Analysis of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Novels

Marion Zimmer Bradley (June 3, 1930 – September 25, 1999) was one of the most prolific authors to write science fiction, with more than sixty novels to her name and others written under pseudonyms. Though she was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, she never won either of science fiction’s highest honors. Nevertheless, her novels contributed to the growth of science fiction in numerous ways. Bradley pushed the boundaries of sexual taboos, especially on homosexuality, with her sympathetic homosexual characters. It could also be argued that she, like fellow fantasy writer Andre Norton, served as a role model for many women who wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. As an editor, Bradley published many authors’ debut stories and helped other women writers become established in what had been traditionally a male-oriented field. She will always be known for creating one of the most enduring worlds and series in science fiction.  

Bradley’s early years fit the conventional mold of the science-fiction and fantasy genres in which she was publishing. However, as she matured as a writer, she explored nonconventional themes, particularly in the areas of religion and sexuality. She also moved away from hard science fiction into more traditional fantasy. Many of her characters possess psychic abilities or some sort of power that sets them apart from others. Most of the critical work on Bradley has been done on her as a woman writer and a writer of women characters and issues. She created memorable female characters, such as Morgaine from The Mists of Avalon, and female sisterhoods, such as the Free Amazons of Darkover. Though Bradley did not call herself a feminist, she was both criticized and applauded by those who have.

 Darkover Landfall 

Darkover Landfall is not the first book published about Darkover; however, it is the first book in the chronological order of that series. Darkover Landfall details the origin of humans on the planet Darkover. A colonization ship, heading for another planet, crashes on the inhospitable planet. While trying to repair their ship, the crew and colonists are exposed to the Ghost Wind, a natural occurrence that spreads a psychoactive pollen over the crash party. The pollen activates latent psychic abilities and lowers sexual inhibitions. Various sexual unions occur among the survivors. Eventually, they realize that they will have to make their home on the world.

The plot is a fairly conventional one for a science-fiction novel. This book shows Bradley’s interest in and use of psychic abilities in her novels. On a nonconventional level, the book, without giving details, explores alternate sexualities and alternate standards of marriage and partnerships. To ensure a broad gene pool, everyone must have children with different partners. What caused the biggest controversy for the novel, though, was the fact that Camilla Del Rey, the first officer, is forbidden to have an abortion when she wishes one. If it had not been for the crash, there would have been no problem with her choice, but since the colony knows fertility and infant survival rates will be low for the first several years, she is forced to have the child. This position, though defended in the world of the book, sparked controversy and ire among fans, feminists, and other writers. It was not until later books that Bradley changed their minds.

The Shattered Chain 

The Shattered Chain is another Darkover novel, but it differs from earlier works because it focuses on the Free Amazons, or Renunciates, of Darkover. Centuries after the crash of the starship, Darkover has become a planet with a harsh caste system and a mostly feudal political and economic system. Women have few or no rights in most of this society. The exception is the Free Amazons. The Free Amazons have renounced their allegiance and reliance on their former families and men. They renounce marriage. They swear an oath that they will give themselves to men and will have children only when they want to. They are often ridiculed by Darkoveran society. This novel in many ways answers the criticisms leveled at Bradley after the publication of Darkover Landfall. In this novel, the women are the protagonists and the capable characters.

The story is told in three sections, with twelve years separating part 1 from part 2. Parts 1 and 2 focus on rescues. In the first part, Rohanna Ardais, a telepathic noblewoman, hires the Free Amazons to rescue her abducted kinswoman because the men in her family have given up on her. Melora, Rohanna’s cousin, is trapped in a Dry Town. In the Dry Towns, all women are chained, wearing the outward sign that they belong to the men. The Free Amazons rescue Melora and her daughter Jaelle so that Jaelle will not be chained. In part 2, Magda Lorne, a Terran sociologist, impersonates a Free Amazon to ransom her male friend, Peter Haldane, from a thief. She meets the grown Jaelle and her band and is forced to pledge the oath of the Amazons. She then realizes that she believes the oath. Part 3 focuses on the ramifications of Magda and Jaelle’s oath.

Although the first two parts carry most of the action for the story, it is the last section that reveals Bradley’s themes. Throughout the section, the three female protagonists confront the choices they have made and the prices they have paid or will pay. Rohanna renounced her freedom of choice for security in marriage. Jaelle gained her freedom but renounced the ability to ever marry. Magda has to renounce her Terran allegiance to live as a Free Amazon. Bradley’s point is that what is important is the choice—women should always have a choice in what they do. Rohanna did not have that choice and learns to live with it. Jaelle did have that choice but realizes it requires a price. She eventually chooses to live as a freemate with Peter Haldane. The fact that she wants to give herself to a man is her choice as well.

