5 March 2013
The Phantom Cup that Comes and Goes:
The Story of the Holy Grail
Dr Juliette Wood
In 1869, a decade after Tennyson’s immensely popular Idylls of the King had appeared, he published his poem on The Holy Grail. Perceval, Gawain, Bors, Galahad and Lancelot, undertake the grail quest as they do in medieval romance - but Tennyson’s version is not the grand adventure of Arthurian tradition. This is an elegiac tale told by an aging Perceval, who has retired to a monastery to live out his days in prayer. By contrast, the first literary appearance of the grail in a medieval French romance is a tale of a young knight with his whole life before him. Perceval accepts an invitation from a lord, and at dinner he observes a maiden carrying a jewelled object called a “graal”. Eager, brash, somewhat naïve, Perceval witnesses a procession which includes not just the grail, but a bleeding spear and a broken sword – all of which feature in adventures that transform him into a true knight worthy to see the grail.
Perceval's adventures in the medieval romance begin with the failure to ask a question ‘Whom does the Grail Serve?’, but in Tennyson’s poem Perceval’s account of the grail is given in response to a monk who asks whether the grail is no more than a “phantom of a cup that comes and goes”. This grail inhabits a world very different from that of the romance. The rhythm of the story moves backwards. Perceval has died, and the poem as narrated by a monk distances us even farther from the grail. Galahad sees a mystical vision of the ‘crimson grail within a silver beam’, but Lancelot has an almost feverish experience of remote voices, intense heat and blinding light in which the grail appears only dimly. Evan worse, for Arthur it is a “sign to maim this Order which I made”. In the romances, Perceval’s experience of the wasteland leads to an eventual achievement of the grail quest. In Tennyson what appears to be real dissolves into ‘sand and thorns’ leaving only a dispirited remnant of grail-seekers inhabiting Arthur’s court. The changes were immense and this talk hopes to throw some light on how they came about.
Chrétien de Troyes’s romance was never finished, so we will never know exactly how he would have concluded his story. Other medieval writers however, completed the grail quest. Some are known by name, some are anonymous, but they transformed Chrétien’s ideas into one of the most famous episodes in Arthurian tradition. The Grail became the very cup from which Jesus Christ drank at the Last Supper when he instituted the Eucharist, the sacrament in which ordinary bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ. In the romances, the knights who undertook the Grail quest could aspire to the supreme achievement of the chivalric code, namely physical prowess combined with the Christian ideals of spiritual love and sacrifice. Besides Perceval, the medieval romances introduced other characters, Gawain who embodied worldly chivalry and Bors, Lancelot’s cousin, the perfect companion knight. Lancelot’s love for Arthur’s queen prevented a full vision of the grail, but this was granted to his son Galahad, the ideal knight who occupied the Siege Perilous on earth and accompanied the grail on its final journey. Female characters like the loathly lady who berated Perceval, and the grail maidens, especially Elaine, Galahad’s mother who could no longer carry the grail after she seduced Lancelot , surround the grail with an aura of feminine potency and embodied the poetic ideal of fin’amors, the ennobling love of a knight for his lady. Hermits played key roles in setting the knights on the right path and revealing the religious meaning of the grail, while Merlin who crafted the Siege Perilous and protected the grail knights, especially Perceval and Galahad, added a touch of magic.
Chrétien de Troyes poem, The Story of the Grail (Le conte du graal) , written about 1180 forms the basis for subsequent medieval treatments of the theme. Medieval authors offered different explanations for the events in Chrétien’s original story and introduced new themes, so no consistent “Grail story” ever emerges. The idea that there was a coherent romance narrative about an object called the grail only emerged once scholars had access to modern editions of the romances.
When Chrétien’s Perceval enters the grail castle, home of the Fisher King, his crippled host presents him with a sword. During dinner, a procession of magnificent objects is carried through the hall. Two boys carrying candlesticks accompany a young man bearing a bleeding lance. A maiden carrying a jewelled object so bright that it dims the candles and attended by mourners follows them. Mindful of earlier advice about modest behaviour, Perceval remains mute in the presence of these wonders. The next morning he leaves a seemingly deserted castle and meets a maiden who bemoans the fact that he did not enquire about the lance or the grail. As a result, we learn, the Fisher King remains crippled and his land vulnerable until Perceval and his friend, Gawain, leave the security of Arthur’s court to pursue this adventure. Finally, on Good Friday, Perceval’s hermit uncle explains that the young knight is related to the Fisher King and to another wounded king who is miraculously sustained by a mass-wafer from the grail. Despite this, Chrétien’s grail, called un graal, is not a sacred relic or even a chalice-like cup, but a large jewelled dish used for serving food, and it does not dominate the romance plot. The sword given to Perceval before the grail procession symbolizes his development as a knight just as much as the grail, while Gawain’s quest focuses on the bleeding lance. Many incidents left unexplained in Chrétien’s unfinished romance were used by other writers who transformed the grail into the sacramental object we know today.
