The generation of readers who grew up rooting for Elphaba in Wicked may not realize how much they owe to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which in its time was a groundbreaking piece of revisionist literature, presenting a feminist interpretation of the Arturian Cycle as told from the point of view of a traditional “villain,” Morgan Le Fay. I remember reading it on summer break from Georgetown, where I was an undergraduate. As a medievalist, I had had the opportunity to study Wolfram von Eschenbach and Chretien de Troyes, and I found Bradley’s take on the classic tales electrifying.
But it wasn’t until I was looking for titles for the Read-A-Myth Challenge that I realized Bradley had also reinterpreted the story of one of the most frustrating and hopeless characters in Greek mythology: Kassandra. In The Firebrand, Bradley revisits the doomed prophetess of Troy, cursed to always be right, but never believed. (**Digression: Any woman who has ever tried to share the assembly directions while her significant other boldly struggled to put together the IKEA furniture with brawn and intuition alone should be able to put herself in Kassandra’s place pretty easily.**)
Bradley is at her best describing the day-to-day life of women, and The Firebrand is crammed with social history lessons, from marriage customs to household duties. I’d say she was less successful in the actual “history” portion of her books, as the ancient world she seeks to recreate requires some suspension of disbelief. For example, we’re asked to believe that Amazons and Centaurs (although she calls them Kentaurs) lived in highly evolved, monosexual groups which allowed women to be wholly autonomous. In fact, some of the dialog during Kassandra’s time with the Amazons reads more like a Ms. Magazine editorial than a great work of literature.
Like its precursor and parent, The Iliad, proper relationships are at the center of this novel. Bradley takes some liberties here as well, making Kassandra the twin of Paris, with whom she shares a bond of sight, something Paris finds unseemly. The novel’s men are almost uniformly bellicose, vainglorious, and imperious in their treatment of women, although the gentle Aeneas is a notable exception. It is the relationships among the women that are most satisfying, as Bradley allows us to see not only Kassandra but Helen and Hecuba in far greater detail – and sympathy – than any previous treatment of the classic tales I’ve read.
I really enjoyed this novel. It is LONG, though, and since the outcome was never in doubt – Troy was certainly going to fall – there were times when I grew a bit impatient with it. And the last chapter, an attempt I think to link the main characters to the Iron Age Earth goddess-worshipping societies of Western Europe that MZB knew so well, had the feeling of an afterthought. But those are quibbles. I would definitely recommend the book to those who enjoy revisionist and feminist literature, those who enjoy Greek mythology, and those who enjoy historical novels. All in all, a great start to the Read-A-Myth Challenge. Thanks to JoV at Bibliojunkie and Bina at If You Can Read This for hosting.