The Grail Theme in Twentieth-Century Literature

The Grail Theme in Twentieth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

The Grail Theme in Twentieth-Century Literature


The Grail Theme in Twentieth-Century Literature

The following entry presents criticism on the Grail theme in twentieth-century literature.

The legend of the Grail and the quest to locate it has been one of the most consistent motifs throughout Western literature. One of the earliest recorded instances of the legend itself was in Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval ou Le conte du Graal (c. 1190), which depicted the Grail as a chalice or vessel that was present during the Last Supper and later used to collect Jesus Christ's blood after his crucifixion. Though there are numerous interpretations and theories regarding the origin of the myth and the vessel, in its most basic form, the story of the Grail revolves around a quest for an object that sustains life. In most versions of the legend, the Grail is extremely difficult to find—hidden in a desolate castle, surrounded by barren land, and guarded by an ailing owner. The myth holds that the power of the Grail can only be restored if the questing knight is able to find the castle and ask the right question of its owner. Failure at any time during this journey implies a failure of the quest, which must then begin anew. The knight who succeeds in his quest becomes the new guardian of the castle and the Grail, replacing the previous caretaker, often referred to as the Fisher King. Although the legend is fundamentally connected to Christian beliefs and mythology, literary interpretations of the story have treated the Grail as both a secular and religious symbol. The most common association of the Grail quest in literature is with Arthurian legends, but scholars acknowledge that the concept of the Grail existed in Western mythology long before the tales of King Arthur and his Round Table were created.

Twentieth-century authors, in particular, have utilized the Grail legend in both realistic and fantasy fiction, notably in stories that revolve around time travel or the struggle between good and evil. One variation on the Grail myth—largely introduced by twentieth-century authors—has been the focus on characters that attempt to steal the Grail for their own purposes. Such selfish motivations are held in stark contrast to the traditional role of the Grail in literature, where the vessel is a holy talisman, representative of an individual's journey towards spiritual growth and enlightenment. In other works, the Grail appears as a representation of the disparity between the material and spiritual worlds. For example, in Arthur Machen's The Great Return (1915), the Grail serves as an inspiration to better oneself, while in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), the legend provides thematic unity to a poem that laments the futility of contemporary life. Critic Raymond H. Thompson has noted that the Grail theme is frequently utilized in works that highlight the condition of the human heart or an individual's attempts to reach beyond the material world. As such, works like The Waste Land use the typically barren landscapes of the Grail quest as a contrasting backdrop to their characters's search for spiritual fulfillment in modern society.

Though it remains a significant thematic and allegorical device in twentieth-century literature, the Grail legend continues to be most often associated with contemporary reinterpretations of classic Arthurian legends. Charles Williams composed one of the first major poetic treatments of the Grail legend in the twentieth century, Taliessen through Logres (1938), and outlined the story of King Arthur and the Grail in several of his works. Other authors, such as Walker Percy, have employed the Grail as an ironic device. In Lancelot (1963) Percy adopts the form of the Grail quest as a paradigm for the Southern code of Stoicism in face of defeat. Barbara Tepa Lupack has argued that several twentieth-century novelists, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, among others, have successfully reinterpreted the Grail quest in atypical forms, employing the symbolism of the Grail in their works and personal lives. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the Grail legend continued to inspire such authors as Michael Ondaatje and Bobbie Ann Mason, both of whom have merged the traditional myth with modern-day imagery and cultural concerns. The Grail also continues to be a significant source of material and metaphor in contemporary works of science fiction and fantasy, particularly in the works of Neil Gaiman, S. P. Sumtow, and Tanith Lee.

Representative Works

Thomas Berger
Arthur Rex (novel) 1978

Joseph Conrad
Chance (novel) 1913

T. S. Eliot
The Waste Land (poetry) 1922

F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby (novel) 1925

Parke Godwin
Firelord (novel) 1980

Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926

Jim Hunter
Percival and the Presence of God (novel) 1978

James Joyce
Ulysses (novel) 1922

Ken Kesey
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel) 1962

C. S. Lewis
Arthurian Torso (novel) 1938
The Hideous Strength (novel) 1945

Arthur Machen
The Great Return (novel) 1915

Naomi Mitchison
To the Chapel Perilous (novel) 1955

Walker Percy
Lancelot (novel) 1963

Jack Spicer
The Holy Grail (novel) 1962

Alfred Tennyson
Idylls of the King (poetry) 1859

Charles Williams
War in Heaven (novel) 1930
Taliessen Through Logres (poetry) 1938

Criticism: Major Works

Paul B. Newman (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: Newman, Paul B. “Hemingway's Grail Quest.” University of Kansas City Review 28 (1962): 295-303.

[In the following essay, Newman remarks on the influence of T. S. Eliot and Jessie Weston on Ernest Hemingway, pointing out that Hemingway's writing reflected contemporary concerns over the breakdown of individualism that was often addressed by an interest in and the use of the Holy Grail theme.]

“All of Eliot's poems are perfect,” Hemingway wrote in 1925, “and there are very few of them. He has a very fine talent and he is very careful of it. He never takes chances with it and it is doing very well thank you.”

