We Need Diverse Ya Sale

The New Republic Online
Thursday, September 30th, 2004


The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief

by Richard W Barber

Tempest in a Cup

A review by Richard Jenkyns

What is the Holy Grail? It is a dish or a cup or a stone or a reliquary or a mysterious object beyond description. It is a solid vessel, part of the regular life of its keepers, or it is a transcendent presence beheld only in a beatific vision. It is the eucharistic chalice, or a piece of magic that conjures up sumptuous viands. It held the wine at the Last Supper or it received the blood that flowed from Christ upon the cross. It is guarded by a beautiful young woman, or it may be seen only by a knight dedicated to virginity. It is a survival of pagan fertility rites, a Celtic cauldron, or an occult symbol whose secret meaning is preserved by the Freemasons, or by the Rosicrucians; an emblem of the Templars or of the Cathars, or an assertion of Catholic orthodoxy against heresy. It originates in France or Wales or Iran or Ossetia, or it is untraceably ancient, older than the earliest history. It was brought by Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury, or it was dug up in Antioch and exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair before finding a permanent home at the Cloisters in New York City. It is an awesome and sacred term, or it is a lazy, journalistic cliché (as in "'nude' tights are something of a holy grail," or -- from chalice to plastic -- "marvel at the 'Holy Grail' that is the original and indestructible Tupper Wonder Bowl").

What does the Grail signify? According to John Cowper Powys in A Glastonbury Romance, described by Richard Barber as "the most massive work of fiction centred on the Grail ever to be written," it is "the immemorial Mystery of Glastonbury":

Christians had one name for this Power, the ancient heathen inhabitants had another, and a quite different one. Everyone who came to this spot seemed to draw something from it, attracted by a magnetism too powerful for anyone to resist, but as different people approached they changed its chemistry, though not its essence.... Older than Christianity, older than the Druids, older than the gods of Norsemen or Romans, older than the gods of Neolithic men, this many-named Mystery had been handed down to subsequent generations by three psychic channels; by the channel of popular renown, by the channel of inspired poetry, and by the channel of individual experience.

But this is more mist than mystery. Cowper's answer to the question of what the Grail signifies seems to be "just about anything," and "anything" is not far from "nothing." What we need is a cool-headed guide through the Grail's long and curious history, and in Richard Barber's lucid, fair-minded, and wide-ranging book, we get it.

The book falls in effect into two halves. In the first part, Barber traces the Grail's literary history from its first appearance in the last years of the twelfth century through the explosion of Grail romances in the first part of the thirteenth century and on until the end of the Middle Ages. In the second part, he explores the revival of the Grail idea in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We first meet the Grail in Chrétien de Troyes's poem Le Conte du Graal, around 1190. Here already are many features of the story that will return in later tellings: Perceval, the future knight brought up in isolation in the forest (in later avatars Percival, Perslevaus, Parzival, Parsifal); the waste land; and the wounded king whom the hero is to cure. The appearance of the Grail itself is not described, but it is referred to as "such a holy thing."

Chrétien left the work unfinished, and this encouraged a number of other writers to carry the story onward, to produce new works around the Grail. One of these was Robert de Boron, who "sanctifies the Grail," in Barber's words, and gives it a history: in his account it was the dish used at the Last Supper, and was then employed by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood of the dying Christ; later in the story it becomes associated with Merlin, King Arthur, and the knights of the Round Table. By contrast, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the work that seems to command Barber's greatest affection, is decorative, exotic, and fantastical; in this account the Grail is a stone residing in a elegant court that magically produces delicious food and drink.

Before long, variant stories linked the Grail to Lancelot and thus to chivalry and romance, to Galahad and the quest for a kind of beatific vision, to Gawain (halfway between Lancelot and Galahad), and to King Arthur and "the matter of England." One of these romances mentioned a "valley of Avaron." This may well have meant Avallon in Burgundy, but it was soon transferred to Avalon, the area around Glastonbury. In the course of the thirteenth century, it was decided both that Joseph of Arimathea had brought the Grail to Glastonbury and that Arthur was buried there.

