A couple years ago while I was traveling with the Open Palace Programme, I asked my brother to take over the blog for a few weeks and we all took a trip with the Fantasy World Tour Company. Now he’s back with a guest report about his latest trip to Glastonbury, the very real world place connected to the most legendary place, Avalon.
Special Report for A Suitcase Full of Books: Arthurian Legend Edition. Spoilers ahead for the end of all the Arthurian legend tales. Though is it really a spoiler if the name of the book is literally “The Death of Arthur”?
That’s right, The Backpack Full of Books is back. Maybe it’s A Pannier Full of Books now, because knights rode horses? A Barge full of Queens also full of books? Travel arrangements will need to be made for that one. Monty Python may have made the most absurd version of King Arthur in popular culture, but it’s only one of many takes. Also, as a corollary to Monty Python’s rule that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, I’d like to add: don’t take medical advice from said strange women lying on barges on top of said ponds. It didn’t do Arthur any good, and me neither, but more on that later.
The legend of the final resting place of King Arthur is the greatest tourist scam in history. I highly recommend it. This story starts with a time before written history, a time of legend, and ends last month. Between those two dates we’ll need to hit 1191, 1485, and 1539, before reaching 2019. Let’s start with the time of legend.
Arthurian Legend Refresher
Arthurian legend is old and comes from many sources, and the stories have changed over time. The events in the life of the ancient King of the Britons depends on who’s writing the story. To catch you up, most sources agree:
King Arthur was an all around great guy from the UK a long time ago and won lots of battles and his queen was named Guinevere. After Christianity was introduced into the legends, the stories were mostly about Arthur and his knights questing for the Holy Grail, the cup Indiana Jones found in Petra. According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea brought the cup to England some time earlier, and it needed finding. Some of his knights did eventually see it.
Later in a big battle Arthur got hit in the head with a sword and it looked real bad. He was carried away on a barge by four queens, none of them his wife, (who had just run off with his best friend Sir Lancelot, and was now hiding in the Tower of London (in some sources) so no judgement there). King Arthur is taken to a mythical island called Avalon to either be healed of his wounds, or just die (in some sources). Fun fact, Avalon actually translates from Welsh to the Isle of Apples. That’s right, King Arthur is taken to a big island of apples, or just possibly the island of the big apple. He went to New York City baby. Ok, so that part’s not in the legend. Infact, there’s a very different location thought to be (mostly by locals) the location of Avalon. And for that we need to jump forward from the time of legend, whenever that was, to some cash strapped monks in 1191 AD.
Avalon to Glastonbury
Welcome to Glastonbury. Renovations to the local abbey after a fire a few years earlier were not cheap, and pilgrimage numbers were not what they used to be. It would take a miracle to bring in the money needed. It just so happened they got their miracle, one that would rock England to its mythical foundation. The bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were found! And right in the Abbey grounds. This was totally legitimate and not some ruse created to bring back that sweet, sweet pilgrimage dollars. There was even an iron cross found on the bodies with an inscription. There’s no way that can be faked at all. And so the pilgrims returned, and to this day the tourists still come. But wasn’t Arthur taken to the mythical Island of Avalon? Yes. That’s Glastonbury of course. Because long ago at some point it was an island, you see, due to the swamps that surrounded the area, said the monks.
For good measure, later legend would include Glastonbury as the location of the Holy Grail and the healing spring that flows from it. The monks said it was Glastonbury where Joe brought his cup and founded the abbey, and who were they to lie about that?
Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
By 1485 the connection between Glastonbury and Avalon was well established and had influenced Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, one of the most extensive collections of Arthurian legend of the time. That’s when William Caxton, the first English printer, chose Sir Malory’s manuscript as one of the first books to be published in the English language using his newfangled printing press, despite Malroy having died fourteen years earlier.
Malory led a rather interesting life, having been a soldier and a Member of Parliament, as well as spending much of his life in and out of prison for being a thief, bandit, kidnapper, and rapist. It apparently gave him plenty of time to write out one of the greatest works of literature on chivalry, even if he did not appear to be much of an expert on the subject. In Malory’s version of events, the four queens take Arthur away by barge, but then dump his body with a retired bishop to be buried. Later, after Guinevere passes away, her body is taken by Lancelot to be buried with Arthur, at none other than Glastonbury Abbey.
