Why call this section, "The Passing of King Arthur", rather than "The Death of King Arthur?" The reason is that there is considerable uncertainty about the fate of King Arthur. Did he die and was buried? Was he taken to Avalon to be healed of his wounds? Whatever happened to King Arthur, his story has its roots in Celtic lore. As can be seen from the account of his passing given in two of the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
I'm starting with a quotation that will seem irrelavent to the passing of Arthur! However it's relavence will become apparent when we consider Geoffrey of Monmouth's accounts of Arthur's passing from this world. The Roman author Pomponius Mela, quoted by Jean Markale, made the following statements about Celtic priestesses in an island off the coast of France; the Isle of Sena.
"Facing the Celtic coast lie a group of islands which takes the collective name Cassiterides because they are very rich in tin. Sena in the British Sea [The Channel], facing the coast of Osimi [North Finistere] was renowned for its Gallic oracle, whose priestesses, sacred for their everlasting virginity, were said to be nine in number. They were called 'gallicians' and were reputed to have the power to unleash the winds and storms by their spells, to metamorphose (into?) any animal according to their whim, to cure all disease said to be incurable, and finally, to know and predict the future. But they reserved their remedies and predictions exclusively for those who had travelled over the sea expressly to consult them." (Pomponius Mela, III, 6.)
Markale, J., Women of the Celts, trans. Mygind, A., Huach, C., Henry, P., Inner Traditions International Ltd.: Rochester Vermont,l986 (1972), P. 81.
When we turn to Geoffrey of Monmouth, not to his 'History of the Kings of Britain', but to his 'Life of Merlin' connections appear. 'The History of the Kings of Britain' merely says that the wounded Arthur was taken to the Isle of Avalon to be healed. However, in the 'Life of Merlin', in a boat captained by Barinthus who was accompanied by Taliesin, Arthur was taken to the Isle of Apples and was left there in the care of Morgan. This Isle of Apples (a name generally equated with the Isle of Avalon) was a paradise-like island ruled over by nine sisters, with Morgan at their head. In addition to the coincidence of there being nine women on the isle, as on the Isle of Sena', Morgan had the ability to change her shape and was gifted in the curative arts as were ascribed to the priestesses of the Isle of Sena. A further resemblance is that Arthur was taken over the sea to her Isle of Apples, as were those who were cured by the nine priestesses of Sena.
When he had reached the Isle of Apples, Morgan placed Arthur on golden coverlets in her bedchamber.
She placed the king on golden coverlets in her bedchamber and herself exposed his wound with her noble hand. After examining it for a long while, she said that he might eventually recover his health, if he remained with her for a long time and was willing to submit to her care.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Life of Merlin, translated by Neil Wright, in Myths and Legends of the British Isles, edited by Richard Barber, the Bodyell Press, 1999, pp. 135.
This raises a fascinating area for speculation. For gold was the colour of the Sun God, who was presumably Morgan's spouse. Could it be that Arthur was this spouse, one who had voluntarily descended to the earthly plain to help man? As Arthur is said, by Malory to have fathered Mordred upon Morgause: who is sometimes regarded as a manifestation of Morgan, from the resemblance between their names. Then Mordred would become the heir of the Sun God, Arthur, and his usurpation of his father's crown was in fact a part of the annual natural march of the seasons, in which the young Sun God replaced the old.
As for the paradise qualities of the Isle of Apples, these may be enumerated as follows. It was an island, the site beloved by Celtic mythology as the location of the otherwordly paradise. Crops grew plentifully without husbandry. While the inhabitants lived to be a hundred years of age, or more. Then there was a plenitude of apples: the magical fruit of Celtic myth.
