The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
I always love reading about King Arthur and this is, hands down, my favorite telling of the legend. This is an absolutely exceptional version of the famous legends. The book is quite long but I don't think you'll worry about that once you are immersed in the story between the pages.
In this epic novel Bradley tells us Arthur's story through the eyes of the women that loved and hated him, helped him and hindered him. Morgaine (Morgan Le Fey) and Gwenhwyfar are the two main narrators though Morgaine is the main protagonist in the story. There also sections told from other points of view: Igraine (Arthur's mother); Vivian, the Lady of the Lake; and Morgause, Morgaine's aunt and Vivian's sister. The novel spans a few generations, from Arthur's birth through his eventual downfall. We see how Morgaine is brought by her aunt Viviane to Avalon to train as a priestess and how much of the legend we are familiar with is their attempt to help Arthur while at the same time preserving their ancient ways. We get all the wonderful parts of the Arthurian legend here told in wonderful and breathtaking detail. Besides Arthur's story we also see the struggle in Britain between the Celtic, pagan tradition and Christianity, mainly through Morgaine's eyes as she tries desperately to save her Celtic culture. The two story lines (Arthur's and the religious struggle) are beautifully interwoven so that each affects the other. While the ancient pagan religion and magical practices do play a big part in this story I did not feel that they were too over the top or unbelievable; it is all very centered on the earth and nature.
Bradley's characters are extremely well developed and fascinating to follow. Morgaine, in most versions of the legend, is usually depicted as an evil, scheming sorceress while here she is shown as only trying to help her half-brother while saving her country and her religion. She was by far my favorite character; I could really sympathize with her throughout her many struggles in the novel. Gwenhwyfar is someone that I really did not like from the start. She is not a bad character but she goes from a very timid, mousy young child to a fanatically religious woman who believes her inability to give Arthur a child is God showing his displeasure over the existence of the pagan beliefs. At points she really can't make up her mind who or what she wants: Arthur or Lancelot? To believe in Morgaine's ways or to curse them? I really wanted to shake her a few times to help her make up her mind. Her pleas to Arthur really move him to turn his back on the pagan beliefs and this essentially becomes the catalyst that leads to his downfall. Morgause is really the villain in the story as she uses Morgaine and then Mordred as her tool to ruin not only Arthur but her sister Vivian as well. She is extremely ruthless and cunning in her constant struggle for power.
This is a truly wonderful and magnificent version of Arthur's story. Bradley's vivid descriptions of life and traditions during the Dark Ages and her intricate details of sights, sounds, and smells, really make the period come alive. You can almost close your eyes and see the Isle of Avalon appearing out of the mists. In my case, I wanted to be able to reach out and touch it. I would highly recommend this novel to any lover of Arthurian legends (it is quite long though so be prepared!) or to anyone who wants to become a lover of Arthurian legend.
*This was made into a TV mini series in 2001. It starred Anjelica Houston as Vivian.