In Marion Zimmer Bradley's the Mists of Avalon the Knights Are Joust a Bit Kinky

updated 05/16/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1983 01:00AM

What do the simple folk do?" asked Richard Burton in the role of King Arthur in Camelot. The hero of Marion Zimmer Bradley's well-reviewed The Mists of Avalon (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.95), a best-seller based on the Round Table legend, has little time for such concerns. It seems that Arthur's wife, the beautiful Queen Gwenhwyfar (the Welsh spelling of Guinevere), is unable to produce an heir. Moreover, she lusts after the King's best friend, the noble Sir Lance-let (another spelling conceit). In a novel attempt to make the best of an irksome situation, Arthur suggests that all three of them hop in the royal sack, in the hope that Gwenhwyfar might get pregnant. Alas, no child results, but Lancelet later admits to Morgaine (Arthur's half sister, with whom the King once had an incestuous fling) that he felt stirrings for Arthur. Nevertheless, Lancelet still manages to rip off the Queen's bodice, as it were, at regular intervals, making poor Arthur the cuckold of Camelot.

Readers of Idylls of the King, The Faerie Queene or Le Morte d'Arthur may quibble at this unorthodox treatment of the legend. But author Bradley, 52, a science-fiction writer from Berkeley, Calif., is not perturbed. In addition to giving the story some new wrinkles, she tells it largely from the viewpoint of the Arthurian women: Gwenhwyfar, Morgaine, Arthur's mother, Igraine, and her sister, Viviane, the Lady of the Lake and High Priestess of the mystical kingdom of Avalon. "I had always wanted to get inside the head of someone living in the Dark Ages, and I thought: 'You hear so much about what the men were doing, but never the women,' " says Bradley, who writes extensively and engagingly about mundane matters inside the moat. Reviewers have called the approach "feminist," a charge that Bradley disputes. "I'm just telling a story," she argues.

Her story is tinged with tales of mysticism and the struggle between dawning Christianity and dying paganism, subjects dear to Bradley's heart. A believer in neopaganism (a faith, she says, that "rejects the Christian belief in man's dominion over the earth"), clairvoyance, ESP and reincarnation, she helped set up the nonprofit Centre for Non-Traditional Religion several years ago in a carriage house on her property. At the Centre, "wiccans" ("white witches," as opposed to Satanists) hold meetings, and other religious groups have studied hypnotherapy, altered consciousness and healing. Bradley does not claim that she is a witch, but merely a "passionate reader of occultism."

Her interest in spiritualism and otherworldly matters dates back to her youth in rural New York. The daughter of a farmer in East Greenbush, she began submitting stories to science-fiction magazines at 16. Later, as a psychology major at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, she helped pay her way by writing Gothic romances. Gradually Marion progressed to sci-fi novels, including The Sword of Aldones, The Spell Sword, The Heritage of Hastur and The Shattered Chain, paperbacks that built her reputation as a reliable seller. "I'm not into writing stories of new lovers or jobs that pay $100,000 a year," she says of her choice of genre. "I'm not terribly concerned about love and power."

Love and sci-fi, however, are a different matter. Marion's first husband, Robert Bradley, from whom she was divorced in 1964, was a railroad stationmaster she met through a science-fiction magazine letter column. Her present spouse, Walter Breen, 52, is similarly disposed in his literary tastes. "I never liked men who were not interested in science fiction," she says. "They have nothing in their heads except cars, sports and beer."

Walter, a numismatist, lives in an apartment down the street from his wife. "He's a night person and I'm a day person," explains Bradley, "and this way we don't drive each other crazy. But we see each other all the time." Marion shares the family's rambling old house with son Patrick, 18, a foster daughter, Cyndi, 19, and a secretary. She also keeps in close touch with daughter Dorothy, 17, who recently married, and with David, 33, her son by Bradley.

Mostly, she sits at an IBM Selectric and dreams up fantasies for her readers. Having successfully tackled the Middle Ages, Bradley yearns to dig deeper into history. Classical scholars should beware: The woman who suggests there were no squares at the Round Table is thinking about tackling the Trojan War.

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