Reviewed by J. J. DWYER
KING ARTHUR'S AVALON. The Story of Glastonbury, by Geoffrey Aske (Collins, 18s.).
THIS fascinating book tells the whole story of Glastonbury from its origins in the mists of antiquity to the tragedy of the Dissolution.
But it is far more than a compilation, though that would require learning and research, it is a brilliant discussion and the first comprehensive attack on a famous enigma, Mr. Aske has grasped the whole matter both intellectually and imaginatively, in all its complexity; 'Lich is the nervous energy of his style that we have here an evocation as well as an analysis.
The long story from the subApostolic age to 1539 is told, not in isolation, but in the widest possible setting : Scripture, Church history, Rome, the Celtic world. Saxon conquest, medieval England.
PARTICULARLY remarkable are two chapters. " Roma Secunda," and "Arthur," while those who still assert that the Celtic Church was different from and independent of Rome would do well to consider Mr. Aske's fourth chapter.
Everything relevant is swept into his net: Gildas and Abbott Joachim, Dante and J. K. Heysmans, Tertullian and Tennyson.
The range: of commentary and illustration is enormous.
Glastonbury was a prehistoric Lake Village ; the Britons called it Ynys sr Mahan, that is Avallonian. or Avalon. It has always been one of those places where one feels the breath of the Spirit, places that bear the imprint of poetry and prayer.
The little lonely church of wattles was already old when it was repaired by St. Pauline's. It passed intact from Briton to Saxon because, like Venice. it was inaccessible amid its lakes and marshes.
By the time the Saxons got there (sere. 658) they were already Christians. It was reputed to he the final resting place of St. Patrick : then of St Bridget and St. David.
BUT the legend of the foundation goes back to A.D. 63, to a story of the. Apostle St. Philip to a shadowy Aristofalus and the mythical British King Lucius-a parallel to the Provençal tradition of Lazarus and -les Saintes Manes" who landed at Marseilles.
The tale of Joseph of Arimathea was unknown to William of Malmeshury and to his interpolator. Mr. Aske's brilliant conjecture is that a Palestinian Christian named Joseph may have gone to Britain (for business reasons) towards the end of the first century : a coin of Vespasian was found near the Tor. But he did not bring the Holy Grail.
What Joseph of Arimathea was said to have brought was two cruets containing relics of the Blond and sweat from the Tomb of Our Lord. The Grail legend, originally a quite different story. with all its labyrinthine intricacies. came from France for Robert de Borron and Chretien de Troyes were not known in Somerset In a masterly examination of the Grail legend Mr. Aske is careful to point out that that myth was not the fruit of orthodox piety, that it never received ecclesiastical approbation.
William of Maimesbury and tho interpolator in his book "On the Antiquity . of the Church of Glastonbury" do not mention it and monastic writers fought shy cif it. for it had esoteric and suspect implications.
Who was Arthur ?
WHO was Arthur ? Was he a
King at all, or was !le Artorius, dux bellortion, a lientenant and successor of the Ambrosius Aurolianus who fought and repelled the Saxon invaders ?
Mr. Aske thinks that the famous Mount Radon. the great victory in 578, was Liddinglon Hill.
After "the last great battle in the west " where Arthur received his death-wound, the body of the King was taken to Glastonbury. Mr. Aske argues that Arthur's followers dared not admit his death and spread the story-traditional of all fallen leaders-that he would return and resume his leadership.
Here comes the identification of Glastonbury and Avalon.
Geoffrey of Monmouth says that the wounded Arthur was taken to Avalon. In 1171 a Welsh bard told to Henry II the secret that the King had been buried at Glastonbury.
Search was made later and during excavations in 1191 in the sanctuary in front • of the High Altar, there was found a huge coffin, made from the hollowedout trunk of a tree. In it were the bones of a man of gigantic stature and the bones of a woman and a cluster of flaxen hair
His tomb ?
WERE they the remains of Arthur and Guinevere'? Who else would have had the honour of burial in such a place ?
Later there was discovered an inscribed cross, but even if that cross was " an afterthought" of the monks, that primitive hollowedout coffin was no forgery ; a constructed tomb of the 12th century would have been very different, The remains were reburied in a fine marble tomb which was seen by Leland the Antiquary, in the time of Henry VIII, not long before the Dissolution.
The Britons had also called the place Ynys-witrin, the Isle of Glass, the Saxons gave it the name of Glaestinghurg, or settlement of the Glaestings-whoever they were.
The two stories, that of the ancient and most holy church, that of the famous warrior-King, coalesce with the narrative of the discovery of the tomb. Whether Arthur and Guinevere were actual people. their story is imperishable. Like Dido and Aeneas they now belong to the cultural life of the world.
Whether the church was founded not long after the days of the Apostles-or. indeed. 31 years after the Crucifixion-we shall probably never know.
But that from the time of St. Dunstan onwards, Glastonbury was a monastery of great wealth and splendour and of almost immeasurable prestige, is absolutely certain.
Its legend has given rise to enormous discussion and to an extensive literature, and to that literature Mr. Aske has now made a contribution of very high quality and of exceptional importance.