Print this page

Arthur, Avalon and the Bridge Perilous

Rate this item
(0 votes)

Glastonbury Abbey

The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous

James P Carley

 

Click here to order

Chapter eight:
Arthur, Avalon and the Bridge Perilous

I

 

When he composed his comprehensive Deeds of the Kings of England around 1125 William of Malmesbury made a sharp distinction between the Arthur of historical fact and the Arthur of the realms of the imagination. For his part, William opted firmly for the former:

This is that Arthur of whom the trifling of the Britons talks such nonsense even today: a man clearly worthy not to be dreamed of in fallacious fables, but to be proclaimed in veracious histories, as one who long sustained his tottering country and gave the shattered minds of his fellow citizens an edge for war.

Very little, so William maintained, can be ascertained about this hero. All we can really establish is that he aided Ambrosius Aurelianus in resisting the Saxons and that at the siege of Mount Badon, where he carried the image of the Virgin Mary on his armour, he single-handedly defeated a vast multitude of the enemy. Unfortunately, the location of his final resting place lies in doubt and this, William laments, has led to foolish rumours about his second coming.

At the other extreme from William's circumspect account come the great cycles of stories which first circulated in oral form in France and Britain and which were written down only in the twelfth century. These constitute the matière de Bretagne which, together with the stories of Alexander and Charlemagne, make up the major literary cycles of the High Middle Ages. 'I know not', says the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman chronicler Wace,

if you have heard tell the marvellous gestes and errant deeds related so often of King Arthur. They have been noised about this mighty realm for so great a space that the truth has turned to fable and an idle song. Such rhymes are neither sheer bare lies, nor gospel truths. They should not be considered either an idiot's tale, or given by inspiration. The minstrel has sung his ballad, the storyteller told over his tale so frequently, little by little he has decked and painted, till by reason of his embellishment the truth stands hid in the trappings of a tale. Thus to make a delectable tune to your ear, history goes masking as fable.

Arthur's genealogyIt is not through strict history and judicious chronicle, though, but through these 'gestes' and ballads that Arthur came to his pre-eminence among the Nine Worthies. 'Whither,' proudly asks a twelfth-century commentator on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Prophetiae Merlini,

has not flying fame spread and familiarized the name of Arthur the Briton, even as far as the empire of Christendom extends? Who, I say, does not speak of Arthur the Briton, since he is almost better known to the peoples of Asia than to the Britanni [the Welsh and Cornish], as our palmers returning from the East inform us? The Eastern peoples speak of him, as do the Western, though separated by the width of the whole earth. Egypt speaks of him, nor is the Bosphorus silent. Rome, queen of cities, sings his deeds, nor are Arthur's wars unknown to her former rival Carthage. Antioch, Armenia, and Palestine celebrate his acts.

In the writings of Geoffrey himself - who was more or less contemporary with William - we have an unprecedented coupling of history and myth, fact and speculation. The History of the Kings of Britain, written c.1138, puts Arthur at the pinnacle of Britain's history. Succeeding to the throne of a kingdom ravaged by Saxon raids, Arthur quickly routs the enemy, achieving his decisive victory at Badon (which Geoffrey identifies as Bath), where he triumphantly slices his way through his opponents with his trusty sword Caliburn (ie. Excalibur), itself forged in the fabled Isle of Avalon. After subduing the Saxons, Arthur then crushes the Picts and Scots in the North, marries Guenevere and turns his attention to foreign affairs. He conquers Ireland and Iceland in short order and then subdues Norway, Denmark and Gaul. Finally, he confronts the Roman ruler Lucius in Gaul and plans an advance on Rome. At this juncture, alas, he is cruelly betrayed by his wicked nephew Mordred who has usurped the throne at home. Arthur returns to England and defeats Mordred in a battle by the River Camlan in Cornwall, but he himself is mortally wounded during the fracas and is carried off to Avalon:

It was there we took Arthur after the battle of Camlan where he had been wounded, Barin thus was the steersman because of his knowledge of the seas and the stars of heaven. With him at the tiller of the ship, we arrived there with the prince; and Morgen received us with due honour. She put the king in her chamber on a golden bed, uncovered his wound with her noble hand and looked long at it. At length she said he could be cured if only he stayed with her a long while and accepted her treatment. We therefore happily committed the king to her care and spread our sails to favourable winds on our return journey.

