Nicholas Mann’s book, Isle of Avalon, seeks to give context to the mysteries of Avalon. It is an exploration of the history, mythology, geology, archeology, and several other -ologies of the landscape associated with Glastonbury Tor. It is a short book, so it cannot delve too deeply into any of these subjects, but as in introduction to the whole of the legend, it succeeds very well.
Mann’s approach to his subject is, for the most part, refreshingly sensible. He not only wants to discuss Glastonbury, but also what has been said or sung or believed about this place, and he does not place undue emphasis on any one type of knowing. He can talk about the geological processes that allow this one small hill to have two springs from two different sources, and the mineralogy that makes one of them red and one white. He can also talk about the profound symbolism of the Red Spring and the White Spring in the Avalonian mysteries without privileging either the scientific or the mystical understanding. He is comfortable allowing them to sit side-by-side, and since that’s where I’m most comfortable as well, I found this book very useful.
The book is in two parts. The first part tells the natural history of the area and the uses to which humans have put it. Mann talks about the geology, as I’ve said, but he also describes various archaeological features and the history of the site up to the 20th century. This part was the most useful for me in understanding the context of Glastonbury Tor, and it grounds the second part of the book. The second part of the book is far more speculative. Part 1 starts with the words “The town of Glastonbury lies about fifteen miles from the sea…” – that part of the book is squarely concerned with such physical facts. Part two starts with “In 1969, John Michell described an astonishing alignment…” and you know that any chapter that starts with John Michell is going somewhere very different.
In part two, Mann talks about sacred geometry and the intersection of mythology and landscape. I love this sort of thing, and it was all so well grounded by the first part of the book. Mann approaches this topic with clear-eyed sense – his speculation is all clearly labeled as such. I don’t mind speculation – I love it when it’s done well – but it has to be well-signaled or I’m just annoyed.
Sadly, Mann is not entirely free of this. I got almost all the way through the book thinking that it was entirely wonderful until the very last chapter. In this chapter, Mann describes his own vision of Avalon and the mystical practices that may have gone on there. This is fine, and after having shown such knowledge of his subject he’s certainly entitled to this, but I was bothered by the way we he went about it. He writes about these practices as though he knows they happened, using some very mid-20th-century thinking to back it up. It’s a little sad to read about this sort of thing while ticking off theorists in my head, “OK, there’s Levi-Strauss…. a little Frazier, naturally… and oh, look, Jung.” It makes it unconvincing that I am reading about anything that dates before the 1920′s or so.
It’s hard to see the cultural influences that shape us while we are in the thick of them. Mid to late 20th century esotericism was strongly influenced by structuralism, and shows it. The scholarly field has moved on, but the mystics are still in the thick of it but often seem not to realize that they are not operating from some ancient truth, but from fairly recent anthropological theory. Of course, having been educated by a pack of post-modernists, I surely have my own cultural bias, and paying so much attention to everyone’s theoretical underpinnings is a big symptom of that. Recently, though, I’ve started to come to a different understanding about this. Let me see if I can explain – the idea is still kind of half-baked, but it applies here.
Mystical understanding is not the same thing as scientific understanding. Archeology and anthropology seek scientific understanding of the path. Us mystics, who look to the past for inspiration, seek mystical understanding. It’s a different kind of thing. However, since we all come from this fundamentally materialist culture that only accepts knowledge that comes from material sources, even the mystics look for material support. You will find many Pagans who claim belief in the Gods and in magic who will, at the very same time, give enthusiastic support to materialist explanations of religious phenomena.
For example, there are plenty of Pagans who will be glad to tell you that the source of the oracular prophecies of Delphi was an hallucinogen of some sort or another. Not the gods, not magic, but a chemical reaction. Now, there are plenty of ways to get around this and keep the Gods in the equation (i.e., the gods were speaking through the hallucinogenic vapors) but many of us would be very uncomfortable with saying, “Apollo spoke to the Pythoness” without invoking some kind of materialist ground for that interaction. Another example are the UFO people – visited by odd beings and having strange experiences and visions, they interpret these as manifestations of unusual, but essentially material, phenomena. A century or two ago, these odd beings and strange experiences were either demonic or Fay. I wonder how these things will be seen in the future – I think we will come back to our mystical roots, but the future is nothing if not unexpected.
I’ve gone a bit afield from the book review here, but I’m working to come to an interpretive structure for this sort of thing – speculation like Mann’s come from a mystical understanding. They are personal revelations, based on deep study of ancient things, but they are not in any way scientific. We get this mystical knowledge and then immediately look around for something material to hang it on, so it gets to be “real,” because material=real in our culture. Mann hangs his on the kind of thinking he’s familiar with, and allows that to color his descriptions. For all I know, Levi-Strauss might have been doing the same thing. I think keeping this perspective in mind will help me to come to understand this kind of writing better in the future.
Coming back to “The Isle of Avalon,” I would consider it an essential book for anyone interested in the subject. It’s well-written, clear, and provides a jumping-off point for all sorts of more in-depth study.