Dr. Natalia Petrovskaia
22 January 2018
‘She Igraine, mother of Arthur could do nothing but wait. It was a woman’s fate
to sit at home, in castle or cot—it had been so since the Romans came. Before
that, the Celtic Tribes had followed the counsel of their women, and far to the
north there had been an island of women warriors who made weapons and tutored
the war chiefs in the use of arms. . . .’ (Bradley 265).
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s the Mists of Avalon was published in 1983 and features a retelling of
the legend of King Arthur through the eyes of the female characters. In the quotation above is the
only explicit use of the word ‘Celtic’ in the entire novel, which total length is 876 pages.
In the novel, source material from the Arthurian legend and elements from history are combined
to tell the story of the women surrounding Arthur. The novel focuses heavily on the friction
between Christianity and Paganism which is made narratively visible by the struggle for women
in a male-dominated world. In the aforementioned quotation, Igraine is musing on her ‘fate’ as a
woman to ‘do nothing’ as opposed to the women of the “Celtic tribes” who had an active role in
society both military and politically.
The Mists of Avalon is a novel and is therefore exempt of the demand for historical
accuracy. However, the elaborate use of Arthurian legend and the historical setting make it
interesting to test its accuracies or inaccuracies nonetheless. Furthermore, the explicit mention of
the word Celtic, which is a problematic term, invites further enquiry. The premise for this paper
then is a simple one; are the assumptions made by the character Igraine, true for the source
material, both historical and fictional?
The Mists of Avalon is a retelling of the Arthurian legend, it features the story of King Arthur and
his court and family. Some of the oldest prose material for these Arthurian legends is to be found
in the Mabinogion i which is a collection of 11 stories now often published and read together
though not originally intended to be grouped as such. The stories featuring King Arthur are
named the Three Romances and they are called Lady of the Fountain, Peredur and Gereint.
Though maybe not directly, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel is part of the Nachleben of these
medieval prose texts and their French relatives written by Chretien de Troyes. Her retelling of
the Arthurian legend then does not exist in a vacuum but is part of a cultural and historical
discourse. Within the framework of literary theory and cultural materialism this means that “All
readings, whether radical or traditional, of all kinds of texts, are at some point ideologically
motivated and constructed in the interests of a specific literary and cultural agenda” (Brooker
10). One could argue that Bradley’s novel is, an adaptation but also, a reading of the Arthurian
legend with a distinct ideological of literary agenda.ii Her Arthurian quotations then are the
backdrop for the ideological points that she is trying to convey to the reader.
In the citation at the beginning there are three points. The first is that women are fated to
be at home. The second is that women do not engage in fighting or the forging of weapons and
thirdly women are not allowed to give counsel or advice and as such have no political agency.
The ultimate contrast for all the above is made with regard to the societal structure of the Celtic
tribes, where women were in fact allowed to do all these things.
The implications of the social structure observed by the character Igraine in the novel are
best felt in the character of Gwenhwhyfar. Especially when contrasted with the Gwenhwyfar
presented in the three romances. In the Mists of Avalon, Gwenhwyfar is married to Arthur and
crowned High Queen. She is in love with Lancelot and her entire internal monologue consists of
her adhering to the stereotypical role for women as described by Igraine. For example: “‘Poor
Arthur, thought Gwenhwyfar, this marriage is more of an ordeal for him than for me—at least I
have nothing to do but obey the will of my father and king!” (Bradley 775). Gwenhwyfar has
nothing to but to obey the men in her life. The role of Gwenhwyfar in the Mists of Avalon is to
live out the prophecy made by Igraine about the life of a woman. The ‘strong’ women in the
novel are the women who are not part of the traditional structure at all. The only positive strong
women who feature in the novel are part of a separate class of religious pagan priestesses. In a
way, this retelling of the Arthurian legend needed an entire Otherworld to create strong women
with agency. In short: “In these feminist retellings, the character’s femininity is embodied in the
intersection of their military (or strategic) and spiritual leadership.” (Pugh 76). This manifests as
a negative portrayal of femininity instead of an empowered one.
In the Arthurian source material found in the three romances, Gwenhwyfar is Arthur’s
queen. A closer look at the story of Geraint vab erbin will maybe illuminate some of the
differences between the medieval source material and the mists of Avalon.
Geraint and Enid is one of the three welsh romances. In this tale, Geraint gets to marry Enid after
winning a hawk. Soon after their marriage he neglects his duties as a military man. One day
Enide tells Geraint of some of the criticism she is hearing from the courtiers. Geraint thinks
Enide is being unfaithful to him and decides to punish her. Through a series of challenges Enide
convinces him of her love for him. They come back to court and Geraint fights a warrior of the
otherworld of mist and breaks his curse. Although Gwenhwyfar and Arthur are minor characters
in this story. They are king and queen and are interacting with Geraint and Enide. Furthermore,
they are important for the matter of honour that is so important in tales of chivalry and romance.
This is also described in A companion to Arthurian literature:
‘traditionally Arthurian literature foregrounds the masculine ideology of chivalry. Heng posits
that the masculine thereby “inhabits” the textual consciousness. The feminine register, on the
other hand, can be found in the repressions of the text; in the “alternative discourses” or
“competing voices and claims” which, if not contained – papered over, smoothed out, filled in –
would threaten the stability and unity of the text. The feminine register therefore traditionally
inhabits the textual unconscious” (Fulton 466).
