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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical Introduction by George McLean Harper (1863–1947)

By The Legend of the Holy Grail

THE MODERN poets, in their search for epic material, have laid under tribute the history of the world and the mythologies of all races. Yet the limited number of really epic subjects thus discovered testifies either to the weakness of literary invention or to the narrow bounds of heroic possibilities. A few old themes, already used in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, have served again for most of the ambitious narrative compositions of the nineteenth. Tennyson, Browning, William Morris, and Swinburne, in English, and Richard Wagner in German, have been the chief narrative poets of our time, and their work has very largely been to infuse modern poetical sentiment and modern philosophy into mediæval stories. Except Browning, who is a son of the Renaissance, these poets have all found a great part of their epic material in the early traditions of the Celtic and Germanic races.

The most heroic of these traditions celebrate the gods and heroes of the ancient Northern religion—Wodin, Thor, Freya, Balder, Loki, Siegfried, Brunhild,—the terrible and beautiful figures which have grown out of the Edda, through the Nibelungen-Lied, into Wagner’s stupendous tetralogy. The most romantic are the tales of Arthur and the Round Table; British in origin, and appropriate in character to the soft Celtic race and to the gentle modern poet who has popularized them again in ‘The Idylls of the King.’ The most spiritual are the stories of Perceval and the search for a sacred emblem, which are known collectively as the Legend of the Holy Grail.

The best known of the many modern embodiments of this legend are Tennyson’s ‘Holy Grail’ and the text of Wagner’s musical drama ‘Parsifal.’ In the Middle Ages it found wider and more varied expression, being the substance of narratives in prose as well as verse, and in no less than six languages,—French, Welsh, English, German, Icelandic, and Flemish. During the latter half of the twelfth century and the first quarter of the thirteenth, eight or ten different authors wrote the romances which, for lack of the more ancient works upon which they were based, we must call the original Grail cycle. The popularity of the legend was widespread. Its influence was profound, and showed itself especially in spiritualizing the Arthurian narratives, which had previously been of a worldly and even sensual character. Caxton no sooner set up his press in England than he wrote: “Many noble and divers gentlemen of this realm came and demanded many and often times wherefore I have not made and emprynted the noble history of the San Graal;” and in 1485 he did “emprynt” Malory’s ‘Morte Darthur,’ which is saturated with the mysticism of the Grail idea.

In a mass of poetical work extending over many years, in various lands, and produced by informing old borrowed stories with new imaginative meaning, it is not easy to determine the distinguishing features. There are, however, two principal lines of narration which lie prominent to the view amid all the confusion of the Grail stories, and to which the rest is subordinate. These are the tale of Perceval, and the account of a miracle-working object connected with Christ’s passion. The former is in substance as follows:—

A banished queen, widow of a king slain in combat, lives in the wild-wood with her little son. To guard him from the dangers of court life, she brings him up in ignorance of his royal origin and of all warlike arts. His childhood is spent in companionship with the birds of the forest. He loves them, and understands their language. One day he encounters several knights in a green glade, and is fascinated by the splendor of their arms and what they tell of their wandering life. Following their example, he sets forth to conquer the world,—to win the love of women and perform deeds of valor. Ignorance, foolhardiness, and awkwardness are but the outward appearance of his true innocence, courage, simplicity, and chastity. After many adventures he reaches an enchanted castle, upon which some dreadful woe seems to have fallen. A wounded man, called the “Fisher King,” lies there speechless and supplicating relief; and at regular intervals there are borne before this sufferer a bleeding spear and a sacred vessel, at sight of which the King and his attendant knights look expectantly at the simple Perceval. He has been taught, however, never to ask questions, and so leaves the castle without inquiring concerning its mysteries. Had he but asked, the Fisher King would have been healed; for, as all the inmates of the castle knew, this cannot be until a pure man makes question of the holy relics. Perceval goes forth unto many more adventures, but is ever haunted by pity for the King and regret of his own forbearance. At length he learns from a hermit that the vessel was the Grail, and devotes himself henceforth to searching for the castle, in hopes of repairing his fault. After many years he finds it again, but now the spell is not so easily unbound. He must first weld together the parts of a broken sword. When this is done, the Fisher King recovers, and hails Perceval as his deliverer and the chief defender of the Grail. Upon the Fisher King’s death, Perceval rules in his stead.

