Marion Zimmer Bradley's Funeral

17 October 1999

Reflections
Ann Sharp

 

MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY, MISTRESS OF MAGIC


Generations pass away and others stand in their place since the olden times. Men beget, women conceive, and every nose draweth breath. But when day dawneth, their children are come in their place.

Marion was born in 1930 and raised on an upstate New York dairy farm during the Great Depression; when she was eleven, the United States entered World War II. Times were tougher than we Baby Boomers can easily imagine. Her escape was her imagination. The radio helped her escape into the world of opera. She escaped into the world of books, first as a reader, then as a writer, eventually as an editor. She made her first professional sale in her teens - she wanted to train for an operatic career and planned to support her training with her writing. She then wrote for every possible market for years before becoming soundly established as a science fiction and fantasy writer, singing for pleasure, and remaining a life-long opera enthusiast.

Marion was a very, very addicted reader. Her son once asked me what he could get the woman who had everything. My answer was: "More bookshelves!" Marion's walls were covered with bookshelves stuffed with books - the ones she had to have right under her hand. Lacking a book, she'd read anything, including the backs of cereal boxes.

She had a wonderfully well-stocked mind, and had memorized a massive amount of poetry, song, and sheer miscellany. Her own writing she didn't memorize, but other people did and often quoted it back to her, occasionally prompting her to wryly recite the sequel to the Purple Cow poem:

"Ah, yes, I wrote the Purple Cow;
I'm sorry now I wrote it.
But I can tell you anyhow,
I'll kill you if you quote it."

I never could resist capping her with the response:

"There never was an author yet,
Of fame or little noted,
Who carried out the terrible threat
To kill if she were quoted."

Marion was early fascinated with the European Middle Ages. Thirty-three years ago she and her sister-in-law threw a medieval party that they tried to make as authentic as possible - dress, speech, food, dance, jousting. When I have a party, the guests tell me they've enjoyed it when they go; Marion's party has metamorphosed into the Society for Creative Anachronism. It's now an international organization with upwards of twenty-five thousand members.

Marion researched seriously - she felt strongly that a fantasy writer should be widely read in mythology, religion, psychology, parapsychology. Any paranormal aspects of her fiction were so carefully researched, so properly used, and so internally consistent that many readers were convinced that she had a psychic hotline to the Ancients. She adopted the response, "I'm not a Medium, I'm a Large."

From science fiction to mainstream fiction; with her husband's encouragement, Marion wrote about King Arthur from the point of view of the women in Arthur's life, which hadn't been done before. She gave her manuscript the working title Mistress of Magic, from Sir Thomas Malory's description of Morgan le Fay. Knopf, the publisher, felt that any title with the word "mistress" would lose sales, so the book was retitled THE MISTS OF AVALON. Of course, it was Marion who was the mistress of magic; the magic of turning her imaginary universes into words and inviting eager readers around the world to share them.

A major theme of many of the Darkover novels and many of her mainstream novels, including FIREBRAND and MISTS, was the empowerment of women. MISTS was hailed as a new classic piece of feminist writing - though not by Marion. She defined feminist as politically active, and denied being one, but she did more for healthy feminism than hundreds of bumper stickers ever accomplished. Her "feminist" characters didn't insist on their "rights" without accepting their "responsibilities." Not just feminism; she staunchly supported all kinds of minorities. Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. Many of her books presented non-mainstream people - and also non-humans - not as monsters, but as likeable people living dignified private lives.

Marion was a mistress of magic with words, and freely shared her passion for writing as a craft skill. She gave seminars, she spoke to English classes, she led workshops and judged writing contests. I don't know how many books were dedicated to Marion - "without whom it would never have been written." Or how many other books, in the author's foreword, mention Marion's inspiration or her support or her interest or the author's literary debt to her. She regularly demystified the craft of writing and the business of publishing. A favorite saying of hers was "Anyone who can write a grammatical English sentence can write a short story."
About a Sympathetic Character
who overcomes Almost-Impossible Odds
by His or Her Own Efforts
to achieve a Worthwhile Goal.

There's some heredity in her writing, as well as environment and craftsmanship. Marion was a direct descendent of America's first poet, the Tenth Muse, seventeenth-century Anne Dudley Bradstreet. I don't think she knew that - I think I forgot to tell her - but she was conscious that she, as all of us, was and is a cultural and literary heir of generations of writers and poets going back much further than the seventeenth century, and forward to the twentieth. She also benefited from the friendship and wisdom of older, more experienced writers and editors, such as the Kuttners and C. L. Moore, Donald Wollheim. There are debts it is not possible to pay back to those who once stood where we stand now. She knew that; she paid forward, and did so abundantly. As Anne Bradstreet put it in her own father's epitaph, "Who gave his state, his strength, and years with care, That after-comers in them might have share."

Marion shared Darkover, her personal universe, and encouraged aspiring young authors to write stories set in it. Eventually, many were commercially published in Darkover anthologies. When she first proposed the idea, her publisher didn't think there would be much interest in stories about Darkover by anyone other than Marion, but he agreed to a trial. Twelve anthologies later, do you think he might possibly have been wrong?

She started a second anthology series because previous sword-and-sorcery stories always involved male sorcerers and swordsmen. She didn't see why women characters couldn't or shouldn't explore this neck of the literary woods. Readers must agree, because there have been sixteen Sword and Sorceress anthologies published and the end is not in sight.

She started a magazine, MZB's FANTASY Magazine, specifically to nurture and develop talented beginning writers. She read every story in the slush pile, through the very day of her final heart attack. Even her rejection letters were designed to be helpful and to steer the aspiring writer toward a future successful sale.

Marion valued her fans. She never forgot the days when she had been one herself. A favorite story was of being accosted by two young German students, one of whom managed to say, "Mrs. Bradley, you have many lovers in Germany." His companion whispered to him and he turned bright red, and amended, "many admirers." She couldn't resist responding, "I liked the first version better."

For her household, Marion left explicit directions covering her last illness, her disposition, and the service we are here today to celebrate. Her instructions were carried out exactly. She wanted no stone, no physical shrine to her memory. Her new home is beyond the stars, in the holy promise of eternal life. This is the comfort of her friends, that though she may be said to die, yet her friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal. Her monument on this earth, her truest portrait, her ultimate legacy, is in her books. Look for her there; you will always find her.

May the Divine blessing give you comfort in this difficult time.

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