Last week, we looked at the possible Celtic origins of the Grail stories. This week, we’ll see how it came to be the story we know today.
By the time Chretien de Troyes came on the scene in the 1100s, the world was a much different place than in Celtic myth. For one, Christianity had taken over as the main religion of Britain. For another, the ideas of chivalry and courtly love were beginning to become popular. In Chretien’s tale, Perceval finds the grail (which is written with a small “g” and isn’t given miraculous powers). There is little description, only that it was brought into the room by a beautiful maiden. “When she entered holding the grail, so brilliant a light appeared that the candles lost their brightness like the stars or the moon when the sun rises” (quoted in Matthews 84). The story features a wounded king like the later Fisher King, a procession and questions that must be asked of the grail, but the whole story appears to be unfinished. Many speculate that Chretien died before completing it (a fear of every single writer who ever lived).
Many people believe Chretien’s grail to be more of a dish or plate than a cup or chalice. (Side note, when I was 11, I was lucky enough to visit Austrian relatives in Vienna. We visited the Hofburg Palace, the winter residence of the Habsburgs. In the museum, there is an agate dish said to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper. It’s also said to have been one of the inspirations for the Holy Grail.)
Three people attempted to finish what Chretien started. Gautier de Danans has both Perceval and Gawain encounter the Grail, which is now clearly associated with Jesus, and also with the spear that pierced Jesus’ side (the Spear of Destiny, which can trace its mythological origins back to the spear of the Celtic god Lugh, but that’s another story). Matthews makes the point that the Christianization of the Grail shouldn’t be surprising because many of the men who expanded on the Celtic legends were Christian monks and priests (88).
The next person to add to the story was named Menasier. He identifies the spear with the centurion Longinus (Roar, anyone?) and drawing on an earlier story called Joseph of Arimathea, associates the Grail with Joseph of Arimathea, who was said to have used it to catch the blood of Jesus while preparing his body to be placed in the tomb. Around the same time, Gerbert de Monteille changed the ending to the story, having Perceval sire a line of Grail knights, a story that would later inspire Wager’s opera Parsifal.
The Vulgate Cycle
The Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian legend is five interconnected stories that tell the entire story of King Arthur. This story is attributed to Cistercian monks in the twelfth and thirteenth century. The introduction says the author had a vision of Christ in which He gave the author a book detailing the history of the Holy Grail, beginning with the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In these stories, new elements include the Grail Castle of Corbenic, the line of Grail kings, the Maimed King and the Wasteland. The third story in the series introduces the relationship between Lancelot and Elaine, which results in the birth of Galahad, who will go on to be the new hero of the Grail Quest. By the fourth story, Galahad has his Grail procession vision and the quest as we know it begins. Lancelot, Gawain and Galahad all have adventures on the quest, and the Round Table is for the first time associated with “three great fellowships and tables” (Matthews 106), the other two being the those of the Last Supper and the Holy Grail. After many adventures, Christ appears with the Grail and gives the three knights a chance to drink from it. The last work in the cycle is primarily concerned with the story of Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. These five stories would go on to influence Malory, who would rework them into Morte D’Arthur, the story that is perhaps most recognizable to us today.
Next week, other associations with the Grail and a very strange theory involving a saint and a famous mystical work.
King Arthur and the Grail Quest by John Matthews