Where's your Avalon?


in Features • Illustrated by Bhavna Ganesan


1. Avalon 

I’m circumnavigating Avalon counter-clockwise, wading through see-through Atlantic waters at low tide. The water is so warm, this final afternoon of July 2021, and the tide so low, I’ve walked here from another island a quarter mile away. My husband and 14-year-old son are just ahead — tall figures about the same height, as of this year — and I’m snapping photos of them, of the pine tree-fringed island to our left, ringed by creamy beaches, so pristine and balmy the scene resembles the Caribbean of my imagination. Yet this is Brittany, radiant under full Northern summer sun, lighting beloved by so many painters for its rinsing clarity, today seeming to distill the Pink Granite Coast — its beaches and outcrops and inlets, sailboats crisp as flags, the sea’s chromatic scales of blue-greens and silvers — through a sharpening, horizon-wide lens. 

A guy carrying a black amp stops to chat with four people about his age, 20-somethings sitting on a blanket — the only people on this side of the island besides us. I didn’t see where he came from. His accent is rarely heard in these parts: American. 

He tells them, presumably about the amp, “I just picked it up from Camelot.” 

Did I hear that right? There’s no way he just said this. It made no sense, yet I heard it clearly. Maybe Camelot is a bar or a club somewhere around here. Or someone’s nickname? 

Then I watch as he lugs his amp over seaweed and granite boulders and past the stone wall that rings the island, where he disappears behind it. 

I’m fascinated because we aren’t allowed to follow him. Beyond the shoreline, we’re forbidden from visiting Avalon. 

Dozens of islands — or island-like places — are claimed to be the real Avalon. These range from one of Cornwall’s Scilly Islands, just across the English Channel from where I stand; to Glastonbury, the mystic-friendly ancient town in Somerset, specifically, the tall Tor Hill once surrounded by watery marshlands; to, of all places, Sicily. Our world does not lack for Avalons, it turns out. 

But this place, L’Île D’Aval, is the only actual island whose name translates to Avalon, or “Island of Apples.” Aval means “apple” in Celtic languages like Welsh, Cornish, and Breton — languages whose native grounds, Britain, and Brittany, are where the Arthur stories originated. A thousand years ago, these legends — really their basic parts — were dubbed the “Matter of Britain” by one of their tellers, a label that stuck: Celtic story components including the full cast of Arthurian characters — from Morgan Le Fay to Lancelot — some key settings, and several distinctive plotlines involving love, power, magic, and trouble. This elemental “matter” was spun into written tales by medieval authors like Geoffrey of Monmouth and Marie de France, who all claimed the original matter came from much older sources and oral traditions. Avalon appears throughout as an island of refuge and enchantment, home to goddesses or fairies and their useful regenerative magic, while also being ambiguous — not quite a paradise, nor an afterworld. It’s a marvelous place tucked into our natural world. 

But the Avalon before me — about 15 acres, and without an apple tree in sight — is a private island, and so about as accessible as a legend. Expecting such a site to be government-owned and open to the public, I’d searched for visiting hours on my smartphone. What I’d found was a 2020 French newspaper article reporting how a family who’d owned the island for decades had just sold it, mid-pandemic, to a Parisian advertising executive, a man who is also — a detail that could explain the amp — the creator of a popular concert festival in Corsica, a sort of European Coachella. 

Yet this Avalon’s privacy is subtle. You could be forgiven for missing the few small signs indicating privée private — along the stone boundary wall; at least, that’s my hope. I’ll admit that my plan is to gently trespass, just enough to glimpse the island’s grounds, apparently rife with rare sites like the Mesolithic tomb some 10,000 years old where Arthur himself is said to be sleeping in a chamber at its foot, ready to spring into action if called. 

I could imagine this perfectly: A secret compartment that does not exist, any more than a sleeping King Arthur does. I wouldn’t expect to find a magical room housing a snoozing, quasi-historical British warlord from the Dark Ages on this or any island. 

