My problem isn’t (necessarily) Marion Zimmer Bradley. It’s that she’s so widely imitated, and she has so much in her work that can get dumbed down so easily, and that she started imitating herself (if there was any difference in basic plot between Lady of Avalon and The Mists of Avalon I couldn’t tell what it was).
1) There is feminist fantasy, and then there is preaching.
The Mists of Avalon came along at just the right time, perhaps. At least that would account for a) the cultish adoration of it and b) my complete inability to understand said cultish adoration.
Thing is, I think that to make a fantasy feminist you have to have more than female viewpoint characters and goddess-worship. I’ve read plenty of fantasies with heroines who didn’t achieve anything on their own; everything was done by the hero/their companions/the gifts the gods granted them at birth for whatever reason. And moon-goddess worship doesn’t really strike me as all that active, sorry. Especially not the way Bradley presents it. She seems to be the genesis of the whole white temples-still waters-full moon-dancing idea that’s infected writers like Anne Bishop. Yes, they’re women, and yes, they worship a female deity. Is that in and of itself a reason to root for them? No. Not when their genitals and their goddess are used as an excuse to avoid doing anything else. The Mists of Avaloncame off as preaching a particular religion to me, not as a fantasy novel saying that female characters are just as good as male ones, and here are some examples.
One of the reasons I couldn’t empathize with characters like Morgaine is that old submission/renunciation of war and action idea. Morgaine acts pretty much in accord with destiny, from what I remember, and goes back to Avalon at the end. The other priestesses try to arrange matters so that certain things will happen, but catch them actually doing those things? Action and free will remain the province of males.
And from that spread things like the meddling Aes Sedai of Jordan, the incredibly stupid and ineffective Sisters of the Light in Goodkind, the moronic ‘we are pure and good’ witches of Anne Bishop, the ‘let us hate technology!’ heroines of Sherri Tepper. This is a place where I actually prefer Lackey’s female Heralds. At least they went out and did things… although it usually wasn’t of their own free will, of course; they had to get chosen by a Companion first. The only exceptions I can think of are Kerowyn, Tarma, and Kethry. Talia, super-virtuous heroine that she was, had to get dragged away from her farm by a pretty white horse. So, still a problem.
2) Grudges against men are not portrayed realistically.
I enjoyed several of the Darkover novels Bradley wrote, but ones like The Shattered Chain and Thendara House left me cold. Those involve the Free Amazons, who have set themselves apart from the male-dominated society on Darkover. So, this should be good, right? They should be free of the stereotypes that dog the women in The Mists of Avalon, right?
Wrong. I didn’t get a sense of these women leading man-free lives, even though they traveled in all-women companies and had female-only houses. They talked constantly about men, how much they hated them, and how much they wanted to rebel against them. One of their trials of initiation involved stripping just so they could make sure the potential Free Amazon wasn’t a man in disguise. Instead of building a separate society, they were rebelling against the one they had left behind- and acting against a compulsion is still letting the compulsion control you.
Again, this is something Bradley’s imitators pick up on, and then it gets accepted in the fantasy genre as a whole. I know people who are fans of Robert Jordan just because the men in the books “get what they deserve” from the women (ignoring the fact that the women themselves are hardly portrayed realistically, or even differentiated). One of the most horrible examples of this that I read was in the Valdemar anthology Sword of Ice. I can’t remember the name or title, but the father was a bastard who raped his daughter and abused his other children, and was eventually destroyed by his son in a blast of magic. Pure vengeance-fantasy.
Take the Issues elsewhere, please. Fantasy that other people are going to read is not the place for the open slaying of personal demons.
3) Powerful magic is used as a sign of personal virtue.
That is, if a person has it, he or she must be good. The only exception is the villain who will turn out to be less powerful, and who gets destroyed in the end for good.