So where did the Grail story come from? Barber's own theory is magnificently simple: it was Chrétien de Troyes's own invention. Literary scholars claim to balance tradition and the individual talent, but the truth is that they tend to find originality uncomfortable: the fact of something being purely and entirely new seems to leave them with nothing to say, whereas if everything comes from somewhere else, they have a useful job of investigation to do. And shiny new words like "intertextuality" can give a sophisticated gloss to this déformation professionelle. So at minimum Barber's proposal is refreshing. But it also seems persuasive. He points out how many Grail romances were produced before 1240, and it certainly looks as though authors were reacting to the stimulus of an exciting new idea. He also argues that none of Chrétien's other works is spiritual or religious, and that his Grail, though a sacred object, does not seem to veil a hidden meaning, allegory, or ritual. Chrétien seems unaware of any arcane or exotic source for the Grail, and it is very unlikely that any of his successors independently dug one up. Instead we watch the Grail growing new meanings by a process of accretion, as a hulk grows barnacles.

If this is right, a heavy freight of theories about the Grail's origins, ranging from the reasonable to the insane, can now be jettisoned. Among these many theories, one is still worth recalling, because it has remained accidentally famous and because it does have some historical interest. Few people would now remember Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance, first published in 1920, had T.S. Eliot not declared it to be the largest influence on "The Waste Land." Her claim was that the Grail story was a survival of pagan fertility rites. Today this theory seems all too obviously of its period, like those epic film evocations of ancient Rome that one can date to the nearest five years or so from the hairstyles and the color of the lipstick. (Or one might think of Van Meegeren's forgeries of Vermeer, which fooled the experts at the time but now seem to us so clearly to be not only fakes but 1930s fakes.)

Weston's approach belongs with Frazer's The Golden Bough (to which she was heavily indebted) and the school of "Cambridge ritualists" who followed in Frazer's wake; it is an outgrowth of a fashion for finding in ritual, anthropology, and the primitive the key to all mythologies. In reality, Weston made two mistakes -- a historical mistake and a mistake of method. Barber points out the historical mistake: Weston put strong emphasis on the waste land, which is a minor theme in all but the very late romances. In Chrétien's story, the land is desolate not for any magical reason but simply because there is no one to defend it from marauders. His picture derives not from symbol or allegory but from the realities of feudal life.

Weston's mistake of method is exemplified in her claim that "no theory of the origin of the story can be considered really and permanently satisfactory, unless it can offer an explanation of the story as a whole ... and of the varying forms assumed by the Grail." As Barber shows, the Grail changes because literature evolves, and because good writers have a care for originality. We can watch the story putting out new growths and mutating as it passes from one poet to another. A theory that purports to explain the story as a whole and all the Grail's varying forms is almost certain to be wrong.

After the Renaissance, the medieval romances were neglected for some centuries, until a revival of interest in the Romantic age, which is the starting point for the second half of Barber's book. Antiquarianism, nationalism, medievalism, Catholic sacramentalism, and a hunger for all things Celtic were among the forces behind the Grail's revival. Cooler spirits were less impressed: Max Beerbohm, in the caption to one of his cartoons, was to imagine "the sole remark likely to have been made by Benjamin Jowett" to Dante Gabriel Rossetti when he saw his Arthurian murals in the Oxford Union: "And what were they going to do with the Grail when they found it?" Tennyson was bound to include the Grail in his Arthurian epic Idylls of the King, and Barber nicely studies the ambivalence of his response. On the one hand, he depicts it as a mystic and authentic vision of the divine, achieved through prayer and renunciation; on the other hand, Arthur himself declines to join in the quest for the Grail, because he has the practical and beneficent work of kingship to do. In this interpretation of the theme, the Catholic and Protestant sides of the Anglican church, as it were, are seen in a creative tension.

Barber must inevitably concern himself with works of the second rank in his chapters on the nineteenth century, but there is one enormous exception: the colossal achievement of Wagner's Parsifal, perhaps his greatest opera. Barber, for his part, seems rather cool about it (his heart is evidently in the Middle Ages), and perhaps that is just as well, since otherwise it might threaten to overwhelm his book. Still, his medieval researches do help to illuminate Wagner's purposes, more perhaps than he realizes. Wagner's principal source was Wolfram von Eschenbach -- this is where we find Parsifal's parents, Gamuret and Herzeleide, as well as Kundry, Amfortas, and Montsalvat; but whereas in Wolfram the Grail is a stone, Wagner has made it a cup again, and whereas Wolfram's Grail is attended by fair damsels, the guardians of Wagner's Grail are knights dedicated to chastity. In other words, the religious and sacral character of the opera is derived not so much from Wagner's main source as from his deliberate departures from it. Nietzsche, who had once idolized Wagner, turned violently against what he saw as his former hero's capitulation to Christianity, and since then a number of interpreters, and a good many recent productions of the opera, have tried to minimize its Christian element. Barber, wrongly, goes along with this. "The figure on the Cross," he says, "remains a universal symbol, not the historical figure of Christ himself," and "there is a conscious avoidance of specifically Christian reference." This is simply untrue.

