Marion Zimmer Bradley is dead. She cannot defend herself nor answer for her actions. This makes her a pretty easy target. I'm not going to dispute the allegations, in fact, I'm going to go over pieces from some of her books that may have pointed to this fact. I've never read the Darkover series, by the time I became a fan of her writing, the length of that series was daunting and I quite frankly prefer fantasy over science fiction. There are two fantasy series of hers that I want to go over, the Avalon Saga (which is still on-going as of 2009, thanks to the efforts of Diana L. Paxson) and her Light series.
I think these two series have the most appeal to the modern Pagan community, with Mists of Avalon being one of the most influential pieces of fiction (it is often touted as “my gateway to Paganism”).
Why is Mists of Avalon so popular? Well, it was released during the radical feminist movement of the early 1980s- a feminine perspective on the Arthurian Legends would, of course, sell well at that time. In addition, feminism was already well-entrenched within the American Pagan movement thanks to the influence of activists such as Starhawk and Z. Budapest. That Mists of Avalon, which showed a fictional Britain after the fall of Rome, became popular with its focus on the female characters of the story is really no surprise, especially considering its blatant demonization of patriarchal Christianity that occurs within the book.
My first Marion Zimmer Bradley book was not Mists of Avalon, however, it was the second book within the Light series: Witchlight. I was already in my earliest dabblings with Witchcraft when my cousin gave me this book (she saw the dust jacket with the witchy title and the woman wandering the woods in a hippie dress and thought of me... I wonder why?). Having read most of the Light series and almost all of Marion Zimmer Bradley's contributions to the Avalon Saga, I do notice themes of distant or abusive parents (or abuse from those in a parental role), rape and if not straight-up incest, at least incestuous desires.
Much of that is par for the course of the parts of Mists of Avalon that come straight from the Arthurian legends. You can't tell Arthur's story from any perspective without themes of incest becoming involved. However, the book takes it a bit far and adds things that were not part of the original legends. The fact that royal parents are distant is a fact one cannot even deny to this day; affairs of state have to come first for the good of the country and its people. However, when Morgaine was very small, Igraine took a very active role in raising her. This only changed when Uther came into the picture and made Igraine his High Queen. So busy was Igraine with her queenly duties that she often foisted care of the infant Arthur on to her young daughter (who could not have been older than seven at the time). So, not only does Morgaine lose her father (abusive misogynist and would-be wife rapist that he was), she also loses her mother to the crown and her own childhood by having to help raise her brother. Arthur's memory of who he thought his mother was from his toddler age (he was fostered early, starting at age four rather than the usual age of seven) ends up being a confused memory of Morgaine herself (he remembers his mother having long dark hair, but Igraine's hair is red); so his incestuous acts and later desire for his sister can also be seen as Oedipal in context (and the confusing sister for mother is Bradley's own and not part of the original myth).
Another scene clearly shows a young Mordred eying his foster-mother Morgawse with obvious lust (she is also his great aunt, being the sister to Igraine). He was prepubescent at the time and Morgawse, who had changed her clothing in front of him before, had not thought about it until she saw how he was looking at her and decided that more privacy would be in order for the future. Again, this idea is Bradley's own.
And again, we have Gwenhwyfar's supposed half-brother (she claims her father always denied his lineage) raping her to try to legitimize his claim to her father's lands.
When Morgaine confronts Viviane for making her have sex with her own half-brother, Viviane says such things used to be common and there is no shame it it. Morgaine's own subject of lust is Lancelot, who happens to be Viviane's (who is Igraine and Morgawse's eldest sister) youngest son, so he is her first cousin. Couple that with the motherly role Viviane has in Morgaine's life as both mentor and foster-mother, and her desire is only that much more incestuous. And again, all of this is Bradley's creation, her choice in story-telling, and has nothing to do with the legends.
In one of the prequels to Mists of Avalon, (most likely Lady of Avalon, but I read it about a decade ago, having borrowed it from a library, and can only go by what Wikipedia tells me of the characters in the book to know it's the one I remember this bit from) we follow the rise of Viviane. Viviane's mother, as High Priestess, is very distant and sometimes unnecessarily cruel to her daughter, whom she is preparing to take her place (of course, she doesn't bother to tell Viviane that that is why she is being so hard on her until her mother dies giving birth to Morgawse). Now, officially, Viviane was a child of Beltane, meaning that no man could lay claim to be her father. Viviane suspects its the highest druid, but as he does not remember the ritual coupling due to ecstatic/trance circumstances, he cannot claim or deny it. By ritual, the highest druid must be the one to consecrate the new High Priestess. Viviane reminds the high druid that he is, in all likelihood, her father and the act would be incestuous. The man decides to call down the power of Talesien (and in a sense, becomes Talesien's vessel forever, as he takes up the role of The Merlin) and as Talesien, he performs the five-fold kiss. Now, his body didn't change physically, just spiritually, so it can still be seen as incest.
Then there is the Light series, a series that truly shows Bradley had access to occult knowledge or else did extremely good research on the subject to gain more than a rudimentary understanding. The first book follows Truth, the daughter of Thorne Blackburn (a man who is blatantly modeled on Crowley, Gardner and just a smidgeon of Cochran thrown in for dramatic flair) as she seeks to learn about him and expose his dubious nature. When she gets to the house where most of her father's rituals took place, Truth finds a group of her father's acolytes (both old and new) seeking to recreate his ritual cycle (in case the Cochran clue didn't hit home, the final ritual did not go as planned back when originally performed; Truth's mother died of a drug overdose and her father disappeared). Their leader is a charismatic young man only a few years older than Truth herself. He seems interested in dating Truth, and as he doesn't seem to be unreasonable to her as he claims to be more interested in the theory behind Thorne Blackburn's rituals than expecting them to work “as advertized”, she accepts. The leader's image he's projecting turns out to be false, though, and he eventually tries to force himself on Truth as part of the ritual (which is thankfully stopped by another member who was just there investigating this guy and wasn't a true follower of Thorne's at all). It turns out that this man is Truth's older half-brother, Pilgrim(they were both born in the '60s and Thorne's group was very much a product of the “free love” of the time. Truth also has a younger half-sister). So, again, we see the theme of abuse and ritual incest.
