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.
Arthur Rex (novel) 1978
Chance (novel) 1913
T. S. Eliot
The Waste Land (poetry) 1922
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby (novel) 1925
Firelord (novel) 1980
The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926
Percival and the Presence of God (novel) 1978
Ulysses (novel) 1922
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel) 1962
C. S. Lewis
Arthurian Torso (novel) 1938
The Hideous Strength (novel) 1945
The Great Return (novel) 1915
To the Chapel Perilous (novel) 1955
Lancelot (novel) 1963
The Holy Grail (novel) 1962
Idylls of the King (poetry) 1859
War in Heaven (novel) 1930
Taliessen Through Logres (poetry) 1938
(The entire section is 90 words.)
Criticism: Major Works
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 Hemingway was a good friend of Ezra Pound, at a time when the latter had just finished editing “The Waste Land.” Eliot himself was an occasional visitor to Paris and the story of the Fisher King may well have been a topic of discussion in the evenings of Gertrude Stein. The influence of Eliot's work on Hemingway is perhaps deeper than has been generally appreciated. Beneath the surface of The Sun Also Rises runs a current of symbolic overtones which seems to owe much to the concepts of Eliot and to the work of Jessie Weston. It will be my purpose to call attention to these influences, as well as to suggest an affinity between the current interest in the breakdown of individualism and the preoccupation of a number of writers with the...
(The entire section is 4366 words.)
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 any cohesive belief or coherent design of its own. In portraying just such a society in their long poems, Idylls of the King and The Waste Land, both Tennyson and T. S. Eliot employ the mythic structure inherent in the grail legends. Tennyson uses the popular and largely traditional literary versions of Arthurian legend, while Eliot uses the older, more purely archetypal versions of the Fisher King. Yet Tennyson's use of the familiar Arthurian legend took a radical direction. Numerous critics have observed that Tennyson's grail quest is a destructive force which contributes to the fall of Camelot.1 As J. Philip Eggers shows, “For all but Tennyson, and perhaps Arnold, however, Arthurian legend remains what it had...
(The entire section is 6349 words.)
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 subtitles are intentionally ironic, that Conrad adopted them to belie any accusation that he failed to realize “how over-simplified and falsely romantic is his treatment of [Flora's] plight.”2 However, it is my conviction that the subtitles are neither superficial nor, finally, ironic. Rather, they signify the underlying structure of the novel, which is that of the separate quests of three knights for one damsel. The “damsel,” Flora de Barral, embodies the dual nature of Christian Grail-symbol and pagan fertility goddess—a conjunction which is characteristic of much quest literature in the Arthurian tradition. The three knights—Anthony, Powell, and Marlow—have their counterparts in Galahad, Percivale, and Bors, the...
(The entire section is 3430 words.)
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 motif of Withdrawal-and-Return attains its deepest spiritual meaning. … In the myth of the Second Coming of Arthur, … the vanquished Britons consoled themselves for the failure of the historic Arthur to avert the ultimate victory of the English barbarian invaders.
I think that we Shall never more, at any future time, Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds, Walking about the gardens and the halls Of Camelot, as in the days that were. I perish by this people which I made,— Tho' Merlin swore that I should come again …
—Tennyson, “Morte D'Arthur”
Since Walker Percy has...
(The entire section is 8341 words.)
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 a recent article on nationalist ideology, “the grand legitimizer of hatred in our culture was called Religion. Then after the great surfeit of the Wars of Religion, the power of religion to legitimize war and persecution began to fade and the cult of Nationalism took its place … Henceforward, it was in the name of the nation that men would be most likely to feel it legitimate to hate and kill other men, and women and children” (27). Linking nationalism with religion, O'Brien argues that both creeds serve to legitimize war and bloodshed because both are rooted in the perverse notion that renewal comes through blood sacrifice. It is precisely this belief that Joyce sets out to decode in Ulysses. Like O'Brien, he was convinced...
(The entire section is 9243 words.)
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: “mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” He literally drags the unwilling asylum wastelanders out of the tranquilized fog that protects them—a fog that is forever “snowing down cold and white all over,”1 where they try to hide “in forgetful snow, feeding / A little life with dried tubers.” And, by dragging them from their retreat, he cures the Fisher King, Chief Bromden—a six-foot-eight-inch giant from a tribe of “fish Injuns,” who is wounded, like all other wastelanders, in his manhood. The cure takes hold most dramatically on a fishing trip when McMurphy supplies the Chief and eleven other disciples with drink for their thirst, a woman for their desires, stimulation for their memories,...
(The entire section is 5392 words.)
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 Great Gatsby five years later, living had become both a quest for the grail and “a damned amusing game,” with emphasis sometimes on the quest and sometimes on the game. It took Fitzgerald another eleven years and a “crack-up” to verbalize the paradox: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” (The Crack Up 69). Jay Gatsby “found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail” (149). The grail, personified in Daisy Buchanan, is paradoxically beautiful and romantic but also, like the cut-glass bowl in Fitzgerald's 1920 story with that title, hard, empty, and, at least for Nick, “easy to...
(The entire section is 6112 words.)
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 contemporaneity in the legends and incorporated aspects of them into much of his best work. Like his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, who (in The Sun Also Rises and in several of the Nick Adams tales in In Our Time) used the story of the Fisher King as an analogue for the moral sterility and ethical impotence of his age, Fitzgerald was drawn to traditional elements of Arthurian mythology, especially the wasteland and the Grail quest; but, in his fiction, he reinterpreted those elements in untraditional and distinctly American ways. The wasteland, for instance—a concept popularized by Eliot in The Waste Land (1922)—afforded Fitzgerald a powerful image for the deterioration of social values and the resulting emphasis on...
(The entire section is 10669 words.)
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 would seem unnecessary to comment further on these matters. But although critics have made much of Eliot's swing from restless poetic innovation and fierce social and religious criticism to metrical formality and acceptance of a tradition-bound society and church, little has been said concerning the basic attitude, present in Eliot's work from the beginning, which underlies and in a sense motivates these seemingly irresponsible changes. Since this attitude has a great deal to do with Eliot's use of myth, it will be necessary to attempt a definition of this prevailing point of view.
I have already attempted to define the sort of mentality involved in the creation of literary myth. Basically, the mythmaker is a primitive; he...
(The entire section is 7919 words.)
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Wood, Juliette. “The Holy Grail: From Romance Motif to Modern Genre.” Folklore 111, no. 2 (October 2000): 169-90.
[In the following excerpted essay, Wood provides overviews of several Grail texts, beginning with a summary of Grail romances, their primary themes and motifs, and concluding with an examination of popular twentieth-century Grail-related material.]
In his search for the Grail, Tennyson's Lancelot follows a “sweet voice singing in the topmost tower”:
… as in a dream I seemed to climb For ever: at the last I reached a door … It gave, and throe' a stormy glare, a heat As from a seventimes-heated furnace … And yet methought I saw the Holy Grail All palled in crimson samite …
(Idylls of the King, 2:829-44)
Just over a century later, publishers regularly advertise Lancelot's vision of the Holy Grail with promises of new discoveries about the world of ancient Druids, Templars and assorted mystics. Books purporting to reveal the secret behind the Holy Grail literature of the Middle Ages are a widespread phenomenon of modern popular culture. Indeed so prevalent are they that any attempt at a comprehensive survey would be out of date as soon as it was printed. Nor, given the autodidactic nature of this writing, is there much point in trying to refute any of the assertions by unravelling the tortuous arguments which underpin this material. This article intends to trace the Holy Grail theme from a set of motifs in medieval romance to the modern genre of grail literature and to focus on the resulting interface between literary and popular culture.
