Isle of Apples, Isle of Avalon
Lake of Avalon
Latin: Insula Avallonis, Insula Pomorum
Afallach, Auelon, Avallach, Avallo, Avallon, Avalona, Avaron, Aveloun, Avilion, Vallone, Ynys yr Afallon
The Isle of Apples
The island lies in the centre of a great lake whose still waters gleam like blue steel, and are surrounded by dark forests. A hero slain in battle must find his painful way through these forests until he reaches the shores of the lake, where a boat draped in black cloth awaits hinm with a mysterious woman sitting silently at the helm.
The boat glides across the island without causing a ripple on the still waters, and as it approaches Avalon the hero’s gaping wounds become whole again. With all his manly vigour restored to him he steps onto the beautiful island, where the sun always shines and rough weather is unknown. Orchards of apple trees laden with glowing fruit rise up from the water’s edge, and as he walks amongs them the grass is like a soft green lawn beneath his feet. Towards the centre of the island there are green silent forests with flowery glades, filled with such peace as men will never know on earth.
When the dead hero wanders contentedly through this forest he slowly becomes aware of the other inhabitants of the island. They are heroes like himself, who have perished in the defence of the right against the powers of darkness, together with a race of beautiful women who are the keepers of that magic which inspires mankind with charity, courage, kindliness, and pure-hearted love.
In the depths of the forest there is a small church built by Joseph of Arimathea, and it is there that the hero finds the supreme joy of worshipping the Creator who gave him, during life, the strength to combat evil and defy the oppressor.
Avalon according to Geoffrey of Monmouth
Avalon is variously described as an island or valley. Geoffrey of Monmouth gives the name Avalon to an otherwordly island of Celtic mythology, located to the west of Britain. In his Latin, it is Insula Avallonis. He mentions the place twice in the Historia Regum Britanniae, saying
the glorious King Arthur was mortally wounded, and was carried from [the battlefield of Camlann] to the Isle of Avalon [Insula Avallonis], so that his wounds might be healed.
He also states that Arthur’s sword, Caliburn, was forged there and that he was carried there after his last battle so that his wounds might be attended to.
The meaning Geoffrey attaches to the name emerges in his poetic Vita Merlini, where he introdudes the island as the Insula Pomorum, or ‘isle of apples’, which, he adds, is called “Fortunate” (which recall the Fortunate Isles of classical myth). It is a lush otherworld paradise that produces grain without cultivation and provides longevity to its residents.
It lies vaguely over western waters and is the home of Morgan le Fay – here depicted as a kindly enchantress heading a sisterhood of nine, and all were adept healers. Morgan’s nine sisters recollect the nine maidens of Annwfn who kept a magic cauldron in Preiddeu Annwfn (see also Nine Witches). It is often seen as having a connection with apples because of the similarity of its name to various Celtic words denoting that fruit: Old Irish aball, Middle Welsh afall, Middle Breton avellenn, Celtic avallo. It has also been connected with Avalloc, evidently originally a god who, according to William of Malmesbury, lived there with his daughters.
In Geoffrey’s poem, the bard Taliesin tells how Arthur was taken there after Camlann in a boat piloted by Barinthus, an authority on seafaring who also figures in the Irish tale of ‘St. Brendan’s Voyage’. Morgan placed Arthur on a bed made of gold, examined his major wound, and undertook to heal him if he would stay in Avalon for a long time under her care.
This account is related to much older beliefs, and even realities. Geoffrey pictures Avalon as one of the Fortunate Isles of classical myth. He speaks of self-sown grain, vines that flourish without tending, and inhabitants who live for a century or more. But he combines all this with genuine Celtic motifs, including the nine sisters. Moreover, the first-century geographer Pomponius Mela refers to a group of nine virgin priestesses actually living on the Ile de Sein off the coast of Brittany. Reputedly, they could cure the sick, foretell the future, control the weather, and assume animal disguises. Their talents resemble Morgan’s as Geoffrey describes them. She herself, in her origins, is a Celtic goddess.
