Marion Zimmer Bradley: Controversial & Visionary

Author Marion Zimmer Bradley was an ingenious, prolific writer, known for her generosity with both professional and beginner writers, but who was notorious for her controversial attitude and visionary ideas.

At a time when female characters were portrayed as either weaklings or wantons, when there were few women writers and they were best known for writing sugared romances, Marion Zimmer Bradley was responsible for helping create the modern Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, with strong female characters, daring plots, and delicate social questions.


Born in 1930, she faced as a child the hardships of the Great Depression, and had her dream of becoming an opera singer smashed by both lack of money and health problems.

However, at age 19, she won an amateur fiction contest, and 3 years later had her first short story sold for a Science Fiction magazine. In 1961, her career started with the publication of her first novel The Door Through Space (whose text is available here).

The following year, she published the first in a series of about 40 novels and anthologies set in the planet Darkover, called Sword of Aldones, which was also the first of several of her novels to be nominated for a Hugo Award.

Darkover was her first masterpiece. A small wintry planet under a red sun, surrounded by four moons, in which a Terran ship had crashed, and where a thousand years later it was developed a Medieval-like culture, with a ruling caste that had astonishing and dangerous psychic powers.

In this strongly patriarchal society, Marion Zimmer Bradley included a feminist element of strong-willed female characters and The Guild of Free Amazons, which was a warrior group of women who renounced society in order to enjoy freedom from its repressive rules.

Her second masterpiece was the Mists of Avalon novel, in which she recreated the Arthurian Legends, mixing its elements with Celtic mythology.

This novel was also characterized by a strong feminist connotation, not in the sense of women being better than men, but women being as good (or as bad) as men.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Morgaine, who is a priestess of the Celtic Mother Goddess, raised in the island of Avalon, sister to King Arthur, and mother of his son, Mordred, who end up killing him for the throne.

Contrary to the traditional character, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Morgaine isn’t the ambitious evil witch, but a common woman, struggling with a prejudiced society, having her life manipulated by those with a political agenda.

Both worlds she created are filled with controversial topics, the most recurrent of which was sexuality. That’s where most of her notoriety comes from.

Constant Controversy

The author first became involved with the gay and lesbian movements in the 1950’s, when she contributed with the newsletters The Ladder and the Mattachine Review. Besides, her second husband was writer and numismatist Walter Breen, who defended “Greek Love”, i.e. a homosexual relationship between a man and an adolescent, and who died in prison, after being found guilty of child abuse.

In her novels, Marion Zimmer Bradley often dealt with the horrors of sexual violence, either against women, men or adolescents, and also discussed sexual freedom. In Darkovan society, 13 year old boys are already considered men, and are entrusted with adult responsibilities. She has once declared, “I wasn't a child at 13, were you?” [1]

It is reported that she knew about Breen’s homosexuality, and that at the beginning of their marriage he had an affair with an adolescent, which she overlooked. However, when in 1989, her secretary Elizabeth Waters told her that Breen was being accused of molesting a 12-year-old, she immediately divorced him, and cooperated with the police investigation.

Still, she was accused by the boy’s parents of negligence in 1996, a trial that only ended after her death in 1999, through an out-of-court settlement with her insurance company. [2]

Besides sexuality, her other controversial subject was religion. She had very progressive ideas about it, for a long time she was a neo-pagan, and then she turned back to Christianism, and was even ordained a Gnostic Catholic priest.

In a 1986 article, Marion Zimmer Bradley discussed the feminist and religious elements in the Mists of Avalon novel:

“For me the key to "female personality development" in my revisionist, or better, reconstructionist version, is simply this. Modern women have been reared on myths/legends/hero tales in which the men do the important things and the women stand by and watch and admire but keep their hands off. Restoring Morgan and the Lady of the Lake to real, integral movers in the drama is, I think, of supreme importance in the religious and psychological development of women in our day […]

“People who have become so sickened by the pride, arrogance, anti-woman attitudes, hypocrisy and cruelty of what passes for Christianity that they leap toward atheism or agnosticism, may well reach out for the gentler reign of Goddess-oriented paganism to lead them back to a true perception of the spiritual life of the Earth. Time enough later to make it clear -- or let the Mother make it clear to them -- that Spirit is One and that they are, in worshipping the Goddess, worshipping the Divine by whatever name. And I can't think of a better place than Glastonbury for that realization.” [3]

Supporting New Talents

As I said at the beginning, Marion Zimmer Bradley was admired for the support she gave to beginner writers, through encouraging Darkover fan fiction, and including new talents, such as Mercedes Lackey, in her Sword & Sorceress anthologies and her magazine.

She only stopped encouraging fan fiction, when a fan sued her because of one of her own novels, alleging that it had similar elements to hers.

In the text below, she gives some advice to beginner writers. Be sure to read the full text at her Trust’s website.

“The main way to get started as a writer is to write: apply the seat of the pants firmly to the seat of the chair and just get down to it. Having a thousand "good ideas" in your head is no good; you have to get them on paper. Just sit down and do it […]

“There's no "magic secret"; writing is like everything else; ten percent inspiration or talent, and ninety percent hard work. Persistence; keeping at it till you get there. As Agnes de Mille said, it means working every day -- bored, tired, weary, or with a fever of a hundred and two […]

“Think of this: a thousand pages sounds like a lot. But write three pages a day and a year from now you'll have a book […]

“Never listen to criticism from anyone unless they can sign a check. Never mind what your best friend, or your aunt, or your English teacher thinks. Trust only professional criticism.” [4]

Marion Zimmer Bradley was a skilled writer, who left an impressive body of work, and who should certainly be more popular nowadays. To know more about her work, visit the following sites:

Marion Zimmer Bradley's books # Biography # Wikipedia article


  1. Hi, I've loved the Marion Zimmer Bradley novels I read - Darkover novels, most of them. I imagined along, fantasized along. I never got around to reading the Mists of Avalon, but did see the movie - and was swept away. Wow - complex, fascinating.

    I want to thank you for this article. I knew the novel, did not know about the woman. Thank you for making her come alive - a bit anyway - for me.

  2. Hi Elsa!

    I'm happy you liked it! Marion is one of my favorite authors ever, and I love all the Darkover books I've read - unfortunately many of them are not being published now, so I didn't get to read the whole series. I hope Daw, the publisher, does something about it soon.

    Thanks for letting me know your thoughts! Best wishes! :)


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