Four attempts, known somewhat prosaically as Continuations, developed the story. The first, completed before 1200 by an unknown author, concentrated on the adventures of Gawain. A weeping girl carries the ‘Holy Grail’ which provides food for everyone, and the bleeding lance is identified with the Lance of Longinus, the Roman centurion who pierced Christ’s side at the Crucifixion. Unfortunately Gawain falls asleep and fails to ask the required question. The Second Continuation(1200-1210) shifts the focus back to Perceval, but the stories of these two knights are only completed in the Third and Fourth Continuations (c.1210-1220; c. 1230). Here the grail has a protective covering evoking the image of a chalice covered by its paten, as it would be during a Christian Mass. The Fisher King explains that the lance belonged to Longinus, and the cup was used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect Christ’s blood at the Crucifixion. Perceval accepts his rightful inheritance as Grail King, and when he dies, the grail, lance, paten, and by implication the sword, go with him. Two thirteenth-century prologues, the Bliocadran Prologue (1200 -1210) and the Elucidation Prologue (1200-1210) provide more background about the efforts of Perceval’s mother to shield her son from the dangers of knighthood. However, a critical innovation was introduced at the beginning of the thirteenth century, by a Burgundian poet named Robert de Boron who identified the grail with the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. In this version of the grail story, Joseph of Arimathea received the cup from the Last Supper and used it to collect the blood of the dying Christ. This object sustained Joseph in prison, and later, he and his companions became the protectors of the sacred vessel. The Holy Grail is named specifically when Joseph’s brother-in-law, Hebron (Bron), catches a fish for a sacred feast. Joseph returns to Arimathea, but Bron becomes the Rich Fisher who takes the grail to Britain where his son, Alain, waits for the new grail guardian, Perceval. Merlinconstructs the Round Table in imitation of Joseph’s grail table, which in its turn commemorated the Last Supper. Eventually Perceval asks the right question, the grail king is cured and Perceval takes his place, thereby achieving the quest of the Holy Grail.
The Joseph of Arimathea material derives from an apocrypha text, the Gospel of Nicodemus. Although never incorporated into the Bible, these apocrypha provided added background for biblical accounts. There is no mention of a grail in the apocrypha, only that Joseph’s faith miraculously sustained him in prison, but in Robert de Boron interpolated the grail into biblical events where the parallels between the Last Supper and the grail meal created new links with biblical history. Robert de Boron had transformed Chrétien’s mysterious jewelled dish into ‘The Holy Grail’. This link between the fictional romance genre and religious writing, which was becoming increasingly popular with a growing lay audience, added a new dimension to the sophisticated metaphorical world of medieval literature, it has also led a number of more recent commentators into increasingly bizarre and speculative attempts to pin down de Boron’s source and find the ‘true’ meaning of the grail.
Not all medieval writers presented the grail as the Last Supper cup. In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s German romance, Parzival, composed early in the thirteenth century, the grail is a marvellous stone called lapsis exillus that provides sustenance for its guardian, the grail king Anfortas. His attendant Grail knights are called templeise (Templars), although they are not necessarily members of a particular order, especially since there are grail women as well. The king’s virgin sister carries the grail stone, which displays a message declaring that his successor must ask a question to release the king. The phrase, lapsit exillus has been explained in different ways. It may be a distortion of the Latin “lapsis ex caelis” (that which fell from heaven) or a warning against pride drawn from the medieval Alexander legend. In Heinrich von dem Turlin’s romance, The Crown (Diu Crone) (c. 1240) the grail is a reliquary containing bread and reflects the changing rituals surrounding the Eucharistic service, in this instance one in which the consecrated bread was shown to lay believers outside the context of the Mass.
