|Matter of Britain location|
|First appearance||Historia Regum Britanniae|
|Type||Legendary idyllic island|
|Characters||King Arthur, Melusine, Morgan le Fay, Lady of the Lake|
Avalon (//; Latin: Insula Avallonis, Welsh: Ynys Afallon, Ynys Afallach; Cornish: Enys Avalow; literally meaning "the isle of fruit [or apple] trees"; sometimes written Avallon or Avilion) is a legendary island featured in the Arthurian legend. It first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 1136 Historia Regum Britanniae ("The History of the Kings of Britain") as the place where King Arthur's sword Excalibur was forged and later where Arthur was taken to recover from being gravely wounded at the Battle of Camlann. Since then, the island has become a symbol of Arthurian mythology, similar to Arthur's castle Camelot.
Avalon was associated from an early date with mystical practices and figures such as Morgan le Fay. It is often identified as the former island of Glastonbury Tor, which the later English variant of the legend made the place where King Arthur was taken to his final rest. However some traditions believe that Arthur had never really died, but would return to lead his people against their enemies. Many other alternative locations of Avalon have been claimed or proposed as well.
Geoffrey of Monmouth referred to it in Latin as Insula Avallonis in Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). In the later Vita Merlini (c. 1150) he called it Insula Pomorum the "isle of fruit trees" (from Latin pōmus "fruit tree"). The name is generally considered to be of Welsh origin (though an Old Cornish or Old Breton origin is also possible), derived from Old Welsh, Old Cornish, or Old Breton aball or avallen(n), "apple tree, fruit tree" (cf. afal in Modern Welsh, derived from Common Celtic *abalnā, literally "fruit-bearing (thing)"). It is also possible that the tradition of an "apple" island among the British was related to Irish legends concerning the otherworld island home of Manannán mac Lir and Lugh, Emain Ablach (also the Old Irish poetic name for the Isle of Man), where Ablach means "Having Apple Trees"—derived from Old Irish aball ("apple")—and is similar to the Middle Welsh name Afallach, which was used to replace the name Avalon in medieval Welsh translations of French and Latin Arthurian tales. All are etymologically related to the Gaulish root *aballo "fruit tree"—(as found in the place name Aballo/Aballone) and are derived from a Common Celtic *abal- "apple", which is related at the Proto-Indo-European level to English apple, Russian яблоко (jabloko), Latvian ābele, et al. Writing in early 12th century, William of Malmesbury claimed the name of Avalon came from a man called Avalloc, who once lived on this island with his daughters.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
According to Geoffrey in the Historia, and much subsequent literature which he inspired, King Arthur was taken to Avalon in hope that he could be saved and recover from his mortal wounds following the tragic Battle of Camlann. Avalon is first mentioned by Geoffrey as the place where Arthur's sword Excalibur (Caliburn) was forged.
Geoffrey dealt with the subject in more detail in the Vita Merlini, in which he describes for the first time in Arthurian legend the enchantress Morgan (Morgen) as the chief of nine sisters (Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thiten and Thiton) who rule Avalon. Geoffrey's telling (in the in-story narration by Taliesin) indicates a sea voyage was needed to get there. His description of Avalon here, which is heavily indebted to the early medieval Spanish scholar Isidore of Seville (being mostly derived from the section on famous islands in Isidore's famous work Etymologiae, XIV.6.8 "Fortunatae Insulae"), shows the magical nature of the island:
The island of apples which men call the Fortunate Isle (Insula Pomorum quae Fortunata uocatur) gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country.[note 1]
Later medieval literature
Many later versions of the Arthurian legend (including the popular Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory) have Morgan and some other magical queens or enchantresses arrive after the battle to take the mortally wounded Arthur from the battlefield of Camlann (or Salisbury Plain in the romances) to Avalon in a black boat. Besides Morgan (who by this time became Arthur's sister in popular narrative), they sometimes come with the Lady of the Lake among them; other times they may include the Queens of Eastland, the Northgales, the Outer Isles, and the Wasteland. In the Vulgate Cycle, Morgan also first tells Arthur of her intention to relocate to the isle of Avalon, the place "where the ladies who know all the magic in the world are" (où les dames sont qui seiuent tous les enchantemens del monde), shortly before his final battle. In Lope Garcia de Salazar's Spanish version of the Post-Vulgate Roman du Graal, Avalon (which he also calls the Island of Brasil, locating it west of Ireland) afterwards becomes hidden in mist by her enchantment. Avalon is also sometimes described as a valley since the "Vale of Avaron" in Robert de Boron's Joseph d’Arimathie. In Le Morte d'Arthur, for instance, it is called an isle twice and a vale once, the latter oddly in the scene of Arthur's maybe-death (despite Malory's adoption of the boat motif).