Its proud leader removed, the British resistance collapses and the Saxons at last prevail.

Geoffrey, it is clear, is well aware of the traditional linking of Arthur's demise with Avalon, but whereas he rashly speculates about the modern names of many other Arthurian sites, he is deliberately poetic and imprecise about this particular location:

The island of Apples, which men call the Fortunate Isle, is so named because it produces all things of itself. The fields there have no need of farmers to plough them, and Nature alone provides all cultivation. Grain and grapes are produced without tending, and apple trees grow in the woods from close-clipped grass. The earth of its own accord brings forth not merely grass but all things in superabundance.

That Geoffrey does not identify Avalon in terms of contemporary geography is particularly appropriate, since Arthur himself is a kind of manifestation of the 'sleeping king' motif throughout early Celtic myth, a man whose final resting place, as William had noted, is full of magical connotations:

A grave for March, a grave for Gwythur, a grave for Gwgawn of the Red Sword; concealed till Domesday the grave of Arthur.

In the context of a long and proud tradition of Arthur as a mysterious sleeping hero it is easy to see why the discovery of his tomb at Glastonbury generated such speculation and - in some quarters - even disbelief. In his account written approximately forty years after the event the author of the Old French romance La Mort Artu makes a heroic struggle to reconcile the rex quondam rexque futurus motif with the 1191 discovery: he tells us that after Arthur was mortally wounded by Mordred, Morgan and her ladies came to take him away in their ship. His loyal knight Girflet witnessed the departure and after a period of mourning rode forth to the Black Chapel where he saw a new tomb with the inscription: 'Here lies King Arthur, who by his valor made twelve kingdoms subject to him.' Girflet then met a hermit who told him that the group of ladies brought the body to this most holy chapel for burial. Thus, a real Chapel [as at Glastonbury, where John Hardyng later refers to Arthur's burial in the 'blacke chappel Of our Lady'] becomes conflated with Morgan's traditional Avalon. The author of the Vera historia de morte Arthuri, composed in Latin before the end of the thirteenth century, provides a similar conflation of motifs. In this text Arthur's body is taken to be buried in a certain chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but since the entrance is too narrow to allow entrance the body is left outside. A great storm occurs and mist envelops all; when the air clears the body has disappeared and in its place there is a sealed tomb. Some say that this is where the body resides; others claim that it was mysteriously carried off to an unknown destination during the storm.

In spite of this kind of attempt at reconciliation of conflicting traditions, nevertheless, scepticism about the Glastonbury discovery continued. Almost three centuries after the excava tion, for example, Sir Thomas Malory informs us that 'yet some men say in many partys of Inglonde that Kynge Arthur ys nat dede, but had by the wyll of oure Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come agayne, and shall wynne the Holy Crosse.' Even later, it is reported that when Phillip II of Spain married Mary Tudor in 1554 he swore presumably somewhat ironically that he would hand over the kingdom if Arthur were to return. In relatively modern times, too, an ancient rustic is said to have approached antiquaries visiting South Cadbury to enquire querulously: 'Have you come to take the king out?'

The widely held scholarly stance is that the 1191 excavation was a hoax. That curtains may have surrounded the site during the dig (as is reported by the Glastonbury chronicler Adam of Damerham), makes the whole business seem even more suspicious. Glastonbury was in relatively dire straits at this period, as it happens, because of the decimating fire in 1184. Funds were urgently needed to implement large scale rebuilding plans and pilgrims to Arthur's shrine would provide a fine supplemental income for the monastery. That one almost contemporary account makes King Henry II himself the motivating authority for the excavation also fits in with his line of reasoning. The Angevin monarchy had been having a certain amount of trouble with the Welsh and it was feared that they might openly rebel given the right political context in this case Arthur could easily become a kind of rallying cry. On the other hand, Arthur proved safely dead and buried in English territory would act as a deterrent to potential Celtic nationalism.

