Ratnagarbha investigates the story of the Holy Grail, in which the heroic quest becomes a mystical epic
Many, many years ago, on the eve of Good Friday of the year 717, a hermit lay in his hut, in one of the wildest regions of Britain, beset by doubts about his Christian faith. But at this critical moment, we are told, Christ himself appeared to the man in a vision and gave him a small book, ‘no larger or wider than the palm of a man’s hand, containing greater marvels than any mortal heart could conceive’. This wondrous book, which would resolve all of the hermit’s doubts, contained these four mysterious chapters :
- This is the book of thy descent.
- Here begins the book of the Holy Grail.
- Here begin the terrors.
- Here begin the marvels.
A series of apocalyptic visions of light and darkness then flashed upon the hermit’s troubled mind. Some time later the holy man emerged from his trance, only to discover that the book had vanished. Convinced that something of enormous, if undefined significance has taken place, the hermit is compelled to go on a quest to recover the marvellous book, so that he might copy down its contents and allow others to read and feel its power.
This story appears as a framing device in the introduction to the most influential cycle of medieval Grail legends, the so-called Vulgate Cycle or Launcelot Grail , written in the early thirteenth century. It suggests at once that the Grail appears at a moment of crisis, a ‘descent’ from what had previously seemed a securely understood faith. It is something otherworldly – frightening yet fascinating and mysterious – with the potential to supply a vital factor that was missing in the conventional religious faith of the time. This missing factor was not a new doctrine, but a symbol that would contribute to the activation of the spiritual imagination of Western Europe. For the Grail myth is part of that great awakening of sensibility, culture and imagination around the turn of the thirteenth Century: the age of Hildegard von Bingen and of the finest flowering of Gothic architecture, of the perfecting of the chivalric Romance literature, of the rise of the troubadours and their beautiful, allegorical chanson to highborn ladies.
The refined love poetry of that time remains an esoteric pursuit for scholars and a few devotees of medieval literature, but the Grail stories clearly have a great deal to offer a much wider public in our troubled times. For rather than a crisis of faith, I would suggest, we have a much broader ‘crisis of the sacred’, in which there is a great need to activate the resources of the imagination and find symbols, that while not conventionally religious, may act as a focus for our moral and spiritual lives. Certainly, Henri Corbin, the great scholar of Iranian mysticism saw the Grail stories in exactly this way. He thought that the Grail legends enshrined a mystery of supreme importance, and went so far as to write that ‘the esoteric theme of our Grail cycle, encloses, perhaps, the secret of a truly Western spiritual tradition.’ (1) For Corbin these legends were, in fact, the Western equivalent to the great ‘visionary recitals’ of Islamic adepts such as Avicenna and Sohrevardi whom he had spent his life studying.
The anonymously authored Launcelot Grail, looks at the Grail Quest from the point of view of the bravest of King Arthur’s knights, whose heart is sullied by his adulterous love for Guinevere. In this version, with its elaborate religious symbolism, the legend is traced in several books right back to the time of Christ, the existence of a mystical brotherhood of knights who guard the Grail through the ages is revealed, and the all to human Launcelot is eventually superceded in the quest by his son Galahad. However, the earliest version of the story we have is much more concise. The Romance of Perceval or The Story of the Grail was written in verse by the French poet Chretien de Troyes towards the end of the twelfth century. It is a chivalric romance of a high order, but not, as more commonly in the romance tradition, a tale of thwarted love. This tale concerns the development of an immature knight’s character and his discovery of the Grail. It is as if Chretien, who wrote this poem towards the end of his life and left it unfinished, had tired of stories of knightly adventure and chivalric love, and wanted to do something new with the romance genre. In outline the story goes as follows:
Perceval grows up in an isolated manor house, deep in the forest, with his mother. This is because his father was killed in battle, and his mother now wishes her only son to grow up as far from knighthood and knightly deeds as possible. But one day, while hunting in the forest, Perceval encounters a troop of knights for the first time. At first he takes them to be shining angels. Gently they explain that they are knights of King Arthur, and tell him a little of knighthood. Perceval at once determines to leave home, despite his mother’s horrified reluctance to let him go, and go in search of King Arthur’s court so that he too can be made a knight. When he finally reaches Arthur’s court he demands knighthood of the king naively and impertinently, and is mocked by the seneshal Kay, who sends him off in pursuit of an ill tempered knight in red armour who has just seized the queen’s cup from her very hands. Contrary to expectations, Perceval slays the knight with an accurate throw of his rustic javelin, puts on the red armour and rides off. In his next encounter he meets Gorneman, an old knight who takes Perceval into his home and instructs him in the use of weapons and the ways of chivalry. Having been knighted by Gorneman Perceval rides on his way. He now finds himself at a castle, half in ruins, whose ruler is a beautiful girl, Blancheflor. Perceval slays the maiden’s unwelcome suitor, wins her heart, but then insists on setting out at once to find his mother and comfort her.
