A paradise where it was always spring and no one grew old. Where there was everlasting peace; and where no toil was needed because the land remained ever fruitful: this was Avalon. As well as resembling other mythical realms, such as Atlantis, where the inhabitants enjoyed a Golden Age existence, Avalon became known as the place to which the British hero King Arthur was carried to be healed of his wounds after his last battle of Camlann.
The twelfth-century English writer Geoffrey of Monmouth was the man who popularized the connection of Arthur with Avalon in his imaginative History of the Kings of Britain. The book became a medieval bestseller, establishing Avalon as the name of Arthur’s last known destination. In a later book, the Life of Merlin, Geoffrey describes Avalon as an island: “It is called the Fortunate Isle. Grain and grapes are produced without tending, and apple trees grow in the woods from the close-clipped grass. The earth of its own accord brings forth …. all things in superabundance The island was inhabited by nine sorceresses and ruled by their leader Morgen (Morgan le Fay), who undertook to heal Arthur if he stayed there.
In 1191, at a time when the legends of King Arthur were widely popular, the question of what had happened to him thereafter took a new turn. The monks of Glastonbury, a town in the west of England, announced that they had exhumed his remains from the graveyard of their ancient Abbey, together with a leaden cross which proclaimed in Latin, “Here lies entombed the renowned King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon.”
The grave of King Arthur?
Though the monks had probably exhumed someone (archaeologists have found traces of their digging), could it have been King Arthur? What casts doubt on the monks’ “discovery” is that it took place not long after a disastrous fire had destroyed the oldest and holiest part of Glastonbury Abbey. This was a small wattle and daub church of great antiquity, known simply as the “Old Church”. Lost with the Old Church were the abbey’s treasures, including holy relics, which gave it status and a source of income. The need to restore prestige and attract pilgrims was acute.
The discovery was also suspiciously convenient for the Anglo-Norman rulers of England. Two or three years later, the chronicler Gerald of Wales wrote that Henry II had encouraged the Glastonbury monks to make the search for Arthur’s grave: “Many tales are told . . . about King Arthur and his mysterious ending …The fairy-tales have been snuffed out … “. This would have been precisely Henry’s intention.
Early references to Arthur’s death all state that his grave was unknown. The historian William of Malmesbury had pinpointed the problem in 1125, when he wrote that “the tomb of Arthur is nowhere seen, whence ancient rhymes fable that he is yet to come”. Because there was no proof that he was dead, the Celtic Bretons, Cornish and Welsh expected him to return and free them from the yoke of the Norman kings.
Henry, who ruled on both sides of the English Channel, had experienced trouble with the Bretons and the Welsh, and it was in his interest to demonstrate once and for all that Arthur had died. To have established his grave on English soil would have been a political triumph.
The interests of Church and State coincided. Arthur’s “grave” was widely publicized, and to reconcile it with the story of Arthur in Geoffrey’s History, Glastonbury was identified with Avalon.
This was made easier by the fact that Glastonbury was—and still is—possessed by what Arthurian expert Geoffrey Ashe has called “a lingering sense of ‘otherness’ “. Imbued with a thousand years of Christian prayer and perhaps with as many years of pagan worship before that, it fitted people’s idea of Avalon. Moreover, since it was completely surrounded by marsh, which was often covered with standing water, Glastonbury, with its grounds rising high above the landscape, was virtually an island.
Arthur and “Riothamus”
Geoffrey’s picture of the magical island of Avalon inhabited by sorceresses seems to merge historical facts with strands of other- world lore. He explains its name as being derived from an old British word aval “apple”, and meaning “island of apples”. This is disputed by scholars, but if Geoffrey were right, Avalon would be in the tradition of mythical islands connected with apples.
Ashe suggests that behind the figure of Arthur may lie the man known in historical records as “Riothamus”, called “King of the Britons”. In A.D. 468, Riothamus took his troops to Gaul and campaigned there on behalf of the Roman Empire. In a final battle, he was defeated. With the remnants of his army he escaped to Burgundian territory, and is heard of no more.
“Riothamus” appears to be not a name but a title in British—Rigotamos, “supreme king”. His career shows similarities with Arthur’s and the date is right for a historical Arthur, who, if he existed, was probably a British war lord immediately after the Roman period. Also, Riothamus’ line of retreat was in the direction of the Burgundian town of Avalon. This Avalon was not an island; and this idea may derive from the tradition of the healing sanctuary said by the Classical geographer Pomponius Mela in the first century A.D. to be on the island of Sein off the coast of Brittany. Here, as on Geoffrey’s island, lived nine enchantresses, who cured the ills of all who sought their help.
Geoffrey’s Avalon follows the tradition of the paradisal islands that in mythology lay somewhere to the west. These include Atlantis; the Garden of the Hesperides with their golden apples and the Fortunate Islands of the Greeks; and St Brendan’s Isle, described in the ninth-century Voyage of St Brendan, which was covered in apple trees. By calling Avalon the Fortunate Isle, Geoffrey was connecting it with mythical islands associated with apples, probably because they were the fruit of immortality in Celtic and other mythologies.
If Henry II really tried to eradicate the belief in Arthur’s survival, he failed. In 1190 the English poet Layamon wrote: “The Britons believe yet that he [is] alive, and dwelleth in Avalon with the fairest of all elves.” The related belief that Arthur slept in a cave or under a hill, surrounded by his knights, is known to have survived in Britain as late as the nineteenth century.
Like Camelot, Avalon is everywhere and nowhere—it is contrary to its spirit to try to pin it down. It lies in the dimension of myth, where truth is manifold. The historical Arthur may have been buried at Glastonbury; but the real Arthur waits in that place where “healing does not fail”—the place which Geoffrey called Avalon.