Suggestions put forward as to the source and meaning of the “Grail story” include Celtic myth, the Eucharistic rites of Eastern Christianity, ancient mystery religion, Jungian archetypal journeys, dualist heresies, Templar treasure, the descendants of Christ and Mary Magdalene, several actual objects, and any combination of the above. All these positions have adherents who are fierce in defence and detractors who are equally dismissive of these suggestions. The common thread which links these theories is the assumption that the grail story has a single source and that this source has a meaning which is obscured in the romances themselves. The question one might ask at this stage, from the point of view of folklore studies, is whether a series of repeated motifs necessarily implies a common tale and a priori source. In other words, is there a grail problem to be solved or is this simply an artefact of the methodology of grail criticism? Recent academic studies have stressed influences rather than origins and concentrated on the romances as literature rather than as repositories of secrets which the authors do not understand.1 However, an earlier, and very influential, stream of romance criticism considered that the origin of romance was the primary question to be answered; and many modern grail studies, however eccentric the research they embody may be, still make use of such assumptions. Many current popular ideas derive from earlier grail scholarship which dates from the 1880s to the 1960s. In order to clarify why this particular story should exercise such a fascination in the popular imagination and in a particular corner of the publishing industry, it would be well to trace earlier research.
The theories discussed in this lecture developed as a by-product of renewed interest in medieval romance, and the middle ages generally, in the nineteenth century. This has to be seen in the wider context of the occult revival of this time, with its tendency to interpret Renaissance philosophy and the innovations of the Age of Enlightenment, such as masonism and Rosicrusianism, as carrying information which, while it could provide personal or cultural transformation, threatened the establishment. Many of these movements were tied in a complex way to the increasing power, and increasingly democratic interests, of the growing bourgeoisie. The appeal of the grail theme, particularly in the early part of the twentieth century, was very wide and broadly European.
SUMMARY OF THE GRAIL ROMANCES
One of the frustrations of this material, and a feature which has undoubtedly contributed to the increasingly bizarre theories about its origin, is the fact that no consistent “Grail story” emerges from the several romances in which material appears. However a basic story outline would be something like the following: A mysterious vessel or object which sustains life and/or provides sustenance is guarded in a castle which is difficult to find. The owner of the castle is either lame or sick and often (but not always) the surrounding land is barren. The owner can only be restored if a knight finds the castle and, after seeing a mysterious procession, asks a certain question. If he fails in this task, everything will remain as before and the search must begin again. After wanderings and adventures (many of which relate to events which the young hero fails to understand the first time), the knight returns to the castle and asks the question which cures the king and restores the land. The hero knight succeeds the wounded king (usually called the Fisher King) as guardian of the castle and its contents.
The grail episode in the relevant romances is summarised here and references to editions and translations of the romances are given in the appendix. In the text of this article references to individual romances are given in brackets using the name of the author where this is known or the identifying titles (which are themselves often a matter of convention) used in this summary. An object referred to as the grail and later as the Holy Grail occurs in a number of medieval romances written between the end of the twelfth and the end of the thirteenth century. Despite the vast antiquity for the material, its appearance in literary form occurred within a single century.
The motif first appeared in an unfinished romance Perceval ou Le conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes dated to about 1190. Chrétien's romance was written at the behest of his patron, Count Philip of Flanders, a crusader knight. The fall of Jerusalem occurred in 1187 just before the first appearance of the grail as a literary motif. The historical crusades, their effect on Europe generally and on the nobility in particular, form an important backdrop to this material, although it is equally important to distinguish between the social and economic effects of the crusades on the medieval world and the mystical speculations about Templars and such which are a part of later grail speculation.
In Chrétien de Troyes's romance, Perceval sees the grail during a feast at a mysterious castle presided over by a lame man called the Fisher King whom he had met the day before. Chrétien calls the object simply “un graal,” and its appearance is just one of the unusual events which takes place during the feast. Indeed at this time Perceval is also shown a broken sword which must be mended. The two objects together, sword and grail, are symbols of Perceval's development as a true knight.
Chrétien de Troyes died before finishing this romance, but the story was completed by other writers. The Continuations, as they are referred to in critical literature, expand several themes and the grail gradually acquires a more “sacramental” character. The First Continuation is also incomplete and the author is unknown, but it can be dated before 1200. Besides Perceval, Gawain also has a grail adventure (the womanising Gawain is the type of the perfect worldly knight and regularly forms a contrast to Perceval in these romances). During a procession which Gawain sees, the “rich grail” (as it is now called) floats about the hall and provides food for all; the bleeding lance is later identified as the Lance of Longinus (beginning the trend to see these objects as relics); and the broken sword belongs to a dead knight who is laid out on a bier. He who mends the sword will know the secrets of the grail castle (thereby strengthening the link between sword and grail). A new adventure, the Chapel of the Black Hand, is added in which a mysterious hand snuffs out the candles in the chapel.
The Second Continuation, written by Gauchier de Donaing (c. 1200), is also unfinished but pushes the story even farther into the realms of mysterious supernatural happenings. Perceval plays with a magical chess board; and a lady offers him a hunting dog and white stag's head, which he loses and has to recover before returning to the grail castle. He fails to mend the sword completely. The Third Continuation (c. 1230), written by Manessier, completes the story of Perceval and Gawain. The Fisher King explains the items in the grail procession: the spear was used by Longinus to pierce Christ's side at the Crucifixion; the cup belonged to Joseph of Arimathea; the trencher covered the cup to protect the blood; and the sword wounded both the Fisher King and his brother. Perceval undergoes the adventure of the Chapel of the Black Hand. When the sword is mended, Perceval as grail ruler heals the land. After seven years, he retires to a hermitage, and when he dies the grail, lance and dish go with him.
Unfortunately Manessier's explanation of the grail was replaced by yet another, and final, continuation of the story. The Fourth Continuation by Gerbert de Montreuil (c. 1230) has a strong moralising tone. It takes up the story after Perceval's first failure and introduces a long series of adventures before Perceval returns to the Grail castle to mend the sword.
