Magic into Myth: Avalon, Mystical Isle of Medieval Arthurian Literature
The Isle of Apples, Isle of the Blessed, and the Otherworld. These titles have long been associated with the magical resting place of the early medieval king, Arthur Pendragon. A realm imbued with magic, mystery and mysticism, Avalon is as much a metaphor as a true metaphysical realm.
Its existence and the essence of Avalon had therefore varied from author to author. What was Avalon's role in medieval literature, then? Was it magical or metaphorical? Was it both? Was it entirely unrelated to Arthur? Well, the last question is evidently answered with a resounding "NO"; but is there a question about Avalon that can be answered with a resounding "yes"? This work will examine the ways in which Avalon was depicted in medieval literature, how it was altered over time, and some of the literary and historical implications of the site's supposed mysticism.
An artist’s interpretation of Avalon. (Iribel/ Deviant Art )
Avalon is Discussed More than Visited
Avalon has long been a staple of the literature of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. From it stems the majority of the magic that encompasses fairy-tale-esque retellings, and the pagan roots of the British world prior to the rise of Christianity under King Arthur’s reign.
In Avalon, the dreaded Morgan le Fay was taught the magic of the ancients, eventually using this magic to bring about the fall of King Arthur and his royal court. The precise name of the enchantress, and her role in Arthur’s story varies between retellings, but the roots of the dark sorceress who influences the court remains the relatively the same. Similarly, magic vs. sword and pagan vs. Christian have been used interchangeably as metaphors.
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Morgan le Fay learned ancient magic on Avalon. (Manzanedo/ Deviant Art )
Within medieval literature, Avalon appears to be discussed about more than it is seen. It is best remembered as Arthur’s eternal resting place. Literature discusses Avalon as the place from which magic stems, as a realm behind the veil of mists that encompasses the titular lake of the Lady of the Lake.
From Avalon, passed on by the Lady, comes the infamous sword Excalibur, and the intention behind its mystical/pagan origins is not only that it signifies Arthur as the “once and future king”, but also that Arthur has innately been tied to the world of Avalon. The Lady of the Lake, often portrayed as Lancelot’s mother and occasionally Merlin’s lover, has long alternated between being independent of Morgan le Fay and part of her. That is, the roles of the two are as often intertwined—one could even argue they are confused—as not.
Illustration by H.J. Ford for Andrew Lang's Tales of Romance, 1919. "Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake and gets the Sword Excalibur." ( Public Domain )
Intertwining Arthur and Avalon
The primary medieval source of the myth of King Arthur comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth, 10th-11th century AD. Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae appears to have been utilized throughout the medieval period as an initial source for Arthurian legends. Portraying Arthur and his story in a historical fashion, Geoffrey’s history indicates that there likely was a historical Arthur, the details of which have always been scarce.
As such, the tales of Arthur and his knights have varied throughout the centuries, dependent upon the cultural perceptions and perspectives of the era. For example, the French writer Chrétien de Troyes (c. 12th century) emphasizes the more romantic aspects of being a knight under Arthur, and it is from Chrétien and his contemporaries that “courtly love” stems. 15th century Thomas Malory’s rendition Le Morte’ de Arthur provides a more comprehensive overview of Arthur and the Round Table, building upon Geoffrey's and Chrétien’s stories (among others).
Voyage of King Arthur and Morgan Le Fay to the Isle of Avalon, Frank William Warwick Topham (1838-1924). ( Public Domain )
It is widely believed that Geoffrey first mentioned Avalon as a mythical Otherworld, as well as Morgan le Fay as the island’s leader:
Geoffrey also says that Avalon is where Arthur’s sword, Caliburn [an earlier name of Excalibur], was forged, while the Vita Merlini provides another name for the same locations, the Insula Pomorum or Isle of Apples. The Avalon of the Vita is a utopian place where agriculture is self-sustaining and human life is longer, and is inhabited by nine sisters who are enchantresses (Morgan le Fay is the first of these nine).