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Culture of the Imagination, Part 3

Last month, I wrote about the psychological dynamics behind the sacred spaces we create together and the ways we might utilize the power of sacred space to create a better world. This month, I'll be writing about what happens when the people to whom we have given power abuse it, and in doing so weaken both the internal and external cultures of the imagination we've worked so hard to build. Specifically, I'll be writing about the work of Marion Zimmer Bradley (MZB), its influence upon a generation of Pagan women and the destructive effects of the recent pedophilia allegations against her.

The younger Pagans among you might not recognize the name, but if you're a Pagan woman of a certain age, you'll remember that MZB is the author of a much-beloved novel called The Mists of Avalon. This novel tells the Arthurian story from the point of view of its women and follows the life of Morgaine, otherwise known as Morgan le Fay. It was released in 1983, just a few years before I left an abusive family of Jehovah's Witnesses to live with my grandmother, who was also a Christian conservative. An avid reader, I found the novel in 1986, and it changed my life in ways that echo even now. It was the world I wanted to live in; a place where women existed in community with one another, where they wielded the ancient power of the divine feminine, where the sacred was protected from the mundane. Because of that book, I was drawn to Western European Paganism, and then to Celtic Pagan spirituality, and then to a degree in Celtic Studies, and then to Cape Breton. In a very real sense, The Mists of Avalon shaped my own culture of the imagination and helped make me the woman I am now.

 Many women of my generation came to Paganism with The Mists of Avalon in one hand and The Spiral Dance in the other, so many the experience might well be called a cliché. Separately, these books showed us how a community that valued the feminine divine might look and how it might operate in the world. Together, they were a heady recipe for transformation and empowerment. I certainly cannot imagine what my life might have been like without their influence, and while I have fallen out of touch with all of the young women with whom I shared The Mists of Avalon in particular, I do recall that one of the young men from our crew read the novel to his daughters in the years that followed. So for me and many other Pagan women my age, it was no mere novel. It was the foundational landscape of our internal Avalons, and as I've previously written, those internal landscapes help to shape the cultures of the imagination we create together as Pagan communities.

So it was especially devastating to me, and I'm sure to many other Pagans, to learn the author of that imaginary Avalon wasn't the woman I hoped she had been.

Early in June, posted a birthday tribute to the late MZB. Shortly thereafter, the post was removed because it neglected to mention her husband Walter Breen's trial and conviction for child molestation. In the fallout from this incident, I learned for the first time that an author whose work I loved had been married to a man well-known in the speculative fiction community as a pedophile. Worse, she had equivocated during his trial with a string of what appeared to be carefully-rehearsed "I don't recalls". Then on June 10th, Deirdre Saoirse Moen posted a blog entry containing Moira Greyland's allegation that MZB had physically and sexually assaulted her and other children for many years. Moira Greyland is MZB's daughter. With permission, Moen posted two poems Greyland wrote about her mother, and they are the stuff of nightmares.

MZB has been dead for nearly fifteen years, so she isn't here any longer to defend herself. However, there is ample record of her self-defense in the way of court testimony online, and it is important to remember that MZB's children and the adult survivors of Walter Breen's abuse have the right to speak about their own experiences and be viewed as credible reporters of their own lives. But while I am linking to the relevant information at the end of this post and have drawn my own conclusions about the matter, it isn't my intention to discuss the facts of the case here. Rather, I want to address with you what happens to us when the people who help to shape our internal and external sacred landscapes fall so far from grace.

It can be perspective-shattering, but the first step toward integration of the experience might be to acknowledge that we are the people most responsible for our internal and external lives. The Mists of Avalon was MZB's novel, but I was the author of its place in my heart, and so it is with every book. Once they leave the hands of their creators, they belong to the people who read them. The same could be said for any powerful work that shapes our lives, so it's important to claim and hold sacred the pieces of that shaping which belong only to us. From there, we can negotiate the place a flawed person's work comes to occupy in our lives. I'm not a great fan of the 'separate the artist from the art' advice, but your mileage may vary, and from time to time I do still read the work of authors whose personal lives and opinions I find distasteful. Finally, as a result of this integration, our internal and external cultures of the imagination can begin to heal so that we continue to be nourished by them and to nourish others with them.

