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King Arthur'S Raid On The Underworld : The Oldest Grail Quest
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 24 July 2010
What strikes one first about this book is the sheer quality of the presentation. The pages are thick, the different sections use different colours without being at all gaudy and there are some beautiful paintings by Meg Falconer. The text is well structured with detailed appendices, glossary (with pronunciation guide) bibliography and index, but there are no foot-notes or references within the text. The whole thing is eminently readable.

The book is subtitled "The Oldest Grail Quest" but the "Grail" in question is the cauldron from Celtic mythology. Many scholars believe that writers on the Continent who wrote down the Grail-legends in mediaeval times were borrowing ideas from this older Celtic/British material. In other words, even though the Grail as we know it has a different physical form, the basic concept was based on the magical cauldron (and horn of plenty) of Celtic myth but given a Christian twist.

The book centres on the early British poem known as "The Spoils of Annwfyn" which describes Arthur's descent into the Celtic Otherworld to recover the cauldron. The authors describe this as "a prequel of the later medieval Grail quest, making the Preiddeu Annwfyn one of the earliest stories of the search for the Holy Grail". This raises an important question namely how we can be so sure that there really is this link between the earlier Celtic stories and the later mediaeval ones penned by Chretien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and so on. This is a debated point but I believe with the authors that the link does exist.

Preiddeu Annwfyn is presented in Appendix One in its original Welsh form along side a new English translation. This English translation also appears in Chapter One, along side Meg Falconer's paintings. The poem is then given a detailed analysis in Chapter Two with more analysis and commentary on the deeper, salient themes such as the Cauldron and the Great Prisoner in Chapter 3. The Irish and Welsh mythic roots of the poem are broached in Appendix Two. This gives outlines of some of the most important sources in Celtic Myth such as the story of Culhwch and Olwen, which is the oldest extant Arthurian story in the world.

This is a truly wonderful book and now that I've read it once I want to read it again.
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