Although no consistent characterization either of the knights or the grail emerges, in The Lancelot-Grail (sometimes called the Vulgate Cycle or the Prose Lancelot) whose composition spans about thirty years (c.1215-1235), the quest acquires a more spiritual purpose than the earlier courtly adventures undertaken by knights like Perceval, Gawain and Bors. The focus shifts to Lancelot and introduces a new grail knight, Galahad. A new web of relationships link the Grail knights and the Fisher kings with Castle Corbennic and the city of Sarras, the home of the grail. The grail has a more healing quality and cures the wounds of Bors and Perceval and even Lancelot’s madness. In a crucial scene in the romance, Joseph of Arimathea’s son, Josephus, celebrates a grail mass at which some of the details of earlier grail processions are resolved. Here for example, the blood from the lance runs into the grail, and the knights experience visions that include images of the Trinity, a child and the figure of the wounded Christ rising from the grail. This is in effect a symbolic vision of the theological doctrine of the Eucharist in which water and wine were miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Worldly knights like Gawain are ultimately excluded, and Lancelot, although repentant, is granted only a partial vision. Bors and Perceval experience the Eucharistic aspect of the grail, but only Galahad achieves a final vision of the Holy Grail at Sarras at which point, a mysterious hand appears and removes the grail, its covering and the lance forever. Despite the emphasis on its Christian and Eucharistic qualities, the grail is still carried by a maiden in the grail procession and retains its nourishing qualities.
There are very few clear historical references in the grail romances, but there is a tantalizingly link with the crusades. The first romance to describe the grail was written by Chrètien de Troyes for a powerful crusading lord. Philip Count of Flanders (1157-1191) had engaged in one crusading adventure in 1177 and departed again for the Holy Land in 1190 where he died a year later. In the prologue to his work, Chrètien thanks his patron for providing the source for the best tale ever told in a royal court. While this is undoubtedly a poetic conceit, it occurred at an important juncture. The First Crusade begun in 1095, recaptured Jerusalem and established a Christian Kingdom in the Holy Land in 1099. However less than a hundred years later, in 1187, Muslim forces recaptured Jerusalem. The chronicler, Roger of Hovedon says ominously that after the army of the pagans prevailed against the Christians, the pope died of grief, devastated by the loss not only of Jerusalem, but also of the most sacred relic the True Cross. Philip, as it happens was closely related to the rulers of that Kingdom.
Nor is Chretien the only poet to write for a crusader patron. Robert de Boron who endowed the grail with a distinctly Christian dimension is associated with Gautier, Lord of Montfaçon who went on Crusade in 1202 and died in the Holy Land a decade later. A thirteenth-centuryFrench prose romance, Perlesvaus or The High Book of the Grail, also boasts a crusader patron. The author of Parzival,Wolfram von Eschenbach, is associated with Hermann I of Thuringia who accompanied the Holy Roman Emperor on crusade in 1197. Wolfram’s poem, the first treatment of the Holy Grail theme in German, also features a band of grail guardians whom he calls templeisen, a reflection in this fictional context of the military orders of knights.
Sir Thomas Malory’sLe Mort Darthur is perhaps the greatest version of the Arthurian legend in English. Details about him, like those of so many other grail authors, are surprisingly elusive, but Malory’s life was played out against the background of the dynastic struggles that culminated in the War of the Roses. This adds poignancy to his tales of chivalry composed as they were just before Britain changed dramatically under the Tudors. The sections dealing with grail material include the story of Lancelot and Elaine and the conception of Galahad, and finally “The noble tale of the Sankreall which is called the holy vessel and the signification of blessed blood of Our Lord Jesu Christ, which was brought into this land by Joseph of Arimathea”. Malory distilled the whole of his extensive knowledge of Arthurian romance into Le Mort Darthur, which was completed by 1470 and published by John Caxton in 1485. This edition introduced the world of knightly deeds to a new, less courtly, audience, and Malory’s work provided the departure point for the revival of the Arthurian legend in Britain and elsewhere in the nineteenth century.
Despite the vast antiquity often attributed to the grail, its appearance in literary form occurred within a comparatively short time-frame during which it developed from a mysterious jewelled object into a sacred relic of the Eucharist which could heal both physically and spiritually. In so far as the grail had a meaning for medieval readers, it fulfilled the expectations of educated courtly and religious elites. During the sixteenth century, in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation, references to the grail began to decline. Its religious significance began to weaken and the knights became less relevant to the quest. Nevertheless, the appeal of the grail story was to prove surprisingly robust.