Given the numerous mythological examples of apples as otherworldly or magical fruits, and given that the Celtic word for “apple” is avallo, Geoffrey’s equation of “Avalon” to “Apple Island” is probably correct, the apples being paradisal or magical fruit like those of the Hesperides, or of Celtic otherworld regions portrayed elsewhere. We must also note, however, the appearance of a ruler named Affalach (various spelled) occurs in Welsh genealogical and legendary matter, named as the father of Modron – the Celtic progenitor of Morgan le Fay – he is said to rule an island with the qualities of Geoffrey’s Avalon. Geoffrey’s Insula Avallonis equals the Welsh Ynys Avallach, which may signify “Apple Island”, or may mean “Avallach’s Island”. Scholars have also pointed out that the Irish sea-god Manannan was said to live on an island called Abhlach (“lush with Apple trees”).
Another curious point is that Geoffrey’s spelling of the name, whether or not he invented it, would scarcely be a true Latin equivalent for the Welsh. His Insula Avallonis is influenced – perhaps through Breton channels – by the name of a real place, a town, in Burgundy, Avallon. This is of Gaulish derivation and certainly does have the “apple” meaning. Geoffrey’s use of it, coupled with hints in his Prophetiae Merlini and elsewhere, may indicate a different version of Arthur’s passing. One school of thought suggests that “Avallon” comes from Irish oileán (island).
It was perhaps originally a Celtic paradise. It was said to produce crops without cultivation, to be ruled by Guingamuer (Guingomar), Morgan’s lover, or by a king named Bangon. Burgundy, whether coincidentally or not, is near where the British high king called “Riothamus” in continental chronicles ended his career, probably slain in battle against the Visigoths. In their Arthurian Handbook, Geoffrey Ashe and Norris Lacy trace the career of Riothamus and argue, as other scholars have done, for an identification between Riothamus and Arthur. If this identification is correct, it adds an entirely new angle to the idea of Avalon or Avallon as Arthur’s final resting place.
Successive authors added sporadically to the concept of Geoffrey’s Insula Avallonis. Wace and Layamon both relate the Briton belief that Arthur would return from Avalon to rule again. Layamon gives its fairy queen’s name as Argante rather than Morgan. Chrétien de Troyes names its ruler as Guinguemar, Morgan’s lover, while Heinrich von dem Türlin calls its queen Enfeidas, Arthur’s aunt. In the Italian La Tavola Ritonda, the island, located in the Soriano Sea, is inhabited by a wicked sorceress named Escorducarla. Durmart le Gallois names its ruler as King Bangon. The French tale of Les Merveilles de Rigomer refers to all of the British Isles as the “Isles of Avalon”.
Apart from what Geoffrey transmits himself, little is known of the way the island was regarded before him. The Irish sea-god Manannan ruled over an elysian otherworld isle to which the epithet ablach was given, meaning “rich in apple-trees”. There is obviously some connection, but the Irish parallel remains unenlightening. Some have thought that Avalon was an abode of departed spirits. Evidence is lacking, and indeed, as the story of Arthur’s sojourn develops, the whole point is that he is not a departed spirit; he is still alive through enchantment and will continue in Avalon till the day comes for his return. Wace and Layamon note this as a Breton belief, and several authors follow inventively in the same path.
Their Avalon tends to drift into other climes, and Morgan goes with it. Étienne de Rouen in Draco Normannicus (ca. 1169) takes Arthur to the Antipodes, though his intention may be satirical. Others do not venture so far. The author of Floriant et Florete (ca 1250) seems to identify Avalon with Sicily, as opinion that passes from romance into folklore. The resulting Sicilian presence of Morgan is the reason for the term Fata Morgana applied to a mirage phenomenon in the Straits of Messina. A fourteenth-century poem about the hero Ogier places Avalon in the East near the Earthly Paradise, and a Danish redaction of it points to India, while a Spanish medieval poem La Faula considered it to be an oriental isle. But the chronicler Jean des Preis, or d’Outremeuse, toward 1400, tells of Ogier’s meeting with Arthur in a Mediterranean Avalon, where Morgan houses them in a palace surrounded by pools and fruit-trees, and both enjoy immortality and perpetual youth.
The Majorcan poet Guillem Torroella, in La Faula (1360-70), describes a voyage on a whale’s back to an island that is likewise in the Mediterranean and is clearly meant to be Avalon. The narrator enters Morgan’s palace, and she shows him paintings of Arthurian characters. A young man in her company turns out to be Arthur. He has healed his wounds by bating in the water of the River Tigris, which flows from the Earthly Paradise, and his youth is annually restored by visits of the Holy Grail.