I disagree with this violently. In fact, I think it works best the exact opposite way around. “The Lords of Elfland are true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outward sign or symbol of real inward greatness.” That’s Ursula K. LeGuin in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” when she talks about telling real fantasy from the style (and which I urge you all to read, as it’s one of the best essays on fantasy I’ve ever read). She mentions it in connection with speaking: “Greatness of soul shows when a man speaks.” And it shows in the actions, too, I would think. The inward greatness comes first. Then the lordship- the magic or the power.
It doesn’t in Bradley’s novels. In The Mists of Avalon, it comes from what gender you’re born or who you worship. In Darkover, it comes from the mental powers, laran, that a person is born with and noble bloodlines. In the contemporary fantasy Ghostlight and its sequels, it comes from religion (again) and bloodline (again).
Bradley’s hardly alone in that, of course. The problem is that she often created characters who the reader was supposed to root for because of that magic or that bloodline or that religion… and nothing else. Quite a few of the laran-using characters on Darkover seemed to be “good” just because they had that gift. (The technology-using Terrans were often bad, of course, or, at best, incapable of understanding the Darkovan way of life). The heroine of Hawkmistress! flees her home because her family is inbreeding in relentless pursuit of a particular laran gift, only to turn out, surprise, special because she has mind-magic after all. The hero of The Bloody Sun comes home in search of his heritage and is rejected because of his supposedly Terran father, only to turn out, surprise, to have powerful laran and really be the son of a noble couple. The only place I can think of that Bradley violated this canon was in Stormqueen!, where she had the title character’s lightning-calling gift depicted as appropriately really fucking scary.
I’ve already mentioned how The Mists of Avalon seemed to be the Good Magic-Using Priestesses against Those Evil Christian Men. The contemporary novels are even weaker. The heroines who seem to be ordinary at first (and actually more likable characters because of that) turn out to have Teh Special Magic because of who their parents were.
Mercedes Lackey, following in Bradley’s path, does the exact same thing with most of the Heralds. What separates them from other people? Well, this magic, you see, and the pretty white horses. And why are they trusted with all the justice of the kingdom? Why, because the Companions chose them. They’re good because of what they were born with, not what they do- or, to put it another way, they get a chance to help the Kingdom only because of what they were born with.
What about all those people who don’t have powerful magic, or aren’t female, or aren’t descended of the right bloodline, and yet could still want to help?
4) Don’t take your own message too seriously.
This gets a section all to itself because, despite some preaching, Bradley herself only got really arrogant about “the Issues” she was tackling in one book that I remember.
This was in the afterword to Lythande, a little compilation of stories about a mage who had to keep secret the fact that she was a woman, and a lesbian. (Each member of the Order of Mages she was a part of had to keep a secret to retain their power, and hers was not revealing that she was female). She was constantly tormented about this. She also was more asexual than sapphic. And trust me, this book will get its full savaging when the portrayal of sapphic women in fantasy comes up. But it didn’t stop there.
Bradley didn’t just portray the character and have done. No. In this afterword, she talked about how she didn’t show Lythande as more openly sexual because she was afraid of teenage boys finding the book and getting all excited from the sex scenes.
Yes. She honestly said that. She just couldn’t let her writing be exploited for the sake of teenage boys, even though she thought there were teenage lesbian girls looking for a character to identify with in her writing.
And from there, we get people like Anne Bishop writing books- the Tir Alainn…thing- where the fantasy setting is utterly disrupted by preaching about issues important to the author, the religion is Wicca for all intents and purposes (and everyone who practices it is a saint), and the main bad guy is named Adolfo.
This isn’t preachy fantasy, or even fantasy that tackles the author’s own personal demons. This is the author deciding she is going to Change the World with her writing.
They scare me.
It’s odd that the novels I like most by Bradley- Stormqueen!, The World Wreckers, and The Heritage of Hastur- are ones that I’ve been told are very conventional and not her best work.
I don’t know. I find them far less conventional than what she did with the other things, if only because she has so many imitators now that she’s become convention.