While Chrétien's romance was the first, and remains in many ways central to developments within the tradition, other medieval writers took up the theme; as well as development, there is cross fertilisation. Between c. 1191-1200, the Burgundian poet, Robert de Boron, also writing at the behest of a crusader patron, the Lord of Montfaçon, produced three romances, Joseph d'Arimathie, Merlin (most of which is lost) and Perceval (which may or may not actually have been written). All these romances treat the grail theme. Robert de Boron puts the grail into the context of Christ's passion. In Joseph d'Arimathie, Pilate gives the cup used at the Last Supper and Crucifixion to Joseph of Arimathea who is subsequently imprisoned. Christ brings the grail to Joseph in prison where it sustains him and teaches him its secrets. Joseph is freed by the emperor Vespasian who has been cured by Veronica's veil (another mysterious relic associated with Christ's passion). Robert introduces two more characters, Joseph's sister and her husband, Hebron (Bron). Joseph establishes a second table of the grail, and Bron catches a fish which is placed on the table and separates the just from the unjust. The object is called the Holy Grail at this point and gives joy to all who sit at the table. Alain, the leader of Bron's twelve sons, goes to Britain to await the “third man” (Perceval?) who will be the permanent keeper of the grail. Bron becomes the “Rich Fisher” and journeys with the grail to Britain, while Joseph returns to Arimathea. In Robert de Boron's Merlin, the magician constructs the Round Table in imitation of the Grail table and adds the Siege Perilous which awaits the truest knight who will find the grail. Later Merlin helps Perceval on his grail adventures, and after Perceval becomes Grail King Merlin retires to the woods to dictate the grail story to the priest, Blaise. Whether Robert de Boron actually wrote Perceval is not known but the prose version based on these romances (usually called the Roman du Graal) established the fashion for a new format which traced the history of the grail from its origins in the biblical story of Christ's passion to its achievement by one of the knights. In effect this became a grail cycle which focused on the knights who undertook the quest for the grail rather than the courtly knights who accomplished adventures for the love of a lady and the honour of the king.
The Didot Perceval (c. 1220) is a prose romance based on Robert de Boron's lost Perceval and the Second Continuation. Here, Perceval is the son of Alain le Gros (evidence of the Joseph of Arimathea tradition). After he sits in the forbidden seat at the Round Table, the stone splits, the grail appears, and a voice announces the quest to restore order and lift the enchantments. The context is Arthur's court and the grail is absorbed into the Arthurian saga in which all the knights undertake the quest. Perceval's adventures include the loss of a stag and hound (from the Second Continuation), the fight with the knight of the tomb, the children in the tree, the hermit uncle and the Fisher King (from Chrétien), and an encounter with Merlin (from Robert de Boron). Perceval asks the grail questions which cure the Fisher King, repairs the stone, reveals the secret of the grail (not to the reader of course), and remains as ruler of Grail castle. Then the tale continues with Arthur as its focus.
An anonymous French prose romance, the Perlesvaus was written c. 1212-1220 for another crusader patron, Jean de Nesle. It uses elements from Chrétien and Robert de Boron. As well as the material relating to Perceval, Gawain sees the grail and lance but fails to ask the required question, and Lancelot too has a grail adventure. Perceval avenges his mother and frees the Grail Castle from the king of Castle Mortal. The romance has strong religious overtones with references to “New Law versus Old Law” and a number of violent adventures. In the thirteenth century this romance was adapted into middle Welsh as Y Saint Graal and about the same time grail-romance material became attached to the outlaw-knight figure Foulk fitz Warin.
Chrétien's story begins with Perceval living in the forest with his mother who is determined to keep him from the life of knightly adventure which killed her husband and her other sons. This incident is expanded in two “prologues,” which are really independent romances that tell the adventures which lead up to Perceval's upbringing in the woods. Both prologues were written in the early thirteenth century. One, the Bliocadron Prologue, recounts the adventures of Bliocadron, Perceval's father, who is the last of twelve brothers killed in a tournament. The Elucidation Prologue tells the story of twelve well maidens who serve travellers. When they are raped and their golden cups stolen, the court of the Fisher King is lost, but Gawain and Perceval restore it. Castle Orguellos, another adventure which underlines the importance of the grail castle by reflecting it in reverse form, is set up and subdued by Arthur after a siege.
The German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach composed Parzival (c. 1200-1210) for his patron who was a crusader. Parzival is based on Chrétien, The First Continuation and the Bliocadron Prologue, but with much else. Wolfram prefaces his tale with the story of Kyot, the mythical Provençal poet who is his supposed source. He adds the story of Perceval's father and gives Perceval a pagan, piebald half-brother. Perceval is related to the Arthurian line through his father and to the grail family through his mother. The grail is a stone, the lapsis exillis. There are many eastern elements and a mystical tone. The grail family and a company of guardians guard the object. Wolfram calls them “templars” but there are women as well as men.
The thirteenth-century Welsh romance, Peredur, differs from the other romances in many ways. Its theme is vengeance for the death of a kinsman, not a grail quest. Peredur sojourns with his mistress, the Empress of Constantinople, for fourteen years. When he returns to Arthur's court, the loathly damsel berates him for failing to ask questions. He sees a head on a platter swimming in blood as part of a procession at a castle. Later he learns that it is the head of a cousin murdered by witches. These witches teach Peredur the craft of war, and subsequently he kills them.
Another romance with unusual features is Diu Crone written c. 1220 by Heinrich von dem Türlin. Here, Gawain wins the grail which is a reliquary with bread inside. Lancelot and another knight fall asleep, while Gawain sees the grail procession which includes both spear and grail.
The Vulgate Cycle, sometimes called “The Lancelot Grail,” is a long cycle composed between c. 1215-1235 by different hands. Scholars suggest that the Cistercians were the principle authors and that they combined many elements in the earlier romances and further allegorised the story adding the figure of Galahad who follows the grail back to heaven and Sir Bors who returns to Arthur's court to tell the tale. The Vulgate Cycle is divided into five separate romances, given here in chronological order according to the development of the story, not in order of composition. Estoire del Saint Graal in which Joseph of Arimathea's son, Josephe, is Grail keeper followed by Alain, the first Fisher King, who places the grail in Corbennic Castle and waits for the Grail knight. In the Estoire de Merlin, Merlin dictates the grail story to Blaise and tells Arthur about Seige Perilous and Galahad. The Prose Lancelot contains the story of Galahad's birth, and the appearance of Sir Bors who joins Perceval, Gawain and Lancelot on the grail quest. The knights of the Round Table have a vision of the grail at which a voice announces the quest in Queste del Saint Graal. The grail here is the dish from which Jesus ate the Passover lamb. Lancelot's vision of the Grail is hindered because of his adultery with Guenevere and this reflects the emphasis on the corrupt nature of secular chivalry which is the underlying theme of the Vulgate Cycle. Gawain, Perceval and Bors sail to the Grail Castle in a mysterious ship. Galahad achieves the vision of Holy Grail and the two other knights return to Sarras (the grail castle on earth). Perceval becomes the grail king in this world and Bors returns to Camelot. The final romance, Le Mort le Roi Artu, links the success of the grail quest to the unravelling of the Arthurian world.
Two further romances should be mentioned. Henry Lovelich's The History of the Holy Grail c. 1450 is a translation from the French Vulgate Cycle, but adds the burial of Joseph at Glastonbury and stresses Merlin's role as prophet of the Holy Grail. The best known of these treatments is Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur written c. 1470 and published by Caxton in 1485. Malory uses the Vulgate Cycle for the adventures of the “Sangreal.” He emphasises the role of Lancelot, and eventually the Grail is returned to the Holy Land.
