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on 14 January 2015
I wanted to find out more about the Grail after listening to a superb "In Our Time" broadcast on the subject on Radio 4. However, I must confess to finding this book a hard slog. Some reviewers have described it as "fun", but I was unable to complete the first section, which described the origins of the grail tradition through the medieval literature. The descriptions of the variations of the stories was frankly tedious, and this is without doubt a scholarly work. If you want a very detailed account of the nuances of the early grail tradition, this is for you, but for the general reader who wants a good read, beyond Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Dan Brown territory, but not to be mired in detail, the search for the grail continues.
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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.
David Roy
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HALL OF FAMEon 7 October 2005
How could one not love a book that deals with the Holy Grail by looking both at the Arthurian legends and the Monty Python films? I finished this book last night, as 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', a film mentioned in the book, was playing in the background. Actually, I bought this book as a gift for a friend (who loaned it back to me) as her family has its own Grail legend, with the lore of her family from Wales holding that the cup was (or may even yet be) in the possession of her kin. As she returns to Britain in the winter to do some exploring, I thought this text would be a good primer to various issues surrounding the Grail, and Barber's text does not disappoint.
Particularly in an age where popular literature has a re-visioning of the Grail being not the cup of Christ, but rather a blood-line, to look at the way the Grail has been portrayed over time is fascinating. The first section of the book examines some of the earliest literature about the Grail - it was not in fact part of the earliest of Arthurian legends, but later grafted on. The French author Chretien de Troyes is credited with the first Grail story, who used romantic imagery and ecclesial symbols freely in this tale. It seems to be an original tale, so far as Barber is concerned - he finds no evidence that this was part of a legend oral or written that was handed down. Chretien de Troyes was author of many medieval romantic tales, and unfortunately did not live long enough to finish the one about the Grail.
The story was picked up by later authors, most notably Robert de Boron and Wolfram von Eschenbach. The tale became increasingly developed and embellished, continuing to draw in more and more characters - Perceval, Galahad, Lancelot, and more. Not all of the authors agree with each other (just as modern interpretations in novels, films, and 'historical' works also differ with each other), and Barber does a good, ecumenical job at laying out the different issues. But through the confusion, Barber draws forth these questions: 'Why should the new genre of romance aspire to take on the great problems of theology and the highest moments of mystical experience? But they remain in the background while we turn first to ask our own version of Perceval's Grail question: "What is the Grail?" '
Barber's second section is the most informative section, looking at issues of relics, legends, histories true and false, theological questions, and mystical images. The Grail remained an ever-present image in the medieval world because of the natural association with the Eucharistic cup, present at church services throughout Christendom on a regular basis, all being believed in this pre-Reformation society to be the bearer of the actual blood of Christ. The Eucharist is a piece of medieval drama and choreography as well as the centre of artistic expression (many churches and cathedrals also served as the local 'art galleries' of a sort, and also the place where music was performed on a regular basis). The Eucharist was a source of nourishment, reminiscent of a day when the communal feast was a real meal, and symbolically linking to the kind of spiritual nourishment envisioned in many of the Grail tales.
While stories of the Grail would fade in popularity as the church became worried about heresy and division (and thus tried to define a more narrow focus on acceptable kinds of interpretation and expression), the Grail idea was resurrected in the post-Reformation era, and again in the modern era. If the second section of Barber's text was the most informative, the third section was the most fun. It looks at different ways that the Grail has been presented in the modern world, both secular and academic-sacred, and asks anew the question, what is the Grail? Perhaps there is no Grail, such as in the Monty Python film; perhaps it is a piece of knowledge or understanding, as in the film 'Excalibur' by John Boorman. The revival of interest in the Grail coincided with interest in medieval, mystical and Celtic subjects; the cross-currents of influences in areas such as art and music extend to the idea that many find the opening musical sequence of a post-modern Celtic/British film like 'Excalibur' to be very fitting, not realising that it is Romantic German music from a Wagner opera, tied to a different kind of ancient legend (although Wagner would become a fan of the Grail retellings, adding his own with the opera 'Parsifal', which would explicitly link the Grail with sexuality and femininity).
Barber himself confesses to this being a different kind of book from the one he envisioned writing. 'I believed that I would be engaged with pagan myth and the marvellous Celtic stories on which much of Arthurian romance is founded, and that the first shape of the Grail would be dimly discernible in the remote past.' Instead, he found a treasure trove of theology, art, literature, even popular culture in the mix.
There are indexes and appendices that make this book useful for the scholar, as well as generous notes. There are colour plates which show paintings, tapestries and other works of art that are Grail-related, and many more grayscale graphics and prints throughout the text. The bibliography itself is thirty pages of small print.
This is a fascinating and fun text.
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on 2 January 2014
This book is, as I would expect from the author, a comprehensive work which is well grounded in research. Recommended
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on 17 February 2015
This book is both informative and thought provoking..a must for anyone truly seeking the grail.Richard Barber sheds light on the historical and religious context of its origins and metamorphosis as it continued to evolve and elude .Follow the trail,it's worth the effort.
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on 3 December 2015
A very comprehensive book about the historical origins of the Grail legend from the 12th century to the present day. A fine interpretation and a good read of the study of medieval religious symbolism. This penguin book arrived well on time and in good condition
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on 2 June 2015
A vast tome covering all of the intricacies of Grail legends and the effect that this enigmatic object has had on all civilisations, almost since time began, or so it seems. Excellent.
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on 3 September 2015
good read
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VINE VOICEon 29 December 2005
Confession – I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code – so much so that I wanted something a little more serious to dig deeper. I found this book very thorough, well researched, showing how the story began and has evolved from the Middle Ages. The only downside is that the typeface in this paperback edition was very small – quite a strain on the eyes at times, so that I deducted 1 star.
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on 2 October 2015
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