Write briefly on The Quest for the Holy Grail

The story of the Holy Grail is a rich complex narrative set in the context Arthurian tradition and the medieval world of knighthood and chivalry. These romance reflected the lifestyle and aspirations of an elite, the men and women who dominated the feudal world. The narratives produced during this relatively brief period have a universal appeal, and subsequent readers have interpreted them in different ways. Whatever the conclusions about the origins and meaning of the legend of the Holy Grail, however, they are rooted in the texts of the medieval romances. It can be something of a surprise to readers new to the Grail story, that medieval romances describe the Grail and the adventures of the knights in so many different ways. About a dozen romances include material about the Grail, and they have come to be regarded as a special class of fiction.

The Quest for the Holy Grail

However, no consistent 'Grail story' ever emerges from these romances, and the Grail episode is not always the main plot line. Chretien de Troyes's French romance written out 1180 is the earliest literary work to mention it. All subsequent romances which incorporate Grail material are based to some extent on Chrétien's tale. Even this apparently clear starting point can be deceptive. The romances never formed an orderly cycle with one taking up where the other left off. The dates of composition overlap, and it is not possible to establish a clear timeline. The material was borrowed and new themes introduced. Some romances are fragmentary or exist only as prose redactions of the original poetry, while sections, and even whole romances, have been lost. Some writers probably could not read Chrétien's original French poetry, and many would not have had access to all the available sources.

The Quest for the Holy Grail

The fact that no consistent “Grail story" emerges from the romances is frustrating and has undoubtedly contributed to the number of speculative theories about its origin. However, a basic story outline would be something like the following:
                 A mysterious vessel or object which sustains we and/or provides sustenance is guarded in a castle which is difficult to find. The owner of the castle is either lame or sick and often (but not always) the surrounding land is barren. The owner can be restored only if a knight finds the castle and, after witnessing a mysterious procession, asks a certain question. If he fails in this task, everything will remain as before and the search must begin again. After wanderings and adventures (many of which relate to events which the young hero failed to understand the first time), the knight returns to the castle and asks the question which cures the king and restores the land. The hero knight succeeds the wounded king (usually called the Fisher King) as guardian of the castle and its contents. Five knights search for the Grail. Perceval (also called Peredur and Perlesvaus) begins as a gauche boy unaware of his connections with the guardians of the Grail. He fails to ask whom the Grail serves when he first observes the Grail procession. He is reproached for this failing by a loathly damsel figure and sets out again in despair. After many adventures, he meets a hermit and finally accepts his knightly role. He returns to the castle of the wounded king, asks the proper question and takes over the role of Grail king. The suave sophistication of Gawain is a perfect foil for Perceval, but his character is also refined by the Grail search. The two present a contrast between more earthly. (Gawain) and more spiritual (Perceval) aspects of chivalry, and many romances alternate descriptions of their adventures. Both visit the Grail castle and fail to ask the correct question and both have a chance to make amends. Sir Bors accompanies Perceval and Gawain on their journey and is the third knight to see the Holy Grail. He is also the one who returns to Arthur's court to recount the events of the Grail adventure. As the best of Arthur's knights, it should really be Lancelot who finds the Grail, but as the Grail quest became more spiritual, Lancelot’s adultery with the queen became a problem. Lancelot achieves only a partial vision of the Grail, although it does cure him of madness. Later romance tradition introduced the perfect Grail knight, Galahad, the son of Lancelot and the Grail maiden, daughter of the Fisher King. Galahad is the perfect knight. He occupies the Siege Perilous, the seat at the Round Table intended for the man who will achieve the Grail quest, and his experience of the Grail transforms him completely. The Fisher King is an evocative image whose interpretation reflects different streams of Arthurian criticism. Is he originally a Celtic deity and ritual figure or is he Christian? In the earliest Grail romance, he is "Le Roi Pecheur. Robert de Boron's romance trilogy, Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin and Perceval, provides background for this pivotal figure. Before the Grail was taken to Britain Hebron (Bron), the brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea, caught a fish and placed it on the Grail table. He became known as the Rich Fisher and is by extension the Fisher King when he becomes lord of the Grail castle in Britain, a title he sometimes shares with his son, Alain. In some romances the Fisher King is identified with the Grail King, in others, they are separate. The Fisher/Grail King is often wounded or sick and can be healed only when the pre-ordained visitor to his castle asks the proper question. The link between the king and land differs depending on the romance. Sometimes the king's sickness is reflected in the state of his kingdom, which has become a wasteland. In the earliest Grail romance, Perceval's failure to ask the question means that the king's wound is not healed, and the land remains barren and undefended. The wasteland motif is frequently invoked in anthropological and ritual interpretations as an example of the link between a king and the fertility of his kingdom, and the motif is popular in modern literature as a metaphor for alienation and the emptiness of modern materialism. Another motif important in ritual interpretations is the relationship between the male characters and a mysterious female figure identified as a sovereignty goddess, the supernatural consort of the rightful ruler. The appearance of these women, whether ugly or beautiful, mirrors the health of the kingdom the fitness of the king. This figure is represented in the Grail romances by a loathly lady who berates the Grail heroes for their failure to ask the right question, and by various beautiful women who help him and fulfil the function of consort. In some modern treatments of the legend, these characters have merged with notions of the sacred feminine and speculations about a lost goddess culture repressed by Christianity. The figure of Mary Magdalene as the hidden bride of Christ has come to represent this lost sacred feminine in many modern conspiracy treatments of the Grail. An object referred to as the Grail or the Holy Grail occurs in a number of medieval romances written between the end of the twelfth and the end of the thirteenth century. Despite the vast antiquity claimed for the material, its appearance in literary form occurred within a single century. The author of the first Grail romance called his work The Story of the Grail (Le Conte del Graal). We know him as Chrétien de Troyes. No fewer than five Arthurian romances are attributed to him, and the sheer volume of manuscripts containing copies of whole or fragmentary romance texts, with illuminations or without, demonstrate the popularity his works enjoyed.