In one sense it is disputable that Parsifal is a Christian work: one may feel that Wagner uses the Christian story not out of faith, from within, but as a powerfully expressive myth, one that he can shape to his own purposes, as in the Ring he used the gods of northern mythology -- and no one supposes that he literally believed in them. Kundry in particular seems to be released into a glorious, self-immolating nothingness -- more Buddhistic than Christian -- like so many of Wagner's earlier heroines: Senta, Isolde, Brünnhilde. I used to think that Parsifal was indeed Christian only "from the outside," but now I am not so sure. What is untenable, anyway, is the claim that Wagner avoids Christian reference. It is true that Christ is never named, but he is recurrently spoken of, most often as the Redeemer. We hear explicitly about the Last Supper, the transformation of bread and wine in the Eucharist, the Crucifixion, and the doctrine of the Atonement. Gurnemanz even corrects Parsifal on the theological significance of Good Friday. There is not much ambiguity about that.

Barber observes that for Wagner the Grail is "not the object of a quest," but a "symbol of the faith which motivates the knights." The first part of this antithesis is a valuable insight, but the second part is not quite right. Barber has shown us how often the Grail has been conceived as a supernatural existence, mysteriously appearing and vanishing, or beheld only in a state of exalted vision. It is significant, therefore, that Wagner makes it a solid physical object, fixed in a determinate place. His Grail is neither mystic nor symbolic; it is sacramental. Given all the different ways in which he might have represented the Grail -- so well explicated by Barber -- he chooses to make it eucharistic: the ceremony of the Grail is the site where our solid, sublunary world interacts with the transcendent.

There is a last and more subjective consideration. As Gurnemanz takes Parsifal to the Grail ceremony in the first act, he tells him about a dissolution of boundaries: "Here time becomes one with space." Perhaps the opera's conclusion invites us to another kind of dissolution of boundaries. For it ends with an act of worship, the eucharistic rite enacted, the knights kneeling in prayer, Parsifal holding the Grail aloft to bless them, and a dove and a ray of divine light descending from the dome above. Listeners (and directors, for that matter) may differ in their responses to this, but it does seem designed to attenuate the division between action and audience, and to invite us to feel ourselves as part of the congregation. The original intention was that Parsifal should be performed only at Bayreuth, where conductor and orchestra are invisible and do not interpose themselves between the audience and the stage.

Eliot alludes recurrently to Wagner in "The Waste Land" and the Grail story underlies the whole poem, but only once does he allude to Wagner's Parsifal as such, and indirectly, in a quotation from Verlaine's poem on the opera. This indirectness carries its own meaning, expressing how modern versions of the Grail myth are the result of long accretion -- interpretations of interpretations. With Parsifal and "The Waste Land," Barber confronts two of the most influential works of their respective centuries, but as his journey takes him nearer to the present day, he must sojourn much of the time among cranks, pseudo-mystics, and misty-eyed stumblers through the Celtic twilight. (It is curious that he does not mention Michael Tippett's opera The Midsummer Marriage, probably the most ambitious exploitation of the Grail story in the second half of the last century.)

It would be easy enough to make fun of much of this, but Barber wisely plays it straight, giving us an intriguing tour through some of the byways of twentieth-century literary history. He does allow himself to be entertained by the recent journalistic debasement of the term "holy grail" -- something that has sharply increased, apparently, in the last ten years -- including the two examples that I quoted near the start of this review. But it is not the only debasement that the Grail and the corona of associations around it have suffered.

If you go to Glastonbury today, you will find that this Somerset market town has been almost completely taken over by New Age fantasy. Nearly every shop seems to be selling tarot cards, books about ley lines, or mystic amulets. The air is full of happy young voices, some with American accents. In the pubs a few locals can still be found drinking stolidly, in the old style, but wreathed in the scent of their neighbors' recreational chemicals. At times the street scene prompts one to wonder if the town has been chosen as the location for a film about dropping out in the 1960s. Some people find the whole thing inspiring, others amusing, while yet others may feel a little sad at this slide into a woozy semi-spirituality. We seem some distance from the nobler parts of Barber's story, and his ringing declaration that "the Holy Grail offers us, in imagination, the possibility of perfection" and that "as a whole our journey has been set among the highest and most challenging ideas of the human spirit."

Click here to subscribeTry four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free

For nearly 90 years, the New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today, we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy the magazine — TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!

Click here to sign up.

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.