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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. 

Thanks for visiting Well at World’s End. To read former posts, click here. For more from me, visit: 

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Hunter Liguore, a multi-Pushcart Prize nominee, earned an MFA in Creative Writing and a BA in History. Her work has appeared internationally in a variety of journals. She is the editor-in-chief of the print journal, American Athenaeum, which is dedicated to publishing "voices" that ultimately inform our times. (To view current submission guidelines: She revels in old legends, swords, and heroes.


  • Heather Kaminski
    Heather Kaminski Friday, 14 June 2013

    Good article. Just want to point out error at the end of the seventh paragraph. "Uther was born" should be "Arthur was born."

  • Heather Kaminski
    Heather Kaminski Friday, 14 June 2013

    This is my favorite novel and I've given some thought to all you have talked about here. Ultimately as is the case with most leaders, Viviane and Merlin really thought that their actions served the "greater good". The problem is the question of who is to decide what that "greater good" is? Again, the leaders we choose carry that burden and it's going to be scewed from their own perspectives.

  • Hunter Liguore
    Hunter Liguore Monday, 17 June 2013

    Thank you both for your comments. Yes, it is one of those tough questions regarding responsibility, a theme I see often in MZB's books, and even Diana Paxson's. At the end of the day, she gives us something to consider for our own world.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Sunday, 18 August 2013

    Glad you mentioned Diana Paxson; she and MZB collaborated on an entire series of Avalon books predating Mists, that start all the way back with the first priest/preistess refugees from Atlantis; great stuff about both Stonehenge and the Tor. Boudica, too! As for trying to explain the mysteries of good vs. bad, justice vs. injustice, as these authors have commented, you can't change history. The Romans DID beat Boudica, even though her people were in the right. England DID become a Christian nation, even though the Tor and its red and white springs were originally dedicated to the Goddess. All a writer can do is document the facts and try to work out some possible reasons.

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