Magic into Myth: Avalon, Mystical Isle of Medieval Arthurian Literature
The taking of Excalibur by John Duncan. ( Public Domain )
As Rushton states, Geoffrey of Monmouth called the leader of Avalon Morgan le Fay, and in this role she was often depicted as a powerful enchantress with the interests of Arthur and the survival of paganism in mind. (However when Morgan le Fay is blended with Arthur’s half-sister and the mother of his son, Mordred, her intentions are destructive). She has also been called Vivian or Morgaine, Arthur’s half-sister, and, in some instances—as mentioned above—she is occasionally blended with the character of the Lady of the Lake. (Thus, the reasons for her alternating allegiances in the legends.)
It is not Geoffrey, however, but Gerald of Wales who initially indicates that Avalon was the resting place of Arthur’s death. Writing in the 12-13th centuries, Gerald follows Geoffrey’s general depiction of Avalon, yet he asserts that Arthur dies before his body is taken to Avalon. Geoffrey, on the other hand, appears to imply that Arthur continued his life in Avalon after the fall of his kingdom.
While Gerald is not alone in his perception of the myth—as indicated by later writers of the myth such as 19th century Alfred Tennyson—Geoffrey’s viewpoint was more readily accepted in the medieval period and was subsequently borrowed by 13th century author William of Rennes, who “provides an idyllic description of Avalon, and the further detail that Arthur and a “royal maiden” who heals him and live together as a couple.”
‘The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon’ (1881-1898) by Edward Burne-Jones. ( Public Domain )
The Debate on Avalon’s Existence
Avalon as a historical place has long been under debate as well. The elusiveness of the understanding of the location in British literature has made it nearly impossible to discern whether there truly was an Avalon or if Geoffrey created it with influences from the native Celtic religion. If Avalon did exist, it is usually attributed to Glastonbury in England, in part due to an island that disappeared sometime before or during the 12th century.
It also fits descriptions of the mythical isle, although—again—it is possible the island was imagined in the image of Glastonbury Tor without the Tor actually being the site. The debate of Avalon’s existence only grew when a pair of rich graves was discovered in Glastonbury near the mythologically-infused Tor, believed to be those of Arthur and his Christian wife Guinevere.
- Avalon: A Real Island Obscured by Legend, or Just a Legendary Island?
- Historians Draw Closer to the Tomb of the Legendary King Arthur
- The Bewitching Tale of Morgan le Fay, a Captivating Character of Arthurian Legend
Glastonbury Tor has been linked to Avalon. (R Potticary/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
All in all, it cannot be doubted that Avalon played a powerful role in the expanse of literature surrounding King Arthur and his knights. The time period Arthur likely "lived" might remain hazy (though scholars lean toward the early medieval period of 500-900 AD), but that did not squelch attempts to understand and spread Arthur's historical and mystical tale during the medieval period. That exploration continues to this day, with no particular end in sight.
Yet it appears that the primary purpose Avalon served in medieval literature is to provide divine origins for Arthur's kingship and to connect the worlds of mortals and magic, Christian and pagan, during a tense period of transition.
The stories of Avalon maintain common themes—love, betrayal, and religious dissonance, to put it simply—and all have the same resolution: Arthur spends the last of his days in Avalon, and the pagan world preceding his reign has mostly passed. Therefore, Avalon's lengthy association with magic and old-world religion during the medieval period remains a sensible, though likely metaphorical, assertion.
Artist’s representation of Avalon. (AlexandraVBach/ Deviant Art )
Top Image: ‘Avalon finalised.’ Source: cheery-macaroon/ Deviant Art
Ashe, Geoffrey. 1984. Avalonian Quest . rev. ed. London: Fontana.
Ashe, Geoffrey. 1985. The Discovery of King Arthur , London: Guild Publishing.
“Arthurian Legend.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed January 30, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Arthurian-legend
“Avalon.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed January 30, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/place/Avalon-legendary-island
“Geoffrey of Monmouth.” 2018. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed January 30, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Geoffrey-of-Monmouth
Rushton, Corey James. 2017. “Avalon.” In The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain, Volume 2. (ed. Sian Echard, Robert Rouse, Jacqueline A. Fay, Helen Fulton, and Geoff Rector.) John Wiley & Sons. p. 215.