The foregoing thesis does not lack merit and may well provide at least a partial explanation for the triumphant success of the dig, which quickly became known in England and abroad and which influenced the whole course of development of the English Grail legends. Nevertheless, other factors, less easy to pin down, seem also to enter into the matter. In particular, why does King Henry II allege that he heard about Arthur's place of burial from a Welsh or Breton bard? Does this detail suggest that the story might have independent origins, that it might have other causes apart from the obvious benefits the find conferred on king and monastery? Is there, in other words, a pre-excavation oral tradition of Glastonbury as an Otherworld, a Celtic paradise or Avalon? In trying to probe this sort of question we move very quickly into a realm of hints and speculations, of possibilities and wishes, non sequiturs, blind alleys and sometimes even absurdities. All too easily the deceptive Celtic twilight can descend, obscuring clear logic and sharp, crisp powers of deduction.

Although the written form is late, the Welsh Mabinogion provides one of the earliest glimpses of the preliterate Celtic Otherworld and its myths. This group of four interconnected stories, extremely garbled in their present form, concerns - so linguists and folklorists now postulate - the prototypical British god 'Maponos', that is, the divine youth. In Branch I the adventures of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, are narrated. Pwyll meets Arawn, prince of Annwfn (the Celtic Otherworld) on a sacred mound. The two men agree to change physical form, wives, and kingdoms for a year. At the end of the year Pwyll, disguised as Arawn, contracts to challenge one Hafgan on the ford, but Pwyll must wield only one blow. (As in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight magical symbolism seems to be connected with a single stroke.) Pwyll does as he is instructed and sleeps beside Arawn's wife in Annwfn, his face resolutely to the wall, for the next twelve months. He then confronts Hafgan, defeats him because he remembers not to strike him more than once, and at last returns to his own kingdom of Dyfed, where he is henceforth known as Pwyll Head of Annwfn instead of his former title as Pendevig of Dyfed.

In spite of a variety of strange convolutions and seeming confusions of name and character, scholars have unravelled several primitive strands in this story. Most obviously, we have a variant of the Chastity Test, a motif of immense antiquity, one which forms a basis of certain aspects of the Grail stories and which achieves its literary apotheosis in Gawain's bedroom adventures with Lady Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Through a complex process of reconstruction it is possible, moreover, to detect in Pwyll remnants of the story of the birth of the national hero through the descent of a shape-changing god. In this respect, the story is a Celtic equivalent to the Leda and the Swan tale and distantly prefigures the events surrounding Arthur's own conception. Finally, Pwyll himself, in his role as god-king and tribal wise-man, seems to be a prototype of Pelles, the Fisher King of the Grail stories, whose residence is at the fabled Corbenic and who is wounded in his thigh as a punishment for drawing the sword of David.

In another early Welsh text, The Spoils of Annwfn, Arthur himself makes a voyage in his ship Prydwenn to Annwfn to fetch away the magic cauldron of plenty (perhaps a prototype for the Grail) belonging to the chief of Annwfn:

The cauldron of the Head of Annwfn, what is its custom, dark about its edge with pearl?
It does not boil a coward's food; it had not been so destined.
And when we went with Arthur, renowned conflict, except for seven, none returned from Caer Feddwid.

In this poem, supposedly composed by the sixth-century bard Taliesin, Annwfn is called among other names Caer Siddi, that is Faery City, and Caer Wydr, that is City of Glass: the latter reminds us of the great importance of the mythical Glassy Isle in Celtic legend.

In some stories the chief of Annwfn is Pwyll, in others he is nameless, and elsewhere he is called Gwynn ap (ie. son of) Nudd. According to Culhwch and Olwen, which deals with a trip to Annwfn, Gwynn's wife Creiddylad (a prototype of Cordelia) is abducted by Gwythyr. Arthur restores her to the house of her father Leir, but decrees that Gwynn and Gwythur will have to fight for her hand every Mayday until Domesday. Long ago, Matthew Arnold noted the symbolic undertones here:

What is Gwyn the son of Nudd, king of Faerie, the ruler of the Tylwyth Teg, or family of beauty, who til the day of doom fights every first day of May - the great feast of the sun among the Celtic peoples - with Gwythyr for the fair Cordelia, the daughter of Lyr? ... Who is the mystic Arawn, the king of Annwyn, who changed semblance for a year with Pwyll, prince of Dyved, and reigned in his place? These are no mediaeval personages; they belong to an older, pagan, mythological world.

