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Myths & Legends
KING ARTHUR’S FRENCH ODYSSEY - pArt 3
AVALLON – THE POETIC LANDSCAPE
‘Avallonnais’, the region around Avallon in Burgundy, has an intensely powerful atmosphere, and like Glastonbury, attracts the imaginations of those drawn by spiritual matters – of whatever religion. Across the years, the surrounding landscape, fashioned and nourished by the gentle, bubbling waters, has been a source of poetic inspiration.
Geoffrey of Monmouth has this to say about Avalon in Vita Merlini:
“The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more.” (xii)
The area of Avallonnais is mystical, fertile and beautiful. Though, is it good enough to live up to the description of King Arthur’s final resting place?
Much-respected man of letters and novelist Jules Roy (1907 – 2000) in his book ‘Vézelay – A Sentimental Guide’ thought so. He said that the route to Vézelay, lined with hillocks, reminded him of “King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail.” Why? A Frenchman could have chosen from a thousand home-grown metaphors to describe his particular bit of la belle France. But he chose a great British myth of immense potency. For Jules Roy it was not simply the beauty of the countryside. For him the area broadcast a kind of psycho-sensual emission which inspired Christian rapture, a poet’s passion for the Divine, and his spiritual love for Mary Magdalene. He is buried in the cemetery at Vézelay.
The area attracts artists and poets. Romain Rolland (1866-1944) Nobel prize-winner for literature, was brought up in Avallonnais: ‘… (in) the sky-blue flax and the water of her rivers I found, in my childhood, all the footprints of the universe.’ He eventually lived in Vézelay. His house has now become a gallery of 20th century art. His friend and frequent guest was the writer Paul Claudel. Maurice Clavel (1920-1979) dramatist, novelist and philosopher who created the newspaper “Liberation” with Sartre, lived first in Vézelay and then in Asquins. He is buried in the cemetery at Vézelay. Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and Jean Badovici (1893-1957) passed through and left their mark on the town’s buildings. Over a period of 20 years Viollet-Le-Duc (1814-1879) restored the basilica. Adolphe Guillon (1829-1896) painted and sketched sites and characters of Vézelay. Serge Gainsbourg chose to spend his final year in St Père-sous-Vézelay soaking up the atmosphere – composing and singing in the bar of Mark Meneau’s famous L’Espérance. But it is alleged that he refused to enter the basilica at Vézelay, considering himself to be ‘unworthy’.
Many living writers and artists have established themselves in the area. What is it that speaks to them all? Like Glastonbury, the Avallonnais region attracts men and women of vision – Christian and otherwise. Working back through the layers – long before the eminent residents, the refurbishments, the great Tympanum in the basilica, long before the Crusades, before the pilgrimages, before the bones and hair of Mary Magdalene, when “la colline éternelle” [the eternal hill] was grazing ground for sheep, Les Fontaines Salées were drawing the crowds. Those crowds had different beliefs, but their needs were the same.
There are some other strong similarities between Vézelay and Glastonbury which are worth exploring, but perhaps the most striking is the one that people find most difficult to put into words. They talk about an arcane connection between spirit and element. For those who see it, and feel it, they say that there is a deep mysticism in the landscape itself. There are harmonies and vibrations - a richness of colour and light. Legend isn’t only in the wind – it’s in the stones, the earth, the water and the fires that herald the spring …... “It flies in the slipstream of the sudden dash of a deer through the fields”. Quite simply, the place was made for Arthur and Arthurian romance. Dion Fortune (1891-1946) would have been completely at home: “All about us it [the past] stirs and breathes, quiet but living and watching. We can hear its heart beat if we lay our ear to the earth.” (xiii) Her spiritual passion was, of course Glastonbury, but she could just as easily have been talking about Avallonnais.
So, Avallonnais has the spiritual credentials, but how far does the landscape match the very first description that we have?
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description of a self-sufficient landscape may be simply Geoffrey’s classical allusion – his nod to a bucolic idyll. It may also be his foray into an imagined, mythical landscape. In Avalon there are no ploughs and no cultivation. The apple trees are thriving in well-trimmed orchards and the vines weigh heavy with fruit, and with none to tend it all. As if by magic, there is abundant fertility.
Even as the name ‘Avalon’ could have come originally from an early remembrance of Avallon, the actual place where Arthur Riothamus may have ended his fighting career, this description of the area may be an echo of what Arthur Riothamus’ soldiers found when they got there. Some of his soldiers may have recovered from their wounds and made it back to Britain. They would have described what they had found. This then passed into folklore – into the oral tradition from which Geoffrey and others garnered their material.
They may well have discovered agricultural land that had been deserted. The only inhabitants left may have been very elderly. The fruit (apples and cherries) and vines (which typify Burgundy) could have been planted in lush and fertile land and then abandoned. It could have been abandoned because of (yet again) ‘barbarians’. The young men could have been conscripted to join what was left of the Roman legion at Camp Cora, to protect the Via Agrippa. The women and children could have retreated deep into the impenetrable Morvan, whose dark forests would have defeated even the Visigoths, as they defeated Hitler.
None of this conjecture proves anything, of course. But it does present the thesis that the Avallonnais area of Burgundy has both the spiritual and topographical credentials to at least mount a lively challenge to the accepted narrative. At worst, it will never be known one way or the other. At best it might suggest the real whereabouts of King Arthur’s last resting place.
© Marilyn Floyde May 2007, Avallon
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.