A magisterial and elegant summary

Rubin vase illusion http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png
Rubin vase illusion
http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png

Juliette Wood Eternal Chalice:
the Enduring Legend of the Holy Grail

I B Tauris Publishers 2008

As a journalistic metaphor for the ultimate or the unattainable, the Holy Grail is, well, the holy grail of metaphors. For the general public there may be a sense of it being the object of a quest, usually the cup of the Last Supper, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. For New Agers and pseudohistorians, it is a ineffable object with mystical powers, for academics a keyword for research into literature, art and cultural history, for scientists maybe an acronym for investigating the moon’s gravity. In other words, it is all things to all people, and therefore any attempt to pin it down could well be doomed to failure. But that hasn’t stopped the plethora of titles being published year on year.

Juliette Wood has lined up an impressive roll-call of academics to preview her Grail book in its opening pages, and they are spot on in their summations: here is a thoughtful, detailed and thorough study of the Grail, whether as literary fabrication, sacred relic, historical secret or popular metaphor. As a Director of The Folklore Society she is well placed to have an overview of the popular thought processes that require such an object to exist, and as an Associate Lecturer in the School of Welsh at Cardiff University she has ready access to the extensive literature that exists on this subject, as testified by a good tenth of the text dedicated to notes and bibliographical resources.

It is all here: medieval romances and relics, localised traditions, secret histories and cherished modern beliefs – barely a metaphysical stone is left unturned. If much of the material is already familiar to the interested reader, say from Richard Barber’s excellent study The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, then Dr Wood’s own introduction is a magisterial and elegant summary of not just who, what, where and when but also some of the hows and whys that cluster round the grail, and almost alone worth the cost of the hardback edition.

It is difficult in one book, however well-researched, to cover the extensive literature that has grown up (particularly in the last century), and there are naturally a few absences – not unexpectedly in the field of fiction, but also in popular academia, such as Joseph Goering’s The Virgin and the Grail, to name one title off the top of my head. Nevertheless, this is a comprehensive introduction for anyone not bitten by the conspiracy bug, a reference book to add to any enthusiast’s groaning shelves.

2009 review revised 2013 and 2014

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6 thoughts on “A magisterial and elegant summary

    1. Absolutely, and I’ve got several books exploring the antecedents of the medieval version of a quest object, some even claiming a direct line to this, that or the other cultural artefact. This and other excellent studies give detailed summaries, and to do them justice would require a book-length review or even yet another study!

  1. once, a phrase popped into my head: “Drinking the blood from the cup of the holy grail” as a metaphor for perceptual experience in general, coupled with the realization that the “face vase” revealed a goblet. Indeed, our skulls are full of blood (and other stuff), and what we actually experience is entirely inside our blood-filled skulls. The wrathful deities of Buddhism are called “Heruka”, which means “Blood drinker” in some languages, many of them are depicted holding blood-filled skulls.
    It seems there’s very few references linking the Face Vase to the Holy Grail….

    1. Interesting points, thanks. There have been so many books on the symbolism of the grail for modern minds — I’m thinking of The Wise Wound, for example, and The Chalice and the Blade, both of which have taken a feminist view of prehistory, bringing in the sacred links between blood and drinking cups found in several cultures and trying to make them psychologically relevant to the modern age. I’m not the of course, to use the Rubin vase image as a symbol for the grail! 🙂

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