Best Marion Zimmer Bradley Books & Biography
Author, feminist and religious revolutionary
Katinka Hesselink, 2008, 2014
A review of her work and life
Her famous 'Mists of Avalon' rewrote the story of King Arthur and Camelot from the female perspective. In all her literary work Marion Zimmer Bradley explored themes like:
- Female strength and male oppression
- Social structures that stifle women and some women try to change
- Lesbian love and female to female affection
- Environmental problems
- Psy powers and clairvoyance
- Paganism versus Christianity
Her heritage is felt most deeply in the literary genry of fantasy (though her Darkover series might also be classified as science fiction) and in the realm of wicca and paganism.
The Mists of Avalon Review - Marion Zimmer Bradley's claim to fame
I'm not sure what makes this book so popular. Perhaps it's those three women - so alike, and yet so different. I think we can all relate to the sibling rivalry extending into adulthood. The mysticism helps, of course, as does the King Arthur thing and the feminist perspective implicit here. Strong women still have to struggle with the stereotypes of the witch, the mother, the daughter, the priestess...
The gripping story of King Arthur and the Round table, told from the perspective of the pagan women in and around his court.
The 1960's were a peculiar time in human history. Marion Zimmer Bradley was at the heart of that. Her work bears the stamp of its concerns with the environment, women's rights and feminism (and it's ideals of lesbian love) as well as the burgeoning alternative spirituality of that era.
Religious visionary or danger to mankind?
Marion Zimmer Bradley's alternative spirituality has caused some reviewers to view her work as highly dangerous and heretical. Do you agree?
Was Marion Zimmer Bradley a heretic or an inspiration? An anonymous reader on a previous version of this page (where responding was possible) said:
The Darkover series is a look backwards from the large end of the telescope. So many of the social and environmental concerns of the 60s forty+ years later are now upon us. We're losing Earth. Will we be able, like the Darkovains to stop total destruciton?
Concerns for the environment
In her Darkover series, Marion Zimmer Bradley created a world with a very fragile ecological balance. Right in the first novel it is made clear that anybody who wants to live on that world needs to keep the ecology in mind in everything they do.
Large plots of land can't be deforested without immediate replanting, because if that's not done, the mountains will lose their fin toplayer of soil and become bare, unfit for human use. In later novels human wars on the planet, helped on by magic in ways reminiscent of the nuclear weapons developed in the 20th century, make whole areas unlivable for generations.
A selection of Darkover classics
A review of my favorite science fiction/ fantasy series
This series keeps me spellbound.
Darkover is a world where paranormal gifts are normal and called 'Laran', her characters face a society where women are supposed to be housebound and men strong and fighting with swords. In that world we find strong women and men living life and facing challenges and transforming themselves.
Two to Conquer (1982)
An older Darkover story, in which there are a thousand kingdoms on Darkover, each fighting the other with Laran weapons. In one such Kingdom (not really much more than an estate with corresponding village and agricultural lands) the heir is truly fit for this world: violent, strong, independent and a great womanizer (and rapist).
The king and his sorceror decide to see if the theory that there is a suplicate of everything, somewhere in the universe, use Laran to find the duplicate of the heir - so that they might have more of a chance of winning in the battles with their neighbours.
Romance, violence and mystery.
For the first time we meet computers in Darkover. By the date you can see that she was quite ahead of her time here. In fact, the way she describes them is not that outdated, even today. Only tablets and smartphones are absent, but that makes sense: very hard to organise in space.
A starship comes to Darkover and meets the descendants of the ship that crashed there centuries before. The two cultures have diverged considerably.
We meet a young Leonie Hastur and an afro computer technician with all kinds of allergies. In the meantime, some on the ship want to take advantage of the backwardness of the culture (by Terran standards) and start smuggling.
This is very much a conceptual novel in which Leonie gets lost in the computer mainframe, for instance.
Exile's Song (Darkover) (1997)
Margaret Alton (Marguerida) returns to Darkover after having lived off-planet as a music-academic for all of her adult life. The smells are familiar, but since she left as a child, she doesn't remember much else.
With her terurn to the planet of her birth, her Laran (psychic powers) awaken and she has to deal with the psychological and physical changes this brings. If threshold sickness weren't enough, it turns out she's powerful enough to send a kid into coma accidentally.
Oh, and she falls in love with the wrong guy, in a society where marriage is largely a matter of politics, at least for those with Laran.
The Shadow Matrix (Darkover) (1999)
In continuation to Exile's Song, Marguerida has to face up to the consequences of her strange form of Laran - and it's origin: a long dead sorceress. In the process, she and Mikhael return to the past to meet the famous Varzil the Good. The whole adventure will transform their lives, and the future of Darkover.
Traitor's Sun (Darkover) (2000)
Mikhail and Marguerida face their biggest challenge yet: while the Terrans are set to leave, local leadership tries to take advantage of the situation - which might destroy the very fabric of Darkovan society.
This sounds rather flat perhaps, but the story is interesting, in part because of the relationship between former ambassador Hermes and his wife Katherine as well as Mikhail's is a tale of how marriage can change under changing circumstances. Gisela Aldaran also changes her life, thanks to Katherine's non-Darkovan cultural perspective.
Psy Powers and Clairvoyance
In all Bradleys books psy powers play a part. In the Mists of Avalon these are referred to as 'the sight' and the most significant power is that of clairvoyance. In Darkover all kinds of psy powers play a part: transmutation of metals, clairvoyance of all kinds and also ways to physically defend yourself or even attack others. In the Light series all this is mixed in with ritual magic.
The word feminist has become controversial. Women of my generation don't want to be associated with the radical feminism of the 1960's and 70's - mainly because it wasn't a fashionable type of woman that got portrayed. Cut hair and baggy pants, who wants to be associated with that?
Marion Zimmer Bradley's generation paved the way for our freedom.
They made it clear that relationships between men and women should be based on equality. That cloths worn to please a man, take away something of the power of the woman in and of herself. Woman can be mothers and housewives, but they can also be scientists, artists and business women.
Darkover is a very patriarchal world - in which Bradley focuses on the lives of the women. By making the contrast perhaps bigger than it was at the time (certainly bigger than I've actually experienced it in my time) she lets the dynamic of the social conversation of her time play out.
She doesn't sound like a radical in her books. She clearly recognizes that many women like being mothers. She recognizes that marriages sometimes work, despite obvious troubles. She recognizes the risks people take who step out of socially acceptable roles into a position that gets created as they go. It is clear that not everybody should be expected to take such a plunge.
In the series of books Bradley wrote about the paganism of Great Britain, she clearly struggles between the Christianity that is brought to the land and the paganism that is there already.
For a time she called herself a pagan, but in her last years she attended an Episcopal church and left the neo-pagan tradition for others to discover.
Her most famous book 'The Mists of Avalon' was the outcome of an attempt at teaching Christians an appreciation of women and female spirituality.
What's most curious is that people actually take her book 'The mists of Avalon' seriously enough to take it literal in their wicca (modern witchcraft) ritual work! This does not mean they will curse people, but that in many cases they will use the rituals in this series and the types of clothing in the movie as they do their wicca rituals. Some of the people who do that believe the whole book is literally true. Others don't, but don't care about that side of it.
Light series - A review of a magical series
Witchlight, Ghostlight, Heartlight and Gravelight form a series together with 'The Inheritor'. Set in the 20th century this series mixes today's world with a fantasy or occult world view.
Bradley really shows she knows the occult and alternative scene and creates stories that you just can't put down in that strange but familiar world.