In the early twenties...

(The entire section is 4366 words.)

Linda Ray Pratt (essay date winter 1973)

SOURCE: Pratt, Linda Ray. “The Holy Grail: Subversion and Revival of a Tradition in Tennyson and T. S. Eliot.” Victorian Poetry 11, no. 4 (winter 1973): 307-21.

[In the following essay, Pratt compares the use of the Grail myth in Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, contending that both authors have significant differences in the way they view the legend—for Eliot, the Grail is representative of individual salvation, while for Tennyson, the quest for the Grail is an act that deflects man from the responsibilities he must assume in the real world.]

The modern writer's need for myth is acute in a society which lacks...

(The entire section is 6349 words.)

Julie M. Johnson (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Johnson, Julie M. “The Damsel and Her Knights: The Goddess and the Grail in Conrad's Chance.Conradiana 13, no. 3 (1981): 221-28.

[In the following essay, Johnson studies the parallels between the Grail legend and Joseph Conrad's novel, Chance.]

Joseph Conrad's novel, Chance, is divided into two parts, the first entitled “The Damsel,” the second entitled “The Knight.” These allusions to the chivalric tradition have been understood to be a reference to Captain Anthony's sacrificial, celibate marriage to Flora de Barral, a marriage which embodies the romantic ideal of his father's poetry.1 It also has been argued that the...

(The entire section is 3430 words.)

J. Donald Crowley and Sue Mitchell Crowley (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Crowley, J. Donald, and Sue Mitchell Crowley. “Walker Percy's Grail.” In King Arthur Through the Ages, edited by Valerie M. Lagorio and Mildred Leake Day, pp. 255-75. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1990.

[In the following essay, the Crowleys expound on Percy's Christian vision as it is expressed in his fiction and nonfiction, noting that the author often used Arthurian motifs in his writing to embody a Southern code of Stoicism. The critics also point out that despite Percy's theological stance, he did not shy away from using the Grail quest to parody the chivalric code associated with the South.]

In the concept of the Second Coming...

(The entire section is 8341 words.)

Theresa O'Connor (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: O'Connor, Theresa. “Demythologizing Nationalism: Joyce's Dialogized Grail Myth.” In Joyce in Context, edited by Vincent J. Cheng and Timothy Martin, pp. 100-21. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, O' Connor proposes that throughout Ulysses, James Joyce juxtaposes the quest for regeneration via male sacrifice with a search for regeneration through maternal love.]

Hot fresh blood they prescribe for decline. Blood always needed. Insidious.

(U [Ulysses] 8.729 30)

“For many centuries,” Conor Cruise O'Brien observed in...

(The entire section is 9243 words.)

Raymond M. Olderman (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Olderman, Raymond M. “The Grail Knight Arrives: Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.” In A Casebook on Ken Kesey's ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,’ edited by George J. Searles, pp. 67-79. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Olderman examines Ken Kesey's novel as a “brilliant version of our contemporary wasteland and a successful Grail Knight” who frees both the Fisher King and the human spirit in an act of affirmation and release.]

Randle Patrick McMurphy sweeps into the asylum wasteland of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest like April coming to T. S. Eliot's wasteland:...

(The entire section is 5392 words.)

D. G. Kehl and Allene Cooper (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Kehl, D. G., and Allene Cooper. “Sangria in the Sangreal: The Great Gatsby as Grail Quest.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 47, no. 4 (1993): 203-17.

[In the following essay, Kehl and Cooper explore F. Scott Fitzgerald's fascination with Arthurian myths, focusing on his use of the Grail legend in The Great Gatsby in particular.]

Near the end of Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine, returning to Princeton after his disillusioning sojourn in Atlantic City, concludes that he knows one thing: “If living isn't a seeking for the grail it may be a damned amusing game” (278). For Fitzgerald, by the time he wrote...

(The entire section is 6112 words.)

Barbara Tepa Lupack (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Lupack, Barbara Tepa. “F. Scott Fitzgerald's ‘Following of a Grail’.” Arthuriana 4, no. 4 (winter 1994): 324-47.

[In the following essay, Lupack chronicles the inclusion of Arthurian motifs, the wasteland, and the Grail quest in many of F. Scott Fitzgerald's works, remarking that the author's interest in these stories also carried over into his personal life.]

The Arthurian legends appealed not only to T. S. Eliot, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and other American poets of the early twentieth century but also to some of the most prominent American novelists as well. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great chronicler of the Jazz Age, found special vitality and...

(The entire section is 10669 words.)

Charles Moorman (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Moorman, Charles. “T. S. Eliot.” In The Grail: A Casebook, edited by Dhira P. Mahoney, pp. 505-23. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 2000.

[In the following essay, Moorman analyses T. S. Eliot's literary and philosophical development, specifically his ideas on the creation of literary myths and use of the Grail legend in his poetry. Moorman contends that Eliot's spiritual viewpoint was central to his writing, and in The Waste Land the legend of the grail assumes a position of vital importance because of its connections with images of religious fertility.]

So much has been written about T. S. Eliot's literary and philosophical development that it...

(The entire section is 7919 words.)