Tempest in a Cup

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OCTOBER 4, 2004

Tempest in a Cup

The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief

By Richard Barber

(Harvard University Press, 464 pp., $27.95)

Click here to buy this book.What is the Holy Grail? It is a dish or a cup or a stone or a
reliquary or a mysterious object beyond description. It is a solid
vessel, part of the regular life of its keepers, or it is a
transcendent presence beheld only in a beatific vision. It is the
eucharistic chalice, or a piece of magic that conjures up sumptuous
viands. It held the wine at the Last Supper or it received the
blood that flowed from Christ upon the cross. It is guarded by a
beautiful young woman, or it may be seen only by a knight dedicated
to virginity. It is a survival of pagan fertility rites, a Celtic
cauldron, or an occult symbol whose secret meaning is preserved by
the Freemasons, or by the Rosicrucians; an emblem of the Templars
or of the Cathars, or an assertion of Catholic orthodoxy against
heresy. It originates in France or Wales or Iran or Ossetia, or it
is untraceably ancient, older than the earliest history. It was
brought by Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury, or it was dug up in
Antioch and exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair before finding a
permanent home at the Cloisters in New York City. It is an awesome
and sacred term, or it is a lazy, journalistic clich (as in "'nude'
tights are something of a holy grail," or--from chalice to
plastic--"marvel at the 'Holy Grail' that is the original and
indestructible Tupper Wonder Bowl").

What does the Grail signify? According to John Cowper Powys in A
Glastonbury Romance, described by Richard Barber as "the most
massive work of fiction centred on the Grail ever to be written,"
it is "the immemorial Mystery of Glastonbury":

Christians had one name for this Power, the ancient heathen
inhabitants had another, and a quite different one. Everyone who
came to this spot seemed to draw something from it, attracted by a
magnetism too powerful for anyone to resist, but as different
people approached they changed its chemistry, though not its
essence.... Older than Christianity, older than the Druids, older
than the gods of Norsemen or Romans, older than the gods of
Neolithic men, this many- named Mystery had been handed down to
subsequent generations by three psychic channels; by the channel of
popular renown, by the channel of inspired poetry, and by the
channel of individual experience.

But this is more mist than mystery. Cowper's answer to the question
of what the Grail signifies seems to be "just about anything," and
"anything" is not far from "nothing." What we need is a cool-headed
guide through the Grail's long and curious history, and in Richard
Barber's lucid, fair-minded, and wide- ranging book, we get it.

The book falls in effect into two halves. In the first part, Barber
traces the Grail's literary history from its first appearance in
the last years of the twelfth century through the explosion of
Grail romances in the first part of the thirteenth century and on
until the end of the Middle Ages. In the second part, he explores
the revival of the Grail idea in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries. We first meet the Grail in Chrtien de Troyes's poem Le
Conte du Graal, around 1190. Here already are many features of the
story that will return in later tellings: Perceval, the future
knight brought up in isolation in the forest (in later avatars
Percival, Perslevaus, Parzival, Parsifal); the waste land; and the
wounded king whom the hero is to cure. The appearance of the Grail
itself is not described, but it is referred to as "such a holy
thing."

Chrtien left the work unfinished, and this encouraged a number of
other writers to carry the story onward, to produce new works
around the Grail. One of these was Robert de Boron, who "sanctifies
the Grail," in Barber's words, and gives it a history: in his
account it was the dish used at the Last Supper, and was then
employed by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood of the dying
Christ; later in the story it becomes associated with Merlin, King
Arthur, and the knights of the Round Table. By contrast, Wolfram
von Eschenbach's Parzival, the work that seems to command Barber's
greatest affection, is decorative, exotic, and fantastical; in this
account the Grail is a stone residing in a elegant court that
magically produces delicious food and drink.

Before long, variant stories linked the Grail to Lancelot and thus
to chivalry and romance, to Galahad and the quest for a kind of
beatific vision, to Gawain (halfway between Lancelot and Galahad),
and to King Arthur and "the matter of England." One of these
romances mentioned a "valley of Avaron." This may well have meant
Avallon in Burgundy, but it was soon transferred to Avalon, the
area around Glastonbury. In the course of the thirteenth century, it
was decided both that Joseph of Arimathea had brought the Grail to
Glastonbury and that Arthur was buried there.

