Throughout 2018 I have been writing myself a map of myths and legends. Some places I half-remembered, some I just needed an excuse to rediscover, and some were just names on a page until I read their stories. From vanishing islands to drowned kingdoms, from Otherworlds to Underworlds, this year’s project has been a voyage, and now it’s time for the final destination.
Avalon is an island from Arthurian legend, said to be the domain of Morgan le Fay and the resting place of King Arthur after his final battle. According to the 13th century Old French romance Perlesvaus, Avalon was the burial site of Arthur’s wife Guinevere and son Loholt, who in that version of events predeceased him. It is also said to be where Arthur’s sword Excalibur, or Caliburn, was forged.
The name of Avalon was interpreted by Geoffrey of Monmouth as ‘isle of apples’. In Latin it is Insula Avallonis; in Welsh it is Ynys Avallach. The apple is a fruit with many powerful mythic connotations, from the Garden of the Hesperides and the fruit of immortality guarded by Idunn in Norse legends to the Biblical Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In Irish mythology the god of the sea, Manannan, rules over the island of Emhain Ablach, meaning ‘Emhain of the Apple Trees’. Geoffrey of Monmouth also called Avalon ‘the Fortunate Isle’.
Though the interpretation of the name may have been inspired by the Burgundian town of Avallon (meaning ‘apple-place’), there is a long association between the mythological Avalon and the English site of Glastonbury. In the 1191 A.D., during the reign of Henry II, it was claimed that the grave of King Arthur had been found at Glastonbury, and what’s more that Guinevere was buried with him. Connections were drawn between name of Glastonbury and the Welsh Otherworld of Annwn. The Glastonbury story is widely regarded as an audacious hoax, but the Arthurian glamour is hard to dispel.
In Geoffry’s Vita Merlini, he provides this description of Avalon: ‘…it produces everything needful. The fields there have no need of farmers to plough them…Grain and grapes are produced without nurture and apple trees grow in the woods.’ After the battle at Camlann, Morgan le Fay took Arthur into her care, to begin the healing of his wounds. Also in the Vita Merlini is a description of Morgan leading a sisterhood of nine enchantresses, in the manner of priestesses. Other rulers of Avalon include Morgan’s lover Guingamuer and the king Bangon, but make no mistake, this is definitely Morgan le Fay’s personal island paradise.
There is a branch of Arthurian legend that avoids Avalon entirely, claiming Arthur to be sleeping within a cave, ready to rise and restore a golden age when his land’s need is great. Local folklore has it that Arthur’s cave is located in Somerset, at Cadbury Castle. According to the legend, the gates of the cave open once every year to reveal the king still sleeping there. There is are Somerset legends that tie Arthur to the story of the Wild Hunt, with the king riding out among huis knights on Christmas Eve. Another legend places the cave in the Eildon Hills near Melrose, while yet another version drops Arthur into Mount Etna in, yes, Italy. Arthurian legend is a well-travelled beast.
And it is an abiding one. Avalon is the island in the mist, a glimpse of ancient mystery. It is once and future, and always.
So we come to the end of this year’s search for the lands of myth and legend. Thank you for joining me on the tour! It is now safe to disembark.
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!
References: Worlds of Arthur: King Arthur in History, Legend and Culture – Fran and Geoff Doel, Terry Lloyd (Tempus Publishing Ltd., 2005), The Discovery of King Arthur – Geoffrey Ashe (Sutton Publishing, 2005), The King Who Was and Will Be: The World of King Arthur and His Knights – Kevin Crossley-Holland (Orion, 1998), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perlesvaus, The Arthurian Handbook – Norris J. Lacy and Geoffrey Ashe (Garland Publishing Inc, 1988), The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends – Ronan Coghlan (Element Books Ltd, 1995)