Monday, July 22, 2013

In Search of the Holy Grail

About fifteen years ago, I started writing a historical fantasy novel set in the 11th century that largely revolved around finding the Holy Grail.  It was a good, if flawed, story which I've only recently acknowledged I'm not going to get published, but one of the things I'm now dissatisfied with is my treatment of the Grail.

At the time, I was aware of three broad models of what the Grail was.  There was the idea that it was the cup of the Last Supper (or, in some alternatives, a cup that had caught the blood from Christ's wounds on the cross).  There was the idea that it was a thinly disguised version of the Celtic cauldron of rebirth.  My interpretation was essentially a mash-up of these two, with a bit more emphasis on the second.

The third model was the one put forward in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, that the Grail legend was a metaphor for the descent of the Frankish Merovingian Dynasty from Jesus (the vessel containing the blood of Christ).  According to this theory, the name Sangreal, normally translated as Holy Grail, is actually sang real - royal blood.  I didn't think much of this theory at the time, and its subsequent notoriety from its use by Dan Brown hasn't endeared it to me any more.

Brown's interpretation, in particular, depends on the assumption that this genealogy is true.  This wouldn't matter, of course, if it were just taken as a good plot for an imaginative novel, but it seems to have convinced a lot of people.

The Merovingians were a Germanic dynasty, and it was normal for such dynasties to claim descent from one or the other of their gods.  The current Queen of the United Kingdom, by virtue of being a scion of the royal house of Wessex, is allegedly a descendent of the god Woden.  This kind of creative genealogy is common — by a similar method, I can possibly claim descent from the Irish High King Fionn MacCumhail.  The Merovingian conversion to Christianity was almost wholly political, rather than being symptomatic of a spiritual awakening, so it would have made sense for them to have "discovered" they derived from their new god.

Of course, the legend could still be based on a false tradition; but I've discovered a bit more about the origin of the Grail legend since I wrote that novel.  Curiously, some of these things rarely get mentioned in any of the endless discussions of the legend.

The earliest extant version of the legend as such (and I'll come back later to that qualification) is Perceval: or the Story of the Grail by the 12th century French poet Chrétien de Troyes.  Not a great deal is known of Chrétien's life, but he appears to have enjoyed the patronage of both Countess Marie of Champagne and Count Philip of Flanders.  He was one of a generation of French poets who took the Welsh legends of King Arthur and dressed them up in an idealised form of 12th-century chivalry. 

Although probably not the first, he was undoubtedly the best of the first wave of romance-writers, treating his subjects with an effortless blend of mystery, beauty and humour.  His treatment of Lancelot pokes fun at the excesses of courtly love, even while portraying the hero venturing into the hazards of a magical land, while an episode where Gawain is targeted by a little girl who's decided he's to be "her knight" is comedy of the highest order.

Nevertheless, his most lasting legacy is the unfinished Perceval.  This relates a number of adventures of the titular knight, but the key moment comes when he arrives at the castle of the wounded Fisher King.  At dinner, he sees a strange sight:

While they were talking of this and that, out of a room came a youth holding a white lance grasped by the middle; and he passed by between the fire and those seated on the couch. And everyone present could see the white lance with its shining head; and from the tip of the lance-head oozed a drop of blood, a crimson drop that ran right down to the lad's hand...Thereupon two other youths came, holding in their hands pure gold candlesticks inlaid with black enamel. The lads carrying the candelabras were extremely handsome. At least ten candles were burning in each candelabra.

A damsel, who came with the youths and was fair and attractive and beautifully adorned, held in both hands a grail. Once she had entered with this grail that she held, so great a radiance appeared that the candles lost their brilliance just as the stars do at the rising of the sun or moon. After her came another maiden, holding a silver carving-dish. The grail, which proceeded ahead, was of pure refined gold... *

Perceval longs to know the meaning of this procession and, most of all, who was served from that grail, but is afraid the question would be impertinent and so holds his tongue.  The next morning, he finds the castle deserted and, when he leaves to search for its inhabitants, the door is locked behind him.  He subsequently learns that, if he had asked the question he'd longed to, the Fisher King would have been healed, but he's now he's now condemned both the King and his land to misery.

Perceval vows to search — not for the Grail itself, but to discover the meaning of what he saw.  Unfortunately, Chrétien died without completing the work and without revealing the answer to the riddle.

This was the first appearance of the Grail, but the story wasn't entirely original.  It may have been based on the Welsh story Peredur Son of Efrawg, one of the stories collected in the Mabinogion.  I say "may have been" because the earliest extant version of Peredur is believed to date from later, and some scholars think that the influence was the other way round.  I think it's more likely, though, that Chrétien drew on an earlier, lost version of Peredur.  In the parallel scene to that quoted above, Peredur sees a severed head being carried, and it seems to me that the absence of the best-known element of Chrétien's story makes it unlikely that the Welsh author was drawing on the French.

