A Grail quest in Catalonia

Joseph Goering:
The Virgin and the Grail;
Origins of a Legend
Yale University Press 2005

South of the high peaks of the Pyrenees and bounded by Aragon to the west and Andorra to the east lies a corner of Catalonia that offers an unexpected but strangely satisfying explanation for the literary Grail’s medieval antecedents.

Continue reading “A Grail quest in Catalonia”

The Phoenix and the Fossil

archaeopteryx
Source: Florida Center for Instructional Technology http://fcit.usf.edu/

Phoenix-like, from stone
it rises, wings raised, renewed,
the stuff of legend

Paul Chambers
Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals
John Murray Publishers Ltd 2002

A few years ago I had a notion about the legend of the grail as it appeared in medieval Germany. The Bavarian poet Wolfram von Eschenbach described the grail (grâl or graal he called it) by the strange term lapsit exillis, by which he meant a stone rather than the more familiar dish or chalice. Wolfram has his own conceit about this object:

By the power of that stone the phoenix burns to ashes, but the ashes give him life again. Thus does the phoenix [moult] and change its plumage, which afterwards is bright and shining and as lovely as before.*

When reading this I had a sudden vision of the deceased phoenix on its stone as an archaeopteryx fossil, the first of which had been discovered in Bavaria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Checking the map I later discovered that Wolfram’s home town, now re-named Wolframs-Eschenbach in his honour, is not that far distant from the Altmühltal, a river valley where the limestone quarries that first revealed these winged and feathered creatures are situated. Was it possible that this medieval poet had seen a now vanished archaeopteryx fossil, that it too reminded him of the legend of the phoenix, and that he subsequently co-opted that legend for his version of the wondrous quest object?

I included this notion in a short story I wrote, and passed the hypothesis by the odd mildly intrigued expert, but it remains mere speculation, however much I’d like to believe it may be true. And there it stayed until this account of archaeopteryx (from the Greek for ‘ancient’ and ‘wing’) by palaeontologist Paul Chambers started me wondering about it again. Continue reading “The Phoenix and the Fossil”

Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail

Norris J Lacy and Joan Tasker Grimbert (editors)
A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes
D S Brewer 2008

We have a lot to be thankful to Chrétien de Troyes for: without him there would be no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail; he virtually kickstarted the romance tradition through his use of a vernacular language, French; and of the six surviving texts ascribed to him five have — to a greater or lesser extent — an Arthurian background. So, one of the great literary what-ifs must hinge on whether Arthurian literature, both medieval and modern, would have been what it is now if not for Chrétien. Continue reading “Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail”

An illusory Questing Beast

durer

Lev Grossman Codex Arrow 2005

In that this is a tale of a modern quest for a medieval book that purports to be about the Quest for the Holy Grail, Codex is undoubtedly an Arthurian novel. We are treated to circumstantial details about a medieval codex, A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians by Gervase of Langford, and much about encoded messages, bookbinding and medieval manuscripts. This reveals the author’s intention to impress us with the depth of his research, and I have to say that some of the detail is fascinating, and as an Arthurian I thought the conceit of a hitherto unknown manuscript about the Matter of Britain promising.

Less promising are the details of a virtual reality game that the hero simultaneously gets drawn into, which are meant to impress us with the breadth of Grossman’s online experience; the novel is set in the middle of the noughties and so it becomes less hard as time goes on to say how that this may not stand up as a plot device while real-life technology overtakes his scenario. Continue reading “An illusory Questing Beast”

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. Continue reading “A magisterial and elegant summary”

Two Grail studies

The Ace of Cups from an early printed Tarot pack

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. Continue reading “Two Grail studies”

Aspirations and anxieties

landscape
Alan Lupack
The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
Oxford University Press 2007

In the late sixties studying the significance of the Arthurian legends become surprisingly mainstream both in academic circles and in popular culture, spawning a library fit for a modern-day Tower of Babel. Alan Lupack’s Guide is the kind of vademecum that many students like me yearned for in those early days.

This massive survey (nearly 500 pages in the 2007 paperback edition) aims to introduce the general reader to a study of the Arthurian legends. Continue reading “Aspirations and anxieties”

Disturbing visions

gatehouse

Neil Gaiman:
Coraline and Other Stories
Bloomsbury Publishing 2009

This is a collection of eleven Gaiman short stories (and one poem) repackaged for the young reader market. The novella Coraline is added to Bloomsbury’s earlier Gaiman collection M for Magic, while M for Magic was itself a throwing together of disparate tales, some from the adult collection Smoke and Mirrors, some from other publications, all deemed suitable to send a chill down pre-teen, teen and, of course, adult readers. So the moral is, if you already have these titles in your library you may want to pass on this ‘new’ title.

Or then again, you might not. This is a good place to include the almost flawless Coraline together with the other chillers about the fears and bogeys that haunt the childish and not so childish imagination, deliciously presented in a volume with pages that are black-edged and including Dave McKean’s original nightmarish illustrations for Coraline. This story about a girl (don’t call her ‘Caroline’) who finds a way into a parallel house where her mother has been replaced by a sinister figure with buttons for eyes is both a terrifying and yet satisfying modern equivalent of all those Grimm fairytales, such as Hansel and Gretel, with their bewitching and unspeakable devouring figures.

