Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The Isle of Avalon was the final resting place of Arthur, to which he was taken to recover after the Battle of Camlann. The etymology of the name is curious, and may result from confusion on the part of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who refers to the island in his Historia Regum Britanniae (1136) and Vita Merlini (?1155) variously as Insula Pomorum or the "Isle of Apples (also called Fortunate)" and Ynys Avallach or Insula Avallonis. There are many tales of Islands to the west of Europe believed to be like Paradise, and in Geoffrey's time the adventures of the Irish St Brendan (?486-?575) as recorded in the Romance Navagatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis ["The Voyage of St Brendan"] (before 10th century) were highly popular. Geoffrey may have linked this to the Celtic king Avalloch (known as Evelake in the French romances) – who ruled an island to the west and was, according to some versions, the father of Morgan Le Fay – as he makes Avalon the home of Morgan. Morgan is regarded here as a beneficent priestess, head of a sisterhood of nine virgins (see Virginity), and indeed there was such a sisterhood on the Île de Seine, off Brittany, in the 1st century AD. Avalon has become closely associated with Glastonbury – the Tor was a marsh-surrounded island in Arthur's day – but it has also been linked with the Isle of Arran, the Isle of Man, Ireland, various islands off the Irish coast, and even with Sicily. Avalon is also linked with the Annwn of Celtic legend, particularly in the poems "Immram Bran" ["Voyage of Bran"] (?8th century) and "Preiddeu Annwfyn" ["The Spoils of Annwn"] (?900AD), where it is an Otherworld which drifts in and out of our Reality. Avalon thereby came to represent a Heaven or Paradise, but one from which heroes could return after being healed. Ogier the Dane is taken to Avalon by Morgan in the anonymous 13th-century chanson de geste called Ogier le Danois. By the 19th century, with the flowering of the English romantics, Avalon had come to be regarded as an Earthly Paradise and a place of escape from an increasingly polluted and industrialized UK. This was how it was depicted by William Morris in his sequence of poems The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870 3 vols).

The name Avalon projects a timeless image of an existence on Earth but not of this world. It is in this sense that it often appears as the title of Arthurian books, especially Avalon (1965) by Anya Seton (1904-1990), where descendants of Arthur bring peace and tranquility to 10th-century Cornwall, and The Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley, where the word is also representative of the earthly Glastonbury. Few writers have attempted to explore the mythical Avalon, although Andre Norton takes three children there in Steel Magic (1965; vt Grey Magic 1967), which is based more on the Celtic Annwn. [MA]

see also: Lost Lands and Continents.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.