Reading “The Mists of Avalon” at Age Twelve

I was a twelve-year-old social pariah and I had probably read every Arthurian book in our (admittedly limited) middle school library. At school, my favorite lunchtime activity was sitting in the classroom of a sympathetic teacher and discussing books with her.

The teacher knew I had an abiding love for the King Arthur legends. During one of these lunch-hour mythology discussions, she said to me, “I bet you’d love The Mists of Avalon.” The next day, she brought her copy to school with her for me to borrow, with the caveat that I should run it by my mother first. So I did.

My mother asked her neighbor about the book, probably hoping for the comforting reassurance that this was appropriate reading material for her twelve-year-old daughter. Instead, the neighbor warned her that The Mists of Avalon was chock full of pagan sex rituals and therefore bound to corrupt me. As far as my mother was concerned, the book was off limits. I begged for a chance to read it.

The Mists of Avalon had become my forbidden fruit. I saw it sitting on my mother’s armoire every day. I found myself making excuses to wander past it; touching the embossed cover; carefully opening it to read a few pages of the prologue when no one was looking. Never had I wanted to read any book more than I wanted to read The Mists of Avalon.

She held out for weeks before agreeing to a compromise: I had to wait until she had read it first, then abide by her final judgment. She didn’t know it, but, in what may have been the first rebellious act of my young life, I was already well into the story.

Looking back, it wasn’t much of a rebellion, but it felt subversive to a sheltered girl from a conservative home. Little injustices that I always had a nagging suspicion were unfair were described for the first time I could remember. It wasn’t just lush scenery and detailed sexual acts (although that made for great reading, too). Through the eyes of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s characters, I learned about patriarchal domination, gender inequality, slut-shaming, religious persecution, bigotry, and heterosexism. I recognized that these weren’t mere wisps of fantasy. This was my nascent introduction to feminism.

I read after school, before my parents were home from work. I couldn’t leave bookmarks, so I memorized my page numbers; repeating them to myself like little prayers. When my brother was home, I would hide it under pillows in the bedroom, piles of towels in the bathroom, or wrapped in a sweater in my backpack. By the time my mother gave her grudging permission for me to start reading, I had already read the book from cover to cover.

The day she gave her permission, I started it again from the beginning.

This essay is crossposted from Geekquality, a podcast and blog about intersectionality and geek culture. Jen considers the fictional works of Marion Zimmer Bradley to be instrumental to her early feminist development.

By Jen R. L. Disarray

Jen was once described as a "culinary anthropologist". She liked that. When she is not making questionable foods, Jen enjoys reading, sassing, and lurking all over the internet. Jen has a blog called Maybe We Shouldn't Be Eating This, and she is a contributor to the Geekquality podcast and blog.

6 replies on “Reading “The Mists of Avalon” at Age Twelve”

My mom hid her magazines from me but I could read pretty much whatever books I liked – which include The Women’s Room at age 11. In retrospect I agree with her that the magazines were probably much more harmful!

Loved all of MZB’s stuff as tween/teenager but not sure I could re-read them as an adult.

I can’t believe I still haven’t read this. I have got to track down a copy one day! I read the Clan of the Cave Bear and its sequels starting in 6th or 7th grade. I’d seen the movie but had NO idea how much sex there was gonna be. My mom seemed mildly bemused when she caught me with them, but she didn’t stop me, thank goodness. Very informative books, those!

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