Avalon is a place rich in tradition and mystery. Through the ages, many have written of it, but no one knows the truth. Did Avalon exist? Does it still? Where is it? What is it? No one knows, though the legends abound. In all likelihood, Avalon will always remain a mystery.

The word "Avalon" is from the British word lava, which means apple. Hence, Avalon is known as "The Island of Apples." An actual Avallon (note the alternate spelling) exists in Burgundy.

The most famous setting for Avalon is in the King Arthur legends. Supposedly, Arthur's sword, Excalibur, was forged on the mystic Isle of Avalon. When Arthur was mortally wounded in battle with Mordred, he was carried off to the Isle of Avalon so that his wounds might be attended to.

This is the most common idea regarding Avalon, presented to us by the man known as Geoffrey of Monmouth, or Geoffrey Arthur. His History of the Kings of Britain, written about 1136, gives a history of King Arthur, and many accepted his work to be true, in the medieval period, anyway. Geoffrey later wrote a poem, the "Life of Merlill," in which he claims Arthur was laid on a golden bed in Avalon and was nursed back to health by Morgan, the Nebulous enchantress. In fact, Geoffrey states Arthur was not dead and would return to Avalon one day.

Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur maintains Geoffrey's version of the legend, "The Britons still believe that he [Arthur] is alive, living in Avalon with the fairest of spirits and they still continue to expect Arthur to come back." According to Malory, there is written upon Arthur's tomb: Hic iacet Arthurus, Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus, or Here lies Arthur, the Once and Future King.

Avalon also appears in other legends. In Marie de France's "Lanval,"the hero Lanval offends Queen Guinevere and is taken to the dungeons. Lanval's mistress, a fairy, rescues him and takes him to the Isle of Avalon. Robert de Boron, a knight from Burgundy, told the tale of Joseph of Arimathea around 1200 A.D. Supposedly, the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus in the Last Supper, was taken by Joseph , who used it to catch drops of Jesus' blood as Jesus hung on the cross.

Joseph then carried the Grail to Avalon, where he died. Could an actual Isle of Avalon exist? It is possible. In England, there is a man-made hill called Tor, atop which is a monastery known as Glastonbury. It is believed that at one time, possibly around the time Arthur was said to exist, the hill could have been surrounded by marsh and water. This would have effectively made Tor an island. In 1191, the Glastonbury monks linked Glastonbury to Arthur and excavated the site. Seven feet down was a stone slab, underneath which was found a lead cross! The cross read: "HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA," which correctly translated would say: "Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon."

Nine feet further down, a rough coffin, made from a hollow log, was found to contain the bones of a tall man with a damaged skull. Many accounts said Arthur was killed by a blow to the head. There were also smaller bones and a lock of hair. Welsh historian Gerald de Barri visited the site and identified the small bones and lock of hair as belonging to Guinevere.

For years, many believed that the findings were a hoax, a publicity stunt. It seemed that Glastonbury had suffered a fire and needed attention in order to return the monastery to its former splendor. Therefore, the monks decided to "find" Arthur's grave. Others thought it possible the monks made the story up in order to please the King, Henry II, for the Welsh had taunted Henry with claims that Arthur would come back to lead them. There was no proof either way, for the lead cross was lost at the end of the eighteenth century. (A claim was made in 1982 that the cross was found but this was a true hoax).

However, in 1958, Ralegh Radford re-excavated the site and proved that the monks had dug to the depth that was common to most burials around Arthur's time. Legend states that Henry had heard from Arthur's bard that Arthur was buried at least sixteen feet deep and in a coffin of hollow oak. This also corresponds to the monks' findings.

The only real evidence would be the cross, which may still exist. Copies of the cross were made, and the lettering upon it suggests that it was written early. The form of Latin used was also common for Arthur's time. It is believed that the cross is authentic, because the lettering of twelfth-century monks would have been much more graceful, and the language on the cross had not been used for at least five hundred years. Of course, the monks may have known this and carried out the hoax accordingly.

Some claim the monks' findings were indeed genuine because of Robert de Boron's claim that Joseph of Arimathea had brought the Holy Grail to Avalon and died there. In fact, there is, in the area, the famous Holy Thorn tree that blossoms only at Christmas, said to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea (though this association was made only from 1716). If the monks were truly planning a hoax, why would they not pretend to find Joseph's grave as well?

However, unless the cross is found, and some other miraculous discovery is made, the search for Arthur will probably go no further. Even if the cross is found, it may not be enough to provide concrete evidence, though many are hopeful.

Avalon will probably always remain a mystery. The theories and suppositions have never been backed by evidence. In all likelihood, Avalon was a combination of places, filled with legends. Arthur, if he truly existed, may have been buried at Avalon. It is also highly doubtful that Avalon was an island of fairies. Most likely Avalon was a holy place, and if Arthur was brought there to die, time has created the legends. Many would like to find that Avalon really existed, for the existence of Avalon could very well mean the existence of King Arthur, and for once a fairy tale might be proven true. The truth may never be known.

This essay was written by Lenny Valure in a Pace University seminar on King Arthur. Study questions follow:

1. Describe three magical places you have encountered in the Arthurian landscape. Be sure to define your terms and refer to specific texts.

2. Where do fiction and history collide? Or serve to inform each other? Analyse and discuss the factual and fictional elements in this essay, checking source materials in the library.

3. Using appropriate images from the Internet and from library sources, redesign, expand and illustrate this essay, or use it as a model for your own essay composed in Linkway (or another accessible program discussed in class). See also other texts on this program, for example, the entries on Excalibur, Bedivere. Be prepared to submit this assignment on disk.