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THEMES OF THE ARTHURIAN LEGEND: THE GRAIL

The legends of the Holy Grail are woven of three strands: a Celtic tradition of otherworld vessels
and supernaturally powerful weapons; an Arabic or Byzantine tradition of a mysterious stone
that had fallen from the heavens; and a Christian tradition, perhaps of Gnostic or heretical origin,
of a mysterious talisman.
1. Celtic Traditions
Jessie Weston held the view that there lay at the root of the Grail tradition, the rites of a secret
mystery cult. The Grail might have been a sacramental dish of the kind used in the Orphic
tradition and apparently taken over by the Christian Church; this possibility is explored in the
fourth volume of Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God. Miss Weston also suggested that the
Bleeding Lance, carried by a squire, and the Grail, carried by a maiden, must have been originally
symbolic elements of a classical mystery rite.
Loomis held the alternative view that the origin of the Grail legends was Celtic. The Celtic gods
of the Underworld or of the Land Beneath the Waves (Nodens or Nuadua, Gwynn ap Nudd,
Manannnan Mac Lir, Bran the Blessed) possessed magic vessels of inexhaustible ambrosia and
were to be found in mysterious castles hidden in mist, surrounded by water or by impenetrable
forest.
2. Eastern Traditions
Wolfram's Parzival contains passages that reveal a knowledge of events in the Levant, as might
have been told by returning crusaders. Indeed, Wolfram claims to have taken his subject matter
from a book given to him by Philip, Duke of Flanders, who had been in those lands in 1177. He
also cites as a source a certain mysterious Kyot, who provided him with further material from
the south of France or perhaps Moorish Spain (and the Kabbalah of the Spanish Jews). So there
are Arabic and other elements in Wolfram's story that do not appear in his primary source,
Chrtien's unfinished poem.
In Wolfram's account, the Grail is a stone that fell from the heavens. It is by the power of this
stone that the phoenix rises from the ashes. Hence Wagner's reference to the meteoric stone in
the mosque at Mecca.

3. Christian Interpretations
Arthur, the Once and Future King
With the appearance in 1136 of The History of the Kings of Britain, an extraordinary book
written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the names of the mythical hero Arthur and the mythical
wizard Merlin became inseparably linked. The book became the medieval equivalent of a best
seller, with an enormous number of copies being made (in an age before the printing press) and
circulated throughout western Europe. Many adaptations and paraphrases were made in Latin
prose and verse, and then vernacular versions appeared in Old English, Old French or Welsh. The
characters and ideas of Geoffrey's book were developed by French writers, such as Marie de
France and Chrtien de Troyes. Other tales were related to the court of Arthur: these included
the love story of Tristam and Yseult or Tristan and Isolde (of which the earliest version appeared
around 1150) and the story of the Grail and its guardian, the Fisher King.

Grail Romances:
The medieval romances that tell of the Holy Grail divide into two groups.
In the first group are the different versions of the story of the quester who visits the Grail Castle,
where he witnesses miracles but fails to ask the vital Question. In the earlier versions of this
story, the quester is either Gawain or Perceval.
In the second and smaller group are the romances dealing with the early history of the Grail.
These describe the history of a sacred vessel in which the blood of Christ had been captured.
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Joseph Campbell divided the literature of Arthur, Merlin and the Holy Grail into four overlapping
phases:
The first of these phases was concentrated on Arthur and Merlin.
In the second, the focus moved to the knights of Arthur's court, including Perceval and
Gawain, whose adventures were described in Chrtien's Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal.
The third phase was motivated by an attempt by the Church to take over the popular
figures and events of the courtly romances and to utilise them in the promotion of
Christian doctrines.
In the final phase, the literature of the Holy Grail reached its apogee in the work of the
poet-knight Wolfram. It was with Wolfram that western civilization arrived at a
mythology of inwardly motivated quest, directed from within: the tragic line of the
individual life develops from within outward, dynamically, functionally.