THE GRAIL LEGEND

The knights and ladies of the Arthurian romances are indeed Celtic gods and goddesses masquerading in human costume.  And this is one way of saying that in all of us, in our human activities, deities are operating. 

THE GRAIL LEGEND is an especially stimulating subject for psychological consideration because it contains so many features that are also to be found in myths and fairy-tales.  Moreover, it has lost far less of its fascination for contemporary men and women than have the latter, which may indicate that it still embodies a living myth.  (TGL – Intro – Sentence 1)

… the Grail poems probably had their origin in a two-fold psychic need, on the one hand to elaborate further the central symbol of the Christian religion and on the other to develop in a creative way certain still unsolved problems, such as those of sexuality, the shadow and the unconscious in general.  TGL – intro 19

(The Grail Legend) contains archetypal features in the foregoing sense of the word, but it is also the product of a particular age and attitude of mind.  For this reason it allows us a glimpse into the specific mentality of the Middle Ages and thus touches upon problems of the Christian aeon which are psychologically important for the present day.  TGL – intro 38

The magic of this world is one of the reasons why the state of childhood is greatly loved and worth striving for and why the step into “life” and reality is so difficult.  For the same reason so many myths tell of the origin of human existence in Paradise, or of a golden age that was lost and replaced by a far less perfect world.  TGL 42

Therein lies the so-called therapeutic value of myths and fairy-tales.  They depict an archetypal event, a basic pattern of human behaviour, by which one may find one’s bearings or which can serve as a model.  TGL 47

… The action of the archetypes can also be negative, or course, often leading to a complete denial of life or even to a psychosis when, for instance, the individual identifies with the hero-image and misuses it solely for the glorification of the ego.  This does not mean that he thinks he is a hero, but that he will conduct himself like one if the occasion arises.  TGL 47

Arthur’s Round Table might therefore be looked upon as a symbol in which is mirrored the developing consciousness of Christian man in the first millennium.  In those days the spread of Christianity was linked with the great civilizing task of subduing the aboriginal brutality and unconsciousness of the heathen peoples.  This lent a higher meaning to the Christian knight’s aggressive masculinity, which was put to the service of a nobler ideal and a higher state of consciousness.  TGL 61

As Jung has shown, the symbolism of alchemy served on the whole as a receptacle in which contents that were in a compensatory and complementary relationship to official Christianity found expression, and it is therefore no accident that such close connections can be traced between alchemy and the symbols of the Grail story.   TGL 101

What’s the source of the Grail story, where does it come from?  Chrétien de Troyes says he got the story from a book that was given to him by Count Philip of Flanders, a friend of his patron, Marie of Champagne.  We don’t know where the book came from, but this is our earliest source for the Grail story.  Chrétien simply retold the story in Old French verse.  Chrétien was such a virtuosic versifier that one of the German scholars said he could shake couplets from his sleeve like a magician.   TMTT 246

   The story, however, was developed to the full by Wolfram von Eschenbach, who was a Bavarian knight.  He understood what knighthood was about in a way that Gottfried never did, in a way that the monks couldn’t.  And so he presents the hero – Perceval, Parsival, Parzival – as the ideal of the twelfth-century knight. 

   Wolfram says Chrétien didn’t understand the story.  “I have,” says he, “as my source the poet Kyot.”  We don’t know who that was, but he had supposedly been in Spain, where he got the story from a Moorish alchemist.  So there are alchemical themes in this story.  His version of the Grail is a stone vessel, which was brought down from heaven.  Now what he’s doing is imitating the Muslim Kaaba, the stone at Mecca that was brought down from heaven.  TMTT 246 

THE THEME OF THE GRAIL

   The theme of the Grail is the bringing of life into what is known as “the waste land.”  The waste land is the preliminary theme to which the Grail is the answer.  What is the sense of “the waste land” in medieval terms and in T.S. Eliot’s terms in his key poem, The Waste Land?  It’s exactly the same sense.  It’s the world of people living inauthentic lives – doing what they’re supposed to do.  In the twelfth century, people had to profess beliefs that they may or may not have held, they had to love in marriage people that they may or may not have learned to love, and they had to behave the way that the cardinals told them to behave.  And as you will see when Parzival fails in the Grail, he fails because he’s doing what he’s been told to do instead of what his heart tells him to do.  TMTT 214