There are few references to the grail outside the parameters of the romance genre, which may seem odd considering the diverse forms the grail has assumed in contemporary culture. There is a sixth-century account by an Irish pilgrim who saw the cup of the Last Supper, it is not called the grail, on a visit to the Holy Land. In the twelfth-century, about the time that the grail romances were first written, William of Tyre mentioned the sacro catino, the plate that contained the Pascal lamb and became an important relic in the city of Genoa. However, the holy grail did not attract the same intense attention as other relics associated with Christ’s passion such as the True Cross, whose loss during the crusades was so devastating , or the crown of thorns, the Holy Lance, and the Holy Blood, relics that conferred immense prestige on their owners. Scholars still argue about whether it was the existence of the romance motif that hindered the development of relics of the Last Supper in the middle ages or whether the lack of such a relic allowed the motif to developed free of theological constraints. Whatever the truth, ‘grail’ relics tend to be modern objects endowed with a pseudo-medieval heritage.
A few details relevant to the grail narrative found in late medieval sources give some hint of what was to come. Henry Lovelich’s The History of the Holy Grail, a work roughly contemporary with Malory, stressed Merlin’s role as prophet of the Holy Grail and added the important detail that Joseph of Arimathea was buried at Glastonbury. John Hardyng, another contemporary of Malory, defended Arthur’s historicity against those who were beginning to question his reality. He also interprets san greal, ‘holy grail’, as sang real, ‘royal blood’. In this version Galahad finds the grail in Wales and establishes an order of Sanke Roiall in Palestine. Eventually Perceval brings Galahad’s red-cross shield back to Glastonbury.
The work of Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) writing in the seventeenth century furnishes a hint as to why interest in the grail began to revive. As an historian and a churchman in the immediate aftermath of the English Reformation, Ussher was aware of the need for a credible historical, as well as sound theological, basis for the authority of Protestant Christianity. He rooted his model of history in the idea of a bygone golden age whose purity had been corrupted. Early Christianity was such a period, whose purity was guarded by British Christians. In his attempts to expose the errors of Roman Catholicism and justify Episcopal, over papal, succession, Ussher invoked the legend of Joseph of Arimathea. In this context he included the grail, not as a relic, but as part of the true, namely Protestant, Christianity of Britain.
Since the nineteenth century interest in the origins of the medieval romances has produced excellent scholarship as our understanding of the texts, the authors, and medieval culture has developed. But popular interest in the grail is also strong and once detached from the context of medieval romance, chivalry and storytelling, contemporary concerns often outweigh historical sense. Sometimes these theories fuse loose and shifting pagans traditions to do with immortality, fertility, goddesses and wounded sacred kings, with magic vessels as sources of power. Central to this approach is the belief that pagan themes were not obliterated but transformed. The American Arthurian scholar Jessie Weston proposed just such an analysis of the grail romances as a secret mystery religion centred on a sacred king. No evidence for such a cult has ever emerged, and academically the theory never really took off, but it is still the basis for neo-Celtic and popular reconstructions. Other theories concentrate on codes and cabals in which the grail embodies a secret which will change the world or, in the words of the popular television programmes that are so fond of this ‘re-write history’. The list goes on, a tribute to the human imagination if not to an ability to stay grounded in reality.
The association of the grail with notions of uncontaminated antiquity which underpinned Ussher’s thinking in the seventeenth century is still central to many modern re-interpretations, and the belief that the grail originated in the mythological traditions of the Celts has been an especially potent force in interpreting medieval grail romances. During the nineteenth century, the Celts became an important element in an emerging British identity. At this time, the first florescence of grail scholarship connected Celtic myth with the grail quest. It is therefore noteworthy that the only description of the grail procession in a Celtic language, not translated from French, uses the Welsh word disgyl rather than ‘grail’ (Welsh graal). It occurs in the Welsh tale, Peredur vab Efrawg, part of a collection known as the Mabinogion, when Peredur, the aspiring young hero from the wilds of Wales, sees the mysterious procession which includes a bleeding lance and a head on a bloody slaver.
