Behind The Stories

Reimagining a Different Path to Power in "Mists of Avalon"

Jessica Schreibstein i i
Jessica Schreibstein
Jessica Schreibstein
Jessica Schreibstein

Continuing our summer series, remembering those pesky young adult reads that sear the brain in one way or another, NPR Legislative Assistant Jessica Schreibstein writes about the book that first introduced her to true female power, in all its forms.

I was thirteen years old and attending an Opus Dei Catholic school when I picked up a 900-page book about paganism. In the morning, when we could choose to either attend mass or read a book from an approved reading list, I chose the latter, barely concealing Marion Zimmer Bradley's megalithic Mists of Avalon behind the cover of an "approved" book. Mists felt forbidden in every way a book can feel forbidden, and I relished it.

The book is an epic retelling of the Arthurian legend narrated through the lens of its female characters, who were relegated to the margins of the story in previous iterations of the legend. The hero of this story is not King Arthur; Sir Lancelot; or their pious, blonde bombshell Queen Guinevere. It's Morgaine, the dark fairy priestess who (unknowingly) sleeps with her half-brother Arthur in a pagan fertility ritual and gives birth to their evil son who will usurp Arthur's throne and destroy Camelot.

The moral of the traditional story is clear: give a woman power, and she will ruin you. Conversely, by telling the story through the viewpoints of its multiple female characters, Mists paints a complex world where a woman is a participating actor in the story, not a passive victim, villain, or damsel in distress.

Aside from introducing me to my first sex scenes in a work of literature (which were a vivid introduction, to be sure), Mists introduced my porous young mind to alternative systems of religious belief and political power in which women were in control.

Never before had I considered that women could be priests with access to a higher being. Never had I considered this "higher being" could be a Goddess rather than a hook-nosed, white-bearded God. And never had I ever encountered the careful, calculating ways that women in a patriarchal society could exert power through their husbands or other male counterparts when their own paths to power were so limited.

To a girl in a very conservative Catholic school, these thoughts of female power not only felt dangerous; they felt sacrilegious. I embraced them anyway.

Looking back now, I can see Mists as the genesis for so much of what followed. A year later, I left that school and its religious beliefs behind. In the summer before entering college, my mother and I took a trip to England where we paid a visit to Glastonbury in Somerset, the legendary location of the mythical island of Avalon from the story. Early one morning in mid-summer, we climbed the Glastonbury Tor together to watch the sunrise. At the top of the hill, surrounded by an ocean of pale blue and pink mist, it was easy to envision ourselves as the powerful women of legend.

- Jessica Schreibstein

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