Yet I’m here to discover a mythical place — as if I could absorb the legends, just by standing in their settings. I knew this quest was irrational, a kinetic form of magical thinking; but what pilgrimage isn’t? If I have an Urtext, a set of personally meaningful sagas for which I will travel great distances to celebrate and engage, it’s not the Bible, say, or The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but the Matter of Britain. As a high school senior, I’d taken AP British Lit, in which the teacher (Tom Lippi, a legend all his own) screened Monty Python and the Holy Grail during the Arthurian section, and I wonkily sought out the Welsh Mabinogion, heady with literary discovery. In the decades since, I’d grown more fascinated, and in new ways, with these through-lines of narrative and setting. 

During the pandemic, though, my relationship to those basic elements — story and place — had begun to disintegrate for the first time in my life. Lockdown had of course shrunk “the world” — that dazzling expanse of elsewheres — into a rumor, a blurred wasteland threatening deadly airborne disease, a tight radius of masked outdoor walks, into exactly the size of my computer or phone screen, just as it did for so many in the fortunate middle classes. It’s no tragedy, sitting around in our pajama bottoms all day while our disembodied heads appear in video calls; it’s cheap, silly comedy. But while living housebound in the perpetual twilight of screens, my need for story, for “real” reading, had slammed to a stop. A lifelong voracious reader, I couldn’t seem to finish a book. Worse — as the pandemic and lockdowns devastated society in countless resounding ways, and I worried as my kid turned 13 and then 14 in the uncanny limbo called Zoom school — I couldn’t quite see how it mattered. 

On the first day France opened to travelers, I was flying there. And now here I am, wading around Avalon, searching for a place that probably never existed, brought to life only in stories — as if it could revive my need for them. 

2. Pixels 

On our drive to Avalon, I’d put on Roxy Music’s Avalon mostly as a little joke for my husband. When we were kids in the 1980s, this album had seemed irresistible: music designed for slipping away to the cool glamours of an all-grown-up dreamworld. My son had never heard it, or of Roxy Music, and I hadn’t listened to Avalon in ages. But as we sped through the northern Brittany countryside — orchards and farmlands, stone villages wedged between rivers and forests, billowing hydrangeas blooming face-sized blue flowers — what started as pure musical nostalgia transformed into a visceral current. The album pulled us with it like a tide, one that almost reaches the horizon — even with the anachronistic tootling of sax solos, some jaunty 80s drumbeats. On Avalon, Bryan Ferry’s voice vibrates like struck crystal, murmurs like confessions spilled late at night. That this intimacy keeps dissolving, retreating to a distance is key to its pleasure. In the album’s shimmering spaces, we see that Avalon can’t be reached — not by us, anyway. It’s myth as a state of desire. 

Along the way, we passed through sudden soft rain and Saint-Quay-Portrieux, a classic Breton seaside village depicted in pointillist paintings by Paul Signac. With his friend and mentor, Georges Seurat, Signac developed the technique of composing landscapes from tiny, brilliantly saturated dots. Viewed up close, his painting of this place, “Île la Comtesse, Portrieux,” dissolves into variegated pinpoints of contrasting pigments; stand a few feet from the canvas, and the coastline — its sweep of beach, cliff, island, ocean, sailboat, buoy — takes recognizable shape. Inspired by the Impressionists, Signac and Seurat eschewed symbolism or personal expression in art, galvanized instead by new, Industrial Age scientific theories involving light, color, and optics — how we literally envision the world. They wanted their paintings to highlight the discrete sensory processes of vision — and so call attention to the continuous science experiment of being human. 

Outside our car windows, the boats in Saint-Quay-Portrieux’s port looked out of focus thanks to the rain, the swirls of mist. We couldn’t see much; we were mesmerized by the music. The wet village flashed by, not quite inspiring us to stop. I looked down at my phone, checking the distance to Tréguier, a medieval town and our planned lunch stop; jewel-colored photos of its cobbled core were so lovely, nothing outside the window at that moment could compete with their velvety perfection, glossy virtual postcards dissolving one to the next as I scrolled. But it soon felt gluttonous, absorbing all that filtered beauty: Nothing bloats the senses like perfection. I put my phone down and gazed out at the silver sky, sunlight breaking through clouds, my vision released from the screen’s pretty cage to prospect, distance — and my own presence, motion in this place. 