Gwynn also appears in the Life of St Collen, where he is portrayed as the king of the Otherworld, the entrance to whose realm is found at the summit of Glastonbury Tor. A variation of this motif is found in a fourteenth-century English poem, A Dispute between a Christian and a Jew, which describes the magnificent manor of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table; the manor is reached by a path under a hill.

Another son of Nudd, himself a manifestation of the ancient British god Nodons, is Yder. According to the French romance bearing his name, Yder undertakes the courtship of Queen Guenloie. During the course of his adventures he is treacherously wounded by Kay. Once healed of his wounds, he rescues Queen Guenevere from a bear and she announces that she would have preferred him to Arthur as a lover if she had had the choice. Not surprisingly, this provokes Arthur to jealousy and he attempts to kill Yder before the plot is finally resolved. Yder turns up in quite a different context in William of Malmesbury's The Early History of Glastonbury. Here King Arthur decorates the young Yder as one of his knights and sends him off to fight giants at the Mount of Frogs in Brent Knoll. Yder conquers the giants but is killed himself in the effort. Arthur feels responsible for his death and gives rich territory to the monastery at Glastonbury as a kind of penance and establishes 24 monks there in Yder's memory.

Yet another cluster of stories concerning the ruler of the Otherworld focuses on the figure of Meiwas ('mael' + 'gwas' = prince youth). In Caradog of Llancarfan's Life of Gildas Melwas, as king of the Summer region, abducts Queen Guenevere and in retaliation the 'tyrant' Arthur brings all the forces of Devon and Cornwall together to retrieve her. St Gildas, accompanied by the abbot of Glastonbury, obtains her release and peace is restored. Ultimately Caradog's story, as respectable and historically accurate as he tries to make it, derives like the equivalent Yder episode from a Celtic form of the Pluto and Persephone myth, a myth which also turns up in the Welsh Dialogue of Arthur and Gwenhwyfer, where the same events are described with Melwas, Gwenhwyfer and perhaps Cei (Kay) as the principal participants.

The Melwas/Pluto story also comes into the French Arthurian romances. In Chrétien de Troyes' Erec and Enide, for example, the Melwas figure appears briefly, his name rendered as Maheloas. He is described as the lord of the Isle de Voirre (ie. Glass), where there is never storm, winter's cold or excessive heat, and he attends the wedding of the hero and heroine. In Chrétien's Lancelot we have the figure Meleagant, who is characterized as the evil son of Baudemagus, king of the land of Gorre. Meleagant, true to his Melwas prototypical origins, abducts Guenevere and this time it is Lancelot who travels to Gorre, crossing a sword bridge on the last part of his trip and arriving at Meleagant's castle in time to rescue the Queen. Just as Lancelot is about to overcome Meleagant in armed combat Baudemagus asks Guenevere to intercede on behalf of his son. Even after Guenevere persuades Lancelot to spare him, however, Meleagant refuses to admit defeat and Lancelot therefore consents to meet him again in battle for the queen at Arthur's court in one year's time. This combat duly takes place in the presence of Arthur and Guenevere in their residence at Escavalon. The parallels here with Caradog's Melwas story are obvious and surprisingly specific.

