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).
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.
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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.