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Damsels in Distress

Avalon Botches a Chance to Put a Feminist Spin on Arthurian Legend

By Adele Marley | Posted 7/11/2001

The Mists of Avalon

You've got to love the idea of revisionist literature. It's like sequels without the cheese factor, and it usually champions the underdog. Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone, which just got the legal green light for publication, retells Gone With the Wind from the slaves' perspective. Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, rich in feminist overtones, depicts the flip side of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, telling the story from the point of view of the crazy wife of Jane's gruff, mysterious squeeze, Mr. Rochester. Marion Zimmer Bradley's 1982 cult fantasy novel The Mists of Avalon breathed some new life into the Arthurian legend by focusing on the women of Camelot, examining the powers behind the throne. The latter arrives on TNT July 15 and 16 in a lush but superficial adaptation that seems to forget that revision is more than just difference.

In Arthurian legend, the Isle of Avalon is where King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, was forged, and where the mortally wounded king was taken after his final battle. In Mists, the isle is a kind of holy land that can only be served through worship of "the goddess," the primary deity in a fictitious religion that includes elements of wicca. But Avalon is no fab feminist utopia. It's run by a trio of power-mad sisters: Igraine (Caroline Goodall), the queen of England and mother to Morgaine (aka Morgan LeFay, played by Julianna Marguiles); Viviane (Anjelica Huston), the "Lady of the Lake," a high priestess who, in cahoots with the wizard Merlin (Michael Byrne), eventually bestows ultimate power, in the form of the sword Excalibur, on King Arthur (Edward Atterton); and Morgause (Joan Allen), a primo bitch and spoilsport whose main objective is to wrest power from her kin. The sisters bicker and nag each other to death, and their animosity pretty much foreshadows the collapse of civilization as they know it.

Avalon takes place in the Dark Ages (about 600 to 700 a.d.) and reflects a society in flux, divided by the rift between pagans and Christians. The royals of Camelot mostly stick to "the old religion" and advocate a system of government in which both forms of worship are tolerated--mainly because the country must unite to defend itself against the invasion of the Saxons, who are a continual threat throughout the story.

Author Bradley, who died in 1999, said the religion of Avalon's protagonists was partly her invention. It's been said that history is written by the victors, thus little is known about the religion of this era that Christians call paganism. By concocting a system of worship for characters in her book, Bradley was filling in the blanks. But aside from brief glimpses of fertility rites, ceremonies, and spells cast, the miniseries doesn't delve too deeply into the practices and philosophical aspects of this nature-centered, matriarchal faith. Too bad; it's hard to side with the protagonists if we don't care about what it is they're fighting for.

Bradley's book also made room for two central figures, Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar (aka Guinevere), bride of King Arthur and lover of Sir Lancelot. But the TV version stays hot on the trail of Marguiles' Morgaine, relegating Gwenhwyfar (played by Samantha Mathis) to supporting character status. Morgaine is taken from her parents and beloved half-brother Arthur in her girlhood and is schooled by her spirited, authoritarian Aunt Viviane to eventually replace her as high priestess, the primary earthly emissary of Avalon's goddess. Young Arthur is prepared by Merlin to rule Britain, as per Viviane's prophecy. I suppose that Huston's Viviane is meant to represent good will in the struggle for the continuance of the Avalonians' way of life--it's as if most of the film's characters are pawns in a match between Viviane and Allen's devious Morgause.

A lot of exciting stuff goes down in Camelot--bloody battles, pagan rituals, lots of shouting and epic bitchery, and loads of kinky sex. Whenever the camera pulls into a character's face and zooms in on his or her eyeballs, it's a visual cue that someone is falling in love with somebody else. I guess we can thank director Uli Edel for the heads-up. With this kind of expressive, kinetic camera work, who needs acting? Indeed, the cast full of heavy-hitting, Oscar- and Emmy-bait actresses seems to have been assembled primarily to give the project some prestige; their performances are feisty and entertaining but little more. Nevertheless, they clearly outshine all the Y-chromosomed eye candy who play Camelot's men. King Arthur and his knights seem perplexed that chivalry--the one virtue they have to barter with in the battle of the sexes--has been rendered completely irrelevant by all of Avalon's damsel power.

But all that matriarchal power is in the service of little more than a petty soap opera, one in which female characters engineer conflict and facilitate injustices and perversions to suit their own warped purposes. The Mists of Avalon dismantles the Arthurian legend but fails to offer up an alternative vision in its place, as revisionist lit usually does. Instead, it merely suggests that women had their shot at dominating Western civilization--and blew it.

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