If the Celtic Isle of Glass linguistically analogous with Glastonbury itself was a winterless Otherworld, an appropriate venue for the British form of the Persephone story in its Arthurian context, so too the Isle of Avalon, the Apple-clustered island, realm of King Avallach, home of nine maidens, chief of whom was Arthur's kinswoman Morgan le Fay, represented the same paradisiacal concept. A variety of factors could have suggested an identification of Avalon with Glastonbury once the latter had been etymologized as the Isle of Glass. To begin with, the Isle of Glass as mythical concept might well suggest the Isle of Apples, almost identical in its attributes. It also seems quite possible that Glastonbury Tor and the island around it had been a sacred enclosure even since prehistoric times and as such might well have been viewed locally as an Avalon, that is holy place. Presumably, too, apple trees grew plenteously in the region then as now. Nor is there any reason to doubt that stories concerning Arthur, who appears early to have been associated with the south west, would have circulated orally at Glastonbury even before Caradog wrote about his sojourn at Glastonbury. If Glastonbury could be identified as Avalon as well as the Isle of Glass, moreover, then the logical consequence would be that Arthur's mortal remains (known to be at Avalon) must be found in the cemetery, itself revered as a magically resonant and holy place. From the viewpoint of the medieval Glastonbury community it would seem altogether logical that this great Christian leader would have venerated the oldest church in his kingdom and wished to be buried there. In this respect the 1191 discovery represents a solution to a complex series of interconnected problems and provides an extremely neat tying up of a whole set of themes.

 

II

The origin of the name 'Avalon' is still open to dispute and even modern etymologists cannot agree about its ultimate derivation. One fairly obvious possibility is that the name comes from the Celtic Aval = apple; and certainly the apple was a magical fruit in Celtic myth as it was in many other cultures we need only think of the judgement of Paris, the Apples of the Hesperides or even the Garden of Eden. On the other hand, the character Avallach, father of Morgan, is a very ancient figure in the Celtic pantheon and is portrayed as the King of the Underworld. It seems at least possible, then, that Avalon derives from his name.

There are also several different explanations for the origin of the first element that is, the Isle of Glass aspect - in Glastonbury. It possibly represents a Welsh personal name, but it could come from glasstan (oak) or glasto (woad). Some scholars have claimed, moreover, that the later, so-called British, name for Glastonbury, that is Iniswitrin - the second element of which Caradog derived from witrin (glass) - may have a completely different origin and come from the proper name Vitrinos.

The late medieval chronicles at Glastonbury create an account which brings together and reconciles most of the forms of the various names. We begin with Glasteing's arrival at the site. Glasteing, it appears, has left the land of his ancestor Cunedda and has migrated south. At Wells he catches sight of a wild sow and pursues her along Sugewey (and here sugga = marsh is ingeniously etymologized as suga = sow). Soon he finds her suckling under an apple tree near the Old Church and decides that this is a sign that he should colonize the place. And since he finds precious apples there he names it Avalon, although he subsequently discovers that the local ruler is called Avalo. Later the Saxon invaders change the name to Iniswitrin, Isle of Glass, or Isle of Glasteing.

Through their synthesis the medieval chroniclers produced a happy marriage, as it were, of all the foundation motifs with the exception of the Vitrinos strand. One modern scholar, Louis H. Gray, has shown himself even more ingenious and has managed as well to assimilate this element and deserves, therefore, the last word on the matter:

As I reconstruct the story, a settlement called Avallonia already famous as a British Elysium, intimately associated with the Arthurian cycle, and a renowned centre of Christianity, was occupied, about 500, by a band headed by Vitrinos Glast, who had migrated from Manau Guotodin, the littoral area between the Firth of Forth and the Aln, along the west coast through Glassonby and Glasson to Wells. He gave his own name to Aballonia (Inisvitrin), but the appellation was soon changed from his original name to his nickname, and made to include his followers as well - probably something like Glastincodunom. Finally, between 658 and 688, with the Saxon conquest, this name was transformed into its Saxon equivalent Glaestingaburh, whence the present designation Glastonbury.

 

III

Whether Arthur's tomb was found at Glastonbury because Glastonbury was identified as Avalon or whether Glastonbury was identified as Avalon because tradition suggested that Arthur was buried there, one thing is certain: once the identification was made it was inevitable that Glastonbury/Avalon would be seen as the final destination for the Holy Grail, that mysterious relic of the Crucifixion associated with Joseph of Arimathea and King Arthur's court. The Grail, however, is not the only Arthurian relic closely linked with the region around Avalon. Traditionally Arthur's last gesture before being taken to Avalon was to have his mighty sword Caliburn (itself forged in the Isle of Avalon) hurled from Pomparles Bridge, which was identified as the bridge between Glastonbury and Street as early as the fourteenth century in the English poem Libeaus Desconnus. The author of this poem, moreover, locates King Arthur's court at Glastonbury and sends his hero out from the court over Pomparles Bridge to the Chapel Adventurous in Street.