The history of the Grail is given in most romances substantially as follows: In a bowl which had served at the Last Supper, Joseph of Arimathea caught some of the blood which flowed from Christ’s wounds as he hung upon the cross. Being miraculously conveyed to England to escape persecution, he carried the precious vessel with him. Throughout his life it furnished him with food and drink, and with spiritual sustenance as well; and at his death he charged his successor to guard it faithfully. It was handed down from generation to generation, the Fisher King being a descendant of Joseph. This vessel is the Grail. According to other versions, the Grail chooses its own knights. It possesses miraculous properties, and at times is instinct with divine life. To discover its abiding-place and become one of its guardians is the ambition of good and valiant men, but only the pure in heart may find it.

Any student of folk-lore will instantly perceive in the Perceval narration an ancient heathen core, related to the tales of Siegfried in early Germanic literature and more closely still to Celtic mythology. Some investigators have tried to prove that the idea of a sacred spear and vessel, endowed with wonder-working powers and guarded by an order of knights, is also of Celtic and heathen origin. This is a much-vexed question, and one of the most difficult in the whole field of literary history. The advocates of this theory have at times of late seemed tantalizingly near to untangling the mysterious knot, and they may do it yet. But in the present state of knowledge it still is safer to say that the account of a sacred spear and bowl, as given in the Grail romances, appears to be mainly of Christian legendary origin, and to be based upon the lives of saints and certain apocryphal books of the New Testament, principally the Gospel of Nicodemus. It is probable that the Perceval story was familiar, in one or more of its many different forms, to the people of western Britain, before their conversion to Christianity. When the French romancers of the twelfth century began to develop the Grail idea,—the idea of a sacramental symbol, dwelling among men but discoverable only by the brave and pure,—they wove into their narrations all the tales of chivalry, all the mysterious adventures, all the recondite folk-lore, they remembered or could find in books. Points of resemblance between Perceval’s breaking the spell at the Fisher King’s castle and the religious legend of a quest for the Grail must have caught the attention of these poets, half inventors, half compilers, and been eagerly accepted. Chrestien de Troyes, who was possibly the first writer from whom a Grail romance has come down to us, was evidently intending to fuse these two elements in the latter part of his poem, but evidently also hesitating over so bold and difficult a task. He began his work about 1189, but died before finishing it or even reaching the point where the blending was to begin in earnest.

Mediæval poets felt no scruple about mingling Biblical stories and the lives of saints with the mythologies of Greece and Rome, or of Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain. They obeyed also a tendency to materialize religion; a tendency almost universal, which has had much to do with the attaching of undue importance to church rites and sacraments. More controversy and bloodshed have been occasioned by differences of opinion about baptism and the eucharist than by divergence of conduct in following the moral law of Christianity. This natural inclination to attribute deep spiritual significance to physical objects and actions—to symbolize, in a word—was what caused the Grail idea to develop so rapidly and gave it such a grasp upon the imagination of men. And the Christian legendary element in the Grail romances, while of later origin than the heathen element, is the central and unifying principle, and has drawn to itself and sublimated all those weird and strangely beautiful pagan stories of which Perceval is the hero, and which awaken in our hearts a faint reminiscence of the mysterious childhood of our race.

There have been many widely divergent opinions concerning the meaning and origin of the word Grail,—or Graal, or Gréal, or Gral, as it is variously spelt. An early and most natural conjecture was that San Gréal was a mistaken way of writing sang réal, the royal blood. But there is now scarcely any doubt that the early form Graal was derived from the Low Latin gradale, and this in turn from cratella, a bowl.