Arthur's fate is sometimes left untold, or uncertain. Other times, his eventual death is actually confirmed, as it happens in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, where the Archbishop of Canterbury later receives Arthur's dead body and buries it at Glastonbury. In the telling of Alliterative Morte Arthure, relatively devoid of supernatural elements, it is renowned physicians from Salerno who try, and fail, to save Arthur's life in Avalon. Conversely, the Gesta Regum Britanniae, an early rewrite of Geoffrey's Historia, states in the present tense that Morgan "keeps his healed body for very own and they now live together." In a similar narrative, the chronicle Draco Normannicus contains a fictional letter from King Arthur to Henry II of England, claiming Arthur having been healed of his wounds and made immortal by his "deathless (eternal) nymph" sister Morgan in the holy island of Avalon (Avallonis eas insula sacra) through the island's miraculous herbs.
In Erec and Enide by Chrétien de Troyes, the consort of Morgan is the Lord of the Isle of Avalon, Arthur's nephew named Guinguemar (also appearing in the same or similar role under similar names in other works). In Layamon's Brut, Arthur is taken to Avalon to be healed there through means of magic water by a distinctively Anglo-Saxon version of Morgan: an elf queen of Avalon named Argante. Diu Crône says the queen of Avalon is Enfeidas, Arthur's aunt and goddess. The Venician Les Prophéties de Merlin features the character of an enchantress known only as the Lady of Avalon (Dame d'Avalon), Merlin's pupil who is not Morgan and is in fact a rival and enemy of her (as well as of Sebile).
Morgan also features as an immortal ruler of a fantastic Avalon, sometimes alongside the still alive Arthur, in some subsequent and otherwise non-Arthurian chivalric romances such as Tirant lo Blanch, as well as the tales of Huon of Bordeaux, where the faery king Oberon is a son of either Morgan by name or "the Lady of the Secret Isle", and the legend of Ogier the Dane, where Avalon can be described as an enchanted castle, as it is in Floriant et Florete. In his La Faula, Guillem de Torroella claims to have visited the Enchanted Island (Illa Encantada) and met Arthur who has been brought back to life by Morgan and they both of them are now forever young, sustained by the Grail. In the chanson de geste La Bataille Loquifer, Morgan and her sister Marsion (Marrion) bring the hero Renoart to Avalon, where Arthur now prepares his return alongside Morgan, Gawain, Ywain, Percival and Guinevere. Such stories typically take place centuries after the times of King Arthur.
Connection to Glastonbury
Though no longer an island in the 12th century, the high conical bulk of Glastonbury Tor in today's South-West England had been surrounded by marsh prior to the draining of fenland in the Somerset Levels. In ancient times, Ponter's Ball Dyke would have guarded the only entrance to the island. The Romans eventually built another road to the island. Glastonbury's earliest name in Welsh was the Isle of Glass, which suggests that the location was at one point seen as an island. At the end of 12th century, Gerald of Wales wrote in De instructione principis:
What is now known as Glastonbury was, in ancient times, called the Isle of Avalon. It is virtually an island, for it is completely surrounded by marshlands. In Welsh it is called Ynys Afallach, which means the Island of Apples and this fruit once grew in great abundance. After the Battle of Camlann, a noblewoman called Morgan, later the ruler and patroness of these parts as well as being a close blood-relation of King Arthur, carried him off to the island, now known as Glastonbury, so that his wounds could be cared for. Years ago the district had also been called Ynys Gutrin in Welsh, that is the Island of Glass, and from these words the invading Saxons later coined the place-name "Glastingebury".
Around 1190, monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered the bones of Arthur and his wife Guinevere. The discovery of the burial is described by chroniclers, notably Gerald, as being just after King Henry II's reign when the new abbot of Glastonbury, Henry de Sully, commissioned a search of the abbey grounds. At a depth of 5 m (16 feet), the monks were said to have discovered an unmarked tomb with a massive treetrunk coffin and, also buried, a lead cross bearing the inscription:
Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arturius in insula Avalonia.
("Here lies entombed the renowned king Arthur in the island of Avalon.")
Accounts of the exact inscription vary, with five different versions existing. One popular today, made famous by Malory, claims "Here lies Arthur, the king that was and the king that shall be" (Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam rexque futurus), also known in the now-popular variant "the once and future king" (rex quondam et futurus). The earliest is by Gerald in Liber de Principis instructione c. 1193, who wrote that he viewed the cross in person and traced the lettering. His transcript reads: "Here lies buried the famous Arthurus with Wenneveria his second wife in the isle of Avalon" (Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus cum Wenneveria uxore sua secunda in insula Avallonia). He wrote that inside the coffin were two bodies, whom Giraldus refers to as Arthur and "his queen"; the bones of the male body were described as being gigantic. The account of the burial by the chronicle of Margam Abbey says three bodies were found, the other being that of Mordred; Richard Barber argues that Mordred's name was airbrushed out of the story once his reputation as a traitor was appreciated. The story is today seen as an example of pseudoarchaeology. Historians generally dismiss the authenticity of the find, attributing it to a publicity stunt performed to raise funds to repair the Abbey, which had been mostly burned in 1184.[note 2]
In 1278, the remains were reburied with great ceremony, attended by King Edward I and his queen, before the High Altar at Glastonbury Abbey. They were moved again in 1368 when the choir was extended. The site became the focus of pilgrimages until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539. The fact that the search for the body is connected to Henry II and Edward I, both kings who fought major Anglo-Welsh wars, has had scholars suggest that propaganda may have played a part as well. Gerald was a constant supporter of royal authority; in his account of the discovery clearly aims to destroy the idea of the possibility of King Arthur's messianic return:
Many tales are told and many legends have been invented about King Arthur and his mysterious ending. In their stupidity the British [i.e. Welsh, Cornish and Breton] people maintain that he is still alive. Now that the truth is known, I have taken the trouble to add a few more details in this present chapter. The fairy-tales have been snuffed out, and the true and indubitable facts are made known, so that what really happened must be made crystal clear to all and separated from the myths which have accumulated on the subject.
