Book Review: The Holy Grail – The History of a Legend

I’ve been commuting to Olympia for most of this week and with the arduous and intricate sequence of trains that I’ve been obliged to take to get there (for example I can get from Haslemere to Clapham Junction directly very early in the morning but not thereafter – and I can’t get directly from Clapham Junction to Haslemere at all) I have finally had the chance to read Richard Barber’s treatment of the Grail legend, “The Holy Grail: The History of a Legend”. Holy GrailThere is much to admire in Barber’s book, in particular Part 1 with its analysis of the “original” Grail literature and the order in which it was written. He sets the scene brilliantly with the following two paragraphs: “Where then do we begin our quest for the Holy Grail? In strictly physical terms, we will find the first evidence in the pages of a medieval manuscript, an object so unfamiliar that we need to describe it as if it were something found on an archaeological dig. All that it has in common with the modern book is its physical structure: it is made of sections bound in the same way, but everything else about it is different. Manuscripts were written by hand on parchment, the skin of sheep or calves, which had been prepared by curing it and scraping it smooth. The scribes who wrote on it used a script which is almost unreadable today except to the trained eye; the difficulty is compounded by the frequent use of abbreviations, because writing was such a laborious process that a scribe saved valuable time by using these signs. We very rarely possess the original manuscript of a medieval work, and copying by hand inevitably produces minor changes and, sometimes, major errors; so the texts we have are often at second or third hand. All this must be unravelled by patient editors if it is to appear in modern printed form. And then, if anyone except a handful of specialists is to know what the medieval author had to say, the text must be translated. The medieval books about the Grail range from the elegantly simple to poems which have moments of verbal anarchy of which James Joyce would have been proud, so a further layer of distance is added to our chances of responding directly to the author’s original intentions.

Furthermore, manuscripts were fragile objects, prone to destruction by fire or flood, or by the depredations of mice or men. Even before the end of the Middle Ages, library catalogues recorded decayed manuscripts in a script no one could read, and at the Reformation and in the French Revolution monastic libraries were destroyed wholesale. In England, John Aubrey, the seventeenth-century antiquary, lamented the loss of the manuscripts of Malmesbury Abbey, near his home: ‘in my grandfather’s days, the manuscripts flew about like butterflies’. They were used to stop the rector’s beer barrels, to cover books or to wrap the gloves which were the town’s speciality. So there is always the lurking question in any discussion of medieval literature of what has been lost. This is aggravated and complicated by the extreme respect for tradition in the Middle Ages: originality was suspect and writers therefore often claimed to be working from an earlier text which was actually a figment of their imagination, as much an invention as the tale they had to tell. Perhaps, in the end, we have not lost very much.”

Then he goes on to trace the evolution of the literary Grail histories starting with Chretien de Troyes. He quotes at length from the original texts giving the reader an excellent feel for the style of each variant of the story and he examines the arguments for and against their place in overall chronology of Grail romances.

In section 2 Barber highlights various themes that are central to the Grail legend and sees what the early Grail stories actually tell us about the topic. Thus we see what descriptions of the Grail the writers actually wrote; what connections the Holy Grail might have had with the Eucharist (or, conversely, heresy); when the idea of the Wounded Land got introduced; and what secrets the Grail might have concealed.

Section 3 then looks at how the concept of the Grail has changed over the centuries, mostly by viewing how it is portrayed in the popular culture of the day. This section takes us right into the present with critiques of, amongst many others, Graham Phillips’ “The Search for the Grail”, Umberto Eco’s masterful “Foucault’s Pendulum” and, of course, “Monthy Python and the Holy Grail.” All of this is good sensible stuff but it does need the lunatic fringe cited in the last section to keep the book from becoming over-serious and dull.

The overall tone of the book is very reserved and sane, the analysis focussing exclusively on the physical evidence as it exists and avoiding all flights of fancy and conjecture. Paradoxically, for Barber, the Holy Grail is ultimately a triumph of Chretien de Troyes’ literary imagination. Any work which declares itself to be merely fiction thus gets a positive treatment by Barber, while, for the most part, he pours scorn on anybody attempting an “historical” analysis of the Grail. Essentially he seems to believe that the idea of the Grail leaped fully formed out of de Troyes imagination and that any attempts to trace the Grail before this time is doomed. If there is any single “key” to the Grail then Barber thinks it is simply a secular myth around the sacrament of the Eucharist in Catholic mass.

Although he talks about the advocates of the belief that the Grail stories (and Arthurian literature as a whole) was inspired by earlier Celtic legends, Barber never seriously examines the legends themselves only devoting a few brief paragraphs to them. I feel that this is a major opportunity missed for if he is arguing that there was no Grail before de Troyes, surely he must closely examine the possible Grail prototypes in other cultures. Part of the problem I suspect is the lack of a written tradition within the Celtic culture for, as I’ve already mentioned, Barber’s approach (which works well for the most part) is to stick steadfastly to historical documents. However, there is much in the oral tradition of Celtic mythology that has been scrupulously documented and which is surely equally admissible as evidence. As just one example, in both Robert de Boron’s and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s versions, the Grail is linked to angels who sided with neither Lucifer nor God in the Angel’s Rebellion and their punishment for staying neutral was to be forced to descend to Earth. Barber admits that this “the strangest [element] of all” and flounders without a context to relate it to. If you refer to the tradition of Fairies, however, you will immediately find this story to describe how the fairies came into being (for example “The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries” by Evans-Wentz has many recorded variants on this theme). Of course you still need to examine whether the Celtic oral tradition pre-dated the Grail romances but surely the effort is worthwhile and there appear to be numerous other parallels (and I’m in no way a Celtic/Fairy expert) one more of which is the magical feasts in a castle which appears deserted (sometimes even ruined) when the human awakes the next morning. Lastly, I agree with Barber that the particular incarnation of the Grail appearing in the Grail romances relates directly to the Eucharist. There is a 15th Century manuscript of the “Lebar Brecc” which appears to be a compilation of much earlier material (possibly some are a translation from 10th Century Latin sources) and this contains descriptions of the Eucharist ritual in use by the Church at this time so again it would be interesting to see whether there were any parallels between the Celtic source and these stories.

I like the way he depicts the search for the Holy Grail in the later part of the book as a, well, search for the Holy Grail with the various would-be historical detectives chasing after a will o’ the wisp forever just out of reach and he rightfully highlights Umberto Eco as the postmodern Grailmeister extraordinaire. However, Michael Moorcock gets no mention for his take on the Grail in The War Hound and the World’s Pain (his Von Bek series).

He also acknowledges the Jungian theory of archetypes and even admits that he has no problem with the Grail as an archetypal image but he doesn’t pursue this line which I suppose is understandable given the amount of additional material this could produce. However, if this approach is accepted as valid, then the attempt to identify expressions of the “grail” archetype in earlier (or later) cultures (which Barber otherwise frowns upon) could throw some further light upon the specifically Eucharistic Grail images on which he exclusively concentrates.

In this vein, if Doctor Who is an embodiment of the Phoenix archetype, does this mean that Billie Piper is the Grail maiden and the TARDIS the latest expression of the Grail, a nexus of heaven and earth, appearing out of thin air to bring healing to a wounded land?

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