Pointillism’s accretive dots would today be called pixels — the latter inspired by the same scientific theories. Signac, a gregarious evangelizer for his aesthetic philosophy, once observed: “The Golden Age is not past; it lies in the future.” As far as worlds depicted by tiny dots go, we’re in that future: The latest smartphone screens and computer monitors feature more pixels than the human eye can process. They unfurl seamless fabrics of a high-resolution image, the now-common luxury of exponentially high thread-count visuals. But we’ve reached Peak Pixel; any more than 1,080 pixels per square inch, and the effect of extra dots is lost on us. 

So, the tiny super-computers we carry in our pockets have hit the limit of visual impact, while offering maximalist access to any image imaginable, any music or text or video that’s ever been digitized. And exponentially more lifelike media technologies — augmented reality, virtual reality, the metaverse, or something like it — are here or just around the corner. 

This should be a Golden Age for someone: me, a person who mostly lives in her head, who often feels most alive in abstracted, mediated, representational experiences — whether through music, books, paintings, photography, movies. Through what we used to call “art” — not because it was fancy, but because its deliberate craft-built structure signaled an essence of meaning, a call for attention. Today nearly every form of art has been recast as “content” — an undifferentiated mass of media surging through our feeds. 

But art, to be called such, must possess only one element: A frame. The frame may be literal, or book covers, or an album, or a two-hour screening, or a performance time — on a stage, on the street, wherever. Thanks to this frame, this space-or-time border, art sits outside the usual flood of daily life. 

Why should it matter, this frame? Why wouldn’t we tech-savvy rebel souls prefer to be free of such constraints—and released into a virtual interconnected everything and everywhere? Free to scroll and browse and search forever, imbibing any and all content we desire, at will? 

Because for the merely mortal among us, a frame corrals the one element of living — of physics — that we least control: Time. Art takes the essential scrolliness of life — the speeding-by minutes, days, years — and attempts to give it meaningful, human-scaled shape. Art is our most age-old and effective tool for capturing time and honing from it truths beyond its simple unstoppable passing. But when every artwork can easily interrupt every other artwork — when all artworks seem to beg to be interrupted, as on our browsers — we lose that inherence of form, that hope for a coherent sculpture of time. 

I’d learned this the hard way during my Year of Not Really Reading. I fell too often into the Internet’s endless networks of rabbit holes, a borderless nowhere that by its very nature leads nowhere. How could it? It has no edges, no boundaries, no frame. Its algorithmic mazes are designed to get lost in, to keep us stuffing our faces with digital shiny objects. That this experience feels timeless is also its appeal — and perhaps the most primal reason we’re addicted to our phones, despite ourselves. 

Roxy Music’s Avalon ended, and my son asked what else sounds like that. I told him nothing really — maybe more Roxy Music. This would be easy enough since my music app now displayed every Roxy Music album ever recorded. Then I said no, I’ll try to find another good album that he’s probably never heard. The sky now shone brilliantly; emerald-bright trees and rainbows of hydrangeas kept flashing by our car. Something of this kaleidoscopic scene made me think of The Cocteau Twins, and I put on Heaven or Las Vegas — always a choice. 

3. Stories 

We reached the coast overlooking L’Île d’Aval. There the island sat in a wide, cornflower-blue bay, an expanse of pine trees framed by stone-strewn beaches striking and wild-looking. But was it Avalon? Our Avalon? 

Here are three of Avalon’s earliest literary appearances, all the way from the 12th century. Let’s imagine they’re closest in spirit to the oral traditions that invented the place, flashing imaginative dimensions from an even deeper past. 

First come Geoffrey of Monmouth’s two versions, from his books, History of the Kings of Britain and Life of Merlin. Geoffrey, a cleric of Welsh and Breton descent, wrote “history” the way James Michener did: action-packed fictions incorporating true settings and events, with some made-up stuff that well-serves the sweeping, stampeding plots. And like Michener’s populist historical novels, Geoffrey’s scenes and tales stick with you, the way histories were long told, memorably. 