Let us picture the knight at this crucial stage of his quest, as he rides through the wilderness in search of his mother’s house. Perceval’s armour, which to start with was a gleaming, vivid red, is now dented and damaged from many battles and caked in the mud of long and weary travel. He seems to be entirely alone, and the short winter afternoon is swiftly passing. He is riding by the side of a deep river, which is so wide and swift that his horse is unable to cross it. At length he comes to a stretch of river which is broad and smooth. In the middle of the reach is a large boulder and tethered downstream of this, unexpectedly, a small boat in which sit two men. The man in the prow of the boat is fishing with a rod and line. A rather eerie stillness hangs over the scene, the man quietly fishing, the river becoming shadowy as the light fails. The red knight hails the boat and asks if there is any lodging nearby. He is pointed towards a narrow path leading away from the river and ascending through a rocky gorge. At the top it seems at first that there is nothing but wild forest and the darkening sky to be seen, and the red knight is dismayed. Soon, however, he discerns that the path leads on to a moated keep, half hidden in a fold of the hills. The sky is almost completely dark by the time the knight reaches the keep and rides boldly over the drawbridge and into the outer courtyard. Here, to his amazement, for the keep is hardly grand and imposing, four squires dressed in the richest livery appear and take charge of his steed. Then the knight is led quickly into the main hall, which turns out to be of great splendour, with carved galleries of oak and cedar wood. In the centre of the hall is a huge fireplace with a brass chimney supported on four stone columns. Lying on a couch by the fire, mysteriously, is the man he previously saw in the fishing boat, now dressed in a rich dark cloak and cap of sable. Clearly he is the Lord of this castle and its surrounding domains. Though he does not know it yet, the knight has entered the realm of the Rich Fisher King.
There now follows one of the key scenes in all of western literature. As the young knight sits beside his host a miraculous series of events takes place. The Fisher King first apologises for being unable to rise fully and greet his guest, for his health is extremely weak. Then a servant appears with a magical sword of very fine workmanship, which is presented to Perceval. Next, a squire appears who is carrying a white lance. As he passes before the King and his guest a single drop of red blood appears on this end of the lance and drips into the hand of the squire. Perceval is greatly astonished and curious about this marvel, but he refrains from asking about it. This is because the old knight who instructed him in the rudiments of chivalry, after he quit Arthur’s court, told him that a knight will appear foolish and immature if he talks too much when he is the guest of a gentleman. Next, something even more wonderful appears. Two squires enter the hall bearing gold candelabra with many candles blazing in them. Following the squires comes a beautiful maiden carrying in both hands a wide dish, or ‘grail’ of finest gold, set with many precious jewels. The brilliance of this vessel lights up the entire hall and makes the light from the two candelabras seem faint and weak. The Grail is carried off into a side chamber and the light dims once more. Again Perceval is curious. What is the purpose of this Grail, who is it that is served by it? Again he decides that it would be rude to question his host on the matter.
The next morning Perceval awakes to discover that his host and all of his attendants are nowhere to be seen. He cannot even gain access to the hall where he dined the previous night. However, he finds in an antechamber his horse, saddled and ready to ride. So, having called out for his host, or for some explanation, in vain, Perceval rides off. As he crosses the drawbridge it begins to rise; it is only by a magnificent leap that his steed is able to clear the bridge just in time and bear his rider off into the forest. Naturally Perceval is now dejected and puzzled. He feels that something has gone terribly wrong and that he has been cast out from some blazing vision of grace, but the causes of this and the meaning of the events of the past evening are completely dark to him. It is not long, however, before he meets a maiden, sitting by the forest path who is able to cast some light on these matters. She explains that he has visited the magical castle of the Rich Fisher King, whose only pastime is fishing because his wounded body cannot tolerate the pain of any other sport. Long ago he was struck in battle through both thighs with a javelin, and this is why, in great pain, he hides away in his secluded castle. But the maiden has other news, of even more gravity. She reveals two things. Firstly she asks Perceval if he saw the Lance with the bleeding tip, then if he saw the Grail carried by a maiden, and, most importantly, did he ask what their purpose was, and who is served by the Grail? No he didn’t. The maiden now stands up and cries in anger:
‘Your name is changed, to Perceval the wretched! Unlucky Perceval, how unfortunate that you failed to ask these questions. If you had done so the maimed King would have been healed, regaining the use of his limbs and the power to rule his kingdom in strength. Because of this failure much grief and suffering will come to yourself and others.’
