From the Last Supper to Camelot, the legend of Christianity’s most fabled relic has taken an unlikely path through literary history — with a few questionable detours along the way
Entertainment is a tough business. Video series are lucky if they last as long as members of President Trump’s cabinet. Few survive a full season.
So imagine a franchise that could grip the popular imagination for almost a millennium, producing blockbuster after blockbuster.
That’s the story of the Holy Grail. From the mystery of what happened to the dish and the chalice that Jesus used at the Last Supper, it has, for centuries, kept its hold. In each generation it’s renewed — in epic films, novel series, musicals and operas, comic books, comedies and even gamebooks.
Through steady exposure in pop culture and high culture, every age comes to know the major characters in the tale: King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad and Percival.
The story has something for everybody. For the guys it can be an action film, for the ladies a romance. For fantasy fandom it has built-in demands for special effects. But those don’t account for its staying power, at least not entirely.
What’s made the Grail story such a resounding success is its profound spirituality, and that didn’t happen by accident. It was the result carefully plotted by literary artists who set out to subvert the popular media of their time. They accomplished something like a thoroughgoing Christian takeover of the medieval equivalent of Hollywood.
Those who live in media capitals today should perhaps take note.
The origins of the story
The story of the Grail has, for much of history, been bound up with the name of a British warlord who lived in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. His name was Arthur.
Historians debate about whether Arthur really existed, but there seems to be a place for someone quite like him in the history of that time.
We first learn about him in the “Annals of Wales,” where he is presented as a Christian leader in the sixth-century Battle of Badon. In that battle, we’re told, “Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors.”
This victory was decisive for the Christian Britons in their struggle against the Saxons, who were pagan invaders. In the wake of the battle came a long period of peace and prosperity, ending only with the Battle of Camlann, where, we’re told, “Arthur … perished; and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.”
So Arthur’s victory was remembered as inaugurating a golden age — and with his death that golden age came to a catastrophic end.
Then Arthur slept his twilight sleep for half a millennium. He had lost, and the barbarian English had overrun most of what was once Britain. Only in the western mountains did the ancient British — whom the English called Welsh — cling to a precarious independence.
The Welsh passed down stories of Arthur. One of their most ancient tales told of a quest for a mystic vessel — a quest on which three shiploads of the best and boldest set out, and only seven men returned. These were stories told in what we now call the Dark Ages, and we can only glimpse them darkly.
But the Norman Conquest, in the 11th century, brought new glimmers of light. Europe was on the brink of an intellectual explosion. And in the next century, almost everything we remember as great about medieval civilization suddenly blossomed.
Until this time, literacy was largely the business of the Church and clergy. Now, however, the rich nobility were expected to be literate, and they lived up to that expectation. And, for the first time in 700 years, there was a large demand for secular literature.
So those old folk tales were now written down, embellished, reworked and turned into entertainments for the courts of aristocrats who governed Europe at the time.
Naturally, these entertainments tended to reflect the bad morals of their audiences. They were “love stories,” and to noble knights and ladies of that time, love and marriage were two entirely separate subjects.
In fact, it was pretty much assumed that real love had to be adulterous. The heroine’s husband was some ogre her father had forced on her; but the love of her life was a handsome, hunky knight whom she met sometime after her unhappy vows were made.
Some of the stories were tragic: The lovers would be killed together or come to some other tearjerker of an end. But sometimes there was what they’d call a “happy” ending: The handsome knight would kill the ogre husband and live happily ever after with his wife.
Of all the romances, none were more popular than the tales of Arthur’s court. And of all the famous pairs of lovers in romance, none were more famous than Lancelot and Guinevere.
Their story fits the pattern. Arthur’s not an ogre, but he’s boring compared to the dashing Lancelot. And surely the luster had worn off the royal couple’s wedding bands by the time young Lancelot rode into town.
These first Arthurian romances did not hold up good models for a class of lords and ladies who had already absorbed the idea that adulterous love was the greatest thing ever.
But they were sizzling stories — and they touched on themes that rested deep in the collective memory of the culture. They spoke to the longing for a golden age represented by Arthur, an ancient time when magic was everywhere.
So the stories mutated and spread throughout Europe. The romances, especially when they were well told, seemed to pronounce a blessing on adultery, exalting fever-pitch emotion over the virtues of enduring and loyal love.
The ideas infected people, encouraging them to act on their bad inclinations, but also influencing their inner lives. Jesus made clear that fantasizing about adultery is the same as committing adultery.
And the Ten Commandments prohibited not only doing the deed with one’s neighbor, but coveting the neighbor as well. The new romances got all their power from what seemed to be an irresistible movement from coveting to doing.
So what was the Church to do? The entertainment industry was encouraging bad behavior — and it was succeeding, winning the hearts and minds of the rich folks and rulers.
The clergy preached against the stories, but seemed to have little effect. Banning the stories was an exercise in futility, because the nobles could afford to buy what they wanted. And people wanted the story of the love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.
