Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763

Among prose and poetry dedicated to the Grail, three distinct explanations for the Grail are provided: One work indicates that the Grail was the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, one proposes that it was only used by Joseph of Arimathea to gather Jesus’ blood, and the...

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Among prose and poetry dedicated to the Grail, three distinct explanations for the Grail are provided: One work indicates that the Grail was the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, one proposes that it was only used by Joseph of Arimathea to gather Jesus’ blood, and the third is a combination of the two. Furthermore, the means by which the Grail is transferred from hand to hand, ultimately to Perceval, changes from account to account. This may well be a result of the antiquity of the stories, but the fact that the subject of the Holy Grail is found in only the most recent of Arthurian texts indicates yet another addition to the Christianization of King Arthur. The first historical references to King Arthur can be dated as far back as 548; the anonymously written Quest of the Holy Grail dates only as far back as c. 1300, long after the Christianization of Britain by Augustine. By this time, the great institutions of learning, primarily Cambridge, Oxford, and the University of Paris, were well established. This allowed scholars and writers better access to libraries and to their predecessors, such as Robert de Boron. Boron’s poems were the primary sources for the anonymous poet of The Quest of the Holy Grail.

The poem displays an exaggerated and nostalgic conception of chivalry. The late Middle Ages, during which The Quest of the Holy Grail was written, saw little chivalry, few knights in armor, and even fewer heroes; thus the writers of the day looked to the past for great heroes. To these people, only Jesus himself, or a saint, could be a truly pure man. King Arthur had already been elevated to immortality over the centuries, so by logical extension his knights, among them Sir Perceval, himself added to the story by the French, became immortal heroes. According to this version, however, Perceval does not begin his quest as a holy or pure man. He deceives his way into Arthur’s favor and, were it not for his father’s purity, would have been cast into hell for taking his seat at the Round Table. It takes some time before Perceval vows to be chaste and never to kill again.

The fact that the story spends a great deal of time explaining the origin of the Holy Grail and its place in the ultimate plan of God indicates several possibilities regarding the background and intent of the author. First, it can be established that the author was Christian. By 1300, virtually all of Europe was ruled by the Roman Catholic Church, either directly or indirectly. England, however, was one of the nations most tolerant toward non-Christians. The Quest of the Holy Grail indicates that the author believed the Grail stories propagated by Robert de Boron, and although the real King Arthur would most certainly have been a pagan, he is referred to as a Christian who ruled his people by the grace of God. The concept of predestination is also reinforced throughout the story, as each character is led to his destiny by the Holy Ghost.

The Christian origin is obvious, but there is one possible pagan explanation for the Grail. Celtic folklore tells that a chalice, or grail, can be a symbol of sustenance, a vessel of life providing food, water, and even wine (which brings one closer to God). Thus it is the life-giver, and it is feminine. It is what Carl Jung called an archetypal symbol, part of the universal consciousness, understood by all persons of all cultures. Thus, although there are many possible explanations for the author’s passion for the Grail stories, the influences of the time in which this work was written seem to have had the most effect on the author, and his understanding of the Joseph of Arimathea poem by Robert de Boron indicates an educated man with a good knowledge of French. The anonymous author may have been a priest or a monk. Whether the author was a priest, monk, or scholar, there is no denying the importance of The Quest of the Holy Grail as a literary work. Like all other Arthurian romances, it provided the British with a sense of history and national pride. It could even be said that these tales were not mere stories and poems; they were propaganda disseminated by either the throne or the Church to encourage the Christianizing of Britain. After all, once Perceval had retrieved the Grail and learned its secrets, all curses and plagues that had been placed upon pagan Britain were lifted for all time.

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