A heady brew

compass roseStuart McHardy On the Trail of the Holy Grail
Luath Press Ltd 2006

Another of this author’s Arthurian titles (his 2001 The Quest for Arthur was also published by Luath Press) takes him on a quest from the pages of medieval writers to places in the Scottish landscape, and from the early medieval period back into the mists of time. Along the way he encounters folklore and legend, Dark Age warriors and Goddess worship, Pictish symbol stones and natural wonders. It’s all a bit contentious, especially his insistence that every crucial aspect of the Arthurian legend, from Arthur himself to the location of Avalon, is to be firmly set in Scotland, and McHardy flits in a gossipy style from one discipline to another, taking a nugget from one or another scholar and linking it indiscriminately to antiquarian speculation. In fact, despite describing himself as a ‘cultural ecologist’ McHardy is actually a typical speculative antiquarian, mixing fact and fancy in a heady brew that leaves you with a hangover.

His solution to the interpretation of the Grail is that its origins lie in the Corryvreckan, the whirlpool that lies between the islands of Jura and Scarba just off the west coast of Scotland. As he admits, this is a hypothesis that was first advanced by Hugh McArthur, and it was then further explored by Eileen Buchanan. The basis of this notion is that the ‘cauldron’ mentioned in the 9th-century Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwfn is a reference to this whirlpool. Though McHardy never quotes from this poem (had he read it, even in translation?) one or two lines are vaguely suggestive of a maelstrom, with a sense of wind, dark water and spray:
From the breath of nine maidens it was kindled … | A dark ridge around its border and pearls.*

This is an attractive theory, but with only a little to commend it; as McHardy himself admits, as the idea of the Grail ‘first appeared in the closing years of the 12th century’ there is a rather large chronological gap between McHardy’s imagined celebration of a natural wonder in the prehistoric period and Chrétien de Troyes’ first description of the object centuries later.

Whether the Corryvreckan is ‘a good candidate for the deepest ideas behind the concept of the Holy Grail as it has developed over the centuries […] and millennia’ really depends how far back you can push the putative links between an early medieval Welsh poem, a French romance, miscellaneous folklore of unknown antiquity and modern reconstructions of ancient pagan beliefs. And whether you can accept that a mystical cauldron is just a metaphor for a natural phenomenon. Myself, I don’t give this claim to have finally identified the origins of the grail any credence.

* Text and translation of Preiddeu Annwfn can be viewed here: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/annwn.htm

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2 thoughts on “A heady brew

  1. Picking over these much-tramped areas seems to result in ever-widening speculation and narrowing fact. They have been a trap for excellent writers – to me, Mary Stewart lost her edge venturing into these waters.
    Convincing me that origins were in Scotland would take considerable evidence and persuasion.

  2. There is no doubt that there are lots of suggestive legends and placenames that seem to place Arthur in Northern Britain, just as much as in Wales and the West Country. The difficulty is that many of them are of recent or unknown antiquity, unlikely to date back to the Dark Ages.

    An added complication is the number of what might be called ‘parochial’ Arthurs that get championed by populist non-fiction (a dubious descriptor this, in many cases) writers, all clamouring to claim their Arthur is the only one true Arthur. I’ve started to post reviews of many of these claims: see my Arthuriana page for details!

    Of course, fiction writers can place their Arthurs wherever and whenever they like!

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