In Perlesvaus, Guinevere and Loholt, Arthur’s son, died before Arthur and were buried there. (In Perlesvaus, Avalon may be identical to Glastonbury.) Perlesvaus somewhat strips it of its otherworldly associations by having Lancelot simply happen upon it during his adventures. In Alliterative Morte Arthure, Arthur is borne to a manor there, but a surgeon from Salerno fails to cure him and he dies. However, because of the first syllable in Glastonbury’s name, some may have thought it identical with Caer Wydyr, the Fort of Glass, another name for Annwfn. Another tradition claims that a man named Glast or Glasteing found his eightfooted pigs here under an apple tree, and called it Insula Avalloniae.
Is Glastonbury Avalon?
Back in England, a different story was told at Glastonbury. The monks of its abbey claimed that Glastonbury itself was Avalon, in a comparatively mundane sense, as Arthur’s last earthly destination where he died and was buried. It is not known whether they said this before 1191, when they announced that they had exhumed him and his wife, Guenevere, together with a cross bearing the island’s name in the form Avalonia – an “island” in the sense that it is surrounded by marshes. At all events, the equation was widely publicized after that, and accepted by Giraldus Cambrensis, Robert de Boron, and the anonymous author of Perlesvaus. It was probably helped by a lingering sense of “otherness” at Glastonbury, rooted in its strange topography and non-Christian associations.
Avilion includes Glastonbury and the territory between the Mendip and the Quantock Hills, Somerset. Malory in his last book seems to confirm this traditional identification. Helen Hill Miller, in ‘The Realms of Arthur’, point out that “It is no figurative island. Until recent centuries, the territory between the Mendip and the Quantock Hills, extending far inland from Bristol Channel, was a marsh across which only those who knew secret hidden causeways could travel. … As late as the 19th century the sea broke in … and spread a brackish flood over miles of flat pasture”. Here at Glastonbury, Joseph of Arimathea planted his miraculous Flowering Thorn (Glastonbury Thorn). Later, a number of former knights gathered as hermits around Arthur’s grave near Glastonbury.
Avilion may have been simply a geographical territory, difficult of access because of the marshlands. Certainly the place seems to have had normal residents leading normal lives. It must also have been the residence of the mysterious “great lady Lile of Avelion”, who appears, from Malory’s references to her, to have been a powerful sorceress. I suspect, however, that Lady Lile of Avelion may be an unconscious personification of the island, or “l’i[s]le” of Avilion itself. Arthur may be in a mystical or magical sleep in Avilion, but Malory himself seems more of the opinion that the great king died like any other man.
Malory is unclear about Arthur’s end. The King is carried off in a barge by a company of four ladies including Morgan, apparently Avalon-bound, but Malory allows that he may have been buried at Glastonbury and that the ladies may simply have brought his body there, in which case the Avalon = Glastonbury equation holds. The identification with Glastonbury had the effect of stripping the paradisiacal elements from Avalon, as well as removing the great “Breton hope” of Arthur’s return. Consequently, a number of authors rejected it, favoring Geoffrey’s celestial description. Tennyson rules it out. Arthur goes away over the water to a sort of paradise:
... the island-valley of Avilion
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard-lawns
And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea.
This is to come full circle, more or less, to Geoffrey’s Fortunate Isle.
Nevertheless, Avilion comes across as a mystical center of repose, quite possibly Christian grafted onto Pagan with elements of the old creed remaining, and beneficent if a shade melancholy – a “peaceable kingdom” of healing, sanctuary, and permanent, inviolent truce. Or, perhaps, it might have been a gateway to the underworld of the dead. The abode of heroes, more correctly written as Ynys yr Afallon which in the Welsh language means ‘Isle of Apples’.
Ynys signifies an island, in Welsh, in the ancient times, and also a quasi, island, answering to inch in Scotland, and inis or ennis in Ireland. Some places, with no river or water near them – neither nowadays or in remote times – has this word applied to the place-name.
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Vita Merlini | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1150
Erec | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Triads of the Island of Britain (Welsh ”Triads”) | 11th century to 14th century
Brut | Layamon, late 12th century to mid-13th century
De Principis Instructione | Giraldus Cambrensis, c. 1193
Tristan | Gottfried von Strassburg, early 13th century
Perlesvaus | Early 13th century
Durmart le Gallois | Early 13th century
Les Merveilles de Rigomer | Jehan, mid to late 13th century
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325–1350
The Stanzaic Le Morte Arthur | 14th century
Alliterative Morte Arthure | c. 1400
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
Idylls of the King | Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1859-1886