Let's move onward to an account of King Arthur that was based, through the intermediary of Wace, upon that of Geoffrey of Monmouth: the Brut of Layamon. He introduces the ladies on the boat who come to collect Arthur and carry him to the 'Isle of Avalun': a feature we are familiar with from Malory's 'Morte D' Arthur'. This boat was plainly magical as it had no means of propulsion but appeared to move with the tide. While the women who occupy it are of otherworldly origin. They clearly come from Avalun, to where Arthur is to be carried. While the description of the women as being 'wondrously formed' also indicates their magical origins. These enchanted ladies will take Arthur to Avalun 'to the fairest of maidens, to Argante the queen, an elf most fair, and she shall make my wounds all sound; make me all whole with healing draughts. And afterwards I will come again to my kingdom, and dwell with the Britons with mickle joy.'
In this tradition comes Robert of Boron, where Arthur says that he goes to Avalon where his sister Morgan will cure him and then he enjoins his followers to wait for his return. However, though he does not return, he has been seen hunting in forests: perhaps an this is an oblique reference to King Arthur as a leader of the Wild Hunt?
Now we'll take a look at a deviant account of the death of Arthur, one that occurs in a unique manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'History of the Kings of Britain'. Here Arthur has been wounded in the final battle against Mordred, but not so seriously as to give cause for alarm. He orders his srms to be taken off. Then, unexpectedly, a youth rides up and pierces Arthur with a spear and is killed by Arthur with another spear as he rides off. The material that the youth's spear is made from, the elm tree, has definite magical associations with death, a feature emphasised by it's point being coated with adder's venom.
In Celtic mythology, too elm trees were associated with the Underworld. They had a special affinity with elves who were said to guard the burial mounds, their dead and the associated passage into the Underworld
That the youth who wielded this magical spear of elm appears suddenly and is described as being handsome, tall and of immense strength does lead me to suspect that he was of otherworldly origin. While I feel that Arthur's killing of this youth is an interpolation of the author of this piece to replace a a mysterious vanishing of the youth. A rewriting that gave a rational ending to the youth, who would have otherwise vanished into the otherworld, and which also allowed Arthur to be avenged upon the youth.
Arthur then orders that he be taken to Gwynedd (North-West Wales) where he will be cured in the Isle of Avalon. This island is not identified, but I would suggest that there are two alternatives. Holy Island off Anglesey, where there is a Tre Arddur Bay, or Bardsey Island which is where Merlin retired on a glass house with the thirteen treasures of Britain. However despite Arthur's assertion that he will be cured, the physicians fail to cure him and he dies. That physicians should attempt to cure Arthur I find rather suspicious as other accounts, from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Layamon or Robert de Boron, speak of Arthur being cured by women - either Morgan or Queen Argante.
Then follows a peculiar funeral for Arthur. His body is embalmed and taken to a chapel whose door is so narrow that his body cannot pass through and has to be left with attendants outside the chapel. During the service there is a an extraordinary storm that is accompanied by a mist that hides Arthur's coffin from the attendants. Perhaps it is time to remind readers that the nine priestesses of the Isle of Sena had control of weather. It is also worth noting that in Celtic myth a mist is often a sign that the otherworld is coming close to the everyday world. During this period of storm and mist, Arthur's body vanishes. Then the author of this account asks questions about the disappearance of Arthur's body: 'Where did this mighty power come from? Through what violence was he carried off?' Why does the author ask these questions? I suspect it is because he knew the answer was that Arthur's body had been carried off by Morgan and her associates (or sisters). However, the author must have felt that it would not be acceptable to a Christian audience to have the king's body spirited away by females with obviously pagan antecedants to some pagan otherworld, from which he he promised to return. This account also raises doubts over Arthur's death, was he taken away, or was his body buried in the tomb that miraculously appeared by the chapel during the period of mist? Is this another sign of Christian interference? Or could it be an indication of the ambiguity of the Celtic Otherworld, which was both a place where the souls of the dead went, and a world that was accessible to human beings from the everyday world (especially at certain times of year - as Samhain - when the boundaries between these two worlds were weakened).
This brings us to the Vulgate Cycle account of Arthur's death, here Arthur dies unequivocally and Girflet discovers his grave at the Black Chapel. This is an total rejection of Arthur's potential resurrection. As a monkish (Cicstercian) influence has been discerned behind the composition of the Vulgate Cycle, Arthur's death was probably contrived to avoid the blasphemous assertion that Arthur, like Jesus Christ, would have a 'second coming'.
