Key to the Sacred Pattern

07 February 2016

Back to Holy Grail Basics: Elements of the Grail Progression in Chrétien de Troyes’ “Perceval, the Story of the Grail”

A few months back I was approached by someone who was familiar with my interest in Grail lore and had a number of questions about “all things” Holy Grail related. About an hour into the discussion, he asked me, “If you were trying to find the actual Holy Grail, how would you do it?” I’m fairly use to folks asking me about the odd tidbits of Grail lore or stories about objects like the Nanteos Cup, but a real discussion about how one would go about finding the Grail was something quite unexpected. Of course, this question was posed in the spirit of an intellectual exercise and not a “pack your bags and fetch your passport” conversation. Be that as it may, I fear now the answer I gave this person was not as fully formed as I might have liked. Having a little distance from the conversation, I now know how I wished I had answered that question.

Possibly the most difficult proposition for answering such a weighty question is defining the Grail. I’ve always held that the Grail can be many things simultaneously. For example, if the Grail is a cup (or cups) used at the Last Supper, that doesn’t mean that the Grail can’t also be symbolic of Jesus and Mary Magdalene having a child. If one accepts that Biblical narratives are at least a pale reflection of historical events, there was a Passover Seder before Jesus was crucified that would have involved the use of cups. Those cups used at that Seder could have been kept and venerated as objects of religious import. Furthermore, Jesus could have been married to Mary Magdalene at the time and the symbolism of san graal (holy blood) was assigned by certain groups to this “secret.” So we’re faced with a situation where the Grail is both a physical object and a bit of arcane knowledge. One could apply the Grail’s “multiple personalities” to just about any number of Grail theories and still come out with all of those theories being somewhat valid.

One is then faced with the question of, “Which Grail to hunt?” For that, my solution is to go back to an origin point and work forward from there. In the case of the Grail, the most recognized beginning point is Chrétien de Troyes’ “Perceval, the Story of the Grail” (“Perceval, le Conte du Graal” in the poem’s original French). The unfinished epic poem by de Troyes was written sometime between 1130-90 (dates vary from whose scholarly opinion one listens to) and is the first mention of what we now come to call the Holy Grail. The poem is worth revisiting if one has never read it in its entirely or it has been a while since one has picked it up. I did so recently with Penguin’s edition of William Kibler and Carleton Carroll’s translation of the text. In rereading “Perceval, the Story of the Grail,” I attempted not to assign any other meaning to the Grail other than what de Troyes’ text specifically says.

We first see mention of the Grail as our hero Perceval is returning home to see his mother after becoming a knight in King Arthur’s court. Perceval runs into the enigmatically wounded Fisher King, who is gracious enough to invite a weary Perceval to his castle. Here at a dinner feast Perceval witnesses an odd ceremony of various people carrying objects around the dining hall and other rooms in the Castle. The progression is as follows:
  1. A young man carrying a bleeding lance.
  2. Two boys carrying a candelabra.
  3. A beautiful young girl a decorated grail (graal). 
  4. A silver platter following up the rear. 
Perceval fills his belly and fails to ask the first question about the progression. This, of course, would later come back to bite Perceval toward the end of the poem.

In later blog posts, I’ll examine each element of the progression in more detail, but there are a few things that we tend to forget about de Troyes’ description of what we call the Grail. The first is that the bleeding lance and the candelabra are totally thrown over as being important in most people’s concept of Grail lore. The bleeding lance seems to be as equally important as the grail in de Troyes’ description. We know this because when Perceval returns to Arthur’s court, a “loathly lady” berates Perceval for not asking whom the grail and the lance served because both items seemingly together could have healed the Fisher King. So why, in most modern Grail seeking, do we not seek de Troyes’ bleeding lance as equally as his grail?

The second point that jumped out at me is that de Troyes uses the definite article “a” when mentioning the grail used in the progression. One might have thought my capitalization earlier in this article was a bit off switching back and forth from Grail to grail, but there was a point to it. The “Grail” is the indefinite object that is whatever we assign our own meaning to. Chrétien de Troyes’ grail appears not to be a unique object. While this is a fine point of medieval French grammar that is beyond my linguistic capabilities, this is a widely held translation that will be addressed in future posts along with that of the word graal in the original text.

These distinctions are important if one seeks the Grail as a physical object. Obviously in the mind of Chrétien de Troyes, his grail was quite tangible. As the only known origin point of Grail lore, there must be something to de Troyes description. The real question is why doesn’t anyone seek the bleeding lance or the true stepchild of Grail lore the candelabra? I think it’s partially because other medieval authors have added on their interpretations of what the Grail is and its origins. For example, de Troyes makes no specific mention of any of the objects used in the progression as being linked Christianity. That appears in Robert de Boron’s works long after “Perceval, the Story of the Grail” hit the medieval market. The focus on these later works is also on the Grail and the bleeding lance and the candelabra are forgotten.

The final point in my musings on “Perceval, the Story of the Grail” was that Perceval did not obtain the grail, or the lance either because he failed to ask a question. Perceval technically “found” the grail, he just couldn’t obtain the grail. It had nothing to do with the widely held belief that one must be “pure of heart” to find the Grail. Perceval was “pure of heart” to a certain extent because his mother had raised him outside of civilization, but we’re never sure if Perceval is simply naive or if he’d remain “pure of heart” when further exposed to the outside world. This is subtle distinction, but it does give one hope should they not view themselves “pure of heart” enough to seek the Grail. Furthermore, Perceval would seem to have gotten lucky in running across the Fisher King and was headed home to see his mother. There was no real “quest” for the Grail as far as Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval was concerned. So maybe we are not meant to find the Grail, the Grail finds is meant to find us.

If the Grail does find us, that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be prepared to obtain the Grail once it’s presented to us. So in keeping in the vein, some of my subsequent posts will examine the other elements of Chrétien de Troyes’ grail story. One does have to have a starting point, even if that means we strip away everything that we’ve done before. If one isn’t willing to reexamine their premises every time we examine the Grail, are we really worthy of the Grail finding us if we already have answers to all of those unobtainable questions?

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