The Story of the Grail, for example, appears in more than a dozen manuscripts. Of the author's personal history, we know only what he reveals in the prologues to his works and what we can discern in the texts themselves. Medieval authors often adopted a fictional persona, but some of what Chrétien tells us rings true. The town of Troyes, in the Champagne region of France, may have been his birthplace, and some medieval scholars have detected traces of local dialect in his French. At the very least, it puts Chrétien in the courtly World of north-east France and Flanders in the twelfth century. The Story of the Grail was written for Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders, who went on crusade in 1191. Chrétien would most likely have begun this romance before Philip's departure, and either Philip's death or his own would account for why the romance remained unfinished. Chrétien de Troyes's The Story of the Grail (Le Conte del Graal) was probably composed sometime between 1180 and 1190. Copyists, however, often used the name of the hero, Perceval. The hero first appears as an immature youth living in the wilderness with his mother, who has sought refuge there after the death of her husband and other sons. Reluctantly his mother sends him off to fulfil his true vocation. A series misadventures bring him to Arthur's court from which he sets out in pursuit of the Red Knight who has stolen a cup from Queen Guinevere. Perceval becomes squire to a nobleman who advises him on the modest behaviour expected of a knight. He encounters two men fishing in a river; one of them offers him hospitality for the night, and Perceval finds himself at the Grail castle, home of the Fisher King. Before dinner he is presented with a Sword, then a youth bearing a bleeding lance crosses the room followed by two more boys carrying candlesticks, and finally, a maiden carrying a bejewelled Grail that emits such light, it dims the candles. Mindful of his mentor's commands about modest behavior, Perceval does not ask his host about these wonders. Next morning he leaves the empty castle and returns to Arthur's court, where he redresses some of the chaos caused by his previous impulsive behavior. Later, a loathly maiden denounces Perceval for failing to ask the proper question during the banquet and thereby leaving the king in misery and his land prey to marauders. Both Gawain and Perceval leave Arthur's court. Gawain's search for the bleeding lance parallels Perceval's Grail adventure. On Good Friday Perceval visits his uncle, a hermit, who explains the meaning of the Grail procession. A wafer from the Grail sustained the old king, Perceval's maternal uncle, and his son, the Fisher King who is Perceval's cousin.

The Grail, called graal, in Chrétien is not relic, but a large jewelled serving dish. Nevertheless, the romance calls it a holy thing, and it contains the mass wafer which sustains a wounded king. However, the king's illness is the result of a battle wound, and the land is jeopardized because the ruler is unable to defend it, not blasted in any magical way. Even in its unfinished state, the Grail does not dominate the romance plot completely, and the Sword also symbolizes Perceval's development as a knight. Four attempts, called Continuations, were made to complete Chrétien's romance. In the course of these very different attempts to finish the work as the original author might have intended, the Grail gradually became more sacramental. The attempts to complete Chrétien's text are a mark of the popularity of the story, but they did not create a smooth and coherent narrative.