Despite this rejection of the tradition that Arthur would come again, some signs, some of them negative, of the original tale of Arthur's departure for a cure remain. Arthur asserts, when Girflet asks him, that he does not know where he will be going. This denial of knowledge seems to me to be an replacement, by the monkish author, of the traditional reply that he would be going to the Isle of Avalon to be cured. This would avoid the embarassing placing of a resurrection for Arthur, paralleling that of Christ. That the coming of the boat, bearing among others Arthur's sister Morgan, occurs in a rainstorm does seem to be a toned down version of the violent storm and mist that accompanied the disappearance of Arthur's corpse in the version described above. Finally that the hermit of the Black Chapel denies knowing who the ladies who brought Arthur's body for burial, seems to be a device to avoid naming Morgan and her otherworldly companions. As said before this oherworldly quality would be out of place in a Christian account of King Arthur: an account which had denied that the king would return to the earth.
Malory, while continuing the Vulgate Cycle's assertion that Arthur died, acknowledges the tradition that Arthur will come again. He also specifies four of the women in the boat that carries Arthur away, most of whom have clear magical associations: -
Morgan le Fay, King Arthur's half-sister, who was an enchantress also noted for her skill in necromancy. She contrived the magical plot that led to Arthur fighting Accolon, her lover. She also turns herself and her retinue into stones when they are pursued by Arthur.
The Queen of Northgalis, an associate of Morgan le Fay. With whom she was involved in the magical imprisoning of the sleeping Lancelot. These two ladies were also to blame for the imprisonment of the lady of Corbin in a scalding bath, because she was the most beautiful in the land.
The Queen of the Wastelands, Perceval's aunt. Who gave up her great lands to become a 'recluse' (a female hermit). Nimue, the Chief Lady of the Lake. She was responsible for magically imprisoning Merlin beneath a stone. Her magic enabled Arthur to defeat Accolon when she made Accolon drop Excalibur with which he was fighting Arthur. Nimue's magic made also Pelleas love her and to reject Ettard.
It may also be noted that Malory has the women on the boat wailing for Arthur. While this could be a conventional expression of the grief that the ladies on the boat felt for Arthur, it may have a Celtic antecendent.
And when they (King Arthur and Bedivere)were at the water side, even fast by the bank hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them all was a queen, and all they had black hoods, and all they wept and shreiked when they saw King Arthur.
Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur, Dent: London, 1964 (1906), Book XXI, Chap., V
This weeping and shreiking for Arthur by black hooded females seems to be a parallel to the actions of the banshee (originally Bean Sidhe - women of the fairy hills) whose wailing presages a death. While the fact that there are several of them is a reflection of Arthur's importance (see entry for banshee in the Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford, 1998).
This tradition is given in John Rhys book, Celtic Folklore. Set in the Snowdon region of Gwynned, it is a detailed, apparently, factual account of Arthur's death in a skirmish. Then myth enters the picture. For though Arthur's body was buried under a cairn, to serve as a warning against other invaders, he will come again to lead his men who are sleeping in a nearby cave.
Going back to The Life of Merlin, we can clearly say that Morgan was the ruler of the Isle of Apples (Avalon), which has the characteristics an otherworldly Celtic paradise. Combined with Malory's description of the enchantress companions, with whom Morgan came to collect Arthur and take him to this Celtic paradise, there can be no doubt that, in its origins, the tradition of Arthur's healing upon the Isle of Avalon had its beginnings in the magical lore about the Celtic otherworld. A tradition that still exists, though veiled, within the corpus of the Arthurian lore that Malory derived from French sources, among which was the Vulgate Cycle. Other signs that indicate that Celtic myth was the source from which Arthur's passing was derived exist in the boat by which Layamon has Arthur taken to Avalun. Arthur being seen hunting after his passing from this world in Robert de Boron: which may be related to the myth of Arthur being a leader of the Wild Hunt. While the peculiar way he is killed with an elm spear poisoned with adder venom, connect us straight to the Celtic otherworld.
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