PATTERNS AND THEMES
In many romances, the grail episode is only one among a number of adventures, and not always the obvious point of the story. The pattern in these complex texts is one of expansion and development. The writers were sometimes aware of other romances on the subject and often indicate their dependence on Chrétien or other sources. However, in assessing sources one needs to take into account medieval conventions in romance writing. References to strange sources and hidden books were used to give intensity to the act of composition, and writers did not necessarily intend an audience to take these literally. Although a grail and a procession lie at the centre of these stories, even these are not portrayed consistently. The grail can be a jewelled dish (Chrétien), a head floating in blood on a salver (Peredur), a stone (Wolfram), or a ciborium containing bread (Diu Crone). The grail procession includes a bleeding lance (Chrétien, Wolfram, de Boron), which is sometimes carried by a member of the procession but at other times in a lance-rest from which blood flows freely and is piped away (First Continuation). Often, the knight observing the procession is shown a broken or flawed sword, and an integral part of the task is to mend this weapon (First, Second, Third Continuations). In other versions (e.g. Second Continuation), a lady gives the knight a stag's head and hunting dog, which he subsequently loses and must restore before the main task can even be attempted. There is also an earthly counterpart to the grail castle, the Castle Orgellous or Castle of the Maidens (Elucidation Prologue), dominated by women who seem to represent the worldly aspect of chivalry. This adventure also needs to be completed before the return to the grail castle. Frequently Gawain, the embodiment of earthly chivalry, achieves this, while Perceval completes the grail task (Third Continuation). In some romances the knight plays chess with a self-moving magic chess board (Second Continuation). In another variation a corpse, together with a bleeding lance or broken sword, is laid out in a chapel or castle. In Perlesvaus it actually occurs as part of the grail procession. Once the Last Supper material was introduced early in the thirteenth century (Robert de Boron), the contrast between worldly chivalry and chivalry of a higher kind became sharper. The grail quest began to supersede the other quests in Arthurian literature and a new knight, Galahad (Vulgate Cycle), was introduced as the perfect grail knight. The figure of Merlin also became linked to the grail quest (de Boron, Estoire de Merlin, Lovelich, Malory).
Five Arthurian knights achieve a vision of the grail. Subsequent scholarship calls them “the Grail Knights,” but this term is not found in the romances themselves. Perceval and Gawain are often paired; the latter as representatives of worldly chivalry. Gawain has a weakness for ladies and eventually wins a wife at the Castle of the Maidens. Some romances designate Perceval as the expected grail keeper whose adventures test and prepare him for his destiny and specify his relation to characters associated with the object and its castle (Chrétien, The Continuations, Perlesvaus, Parzival, Peredur). The other grail knights are Bors, Lancelot and Galahad. Lancelot is denied a full vision of the Grail because of his liaison with Guenevere, and it is his son, Galahad (Vulgate Cycle), who sits in the Siege Perilous, draws a mysterious sword from a stone, is transformed by the vision of the grail, and disappears from Sarras the earthly home of the grail. Bors sees the grail, and in the later versions (Vulgate Cycle) it is he who returns to Arthur's court to report on the events in Sarras.
It is worth pointing out, that the grail quest is always accomplished in medieval romances. During the tale the object may be withdrawn when its keepers prove unworthy or the knights are not yet ready, but eventually the destined knight finds it. This contrasts sharply with modern use of the term “holy grail” which implies something desired and sought, but never found. After he sees the grail, Perceval becomes ruler of the grail kingdom, while Galahad follows it into another realm. Malory incorporates the grail quest into his Morte d'Arthur where it supersedes the earthly quests of the Round Table fellowship and provides the catalyst for the ultimate failure of Arthur's kingdom. In Malory's source, the Vulgate Cycle, Lancelot's adultery with Guenevere causes the failure of the grail quest. Malory is more sympathetic to Lancelot, and the idea that immorality was at the root of the Camelot's fall is not prominent until Tennyson's revival and re-interpretation of the grail material in the nineteenth century.
ORIGIN AND MEANING
Earlier scholarly interest in this material was devoted to considering whether these episodes constituted a single narrative, and if so, what was its original meaning and purpose. On the whole, opinion favoured a myth about an otherworld talisman which medieval romance authors never fully understood yet attempted to explain. In other words, commentators assumed an original unity which became diversified subsequently by a process of corruption during transmission. However, if the texts are read in the sequence in which they were written, the grail material becomes more, not less, consistent over time. This suggests other possibilities, namely that romance writers adapted these diverse motifs into narratives whose meanings varied according to artistic purpose, and that, while the sources may be mythic, they do not have to feature in later contexts.
The grail itself is associated with sustenance, in particular the health of a wounded king. It appears at the beginning of some tales as a mysterious vision in the midst of Arthur's court and then it becomes the explicit object of the quest (Vulgate Cycle), and occasionally, and without the aid of human hands, it provides food and drink at a banquet in the Grail Castle (Gawain in First Continuation). Its major function, however, is to sustain the wounded king or kings in the mysterious castle. Robert de Boron makes it clear that the Eucharist is the sustaining food, linking the grail through Joseph of Arimathea to the Last Supper story. Chrétien de Troyes mentions “un graal” only as a jewelled dish with no aura of holiness, but even Chrétien hints that the Fisher King is sustained by sacred food. As well as the grail, the procession in Chrétien's romance includes a lance, a carved salver, several candelabra, and a sword which is shown to the hero beforehand. The table on which Perceval dines with the Fisher King is of ivory and ebony, two substances considered indestructible, and the whole passage is redolent of the kind of evocative but unspecified significance which was the stock-in-trade of medieval romances. Later a hermit describes the grail to Perceval saying that it brought food, but not a fish, to the Fisher King. This implies that “un graal” was a kind of gradulus, a large flat dish used to bring food to the table. The most likely derivation of the word grail is from Latin gradulus, but even if this derivation is correct, the object varies within romance tradition. Sometimes there are two dishes (Perlesvaus), a knight on a bier (Continuations), a head in a dish (Peredur), a stone (Wolfram), or a ciborium/reliquary (Diu Crone).