A twist in the plot
Many authors made their living by writing these steamy romances, and one of the most renowned was a French poet named Chrétien de Troyes. He finished four major poems about the court of King Arthur, and he left a fifth unfinished at the time of his death in the late 12th century.
It’s that last, unfinished tale that’s most interesting to us. It marks the first time in surviving literature that a writer of romances brought together the Arthurian characters and that mysterious cauldron from ancient Celtic lore.
Chrétien’s last work was about the quest for that cauldron. He described it using the Old French word “graal.” We know this book by the title, “Perceval: The Story of the Grail.”
In the old Celtic stories, the cauldron had an amazing superpower. It served up the most delicious food, and it gave you as much as you wanted.
But when Chrétien brought the Grail into his Arthurian tales, he made it something far greater than an endless buffet. He didn’t use the word “holy,” but he wanted us to see it as such.
The knight at the center of his story, Perceval, is a brash young man and a casual sinner. Yet he is privileged to witness an extraordinary procession. It’s led by a boy carrying a white lance that drips blood. Next come two boys carrying golden candlesticks. Then follows a beautiful young girl, “holding a grail between her hands.”
Chrétien tells us: “When she entered holding the grail, so brilliant a light appeared that the candles lost their brightness like the stars or the moon when the sun rises. … The grail … was made of fine, pure gold; and in it were set precious stones of many kinds, the richest and most precious in the earth or the sea.”
Perceval acknowledges his unworthiness to receive such a vision. His experience leads him to repentance and confession, and finally — on Easter Sunday — Holy Communion.
In this romance by Chrétien, the Grail is clearly intended to suggest the Eucharist. It looks like a well-made chalice. It’s carried in procession like a monstrance. It’s preceded by a relic of Jesus’ passion.
This “Story of the Grail” was different from all the romances that had been written before. Indeed, it was different from all the other works by Chrétien.
His earlier volumes told the usual stories of palpitating crushes and adulterous romps. But this final story was up to something else entirely. Alas, Chrétien did not live to finish it.
To be continued
But he was a literary superstar, and his readership would not allow his last tale to leave them hanging. Nor would opportunistic writers pass up such a golden opportunity to make money and gain fame. Many tried to finish writing the book.
It was in those continuations that the word “Holy” began to appear as an adjective modifying “Grail.” By simply suggesting a story line, Chrétien had started something big.
The Grail soon became a necessary component of new Arthurian romances. And it became more defined and developed. In many versions, it was the actual cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper.
As the Grail moved into the romances, the adultery seemed increasingly out of place. How could these two plot devices be reconciled?
It took an audaciously daring mind to make the story into a religious allegory, but that’s exactly what some cleric decided to do. He went by the pen name “Walter Map,” and he gave us the Arthurian romance as we know it today — as a profound allegory of sin and redemption.
Map’s new cycle begins with the usual story of adultery. By his sin Lancelot destroys the earthly paradise of Camelot.
And what happens next? Estrangement, alienation, rupture, the dissolution of the bonds that hold every society together — the bond between a knight and his king, the ruler and the ruled, a friend and a friend, a husband and a wife.
Lancelot’s sin is like Adam’s in Eden. It has devastating consequences not only for himself, but for the people around him and even for the land. The crops wither and the herds die in their pastures. Famine and epidemic come to the land.
When the ancient chronicles spoke of Arthur’s reign, they said that the king’s death had brought about a time of desolation. But in these new romances it’s not Arthur’s death that’s the deal-killer. It’s Lancelot’s mortal sin.
Still, Lancelot is not beyond redemption. His visions of the Grail lead him on the difficult path to repentance. He cannot find redemption until he learns that everything he had thought was glorious — chivalry, the love of Guinevere, his own boldness in battle — was fatally infected with sin and pride.
This was a daring message to preach to rich people who admired Lancelot as the sum of everything good in the world. But the story was so artistically told that it drew its audience in.
People didn’t realize they were being taught the most orthodox Catholic theology of sin and repentance. They couldn’t get enough of the story, and so they absorbed a message that they wouldn’t have taken from any fire-and-brimstone preacher in a pulpit.
And so the story of King Arthur in its most developed form — the story that has held audiences rapt for almost a thousand years — became most fully itself: the story of creation, fall, redemption and communion.
‘The Galahads we were meant to be'
“A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail” (Tan/St. Benedict, $28), by LA resident Charles A. Coulombe, is a brief for a modern expression of Grail spirituality.
The book reads like a quest — a pilgrimage along a winding path through a history thick with custom and doctrine. Everywhere there are interesting diversions and digressions.
Coulombe sees continuity between the medieval Grail stories and modern devotion to the Sacred Heart and Precious Blood.
He sees connections, moreover, between the old codes of chivalry, embedded in the Arthurian romances, and the “Catholic militancy” of more recent movements, such as the Cristeros in Mexico, the French peasants of the Vendee uprising and the Carlists in Spain.
The goal, he stated, is for us “to become the Galahads we were meant to be — for all eternity.”
Mike Aquilina is author of more than 50 books, including “The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence” (Loyola, 2006).
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