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Myths & Legends
KING ARTHUR’S FRENCH ODYSSEY - pArt 2
The French Evidence
The date of the discovery, 1191, is very significant. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History in 1136 – or thereabouts. It certainly pre-dated the discovery of King Arthur’s grave in Glastonbury. Geoffrey had written what amounted to a best-seller in his day. By the time the discovery was made, everybody would have known the famous story of King Arthur. Geoffrey is the first person to mention Avalon in connection with Arthur’s final destination. This is what he says,
“he was carried off to the Isle of Avalon, so that his wounds might be attended to.”
What did Geoffrey of Monmouth really mean by his Avalon? He says, with utmost simplicity, that Arthur was taken to Avalon for medical treatment. Arthur is not dead, he is wounded. Surely it would be premature to dispatch him from this earth to Concept Avalon? Also, the question has to be asked, that if Geoffrey, who paints a devoutly Christian portrait of King Arthur, meant Avalon to be a Celtic paradise as opposed to a real place, why on earth did he have Arthur ending up in a pagan otherworld, as opposed to ending up in Christian Heaven? Of course, Geoffrey is no historian, and he writes a fantastic melange of myth and fiction spattered with real-life people and places. But having said that, even if his whole Avalon episode were simply fantasy and based on nothing but classical allusion, then there is a massive co-incidence with the factual material relating to Arthur Riothamus. It would have been very simple for Geoffrey to have said that King Arthur was taken to Glastonbury. But he didn’t.
Geoffrey isn’t the only one to mention Avalon in early Arthurian literature, either. The earlier we can go back, the more likely we are to find someone who used the same – or different – source material to Geoffrey. Like an upside down pyramid, the stories of Arthur are all based on the scantiest evidence – and the earliest writers all mention older sources which are now lost. French writers are particularly interesting to our research.
12th century Chrétien de Troyes who gave us Sir Lancelot and the first Grail story, certainly knew the difference between his Avalon and his Inis Gutrin. He claimed to have been given his source, ‘the book’, by Count Philip of Flanders. Chrétien de Troyes wrote his Erec and Enide, in about 1170. In the story (which of course is only a story, but that’s not the point) he listed the guests at their wedding. They included both Moloas,
Chrétian understood the two places to be separate and different. And he should know – coming from Troyes – just up the road from Avallon in Burgundy ….
Another Burgundian, Robert de Boron, writing in the mid-1180s refers to his source as ‘a high book’. Robert was the first writer to add the sword in the stone episode. He wrote in verse. Three of his works survive and the death of Arthur comes in Perceval:
From the Modena, or Didot Perceval manuscript, believed to be a prose version of Robert de Boron written in about 1200, Avalon also comes across as a real location:
In his Roman de Brut written in about 1155, Wace was the first to mention The Round Table. Wace was a Frenchman born in Jersey and brought up in Caen, Normandy. He says that he uses sources independent of Geoffrey. This is how he deals with it:
In all these examples the only lack of agreement is in the nature of Avalon’s geography. Was it an Isle or Island? Is it simply a town or place name? One thing’s certain - none of the early examples make so much as a passing nod at Concept Avalon.
Geoffrey of Monmouth mentions Avalon in one other place in The History of the Kings of Britain. During the first period of his reign when Arthur was cleaning up Britain, he fought several significant and named battles. One of these was against the Saxons who had besieged the town of Bath in Somerset, England. The passage describes Arthur putting on his armour before the battle:
Wace also re-iterates the provenance of Arthur’s sword:
Using this, and the other information about Arthur’s Avalon provided by Geoffrey in his Vita Merlini, we’ll be making a detailed comparison of its attributes with Avallon, Burgundy. There is amazing evidence linking them. But as far as the name goes, perhaps it’s time to consider a new syllogism:
Arthur was buried in Avalon
The only location known as Avalon or Avallon is in Burgundy, France
Q.E.D. Arthur’s body is buried in Burgundy.
If we take that one step further, we have to ask the question, ‘In Avallon, where would you bury Arthur, fabulous King of the Britons?’ That, of course, depends on who buried him and what was their religion – and what was Arthur’s.
If Arthur were Christian, then only one of the churches in Avallon is sufficiently ancient. In 1861 a tiny cave or chapel was discovered underneath the choir of the Eglise Saint-Lazare. The entrance to the chapel faced east – high on the ramparts – looking out over the Morvan. Based on the layer principle, the chapel, forgotten for centuries, might have been the crypt of the first Christian church. Or it might not. It may have contained the original relics of Saint Lazare – but no-one knows for sure. It was empty when discovered.
If Arthur and the person who buried him were still of the old, Celtic/Roman religion, then we could be looking for something altogether different. The Celts and Romans cremated their dead and placed their ashes in vases in necropoli. Later, they buried bodies in elaborate graves with grave goods, valuable possessions and necessities for their otherworldly journey. The Celts also buried their dead in shallow graves beside flowing water, so that their bodies would eventually be borne away. They also floated them down sacred rivers in hollowed tree-trunks, or placed them in caves beside fountains, or shrines.
The Merovingians quarried heavy stone and made sarcophagae in which they buried their dead and placed them together, in formation, in cemeteries. The Romans built fine buildings for their celebrated dead. But, for the greatest kings, the tradition of the Celts – mentioned in Geoffrey’s History in relation to Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon – was to bury them beneath standing stones, as a lasting memorial. In Avallon there is one very special – and hidden – standing stone – linked to Merlin and Arthur by the Breton legends of ‘Gargantua’. It is not to be found on any tourist maps. Because of its spectacular location experts agree that it was placed their by human hand. It is close to a river, and rises some 7 meters into the sky. No one has any idea what is its purpose.
If all mention of Avalon in the canon of Arthurian literature originally derived from a dim recollection of the place where Arthur Riothamus sought sanctuary from the Visigoths, then we should expect to find many more astonishing co-incidences when next we broaden the research to include the ‘Avallonais’ – the Canton of Avallon.
The fact remains that there is only one Avallon, and that is in Burgundy. Without anything else, this piece of evidence alone should give us all pause for thought.
© Marilyn Floyde April 2007
Next: The Healing Sanctuary
2016: King Arthur's French Odyssey - Avallon in Burgundy by Marilyn Floyde, has now been republished with fresh findings. Your can order it from www.islandofavallon.co.uk. Now also translated into French.