But if this was not bad enough, worse news is to follow: this failure of Perceval’s, she states, is connected with the precipitous and inconsiderate way in which he left his mother and rode off to pursue knighthood. The girl now reveals that she is in fact his cousin who was brought up in the same isolated manor where Perceval lived with his widowed mother. Furthermore, after Perceval left his childhood home she witnessed his mother die of grief for her only son.
So this, in outline, is the crux of one of the master stories of Western Europe, as told by the first and greatest of the many medieval poets who re-worked and embellished Celtic stories, Christian motifs and Chivalric legends to create the huge body of Arthurian legends. The Story of the Grail is the tale of a naïve, immature knight, his sometimes hapless adventures, and his attempts to grow up and make good his mistakes. I will now consider in more depth the significance of the haunting, central image of this story, the Grail procession, before looking at the wider import of Chretien’s masterpiece and attempting to suggest why it still continues, after eight hundred years, to haunt us with its many levelled significance.
Firstly then, that strange procession, in which the lance, followed by the Grail itself are paraded before Perceval, the Fisher King and his assembled ladies and nobles. Now in Chretien’s version, the very first so far as we know (his claimed source being apparently apocryphal) we are told nothing about the Grail, except that it seems to be a dish of gold, set with blazing jewels. The light that comes from it causes a many branched candelabra, just about the most intense form of artificial light that a medieval person could imagine, to become dim in its presence.
Chretien does not say that the dish or the lance have anything to do with the story of Christ – only in later versions does the Grail become the either the platter used at the last supper, or the chalice in which Christ served wine, and which, later on, was used to collect drops of his blood during the Passion. Chretien does however tell us, later in the poem, that the Grail is the container for a holy wafer, which seems to be an oblique reference to the Mass. Now it is relevant here to note that the central rite of the Catholic Church was, at that time, conducted beyond a screen in the holiest section of the church, the chancel, so that it was only possible for the laity to get a dim sense of what was going on. At a certain point in the proceedings the chalice and the dish with the holy wafers on it would be held up by a priest in rich vestments and the lay folk might briefly get a glimpse of part of the mystery of the sacrament as it unfolded. Only perhaps once a year would they be invited to share in the bread in the wine, the body and the blood of their god. So, with a very bold imaginative move, Chretien has taken this glimpse of the holy of holies and transferred it to a secular story of chivalry and adventure. In so doing he seems to be deliberately introducing an element that puts the values and assumptions of chivalry into question. Perhaps, at the end of his career (this was his last story, as we shall see) having written several very popular tales about King Arthur’s knights, he felt it was time to go beyond mere story telling, however entertaining or marvellous. In this tale, then, we have a knight of great boldness and spirit whose prowess proves woefully insufficient when the critical moment comes. He is simply awed into silence by the mysteries before him and ‘knows not what to say’.
Out of nowhere it seems, the Grail has appeared, a completely new element in the chivalric literature, and one which has haunted the imagination of Europe ever since. One might say that people are still dazzled by its unearthly light, still uncertain what to make of it. Is it a pagan object in Christian guise? Certainly it has an aura of mysterious potency and abundance, not exactly religious in the conventional sense. And beyond a doubt this aura of the Grail is intimately connected with the mysterious figure of the Fisher King: powerful, yet wounded, who fishes up life from the depths, who is sustained by the Grail, but not healed. Yet such a figure is a long way indeed from the obvious Celtic antecedents of sea gods or heroes like Bran the Blessed with his earthy ‘cauldron of plenty’ into which dead warriors could be thrown and thus revived. Is it then a symbol for the grace of the godhead as mediated by the Church? If so, why are there no priests to be seen, why is it carried by a maiden, and why is it only knights, not saints or hermits, who undertake the quest for it? Does it bring purely spiritual blessing or confer earthly sustenance in a magical way? Since Chretien numerous story-tellers have taken up the challenge of the Grail quest, attempting to finish Chretien’s masterpiece ( which breaks off in mid sentence) and answer these questions in their own version of the story. Some, like Robert De Boron 2, for example, writing not long after Chretien, bring out the Christian aspect more strongly. Boron gives the sacred dish an entire back-story, going right back to the time of Christ. Here the Grail is used to collect the blood of Christ on the cross, and is then guarded by a holy ‘Grail Brotherhood’ in the Grail Castle. Perceval eventually not only heals the Fisher King but also causes the ‘evil enchantments of the land of Logres to vanish’.
