Mists of Avalon and Fellowship of the Ring: Approaches to Gender and Similarities

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As noted by Umberto Eco in “Dreaming of the Middle Ages”, one

representation of the middle ages is that of philological reconstruction which can be

“…applied either to great historical events or to the imperceptibility of underlying social

and technological structures, and to the forms of everyday life”(71). By utilizing the

middle ages in this fashion, it is possible for authors to critique and comment upon the

prevalent ideological structures in their own time by using the middle ages as a

mythological foundation for further reconstruction, analysis, and even play. Stemming

from this is the popular trend in literary criticism to attribute an author’s attitudes and

intentions within their works to the major cultural movements taking place during the

time of their writing. Through this framework it would seem that Marion Zimmer

Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy are by-

products of the post-modernist and modernist movements respectively. However, an

overlooked perspective is that of the cultural movement influencing the reader of these

works. One area in which this view is particularly relevant is representations of gender

in both of these novels, and Peter Jackson’s cinematic retelling of The Lord of the Rings.

By analysing both the author’s portrayals of gender in these works and the perception of

their works by modern audiences, it is possible to better understand the ways in which

cultural movements influence not only the writing, but also the consumption of popular

medievalist fiction.

One of the most prevalent themes of post-modernism is deconstruction, in which

an author “…seek[s] to distance [the reader] from and make [them] sceptical about

beliefs concerning truth, knowledge, power, the self, and language that are often taken

for granted within and serve as legitimation for contemporary Western culture”(Flax,

41). In The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley embraces this process through re-

positioning the traditional Arthurian legend through the eyes of the female characters

within it. By doing this she seeks to “… [decentre] such Arthurian commonplaces as

Christianity…” by setting up a dichotomy of a patriarchal, misogynistic, Saxon and

Christian interpretation of life, against a matriarchal, feminist, Celtic and Pagan view, and

further “…reinterpret[ing] her heroine Morgaine as a vision of female power rather than

an evil manipulator; and in the person of Gwenhyfar [showing] how women lost power in

Western culture” (Tobin, 147).

By building this dichotomy, Bradley criticizes institutionalised Christianity as a

sexist and unyielding religion which not only assigns little or no importance to women

as more than vehicles of childbirth and housekeeping, but actually demonizes them by

portraying them as innately evil. (Tobin, 148) This is reflected in the words of Gorlois,

whom Bradley paints as ignorant and unintelligent in order to criticize his view point. As

he tells his wife Igraine in relation to why their daughter should be sent to a convent to be

brought up properly:

“A holy man told me once that women bear the blood of their mothers, and so it has been since the days of Eve, that what is within women, who are filled with sin, cannot be overcome by a women-child; but that a son will bear his father’s blood even as Christ was made in the image of God his father. So if we have a son Igraine, we need not fear that he will show the blood of the old evil folk of the hills” (Bradley, 86)

She further emphasizes this view later in the novel when Gwenhyfar compliments

Morgaine on her harp playing, with Morgaine providing the critique (Fry, 24)

“Why yes, madam, music is sacred – did you not learn the harp in your nunnery?”

Gwenhwyfar shrank. “No, it is unseemly for a women to raise her voice before the Lord….”

Morgaine chuckled. “You Christians...
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