Having said this, there are things that can stand in the way of this process of acknowledgement, integration and healing. Dishonesty with ourselves about the nature of the people in question can lead us to justify or excuse their behaviors in order to protect the influence they had on our lives, but that instinct for self-preservation often comes at too high a cost. Conversely, self-honesty doesn't require that we publicly condemn the people we once admired; it only requires that we tell the truth to ourselves and to others, when asked. In my case, I don't have to defend MZB on the grounds that she cannot defend herself, I don't have to malign her daughter's testimony and I don't have to engage in other evasion techniques in order to preserve the Avalon her work helped to create in my spiritual consciousness. I only need to look at the evidence, make an honest evaluation and move forward, however painful the movement might be. With time and care, my Avalon will remain intact, and my commitment to the creation of communities that honor the feminine divine will remain strong, since both of these things are part of me no matter how MZB behaved during her life.

Why is this so important? Because Marion Zimmer Bradley isn't alone. There are many people more directly associated with the wider Pagan community whose leadership we valued and who fell from grace. In some cases, that fall has indeed been an arrest on pedophilia charges, but in other cases the flawed behavior has been less egregious and gone unchallenged for years, even decades. This means these people are shaping the internal landscapes of others, which in turn shape the cultures of the imagination those others help to create in the Pagan community, where they might do harm along the way. And so the cycle repeats. This is why we must treat our Pagan leaders and writers honestly, just as I have endeavored to treat the allegations against MZB honestly. Without that honesty and the courage of our convictions, we cannot nurture a healthy internal landscape, nor can we cultivate a healthy community.

I hope you've enjoyed my three-part discussion of the culture of the imagination; its place in our hearts, the way it empowers Pagan communities and the challenges it can face. Merry Lughnasa! May you reap a bountiful harvest.

*Jim Hines' Blog Entry
*Marion Zimmer Bradley: It’s Worse Than I Knew
*Marion Zimmer Bradley Gave Us New Perspectives, All Right
*Marion Zimmer Bradley was a child abuser – says her own daughter
* Yanks MZB Birthday Tribute

And finally...

*Thoughts on Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Last modified on
C.S. MacCath is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness, Murky Depths, Witches & Pagans and other publications. Her poetry has been nominated twice for the Rhysling Award, and her fiction has received honorable mention in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection. Ceallaigh's first collection of fiction and poetry entitled The Ruin of Beltany Ring has been called 'wonderful, thoroughly engaging, always amazing', a book of 'tiny marvels' and 'well-worth reading'. At present, she's working on a science fiction series entitled Petals of the Twenty Thousand Blossom and a second collection of fiction and poetry.  


  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Wednesday, 30 July 2014

    Thanks for posting this. I had not been aware of the information you cite. Child sexual abuse is always wrong and covering it up is also wrong.

    Now that you know, do you think there are parts of her work that condone child abuse?

    In your blog you say "people to whom we have given power." The information you share here is one reason I would say never give anyone power. Yes, we can be inspired by others, and we all have. But we need to keep our own power always to judge what anyone else says or does and never accept what anyone else says or does because we have "given them power" over our own minds or bodies.

  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath Thursday, 31 July 2014

    I haven't read all of MZB's work, but I understand there are problematic themes in her Darkover series. In the Mists of Avalon, there is an incident of incest between a masked half brother and sister who aren't supposed to recognize one another, but my memory fails where other problematic passages might be concerned.

    As to the issue of power, there are many kinds. I agree that it's important not to give others power over our minds and bodies in the Wiccan definition of 'power over', but that's not the sort of power I'm discussing here. Primarily, I'm talking about the ways our internal and external lives are shaped by stories; the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we share with others and the ones we internalize from outside sources (which is the thrust of the blog series as a whole).

    These stories have power and so do their tellers, so much that whenever we allow ourselves to be inspired, we enter into a power relationship with them not unlike the power relationship between a teacher and student, which is of necessity unequal. Naturally, Pagan writers and teachers fall into this category of inspirational figures, and so we do give them power over us inasmuch as we allow them to influence our thinking. And when they stumble, sometimes we need to disentangle the people from their inspiration and influence, which is what this blog post addresses.

  • Deirdre Saoirse Moen
    Deirdre Saoirse Moen Thursday, 31 July 2014

    To answer your question, a number of people have brought up The Catch Trap as one example of problematic representation of statutory rape. I now have a (used) copy and plan to read it at some point.

  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath Thursday, 31 July 2014

    Thanks much, Deirdre. I, myself, am not quite ready to read any more of her work at present.

  • Deirdre Saoirse Moen
    Deirdre Saoirse Moen Thursday, 31 July 2014

    I should also add that if anyone has any information about Marion Zimmer Bradley that might be of interest and doesn't want to make it public themselves, I'm happy to gather it. Moira is considering writing a book about her mother, and I'm trying to help support that endeavor. So far, I've found that there's even earlier information about the problematic nature of MZB and Breen than 1964.