Avalon’s earliest surviving mention comes when Geoffrey casually cites it as the source of Arthur’s indestructible sword: “Arthur girded on his peerless sword, called Caliburn, which was forged on the Isle of Avalon.” Thus armed, Arthur wins many battles until the big finale at Camlann, a showdown against his cousin Mordred that wipes out most of Arthur’s men. Geoffrey writes: “Arthur himself, our renowned king, was mortally wounded and was carried off to the Isle of Avalon, so that his wounds might be attended to.” That’s it. The most telling phrase in the all-too-concise scene might be, “so that”: Avalon is where you’d obviously go for mortal wound-healing, at least if you’re a British king. 

Fourteen years later, in Geoffrey’s Life of Merlin, Avalon gains heft, atmosphere, and Morgan le Fey. Here we’re told that the battle-wounded Arthur was taken by a few knights and the 6th-century bard Taliesin (who’s narrating the tale) to “the island of apples,” also dubbed the “Fortunate Isle” that “produces all things in itself” — where grapes, grains, and (yes) apples flourish, and people live healthfully for a hundred years. It’s ruled by nine powerful sisters, foremost among them a queen, Morgan, though each noted to have mastered a field of knowledge—whether mathematics, science, music, or medicine. But magic exists in their repertoire as well: Morgan can also fly, so “when she wishes she is at Brest, Chartres, or Pavia” — all apparently important stopovers for fairy queens of her day. 

After Morgan welcomes the men to Avalon, Geoffrey recounts this famous scene:

In her chamber she placed the king on a golden bed and with her own hand she uncovered his honorable wound and gazed at it for a long time. At length she said that health could be restored to him if he stayed with her for a long time and made use of her healing art.

Taliesin and his cohorts rejoice over Morgan’s help and leave Arthur in Avalon — the enchanted version that will spark imaginations for the next nine centuries. And it fuels the myth of the Once and Future King, Avalon the place from which Arthur will emerge to save the British people from conquest. 

About 20 years later, a writer named Marie de France had become renowned in Western Europe for her lais — courtly narrative poems often woven with numinous Celtic elements, named after the Celtic word for song. As readable and energetic as Geoffrey’s works are, the 12 tales that make up The Lais of Marie de France bear the mark of genius — though we know almost nothing about her. 

Marie reveals her first name in one piece, and that she came from “France” — then just the kingdom centered around Paris. From this, the Anglo-Norman dialect in which she wrote, and her fluency in Latin, most literary historians think Marie was an educated and thus noble woman living in Norman England, so that the “King” to whom she dedicated her stories would have been Henry II — husband to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who together comprised medieval Europe’s foremost arts-funding power couple. Yet in every lai, Marie credits “the Bretons” for her material, so her particular “matter of Britain” derived from Brittany, then a Celtic kingdom. From this material Marie spun gem-bright, mischievously intelligent, and sex-laden stories shot through with Celtic magic and often centering on women. 

Avalon appears in only one of Marie’s lais, “Lanval.” But the island plays a critical dramatic role in the tale, a key that unlocks its central mystery. 

Lanval is a young knight “of valor, generosity, beauty, and prowess” who’s nevertheless on the outs with everyone in King Arthur’s court. While the whole Round Table is stationed one summer at the Scottish border on a campaign, Lanval is the victim of slander by envious older knights — who so ruin his good name with the King that the young man, far from home and his own royal fortune, gets skimped on his pay and is now broke. 

Taking solace on a horse-ride through the countryside, Lanval is approached by two women, exquisitely dressed in royal purple, who invite him to meet their mistress. He’s lead to a golden tent in a meadow, in which an unnamed woman of extraordinary allure lounges, half-dressed in furs. This mysterious figure tells Lanval that she already knows and loves him, and that she will secretly visit him whenever he summons her and supply him with riches for the rest of his life — but only if he keeps their relationship a secret. Lanval agrees, they sleep together — and then he high-tails it back to Arthur’s battalion, wondering: Who on earth was that woman? 