Peredur’s tale begins in a wild forest where he lives with his mother who hopes to protect him from the destructive world of chivalry. Inevitably he meets some knights and burns with the desire to emulate them. Like all romance heroes, Peredur embarks on a series of adventures. At the Castle of Wonders he witnesses a mysterious procession. Two young men carry a bleeding lance and all lament, but Peredur remains silent. Two maidens bring a salver with a bloody head and all lament, but again Peredur remains silent. Eventually his adventures bring him back to the Castle of Wonders, where the meaning of the mysterious procession is explained to the young hero who is now a worthy knight. The head belonged to his cousin, murdered by the witches of Caer Loyw, and the tale concludes with their death.
The bloody head in the salver and the bleeding lance in the procession at the Castle of Wonders differ from other versions of the grail; if indeed it can be considered a grail procession at all. Some critics explain the bloody head on its salver as a survival of a pagan Celtic cult of the head, and the procession in the Welsh romance has often been presented as an ancient form of the grail story. Despite the numerous and often striking depictions of heads in Celtic contexts, the pervasiveness of such a cult is not without its critics. Vengeance, rather than a grail quest, is the dominant theme of the tale. Nevertheless the link between the bloody head on its salver and the grail story is of long standing in grail criticism, and changing critical perspectives on Peredur among Welsh scholars reflects in microcosm changing perspectives on the grail itself.
When Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1895) translated the Mabinogion in the nineteenth century, she expressed the hope that these ‘venerable relics of ancient lore’ would imbue hers sons with a ‘chivalric and exalted sense of honour.’ In presenting these tales as an ancient tradition whose high moral tone could provide an example for the modern world, Guest reflected both the growing Victorian confidence in its British national heritage and a patriotic fervour towards Welsh antiquity. For her The Story of Peredur was originally a native Welsh tale that subsequently acquired the trappings of courtly love and knightly adventure from Norman culture. The belief that grail romances could be explained in terms of earlier, more primitive, narratives was to dominate grail studies in the decades after Guest’s translation.
The existence of the Peredur tale was an important element in constructing a Celtic source for the grail story, as it apparently provided the culmination for a series of linked motifs scattered throughout other Mabinogion tales. These include episodes such as the life-giving cauldron of regeneration (peir dadeni), the fatal wounding of Bendigeidfran with a spear, and the appearance of his head at two Otherworld feasts. Dyfed becomes a wasteland and Rhiannon and her son are imprisoned after touches a magic bowl. Vessels providing abundant food are among the objects sought for the wedding of a hero and the giant’s daughter, and a horrific scream every May Day causes barrenness throughout the land. A hero wins a bride and a kingdom after he defeats an armed warrior who appears when water is poured from a bowl at a magic well. Although these motifs fulfil a variety of functions in the medieval tales, theories about Celtic origin subordinate them within the grail story as late reflections of an ancient myth. This myth concerned a magic cauldron in the gift of a goddess of sovereignty who bestowed it on a hero. Abundance and fertility flowed from the successful union of the hero and the goddess; failure resulted in barrenness. For scholars convinced that the grail had a Celtic origin, the Welsh tales provided a middle stage for the transmission of an Irish Celtic myth through medieval Welsh tradition to the Breton poets who inspired the French grail romances.
It is hardly surprising that the relationship between French and Welsh versions of Perceval/Peredur romance has attracted those interested in the grail and its legends. While there is still no consensus on the exact relationship between the Welsh is tale and other medieval grail romances, the Norman settlement of Wales forged close contacts between Wales and the Continent throughout the medieval period. A Glamorgan scribe, Hywal Fychan, undertook a Welsh translation of the grail material for an important patron, Hopcyn ap Thomas, about 1400. The text combined two thirteenth-century French prose romances, La Queste del Saint Graal and Perlesvaus. The scribe identified himself as a translator (trossyawdyr), used Welsh forms for the names and adapted the romances for a Welsh audience. Consequently there is more emphasis on story-telling and less concern with concepts of courtoisie and chivalry. This seems to reflect the translator’s choice however, rather than an ancient form of the tale.
There are a handful of references to the grail in Welsh poetry. Dafydd Llwyd, a fifteenth-century poet writes of wandering as if in search of the Greal. Collections such as the Triads of the Isle of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) and The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain were an important source for Welsh bards and storytellers, and they indicate the way native and foreign, written and oral material came together in the narrative tradition of medieval Wales. An anonymous compiler of one Trioedd manuscript with a particular interest in ecclesiastical legend incorporated references to the grail legend. One triad added the phrase, Ystorya y Greal, to the knights who won the Grail, while Joseph of Arimathea replaced an earlier figure in a list of Saints. According to the Welsh Y Seint Grael, Lancelot, Bors, Galahad and Perceval were descendents of Joseph, and thus part of his kindred. Mention of Joseph points inevitably to Glastonbury where connections with the grail were being strengthened in the late medieval period. Wales did not claim the Holy Grail among its relics until much later, and when it did other legends had replaced Arthur and his knights.
