Grail n. the Holy Grail, in medieval legend, the cup or platter used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper.
[from French from Latin gradalis = dish] — The Hutchinson Encyclopedic Dictionary 1991
This, a cup or chalice, is the common conception of the Holy Grail when it’s featured in novels, comics and films; in a more abstract sense it’s casually abused by lazy journalists when they want an easy metaphor for the ultimate or the unobtainable.
But the grail’s origins are more complex than popular culture would have you imagine, a fact that has given rise to varied theories purporting to have identified the real grail, often followed by fictional treatments latching on to the latest or most outlandish claim. In one sense, there is no one grail but several grails, and in another sense the whole concept is a chimaera, a fantastical concoction of real objects, wishful thinking and spiritual abstractions.
Confused? Well, you’re in great company. Over the decades I’ve come across scholarly studies, pseudohistories and fictional takes on the nature of the grail, nearly all contradicting each other, and more continue to litter my literary path and confuse as they bemuse. Below is a selection of my reviews of some of these, a selection which will be expanded as I add more reviews.
Whether they help you to sort the wheat from the chaff, the sublime from the mundane or the genuine from the jocular is another matter.
Richard Barber’s The Holy Grail: the history of a legend — a comprehensive study
Juliette Wood’s Eternal Chalice: the Enduring Legend of the Holy Grail — a magisterial summary
G Ronald Murphy’s Gemstone of Paradise: the Holy Grail in Wolfram’s Parzival — a grail like no other
Joseph Goering’s The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend — a grail quest in Catalonia
John B Marino’s The Grail Legend in Modern Literature — does what it says on the tin
Norris J Lacy and Joan Tasker Grimbert: A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes — imagine no Holy Grail
Nigel Bryant’s The Legend of the Grail — ripping yarn, religious myth
Leonardo Olschki’s The Grail Castle and its Mysteries — when legend becomes fact
Christine Poulson The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art, 1840-1920 — an artistic enquiry
Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth — supernatural romance
Lev Grossman’s Codex — an illusory Questing Beast
Thom Madley’s Marco’s Pendulum — terror at the Tor
Michael Clynes’ The Grail Murders — historical whodunit not for the po-faced
Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone — treasure in Cornwall
William Mayne’s The Twelve Dancers — a ancient grail-like cup in North Wales
C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength — Merlin in a Waste Land but no grail
C L Moore’s Doomsday Morning — quest for a futuristic grail in California