Back at court, Lanval shares his new-found wealth, lavishing gifts on rich and poor alike — and secretly enjoying his magical sex partner, who materializes before him whenever he wants. Things are looking up for Lanval. Then another unnamed woman attempts to seduce him — but because she’s identified as King Arthur’s wife, we know this woman is Guinevere. Lanval refuses the queen’s advances, claiming both his loyalty to the king and the fact that he’s already spoken for. Guinevere accuses Lanval of being gay, since after all: What woman has he ever slept with? Forbidden from citing his new fairy lover, Lanval viciously and unwisely insults the queen — slamming her beauty and character. Guinevere storms off and tells Arthur a damning lie: That Lanval had tried to seduce her, then humiliated her when she refused. For this Lanval is arrested for treason to the king — a crime punishable by death. 

According to the laws of the court—and courtly love more broadly — Lanval’s only defense is that he has indeed already sworn his fidelity to another woman. He’s advised to present this lover as evidence to King Arthur; but again and again, Lanval says this is impossible. The trial day arrives — and it’s clear to everyone, who’ve now warmed to the emotional young man, that King Arthur will have no choice but to condemn him. 

Suddenly during the proceedings, two gorgeous women in purple robes ride into the castle grounds. They ask King Arthur to make preparations for their royal mistress, who will be arriving shortly. He agrees, and soon a luminously beautiful woman in a white dress and rich purple cloak slowly rides into court on a pure white palfrey. Activity halts: all eyes are on her. This queenlike figure informs Arthur that she is indeed Lanval’s lover, that Lanval did not lie, and that the King owes Lanval an apology. After Arthur grants Lanval this courtesy, the young knight leaps onto the back of the woman’s white horse. The tale ends like this: 

“She took Lanval to Avalon, or so the Bretons tell us. To this beautiful island she carried off the fine young man. No one has heard of them since, and I have nothing more to tell.” 

Since Avalon has only one queen, we now realize that Lanval’s fairy lover is Morgan le Fey. As the tale closes, the island leaves a sort of afterglow — the destination of a most dramatic French exit. 

That “Lanval” features a woman who rides into town on a white horse to save the day and her lover from doom may seem surprising. This in a story dating to 1170 — not exactly an era known for feminist revisionist storytelling. “Lanval” struck a chord at the time, counting as one of Marie de France’s most popular lais, judging by the number of manuscripts and translations that survive. Marie clearly gives credit to “the Bretons” as the tale’s source, and if true, then this heroine-on-a-white-horse is a millennium-old trope from the original “matter of Britain,” that deep well of European oral tradition — not an inversion of the norms, but a norm itself. This female-centered branch of Arthurian material was killed off in later works, as Morgan le Fey evolved in coming centuries into a witch — a petty and vengeful one — and Avalon the eerie headquarters for her sorcery. But in the original material, both the island and its ruler symbolized something more extraordinary and hopeful: the powers of love, truth, and very earthly pleasures. 

4. Granite 

We’ve lost sight of the hipsters on the blanket. It’s just us on this northern side of Avalon, sloshing knee-deep in glistening ocean — and I can’t see a way to sneak up to the island’s stone wall to glimpse its interior. Rough granite boulders form a natural seawall edging this side of the island, one that keeps getting taller and steeper and wider. Not a rock climber, I doubt I can hoist myself over them to get anywhere near the pine trees. And by the time we make our way back around to the island’s western side—where we’d started our circling—too many vacationers on nearby shores would witness my attempted if minor trespassing. I realize I have to do it on this northern, sea-facing side — or not at all. 

By chance we are circumnavigating Avalon counterclockwise, a direction associated with ancient stone sites across the British Isles and Brittany. Merlin is said to be lodged in a prehistoric dolmen in the primeval Breton Forest of Paimpont, after his fairy love, Vivienne, circled it counterclockwise seven times, thus enchanting and trapping him there forever. Tracing her steps is supposed to bring good luck; on an earlier trip to Brittany, my family and I had done just that. As an expat kid living in Saudi Arabia, I’d first encountered this directional march around a holy rock in stories of Mecca, the Ka’aba, a huge meteoric black rock that Muslims on hajj circumambulate seven times to the left — a practice that dates back well before Islam, to the time of Ahlat, the region’s Bronze Age goddess. Counter-clockwise may be considered a spiritual or mystical direction because it inverts what we see in our skies — the sun seeming to revolve around the earth on a clockwise path. This inversion could be meant to connect humans to deeper metaphysical forces, whether a deity for the religious, or good luck for the megalith-hunters. (By contrast, Christian and Jewish traditions insist on a clockwise circumambulation, when they do at all; perhaps to contrast with older, pagan beliefs still hanging around in folk traditions on the fringes of Europe and elsewhere.) 