The Fisher King's food is mysterious in the early romances, and this may have prompted Robert de Boron to introduce the idea that the grail was the cup used at the Last Supper and the lance was the Lance of Longinus which pierced Christ's side and drew the last of his blood. In some romances, the sword seems to become identified with the sword which beheaded John the Baptist (Vulgate Cycle, Diu Crone). A number of factors which do not involve complex conspiracies to hide heretical secrets might have influenced this increasingly religious interpretation. One such development, for example, was the rise of popular piety movements and the increasing popularity of the Eucharist service among the laity (Gillett 1935, 95-110). Another might be that, since the Crusades had been going badly for the Europeans, there might have been increased interest in this kind of material (several of the romance writers' patrons were themselves crusaders). Again, the alleged discovery of Arthurian antiquities at Glastonbury, which occurred in 1191, might have increased interest in relics associated with biblical events located in the Holy Land. It is interesting that, although a number of relics purporting to be associated with the story of Christ's Passion (the True Cross, the Lance of Longinus, Veronica's Veil, the Holy Shroud) were brought into Europe at this period, there are no objects which claimed to be the Holy Grail. Such “grails” as exist are post-medieval. Whatever the source, Robert de Boron's verse romance written about 1210, placed the grail story on a new and fruitful track. Joseph of Arimathea and the Glastonbury connection (the latter is not clearly mentioned by de Boron) have proved just as durable as the grail, and indeed the two meld at many points (Treharne 1967, chap 2; Lewis 1955, 13-24). Labyrinthine arguments about Templars and eastern mysteries are part of the modern grail interpretation, but it is well to note that the Albigensian Crusade took place at the beginning of the thirteenth century (Sumption 1999, 77-88) and the Templars were suppressed in 1307 (Seward 1974, 197-213) by which time the grail narratives were already well established. …
In 1888 Alfred Nutt published The Holy Grail with Especial Reference to its Celtic Origin under the aegis of the Folklore Society. This seminal work examined material in Irish, Welsh and Scots Gaelic relating to Otherworld vessels which had magic properties. These, together with vengeance tales and stories of heroes seeking supernatural objects and/or Otherworld women, were put forward as the ultimate source for the grail story. Nutt was not the first scholar to explore Celtic food-producing vessels as a source for this material. The earliest suggestion came from a neo-druid writer, Nash Williams, who noted the similarity between the grail and an object included among the Arthurian regalia in traditional Welsh lists. The relationship between the grail story and Celtic tradition was placed in a folklore context by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1878 (Baring-Gould 1976, 16-22). Ten years later Alfred Nutt published his study of the grail legend detailing the argument for a Celtic origin. He compared material in medieval romances with analogous motifs in medieval Irish and Welsh texts and with modern folklore material (Nutt 1888). Both in this work and in his subsequent writing on the subject, Nutt drew on and acknowledged a number of sources. Among them were newly edited texts from noted Irish scholars like Kuno Meyer, a substantial amount of recently collected folk narrative from collectors such as Douglas Hyde, Campbell of Islay and Paul Sébillot (Nutt 1889a; 1891; 1899; 1902a) and the Mabinogion tales from Charlotte Guest's translation which he re-published with his own commentary (Nutt 1902b).
All this fitted neatly into the theory that Celtic tradition had survived since pagan times and that Christianity had provided a force for preserving that tradition while introducing significant transformations and adaptations. Initially Nutt accepted J. G. Frazer's theories about a myth concerning the death and rebirth of a vegetation god, and Nutt felt that such a myth was central to Celtic mythology. Although he did not pursue this notion, it became essential to the grail theories of a scholar whom he encouraged to edit and publish Arthurian romance, namely Jessie Weston (Weston 1894; 1897; 1904; 1906-9; 1920). For Nutt, the real meaning of the grail lay in the original Celtic myths, while the romances preserved this meaning to a lesser degree. The noted French scholar Gaston Paris came to much the same conclusion quite independently, but Nutt used the then-current theories of folklore to substantiate his theory. For him, as for so many of his contemporaries, human intellect, while progressive, never left the past entirely behind but always retained “distinct marks of the ruder simpler stage out of which [it] emerged” (Nutt 1889b, 88). The Celts seemed the ideal embodiment of this. Their lively “pagan” imagination was fashionable thanks to such writers as Matthew Arnold, and was about to become more so in the next decade under the spur of W. B. Yeats's romantic ideas about Celtic culture (Yeats 1959). In addition, the prevailing view about the contact between the Celts and Christianity provided a mechanism for the transformation (and inevitable distortion) of myth. Thus the, often quite dramatic, inconsistencies between early Celtic tradition and themes in the medieval romances which incorporate grail material could be accounted for by the distorting effects of oral transmission and the adaptation of pagan myths to the context of Christian doctrine.
Nutt's folklore analysis of the grail has had an enormous influence. One hundred and twenty years later the idea that the original meaning of these romances lies in the distant past outside the romances themselves is still a basic assumption among popular writers. Through the work of R. S. Loomis it continued to be a major concern among medievalists into the 1960s when Loomis's linguistic assumptions began to be questioned; even now there is still a trickle of books which see medieval literature as a distortion of mythic material. In a volume for his “Mythology and Folklore” series produced for the general public, Nutt called the grail romances “the happy hunting ground of mystical enthusiasts” (Nutt 1902a, iv); his own rigorous studies were an attempt to redress this.
More than a hundred years later, even if attitudes to sources and subject have changed, many of his perceptions are still worth considering and any serious study of the grail material must begin with his scholarship. Although he himself never learned any Celtic languages, translations were supplied by noted specialists such as Kuno Meyer, Julius Pokorny, John Rhys and Eleanor Hull, while Jessie Weston provided continental material from medieval French, German and Dutch romances. A number of interesting studies followed his lead: Dorothy Kempe's The Legend of the Grail (1905); A. C. L. Brown's The Origin of the Grail Legend (1943); Helaine Newstead's Bran the Blessed (1939); and, most influential of all, the work of R. S. Loomis ( 1935; 1949; 1956; 1959; 1963). Julius Pokorny's study Der Graal in Irland und die mythischen Grundlage de Graalsage (Pokorny 1918) is interesting, both because of the early date and because it represents the Celtic theory in a German language work (not perhaps very surprising, considering that Pokorny was a Celtic language specialist).
Later Lewis Spence was to combine the idea of Celtic origin with a suggestion in Nutt's early work. This set a mythic food-producing vessel at the centre of a Celtic agricultural myth (of the type Frazer had created). Spence's interest in shamanism and ancestor cults led him back to the neo-druidic speculations of the eighteenth century (which Nutt had rejected), especially speculations on druidism as proto-Christianity. The result is a Celtic Christian mystery religion which centres on the grail as a mystic experience (Spence 1995). In addition Spence distinguished between the benevolent occult arts and black magic. His attitude to Germanic tradition during the war was coloured by this, and he certainly contributed to the idea of a black magic conspiracy at the heart of the Nazi hierarchy (Spence 1944). In his defence Spence's ideas, particularly when he called for the revival of Celtic religion as a bulwark against the corruption of modern world, have more to do with Nietzsche than the excesses of Celtic romanticism, and there is no evidence of his involvement with the Order of the Golden Dawn or any other occult body. He created a Celtic religion out of a magpie collection of Scottish folklore, snippets of Celtic texts (always in translation), fragments of Alfred Nutt's theories, hints of George Freidrich Neitzche and oddments of Native American lore. The proposed link between the grail episode and early Celtic myth was not the only suggestion put forward to explain the grail.
EARLY GRAIL SCHOLARSHIP: ALTERNATIVE ORIGIN THEORIES
In the 1890s, about the time that Nutt was taking a serious look at the Celtic ramifications, others began to look at the grail as a symbolic experience. Rudolf Steiner was among the first to suggest that the Grail Quest was actually a personal initiation experience coded into a narrative (Steiner 1963). Rudolf Steiner's intuitions about the grail as a symbol were taken up by W. J. Stein who put forward the idea that “grail experiences” began to be important in Charlemagne's court in the eighth and ninth centuries and then again in the twelfth. He identified the grail guardians with Charlemagne's “heirs.” Stein suggested that the grail material, especially in Wolfram's romance could be interpreted as real, although hidden, history (Stein 1988). Jessie Weston's eccentric work on the “mystery rituals” allegedly behind these romances is an excellent example of the neo-Fraserian approach. Weston saw in the romances the sexual initiation of the knights which was a survival of ancient mystery religions which had to be disguised to escape the notice of Christianity (Grayson 1992).