In Witchlight, Winter is a NY stockbroker suffering from what she thinks is burnout. However, she begins to realize that she has very few memories from before her institutionalization and even fewer from before her mid-twenties. In an effort to regain her memories, she travels to her old college, which also happens to house the institute of psychical research Truth works for. Winter is also being plagued by a poltergeist, which she learns from Truth is her own telekinetic abilities working subconsciously, however there also seems to be an entity trying to talk to her through the bodies of mutilated animals. Truth (her eyes having been opened to the reality of magic in the previous book) helps to uncover what the entity is and it is an artificial elemental. Winter then scrambles to find out what it wants and why it keeps attacking bigger and bigger animals. What she finds out is that her college boyfriend was a magician practicing the method of Blackburn; she, and a few other friends, were involved in the group he ran. Just before graduation, Winter finds herself pregnant and as her boyfriend's idea of taking care of the baby is to get married and go on the road from state to state to work at Renaissance Faires, she freaks out and leaves school for the solace of home. The problem is, home is not a good place for Winter. Her parents are cold, distant and at the very least mentally abusive. Her mother convinces her to get an abortion and even takes her out of the country to get it done so that if her boyfriend tries to visit and convince her to keep the baby, he will not find her there. Winter's coping mechanism is to block all of it out until the breakdown in her mid-thirties that leads to her institutionalization. Most of the book is spent with Winter trying to piece her life together and she eventually confronts her parents for being the terrible pieces of crap that they were. I have not read Gravelight, the third book in the series, but as it follows Winter's brother, I have to assume the parental influence is the same. Heartlight, the final book seems to deviate from the trend, but probably only because the main character is a man who never forms a romantic attachment, but acts as a fatherly guide to several people through the years.
So, I am saddened that this excellent writer (you cannot deny that she wrote well) was a monster; but on closer inspection of the themes within her writing (which do make for great character development and story telling and feel believable given the eras in which the stories take place) I can't say I'm as shocked as my fellow Pagans.
I would say to vilify her and never buy her books, if her books were meant to be used as spiritual guidelines, but they're not, they're fiction. I know a great number of Pagans follow what I tend to call “Mists of Avalonism” (I've even seen whole groups that based their practices around this) and have built their spiritual practice based on the religious system created for the novel. The problem is, it's a novel. It was never intended for use as a spiritual guidebook. If you call yourself Pagan and based all of your beliefs and practices solely upon what you got out of the Avalon Saga and now you feel dirty and ashamed and don't know if you're Pagan anymore - good-bye. I honestly can't say how Pagan you were to begin with if what sparked your interest in the religion did not lead you to read non-fiction books on Pagan paths, or history, or mythology, or folklore. If Mists of Avalon was just your starting off point and you did do further research and began practicing because of both influences, maybe you need to reevaluate just how important the novel was, but you don't need to throw everything out, and you can grow and learn to better discern what you choose to guide you and who your guides will be.
Marion Zimmer Bradley was not a Pagan author, but the person who collaborated with her and continued the Avalon Saga after her death, Diana L Paxson, is. Paxson is a member of the Troth and has written books on Asatru, runelore and trance-states (in addition to being a pretty popular mainstream fantasy writer; her White Raven, a take on the tale of Tristan and Isolde, was quite excellent). I don't know how much Paxson knew Bradley outside their collaborations, or if she had any clue about what was happening in Bradley's private life. It will be interesting to see how and if Paxson responds to the allegations against the woman she probably owes a good portion of her own fame to.
I want to stress - hating someone does not mean you have to hate their art. The best art can come from the psychologically disturbed. Joan Crawford (now more famous for being Mommy Dearest than for her acting career) was a great actress. Roman Polansky (convicted statutory rapist) is a great director (and added to his tragedy is that his wife and unborn child were victims of Charles Manson), as is Woody Allen (he married his adopted step-daughter after divorcing her mother, Mia Farrow, and is somehow both claustrophobic and agoraphobic). Based on what I read in On the Road, Jack Kerouac is a misogynist; he's a wonderful writer and it's masterfully written, but it makes me angry to read it, as does much of what Hemingway writes. “Hills Like White Elephants” (a short story about a man forcing his mistress to have an abortion), comes to mind, but I still like how he writes. Aleister Crowley did not treat his lovers very kindly as a rule, but he is still one of the best authorities on occult matters (people still buy and reference his works sixty-seven years after his death). I would say buy their works second hand, as no part of your payment goes to their royalties. And if they're dead, don't stress that you're somehow supporting them, you're more supporting their publishing companies and maybe their descendents at this point (and really, in the case of Bradley, as her children were her victims, one could argue you should buy more of her books to help support them).
The main lesson here is not to put people on pedestals. We're all human, all flawed. Anyone given enough scrutiny will shows cracks (the paparazzi have proven that more than a few times now). Don't idolize human beings. Any one of us could be wolves in sheep's clothing; and even sheep have teeth and some have horns.