The Grail, the Quest and the World of Arthur

October 23, 2008

This collection of essays, issued in the publisher's Arthurian Studies series, was inspired by a conference at Pennsylvania State University that brought together experts in the medieval literary tradition of the Holy Grail.

Twelve of the latter have contributed to it, representing American, British and Continental European scholars in more or less equal proportions, with one colleague from Brazil, and the range of their interests is proportionately wide.

This is very much the work of specialists talking to fellow scholars. A lot of it is devoted to exploring the treatment of the Grail tradition outside its French and German heartland, in Occitan, Icelandic, Dutch and English texts.

No less than a third of the book is dedicated to the English material, and less expert readers, who associate the English Arthurian tradition most obviously with Sir Thomas Malory, who makes a fuss of the Grail, may need reminding of how unimportant the legend was in medieval England as a whole.

As Caroline Eckhardt and Philip Boardman emphasise, Malory's interest in it was one feature of his unusual fidelity to French sources.

On the whole, the English preferred their Arthur to be a historical king, more familiar from chronicles than romances: the hero of Geoffrey of Monmouth and not of Chretien de Troyes.

When they did write about Arthurian quests, they sent their knights in pursuit of almost anything but the Grail, and when they wrote of the Grail itself, they associated it with Joseph of Arimathea and not with Arthur.

As James Carley explains, the legend of Joseph acquired a new momentum during the Elizabethan Reformation, when Protestants used it to claim that Britain had been converted to Christianity directly from Palestine, and not by papal missionaries.

Relatively little space in the collection is given to the key French texts that fostered the Grail tradition. Antonio Furtado finds the inspiration for several features of them in incidents that had occurred during the Crusades, and Will Hasty agrees that the crusading ethic was crucial to the development of the legend. Indeed, Furtado suggests that the idea for the Grail itself was prompted by a dish brought home by crusaders from Palestine to Genoa, where it is still preserved in the cathedral.

If so, he has effectively found the Holy Grail, but the Genoese vessel is green, while Chretien's Grail, the very first in literature, was golden and bejewelled; so the connection seems unlikely.

A number of contributors emphasise the lack of any consistent medieval Grail tradition: the physical nature of the object itself and of its location, and the details and characters of the quest that achieves it, vary so wildly from one author to another that to a detached observer it seems preposterous that any modern people could possibly have imagined that a real object or event ever lay behind it.

Yet such a belief, loosely based on two 15th-century English texts (Malory and John Hardyng), has indeed developed, and its contemporary popularity hangs uneasily over some of these essays and permeates some of the titles in Kevin Harty's appendix to the collection, a list of films that deal with the legend.

It is one of the strangest manifestations of a post-Christian society.

The Grail, the Quest and the World of Arthur

Edited by Norris J. Lacy. Boydell & Brewer, 304pp, £50.00. ISSN 9781843841708. Published 20 November 2008

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