THE MEANING OF THE GRAIL IN POPULAR THEORY
Spence's strongest influence seems to be on modern Celticism, particularly the idea of Celtic Christianity and its relation to the grail. Writers like John Matthews clearly owe a great deal to his work (Matthews 1997). The theme of quest as initiation into some kind of mystery has also proved very fruitful. British occult interpretations like those of A. E. Waite, G. R. S. Mead and Jessie Weston proliferated (Wood 1998, 15-24; 1999, 3-12). The idea of quest as personal initiation, too, figures prominently in the new Celticism (Matthews 1997); and Steiner's interpretation has proved very fruitful. Rudolf Steiner himself has been suggested as the embodiment of the grail as part of an elaborate conspiracy theory linked to the theft of a relic alleged to be the Lance of Longinus from the Habsburg treasury in Vienna and involving occultism at the heart of the Nazi hierarchy (Ravenscroft 1973).
A link between the grail and the Crusades has also been seen as significant. Eastern Christian rites in which a lance-like knife is used to cut the bread at the Eucharist service have been put forward as a possible source for the grail (Holmes and Klenke 1959), although the grail procession as a whole bears little resemblance to these rites. As early as 1909 a more general eastern context was suggested and an origin in Persian tradition ultimately leading back to the followers of Ghenghis Khan in Iran (Jung/Franz 1998, 106-9; Iselin 1909, 7-12 and 61-75). Though Ghenghis Khan seems an unlikely Grail hero, the idea has been reworked recently by applying Dumézil's Indo-European theories to all Arthurian literature. A recent, and rather contentious, article in Folklore applied this idea to a group of Sarmatian mercenaries who settled in northern Britain in the second century. While it is difficult to accept that a small group of mercenaries would dominate a larger culture group rather than be absorbed, it is at least worth pointing out that the Roman leader of this band was a man named Lucius Artorius Castor (Wadge 1987, 204-15).
The grail episodes in romances have also been said to contain traces of alchemical and hermetic lore (Kahane 1965). Jungian analysts link the grail with alchemical and hermetic interpretations so that the Quest becomes an initiation, or “integration” in Jungian terms. The most complete and most intelligently written of these studies is that by Emma Jung, completed after her death by Marie Louise von Franz (Jung/Franz 1998). Another archetypal approach is Helen Adolf's study Visio Pacis which considers the grail theme in the medieval romances and in subsequent literature. She treats contemporary events such as the Crusades as a possible background for the grail romances (rather than a source for mysterious themes) and suggests the Templars might have been a model for the grail knight and his devotion to a higher chivalry (Adolf 1960).
Another grail theory favours the Templars over the Celts, and centres on the town of Rennes-le-Chateau in southern France. The ideas, which were published in the 1970s, have spawned an entire industry (Baigent et al 1984). Here, alleged links between the Holy Grail, the Templars and the Cathars go back to gnosticism, and the medieval legend concerning Christ and Mary Magdalene is added for good measure. The claim that there is a continuous dualist alternative which challenges the prevailing orthodox Christian view is a study in itself (Wood 1998, 15-24). The suggestion here is that the “grail” is a person rather than a thing, a lost royal heir. The idea owes much to Stein's ideas, presented in the 1930s, that the Grail is linked to Charlemagne and his successors. Stein's work forms the background to the assumptions made in The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail (Baigent et al. 1984) which links the Capetian king Dagobert and the Merovingians to a legend in Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend in which Christ married Mary Magdalene and had children. According to this theory, the descendants of Christ are the heirs of Dagobert, one of whom was interviewed for the book. The assumptions underlying this study have been questioned in a recent BBC documentary, but they illustrate two essential features of much of this writing. These are, detective story analysis in which similarities are taken as proof of influence and connection, and an increasing tendency to refer to other popular works on the subject rather than to original source material. The Holy Blood theory has blossomed in recent years. Claims about occult geometrical patterns in certain classical paintings have been applied to the landscape around Rennes-le-Chateau (Fanthorpe 1991) to “locate” the tomb of Christ and to link the Roslyn Chapel “grail” in Scotland with buildings constructed by “Templars” in Nova Scotia (Sinclair 1992). The pattern of an explicit or an implicit group of guardians, a theme introduced in Wolfram's Parzival, now links Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and perhaps most intriguingly (or bizarrely) Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum which was written as a satire on this very theory (Fanthorpe 1991).
In most of these romances the grail is a cup used at the Last Supper and there are several actual vessels that claim to be the Holy Grail. The earliest is an “emerald” vessel, the sacro cratino associated with Genoa. A sixteenth-century chronicle calls it “Saint Grail” and associates it with Christ or with King Arthur, which suggests this refers to the romances themselves rather than their sources (Jung/Franz 1998, 164). The sacro cratino was allegedly taken back to France by Napoleon and found to be green glass. Napoleon functions as a generic villain in many of these stories (his theft of the Templar records, for example) in providing a good excuse why something has gone missing. Two objects called confusingly the “Antioch Cup” and the “Cup of Antioch” were suggested as candidates for the grail in the 1930s. The former is a magnificent silver eucharist cup (now dated several centuries later) which is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The other is a glass krater, probably near-eastern glass, brought back from the crusades and fitted with a leather case to protect it some time during the Middle Ages (Cackett 1935, 7 and 23-7). There is supposedly a “grail” in Russia, and there is certainly a stone chalice in Valencia cathedral.
The beginning of this century was a peak period for grail objects. The mystic Tudor de la Pole who was much involved in transforming Glastonbury into a centre for Arthurian/Grail/Christian activity had an experience which led him to “discover” a blue glass bowl which he believed to be the grail and to expect a “third chosen one” as grail guardian. The object is still at the Chalice Gardens in Glastonbury (Villiers 1968, 26-9; Lehmann 1979, 13-24). The Powells of Nanteos, outside Aberystwyth, possessed a healing cup, recently identified as a fourteenth-century mazer bowl. The Powell family owned the site of Strata Florida Abbey and in 1905 this cup, which had been used locally since the 1880s as a healing object, suddenly acquired the title “Holy Grail.”2 Another candidate is a Roman alabaster cup in the possession of the Vernon family of Hawkstone manor. The alleged trail leads back through a medieval Welsh poem included in the story of Fulk le fitz Warin, a romance entitled “La Folie de Perceval” in B.N. Ms. 12577 (a compendium of French grail romance material) and a reference in the fifth-century by a Greek historian to the grail being taken to Britain for safety (Phillips 1995). Alas, there is no Welsh poem in the Anglo-Norman romance which tells the story of the outlaw knight, Fulk. There is no such romance as “La Folie de Perceval” in this particular French manuscript, nor is there a reference to the grail in the writings of the fifth-century Greek historian, Olympiadorus. But this work, like so many others is full of mysteries, codes and exciting “discoveries” overlooked by establishment historians and academics.