Such transformations have continued down the ages, especially during the two centuries following Chretien, which saw a bewildering variety of Grail romances appear. In Eschenbach’s version, Parzifal, for example, the Grail becomes a sort of philosopher’s stone, with alchemical life giving properties and the ability to furnish a feast for the Fisher King’s entire court. Malory’s well-known version, from 14th century England, which is part of his Morte D’arthur 3, and based on the French Queste for the Holy Grail (a book of the Vulgate Cycle) has the dish become a chalice. This chalice, ‘veiled in white samite’, appears to the assembled Knights of the Round Table in a blaze of light ‘seven times brighter than the sun’, and fills the palace with sweet fragrance. This vision initiates a quest which will end in success for one chaste, perfect knight but at the same time ruin the flower of chivalry throughout King Arthur’s kingdom. Much later, from the 19th century onwards, we have multifarious speculations about mystical secret societies, heretical rituals, pagan archetypes of death and rebirth and much else besides, all of which continues to fascinate many people and draw them to places like Glastonbury or the Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh in order to undertake their own ‘Quest for the Grail’. It is natural, then, to look for some sort of common thread linking these many narratives with their complex inter-leavings of imagery, and ask what is the essential nature of the Grail? Why does it still fascinate and enchant us?
One thing can be said with certainty, at least. The Grail has always been an image that is charged with a sense of divine grace within a Roman Catholic, Christian context, yet also carries a potent supernatural aura, which makes it impossible to define as a conventional religious symbol in the way that, for example, the Cross might be. Many commentators have suggested that this glamour, which has failed to adhere in quite the same way to other objects closely associated with Christ, is principally to do with its shape: dish or chalice – a feminine, containing, receptive form, with mythological resonances to do with healing drafts or elixirs of life bestowed by a goddess (symbolising life and abundance) on mankind. One could point, for a well-known example, to the goddess Venus healing Aneas with a draft of elixir poured from a vase in Virgil’s Aneid.
But beyond this ground, which is well covered in many books on the subject, there remains what might be referred to as the socio-ethical dimension. The Grail stands as an object or goal that puts all previous ideals and dearly held virtues into question and makes them seem shallow by comparison. It tests the knight’s courage and perspicacity beyond any possible battle or encounter with monster or demon. At the same time it reveals the limitations of his chivalric virtues. This too, along with the sacred radiance and the promise of blessing and healing beyond the mundane is part of mystique of the Grail. Looking beyond Europe, and making a narrative analogy between spiritual literatures, it would seem that the Grail has a similar effect to that which appeared to the Mahayana Buddhist saint Ruchiriketu, in the Sutra of Golden Light, when he realised that his Buddhist life had been predicated on the idea that by meditation and devotion and so forth he could escape death. And yet the Buddha himself died, he cannot deny this. In a dream his room expands into infinite space and a huge golden drum appears beating out words to the effect that the Buddha’s real life is beyond time. The golden drum is an Eastern analogue to the Grail. The Grail, it seems, is whatever appears when our cherished hopes of making something of our self and our inherited ideals appear to fail. For Perceval, we are to understand, has reached a crisis. Although he is seeking to undo the damage done to his mother by his rash departure, he does not know yet that he is in fact too late. However, the story, or, one might say, reality, does know. The quest for wholeness on a straightforward social and familial level has failed. Therefore the Grail appears. And a new kind of quest, which is neither conventionally chivalric nor yet completely religious, opens before the knight.
