Avalon: Isle of Mystery

The island of Avalon has been shrouded in mystery throughout the history of the Arthurian legend. Named Ynyswytryn, meaning "the glassy isle", it was famous as the Celtic paradise "The Happy Island of the Blest" (Webb 11). In the earliest religion it was believed that the souls of the dead were borne westward to "…an Island in the Western Sea, to the abode of Glast and Avallac….Thus in later times was Arthur to be borne to the 'Island Valley of Avillion' " (Webb 11). The island supposedly held a mystic cauldron of Regeneration into which dead are dipped to spring out into a new life (Webb 12). In the Life of Gildas written by Caradoc of Llancarvan, Arthur comes to Glastonbury, and the writer tells us that the "City of Glass" derives its name from the British Yniswitrin, yet gives no hint that it was identical with Avalon (Robinson 7).

"The Spoils of Annwn" also mentions the island, saying that after the battle of Camlan, Taliesin brings the wounded Arthur to Insula Pomorum, which is an attempt to translate the Welsh Ynys Avallach, and leaves Arthur there under the care of Morgen (Loomis, Roger Wales 154). Morgen was the chief of nine maidens on the island and was skilled in the arts of healing; the 4th line, 2nd stanza says that "By the breath of nine maidens it [the cauldron] was kindled" (Loomis, Roger Wales 154). A 12th century Welsh tradition derived the name of the island of Avalon from Avallach, the father of Morgain; from this, the Arthur legend acquired the name as well as the ministrations of Morgain le Fée (Loomis, Roger Wales 72). William of Malmesbury, writing around 1125, also attributes the name to "a certain Avalloc, who is said to have lived there with his daughters because of the secrecy of the place" (Loomis, Roger Celtic 191).

Geoffrey of Monmouth refers to the island in his 1138 work Historia Regum Britannie, saying that Arthur was brought to the Isle of Avalon for healing after being mortally wounded in the civil war against Modred (Loomis, Richard 61). In his Latin the island was named Insula Avallonis; it lay vaguely in western waters and was the home of Morgan, an enchantress leading a sisterhood of nine maidens ("Avalon" 33). The name was most likely drawn not only from the Romanized version ("Insula Avallonia") of Ynis Avallon, which came from the Welsh word aval or afal meaning apple (Webb 12), but was also influenced by Avallon, a real place in Burgundy, whose Gaulish derivation also has the apple meaning ("Avalon" 33). The apple etymology is significant because apples were a paradisal or magical fruit "like those of the Hesperides, or of Celtic otherworld regions portrayed elsewhere," and could indicate another version of Arthur's passing ("Avalon" 33), namely leaving open the possibility that he could return(Loomis, Richard 61).

Giraldus also talks of Avalon in his work De Principis Instructione. He says that the island of Avalon is Arthur's burial site with Guenivere, and that Morgen transported Arthur there after the Battle of Camlan (Wilhelm 8). His is the earliest record identifying Avalon with Glastonbury, saying that "Glastonia" was anciently called "insula Avalonia" because it was an island surrounded by marshes (Robinson 9). He reports that Arthur's body was found "in our times" buried deep in the earth in a hollowed oak in the cemetery of Glastonbury (Robinson 8). With the body was found a leaden cross bearing an inscription of the name of Avalon; however, what exactly is written on it cannot be determined, for no two people have reported it to read the same (Robinson 11).

Also in the 12th century, a poet named Layamon wrote an epic titled Brut, which is the first to make use of French legendary material and also includes Celtic elements into the tale. Layamon describes Arthur's death and the coming of Argante, the Courteous, who bore him in a small boat to Avalon to be healed of his wounds (Reid 22). The poet remarks in an earlier passage that this incident was foreseen by Arthur and his own return predicted (Reid 22).

Malory's reading of sources for his 1485 work Le Morte D'Arthur led him to associate Avalon with two different locations (Parry). The first is Glastonbury, where Arthur was probably buried in the Monastery, but because his sources can't specify the location, he doesn't assert this connection (Parry). Other reports suggest that Avalon is a location outside this world. This led him to write " 'Yet som men say in many partys of Inglonde that Kynge Arthure ys nat dede, but had by the wyll of oure Lorde Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall com agayne….' (717: 29-33)" (Parry). Malory indicates that he wishes to place "the vale of Avilon" somewhere in this world because Arthur died here, yet Parry suggests that this place may be somewhere "now irretrievably outside the temporal boundaries of the narrative's world." Similarly, Tennyson only says Arthur goes away over the water to a paradise-like place: "…the island-valley of Avilon" ("Avalon" 34).

Besides Glastonbury, Avalon has also been placed in Antipodes, Sicily, India, and somewhere in the Mediterranean by various other early writers from 1169-1400 ("Avalon" 34). We probably will never know the exact location of the island, or if it was really an island at all; however, this mystery just adds to the appeal of the Arthurian legend.

 

Works Cited

"Avalon."  The Arthurian Encyclopedia.  Ed. Norris J. Lacy et al.  New York: Garland, 1986.

Loomis, Richard M.  "Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth."  The Romance of Arthur.  Ed. James J.
Wilhelm.  New York: Garland, 1994.

Loomis, Roger Sherman.  Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance.  New York: Columbia UP, 1926.

- - - .  Wales and the Arthurian Legend.  Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1956.

Parry, Joseph D.  "Following Malory out of Arthur's World."  Modern Philology.  95.2  (1997): 
147.

Reid, Margaret J. C.  The Arthurian Legend:  Comparison of Treatment in Modern and
Midiaeval Literature.  London: Oliver and Boyd, 1938.

Robinson, J. Armitage.  Two Glastonbury Legends:  King Arthur & St. Joseph of Arimathea. 
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1926.

Webb, Albert E.  Glastonbury: Ynyswytryn; Isle of Avalon.  Glastonbury: Avalon,1929.

Wilhelm, James J.  "Arthur in the Latin Chronicles."  The Romance of Arthur.  Ed.  James J. 
Wilhelm.  New York: Garland, 1994.