Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Ballantyne-Del Ray, 1982.
Jacobovici, Simcha, and Barrie Wilson. The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene. Trans. Of Syriac Manuscript by Tony Burke. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014.
The weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year were rather busy for me with lots of calls on my time and demands for multi-tasking. So much so, I felt the need to read something long that kept me engaged for a considerable period of time. I therefore decided to reread Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and lose myself for a while in its 876 pages of Arthurian fantasy.* I followed that book with The Lost Gospel and found a fascinating synchronicity between the ideas raised by the two apparently not very connected books. The following is not so much review of these two books as a meditation or, given the subtitle of my blog, a “ramble” on the ideas that the two books elicited. Thank you in advance for sticking with me as I indulge myself in not quite a stream of consciousness.
The Mists of Avalon takes us to the court of King Arthur. Told primarily from the point of view of Morgaine, King Arthur’s elder half sister, daughter of Igraine and Gorlois of Cornwall, Duchess of Cornwall in her own right, and priestess of the goddess, The Mists of Avalon suggests a Britain in which the old goddess centred religion of Britain is in conflict with Christianity. The Lady of the Lake is the High Priestess of the old religion and together with the Merlin of Britain guardian of Britain’s sacred heritage. Some sections of the novel are focalized from the perspective of Gwenhwyfar, Arthur’s queen. Gwenhwyfar is presented as a weak, fearful, and rather narrow-minded woman, who limits her own potential because of her acceptance of a very restrictive, unquestioning, and guilt-fostering Christianity.
The Lost Gospel argues that The Story of Joseph the Just and Aseneth his Wife a narrative forming part of British Library Manuscript 17,202, a Syriac text, is a coded lost gospel confirming a marriage between Jesus of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala. It includes a translation from the Syriac of Joseph and Aseneth by Tony Burke. In some ways, The Mists of Avalon and Jacobovici and Wilson’s interpretation of Joseph and Aseneth share similar ground.
IF we accept Jacobovici and Wilson’s argument about Joseph and Aseneth, then both stories tell of a legendary hero whose roots may well have a genesis in historical events, and both deal with the conflicts between Pauline Christianity and a more feminine centred religious practice. Both foreground the ritual and cosmic significance of the Great Marriage (hieros gamos), resonances of which echo still in some of our current folkloric practices such as some May Day celebrations and so forth. Such practices are very much at odds with the teachings of Paul or Augustine of Hippo.
Of course, many are not convinced by Jacobovici and Wilson, and even a superficial overview of reviews of The Lost Gospel reveals negative responses ranging from the lukewarm to the vitriolic. The Lost Gospel’s thesis depends heavily upon typology, which will be problematic for some readers, even though typology and allegory are not unknown in Christian writings and thought. Where do I stand? I found the insights into the realpolitik of first century CE Galilee quite interesting, but the authors’ assertions about the ultimate privileging of the Pauline view of Jesus as Christ and subsequent development of the Pauline based church are not particularly new. My major criticism of the book is stylistic. At times, the authors are so excited by what they are sharing with their readers their prose becomes somewhat hyperbolic.
While I do tend to think that any contribution to the discussion of and significance for us today of the role of women in the early Christian church is certainly worthwhile, I don’t intend here to enter the debate of whether Jacobovici and Wilson’s ultimate conclusions are valid or not. What fascinated me most when I had finished the two books were the thoughts they engendered on the similarities and differences between the purely literary and the biblical when it comes to the issue of canonicity and the construction and acceptance of a canon.
It’s highly unlikely that Joseph and Aseneth will be regarded as canonical by Orthodox, Roman Catholic or mainstream Protestant Christians of whatever denomination any time in the near future. However, The Mists of Avalon is accepted as one of those books proving “the appeal of Arthur is enduring and virtually universal” ((Norris J. Lacey and Geoffrey Ashe with Debra N Mancoff. The Arthurian Handbook. 2nd ed. London: Garland,
Bradley’s novel engages with what is often referred to as “The Matter of Britain,” the tale of the rex quondam rex futurus, Arthur, King of Britain, whose story can be discovered in and from many sources and in languages ranging from Welsh to French and German. Did such a king exist and did his order of the knights of the round table exist? The answer to that question has yet to be satisfactorily answered. Chapter One “Origins” of The Arthurian Handbook probably expresses it most succinctly: “Perhaps the updating, the medievalizing, may seem to make it impossible to break through to an underlying reality [of Arthur]. Yet the reality may be there all the same” (3). What the wealth of Arthurian literature does show us is the Matter of Britain remains an inspiration for writers and artists as diverse as A. S. Byatt and The Pythons.