So where did the Grail story come from? Barber's own theory is
magnificently simple: it was Chrtien de Troyes's own invention.
Literary scholars claim to balance tradition and the individual
talent, but the truth is that they tend to find originality
uncomfortable: the fact of something being purely and entirely new
seems to leave them with nothing to say, whereas if everything comes
from somewhere else, they have a useful job of investigation to do.
And shiny new words like "intertextuality" can give a sophisticated
gloss to this dformation professionelle. So at minimum Barber's
proposal is refreshing. But it also seems persuasive. He points out
how many Grail romances were produced before 1240, and it certainly
looks as though authors were reacting to the stimulus of an
exciting new idea. He also argues that none of Chrtien's other works
is spiritual or religious, and that his Grail, though a sacred
object, does not seem to veil a hidden meaning, allegory, or
ritual. Chrtien seems unaware of any arcane or exotic source for
the Grail, and it is very unlikely that any of his successors
independently dug one up. Instead we watch the Grail growing new
meanings by a process of accretion, as a hulk grows barnacles.

If this is right, a heavy freight of theories about the Grail's
origins, ranging from the reasonable to the insane, can now be
jettisoned. Among these many theories, one is still worth
recalling, because it has remained accidentally famous and because
it does have some historical interest. Few people would now
remember Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance, first published
in 1920, had T.S. Eliot not declared it to be the largest influence
on "The Waste Land." Her claim was that the Grail story was a
survival of pagan fertility rites. Today this theory seems all too
obviously of its period, like those epic film evocations of ancient
Rome that one can date to the nearest five years or so from the
hairstyles and the color of the lipstick. (Or one might think of
Van Meegeren's forgeries of Vermeer, which fooled the experts at
the time but now seem to us so clearly to be not only fakes but
1930s fakes.)

Weston's approach belongs with Frazer's The Golden Bough (to which
she was heavily indebted) and the school of "Cambridge ritualists"
who followed in Frazer's wake; it is an outgrowth of a fashion for
finding in ritual, anthropology, and the primitive the key to all
mythologies. In reality, Weston made two mistakes--a historical
mistake and a mistake of method. Barber points out the historical
mistake: Weston put strong emphasis on the waste land, which is a
minor theme in all but the very late romances. In Chrtien's story,
the land is desolate not for any magical reason but simply because
there is no one to defend it from marauders. His picture derives
not from symbol or allegory but from the realities of feudal life.

Weston's mistake of method is exemplified in her claim that "no
theory of the origin of the story can be considered really and
permanently satisfactory, unless it can offer an explanation of the
story as a whole ... and of the varying forms assumed by the
Grail." As Barber shows, the Grail changes because literature
evolves, and because good writers have a care for originality. We
can watch the story putting out new growths and mutating as it
passes from one poet to another. A theory that purports to explain
the story as a whole and all the Grail's varying forms is almost
certain to be wrong.

After the Renaissance, the medieval romances were neglected for some
centuries, until a revival of interest in the Romantic age, which is
the starting point for the second half of Barber's book.
Antiquarianism, nationalism, medievalism, Catholic sacramentalism,
and a hunger for all things Celtic were among the forces behind the
Grail's revival. Cooler spirits were less impressed: Max Beerbohm,
in the caption to one of his cartoons, was to imagine "the sole
remark likely to have been made by Benjamin Jowett" to Dante
Gabriel Rossetti when he saw his Arthurian murals in the Oxford
Union: "And what were they going to do with the Grail when they
found it?" Tennyson was bound to include the Grail in his Arthurian
epic Idylls of the King, and Barber nicely studies the ambivalence
of his response. On the one hand, he depicts it as a mystic and
authentic vision of the divine, achieved through prayer and
renunciation; on the other hand, Arthur himself declines to join in
the quest for the Grail, because he has the practical and
beneficent work of kingship to do. In this interpretation of the
theme, the Catholic and Protestant sides of the Anglican church, as
it were, are seen in a creative tension.

Barber must inevitably concern himself with works of the second rank
in his chapters on the nineteenth century, but there is one
enormous exception: the colossal achievement of Wagner's Parsifal,
perhaps his greatest opera. Barber, for his part, seems rather cool
about it (his heart is evidently in the Middle Ages), and perhaps
that is just as well, since otherwise it might threaten to
overwhelm his book. Still, his medieval researches do help to
illuminate Wagner's purposes, more perhaps than he realizes.
Wagner's principal source was Wolfram von Eschenbach--this is where
we find Parsifal's parents, Gamuret and Herzeleide, as well as
Kundry, Amfortas, and Montsalvat; but whereas in Wolfram the Grail
is a stone, Wagner has made it a cup again, and whereas Wolfram's
Grail is attended by fair damsels, the guardians of Wagner's Grail
are knights dedicated to chastity. In other words, the religious
and sacral character of the opera is derived not so much from
Wagner's main source as from his deliberate departures from it.
Nietzsche, who had once idolized Wagner, turned violently against
what he saw as his former hero's capitulation to Christianity, and
since then a number of interpreters, and a good many recent
productions of the opera, have tried to minimize its Christian
element. Barber, wrongly, goes along with this. "The figure on the
Cross," he says, "remains a universal symbol, not the historical
figure of Christ himself," and "there is a conscious avoidance of
specifically Christian reference." This is simply untrue.