  • Danielle Blackwood
    Danielle Blackwood Thursday, 31 July 2014

    This was a brilliant poignant piece, and appreciated your academic tone yet accessible writing style. I also was unaware of the allegations pertaining to MZB. And, yes, I too was one of those women from that generation with Mists in one hand and the Spiral Dance in the other. I wanted to add, that I did recently re-read Mists for the first time in 15 years, and there is another part in the book that I didn't recall having seen before. Morgaine was preparing for the sacred marriage (the infamous scene where she and her brother unknowingly have sex) and the pagan ritual scene is described. She mentions a little girl earlier in this tribe, and then writes how she is raped by an old warrior. It actually stayed with me this time, and had me wondering why she felt compelled to add something so violent and sensational.

    Thanks again for your article.

  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath Thursday, 31 July 2014

    She mentions a little girl earlier in this tribe, and then writes how she is raped by an old warrior.

    Yikes. I forgot about that passage entirely. Thanks for jogging my memory.

    And you're welcome. Thanks for your comment. It's good to meet another woman of the Mists/Spiral Dance tribe.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Sunday, 03 August 2014

    We had never heard the abuse allegations before, either. Sad if true, and I think you deal with it in a very balanced way.

    I do need to point out that MZB did not make up the tradition that King Arthur unknowingly had sex with his sister Morgaine, the issue of which was his bastard son Mordred. That had been a part of the Arthurian legend for hundreds of years before Marion took it up in "Mists" and figured out a plausible explanation for how it might have happened. So please don't cite her inclusion of that as proof of sexual deviancy on the part of the author.

    There was a lot of violence against women (and girls) in the savage days of ancient Britain. Again, I think that an occasional mention of rape, though highly distasteful, is included to paint a realistic picture of those times, and to make the point that there was a need for women to band together.

    The Avalon books are not supposed to be a Walt Disney version of the story. Terrible events happen throughout all of them, many historically accurate such as the defeat of Boudica by the Romans and their slaughter of the Druids on the Isle of Mona. That part of the story was written by Diana L. Paxson, who contributes currently to Pagan Square. She not only helped Marion write her later books and then continued the series herself; she was also trained by Marion as a Pagan Priestess. Maybe we should ask her to weigh in, since she is still alive and able to speak for herself.

    My wife and I are fans of both the entire Avalon series and the entire Darkover series. I don't recall feeling anything creepy about the Darkover books, but we read them many years ago. Then again, neither of us are abuse victims so we may not be as sensitive to such clues as those who have been wounded.

    I do not in any way condone sexual abuse, especially of children. But I do agree with your statement that the Avalon which Marion created will remain intact in our hearts. In the Yoga community, we were appalled to learn that some of our most beloved 60's gurus had not been sexually honest. It took a long time to understand that their teachings emanated from an ancient source and were still good, despite the human failings of the teachers.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Sunday, 03 August 2014

    I just read online that the Darkover series has also been continued by other authors. I meant to say that we read all the books that Marion had written.

  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath Sunday, 03 August 2014

    Thank you for your comments. I'm curious to know where in older literature the incest between Arthur and Morgaine might be found. I have a fondness for early Arthurian tales (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is my favorite), so I'd love for you to share your source tales with me so that I can read them myself. My understanding was that Mordred was either Arthur's nephew or his illegitimate son by his half-sister Morgause (which would also make him a child by incest), but I haven't read any source material that cites Morgaine as Mordred's mother.

    At any rate, I don't believe there is any danger here of extrapolating MZB's treatment of this mythological incident as proof of the pedophilia allegations against her. Carol was simply asking if child abuse was featured in her fiction, and I was jogging my imperfect memory for passages that might meet her criteria. And in truth, forcing a young half-brother and sister into a sexual relationship without their foreknowledge or consent is abusive. That said, I've written and sold stories that include rape scenes far more violent than MZB's depiction of ritualistic sex between Arthur and Morgaine, so I'm the very last person who might use a piece of fiction as proof of some sexual allegation against its author. I'm also the last person who would want or expect 'Walt Disney' fiction, and indeed I don't believe the Mists of Avalon could have had the transformative power it did if it hadn't been willing to address certain difficult truths. I value that in the fiction I read, and I work to achieve it in the fiction I write.

    However, your admonition against witch-hunting an author through the pages of her fiction is excellent and well-taken. We count on the fiction we read to help us understand the world, and our storytellers sometimes have to go to difficult places in order to facilitate that understanding. At the same time, I think it's human to wonder what the connections are between an author and her work, and I know from my own experience that these connections sometimes do exist.

