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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XII. The Arthurian Legend

§ 15. The Holy Grail

The ascription to Walter Map of the prose Quest of the Holy Grail links his name with the most intricate branch of Arthurian romance. The Grail saga, in its various ramifications and extensions, is the most difficult to interpret, and to account for historically, of all the constituent elements of the“matter of Britain.” None, at any rate, affords a better illustration of the way in which that matter came to be“subdued to what they worked in” by a particular group of romantic hands. Just as the ideals of courtly chivalry shape and colour the story of Lancelot, so do the ascetic proclivities of a monastic cult assert themselves in the gradual unfolding of the legend of the Holy Grail. The original hero of the Grail quest appears to have been Gawain; but he is soon displaced by the central figure of the existing versions of the story, Perceval. Perceval, in his turn, is superseded by one who“exemplifies, in a yet more uncompromising, yet more inhuman, spirit, the ideal of militant asceticism,” Lancelot’s son, Galahad. The earlier versions of the legend, however, know nothing of Galahad, nor is there any reason for assuming that the primitive formas of the story had any religious motive. In the Grail literature which has come down to us, two distinct strata of legend, which are, apparently, independent of each other in their orgin, are to be clearly traced. They are distinguished as the“Quest”proper, and the “Early History of the Holy Grail. The best-known versions of the“Quest”are the Conte del Graal, of which the earlier portions are by Chrétien de Troyes, the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach and the Welsh Mabinogi of Peredur. Of the“Early History”the chief versions are the Joseph of Arimathea and Merlin of Robert de Borron, and the Quête del St. Graal attributed to Map. In the“Quest”forms of the legend the interest turns mainly upon the personality of the hero, Percival, and upon his adventures in search of certain talismans, which include a sword, a bleeding lance and a“grail”(either a magic vessel, as in Chrétien, or a stone, as in Wolfram). The “Early History” versions dwell, chiefly, upon the nature and origin of these talismans. The search for the talismans is, in the“Quest”stories, connected with the healing of an injured kinsman, and with the avenging of the wrong done to him. In the fifteenth century English metrical romance of Sir Percyvelle, the vengeance of a son upon his father’s slayers is the sole argument of the story.

The Grail cycle, in its fully developed form, would thus seem to comprise stories of mythical and pagan origin, together with later accretions due entirely to the invention of romancers with a deliberately ecclesiastical bias. The palpably mythical character of the earlier“Quest”versions points to their being of more archaic orgin than the“Early History”documents, and they are almost certainly to be traced to Celtic sources.“The texture, the colouring, the essential conception of the older Grail Quest stories can be paralleled from early Celtic mythic romance, and from no other contemporary European literature.” These tales, however, proved susceptible of being used, in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, for religious purposes; thus, the Grail came to be identified with the cup of the Last Supper, which Pilate gave to Joseph of Arimathea, and in which Joseph treasured the blood that flowed from Christ’s wounds on the Cross. The cup was brought by Joseph to Britain, and its story is thus connected with an old legend which attributed to Joseph the conversion of Britain to Christianity. The traditions concerning this evangelisation of Britain appear to have been especially preserved in documents kept at the abbey of Glastonbury; and Glastonbury, associated as it was even with Avalon itself, came, as we know, to have a significant connection with Arthurian lore by the end of the twelfth century. The glorification of Britain manifestly intended by this particular use of the Grail legend suggests, once again, the interest taken by the Angevin court in the diplomatic possibilities of adroit literary manipulation of the Arthurian traditions. And if, indeed, Henry II can be proved to have had anything to do with it at all, an argument of some plausibility is established in support of the MS. record that the courtier Walter Map did,“for the love of his lord, king Henry,”translate from Latin into French The Quest of the Holy Grail.