The great scholar of mystical Islam, Henri Corbin, found another such analogue – between visionary Sufism and the Grail stories. This parallel is especially telling in as much as there is in visionary Sufism a quest object that calls forth both mundane, ‘martial’ virtues of boldness and adventurousness as well as a longing for divine grace. Corbin (who had studied the Grail cycles deeply though they were not his scholarly field) sees the Grail legends as being the principle ‘visionary recital’ of Christendom. (He uses this term for the extensive literature of the great visionary journeys of the Sufi mystics.) Now in several of the sufi ‘visionary recitals’ is found an object that in Corbin’s view is a close equivalent to the Grail. This is the Xvarnaah, or ‘Glory’, which Iranian tradition portrays as being bestowed on those rulers or champions who enjoy divine favour. He says of the parallels:
There is on both sides, the idea of a mysterious virtue or potency of which a marvellous object, talisman or theurgy is the form or manifestation, which is surrounded by an aura of sacrality like the most holy of relics. The marvellous object dispenses the food of immortality and the illumination of understanding. He who beholds the plenitude of the Xvarnaah possesses, together with gifts corresponding to the hieratic perfections, the victorious force of the Knight.4
So far, then, we have established that the Grail is spiritual symbol that is pre-eminent in combining several polarities or related opposites, held in creative tension. There is firstly the tension between Christian grace and pagan-Celtic resonances of healing, death and rebirth, which by their ‘feminine’ allure, glamour and colour seem at odds with the certainly earthy but much more austere theology surrounding the Mass and the partaking in Christ’s blood and body. Then there is the tension of actual reference to, or at least suggestions of, the holy Sacrament of the Church, and the intrusion into this religious, ritualised sphere of a whole host of motifs and narrative tropes from the world of chivalric romance – castles, jousts, magical tests, feasting and the like. Lastly, taking this same basic polarity from the reverse point of view, there is that mingling, as I have suggested, of glitteringly chivalric, forceful, martial virtues with a longing for divine grace which threatens to upset the very basis of that chivalric world. This last, perhaps, is the principle source of that strange ambivalent glare, the ‘neither this nor that ness’ which seems to encapsulate the particular glamour of the Grail legends.
However, there is one further dimension, which adheres, especially, to the original unfinished poem of Chretien himself (although it is often glossed over in later versions) and to which I must turn before concluding. The parallels with other literatures so far mentioned here, ironically, do us good service in highlighting the main difference between the original Perceval tale, at least as we have it, and those of the quest for some mystical object or talisman in the spiritual literatures of many cultures all over the globe. For Perceval, though he does not know it at first, is not in a state of illumination or even simple longing for such a spiritual boon, but in a state of despair. In fact, this chivalric tale, perhaps Chretien’s finest, and certainly his most influential, is effectively a tragedy. It is a tragedy of a failure of awareness, a failure to be on the ball, one might say, to know when to speak and when to remain silent. Now this says a great deal about our entire culture, I would suggest. In the East, whether we look towards Indian culture, or Chinese culture, there are no tragedies in the European sense. This is a point that the great mythographer, Joseph Campbell makes very forcefully. (5) In most hero myths the hero undergoes trails, fights demons or monsters and wins through. Or he is a trickster, like Monkey, who gets away with it. But in the West, from the culture of classical Greece onwards there are, as well as godlike heroes (Hercules) and crafty heroes (Odysseus), tragic anti-heroes; persons who are cursed by the gods, perhaps for no ethical fault of their own; who fail to see what they are, and heap untold suffering on themselves and others. Of course, the greatest example of this is King Oedipus, who is fated, without knowing it, to kill his own father, marry his mother and bring ruin to his kingdom. But this image, of the cursed hero, continues to resonate down the centuries, and it arises again, in this new form, in the medieval period.
It is fascinating to explore how this new arising of the tragic hero, this new dispensation, is in keeping with the concerns of the period in which it was written. And this will in turn throw more light on the social and ethical dimension of the mystery of the Grail. For Chretien’s age, as we know, was the age of chivalry, in which a strict code of behaviour for knights and all men of courtly or aristocratic lineage was help up and admired. This included such virtues as discipline and courage in combat, as well as honouring and giving devoted service to, on the one hand, one’s Lord, and on the other the Beloved, or indeed any high-born Lady who requested a knight’s service. (The admired virtues for Ladies were rather decorous and passive, though some of the real noble women of this period, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, patroness of the Troubadours, showed great courage and discipline in their endeavours.) This was also very much an age in which correct behaviour and civilised courtly manners were highly valued. Perceval’s tragic failure arises directly from his naivety in such matters. One of the rules of good behaviour his mentor Gornemant stresses is that the good knight should not speak too much, almost, not speak unless he is spoken too. One imagines Gornemant thinking that Perceval would blab on about nothing much and reveal his foolishness and immaturity all too easily, so silence seemed like the best advice. In fact, however, it turns out to be terrible advice from a certain point of view. Finding himself in a strange and magical situation, clearly of high spiritual import, Perceval falls back on a literalistic understanding of ‘good behaviour’. He remains bound in a superficial understanding of conventional observances, conventional social morality one might say, and fails to speak when it is most vital to do so. And this, we are told, is precisely because he left his mother in duch a foolish, immature, insensitive way. Chretien emphasises that Perceval almost literally tore himself away, which means, of course, that he did not leave her properly at all, for to do that requires both courage, and tact in the deepest sense. A true leaving home, must be, in the end, not a mere rebellion but a step towards wholeness and wisdom. This is an example of the truly remarkable psychological insight which Chrétien shows in the Story of the Grail, as he recounts Perceval’s quest for maturity, his learning of hard lessons by making mistakes and thus growing up.
