‘Yes, yes, Mr Burne-Jones,’ Benjamin Jowett is reputed to have said as he inspected the artist’s newly completed Arthurian murals in the Oxford Union, ‘but what does one do with the Grail once one has found it?’ This sounds almost as much the definitive question as the Grail was the definitive quest, but Jowett’s objection is more radically misconceived than any answer could be. The Grail is the ultimate object of desire: finding it would precisely be beside the point. Questing after it is an end in itself, as it is not for that other object of infinite search, the philosopher’s stone. Alchemists at least knew what they wanted, how to set about looking for it, and what it would do once it had been discovered. The writers of Grail romances often barely knew what their knights were to look for, or how they should reach it, let alone what they might do with it once they had found it.
This is at first sight surprising, since there was nothing very special about a grail. A graal was a large dish, and there were quite a lot of them around in the Middle Ages: they figure from time to time in descriptions of feasts, or in inventories among other household items. The word derives from the Latin gradalis, applied in the Middle Ages to a dish used for serving successive courses. It seems to have been the right size for serving a large fish, and was regularly used for that purpose. Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote the earliest of the Grail narratives, entitled simply Le Conte du Graal, describes it as the appropriate dish for a pike or lamprey or salmon. Chrétien had previously written romances called Eric and Enide and The Knight with the Lion; others had written a Romance of Troy, a Romance of Eneas, and love stories called such things as Floris and Blauncheflour and Tristan. But The Story of the Serving-Dish? How can a serving-dish be a plausible subject of a romance? And where does that definite article come from – this is not just a grail, but the grail?
The irony is that we never find out. Chrétien seems to have been just as interested in the bleeding spear that was carried in procession ahead of his grail, inside the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t castle where his naive hero, Perceval, has found lodging. He died before he completed the work, and before we discover why the grail deserves to give its title to the romance. He thus left space for a series of continuations, new versions and rewritings, and for the invention of new legends, and ultimately a whole mythology, or series of possible mythologies. The great thing about a grail – this grail or any other – is that it starts off empty. You can fill it with fish or with anything you like. And writers have been doing just that ever since.
The efforts of generations of later readers and writers to supply the missing contents were set on their way in the Conte du Graal itself. Perceval does not see anything in it, though he assumes that both the grail and the platter carried after it are to be used for serving somebody. The key issue, for him and for everyone else, has to do with who that person might be, not with what the grail contains. When he meets a strange maiden shortly after he leaves the castle, she interrogates him about this:
‘Did you ask the people where they were going in this manner?’
‘No word came from my mouth.’
She then tells him that the maimed Fisher King will remain unhealed as a result of his failure to speak. Perceval’s unfulfilled task, in fact, was not to find an answer, but to ask a question. So far as he is concerned, the answer is beside the point. Several thousand lines later, he is told, without having to ask for the information, who is served from the grail (the father of the maimed king), and also, more or less as an afterthought, what it contained (a eucharistic Host). In some later versions, he earns the right to make up for past misdeeds and to ask the question again, even though he already knows the answer.
The inadequacy of this explanation to match up to the original sense of mystery, and indeed the absence of any explanation for the explanation, left a vacuum that drew in anything within reach – perhaps a black hole might be a better analogy. For one of Chrétien’s earliest redactors, Wolfram von Eschenbach, the problem was largely the technical one of completing an uncompleted work. The grail of his Parzival is a stone, not a vessel; and instead of being used to serve somebody, it is itself served by a company of knights and maidens, selected by virtue of their names appearing inscribed around its circumference. In Lindsay Clarke’s Parzifal and the Stone from Heaven, a ‘grail romance retold for our time’, and trailing shades of Harry Potter in its title to tempt us in, the stone metamorphoses into a heart, then a womb containing male and female twins, and finally a mirror of human heterosexual love. An afterword suggests that the 12th-century grail romances operated to a four-point agenda, concerning the need to renegotiate the balance between the masculine and feminine principles, between civilisation and the natural order, between the ego and the soul, and between the conscious and its shadowing unconscious.
Whether Wolfram or Chrétien would have recognised themselves as such ecologically-minded Jungians is questionable. Chrétien’s earliest and most influential follower, Robert de Boron, would certainly not have done, having altogether more orthodox Christian ideas in mind. He took up Chrétien’s passing remark about the Mass wafer, and turned the Grail (now deserving a capital letter) into an object of religious veneration. His Grail is a relic of Christ, like the Cross and the nails or the veil of Veronica: relics of a kind in which interest had recently been rekindled by the occupation of the Holy Land by the Crusaders. Robert accordingly writes the prehistory of the Grail, from its origins to the time it arrived at the Court of King Arthur. The dish has now become the vessel of the Passover, and therefore a symbol of the Eucharist itself: it is the vessel that had contained the lamb, Christ’s body, or possibly (Robert is cagey on the matter) the chalice containing the wine, the eucharistic blood. Whichever function it served at the Passover, it was used again by Joseph of Arimathea to collect Christ’s blood at the Deposition from the Cross: a function for which a cup would be much more practical than a fish-platter, and which defined the iconography of the Grail ever after. The shift may have been helped by phonetic ambiguities: the saint graal, ‘Sankgreall’ in Sir Thomas Malory’s spelling, the ‘holy vessel’, leached into the sang réal, ‘royal blood’. The Holy Grail was the vessel that had preserved the Holy Blood. Europe, however, was awash with holy blood – Hailes Abbey had a highly efficacious sample – and nobody paid particular attention to the fashion of its various reliquaries. The Grail is not a metonym for its contents: the container itself is what matters.