In one sense it is disputable that Parsifal is a Christian work: one
may feel that Wagner uses the Christian story not out of faith,
from within, but as a powerfully expressive myth, one that he can
shape to his own purposes, as in the Ring he used the gods of
northern mythology--and no one supposes that he literally believed
in them. Kundry in particular seems to be released into a glorious,
self-immolating nothingness--more Buddhistic than Christian--like
so many of Wagner's earlier heroines: Senta, Isolde, Brnnhilde. I
used to think that Parsifal was indeed Christian only "from the
outside," but now I am not so sure. What is untenable, anyway, is
the claim that Wagner avoids Christian reference. It is true that
Christ is never named, but he is recurrently spoken of, most often
as the Redeemer. We hear explicitly about the Last Supper, the
transformation of bread and wine in the Eucharist, the Crucifixion,
and the doctrine of the Atonement. Gurnemanz even corrects Parsifal
on the theological significance of Good Friday. There is not much
ambiguity about that.

Barber observes that for Wagner the Grail is "not the object of a
quest," but a "symbol of the faith which motivates the knights."
The first part of this antithesis is a valuable insight, but the
second part is not quite right. Barber has shown us how often the
Grail has been conceived as a supernatural existence, mysteriously
appearing and vanishing, or beheld only in a state of exalted
vision. It is significant, therefore, that Wagner makes it a solid
physical object, fixed in a determinate place. His Grail is neither
mystic nor symbolic; it is sacramental. Given all the different
ways in which he might have represented the Grail--so well
explicated by Barber--he chooses to make it eucharistic: the
ceremony of the Grail is the site where our solid, sublunary world
interacts with the transcendent.

There is a last and more subjective consideration. As Gurnemanz
takes Parsifal to the Grail ceremony in the first act, he tells him
about a dissolution of boundaries: "Here time becomes one with
space." Perhaps the opera's conclusion invites us to another kind
of dissolution of boundaries. For it ends with an act of worship,
the eucharistic rite enacted, the knights kneeling in prayer,
Parsifal holding the Grail aloft to bless them, and a dove and a
ray of divine light descending from the dome above. Listeners (and
directors, for that matter) may differ in their responses to this,
but it does seem designed to attenuate the division between action
and audience, and to invite us to feel ourselves as part of the
congregation. The original intention was that Parsifal should be
performed only at Bayreuth, where conductor and orchestra are
invisible and do not interpose themselves between the audience and
the stage.

Eliot alludes recurrently to Wagner in "The Waste Land" and the
Grail story underlies the whole poem, but only once does he allude
to Wagner's Parsifal as such, and indirectly, in a quotation from
Verlaine's poem on the opera. This indirectness carries its own
meaning, expressing how modern versions of the Grail myth are the
result of long accretion--interpretations of interpretations. With
Parsifal and "The Waste Land," Barber confronts two of the most
influential works of their respective centuries, but as his journey
takes him nearer to the present day, he must sojourn much of the
time among cranks, pseudo-mystics, and misty-eyed stumblers through
the Celtic twilight. (It is curious that he does not mention
Michael Tippett's opera The Midsummer Marriage, probably the most
ambitious exploitation of the Grail story in the second half of the
last century.)

It would be easy enough to make fun of much of this, but Barber
wisely plays it straight, giving us an intriguing tour through some
of the byways of twentieth-century literary history. He does allow
himself to be entertained by the recent journalistic debasement of
the term "holy grail"--something that has sharply increased,
apparently, in the last ten years--including the two examples that
I quoted near the start of this review. But it is not the only
debasement that the Grail and the corona of associations around it
have suffered.

If you go to Glastonbury today, you will find that this Somerset
market town has been almost completely taken over by New Age
fantasy. Nearly every shop seems to be selling tarot cards, books
about ley lines, or mystic amulets. The air is full of happy young
voices, some with American accents. In the pubs a few locals can
still be found drinking stolidly, in the old style, but wreathed in
the scent of their neighbors' recreational chemicals. At times the
street scene prompts one to wonder if the town has been chosen as
the location for a film about dropping out in the 1960s. Some
people find the whole thing inspiring, others amusing, while yet
others may feel a little sad at this slide into a woozy
semi-spirituality. We seem some distance from the nobler parts of
Barber's story, and his ringing declaration that "the Holy Grail
offers us, in imagination, the possibility of perfection" and that
"as a whole our journey has been set among the highest and most
challenging ideas of the human spirit."

By Richard Jenkyns

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