Forging on around the island, we traverse a wide pile of wobbly granite — and still see no break in the high wall it forms to our left. Just ahead I now spot swimmers in the bay and sunbathers on facing beaches. I tell my husband and kid that I’m pulling the plug on my trespassing plan. 

This is as close as I’ll get to Avalon: circling it with no actual entry. Today, this Avalon is a party you have to be invited to; its Morgan le Fey is a Parisian ad exec with a passion for music events. Which all makes sense, really: Avalon was always an invite-only place. You don’t just show up

Plus, what kind of Avalon is this: an Island of Apples without any apple trees? Brittany is famous for cider; the region is rolling with apples. Yet not here? 

As we round back to the western coast of L’Île d’Aval, our feet sink into soft sand beach once more. The blue-green horizon sparkling with cloud-white sailboats, the summer afternoon sun skimming over my skin, and just the fact that I’m in France, on a Breton Island, has worked a simple, blood-deep magic. How could it not? I shake off my disappointment that I won’t get a look at inner Avalon for myself. 

Because I’ve discovered something I couldn’t have imagined, researched, or searched up on any website: An Avalon to brush against, in person. A pilgrimage creates a frame of time and place filled in by intention, focus, personal meaning, and literal bodily movement — and my brief one today has released me into the granular details of this place, playing the nerves like music. Like a spell, it’s returned my full attention to here, this world. 

Our screens and their virtual realities have crowded out so much of the material world, and so swiftly. As widely noted, the Pandemic Era fast-forwarded forces already in full swing: If we as a culture were screen-addicted before, now we may be woozy with screen-sickness. What techies call Web 3.0 is their idea of utopia: human life “freed” from the material world by a decentralized, digital cloud accessible from anywhere. What the Pandemic Era has revealed to me is that their vision leads to a claustrophobic dystopia, a disorienting, muffled half-life of rarely needing to be anywhere in particular. It’s a dislocation from the very places that organically grow our cultures, our relationships, and our stories. 

At first glance, Avalon involves a story of psycho-geography: the human desire for a fortunate and healing island. That’s Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version — the one we’ve mostly inherited. But in the ancient Breton version of Avalon, brought to us by Marie de France, it’s more purely an island of truth and beauty — values we humans seem ever in danger of losing sight of. Located in our world, this Avalon hosts a metaphysics of place, love, and the senses. And these stories somehow haven’t ended, remain ongoing. All the alleged “real” Avalons — from Scotland’s Arran islands to Spain’s Majorca — and their hundreds of namesakes the world over, from California to the Caribbean, have seeded these ancient stories into unique species. They are all trying to tell us something about what matters. 

We’re now passing Avalon’s only visible structure, the top corner of a stone building shielded by pine trees. A woman exits from a wooden gate in the wall in front it — a rare entry point, probably the main one to the island. She’s carrying a cart, which she begins rolling across the sand to the facing shore. Now the tide must be at its lowest: We follow her across wet sand that not an hour before had been covered in water we’d waded through. 

Crossing the quarter mile back, we reach the beach and flop down to take in Avalon one last time. But our attention is pulled to an incredible sight: A red horse canters into the middle of the now-drained bay. It begins dancing back and forth, trotting in slow, high-stepping figure-eight, racing in wide circles over the sands. All eyes are on the red horse and its rider. They’re so beautiful and unexpected, set just far enough away, they seem like a mirage — though a living, breathing one. 

And just beyond them, like a frame, sits Avalon. •


Megan Harlan, is the author of Mobile Home: A Memoir in Essays(University of Georgia Press, 2020), awarded the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction, and Mapmaking (BkMk Press-UMKC), winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. Her writing has been cited as distinguished in Best American Essays 2018, 2019, and 2021, awarded the Arts & Letters Prize in Creative Nonfiction, and has appeared in AGNI, The New York Times, Crazyhorse, TriQuarterly, River Teeth, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from New York University and works as a writer, editor, and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area.