Lyonesse: Wikis


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Tristan and Iseult
Genre Arthurian legend
Type Fictional country
Notable people Tristan

Lyonesse is a country in Arthurian legend, particularly in the story of Tristan and Iseult. Said to border Cornwall, it is most notable as the home of the hero Tristan, whose father was king. In later traditions Lyonesse is said to have sunken beneath the waves sometimes after the Tristan stories take place, making it similar to Ys and other lost lands in medieval Celtic tales and perhaps connecting it with the Isles of Scilly.


Lyonesse in Arthurian legend

In medieval Arthurian legend, there are no references to the sinking of Lyonesse, for the simple reason that the name originally referred to a still-existing place. Lyonesse is an English alteration of French Léoneis or Léonois (earlier Loönois), a development of Lodonesia, the Latin name for Lothian in Scotland. Continental writers of Arthurian romances were often puzzled by the internal geography of Great Britain; thus it is that the author French Prose Tristan appears to place Léonois contiguous, by land, to Cornwall. In English adaptations of the French tales, Léonois, now "Lyonesse", becomes a kingdom wholly distinct from Lothian, and closely associated with the Cornish region, though its exact geographical location remained unspecified. The name was not attached to Cornish legends of lost coastal lands until the reign of Elizabeth I of England, however.[1]

Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Arthurian epic Idylls of the King, describes Lyonesse as the site of the final battle between Arthur and Mordred. One passage in particular references legends of Lyonesse as a land fated to sink beneath the ocean:

Then rose the King and moved his host by night
And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse--
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.

Deriving from a false etymology of Lyonesse, the 'City of Lions' was said in some later traditions to be the capital of the legendary kingdom, situated on what is today the Seven Stones reef, some eighteen miles west of Land's End and eight miles north-east of the Isles of Scilly.

Analogues in Celtic mythology

The legend of a sunken kingdom appears in both Cornish and Breton mythology. In Christian times it came to be viewed as a sort of Cornish Sodom and Gomorrah, an example of divine wrath provoked by unvirtuous living, although the parallels were limited in that Lyonesse remained in Cornish thought very much a mystical and mythical land, comparable to the role of Tir na nÓg in Irish mythology.

There is a Breton parallel in the tale of the Cité d'Ys, similarly drowned as a result of its debauchery with a single virtuous survivor escaping on a horse, in this case King Gradlon. The Welsh equivalent to Lyonesse and Ker Ys is Cantre'r Gwaelod, a legendary drowned kingdom in Cardigan Bay.

It is often suggested that the tale of Lyonesse represents an extraordinary survival of folk memory of the flooding of the Isles of Scilly and Mount's Bay near Penzance. For example, the Cornish name of St Michael's Mount is Carrack Looz en Cooz - literally, "the grey rock in the wood". Cornish people around Penzance still believe strongly in a sunken forest in Mount's Bay, archaeological evidence of the forest is visible at very low tides, where petrified tree stumps become visible. The importance of the maintenance of this memory can be seen in that it came to be associated with legendary Brythonic hero Arthur.

Lyonesse in modern English literature

Lyonesse has been used as a setting for many modern fantasy stories, notably Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy. In Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, Lyonesse is where refugees from Atlantis (the "Fair Folk") settle, the word Lyonesse being derived from the Celtic corruption of the word Atlantis. J. R. R. Tolkien drew some of his inspiration for the lost kingdom of Númenor from the legends of Lyonesse; one of the kingdom's many names in his mythos is "Westernesse". In Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, the narrator describes the Oxford of his youth as being "submerged now and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in..." In the film First Knight, Lyonesse is the home of Guinevere, a small land situated between Camelot and Malagant's territory. Lyonesse was ruled by Guinevere's father until his death, after which Guinevere became the "Lady of Lyonesse."

The Trevelyan family of Cornwall takes its coat of arms from a local legend, in which a man named Trevelyan escaped the innundation by riding a white horse. To this day the family's shield bears a white horse rising from the waves.

Other uses of Lyonesse

The name Lyonesse has often been applied to transport subjects:

See also


  1. ^ Bivar, A.D.H. (February 1953). "Lyonnesse: The Evolution of a Fable". Modern Philology 50 (3): 162–170. doi:10.1086/388954.  




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