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Bradley was a prolific science-fiction and fantasy writer best known for her series of novels tracing the evolution of the planet Darkover and for her retelling of the King Arthur legend in The Mists of Avalon (1982). Her novels exhibit a diversity of plot and time period as well as similar thematic concerns, particularly an examination of sex roles and their limitations.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Interest in Science Fiction
Marion Bradley was born on a farm in Albany, New York, in 1930, during the early part of the Great Depression. Her father was a carpenter, and her mother was a historian. It was through her mother that she gained an interest in history, but she Marian Zimmer Bradley was also an early devotee of the science-fiction movement that was burgeoning in the 1940s. From an early age, she wanted to a writer, and while still in high school, she started her own science-fiction magazine. Before pursuing that dream, she attended New York State College to train to be a teacher. She began writing science fiction stories in 1949, the same year she married her first husband, R. A. Bradley.
Juggling Motherhood and Writing
Although Bradley had begun writing at the same time that her marriage began, she did not begin writing professionally until the early 1960s, largely because of the birth of her son. Throughout the 1950s, Bradley juggled motherhood and writing. During this period, she wrote numerous stories and had modest success getting them printed, but she did not publish her first novel, The Door Through Space, until 1961.
A Busy Decade
After starting her publishing career at the age of thirty, Bradley was a prolific writer, publishing over thirty books by 1980 and over one hundred books both singly and in collaboration with other authors during her forty-year career. The 1960s were a particularly productive time for Bradley. She published five books in 1962 alone, although one of these, The Planet Savers, had been serialized in Amazing Science Fiction Stories three years earlier. Published as a novel, The Planet Savers would become the first of Bradley’s Darkover novels.
Bradley’s writing career took off at the same time that the modern women’s movement was gaining energy. The publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963 was a major impetus for the development of feminism in the mid- and late-1960s and into the 1970s. Much of Bradley’s writing during this period, mostly on the Darkover novels, contained overtly feminist themes and was driven by concerns that Bradley shared with women and mothers of the 1950s and 1960s.
The 1960s brought significant changes in Bradley’s life in addition to her success as a writer. She divorced her first husband in 1963 and married for the second time the following year. In 1965 she graduated from Hardin-Simmons University and moved to Berkeley, California, to pursue graduate studies at the University of California. Her interests in history and fantasy combined in 1966, when she cofounded the Society for Creative Anachronism.
Beyond Science Fiction Novels
Bradley’s interest in history, along with her feminist concerns, led her to write her most popular novel, The Mists of Avalon, a retelling of the King Arthur legend from the perspective of the women involved. This book was an instant hit and remained on the New York Times best seller list for sixteen weeks. This success helped Bradley broaden her readership, and for the rest of her life, her work belonged to the wider genre of fantasy and speculative fiction. She wrote another historical novel, The Firebrand, in 1987, and started Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine in 1988. She also produced Gothic fictions, such as The Inheritor (1984), Ghostlight (1995), and its sequels, Witchlight (1996) and Gravelight (1997).
During the last decade of her life, she remained active as an editor, working on her magazine as well as editing the annual Sword and Sorcery, but her production of novels decreased steadily, largely because of failing health. She died from a heart attack in 1999.
Works in Literary Context
Two major themes may be identified in Bradley’s works. The first is the reconciliation of conflicting or opposing forces, whether such forces are represented by different cultures or by different facets of a single personality. The second, closely related to the first, is alienation or exile from a dominant group. These features are readily seen in Bradley’s Darkover novels, a loosely connected series dealing with the perpetual opposition between the citizens of the Terran Empire and those of the planet Darkover.
The Clash of Opposing Forces
The Darkover novels comprise a diversity of plots and time periods, yet they share a common setting and similar thematic concerns. Although all Darkovans are descendants of explorers from Earth, two different cultures have evolved. The Terrans rely on communal support and advanced technology, while the Darkovans are self-reliant and antitechnological. Bradley does not openly favor either one; her work often explores the conflicts that arise from opposing forces, and the Darkover novels, like her other works, usually end in reconciliation. Lester del Rey calls Darkover ”one of the most fully realized of the worlds of science fiction.”
Among the serious issues addressed in the Darkover novels are the importance and the problems of communication between individuals. The first Darkover novel, The Sword of Aldones (1962), centers on Lew Alton and his acute sense of isolation, which stems from both his physical deformities and his dual heritage: Darkovan and Terran. In The Forbidden Tower (1977), however, Bradley employs the Darkovans’ telepathic powers in order to explore the extreme emotional and physical closeness of the four protagonists.
