Mixing Memory and Desire:
I. The Myth
One of the most enduring elements of the Arthurian legend is that of the Holy Grail, that mysterious vessel found at the court of the Fisher King. Cup or cauldron, dish or stone, it plays a significant role in the Arthur of Romance, even before Chretien de Troyes composed Perceval, or, the Story of the Grail; prior to that, it was an important part of Celtic myth, with prototypes found in various Welsh and Irish texts, which likely indirectly influenced Chrètien's writing. The influence of the Grail continued through the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach (which would later inspire Richard Wagner's Parsifal), to Le Roman du Graal of Robert de Boron, and then to the Vulgate Cycle, which introduced us to Galahad. The Vulgate Cycle had an immense impact on Sir Thomas Malory's 1475 opus Le Morte d'Arthur, wherein the quest signifies not the restoration of fertility, but the beginning of the end for Arthur's kingdom. With this landmark work, the Grail myth was forever changed.
This pagan relic is constantly returning to Western consciousness in new forms, always reflecting the society which grapples with it. But why? What is it about this particular myth which seems to resonate with people? And more importantly, why did it suddenly become prominent in the nineteenth century, a prominence which lasts to this day, when we are still producing movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Fisher King, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Why do people flock to books like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which argues that the Grail is really the bloodline of Christ?
The re-emergence of the Grail legend can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when such various figures as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Wagner, and Alfred Lord Tennyson began using it as an artistic subject. That this coincided with the Industrial Revolution is no accident, but a matter of cause and effect. With the Industrial Revolution came a scientific revolution comparable to that of the fifteenth century-anthropology, archaeology, and most importantly, the theory of evolution all made their debut, and with it came the fulfillment of the Enlightenment's questioning of religious beliefs. At the same time, there were the devastating effects of industry on both the working class and the countryside-both were busy being destroyed by those in power.
This prompted the reactions of the Romantics; out of the Romantics came the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the first group to utilize the Grail legend as a political and social tool. For them, the Grail represented the lost order, which has been lost in the chaos of the Industrial Revolution. The Grail resided in an Arcadian myth, a Garden of Eden, which had been lost to the robber-barons and captains of industry. The Pre-Raphaelites were nostalgic for an age that never was, represented by Camelot and the Grail (as well as many other myths). This nostalgia was also prominent in Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King, a highly celebrated and popular work in Victorian England.
At the same time emerged the existence of esoteric lodges like the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, the O.T.O., and the Thule Society. Relying on magic and influenced by the medievalism of both the Romantics and the Freemasons, these lodges were a spiritual response to the scientific attack on religion and superstition. Finally, the belief in Eugenics-the pseudo-science of good breeding through racial characteristics-also made its debut.
Out of these elements and as a response to the horrors of World War One came two movements-Modernism and Fascism. Both used myth as a way to address the chaos of the modern world, the former through artistic means, and the second through political means. Modernism-particularly the works of Joyce and Eliot-used myth, particularly Celtic myth and the Grail, as a symbol of the lost order, calling back to pastoralism, but was cynical about the ability to regain that order. Fascism-particularly Nazism-also utilized the Grail myth (in Himmler's forming of the SS, for example), for darker means-to them, the Grail was a symbol of racial purity and military strength. The Celtic myth of fall and redemption, of fertility and leadership and compassion, could be used for good, such as in Modernism; however, it could also be easily corrupted by such groups as the Nazis.
After World War II, America, embroiled in the Vietnam War, took up the Grail legend as the familiar pastoral symbol it was in England, claiming it for their own. This coincided with the rise of the youth movement and the New Age of the hippies, just as it had with the 19th century occultists and artists, and the Modernists. The grail still exists in American consciousness, particularly in the younger generation, born and bred on the British fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and T.H. White, as a symbol for a consciousness-raising, a return to Eden, an escape from the encroaching Technological Revolution which threatens to wipe away individuality with the press of a few buttons and the scanning of DNA. In a world where cloning is becoming a reality, the Grail is the greatest symbol of what might have been and still may be.
Briefly, the Grail legend is as follows: a young man is raised alone in the woods by his widowed mother. He leaves this isolated environment and heads for adventure to become a knight; after many misadventures and falling in love, he comes to the castle of the Fisher King, who lies wounded in the Waste Land and is sustained by the power of the Grail. During the feast with the king, the knight is given a broken sword and sees a procession of a "graal" and bleeding spear, but doesn't ask the question which will heal the king and the land. The knight leaves, has more adventures, and, after being rebuked by members of his family, learns that the Fisher King is his uncle, and that he must return to the castle in order to restore the king and land to health. He does so, and (in most versions) is made the new king and keeper of the Grail. From the thirteenth century onward, the Grail has been identified with a vessel used at the Last Supper-either the cup or the dish of the Pascal Lamb. However, the original Grail wasn't Christian.
Following the pioneering works of R. S. Loomis and Jean Markale (among others), I contend that the legend of the Grail is essentially Celtic theology-a tale, not unlike the Biblical "Fall of Man," which deals with the conditions of existence: innocence, loss, and redemption. In the Celtic version, the hero heals the land and is make king. This healing is generally accomplished by asking a question. The question may vary depending on the version of the quest; some ask "Whom does the Grail serve?" while others ask, "What ails you, uncle?" and still others ask, "What is the meaning of this service?" (i.e., the Grail procession). Regardless of the question, the fact remains that the hero must ask something-he must admit his ignorance both to others and to himself in order to heal the king. This takes not only compassion-caring about what is wrong with the king-but humility.
Mixing Memory and Desire: Two