Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Book review: Priestess of Avalon

Priestess of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002. 416 pages.

Set mainly outside Britannia, Priestess of Avalon marks a departure from Bradley's Avalon series and the buildup to the Matter of Britain. Bradley and Paxson trace the acceptance and spread of Christianity to the goddess through the travels and actions of one of her Avalon priestesses—Flavia Helena Augusta.

For the first time that I remember, astrology plays a significant role in the series. When Helena is born, the Merlin consults the stars, but his words are strangely misinterpreted. ". . . the maid shall hide the moon she bears upon her brow" inexplicably leads the priestesses to murmur, "He prophesies greatness—she will be Lady of the Lake like her mother before her!" The Merlin's reading of the stars proves accurate in every detail, but Helena discovers that prophecies are problematic. Convinced that she is destined to bear the "Child of Prophecy," she remembers only years later what she as a priestess should have always known—that prophecy and its interpretation do not always take the expected path to the anticipated end.

After defying her hated aunt, the High Priestess Ganeda, so that she may bear the "Child of Prophecy," Helena drifts through life just as she and her lover Constantius drift through the Empire. She carefully describes her son's innate leadership talent and his developing personality, but she does little to shape  or understand either. Even before he is taken from her, she is oddly passive toward the boy she is sure will change the world—he is born at the end of one chapter of her narrative and is 10 years old at the beginning of the next. When requested, she foretells the future for Constantius and his friends, and later she takes the place of the sybil at a shrine. She makes no effort, however, to see what lies ahead for her "Child of Prophecy." She says, "'All the gods are one God, and all the goddesses are one Goddess, and there is one Initiator' . . . Somehow I must get its meaning across to Constantine," but she refuses to reveal the mysteries to him. It should be no surprise that Constantine fails to follow an example never set for him, yet Helena finds him and his choices strange and disturbing.

In the acknowledgments, Paxson sets Helena up as a mythological figure associated with Christianity and relics such as the True Cross. In the novel, the Helena's life and opportunities are remarkable, but Helena herself is surprisingly ordinary. Helena tries to reconcile paganism and Christianity, but each new epiphany contradicts those that came before. While the spiritual ideas underlying Priestess of Avalon are intriguing, they are wasted in a rambling, undisciplined story that needs a firmer hand to keep it tight, free of unnecessary detail, and consistent.

Set in the expanse of the declining Roman Empire, Priestess of Avalon is interesting and compelling at times, but ultimately it's unsatisfying. More Paxson's work than Bradley's, the novel never connects the parts of its premise, including Helena's belief in Constantine and her emotional distance from him. It also fails to bridge the gap between the fall of paganism and the rise of Christianity.

Avalon is missing here, and so are the mysteries, the magic, and Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

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