This lecture posed two initial questions—whether a series of repeated motifs necessarily implies a common tale and a prior source, and whether the “grail problem” is an artefact of the methodology of grail criticism.
It has been suggested recently that early medieval Irish culture had an awareness of ancient heritage and to some extent of the transition between oral and written (Nagy 1997). Whether the writers of medieval romance working in the context of Norman culture had the same perception we do not know. Some of them refer to earlier sources, such as Wolfram von Eschenbach's Kyot or the book given to Chrétien by his patron. These sources are likely to be literary conceits which need to be seen in the more general context in which writing was validated by an appeal to authority rather than by claims of uniqueness. Nevertheless, this certainly suggests that writers of romance recognised this material as an inheritance of some kind. Many of the motifs do resonate with earlier material such as Celtic food-producing vessels, although it is difficult to determine which, if any, myths concerned this material in earlier Celtic cultures; certainly to see the material as the survival of an important cult ritual goes beyond the evidence. The structure of the romances is broadly similar to the structure of Märchen in that both focus on the actions of a character who undergoes a series of adventures leading to an ultimate achievement. Here, traditional material has no doubt had an impact on a literary form, but one must caution against interpreting the formal logical structure shared by both folktale and romance as a secret code. The romances themselves show too much variation to be reduced to a single set of events and any attempt to reconstruct a coherent narrative at an earlier stage involves too many of the survivalist fallacies which folklore methodology has, quite sensibly, rejected.
The answer to the second question depends on the definition of “grail problem.” The methodology used in many popular works is an eccentric application of ideas which were once current in academic circles, but the process itself is interesting from a folklore point of view as a way of reclaiming the past. Secret codes link the past with future hopes. They imply that aspects of the present which are disturbing can be overcome by reinstating a past Utopia. Such theories are now worked out in the arena of mass media, in publishing, newspaper and television. They manifest the characteristics of a real living tradition in their ability to attract material and to keep re-forming it in ever more intricate variations.
The focus of this article is to examine the stream of popular grail material rather than academic grail scholarship as such. This is covered in medieval and specialist Arthurian bibliographies. There are, however, a number of useful general sources which survey the material without arguing for any particular theory. For example, there are: a number of relevant articles and bibliographical references in Norris J. Lacey's The New Arthurian Encyclopaedia (1986); excerpts and commentary in King Arthur in Legend and History, edited by Richard White (1997); Richard Cavendish's King Arthur and the Grail (1978, 125-83 and 209-11) is still a balanced survey and introduction to the material; as are Charles Williams's and C. S. Lewis's study Arthurian Torso (1948). Arthurian web sites focus on the concerns of the popular grail genre, although they change too often to be listed.
The Nanteos Cup and other “holy grail” objects are the subject of an extended chapter in Nanteos edited by Gerald Morgan, forthcoming in spring 2000. Also see Evans 1937.
Representative Editions and Translations of the Grail Romances
Perceval/Le conte du graal
Arthurian Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Translated by William W. Kibler. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.
Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Translated by N. Bryant. In Arthurian Studies, no. 5, ed. D. S. Brewer. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982. Contains: The First Perceval Continuation, The Second Perceval Continuation; Gerbert De Montreuil, Perceval Continuation [the third continuation]; Manessier, Perceval Continuation
Robert de Boron
Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Graal. Edited by William Nitze. Paris: Champion, 1927.
The Didot Perceval. Edited by William Roach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1941 (this edition was translated by D. Skeeles and published by University of Washington Press in 1966).
The Elucidation: A Prologue to the Conte del Graal. Edited by A. Thompson. New York: Publications of the Institute of French Studies, 1931.
Perlesvaus: or The High Book of the Grail. Translated by N. Bryant. Ipswich: Brewer, 1978.
“Peredur.” In Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. London: Dent, 1949; revised ed. 1989.
Parzival. Translated by A. T. Hatto. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.
The Vulgate Cycle
The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances. Edited by H. O. Sommer. 8 vols. Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1909-16; reprint New York: Carnegie Institution, 1979.
The Quest of the Holy Grail. Edited and translated by P. M. Matarasso. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
The Crown (Diu Crone) by Heinrich von dem Türlin. Translated by J. W. Thomas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
The History of the Holy Grail. Edited by F. J. Furnivall. 4 vols. London: Trübner, 1874-1905.
The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Edited by Eugène Vinaver. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.
Other References Cited
Adolf, Helen. Visio Pacis: Holy City and Grail. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1960.
Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail. London: Corgi, 1984.
Barber, Richard. King Arthur Hero and Legend. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1992.
Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Holy Grail. 1878; reprint Llanfynydd: Unicorn Press, 1976.
Brown, A. C. L. The Origin of the Grail Legend. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1943.
Cackett, S. W. Gentle. The Antioch Cup. London: Palestine and Bible Lands Exhibition, 1935.
Cavendish, Richard. King Arthur and the Grail. London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.
Currer-Briggs, Noel. The Shroud and the Grail. New York: St Martin's Press, 1987.
Evans, George Eyre. ‘Cwpan Nanteos’. Cardiganshire Antiquarian Transactions, no. 12 (1937): 29-30 and 58.
Fanthorpe, Lionel and Patricia. Rennes-Le-Chateau: Its Mysteries and Secrets. Middlesex: BelleVue Books, 1991.
Gillett, H. M. The Story of the Relics of the Passion. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1935.
Godwin, Malcolm. The Holy Grail: Its Origins, Secrets and Meaning Revealed. London: Labyrinth Books, 1994.
Goetinck, Glenys. Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1975.
Grayson, Janet. “In Quest of Jessie Weston.” In Arthurian Literature XI, ed. Richard Barber. 1-80. Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1992.
Holmes, Urban T. and Amelia Klenke. Chrétien de Troyes and the Grail. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
Hopkins, Andrea, ed. Chronicles of King Arthur. London: Collins and Brown, 1995.
Iselin, L. E. Der morgensländische Ursprung der Grallegende. Halle, 1909.
Jung, Emma and Marie-Louise von Franz. The Grail Legend. 1960. 2nd edn. Translated by Andrea Dykes. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Kahane, Henry and Renee. The Krater and the Grail. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965.
Kempe, Dorothy. The Legend of the Holy Grail. London: K. Paul, Trübner and Co, 1905.
Lacey, Norris J. The New Arthurian Encyclopaedia. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1986.
Lehmann, Rosamund. My Dear Alexias: Letters from Wellesley Tudor Pole to Rosamund Lehmann. Sudbury: Neville Spearman, 1979.
Lewis, Revd Lionel Smithett. St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury. London: James Clarke and Co., 1955.
Loomis, Roger Sherman. Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance. New York: Columbia Press 1927; revised edn 1935.
Loomis, Roger Sherman. Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien de Troyes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.
Loomis, Roger Sherman. Wales and the Arthurian Legend. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1956.
Loomis, Roger Sherman. The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1959.
Loomis, Roger Sherman, ed. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.
Map, Walter. De Nugis Curialiam: Courtiers Trifles. Edited and translated by M. R. James; revised by C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Markale, Jean. Le Graal. Paris: Retz, 1982.
Marx, Jean. La Légende Arthurienne et le Graal. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1952.