The speed with which modern legends can spread across the internet has greatly enhanced the reputation of the Nanteos cup. This damaged wooden medieval bowl was owned by the Powell family who owned the Nanteos estate just outside Aberystwyth in Cardiganshire (Dyfed). Towards the end of the nineteenth century, it was exhibited at St David’s College, Lampeter at a meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Society. About that time a drawing and a description of the cup appeared in the journal, Archaeologia Cambrensis. It already had a reputation for healing, especially as a cure for post-partum bleeding. Borrowers left a pledge to be redeemed when the cup was returned. The Holy Grail legend was added only at the beginning of the twentieth century. A synthesis of common motifs linked the Nanteos cup to the Holy Grail. Allegedly the relic was smuggled out of Glastonbury by seven monks who secretly carried the precious relic to Strata Florida Abbey in Cardiganshire. Each monk passed on the cup, until the last survivor gave it into the keeping of the new owners of the abbey, the Stedman family. They were to guard it, ‘until the Church should claim its own, ’ although there is no mention of the cup in any will or inventory of Stedman or Powell possessions.Mrs Margaret Powell who presided over a declining estate after the deaths of her son, in 1918, and her husband, in 1930 was closely associated with the Nanteos grail legend. She encouraged the tradition, but was reluctant for specific claims to appear in print. Letters among the Powell family papers in The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth illustrate in detail how the Nanteos cup absorbed traditions about the Holy Grail. The longest and most colourful exchange occurred in 1938-1940 between Mrs. Powell and the Rev. Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of Glastonbury. Lewis believed passionately in the legend of St Joseph and tried to establish Glastonbury as the site of a ‘National Church’ in Britain. He seems genuinely to have believed that the Nanteos cup was the Holy Grail, and he recommended both the work of Archbishop James Ussher, a writer who was central to Lewis’s own views, and A.E. Waite’s Hidden Church of the Holy Grail to Mrs Powell.He was so horrified by the story about pilgrims biting off souvenirs that he urged her never to lend it out.
Local guidebooks also reflected growing interest in the legend. By 1934 the town guide to Aberystwyth confidently informed visitors that Nanteos ‘preserved the precious medieval relic called the Cup of Healing, the surviving portion of a wooden bowl, a large part of which has been taken by believers in its magical properties.’ Medieval pilgrimage to Strata Florida was taken as fact, and local villages with ecclesiastical names, like Ysbytty Ystwyth and Penrhydfendigaid, were transformed into hospices and way-stops for pilgrims. Another tradition became attached to a picture of Richard Wagner. George Powell, who first exhibited the Nanteos cup, hung the picture in homage to a composer he admired. However, according to legend, the composer actually visited Nanteos and was inspired to write his opera, Parsifal. Experts who examined the cup in the 1970s reached the consensus that it is a fourteenth-century example of a domestic vessel known as a mazer bowl made of wych elm, not olive wood. How exactly it came to be used for cures it not clear, but there is no credible reference to the Nanteos cup prior to the end of the nineteenth century and no mention of possible connections to the Grail until 1905.
The Holy Grail motif may reflect a revival of interest in relics and in the meaning of the Grail at the turn of the last century. In Arthur Machen’s story ‘The Great Return’, three relics, St Teilo’s Bell, a miraculous altar and the Grail return to a fictional village called Llantrisant. A sceptical journalist hears rumours about the appearance of shimmering light, and his investigation reveals a series of mysterious events; a dying girl who suddenly recovers, three mysterious ‘Fishermen’, a deaf woman cured by the sound of a saintly bell and a rose of fire out at sea which later appears as a jewelled object in the chancel of the church. Machen creates this sense of seemingly real journalistic reportage by mixing tradition and fiction. The appearance of strange lights at religious meetings was a topic much discussed in such journals as The Occult Review at the time. The Welsh saints, David, Teilo and Beuno, and their holy talismans are the ‘Fishermen’ commemorated in Machen’s fictional church of the three saints (Llantrisant), and the journalist-narrator drops hints about a ‘Healing Cup of Nant Eos and Tregaron,’ which like printed media accounts, adds an air of authenticity. Machen’s friend, the occultist A.E. Waite, visited Nanteos just before his death. Both men were deeply interested in mysticism. Machen believed that the grail originated as a religious object belonging to one of the early Celtic saints, while Waite, on the other hand, favoured a secret wisdom tradition.