Robert de Boron, like Chrétien, started out by writing in verse, the standard medium for narrative fiction; but his works were soon rewritten in prose, the medium of historical fact. This redaction, ‘attributed’ to Robert in Nigel Bryant’s careful subtitle to his translation, comprises the account of Joseph of Arimathea, a second part concerning the incubus-begotten Merlin, who was intended by the devils to counter the effects of the coming of Christ, and a third section describing the adventures of Perceval. The work proved even more irresistible than Chrétien’s, and it was rapidly adapted for incorporation into the massive linked series of Arthurian prose romances that has been successively known as the Vulgate Cycle, the Lancelot-Grail and now, in the new Pléiade edition, simply Le Livre du Graal, the Grail having subsumed the entire prehistory and history of Arthur. The early stages in this process are outlined by Bryant, and their development is traced forwards in Philippe Walter’s more substantial prefatory material to the first of a projected three parallel-text volumes. Joseph of Arimathea remains the hero of the first part of this new Graal, and the romance follows his adventures across a legendary Middle East populated by large numbers of pagan tyrants until he finally winds up in Britain. The monks of Glastonbury Abbey then took up the story, turning Joseph into the apostle to the British and founder of the first church at Glastonbury. Oddly enough, although the Grail figures generously in the romance, it was never mentioned in connection with Glastonbury itself, nor did the Abbey claim the Grail among its assets, material or spiritual. (Some of those assets were less material than others: its massive relic collection included part of the hole in which the Cross was set on the hill of Calvary.) To possess the Grail would have been a relic too far, a contradiction in terms. How could one quest for something that had a known location? How could one own something that was the ultimate object of desire?
The Grail may have been an impossibility as a physical object of veneration in the Middle Ages, but its capacity as a receptacle for anthropological and social wishful thinking has increased in line with modern ingenuity and modern preoccupations. Christianity in its miracle-working Catholic form being reckoned to lack intellectual respectability, paganism of various sorts has been poured into the empty vessel of the Grail. To Jessie Weston, responding to even smaller hints in Chrétien than those Robert de Boron took up (a besieged and starving city, a commonplace of romance; the Fisher King, nothing to do with the city, who has been wounded, like a good many other medieval knights, in the thigh – or in his case both thighs), it was all to do with fertility myths and the waste land. That particular myth was given the ultimate cultural endorsement by T.S. Eliot, not so much by his borrowing of the idea for a title as by the accident of The Waste Land’s being too short: those spare white pages left when the text was first set for printing needed, like the Grail itself, to be filled with something, and the famous notes were the answer. Wagner saw the Grail as a symbol that sacramentalised art itself – though all he could think to do with it once it had been found was to turn a spotlight on it; he gave all the action to a holy spear. The Nazis filled it with a mythical German nationalism. The great medieval scholar R.S. Loomis believed passionately that almost everything even remotely Arthurian derived from Celtic sources, and for him the Grail’s occasional power to provide the most desired foodstuffs showed that it was a Celtic horn of plenty hijacked by an imperialist Church. He was right about the horn of plenty, though not for the reasons he thought: the large number of books about the Grail in the numerous occult bookshops in Glastonbury suggest that a lot of people are making a lot of money out of it. And the film-makers aren’t doing badly either, witness Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
So what do you do with the Grail once you have found it? The members of the Monty Python team who survived the processes of questioning (‘What is the capital of Abyssinia?’; ‘What is your favourite colour?’) found themselves faced with a posse of police out to arrest them for grievous bodily harm committed at an earlier stage of their quest. But the author of the French Quest of the Holy Grail, perhaps a Cistercian, recognised something that had to wait another seven centuries for its theoretical formulation in Freud’s suggestion that seeking the ultimate object of desire is inseparable from seeking death. And that is what Galahad, the new-and-improved Grail knight of the Cistercian’s romance, finds when the object of his quest is finally revealed to him. Galahad has no desire other than the Grail: women in this clerical version of the romance are usually devils in disguise – no renegotiation of masculine and feminine principles here. The world is as devilish as the flesh, and matter must be rejected for spirit, body for soul.
So here is the answer to Jowett, in the English of Sir Thomas Malory, when his Galahad finally looks into the Grail:
And then he began to tremble right hard when the deadly flesh began to behold the spiritual things. Then he held up his hands toward heaven and said: ‘Lord, I thank Thee, for now I see that that hath been my desire many a day. Now, my blessed Lord, I would not live in this wretched world no longer, if it might please Thee, Lord.’
. . And therewith he kneeled down before the table and made his prayers; and so suddenly departed his soul to Jesu Christ, and a great multitude of angels bore it up to heaven even in the sight of his two fellows.
And these two knights saw come from heaven a hand, but they saw not the body. And so it came right to the vessel and took it and the spear, and so bore it up to heaven. And sithen was there never man so hardy to say that he had seen the Sangrail.