Another point about the position of women in the three Welsh romances is that the
women are in positions of power but it is a second-hand power (Winward 103). In other words:
they have to join the system to beat the system. This does however not mean that they do not
give advice. In Geraint for instance, Gwenhwyfar gives Arthur advice on what to do with the
stag’s head: Gwenhwyfar said to Arthur, ‘Lord,’ she said, ‘this is my advice regarding the stag’s
head: do not give it away until Geraint son of Erbin returns from the quest on which he has
gone’––and Gwenhwyfar told Arthur the purpose of the quest. ‘Let that be done, gladly,’ said
Arthur. They agreed on that. (Davies 150)
And so Gwenhwyfar counsels Arthur on what to do next and he accepts it.
And even when Gwenhwyfar is seemingly making herself submissive to Arthur, she makes sure
to inform him again of how an insult to her is an insult to him as well:
‘Whatever mercy you wish I will show him, lord,’ she said, ‘since it is as great a disgrace
to you, lord, for me to be insulted as for you yourself.’ (Davies 152).
Helen Fulton has argued that Gwenhwyfar is making herself an object and her sole function is to
enhance his prestige. I would argue that this is not the case, Gwenhwyfar is merely reinforcing a
social code. By reminding Arthur of the fact that their status is so intertwined, she reminds him
of the responsibility he has towards her but also towards himself to keep her reputation.
It is obvious then that in the welsh source material, Gwenhwyfar is not expected to do nothing
and sit at home in her castle. In Geraint, she joins the hunt (Davies 140) she gives advice about
armour without Geraint asking her explicitly (Davies 143) Gwenhwyfar welcomes Geraint back
at court (Davies 153). So, in the source material it is clear that women, although queen in this
case, are not expected to keep silent or passive. It is then a very odd development to see one
character turned into a passive and oppressed role. The Gwenhwyfar in the welsh source material
is strong but not in a military role, she counsels and advises but not in matters of war.
In the mists of Avalon Igraine asserts that before the romans came, women had a stronger
military position. Since there are no written sources for that period, there is no possibility to
really prove this. The welsh laws on the position of women are codified in the Hywll Dda but
this was only written in the second half of the tenth century. (Ellis 5). In the Tribal Welsh law
codes, which maybe derive from an oral tradition. The following entries are of interest to the
position of queen the welsh Celtic law code for example granted a queen the right to freely
circuit through the land (Ellis 31). Furthermore, daughters could inherit an estate if there were no
male lineal descendants or collaterals in the fourth degree (Ellis 389). She could acquire and hold
land of her own in her own right by purchase or inheritance and such land did not pass under the
control of her husband (Ellis 436). With regard to Queens, the code makes it clear that they have
no power in matters of state except what she might be able to exercise through her personal
influence on the King (Ellis 31).
The Gwenhwyfar in Geraint is far removed from the Gwenhwyfar in The Mists of
Avalon. The retelling of the Arthurian legend by Bradley makes references to a romanticized
Celtic past were women had more agency because they were more engaged in military matters.
In the Welsh Arthurian source material, Gwenhwyfar is active and gives advice to both the king
and his knights. Gwenhwyfar goes out to watch the hunt and gives advice on armour. The
romanticized Celtic past that Bradley is referring to probably does not exist. The Queens who get
to enjoy the outdoors are however, only a few retellings away. The Welsh law codes do not
prescribe a passive role either but this is only relevant if the Welsh laws are older than the
manuscripts they appear in, and unfortunately we cannot go to them for advice.
Beer, Gillian, ‘Representing Women: Re-presenting the Past’, in The Feminist Reader, ed. by
Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore, 2nd edn (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1997), pp.77-90
Bradley, Marion Z. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Rey Book, 1982. Print.
Brooker, Peter, and Peter Widdowson. “General Introduction.” A Practical Reader in
Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Prentice Hall, 1996. 9-11.
Ellis, Thomas P. Welsh Tribal Law and Custom in the Middle Ages. Aalen: Scientia, 1982. Print.
Gruffydd, W. J., Rhiannon: an Inquiry into the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi
(Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1953)
Fulton, Helen. A Companion to Arthurian Literature. Chichester England: Wiley-Blackwell,
2013. Internet resource.
Pugh, Tison, and Angela J. Weisl. Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present. London:
Routledge, 2013. Print.
Ross, Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain (London: Sphere Books, 1974)
Sullivan, C. W., ‘Inheritance and Lordship in Math’, in ‘The Mabinogi’: A Book of Essays,
ed. by C.W. Sullivan III (London: Garland Publishing, 1996), pp. 347- 66
Thompson, Stith, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica,
Winward, Fiona, ‘The Women in the Four Branches’, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 34
i The Mabinogion is the collective name now given to eleven medieval Welsh tales found mainly
in two manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth
4–5), dated c.1350, and the Red Book of Hergest (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Jesus College 111),
dated between 1382 and c.1410. (Davies 10).
ii Bradley consciously used later source material for her novel such as Thomas Malory morte
d’Arthur, which she cites at the beginning of the novel.