There’s a battered dark gray hardcover on the shelf outside my bedroom, long missing its jacket, its binding frayed and stained: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, the fantastical, fabulous, epic retelling of the Arthurian legends from the point of view of the women, especially the priestess Morgaine. It’s a novel I’ve turned to again and again, one that’s gotten me through tough times by taking me completely out of my world and immersing me in another. It’s on my desert-island list. I’ve given it as a gift more times than I can count.
And so, like others in the sci-fi/fantasy community, I was rocked last month when Bradley’s daughter, Moira Greyland, accused her mother of sexual abuse in an email to a friend. Greyland says her father was a convicted serial child molester but claims her mother was ”far, far worse. She was cruel and violent, as well as completely out of her mind sexually. I am not her only victim, nor were her only victims girls.”
Bradley, who died in 1999, is not here to defend herself, but the evidence against her seems pretty damning to me. She was never accused, charged, or convicted, but she was named in a civil suit by one of her husband’s victims. In the depositions she gave for the case, she repeatedly asserts that very young teenagers are capable of making their own sexual decisions and admits that she knew her husband was sexually molesting young boys but did nothing about it. By the time I finished the last of these legal documents, the image of the author I’d revered flickered and vanished, mirage-like. I felt unsettled — not just about her, but about the book, too.
For me, that raised the question, Should we judge a piece of art by the artist? Is that fair? In the same way that I imagine longtime Woody Allen fans grapple with the accusations against him when they watch his movies, I sat down to reread The Mists of Avalon with trepidation. Could I still love this book, which has meant so much to me over the years? I was almost afraid to find out.
Before this news came to light, I could open the novel at virtually any page and lose myself, once again, in the clamoring, knight-filled halls of Camelot or on the mystical isle of Avalon. Arthurian legends are notoriously dense, but Bradley spun the complex tale into a vibrant and mesmerizing page-turner (admittedly, a page-turner with a fair amount of sex). But when I picked it up this time, I grew increasingly disheartened as the pages flew by. Passages I’d read hundreds of times before leaped out at me in entirely new ways, freighted with revulsion: brother-and-sister sex, child brides sexually assaulted and beaten by their husbands, a little girl violently raped by an old man during an ancient Druid rite, a maiden ”fresh and young, not fourteen” raped after a spring planting and fertility ritual. Not even halfway through the 876 pages, I set the book down. I felt sick. I also felt betrayed by an author I had admired for more than a quarter century.
This is where it gets complicated. Learning about Bradley’s past didn’t dim my literary opinion of the book: I still think The Mists of Avalon is a masterpiece. I’m grateful it was there for me. But I’ve discovered I’m not one of those people who can divorce the art from the artist. Reading Bradley’s work through this new filter made me queasy — and I won’t be doing it again.