There is a brief mention of the theme of fate in this novel, a theme Bradley explores in greater depth in later works. It seems to be pure chance that Magda meets Jaelle on her way to free Haldane. However, Lady Rohanna does not think it mere coincidence that Haldane looks exactly like Rohanna’s son or that Magda meets Jaelle, the one person who could uncover her masquerade as a Free Amazon. Bradley suggests that there is a higher power at work. Although feminists hated Darkover Landfall, many hailed The Shattered Chain as a feminist novel. Reviewer Joanna Russ, critical of the earlier work, later included The Shattered Chain in a listing of feminist utopias. The exploration of woman’s choice continued in later Bradley works.

The Mists of Avalon

Although she will be known forever among the science-fiction community for creating Darkover, Bradley is known to a wider literary audience for The Mists of Avalon. It could be considered her magnum opus. An impressive length, it stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for months after it was published in 1983. It was her first and most successful crossover mainstream novel.

The themes Bradley explored in The Shattered Chain reappear in The Mists of Avalon. This is the story of the women of the Arthurian legend and their struggles with fate, religion, and the social strictures of that time. It deals with the matters of choice, or lack thereof. Though principally the story of Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar, attention is also given to Ingraine, the mother of Morgaine and Arthur; Viviane, the Lady of the Lake; Morguase, Morgaine’s aunt and the mother of Gawaine; and Nimue, daughter of Lancelot and the nemesis of the Merlin, Kevin Harper. Through these women, Bradley reimagines the Arthurian legends into a woman’s history and story.

Bradley reimagines the thematic conflict of the legend. In the book, the old ways of the Goddess religion are dying out to the encroachments of Christianity. The Lady of the Lake is the high priestess of the Goddess faith, with Avalon as her seat of power. The Merlin is the chosen messenger of the gods. Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, and Taliesin, the Merlin, plan to put Uther on the throne of Great Britain so that he can protect the people from both the Saxons and the Christians. They further arrange that Uther’s son Arthur should be king of both Britain and Avalon. Their plans go awry when Gwenhwyfar turns out to be overly pious and converts Arthur into a Christian king.

Morgaine is raised on Avalon as priestess of the Goddess and vows to do Her will. However, when Viviane arranges for Arthur and Morgaine to participate in the ancient rites and have sexual intercourse, Morgaine feels betrayed and leaves Avalon. She joins Arthur’s court, though she never gives up her ways. She continually tries to make Arthur be true to his oath to Avalon. In Bradley’s version of the legend, this is the source of the conflict between Arthur and Morgaine—the struggle of one religion over another. Mordred, the son of Arthur and Morgaine, is also incorporated into this struggle, as he has been raised in Avalon and sees himself as the one to return Britain to its old ways. To do so, he must remove his father. Morgaine never hates Arthur in this version; in fact, the siblings love each other. Morgaine has always been Arthur’s first love.

The conflict between the religions spurs social conflict as well. Under the old ways, women had the choice of whom they would mate with or love. The priests bring patriarchy and the concept of adultery. Bradley makes it clear that few of these women have choices. Ingraine, at the age of fifteen, is given in marriage to the old duke of Cornwall. Morgaine is given to Arthur in the rites. Gwenhwyfar is given to Arthur as part of a deal for horses. Arthur later arranges a marriage for Morgaine with the aged Uriens, king of North Wales. The women do what is expected of them, however much they internally question those rules. Besides having no social choices, Bradley suggests that the women have no choices at all. Viviane and Morgaine both have the Sight, a gift from the Goddess that gives them knowledge of the future. The implication is that everyone has a destiny to be carried out, and there is little that can be done to change that destiny.

The success of this novel may be attributed to many things. First, the Arthurian legend holds a certain mystique of its own, and Bradley captures that sense of awe in her own way. Second, Bradley manages to portray the conflict that many women feel regarding traditional Judeo-Christian religions. Bradley, through Gwenhwyfar, often mentions how priests teach that sin came into the world through a woman, and therefore all women are evil. Morgaine’s character dismisses that notion with contempt, and even Gwenhwyfar seems to finally reject it, entering the embrace of the Goddess in the aspect of the Virgin Mary.


Other major works
Short fiction: The Dark Intruder, and Other Stories, 1964; “A Sword of Chaos,” 1981; “The Lesson of the Inn,” 1981; The Best of Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1985; Lythande, 1986.
Nonfiction: “Responsibilities and Temptations of Women Science Fiction Writers,” 1985.
Children’s literature: The Brass Dragon, 1970.
Edited texts: Sword and Sorceress: An Anthology of Heroic Fantasy, 1985-(series; 19 volumes as of 2002); Snows of Darkover, 1994.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

Categories: Literature

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2 replies

  1. Love MZB! Thanks for the article!

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