Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930–1999) was a pioneering author of fantasy, science fiction, and science fantasy. She was most famous for her goddess- centered retelling of the Arthurian legend from a female point of view in her novel Mists of Avalon, which spent four months on the New York Times bestsellers list; she was also known for her Darkover science fiction/fantasy series, the saga of a planet where human colonists develop ESP powers. Enthusiastic readers saw in her work what essayist Nancy Jesser called “one of the early manifestations of proto-feminist science fiction.” Perhaps driven by parenthood’s demands on her own life, her fiction often examined women’s attempts to find balance between a woman’s duty to herself and her obligations to others. She worked in many genres, including Gothic novels, historical fantasy, children’s books, teleplays, and lesbian novels, addressing through the characters and worlds she created such issues as gender, androgyny, sexism, homophobia, technology, alienation, and the evolution of cultures and how humans relate. Besides her Darkover and Avalon series, over four decades, she published dozens of stand-alone novels of various kinds. Paradoxically, she often denied possessing any particular talent for writing and said she’d rather edit or teach.
Born Marion Eleanor Zimmer, she grew up on a farm in Albany, New York. She had an early interest in writing and dictated poetry to her mother, historian Evelyn Parkhurst Conklin, before she learned to write; at eleven, when she found her school newspaper not to her taste, she started an alternative school paper, The Columbia Journal. In the late 1940s, she did not believe a young woman could make a living out of writing, so in a streak of practicality, she attended the state teachers’ college in Albany for a couple of years. But in 1949, she married a railroad man, Robert Alden Bradley, and left college behind. That same year, at age nineteen, she made her first sale via an amateur fiction contest, to Fantastic/Amazing Stories. The Bradleys’ son was born in 1950; meanwhile, she continued to both write short stories and try her hand at longer works. When she sold another story in 1952, this time to Vortex Science Fiction, it kicked off what she saw as her “professional” writing career; she juggled writing with the parenting and homemaking duties expected of women in the 1950s. The young family moved to Abilene, Texas, in 1959, where Marion went back to school, financing her tuition by writing romances and confessional novels.
In 1961, she was at last able to publish her first novel, The Door Through Space, an expansion of her 1957 short SF story “Bird of Prey.” 1962 was a banner year for Bradley, one in which she published five different books: three under her own name, including The Planet Savers, and two more under various noms de plume. The Planet Savers, which had been serialized in Amazing Science Fiction Stories in 1959, kicked off her Darkover series, which came to encompass seventeen novels under her sole authorship as well as a couple of collaboratively written works, notably including Rediscovery, written with Mercedes Lackey, and a dozen short story anthologies edited by Bradley. The Darkover saga took up much of her time through the sixties and seventies, though she also published a collection of her other short science fiction works, 1964’s The Dark Intruder and Other Stories, and several volumes of literary criticism.
1964 was the year Bradley finally finished college: She graduated from Texas’ Hardin-Simmons University with a triple bachelor’s degree in English, Spanish, and psychology; she also gained her teaching credential. But, by that time, her writing was selling sufficiently well that she ended up never using it. The Bradleys divorced; Marion wed again, this time to Walter Breen, an authority on rare coins. They had two children, moving to California in 1965, where she undertook graduate studies at UC Berkeley. She was also an early member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical recreation group focused on the medieval period—in fact, she came up with the name! Fellow F/SF writers Diana Paxson and Poul Anderson were also cofounders of the SCA, which is now a nonprofit with tens of thousands of members in several countries.
In the early 1950s, Bradley began to explore Western esoteric traditions, joining the Rosicrucian Order. In the late 1970s, she was active for a few years in Darkmoon Circle, a women’s goddess spirituality group that used to meet in a renovated carriage house at her Berkeley home; it has been described as “part coven, part women’s consciousness-raising [group], and part sewing circle.” But she left not long after Mists of Avalon was published, finding herself beset by people wanting her to give talks on female consciousness and asking her how much of Mists had been “channeled”—which was none of it, according to Bradley. Some members also proposed opening the group to men; she was not keen on that, as she was there in the interest of learning how to better relate to women. She and Breen separated in 1979, the year Mists of Avalon was released, but lived on the same street and continued to have business dealings until a decade later, when her former husband was charged with molesting a boy and Bradley obtained an official divorce.
Bradley had long considered telling the tale of Morgan Le Fay, the enchantress sister of King Arthur. When editors Judy and Lester Del Rey asked if she would write an Arthurian novel about Sir Lancelot, she said she would prefer to write about Arthur’s sister, whose name she changed to Morgaine. After they agreed to her proposal, Bradley rented a flat in London and visited a number of Arthurian sites in England in preparation for writing Mists of Avalon. In Mists, the protagonist, a priestess of an ancient Earth-centered religion, is unable to forestall the inexorable expansion of Christianity despite her mystical powers; she watches as women, previously respected in ancient tradition, become oppressed and seen as the source of original sin in patriarchal Christian teachings. In the 1990s, Bradley cowrote two prequels to Mists with author Diana Paxson; after Marion’s demise, Paxson completed the story with four more prequel volumes.
In her later years, Bradley turned more to fantasy, as in 1980’s The House Between the Worlds. She’d once trained as a singer and was a self-described “opera nut,” so she made use of operatic plotlines in Night’s Daughter (1985), a retelling of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and The Forest House (1993), based on Bellini’s Norma. Besides writing, Bradley edited magazines, including her own Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, launched in 1988, as well as seventeen years of the annual anthology Sword and Sorceress. In these, as well as by licensing anthologies of fan-created stories set in her Darkover universe, Marion encouraged numbers of new writers in the F/SF field, especially women. Her writing output became more sparse due to declining health, though she did still create some new works, like her Gothic parapsychological novels Ghostlight, Witchlight, Gravelight, and Heartlight, in the 1990s. She died in Berkeley in 1999, and her ashes were scattered at Glastonbury Tor in Cornwall. Several works by other authors continued the Darkover epic posthumously.