Asking the same question about the possible historical reality of Jesus and Mary as about King Arthur would elicit more varied responses, I believe, and those answers would depend very much, I suspect, on whether those answering were drawing on historical record, literary reference, or on faith. In reading The Mists of Avalon or, for that matter, any contribution to or version of the Matter of Britain, such as White’s The Sword in the Stone or Mary Stewart’s books about Merlin, if one suggests deviations from or additions to what appear to be the generally accepted points of the narrative, one might on occasion be accused of poor scholarship or weak writing but not of blasphemy or heresy. However, any scholar of religious studies, theology, or literature who takes on textual and contextual criticism of biblical texts can face such accusations when suggesting that texts not accepted into the canon actually contribute to the familiar narrative and may well have implications for how any message whether implicitly or explicitly stated is understood.
This is not to suggest that anyone challenging views on literary canonicity does not face debate. In fact, there is probably nothing more likely to promote vigorous, even vitriolic debate among academics in particular, than a discussion about canonicity—at least among those who do accept the idea of some core texts being of more value than others for one reason or another. There are also some who do not accept this view in any form, but that is a whole different debate. I would argue that among those who do accept the idea of canonicity what those fierce disputants would agree upon is the possibility [note my emphasis here] that the canon is of necessity open to addition and revision. After all, people continue to write. Good, genuine literature of value did not stop with the ancient Greeks or with Bloomsbury, or with . . . .
The biblical canon, however, appears far less adaptive than the literary. What the two have in common, of course, is the fact that they are both authorized collections of texts: texts designated by by those recognized for whatever reasons as authorities (there really is no room here to discuss the authority of the general reader) as being genuine and of value, even though at times those authorities disagree. Consider the order of the books that Christian readers call the Old Testament in a Christian bible with the order of those same books in the Tanakh. Or consider which books which denominations designate as Apocrypha. Or consider the debates in literary circles on what constitutes good literature. Further, both academics and theologians make their judgements based on their own beliefs, their particular historical contexts, and the power structures within which they have to operate.
Let’s consider the Arthurian canon again. When we are discussing whether a text could be admitted to the Arthurian canon, we have certain expectations of it. What matters is whether or not the “new” additions, perspectives on the well-known theme, cohere with or at least make sense within what has already been told. Certain motifs appear and reappear in the Arthurian story/ies that mean we now have expectations of any work that readdresses what we understand the story to be. We expect something along the lines of a grail quest, we expect a Merlin figure, we expect the decline of the kingdom through treachery. We cannot imagine the Arthurian narrative without the theme of adultery, whether between Lancelot and Guinevere, between Uther Pendragon and Igraine, or between Tristram and Isolde . We expect some suggestion of incest committed through innocence on the one hand and deceit on the other between Arthur and Morgan or sometimes Morgause. In some traditions, Lancelot becomes a more important figure than Gawain. We enjoy poring over our various sources and wondering just how many times did Arthur marry. Are there actually two Guineveres? Is Excalibur the same sword as that found in the stone and as that given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake? Just who exactly is the Lady of the Lake? Is Morgan of the Fairies evil or good? Various literary responses have provided different answers to these questions within the worlds of their own creations. From the literary as opposed to the historical point of view, it doesn’t really matter whether or not there was a man perhaps of Romano Briton heritage who became some kind of dux bellorum of those left in Britain after the withdrawal of the Roman legions. The Arthurian canon continues to grow, and it is possible for the whole literary canon to develop and grow. After all, as I said earlier, people have not stopped writing.
