Ripping yarn, religious myth

Edward Reginald Frampton The Passage of the Holy Grail to Sarras

Nigel Bryant compiler and translator
The Legend of the Grail
D S Brewer 2004 Arthurian Studies LVIII

While many readers assume that Thomas Malory’s famous epic is the epitome of Arthurian romance, fewer realise that what this author did was to extract the meat from several earlier French stories and serve them up not only in English but in a strong narrative arc that we know under the title Caxton gave it, Le Morte d’Arthur. In The Legend of the Grail Nigel Bryant imagines what a monkish redactor or scribe in, say, the 1240s would have done when confronted with the many different French versions of the Perceval romance. Would he not have done something similar to what Malory achieved more than two centuries later and prune, conflate and effect consistency?

This, then, is what Bryant himself undertakes to do. He takes “eight great French romances” composed during a period spanning half a century — Robert de Boron’s prose Joseph of Arimathea, Chrétien’s unfinished poem Perceval, the four mostly independent continuations of Perceval (two anonymous and one each by Gerbert and Manessier), the Glastonbury-linked Perlesvaus and the prose tale Quest of the Holy Grail (the last two also anonymous). He then re-forges them into a continuous narrative, as if they were the pieces of a broken sword, and presents them as the medieval legend of this mysterious object. The Whole Book of the Holy Grail, as it might be if Malory had attempted the project.

Does it work? Yes, I think it does. Bryant has already translated for the same publisher Perceval and selections from the Continuations, Perlesvaus (as The High Book of the Grail) and Joseph of Arimathea as part of Merlin and the Grail. He is thus in an ideal position not only to draw on his earlier translations but also to compare, select and edit. And, without recourse to the obscurest mock archaic language used by Sebastian Evans and his contemporaries a century or so ago, he does so in a fine , flowing, modern prose style that still manages to capture a medieval sense of mystery.

sword of peaceInconsistencies there are, of course, but this is not Bryant’s fault but that of the romances, which often contradicted themselves as well as each other. The problem of the Grail’s visible form, for example, is not resolved. In Perceval it is a “beautiful, bejewelled vessel” like a flat dish to serve fish, but later it serves a single mass wafer. In Joseph the vessel in which Christ “made the sacrament” (a chalice is meant) is compared to a stone tomb, with the Eucharist’s paten as the tomb lid and the corporal as winding sheet. In Perlesvaus it appears — variously and bizarrely — as chalice, child, or crucifix.

The translator’s selection of episodes gives in particular a vivid sense of the bewildering encounters that Perceval, Gawain, Lancelot, Bors and Galahad are subject to. Some adventures are pre-ordained, others unexpected; some are murderous, others almost comic; some have an allegorical significance, others have a fairytale quality. All in all, Bryant’s The Legend of the Grail is part ripping yarn and part religious myth; re-told in a seemingly seamless narrative with verve and panache it is true to its sources but at the same time eminently accessible to a modern audience.

2 thoughts on “Ripping yarn, religious myth

  1. This sounds like a wonderful winter read. I’d love to sit by a fire and allow myself to be swept away into the land of myth and wonder. Though, I must admit, I’m a little disappointed. I read “Ripping yarn” and assumed someone had written a humors take on the grail.


    1. It’s a bit like a colourful quilt, contrasting colours and patterns and tones from the different sections sewn together, held together by the backing material that is the subject matter.

      My title was, I suppose deliberately, a Monty Python reference, but for all the potential gore of deadly personal combat the knightly duels do have the feel of Victorian pulp fiction about them. And the religious bits, in contrast, get quite ecstatic in a mystical way — if you like that sort of thing!


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