Pomparles Bridge, 1826Pomparles turns up in Latin records under the form Pons periculosus as early as 1344, when a charter of Ralph, Baron Stafford, is dated 'apud Strete iuxta pontem periculosam'. Such was its fame in the sixteenth century that John Leland made a special point of visiting it and noting his impressions: 'a Bridge of Stone of a 4. Arches communely caullid Pontperlus, wher men fable that Arture cast in his Swerd.' Even after the Dissolution the bridge continued to attract pilgrims and Sir John Harington refers to it in 1591, carefully dissociating himself from popular tales in his analysis:

But what manner of death King Arthur himself died, it is doubtfull, and that which they report seems meerly fabulous, namely that he was carried away in a barge from a bridge called Pomperles, neare the said Glassenbury, and so conveyed by unknown persons (or by the Ladie of the Lake) with promise to bring him back againe one day: upon which it seemes the foolish people grounded their vaine saying (King Arthur comes againe).

Most modern readers think of Pomparles and Caliburn/ Excalibur in terms of the epic gesture of the dying king, so powerfully evoked in Tennyson's Idylls of the King:

Bedivere throws ExcaliburThou therefore take my brand Excalibur,
Which was my pride: for thou rememberest how
In those old days, one summer noon, an arm
Rose up from out the bosom of the lake
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
Holding the sword and how I row'd across
And took it, and have worn it, like a king;
And, wheresoever I am sung or told
In aftertime, this also shall be known:
But now delay not: take Excalibur,
And fling him far into the middle mere

In no other area of Arthurian romance, then, is there such a striking contrast between the imagined and the 'real'. Centuries of irrigation work have reduced the River Brue to a small and often sluggish stream which is crossed by a paved road and a perfectly undistinguished bridge. At Pomparles, more than at any other single spot, we must be reminded that Avalon is an act of the imagination, that modern Glastonbury is only the casement opening to magical transformations, whose source must come from within the quester himself. 'There was much mud there,' we learn in A Glastonbury Romance

and several extraneous objects carrying little association with Excalibur, rested half-buried in this mud, while a pathetically small stream of tawny-coloured water struggled with weakened impetus to deliver itself of such degrading obstacles. John's eyes [and John is the mocker of the whole Arthurian/Glastonbury myth] fell eventually upon a dead cat whose distended belly, almost devoid of fur, presented itself, together with two paws and a shapeless head that was one desperate grin of despair, to the mockery of the sunshine ... [Suddenly] he... distinctly saw literally shearing the sun-lit air with a whiteness like milk, like snow, like birch-bark, like maiden's flesh ... an object, resembling a sword, falling into the mud of the river! When it struck the mud it disappeared

Glastonbury: a sleepy market town whose sheep now provide material for coats instead of parchment for manuscripts. Like Bethlehem, least of cities among the tribes of Judah, so too this most unlikely of places can still lead us to the land of Avalon, of high adventure, romance and prophecy. Even at the end of the twentieth century, the monastery long since gone, the meres drained, the suburbs spreading, the words of the tenth-century description have a haunting ring:

There was within the realm of King Aethelstan a certain royal island known locally from ancient times as Glastonbury. It spread wide with numerous inlets, surrounded by lakes, full of fish and by rivers, suitable for human use and what is more important, endowed by God with sacred gifts. In that place at God's command the first neophytes of the Catholic law discovered an ancient church built by no human skill...

That ancient church is an inner church, still intact, still beckoning, still promising adventure to those who pay heed to its call. As Powys so confidently assures us:

The builders of Stonehenge have perished; but there are those who worship its stones still. The builders of Glastonbury have perished; but there are people, yet living among us, whose eyes have seen the Grail.

 

Click to order this book
Another sample: Glastonbury Abbey: 4. Saints
Or see: Glastonbury - Maker of Myths, by Frances Howard-Gordon
Gothic Image book list