THE GRAIL STORY:   There are many Grail romances, but there are three great ones.  The earliest is the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, which dates from about 1180.  The second, the greatest one, is the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach, which is the version that Wagner took over and changed.  It dates from around 1210.  These two are the Grail romances of the heroic view, in which the heroic knight, or Parzival, is a married man and a self-motivated figure.  The third great Grail romance, the one that Malory translated into English and condensed in the Morte d’Arthur, is an Old French text known as La Queste del Saint Graal (The Quest for the Holy Grail), written by a Cistercian monk whose name we do not know.  This rendition was followed by a lesser work by another Cistercian called Estoire del Saint Graal (History of the Holy Grail), wherein the Grail is interpreted as the vessel of the passion of Christ: the cup of the Last Supper and the cup, the same cup, that held his blood when his body was taken from the cross and his wounds were washed.  These Cistercian recountings emphasize the Christian point of view. 

   So here we have the two traditions in Europe: the heroic one, which is the native one of Europe going back to the old Germanic Celtic spirit, and the applied Christian one, which was brought in from the Near East, where the thinking and value system were precisely the opposite – of that of Europe.  In the Near East, one’s membership in the community is what counts.  One is not an individual, one is a member of a society.  One is an organ in an organism.  Everything is done with an enormous emphasis on ritual, rules, laws.  Read the books of the Old Testament – Leviticus, for example – and you’ll see what it is.  TMTT 211

The Grail is a topic that can serve to guide us from the general universal themes of myth into the material that is specifically of the European consciousness that we inherit.  The period of the Arthurian and Grail romances, which dates almost precisely from A.D. 1150 to 1250, was something of a prelude to the second great phase of Occidental culture.  The first great phase was the Greco-Roman period, beginning with the Homeric epics.  The period of the Arthurian romances was the counterpart for the Gothic and modern world of the Homeric period for the Greco-Roman, which is to say it was then that the main themes were stated and developed in terms of culture values and the spiritual dimension. 

(The Grail Legend) contains archetypal features in the foregoing sense of the word, but it is also the product of a particular age and attitude of mind.  For this reason it allows us a glimpse into the specific mentality of the Middle Ages and thus touches upon problems of the Christian aeon which are psychologically important for the present day.  TGL – intro 38

   There are many Grail romances, but there are three great ones.  The earliest is the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, which dates from about 1180.  The second, the greatest one, is the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach, which is the version that Wagner took over and changed.  It dates from around 1210.  These two are the Grail romances of the heroic view, in which the heroic knight, or Parzival, is a married man and a self-motivated figure.  The third great Grail romance, the one that Malory translated into English and condensed in the Morte d’Arthur, is an Old French text known as La Queste del Saint Graal (The Quest for the Holy Grail), written by a Cistercian monk whose name we do not know.  This rendition was followed by a lesser work by another Cistercian called Estoire del Saint Graal (History of the Holy Grail), wherein the Grail is interpreted as the vessel of the passion of Christ: the cup of the Last Supper and the cup, the same cup, that held his blood when his body was taken from the cross and his wounds were washed.  These Cistercian recountings emphasize the Christian point of view. 

The fact that the Christianized Celts of the early period tended to place no less emphasis on the inward, mystical aspects of a story than on the outward, historical aspect, combined with the implications of the Gospel legend, prepared the way for a later recognition of analogies in the mystical tradition of India; and the number of such analogies immediately apparent to anyone familiar with both worlds is amazing.  For in India, whether in its Hindu or its Buddhist teachings, the accent is again on the mystical side.  It is not on the importance of historical events that may or may not have taken place, but on the requirement that something should happen, here and now, in one’s mind and will.  And this brings me to what is crucial, if not the crucial problem of this whole subject, namely that of the radical distinction between the esoteric (mystical) and exoteric (historical) ways of reading mythological symbols: as references, on the one hand, to powers operative in the human heart as agents of transformation, and, on the other, to actual or imagined historical events.   RG 82  … con’t …

   Take the symbol of the Virgin Birth for example.  This motif …

   This body of oral mythology does not break into writing until 1136.  On that date there is published a work by a monk named Geoffrey of Monmouth called Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain).  This book purports to be an account of the kings ruling in the British Isles – specifically in Britain – from the time of the fall of Troy until the coming of the Germans.  The model for the book is Virgil’s Aeneid, which tells the story of the fall of Troy, the escape of the Trojan prince Aeneas, his voyages until he arrives in Italy, and his establishment of Rome.  Geoffrey uses the same model to tell how a figure named Brut, after whom Britain is named, flees from Troy, traveling the length of the Mediterranean, sails up and around to Britain, and establishes there the line of the British Kings. 

   Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book is a compendium of Celtic lore, which up to that time had not been known to the literary world, and it broke like a bomb upon the world.  It was translated almost immediately into Norman French by an author named Wace, in a work called Roman de Brut.  Wace’s version gives us the first Round Table.  Soon thereafter a clergyman in the south of England named Layamon published a work in Middle English again called Brut, and it was enormously popular.  RG 130

The Grail Legend – Monastic version

The monastic Grail story, which I mentioned earlier, was composed about fifteen years after Wolfram’s Parzival.  The Fourth Lateran Council in the year 1215 proclaimed as authorized dogma the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Christ’s participation in the Eucharist is not a symbolic presence, but literal: the wine is Christ’s blood, and the wafer his body.  This created great excitement in the ecclesiastical world, and the whole story of the Grail became associated with that doctrine.   RG 134

The Grail Legend – Cistercian version

   The Cistercian series of Grail romances are La Queste del Saint Graal and after that L’Esoire del Saint Graal.  The two Cistercian monks (whose names we don’t know) both followed a man called Robert de Boron, who also had dealt with this story as concerning the vessel of Christ’s suffering.  The story here is that the Grail was brought to England (along with the Spear of Longinus) by Joseph of Arimethea.  So now we have an ecclesiastical version of the Grail, in which the central hero is not Parzival, the married man, but Galahad, whose name is supposed to have come from a Hebrew word meaning “mountain of witness,” and there’s definitely an ecclesiastical accent.  In that story we see the disqualification of most of the knights because of their secular character.  The only three that come through are Sir Bors, Sir Perceval, and Sir Galahad.   RG 136

   In this adventure of the Cistercian quest, however, no matter what way you go, the path leads to the renunciation of the world, the confession of sins, and the sacraments.  However – and this is again associated with the work of Joachim of Floris, who wrote about the three ages of manifestation of God – the Christ who is responsible for the Grail in the hands of Joseph of Arimathea is the resurrected Christ, the Christ Who Is to Come.  That is to say, in this work the Grail represents the Hermetic rather than ecclesiastical tradition.  So always associated with the Grail we have the background, not the foreground, of the Christian tradition.  In Wolfram’s Parzival, it is a secular life that leads to this realization of transcending the sacraments.  In the Cistercian quest, it is the religious life that leads to this experience, again, of transcending the sacraments.   RG 137

   So in both the secular and the monastic Grail tradition we have the same kind of secret esoteric notion that we find in the Oriental texts, and particularly in Parzival, where there is a line you won’t find in Hinduism or Buddhism anywhere.  In the Orient, the ways of initiation are mapped out – you know what stage you’re in, you find your guru, you submit to the guru, you do not criticize, you do what he tells you, and he leads you to your own experience.  Not so in this European quest.  In Parzival, you are to follow your own nature, your own inspiration; following someone else will lead you only to ruin.  That is the sense of Parzival’s journey, and that is the sense you get, briefly, here, as the knights set out on the quest for the Holy Grail.  RG 137

   I offer this as our counterpart and one to be remembered, and not to be mixed up with Wagner or Thomas Malory, Malory comes along in the fifteenth century.  His translation is right from the Quest.  The Grail story that you get in Malory is that of the Cistercian monks.  This is also the one Tennyson took over, and it’s the one that influenced Wagner.  And I think it’s too bad that the image of the Grail that has come down to us has been in the monastic tradition, while the secular one – the layman’s movment, you might say – has been left in the woods.  The story, as we have seen, was developed to the full by Wolfram von Eschenbach.  He understood knighthood and what it was about in a way that Gottfried never did and that the monks couldn’t.   RG 137