The abbey flourished until 1539 when King Henry VIII wanted a divorce and got rid of Catholisim in England. The abbey was mostly destroyed by his men, the abbot was hanged, drawn, and quartered at the top of the nearby Glastonbury Tor, and the monument containing the supposed bodies of King Arthur and his queen were lost. Not long after, the land was put in the hands of private owners until the beginning of the 20th century when it was put into trust and finally the pilgrims, and other tourists, started to return.
And so, as untold thousands of tourists before me, and the pilgrims before them, I felt drawn to visit Glastonbury and take in the legendary sights for myself, and perhaps put the myths to the test. Here are the top four things to see in Glastonbury.
A large hill with a tower on top, the very outline of Glastonbury Tor is an iconic sight. The hill has been associated with not just Arthurian legend, but wider Celtic mythology before that. Archaeological findings have dated human settlement in the area back over two thousand years. The tower remains from a medieval era church, and there are lots of new age beliefs associated with the hill, such as it being where a bunch of ley lines converge, so all beliefs and eras hold it as special. The climb up the hill is pleasant, but watch out for sheep droppings, as the animals graze right up to the base of the tower. Don’t wear shoes you want to keep clean. You’ll find it crowded with tourists and sightseers, but the view is worth it. You’ll find your fellow climbers meditating at the top, or asking you to take a picture of them.
The visitor center is very informative, but there’s nothing like seeing the remains for yourself. Even if just the bare bones of the chapel remain, they’re still awe inspiring. Catch a tour of the grounds to get the full story of how King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were found, and then lost again. The tours are not scheduled, but instead depend on the availability of guides, who are in costume. You’ll see signs proudly pointing out the exact spot where the bodies of the king and queen were found, and also complaining about the exact spot where the tomb was before they lost them. You’ll also see a smaller chapel dedicated to Joseph of Arimathea, who, and say it with me, according to legend, founded the abbey, because of course he did.
Finally, you’ll see one building on the property that’s not in ruins, and it’s the kitchen, with period appropriate food displayed.
The grounds are peaceful and wonderful to walk around, as long as you dodge the school groups, and of course meditate.
The Chalice Well
At the base of Glastonbury Tor is a pleasant garden with a natural spring. According to legend, as there’s a legend with all things in Glastonbury, it’s where Joseph of Arimathea placed the chalice. The water is naturally red tinged as it contains iron. According to the info posted at the gatehouse to the garden it’s potable, and according to legend has healing powers. I tested this. It does not. Or at least not for the common cold, which I happened to have when I visited. It was worth a shot. The garden surrounding the well is beautiful and a great place to wander, relax, and of course, meditate.
Glastonbury High Street
The main drag through the town of Glastonbury is full of small shops, as one might expect, but these ones are different. The shops cater towards spirituality, witchcraft, and the like. It’s the place to buy crystals, incense, and most of the items listed on your Hogwarts acceptance letter. It’s not a bad place to spend an afternoon shopping. Looking for supplies to perform a magic ritual or books on being a fringe candidate at a Democratic debate? Hit the High Street. Nowhere else in the world can you find a preserved fifteenth century historical building across the street from an asian curio shop, or a shop selling crystals next door to a bookstore that specializes in the esoteric and metaphysical. I do not recommend meditating in this location.
If you’re a fan of history, mythology, literature, travel, or anything else that would have to do with a blog based on literary travel, Glastonbury is a must visit. While the bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere have been lost to time, and we proved the healing spring does not actually cure the sick, it can all still be appreciated for its connection to legend. There’s often very little to connect us to the mythology and the stories we tell. That’s what makes the ones about places we can visit all the more powerful. And what stories are greater than those of King Arthur and his knights of the round table? Perhaps the monks really did make up finding him a thousand years ago because they needed the dough, but does that really matter? They gave us a place to come to, a place to call Avalon to celebrate the great legends that don’t just belong to the British, but the entire world. So, pack up that chalice, hop on that barge full of queens, and head towards Glastonbury. The view from the top of the Tor is worth the trip, no matter how far you’ve come.
Have you taken a literary inspired trip? Would you like to guest post? Drop me a note!!
Like this post? Pin it for later!