Although there are comparatively few Welsh language treatments of the grail, Wales did not miss out entirely on the grail revival. Professor Thomas Parry retold the story of the Saint Grael andendowed a retelling of the legend with the authority of an important scholar in the field. Edward Tegla Davies (1880-1967), a well-known Wesleyan Methodist minister, produced a charming curiosity called Y Greal Sanctaidd. This booklet for young readers traced the history of the grail legend with the emphasis on its relevance for Wales. Tegla summarized the medieval grail texts, pointed out parallels with early ‘pagan’ Welsh literature, such as Ceridwen’s cauldron, and presented a short exposition on how modern writes, among them Alfred Lord Tennyson, used the motif in their work. The focus was on the spiritual meaning of the grail and its continued relevance to Welsh life, but the distinctiveness of Tegla’s book lies in the fact that it is aimed at a young audience.
The most widely known modern Welsh writer to use the grail in any significant way is the poet and artist, David Jones. Although born in England and not a Welsh-speaker, Jones always retained a sense of his Welsh heritage. His striking and original work abounds in complex, personal images, many of them drawn from Arthurian or Welsh sources. Jones’s experiences during the First World War, as with so many modernist poets of his generation, deeply affected his art and poetry. After his conversion to Roman Catholicism, this too provided a rich seam of images for his art. These collective experiences were voiced in poems such as In Parenthesis (1937), The Anathemata (1952) and The Sleeping Lord (1974).The elegiac tone, the sense of alienation from a cultural wellspring and the search for a way to regain this through myth are characteristics of modernist writing and bring to mind T.S. Eliot’s comparable treatment of the grail myth in The Wasteland. Jones identified closely with the Arthurian legend both as the native myth of Wales, and as the common intellectual heritage of all Britons. Mankind could only regain this heritage by returning to its beginnings, and for Jones this meant rediscovering, and more importantly re-enacting, the myth of Arthur and the grail. His war poem, In Parenthesis, described the Western Front in terms which evoked both the wasteland and the journey to the Chapel Perilous in the grail romances. Empty and threatening though it is, this wasteland, like that in the grail myth, can be transformed through the restoration of the grail king. In the complex multi-layered world of Jones’s poetic imaging the Grail hero who heals the king merges with the figure of the Maimed King and ultimately with Christ the Redeemer.
This fascination with the grail in which academic and quasi-academic approaches intertwine is important for understanding the many facets of the grail legend in Wales, but even more so perhaps for an understanding of the modern grail legend. In medieval romance the grail quest in was always accomplished. It might elude an unworthy seeker, but the destined knight succeeded. Rather than ask the question which opens the way to a vision of the Holy Grail, the modern grail seeker’s defining characteristic is to be able to distinguish between real and false grails. A link between the grail and Christianity runs through almost all interpretations of the grail in Wales. For writers like Tegla, conversion to Christianity dramatically changed the pagan worldview of the early Welsh. Writers like Arthur Machen and David Jones saw a degree of harmony between Welsh paganism and Christianity. Even modern legends like the Nanteos cup meld past and present Wales. The variety of ways in which the grail has been used to reconstruct history, in Wales and elsewhere, is exactly what keeps this legend dynamic and alive.
Primary Texts and Translations
Bliocadran: a prologue to the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes,ed. Lenora Wolfgang (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1976).
Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval the Story of the Grail, tr. Nigel Bryant (Cambridge and Totowa: Brewer, 1982).
The Continuations of the Old French Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, ed. William Roach, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949-1983).
The Elucidation: a prologue to the Conte del Graal,ed. Albert Wilder Thompson (Genève: Slatkine, 1982).
The Grail Quest,ed. and tr. P. M. Matarasso (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969).
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Eternal chalice: the Enduring Legend of the Holy Grail(London: Tauris, 2008
The Holy Grail, History and Legend(Cardiff: Universtiy of Wales Press, 2012)
© Dr Juliette Wood 2013