As to the order in which the members of the early cycle were composed, there is much difference of opinion. Three, however, seem older than the others, at least in the material they employ. They are Chrestien’s unfinished poem, the ‘Conte du Graal,’ in Old French; the Welsh mabinogi, or prose romance, ‘Peredur ab Evrawc,’ probably written later than the former, though based not upon it but upon very ancient matter, for it is simpler and shorter and makes no mention of the Grail, being chiefly a life of Perceval (Peredur); and the Early English metrical romance, ‘Sir Perceval of Galles,’ in which no talismanic or miracle-working objects are mentioned at all. These three compositions may have derived their Perceval elements from a common source, opened to the mediæval world during the reign of Henry II. by some Norman-English compiler interested in Welsh poetry. Chrestien’s poem was taken up by several other French writers after his death. An introduction was fitted to it, in which a violent attempt was made to reconcile the Christian and heathen elements. Many thousands of lines were also added, by various hands, in the early years of the thirteenth century. Meanwhile, probably before the end of the twelfth century, Robert de Borron had written, in Old French verse, a trilogy, ‘Joseph,’ ‘Merlin,’ ‘Perceval,’ of which the ‘Joseph’ and part of the ‘Merlin’ have been preserved. It was he especially who gave to all the material a Christian character. There are also later prose adaptations of his work. Great difficulty is occasioned by our ignorance of where to place the French prose romance, the ‘Queste del Saint Graal,’ generally attributed to Walter Map, and another, the ‘Grand Saint Graal,’ often accredited to Borron. In these the Christian symbolizing tendency is strong, and the story of Perceval is buried under many complicated tales of knight-errantry. They were, however, probably written before 1204.

There are several other members of the early cycle of Grail romances, but only one is of great importance,—the ‘Parzival’ of Wolfram von Eschenbach. He was a South-German poet, who lived at least as early as 1170 and as late as 1220. The ‘Parzival’ is his magnum opus. It is also the finest narrative poem of which the authorship is known, between the era of classical antiquity and the ‘Divine Comedy’ of Dante. Furthermore, it is the most complete, and virtually the final, mediæval handling of the two great themes which are involved in the Legend of the Holy Grail, and which Wolfram more thoroughly blends than any other poet. He accomplishes this by reinstating and beautifying the Perceval element, and eliminating most of the confused monkish legendary matter concerning the transference of the Grail from Palestine to Western Europe. He professes to base his romance upon Chrestien’s ‘Conte du Graal’ and upon a work by “Kiot the Provençal,” now lost without other trace than this assertion. Material about Perceval was evidently more plentiful and clearer than information as to the Grail, for Wolfram does not know it as a bowl, but as a stone.

In this noble work there lives a spirit of reverence and moral earnestness in marked contrast with the aimless and often frivolous character of the other romances. The best qualities of the German mind—its hospitality to tender sentiment, its love of truth, its individuality in religion—are here abundantly present. The Grail is not regarded merely as a talisman, but as a visible manifestation of the ever-living Christ,

  • “a light to guide, a rod
  • To check the erring, and reprove,”
  • a reminder of spiritual needs and privileges. But what will keep the ‘Parzival’ ever fresh and attractive is the breath of morning blowing through it, as from the greenwood where the world was young, where man was innocent and held converse with the sweet birds, where moral evil came not, and moral good was taught by a mother’s lips. The celebrated passage in which Wolfram relates the boyhood of Perceval is by far the choicest portion of his long poem. His selection and development of this theme have guaranteed to him, more surely than to the other authors of early Grail romances, a substantial and enduring fame.

    During the next two hundred and fifty years it was the mission of the Legend of the Holy Grail to be the spiritualizing tributary of a broader stream of literature, the bright full current of Arthurian romance. To this brimming river it gave purity and light. It gave direction as well; and for a time at least, the generations who sailed upon the bosom of these waters moved as honor and true religion might approve. Then the Renaissance, which was springtime to many fields of thought, fell like a polar night on these shining floods of fair mediæval story. The Legend of the Holy Grail, which had leaped down in tiny rivulets from the high antiquity of so many races, and had cleansed and beautified the literatures of so many tongues, and served so long as the highway of communication between widely separated nations,—this purifying and unifying stream lay frozen throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Suddenly, in our own time, it has been irradiated and warmed to life again and to the old genial motion. Modern English and German poets in reviving the Legend of the Holy Grail have been impelled by the same moral earnestness as Wolfram von Eschenbach, and by the same desire to show the way to seekers after the spiritual life.