The Bones of Avalon

10 Aug

Shrouded in Arthurian myth and rich in mystical associations, the town of Glastonbury was once one of the most important destinations for pilgrims in England. Now thousands flock here for the annual music festival and for the summer solstice on Midsummer’s Day. Over the years history and legend have become intertwined, and the monks who founded Glastonbury Abbey, around 700 AD, found it profitable to encourage the association between Glastonbury and the mythical ‘Blessed Isle’ known as Avalon. Avalon was another name for the Otherworld, and was the place where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged, as well as being the supposed site of his eventual tomb. Once Glastonbury and its conical hill, Glastonbury Tor, rising from a vast inland lake that covered much of present day Somerset, had been a sacred site of the Old Religion of the British Isles. Even today, it is a place where the very air is alive with the stuff of myth and legend. In Arthurian legend it was ruled by the enchantress Morgan le Fay and her eight sisters, every one of them skilled in the magical arts. Before that, it was said to be ruled by the dark Celtic deity Aballach. It has variously been called the ‘Isle of apples’ and the ‘Isle of glass’. In the Christian era, it was said to be the place where Joseph of Arimathea came carrying the Holy Grail in order to found Britain’s first church. All of these myths, legends and historical associations have inspired numerous fiction writers over the years, among them Phil Rickman, whose novel The Bones of Avalon, takes full advantage of this rich body of lore.

The town of Glastonbury lies at the centre of a region replete with mythological connotations. At the heart of it all is the early Christian legend that the young Jesus once visited this site. The Romands had a heavy presence in the area, mining lead in the nearby Mendip Hills, and one of these mines was supposedly owned by Joseph of Arimathea, a well-to-do merchant said to have been related to Mary, mother of Jesus. A legend has grown up around the theory that the merchant took his kinsman on one of his many visits to his property, a period of Jesus’ life of which nothing is recorded. It was this possibility to which William Blake referred in his Glastonbury Hymn, better known as Jerusalem: “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?” Another legend relates how Joseph was imprisoned for twelve years after the crucifixion, miraculously kept alive by the Holy Grail, the chalice of the Last Supper, in which the blood was gathered from the wound in Christ’s side. The Grail, along with the spear which had caused the wound, were later taken by Joseph to Glastonbury, where he founded the abbey and commenced the conversion of Britain.

Glastonbury Abbey was a Celtic monastery founded in the 5th century – making this the oldest Christian foundation in England – and enlarged by St Dunstan, under whom it became the richest Benedictine abbey in the country. The abbey’s choir holds what is alleged to be the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere. As told by William of Malmesbury and Thomas Malory, the story relates how, after being mortally wounded in battle, King Arthur sailed to Avalon, where he was buried alongside his queen. The discovery of two bodies in an ancient cemetery outside the abbey in 1191 – from which they were transferred here in 1278 – was taken to confirm the popular identification of Glastonbury with Avalon. Beyond the main entrance to the grounds stands the thorn tree that is supposedly from the original Glastonbury Thorn – said to have sprouted from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea when he arrived here, seeking converts. Finally, at the bottom of the road leading from the Tor, in the middle of a lush garden intended for quiet contemplation, the Chalice Well is so-called because it is meant to be the hiding place of the Holy Grail. As such, the well’s iron-red waters are considered to have curative properties.

Rickman’s novel ties together many of the mythological and historical threads linked to Glastonbury. Set during the Elizabethan era, the hero of The Bones of Avalon is the infamous ‘magician’ Dr John Dee. Only 32 at the time of the story, Dee is already acclaimed throughout Europe as the Queen’s astrologer and consultant in the hidden arts – a controversial appointment in a time of superstition and religious strife. Now the mild, bookish Dee has been sent to Glastonbury to find the missing bones of King Arthur, whose legacy was always so important to the Tudor line. With him – hardly the safest companion – is his friend and former student, Robert Dudley, a risk-taker, a wild card – and possibly the Queen’s secret lover. When they arrive the famously mystical town is still mourning the gruesome execution of its Abbot, Richard Whiting. But why was the Abbot really killed? What is the secret held by the monks since the Abbey was founded by Joseph of Arimathea, uncle of Christ and guardian of the Holy Grail? The mission takes Dee to the tangled roots of English magic, into unexpected violence, necromantic darkness, the breathless stirring of first love… and the cold heart of a complex plot against Elizabeth. Written with Rickman’s trademark wit, intensity and attention to both period and geographic detail, The Bones of Avalon is a must-read for anyone with even a vague interest in Glastonbury’s long and lurid history.

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4 Responses to “The Bones of Avalon”

  1. Rhodia August 10, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

    Cool.., totally intriguing..!!! I really enjoy your postings.., (wouldn’t mind if they came more often.., cuz they’re always cool..!! ). Speaking of “Avalon”, have you ever heard Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music(‘s) album of that name..? 😉 ..Ex animo..
    ~ Peace, Rho

  2. charleymckelvy August 10, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

    Reblogged this on Vector Charley and commented:
    Here’s a good Sunday read!

  3. Foot Pain September 15, 2014 at 7:20 am #

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  1. New post The Bones of Avalon | Hugh Paxton's Blog - August 14, 2014

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