An undercurrent of feminism runs throughout the Darkover series. Bradley frequently examines sex roles and the limitations they place on the individual. One of the most notable examples of this idea occurs in The Shattered Chain (1976). Revolving around the struggles of three women for independence and self-realization, this novel explores both the necessity of choice and the inevitable pain and hardship that result from the freedom to choose. Critics have praised Bradley’s ability to incorporate feminist and utopian ideals into the harsh realism of Darkover without diminishing the credibility of the characters or their society.
Bradley’s feminist interests are also evident in The Mists of Avalon. This novel, which retells the Arthurian legend from the viewpoint of the women involved, has received considerable critical attention. Critics on the whole are impressed with Bradley’s accurate and detailed evocation of the times and consider The Mists of Avalon an important addition to the chronicles of Arthur.
Works in Critical Context
Critics in general praise Bradley’s literate writing, intricate characterizations, and logical plots. Although most of her works are favorably received by critics, the origin of her popular appeal lies in the Darkover series. From the beginning, her works were reviewed, usually with favor, by the speculative fiction press, but it was not until the 1970s that she began to receive attention from outside that narrow critical sphere. Since then she has been widely recognized as a capable and imaginative writer. With the publication of The Mists of Avalon in 1982, Bradley greatly expanded her readership beyond traditional speculative fiction audiences.
The Darkover Series
The Darkover series consists of over twenty books that span many years of that world’s history. Critics have noted that Bradley uses this broad canvas to explore several important themes. As Rosemarie Arbur writes in Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Writers, ”the Darkover novels test various attitudes about the importance of technology, and more important, they study the very nature of human intimacy.” One notable feature of the Darkover novels, often pointed out by critics, is that each volume is both unique and able to stand alone as a novel. Dan Miller notes in his Booklist review for The Shattered Chain, ”As with others in the series, no knowledge of the previous books is required for enjoyment.” Lester del Rey, in a retrospective review of the two earliest books for Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, contends, ”Bradley refused to be bound by consistency—wisely, I think, since Darkover has evolved and improved. But even the early stories have the wonderful allure of this strange world.”
The Mists of Avalon
The publication of Bradley’s first mainstream best seller, The Mists of Avalon, drew praise from a wide variety of critics. Some critics praised the book for its ambitious feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend, though as Charlotte Spivack wrote in Merlin’s Daughters: Contemporary Women Writers of Fantasy, it ”is much more than a retelling. … [It] is a profound revisioning.” Spivack contends that the book ”offers a brilliant reinterpretation of the traditional material from the point of view of the major female characters.” Maureen Quilligan of the New York Times Book Review writes, ” The Mists of Avalon rewrites Arthur’s story so that we realize it has always also been the story of his sister, the Fairy Queen.” Spivack also notes that Bradley not only presents the story from a woman’s perspective, she roots it ”in the religious struggle between matriarchal worship of the goddess and the patriarchal institution of Christianity.” According to Carrol L. Fry in the Journal of Popular Culture, Bradley ”reverses the traditional Arthurian lore to criticize institutional Christianity. She levels much of that criticism at her perception … of the church’s misogyny.”
Despite critical praise for Bradley’s fresh approach to Arthurian legend, some critics were unimpressed with the book. Maude McDaniel of the Washington Post complained that ”It all seems strangely static . . . set pieces the reader watches rather than enters. . . . [F]inally we are left with more bawling than brawling.” Darrell Schweitzer of Science Fiction Review faulted the novel for making changes in the story that are ”all in the direction of the mundane, the ordinary” because, as he argues, ”the interesting parts happen offstage” since the women in the legend ”aren’t present at the crucial moments.” However, most critics agreed that the novel will, as Beverly Deweese put it in a Science Fiction Review article, ”attract and please many readers” with an Arthurian world that is ”intriguingly different.”
- Alpers, H. J., ed. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover. Meitingen, Germany: Corian, 1983.
- Arbur, Rosemarie. Marion Zimmer Bradley. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1985.
- Breen, Walter. The Gemini Problem: A Study in Darkover. Baltimore: T-K Graphics, 1976.
- Lane, Daryl, ed. The Sound of Wonder. Vol. 2. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1985.
- Magill, Frank, ed. Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature. Vol. 1. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1983.
- ”Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Jean C. Stine and Daniel G. Marowski. Vol. 30. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984, pp. 26-32.
- Roberson, Jennifer. Return to Avalon. New York: DAW Books, 1996.
- Spivack, Charlotte. Merlin’s Daughters: Contemporary Women Writers of Fantasy. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
- Staicar, Tom, ed. The Feminine Eye: Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It. New York: Ungar, 1982.
- Wise, S. The Darkover Dilemma: Problems of the Darkover Series. Baltimore: T-K Graphics, 1976.
- Leith, Linda. ”Marion Zimmer Bradley and Darkover.” Science-Fiction Studies (March 1980).
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