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A journey through the ages of grail literature
on 1 December 2004
The Holy Grail, the Cup of Christ, it's been called many names. The Grail has been the stuff of legends for centuries. Almost always associated in some way with King Arthur, the Grail has made its way through time to the modern day through stories, epic poems, and other forms of media. Where did it come from? Was there some original legend that this was all based on? Or was it all a figment of some writer's imagination that caught fire and lasted throughout the ages? Richard Barber's new book, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, sets out to answer some of these questions. Unlike some books, Barber does not try to prove the Grail is real, or where it can be found. Instead, Barber's intent is to examine the legend of the Grail, to trace its history through all of the Arthurian romances of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, all the way up to the modern day. When a book like this mentions both Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you know it's complete!
Barber begins at the beginning, probably the best place to start. The first Arthurian tale about the Grail is thought to have been written by Chretien de Troyes, a French writer probably from the town of the same name. Chretien was a writer of medieval romances, and he called this particular selection "The Story of the Grail." There is no indication that he was adapting any other story, either verbal or long-lost written, so it is widely believed that he invented the thing. Unfortunately, he did not live to finish the story, and a number of men tried to continue it. Barber examines the original in great detail, reprinting a great many passages from it. He quotes it for four pages and then says:
"I have quoted this at length, because it is the original of all subsequent descriptions of the Grail and its surroundings, and we shall see how the least detail becomes critical to our investigation." Pg 19
He does this with many of the tracts that he analyzes, from the continuations of Chretien's poem after he died, to Robert de Boron, and numerous others. Then he expertly analyzes the text to demonstrate just what part of the legend has changed or has been reused by each subsequent author. He goes into great detail about all of the variations of the Grail story that appeared in the late 12th century to around 1240. It's fascinating watching the history of the Grail, one of the most intriguing objects in literature, virtually change before your eyes as you get a different author's imagination applied to it. These first few chapters seem kind of long at first, with great blocks of text, much of it in smaller font because it's a quote. However, I quickly lost myself in these stories and Barber's dissection of them. It's very important to establish this base for when he moves on to the later centuries.
In these early tales, the Grail was variously representative of either the Eucharist or other specific rituals from the Christian mythos. Each story always contained some sort of procession of young virgins carrying the Grail through the castle of the Keeper of the Grail as Percival or Galahad looked on. There was always some kind of religious meaning to the whole story. As the Church clamped down on heretical ideas in literature and other writing, the Grail stories died off, but were quickly unearthed when things lightened up a little bit in the 16th century and beyond, during the Enlightenment. Since that time, other variations of the Grail story have been told, usually leaving out some part of it or adapting it to current political times. Barber points out that, as time has gone on, the story of the Grail has become more secularized, making commentary on either society or on current politics. He ends the book with a discussion of the Grail in modern times, where it has lost virtually all of its religious significance, instead becoming defined as the unreachable goal, such as a Unified Theory being "the holy grail of science."
Throughout the book, Barber has undoubtedly left out some stories, but it's hard to imagine how little they must have to do with the Grail to deserve being left out. His research is very thorough and his commentary on each piece is fascinating to read. He's not afraid to call something nonsense when it clearly is, especially the attempts to tie the Grail into occult practices in the late 1800s. He viciously tears apart Holy Blood, Holy Grail, calling it not real history, but a "conspiracy theory of history." He even examines the Grail as portrayed in movies, with an especially adept analysis of The Fisher King with Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. As more evidence of its completeness, there are over 300 endnotes (a lot of them for quotes from the various stories) and the bibliography contains close to 600 books and stories. If you have any interest in the Grail or medieval history, this book holds your attention from beginning to end.
The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief is about exactly that: the contrast between the imagining of the Grail, all those years ago, to the belief in the ideal of the Grail. Barber never goes down the path of "is the Grail real?" Instead, he tells us about how the idea of the Grail has affected western literature and, at times, history throughout the ages. From religious icon to chivalric symbol to secular goal, the Grail has stayed with us since its beginning, buried at times, but never truly forgotten. It's been the spark of some very imaginative stories and some strange conspiracy theories. This book takes you all along that winding path, on a journey of discovery that won't let you go.