Other writers completed the knightly adventures of Perceval and Gawain, which began in Chrétien's romance. Robert de Boron, a Burgundian poet writing in the first decade of the thirteenth century, introduced significant innovation to the Grail story Oy identifying the Grail with the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. Robert evident planned his verse romance, The History of the Grail (L'histoire del Graal), as a trilogy intended to trace the Grail through the wanderings of Joseph of Arimathea into the world of Arthur and Merlin and through the adventures of Grail knights such as Perceval. He completed the first two romances and a prose version, the Roman du Graal, follows his planned history of the Grail from its origins in the New Testament Passion story to its achievement by Perceval. According to the only complete surviving romance, Joseph of Arimathea, Pilate gave the cup used at the Last Supper to Joseph, and the Grail sustained Joseph in prison. The Joseph of Arimathea material derives from the biblical Apocrypha, specifically part of the Gospel of Nicodemus known as the Acts of Pilate. In the Apocrypha, Joseph is imprisoned, but there is no mention of a Grail. Robert de Boron's verse romance added details and created a kind of apocryphal gospel within the romance to emphasize the role of the Grail.

The Holy Grail is first named at the Grail feast celebrated by Joseph of Arimathea and his followers. Robert de Boron placed this feast at a symbolic midpoint between the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper and the Round Table of Arthur's court. The Grail brings joy to all who sit at table, but it also served to distinguish the true followers from the corrupt ones and paralleled the Last Supper story even to an outcast figure. In the Merlin romance, of which only a fragment remains, the
magician constructs the Round Table in imitation of Joseph's Grail table and of the table at the Last Supper, and he sets up the Siege Perilous for the knight most worthy of the Grail. Arthur's knights undertake the quest for the Holy Grail, and the events of the quest follow a pattern similar to Chrétien's romance. Perceval fails to ask the question during his first visit to the castle of Bron, the Fisher King, and his subsequent adventures lead him to the hermit. Perceval finally asks the question which cures the Grail king and takes his place. Merlin, who helped Perceval during his quest, eventually retires to the woods to dictate the story for posterity.

In the Didot-Perceval, composed in the second decade of the twelfth century, Perceval occupies the forbidden Siege Perilous at the Round Table. As a result of Perceval's action, the Grail appears, a magic stone splits, and a voice announces the quest to restore order and lift the enchantments. All the knights go on quest, but only Perceval asks the question which cures the Fisher King, repairs the stone and reveals the secret of the Holy Grail. He remains to rule the Grail castle, and the tale continues with Arthur's adventures. Although the romance incorporates elements from the Joseph of Arimathea tradition, the context is Arthur's court and the Grail episode is part of a wider Arthurian saga.

Malory distilled the whole of his extensive knowledge of Arthurian romance into Morte Darthur, which was completed by 1470 and published by William Caxton in 1485. He includes the episode of Balin and the Dolorous Stroke, the story of Lancelot and Elaine and the conception of Galahad, and The noble tale of the Sankreall which is called the holy vessel and the signification of blessed blood of Our Lord Jesu Christ, which was brought into this land by Joseph of Arimathea.' Pellam, the Fisher King, is wounded by Balin's Dolorous Stroke and will not be healed until the coming of Galahad. Lancelot sees the Grail at Corbenic where Elaine, the daughter of the Grail keeper, Pelles, conceives Galahad. Bors and Perceval also experience the Grail at Corbenic. Malory's Grail is described as the vessel in which Christ's blood was collected on the Cross. Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthuris perhaps the greatest version of the Arthurian legend in English. Caxton's edition introduced the world of courtly deeds to a new audience, and it was the departure point for the revival of the Arthurian legend in Britain in the nineteenth century.

In the medieval romances, the Grail has both Eucharistic and pentecostal overtones, but it also heals both physically and spiritually to the source of the Holy Grail theme lies in these literary texts, then the legends associated with the Grail relics introduced new ideas that have influenced a new and vibrant literature Although Chrétien did not clarify the nature of the shining jewelled graal, he hinted that the Fisher King was sustained by sacred food. The mysterious nature of this food may have prompted Robert de Boron to introduce the idea that the Grail was the cup used at the Last Supper. Thus the Grail became associated with sustenance, with a wounded king, and with the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist. Veneration of relics was an important aspect of popular devotion during the Middle Ages and among the most prized were relics associated with the Passion of Christ, the final events of his life, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. In the wake of the Crusades, there were a number of stories about miraculous discoveries, daring escapes and ingenious ways of transporting these precious objects to western churches. However, the Holy Grail was largely absent from medieval relic collections. Those that do exist relatively modern 'Grails', steeped either local tradition, or in the imaginative history of Templars and secret societies.

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