This, then, is the crux of the tale. And, I would say, it is one that remains highly resonant, highly pertinent eight centuries after the original Story of the Grail was written. For don’t we all fail, from time to time, to draw together the threads of significance around us, enquire further and find out what this or that really means, what really needs to be done? This is a perennial human issue. Sometimes in quite small ways, sometimes in very major and significant ones, we don’t ‘grow up’, throw off our inherited impulses to appear ‘sensible’ or ‘fit in’, or ‘carry on as we always have done’, and direct that vital beam of intelligence, curiosity or insightful enquiry where it needs to go.
Now one question we might ‘wake up’ and ask, for it is not irrelevant, is where does this central motif come from? This failure to ask the right question. Fascinatingly, it seems that the answer is largely that we don’t know of any clear antecedent. It may well be that this is a stroke of genius on Chrétien’s part, by which he has brought an urgent, moral dimension to the Celtic story cycles which was not previously there. Turning to the Irish legends we do find one with a magical fortress in which a magical serving vessel appears and various ritual questions are asked of the Goddess of sovereignty, the guardian deity of the land, who confers power on the rightful ruler. This is all most intriguing: did Chrétien know some version of this tale, handed on from an itinerant bard, most likely from the Breton lands of Western France, where small Celtic princedoms were established? But even if he did the striking thing is that the Irish story follows a format familiar in many folk tales: a question is asked, like a riddle, the right answer is given and the enchantment is unlocked, or the treasure is won. In the case of Perceval, uniquely, the tale turns on a failure to ask the right question, not on knowing the answer to a question given by some magical being. This is rendered all the more poignant in Chrétien’s case by the fact that he left his tale uncompleted. Perceval, horrified by what he has failed to do, vows in the presence of King Arthur and all his knights to go in search of the Grail castle and put matters right. But, due so far as we know to the mortal illness of the author, the story breaks off before he is anywhere near doing so. We don’t know if Chretien intended him to remain a tragic hero, or even, perhaps, if he intended his brother-knight Sir Gawain, equally adventurous and much more chivalrous, to get back to the Grail castle first. As we saw, many others have tried to answer this question and completed the tale for Chretien. Most have suggested that Perceval does get there in the end, as any good hero should – in some version he wins the Grail by force of arms rather than acuity. But they all, frankly, make something of an anti-climax in the reading. Perceval has remained with us as the knight who fails, and Lancelot, in the later, more elaborate, Arthurian cycles seems to continue this theme, his failure in the Grail Quest being due to his adulterous love for Guinevere.
So far I have focussed almost exclusively on Perceval and the Grail procession. But what of the mysterious image of the Fisher King? For this too is part of the strange allure of the story. The wounded King, who is seen fishing on a river; who is sustained by the Grail but not healed. Now, as is fairly well known, a great deal has been written about the various mythological themes embedded in Chrétien’s story, especially this figure of the ‘Fisher King’. Back in the 1920s the Scholar Jessie Weston, in her book From Ritual to Romance, put forward the idea that the Perceval story harks back to very ancient, bronze age fertility myths in which the sacred King must, each year, be put to death and then be reborn, or replaced by his assassin, so that the cycle of the seasons can continue, and the land remain fertile. In this view the Grail is an ancient symbol for the sacred feminine, as bringer of health and abundance, while the lance, of course, is its masculine counterpart. The Fisher King is none other than the Sacred King of the old year who must be revived if the land is to continue to flourish. It was this interpretation (with imaginative resonances to do with ecological and cultural disintegration and possible renewal that seem so apt for our times) that exerted a strong influence on T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, and many other poets subsequently including Robert Graves and Ted Hughes. However, while no one disputes her influence on poetry, Weston’s ideas no longer have much currency with scholars, who focus more on the Grail’s relationship to the lay religious devotion to sacred relics of Chrétien’s time, and point out that there is no ‘Wasteland’ as such (or image of a desolated landscape waiting to be healed), in any but a few of the very late versions of the story. Nevertheless, the Fisher King does appear to have strong resonances of both potency and its opposite. His wounding in the thighs seems to be essentially a castration. His life force is bound up with his kingdom, lack of rule meaning a state of strife and chaos amongst its subjects, and, in many versions, a surfeit of malign enchantments. He draws fish up from the depths. He guards the Grail, which, it is revealed at a later stage in Chretien’s version, sustains miraculously the Fisher King’s aged father, who is confined to his chamber, but needs no food or drink from any other source.