The burial discovery ensured that in later romances, histories based on them and in the popular imagination Glastonbury became increasingly identified with Avalon, an identification that continues strongly today. The later development of the legends of the Holy Grail and Joseph of Arimathea interconnected these legends with Glastonbury and with Avalon, an identification which also seems to be made in Perlesvaus. The popularity of Arthurian romances has meant this area of the Somerset Levels has today become popularly described as the Vale of Avalon.
In more recent times, writers such as Dion Fortune, John Michell, Nicholas Mann and Geoffrey Ashe have formed theories based on perceived links between Glastonbury and Celtic legends of the Otherworld in attempts to link the location firmly with Avalon, drawing on the various legends based on Glastonbury Tor as well as drawing on ideas like Earth mysteries, ley lines and even the myth of Atlantis. Arthurian literature also continues to use Glastonbury as an important location as in The Mists of Avalon, A Glastonbury Romance, and The Bones of Avalon. Even the fact that Somerset has many apple orchards has been drawn in to support the connection. Glastonbury's reputation as the real Avalon has made it a popular site of tourism. Having become one of the major New Age communities in Europe, the area has great religious significance for neo-Pagans and modern Druids, as well as some Christians. Identification of Glastonbury with Avalon within hippie subculture, as seen in the work of Michell and in the Gandalf's Garden community, also helped inspire the annual Glastonbury Festival that eventually became the largest musical and cultural event in the world.
Other proposed locations
Medieval suggestions for the location of Avalon ranged far beyond Glastonbury. They included paradisal underworld realms equated with the other side of the Earth at the antipodes, as well as Mongibel (Mount Etna) in Sicily and other, unnamed locations in the Mediterranean. Pompenius Mela's ancient Roman description of the island of Île de Sein, off the coast of Finistère in Brittany, was notably one of Geoffrey of Monmouth's original inspirations for his Avalon.
More recently, just like in the quest for Arthur's mythical capital Camelot, a large number of locations have been put forward as being the "real Avalon". They include Greenland or other places in or across the Atlantic, the former Roman fort of Aballava in Cumbria, Bardsey Island off the coast of Wales, the isle of Île Aval on the coast of Pleumeur-Bodou in Brittany, and Lady's Island in Leinster. Geoffrey Ashe championed an association of Avalon with the town of Avallon in Burgundy, as part of a theory connecting King Arthur to the Romano-British leader Riothamus who was last seen in that area.[note 3] Robert Graves identified Avalon with the Spanish island of Majorca (Mallorca), while Laurence Gardner suggested the Isle of Arran off the coast of Scotland.
- By comparison, Isidore's description of the Fortunate Isles reads: "The Fortunate Isles (Fortunatarum insulae) signify by their name that they produce all kinds of good things, as if they were happy and blessed with an abundance of fruit. Indeed, well-suited by their nature, they produce fruit from very precious trees [Sua enim aptae natura pretiosarum poma silvarum parturiunt]; the ridges of their hills are spontaneously covered with grapevines; instead of weeds, harvest crops and garden herbs are common there. Hence the mistake of pagans and the poems by worldly poets, who believed that these isles were Paradise because of the fertility of their soil. They are situated in the Ocean, against the left side of Mauretania, closest to where the sun sets, and they are separated from each other by the intervening sea." In ancient and medieval geographies and maps, the Fortunate Isles were typically identified with the Canary Islands.
- Long before this William of Malmesbury, a 12th-century historian interested in Arthur, wrote in his history of England: "But Arthur's grave is nowhere seen, whence antiquity of fables still claims that he will return." It is known for certain the monks later added forged passages discussing Arthurian connections to William's comprehensive history of Glastonbury De antiquitae Glatoniensis ecclesie (On Antiquity of Glastonbury Church), written around 1130.
- According to Ashe, "In Welsh it is Ynys Avallach. Geoffrey's Latin equivalent is Insula Avallonis. It has been influenced by the spelling of a real place called Avallon. Avallon is a Gaulish name with the same meaning, and the real Avalon is in Burgundy—where Arthur's Gallic career ends. Again, we glimpse an earlier and different passing of Arthur, on the Continent and not in Britain. Riothamus too led an army of Britons into Gaul, and was the only British King who did. He too advanced to the neighbourhood of Burgundy. He too was betrayed by a deputy ruler who treated with barbarian enemies. He, too, is last located in Gaul among the pro-Roman Burgundians. He, too, disappears after a fatal battle, without any recorded death. The line of his retreat, prolonged on a map, shows that he was going in the direction of the real Avalon."
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