Nevertheless, while Peredur is a very similar story, it doesn't feature the Grail, and it's fair to assume that Chrétien originated this crucial element.  However, this wasn't the Sangreal, or the Holy Grail, or even the Grail — merely a grail.  A grail was, in fact, not a cup at all, but a serving-dish.  The word subsequently fell out of use, and it's likely that the authors who rewrote and finished Chrétien's tale (some of whom weren't French-speakers in any case) didn't know what it meant.  It's during this phase of the legend that it became a cup and was identified with the cup of the Last Supper.

This doesn't mean, of course, that Chrétien might not have intended something very similar.  Although steeped in Celtic magic, his stories were fundamentally Christian, and it's entirely possible that the procession Perceval witnessed was meant to symbolise the Eucharist.  But the Grail was only an element of that procession, although an important one.

Since the Grail wasn't originally a cup, the legend can hardly have originated, as sometimes claimed, with the alleged discovery in Jerusalem of the cup used by Christ, giving rise to a whole raft of Templar conspiracy theories.  Since it wasn't originally called the Sangreal, there's no reason to believe it symbolised the royal blood, real or imagined.  And it wasn't an object to be found or possessed, merely a context to be understood.  John Boorman's film Excalibur perhaps comes closest to the spirit of the original, though he still portrays the grail as a chalice.

The concept may have been influenced by the cauldron of rebirth — a dish is a receptacle, after all, though it's quite a stretch to get from a cauldron to a dish.  This appears in Welsh legend, but is probably related to the Dagda's Cauldron, one of the four treasures of Ireland.  The others are the Sword of Victory, the Spear of Lugh and the Stone of Destiny (said to be the Stone of Scone, until recently housed in Westminster Abbey, but now returned to Scotland).  It's worth noting that a spear also figures in the procession, and Perceval is given a magical sword by the Fisher King.  Perhaps Chrétien intended to introduce a magical stone later on.

So does any of this matter?  Well, not if all you want to do is write a good story.  All legends develop, and a storyteller has the right to draw upon whichever stage of it suits his or her tale and to give it whatever twist is convenient.  Authors from Malory to Monty Python have written wonderful versions of the Quest for the Holy Grail, and I wouldn't want them any different.  As long as they don't start claiming that it's all fact.

What I do object to is the way that endless "experts" are overpaid for creating TV documentaries about the origins of the Grail legend when they clearly haven't bothered to read the original version, or at least consider its implications.  The story Chrétien tells is at least as intriguing as, and far more entertaining than, any fiction about cups found in Jerusalem or the descendents of Christ, and it deserves pride of place in the legend's history.

And what of my novel?  I feel reluctant to perpetuate falsities that are already too widespread, even in the name of a good story.  Anyway, it would need plenty of fixing, even without that aspect.  Maybe someday I'll rewrite it, without the misleading version of the Grail legend.  Or maybe I'll write something actually based on Chrétien.  Or both.

* quoted from Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes, translated by D. D. R. Owen, published by J.M. Dent, 1987


  1. My favourite (if we put Monty Python hors concours)is TH White's version. Arthur was probably a not very glamorous Briton warleader, the pseudo-medieval versions with their Christian mysticism don't do much for me. But White's rather earthy rendering of the Arthur story, with Percival as a po-faced prat I find particularly endearing.

  2. Nyki, you're a wealth of information and I appreciate it.:)

  3. Without intending to be a grabby so-and-so, but to thank you for getting me to thinking - you inspired me to a post of my own, with, I suspect, more to come.

    An excellent summation both of inspiration and of the Grail legends and symbolism. Thank you!

  4. So many great versions of the Arthur story. I have a fondness for Mary Stewart's, but love TH White's and many others too (and of course, Monty Python is fun). I even liked the movie Excalibur. It was hokey in places, and streamlined many of the traditional elements of the story, but I thought it captured the spirit of the legend better than many Arthur movies. I know what you mean re not wanting to perpetuate misunderstandings about history and symbolism in your stories, though. There are so many things that "everyone knows" are true that just aren't

  5. Nyki, a great combination of an insightful and thought-provoking post, and a piece of Pre-Raph artwork - what's not to like! Seriously though, it's always a pleasure to read someone's reflections where they've looked into the story behind the story. I well recall the excitement when 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail' came out, but, as you say, that's only part of the story. As you're probably aware, the Arthuriad is considered part of the wider Western Mysteries. A completely different 'layer' can be reached by reading The Secret Tradition of Arthurian Legend by Gareth Knight. Recommended!

  6. E.L. Wagner, agreed - Stewart's Merlin series is my bone-deep favorite, and Excalibur is a good watch.

    I'm trying to find time to get back into Steinbeck's take on Arthur, it's been so many years and I recall enjoying that one when I was young. Does anyone remember how he treated the Grail - or did he even get to it? The work was incomplete ...

  7. Interesting info, thanks Nyki, and love the Pre-Raphaelite paintings too. :)