However, The biblical canon, as understood by Christians, appears more static, despite discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Christian dogma for the most part has remained based in the Pauline tradition. Any texts that do not support that tradition are, therefore, unlikely to be admitted to the canon; they may even be anathematized. Texts such as those often referred to as The Gnostic Gospels, for example, while they may throw light on the practices of early followers of the teachings of Jesus, do not support a Pauline theology. Therefore, they are not included in The Bible, and there appears little room for addition.
The response to these non-canonical texts varies, of course, depending upon individuals’ faiths or lack thereof. What is heresy to one is of extreme historical and academic interest to another. To yet another, these texts offer an opportunity for reconsidering and revitalising a faith. To others, they are just ancient stories as the Greek or Norse myths are stories, and
any interest they elicit lies in their literary motifs and structure.
What do what do I conclude from all this?
As Harold Bloom remarked twenty years ago in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt, 1994), “Great writing is always rewriting or revisionism and is founded upon a reading that clears space for the self, or that so works as to reopen old works to our fresh sufferings” (11).
Perhaps the Gospel of Thomas or Joseph and Aseneth will never be included in one volume called “The Bible,” but they will remain of interest to those who want to read them, and the scholarship around them may well lead to certain changes in ecclesiastic practice. After all, the fact that there are now women priests, and the Church of England has actually accepted at last the consecration of women bishops, does reveal that at least some parts of the Christian church are open to revisioning their traditions, even if change comes at what appears to be a glacial pace.
The literary canon, will, I believe, remain dynamic. You may not agree with everything or even anything that Harold Bloom says or stands for, but I sense a certain veracity in his assertion “all strong literary originality becomes canonical” (25). Certainly, powerful writing is powerful writing, and good stories have a way of lasting and making themselves felt even as they reconfigure themselves. This is something of which folklorists and some literary critics have long been aware. Much biblical literature is extremely powerful as narrative and or poetry, and it is powerful in the same way as literature dealing with The Matter of Britain or with the Trojan War is powerful. It speaks to us on moral and aesthetic levels and challenges us to consider our own thoughts and actions. In terms of literature, what is biblically canonical is irrelevant to its value as literature. While members of faith communities may concern themselves with what are or are not regarded as canonical texts, members of the reading community will continue to include those texts and others as part of the larger canon, and literature no matter how it is delivered to us will continue to inform our moral and aesthetic sensibilities and by so doing contribute to the possibility of a better or at least a more understood world.
*I most certainly was not prompted to reread The Mists of Avalon by the posthumous allegations made earlier in 2014 by Bradley’s daughter. I discovered those only after rereading The Mists of Avalon. There really are times when NOT knowing anything about a writer’s biography is a real advantage when addressing his or her work.
The whole object of designating books as canonical or not is supposedly to ensure that what is shared by those books is of value. But “value” is a very heavily laden word.
We don’t have to rely only on Jacobovici and Wilson to understand that the construction of the Biblical Canon as it exists today is a product of people deciding at various Church councils what constitutes the basis of the faith. It’s not surprising that the various experts over the years have not always agreed with each other over what to include or exclude or the order in which to present the texts. Their views have been affected by their own beliefs, their particular historical context, and their own power structures. What the experts do appear to agree upon is that the texts approved by canon law are texts that teach and support the agreed upon beliefs. The teachings of the apostle Paul came to dominate Christianity, and other beliefs and practices of people following what they believed to be the teachings of Jesus were discarded, deemed invalid. Therefore, texts deriving from sources other than the Pauline, texts from the Gnostics, for example, are not regarded as canonical.
Less controversy arises from asking this question about the probably existence of Arthur than asking the same question about the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.
The answer to that question has yet to be satisfactorily answered. Chapter One “Origins” of The Arthurian Handbook (Norris J. Lacey and Geoffrey Ashe with Debra N Mancoff. 2nd ed. London: Garland, 1997) probably expresses it most succinctly: “Perhaps the updating, the medievalizing, may seem to make it impossible to break through to an underlying reality [of Arthur]. Yet the reality may be there all the same” (3). What the wealth of Arthurian literature does show us is the Matter of Britain remains an inspiration for writers and artists as diverse as A. S. Byatt and The Pythons.