    As for Diana Paxson, I'm aware of the shared history between her and MZB, but I don't believe we have the right to ask anything of her. Yes, she might have some helpful insight on the matter. But there are and never have been (to my knowledge) any related criminal charges laid against her, and she has a right to both her privacy and her private history. I wish both her and MZB's children every good and healing thing.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Sunday, 03 August 2014

    You're absolutely right, C, that the original incest story involved Morgause rather than Morgaine. I wasn't too focused on which sister it was, just that the tale was passed down by others and not invented by MZB. The legend is, in fact, a moral warning that Arthur was a Christian king whose reign had to come to ruin because of the grievous sin of incest. Even though it was committed innocently, the Church inveighed against simple fornication also. Had Arthur remained a Pagan overlord, such details might not have mattered so much (like the Pharaohs of Egypt).

    Sorry for this confusion: I was responding to comments by Danielle when I made the allusion to Disney. I was trying to defend the literary integrity of the writing, not make excuses for any private horribleness on the part of the writer. It was in that interest, also, that I suggested talking with Diana Paxson - not about personal matters, but about the motivating intentions behind the Avalon series of books.

    I read both of Moira's poems and her stories of her policeman husband's experiences, and my heart bleeds for her and for all who have suffered as she did.

    Sociological Observation: I'm afraid that if we are going to go down the path of the artist having to live up her art, we will have to open up the can of worms that most of our favorite Movie and TV characters from our formative years - whom we hold lovingly in our hearts and on whom we based many of our moral values in life - were played by tragically flawed human beings who never, in real life, ever embodied those high ideals that were put into their mouths by screenwriters, and which they portrayed so beautifully in front of the cameras. We all like to think that we fell in love with those iconic artists. In point of fact, we only fell in love with their art. Sad but true.

  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath Tuesday, 05 August 2014

    I was trying to defend the literary integrity of the writing, not make excuses for any private horribleness on the part of the writer.

    I really appreciate that. There is one other writer in particular who is alive and who has said some truly awful things about the LGBT community, and I confess I still read his work because it had such an influence on me as a younger woman. That said, there are writers I've personally interacted with who are manifestly ugly people, and I can't stand to read anything they've written. I really think it's a personal choice, when it comes right down to it.

    We all like to think that we fell in love with those iconic artists. In point of fact, we only fell in love with their art.

    This. All the way.

  • Deirdre Saoirse Moen
    Deirdre Saoirse Moen Tuesday, 05 August 2014

    This is so much how I feel. One of my favorite books was written by said LGBT-unfriendly author, and it really shaped my values in what I think is a positive way. The ability to write in a way that causes us to think about the larger world, to question and shift our views—that is the value, even of works from problematic authors.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Sunday, 03 August 2014

    In re: Diana Paxson and the MZB situation, please see Diana's public statement here:

    The fact that Moira (MZB's daughter) has publicly exonerated Diana from *any* involvement in her abuse pretty much settles the issue for me.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Sunday, 03 August 2014

    Thank you, Anne. Good enough for me, too.

  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath Tuesday, 05 August 2014

    Thanks for this, Anne.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Monday, 04 August 2014

    C.S. and Carol: I actually have found a paragraph from one of the Avalon books which could, in a certain light, be construed as a justification for child abuse - though I'll be the first to admit that I could be way off base with such an assumption. I only know that it scared the crap out of me when I first read it (as was probably its intent), but I assumed at the time that it must be a commonly held conviction among most feminist Goddess worshipers. There is the added problem that "Priestess of Avalon" was a combined writing project by both Marion and Diana - so it's impossible to know which one actually penned the following words:

    "The woman of ancient times had possessed a strength we no longer claimed. If she had too many children, or not enough strength to rear another child, or if feeding it would deprive the tribe at the wrong time of year, she could look into the face of the child and put forth her hand and send that child back into nowhere and nothingness as if it had never been born.

    …I realized then that a woman is never free to bear a child unless she is also free to abort it. A man must know that he is breathing because his mother looked on his face and saw that it was good and chose freely to nourish him. This child, who lived because I had given up so much to conceive and bear him, must never be allowed to forget that he owed his life to me." - Priestess of Avalon, chapter 9

    I believe in a woman's freedom of choice before an embryo is brought to term, but I was extremely disturbed by this passage's assertion that a mother had the right to "send that child back into nowhere and nothingness" after it was actually born. But the most chilling statement of all was that she could look into its face and feel no remorse. In hindsight, it sounds uncomfortably like what Moira Greyland has written of her mother.

  • C.S. MacCath
    C.S. MacCath Tuesday, 05 August 2014

    In hindsight, it sounds uncomfortably like what Moira Greyland has written of her mother.

    Interestingly, that passage struck me as a nod to the practice of exposing female infants to the elements to die, though I do see your point entirely.

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