This is an informative book on a difficult topic. It deals first with the original European sources of the Grail story from Chretien of Troyes to Malory, discussing the gradual layering of the literary romances and the crystallisation of the object of the Grail into the cup of the Last Supper and/or the chalice in which Joseph of Arimathea received the blood of Christ on the Cross. In a second part, Wood looks at the myth-making surrounding the quest for the Grail theme in the past century and today. Interspersed within this story is a survey of the various artefacts and places identified with the Grail across the centuries, both in the form of relics of chalices and of secret hiding places, such as Rennes-le-Chateau and Rosslyn Chapel.
The analysis of medieval texts provides a necessary and helpful synthesis of the literary material. However, the core of the book lies in the study of the Grail story in modern times. Wood traces it from its association with the Glastonbury tradition of Joseph of Arimathea, which led to the revival of Glastonbury in the 20th century with the rise of the pagan and druidic movements, through Welsh folklore with archaeological undertones, to the enthusiasm for the "Celtic" origins of the Grail as stone talisman and cauldron of plenty.
Accretions have developed: the revival of "Celticism", occultism, tarot, freemasonry, as well as the linking of the Grail with traditional folklore studies, later turning into a search for the Eternal Feminine as the Earth Goddess of Celtic culture, or the repression of witchcraft allegedly representing feminine popular religion by a hostile, male-dominated Church.
A penetrating examination of theories from the 18th century onwards, in response to Enlightenment rationality and in tune with the Romantic movement, shows to what extent the current infatuation with equally mythical Grail legend is not only itself ancient but revives the same old stories, adapted to the modern-day obsession with conspiracy theories. This involves secret societies (a heady mix of Templars, Cathars, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, the Priory of Sion, the Mafia, the Vatican, the CIA, Opus Dei) and code-cracking heroes fighting the bad, oppressive, established Church, to reveal to the world the secret of the marriage of Jesus with Mary Magdalene, their descendance through the Merovingian line and the nature of the Grail as the real bloodline of Christ.
This particular version of an already old myth, famously repackaged for a modern global audience by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln's book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and later by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, is seen by many as the literal truth because it reinforces their conviction that world leaders are concealing major secrets from the ordinary person. Today's quest for the Grail differs from the medieval quest, finite and successful, and is preoccupied with the fight against "evil" (person or institution) as part of a personal journey of discovery via a thrilling adventure. This is why films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Fisher King, as well as internet games, appeal to modern audiences.
The overall analysis of the way in which modernism has changed Grail fiction, including fantasy novels, thrillers, film, video and role-playing games, underpins this academically impeccable, accessible and wide-ranging work, and the attempt at putting it into context is especially trenchant and concise in the conclusion.
Wood's book, in examining the Grail myth in its totality rather than only from a historian's or a literary critic's point of view, belongs to the increasingly fruitful area of cultural studies with sociological implications, providing a thought-provoking discussion of a controversial topic.
Eternal Chalice: The Enduring Legend of the Holy Grail
By Juliette Wood
I. B. Tauris, 256pp, £18.99
Published 28 August 2008