s annoying in Harry Potter and just about everywhere else it is used. Vivianne is portrayed as a grey character. She honestly believes what she is doing is right, but the methods are not great. And she didn’t know that Mordred was being raised by Morgause? How did she think that was going to turn out?

I typically have liked Gwen in other tales, naming my main character after her, but not in this retelling. She’s petty and whiny. The Gwen from Mercedes Lackey’s book is an excellent role model; but I have my character pretty well figured, though she, as much as my story, has evolved over the years. Heck, my plot has evolved since I wrote my capstone paper. After reading Mists of Avalon, my focus shifted to Morgan. And I’m still doing research!

Re-watching this film, after the mental evolution of my story, has changed my feeling on some other characters. Lancelot is mainly fluff, there because the legends say he is. Again, a reasonable explanation is given for the love triangle and I believe that Arthur is progressive, and a good man, to allow it to carry on. It does cause problems with his knights. I mean, overall, characters typically have good intentions in the beginning. But everything becomes complicated and scheming gets in the way. I like this portrayal of Arthur. He is truly a good man. The three women: Vivianne, Igraine, and Morgause (the book states they echo the Mother Goddess and I just realized that their inspiration for my characters make mine echo the Goddess as well…not sure how I did that, but nevertheless, cool) have good and bad sides, like good characters should.

Some of the costuming is better at times; what the ladies where in Avalon is…well, I understand they were going for a fantasy look, but I’m not sure it was the best portrayal. Some of Gwen’s gowns are pretty, as are Morgause’s. Some of Morgaine’s gowns are not as successful. The fur on Mordred at the end was ridiculous.

This ultimately is one of my favorite portrayal’s of the Arthurian legend (the other, you may be able to guess, is BBC’s Merlin series). It’s a complete story and aspects are answered. The movie does not delve too deeply into the religious differences (unlike the book). (I’m looking at you, First Night and King Arthur).

So, next time, we’re on to the first season of Merlin.

And if anyone has questions or is interested in my paper on Morgan le Fae, let me know!

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