Well At World’s End: Pagan Themes in Speculative Fiction
“From dragons to spaceships, from unicorns to time travel, join me around this campfire blog to explore Pagan themes in fantasy and science fiction, and all the subgenres in between. Reading just got interesting.”
Mists of Avalon: Using Magic
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley marks a historic moment in the course of science fiction and fantasy, in that the story of King Arthur was told from the feminine perspective. Although a few writers preceded Bradley, her novel reached legendary success, and inspired a new generation of readers and writers of female-focused fantasy fiction. The book was also hallmark in its portrayal of pagan religions. Bradley shows the merging point when Christianity, through the reign of kings, begins to dominate the countryside of England. Much of the story deals in some way with keeping Arthur in the throne, since he respects both traditions. His death ultimately foreshadows the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.
One aspect that I’ve always found interesting about this novel is the portrayal of magic used by the Merlin. Many of you might be familiar with it and might considering weighing in on your point-of-view. Let’s take a closer look…
In the opening chapters, Igraine, mother of Morgaine, is told by the Merlin and her sister, Viviane, the head priestess of Avalon (or the Lady of the Lake) that she must take Uther Pendragon, a pagan, to bed, in order to conceive the next heir, Arthur. Igraine, although a daughter of the Goddess, doesn’t want to break her marriage vow to her husband Gorlois. Torn, she respects her duty, and waits for a “sign” when this pairing will take place.
Magic is ultimately the catalyst for their encounter. The Merlin brins Uther to the castle where Igraine is, while her husband is fighting in battle (one that he will perish in). Uther is cloaked and wearing Gorlois’ ring, and through the use of magic, the guards and priest—everyone but Igraine—looks exactly like the king, and permitted entry.
Once inside, Igraine questions them. “Why do they think you are Gorlois?”
“A small magic of Merlin,” Uther said, “mostly a matter of a cloak and a ring, but a small glamour too; nothing that would hold if they should see me in full light, or uncloaked. I see that you were not deceive; I had not expected it.” (Pg. 100)
Magic is used to gain entry to the castle and to ultimately pair Igraine and Uther together. Later, the real king will arrive dead, and Uther is made king. He ends up taking Igraine as his wife, and Arthur is born.
One way to look at the magical element is that it serves the greater good, or so the Merlin and Viviane would have us think. It essentially sparks a long line of events that ends with a lot of deception and destruction. In a way, the magic used is also a deception, and forces Igraine to do something she didn’t want to in the first place. Though she agrees, she feels that she has betrayed her husband and her oath—an oath that held her honor.
Later, Igraine reaps the consequences of her deception, in that both her children are taken from her; the death of her new husband follows. She slowly moves out of the story, but remains the catalyst for the "fated" weavings of both Viviane and the Merlin.
Did that one magical moment serve the greater good or attempt to, or did it ultimately serve the will of the Merlin and Viviane? That is the question that I think this chapter and sequence brings up. How often is magic done in the name of “good” when it only serves the will of a few?
All in all, Mists of Avalon is filled with so many magical instances and considerations. We certainly revisit it again in the future.
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