Outstanding are the pieces that bring horror (and sometimes humour) rather too close to home; Troll Bridge, Don’t Ask Jack, Chivalry, The Price and The Witch’s Headstone, whether set in the UK or the States, all remind the reader that the veil separating reality and the supernatural may be awfully thin. Less engaging but just as skilfully written are the more alien, fantastic or futuristic stories such as How to Sell the Ponti Bridge and Sunbird; these are more for those who have leanings towards genre fiction, but they are still rooted in a rich Western cultural heritage.

Gaiman is a master at bringing the unexpected to the seemingly banal; don’t read this if you don’t ever want to have his disturbing visions floating up to your consciousness unbidden.

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. Continue reading “A heady brew”

A grail like no other

Hildesheim portable altar, V&A Museum
Hildesheim portable altar, V&A Museum

G Ronald Murphy Gemstone of Paradise:
the Holy Grail in Wolfram’s
Parzival

Oxford University Press 2010

Who has not heard of the grail? Who does not have an image of it, perhaps as a cup or some other receptable? Who has not gathered that there is some mystery concerning it, such as it being the chalice of the Last Supper, or the bloodline of Christ, or even some angelic or alien artefact? And who has not gathered that it is something many search for but few, if any, find? What is it, where did it come from and what is its significance? Does anyone really know?

It may be best to go back to basics. Continue reading “A grail like no other”

Run-of-the-mill supernatural romance

Carcassonne-19th-century
19th-century Carcassonne

Kate Mosse Labyrinth Orion 2006

I read this before it was acclaimed The Viewers’ Choice (in a TV Book Club shortlist at the 2006 British Book Awards) but, frankly, remained unimpressed. I had high expectations for an out-of-the-ordinary modern take on the holy grail written by a successful reviewer and generous sponsor of new writing, but was deeply disappointed at the result.

Kate Mosse has mixed up a cocktail of familiar elements (Cathar heretics, reincarnation, grail, medieval history) and somehow turned it into an entirely run-of-the-mill romance-cum-fantasy-cum-thriller. I admire her research into life in the Middle Ages, her knowledge of the French Midi (she lives in the old walled city of Carcassonne, ‘restored’ to a Victorian vision of the High Middle Ages) and her attempt to make the grail a little different from the familiar holy bloodline thesis. The labyrinthine storyline seesaws between the past and the present, turning on the fulcrum of a scandalously disorganised archaeological investigation.

However, Continue reading “Run-of-the-mill supernatural romance”

A seminal work

tor

Geoffrey Ashe King Arthur’s Avalon:
the story of Glastonbury
Collins 1958

First published in 1957, this is the post-war book that really re-invigorated interest in King Arthur and the Dark Ages by focusing on the medieval notion that he was buried in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. On the surface all the omens were good: archaeologically there was evidence that there was an ancient cemetery here – in the early sixties a prominent archaeologist, Ralegh Radford, would even pinpoint where 12th-century monks dug for the supposed grave of Arthur – legends placed Dark Age saints here, the medieval abbey was one of the richest (if not the richest) monastic foundation in the country, and many people in recent times have been attracted by the supposed aura of the place. Certainly Ashe, a Catholic, believes there is something special here, and that the legends, even if not true, have a significance beyond the claimed facts; and he has lived on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor for many decades now, a vindication of the magic of this small Somerset town. Continue reading “A seminal work”

Nostalgia for the sixties zeitgeist

camelot

Geoffrey Ashe ed The Quest for Arthur’s Britain
Pall Mall 1968

The 60s saw a rapid rise in interest in all things Arthurian, spurred on by a New Age zeitgeist which embraced all forms of fantasy from Tolkien to comics and by other aspects of popular culture, including musicals like Camelot. In the middle of it all a more archaeological approach to the little-understood post-Roman period in Britain was emerging which sought to throw light on what was popularly known as the Dark Ages; and the epitome of this approach was the five-year investigation (from 1966 to 1970) of the Somerset hillfort of South Cadbury Castle by the provocatively-named Camelot Research Committee. Perhaps as a direct result of the publicity surrounding the excavations the 1967 film of Camelot actually featured a map which placed the court roughly where the hillfort was situated. Continue reading “Nostalgia for the sixties zeitgeist”

A treasure chest of relics

By Christophe.Finot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Round Table in the Grand Hall, Winchester, by Christophe Finot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Rouse, Cory Rushton:
The Medieval Quest for Arthur
The History Press 2005

Nowadays, a book possibly entitled The Invention of King Arthur might imply subterfuge and forgery. Several centuries ago, when “to invent” would simply mean “to chance upon”, it would instead imply a re-discovery of what already existed. Nowadays we are rightly wary of Arthurian relics such as Arthur’s Tomb at Glastonbury, Arthur’s Seal, Gawain’s skull, Lancelot’s sword and the Winchester Round Table, as objects more likely to be “invented” in the modern sense of “made up” rather than pre-existing. In Caxton’s 15th century, with fewer critical tools at their disposal, people were more inclined to accept such chanced-upon unprovenanced evidence at face value (though then as now there were always doubters and detractors, as the wholesale destruction of saintly relics in the English Reformation was to demonstrate); however, I am of course aware that weeping stuatues and their ilk still excite the credulous in our own time.

Continue reading “A treasure chest of relics”