To finish this piece, however, I would like to advance the idea that none of this: from speculative searching for mythological resonances, to accurate medieval scholarship, does full justice to the sheer imaginative power of Chrétien’s poem. It is dusk. There is the wounded King, dressed as an ordinary fisherman, sitting in a small boat on the river. This is all he can do to amuse himself and escape his rich but isolated castle. If he is the ‘sacred king’ he is a particularly humanised version of that figure. Although not healed by the Grail he can still bring up fish from the depths. Although in mythic terms he has to die in order to be reborn, in the story he merely awaits a question from the right person. He is neither the Old, the dying king exactly, nor the New. He is suspended between those two states, awaiting not violent death, but some key or catalyst to bring about the necessary change. So here, it seems to me, once again Chrétien has shown a brilliant intuitive insight into what we would now call depth psychology. He has diagnosed a state of the soul, a state of suspension or reverie, thwarted but potentially deeply productive, and given it a poignant imaginative form.
In much the same way he has given the central motif of his story, the quest of innocence and naivety for mature vision, for wisdom, a wonderfully down to earth, imperfect but appealing form in the character of Perceval himself. The knight who, before the Grail can be truly known by him, be more than a parade, or masque, however luminous, which appears to the external senses, must manifest that active receptivity which is the prerequisite for any spiritual illumination. One must want to know, and one must ask. And this is precisely what Perceval fails to do. He does not have the maturity, the presence of mind, the freedom from conventional custom and taboo that is required of him. Nevertheless, this is his gift to us. Because he does not ask, he has remained as a potent, active image in the European imagination for eight hundred years. Later, in what remains to us of Chrétien’s tale, he swears to go in quest to return to the Grail castle, but soon forgets his purpose and wanders for years without ‘ever thinking of God’, as the poem puts it. Shortly before the tale breaks off a hermit has reminded him of his sacred duty and encouraged him to confess his sins. But who knows if he will remain true for long. His world is full of distracting adventures and other knights with no interest in such a dubious quest. Only Gawain, in the original tale, shares in the quest, not the whole of the Round Table (in fact there is no Round Table at this point) and he is only entrusted with the quest for the Lance, not the Grail. So Perceval, youthful and easily distracted, must go it alone. He embodies spiritual immaturity, which fails, but does not, finally, give up. That I would suggest, is Perceval’s gift, and one of the principle gifts of the Arthurian romance tradition to the world.
1) Quoted in: John Cary, ‘Henry Corbin and the Secret of the Grail’ in Temenos Academy Review, 14 (Ashford: Temenos Academy, 2011)
2) Robert De Boron, Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea. Merlin. Perceval, tr. Nigel Bryant. (Cambridge and Rochester, NY 2001)
3) Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. Helen Cooper. (Oxford 2008)
4) Corbin, Henri En Islam Iranien ii. pp 161-2
5) Campbell, Joseph, Oriental Mythology. (London 1991) See especially chapter 5, ‘the Occidental and the Oriental Hero’. NB Campbell’s typology of the Indian mind verses the Western mindset now seems perhaps somewhat schematic and oversimplified in its contrast between an eastern focus on eternal ‘impersonal law’ and a western focus on personality ‘therefore necessarily tragic’, especially in its failure to take full account of Buddhism’s strong, even fierce focus on the consequences for the individual human being of one’s ethical choices, skilful or unskilful. Nevertheless, in regards to the legendary cycles from the dawn of these cultures, Homeric or Vedic, the contrast does seem to have some weight.