Despite some inevitable overlap, these two studies take rather different routes through the Sargasso Sea of grail research. At journey’s end each study certainly conveys a sense of great navigation and exploration, but, perhaps in keeping with the nature of their subject, there is no triumphant flag-planting ceremony on dry newfound land. Instead, we can be allowed a little satisfaction that some sea-mists have been dispelled and fog-bound sand-banks have been avoided.
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Enough of metaphor, the bane of grail-seekers! John Marino leaps straight into discussion of the grail’s influence in modern popular culture, particularly interpretations offered on film by Excalibur, Apocalypse Now, The Fisher King, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He demonstrates how these 20th-century “texts” (as well as traditional printed texts) are indebted more to 19th- and 20th-century academic and populist theories than a close reading of the original medieval texts. Of course he then gives an overview of the most influential of the medieval texts: Perceval, Peredur, Perlesvaus and Parzival – all named after the original grail quester – plus Robert de Boron’s incomplete works (and the related Didot Perceval), the French Vulgate Cycle and Malory.
Marino examines the cultural contexts when these medieval texts were rediscovered in the 19th century in an atmosphere of new and innovative scientific enquiry, particularly affected by Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Medieval conceptions of the grail were subjected to scrutiny, and the origins of this extraordinary object were sought in Celtic paganism, Christian orthodoxy, mystery cults and fertility rituals, a process that continues right down to our own times. These theories soon established a symbiotic relationship with imaginative literature, as the author shows in a wide-ranging discussion. This has resulted in a 20th-century “cultural conflict between a relativist pluralism and a Christian absolutism” which more recent Grail fiction has attempted to syncretise and harmonise, arguably not very successfully.
Up against religious interpretations of the grail come humanist approaches, sceptical of a reality of the visions and secularising the grail in purely psychological or metaphorical terms so that it becomes a symbol of whatever you want it to be. Not unexpectedly, Marino argues, a further reaction to this set in so that on the one hand the Grail in its various manifestations became the goal of ‘New Age’ mysticism or spirituality and, on the other hand, a physical reality beloved of conspiracy theorists, in the guise of a bloodline or an object of power. At this stage, one senses, the boundary between fact and fiction has become very blurred.
The Grail Legend in Modern Literature provides a very thorough trawl through British and American grail texts and a few other works in translation, within a roughly chronological typology that successfully charts how fashions in interpreting the enigma of the grail have changed over two centuries. Slight criticisms however may be levelled. For example, Marino seems unaware (48-50) that George Moore’s 1926 “novel” Perronik the Fool is, like Andrew Lang’s Victorian translation, a version of a 19th-century Breton folktale (which may or may not already have been freely adapted in its first printed appearance). Secondly, no overview can hope to cover everything in depth but there is, despite discussion of The Mists of Avalon, little or no space given to the influence of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (often at second- or third-hand), to feminist interpretations of the grail (eg Redgrove and Shuttle’s The Wise Wound, which even leads to le graal becoming feminised la graal in recent texts) or indeed to strong female associations with a relic that would have normally been in the custody of male ecclesiastics. Finally, Marino’s detailed synopses of narrative plots often interrupt the flow of his arguments and risk losing this reader, at least.
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Richard Barber’s 2004 study – made available in paperback in 2005 – is much more ambitious in its scope while also inspiring confidence in its interpretations. The Holy Grail also begins with an outline of the main French and German medieval texts, though here in considerably more detail. Barber then discusses what the Grail and the quest for it may have meant to contemporary readers of (and initially listeners to) these romances, which began as poems and then moved into prose as if to underline their supposed historicity. As he shows, in the medieval mind “the Holy Grail [existed] in the borderline between orthodox doctrine and lay devotion” and, though studiously ignored by the Church, reflected “the religious enthusiasm for relics, and for the Eucharist” by well-to-do but pious laity.
The Reformation dealt a blow to the literary grail – as it did to a universal Christian doctrine and a devotion to relics – and it only re-emerged, as Marino’s book also concluded, in the last couple of centuries when the climate of belief had changed irrevocably. Re-discovered by scholars, and then by creative artists, the grail now reflected the pre-occupations of individuals increasingly addressing a multiplicity of literate (and, latterly, not so literate) audiences, who neither knew nor cared what the grail may have meant to its medieval authors and readers. In scholarly but accessible prose Barber chronicles where what he calls “the interplay between imagination and belief” leads: into fascinating territory, certainly, but sadly not to Sarras or Carbonek.
“Where our medieval forebears reached for the spiritual and intangible, our materialistic age reaches only for the top shelf in the supermarket,” Barber writes. So, here there is no code to be deciphered or secret to be divulged; instead, here we have a diverting and detailed pilgrim’s guide to the holy places, available on the shelves of all good bookshops. If you only buy one book on the grail, this should be it.
2005 reviews revised 2012, 2014