The Grail Theme in Twentieth-Century Literature Introduction

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.