Matthews, John. The Mystic Grail: The Challenge of the Arthurian Quest. London: Thorsens, 1997.
Michell, John F. The Flying Saucer Vision: The Holy Grail Restored. London: Sidgewick and Jackson, 1967.
Nagy, Joseph Falaky. Conversing with Angels and Ancients. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997.
Newstead, Helaine. Bran the Blessed in Arthurian Romance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.
Nitze, W. A. Perceval and the Legend of the Holy Grail, 1952.
Nutt, Alfred. Studies in the Legend of the Holy Grail: With Especial Reference to the Hypothesis of its Celtic Origin. Folk-Lore Society Publications, no. 23. London: David Nutt, 1888.
Nutt, Alfred. “The Legend of the Buddha's Alms Dish and the Legend of the Holy Grail.” Archaeological Review 3 (1889): 267-71. (1889a).
Nutt, Alfred. “Recent Archaeological Research. II: Folk-Lore.” Archaeological Review 3 (1889):75-88. (1889b).
Nutt, Alfred. “Les derniers travaux allemands sur la légende du Saint Graal.” Folk-Lore 2 (1891):i-xlviii.
Nutt, Alfred. The Influence of Celtic upon Medieval Romance. Popular Studies in Mythology, Romance and Folklore, no. 1. London: David Nutt, 1899.
Nutt, Alfred. The Legends of the Holy Grail. Popular Studies in Mythology Romance and Folklore, no. 14. London: David Nutt, 1902. (1902a)
Nutt, Alfred. Notes to Lady Charlotte Guest's, The Mabinogion: Mediaeval Welsh Romances. London: David Nutt, 1902. (1902b).
Peebles, Rose Jeffries. The Legend of Longinus in Ecclesiastical Tradition and in English Literature, and Its Connection with the Holy Grail. Baltimore: Bryn Mawr College Monographs, vol. 9, 1911.
Pokorny, Julius. Der Graal in Irland und die mythischen Grundlage de Graalsage. Vienna: Anthropolog Gesellshaft, 1918.
Phillips, Graham. The Search for the Grail. London: Century, 1995.
Ravenscroft, Trevor. The Spear of Destiny. London: Sphere Books, 1973.
Seward, Desmond. The Monks of War. Paladin: St Albans, 1974.
Sinclair, Andrew. The Sword and the Grail. New York: Crown, 1992.
Spence, Lewis. Will Europe Follow Atlantis? London: Rider Press, 1944.
Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. London: Constable, 1995.
Stein, W. J. The Ninth Century and the Holy Grail. London: Temple Lodge Press, 1988.
Steiner, Rudolf. Christ and the Spiritual World and The Search for the Holy Grail. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1963.
Sumption, Jonathan. The Albigensian Crusade. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.
Tennyson, Lord Alfred. Idylls of the King (1859-91). London: Penguin, 1988.
Treharne, R. F. The Glastonbury Legends, Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail and King Arthur. London: The Cresset Press, 1967.
Villiers, Oliver G. Wellesley Tudor Pole: Appreciation and Valuation. Canterbury: Hardcastle, 1968.
Vinaver, Eugène. The Rise of Romance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941.
Wadge, Richard. “King Arthur: A British or Sarmartian Hero.” Folklore 98 (1987): 204-15.
Waite, A. E. The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail. London: Rider, 1909.
Weston, Jessie Laidley. The Legend of Sir Gawain: Studies upon its Original Scope and Significance. The Grimm Library, no. 7. London: David Nutt, 1897.
Weston, Jessie Laidley. Sir Gawain at the Grail Castle. Arthurian Romances, no. 6. London: David Nutt, 1904.
Weston, Jessie Laidley. King Arthur and his Knights: A Survey of Arthurian Romance. Popular Studies in Romance, Folklore and Mythology, no. 4. London: David Nutt, 1905.
Weston, Jessie Laidley. The Legend of Sir Perceval: Studies upon its Origin, Development, and Position in the Arthurian Cycle. The Grimm Library, nos. 17 and 19. London: David Nutt, 1906-1909.
Weston, Jessie Laidley. From Ritual to Romance. 1920; reprint Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Weston, Jessie Laidley. Obituary for Alfred Nutt (1856-1910). Folklore 21 (1910): 512-14.
Weston, Jessie Laidley, trans. Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival. 2 vols. London: David Nutt, 1894.
White, Richard, ed. King Arthur in Legend and History. London: Dent, 1997.
Williams, Charles and C. S. Lewis. Arthurian Torso. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948.
Wood, Juliette. “The Celtic Tarot and the Secret Tradition: A Study on Modern Legend Making.” Folklore 109 (1998): 15-24.
Wood, Juliette. “Folklore Studies at the Celtic Dawn: The Role of Alfred Nutt as Publisher and Scholar.” Folklore 110 (1999): 3-12.
Yeats, W. B. Irish Folk Stories and Fairytales. New York: Grosset and Dunlop, 1959.
SOURCE: Thompson, Raymond H. “The Grail in Modern Fiction: Sacred Symbol in a Secular Age.” In The Grail: A Casebook, edited by Dhira B. Mahoney, pp. 545-60. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 2000.
[In the following essay, Thompson discusses the use of the Grail motif in modern fiction, including a brief analysis of four twentieth-century novels.]
As in medieval accounts, modern treatments of the Grail legend offer two distinct ranges of possibility: it may be more or less Christian, and it may be more or less linked to Arthur's realm. At its first appearance in the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, the Grail is undoubtedly mysterious, but not particularly holy. It was left to Robert de Boron to identify it as the vessel of the Last Supper used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Christ's blood after the Crucifixion. To the voluminous medieval romances on the Grail, later scholars have added learned commentary upon its nature and origins. Modern authors, thus, may perceive it as either pagan or Christian, endowed in either case with a rich history that precedes its manifestation to the Round Table. Moreover, despite the claim in the Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal and Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur that the Grail was removed from this sinful world forever, it has returned in the pages of modern fiction more often than even King Arthur himself.1 Indeed, interest in the...
(The entire section is 6610 words.)
Abdoo, Sherlyn. “Woman as Grail in T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland.” Centennial Review 28, no. 1 (winter 1984): 48-60.
Explores the image of woman as being the very object of the Grail quest in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
Cleeve, Brian. “The World's Need.” In At the Table of the Grail: Magic and the Use of Imagination, edited by John Matthews, pp. 129-44. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
Debates the nature of the Grail, contending that the Grail serves humans only as they serve the Grail.
Cormier, Raymond J. “Rohmer's Grail Story: Anatomy of a French Flop.” Stanford French Review 5, no. 3 (winter 1981): 391-96.
Offers an account of Sax Rohmer's treatment of the Grail legend in his film Perceval and the Grail.
Fledderus, Bill. “‘The English Patient Reposed in His Bed Like a [Fisher] King’: Elements of Grail Romance in Ondaatje's The English Patient.” Studies in Canadian Literature 22, no. 1 (1997): 19-54.
Maintains that Ondaatje's novel is informed by the work of Jessie Weston in the field of romance criticism, and that there are many covert references to the Grail legend in this story that assist in developing an increased sense of aesthetic and critical judgement of this work.
(The entire section is 520 words.)