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The Search For The Holy Grail Essay

, Research Paper What is the Holy Grail? A chalice? A philosophers’ stone? The bloodline of Christ? In Arthurian romances the quest for the ever-elusive

, Research Paper

What is the Holy Grail? A chalice? A philosophers’ stone? The

bloodline of Christ? In Arthurian romances the quest for the ever-elusive

Holy Grail and the secrets therein was the highest spiritual pursuit one

could embark on. In today’s times it is a mental, rather than a physical,

journey, and while not fraught with the danger it once was, it is still, for all

practical purposes, an exciting and adventurous journey. To discover the

truth of the identity of the Holy Grail, one must first look to see what it

originally was, and how it evolved to become what is commonly known

as the Holy Grail today. There are many ways of doing this. For example,

one can look at it through the romances concerned mainly with the quest

for the Grail and the heroes in it, or through the romances whose chief

concern was the history and lore surrounding the Grail itself. Both

examples will be addressed. The best way to start any adventure is from

the beginning; thus, this is where the paper shall start, and then continue

to move chronologically through time and the development of the Grail

stories.

Perceval ou Conte del Graal (Perceval, or the Story of the Grail),

written by Chretien de Troyes around the year 1180, is regarded by many

as the oldest of the Grail romances. The first glimpse of the grail is at a

castle inhabited by a “maimed King”, and also known as the “Fisher King”.

He is a man in perpetual torment, who sustained a mysterious wound in

the thigh caused by the thrust of a javelin. The King’s unhealing wound

subsequently causes the country around the castle to become barren

and becomes known as the Wasteland. When Perceval is admitted to the

hall, he sees a procession of youths carrying mysterious objects passing

through the hall;

“…a squire came forth from a chamber carrying a white lance by the middle of the shaft; he passed between the fire and those seated upon the bed. Everyone in the hall saw the white lance with its white point from whose tip there issued a drop of blood, and this red drop flowed down to the squire’s hand… The other two squires entered holding in their hands a candelabra of pure gold, crafted with enamel inlays… In each of the candelabra there were at least ten candle burning. A maiden accompanying the two young men was carrying a grail with her two hands… After she had entered the hall carrying the grail the room was so brightly illumined that the candles lost their brilliance like stars and the moon when the suns rises. After her came another maiden, carrying a silver carving platter. The grail, which was introduced first, was of fine pure gold. Set in the grail were precious stones of many kinds, the best and costliest to be found in earth or sea: the grail’s stones were finer than any others in the world without any doubt. The grail passed by like the lance; they passed in front of the bed and into another chamber” (de Troyes, 420.

Perceval is curious as to the meaning of these objects, and whom

they serve, but he remembers his teacher in knightly ways, Gornemant,

warning him as to the uncouthness of asking to many questions, and

decides not to ask. This is his downfall, for with one question asked by

Perceval, it is said that the Maimed King would be restored in health,

along with the surrounding Wastelands. Perceval leaves the castle,

shamed. The story continues, but only slightly more is heard about the

Grail, and it is never seen again, as the story ends, abruptly and in mid-

sentence due to Chretien’s death. Thus, while Chretien’s story is unfinished,

enough was written about the Grail to spark the beginnings of a legend to

last for years to come.

In Chretien’s Perceval, the grail does not seem to have any

particular religious character, nor does Chretien go on to explain the

nature of the mysterious objects seen in the hall of the Maimed King. In

fact, the grail does not seem to be anything particularly unique. The term

grail comes from the Latin gradale, which means a slightly deep dish or

platter brought to the table at the various stages of a meal.

The first author to “Christianize” the Grail story and link the Grail to the

cup used by Christ at the Last Supper was Robert de Boron in his poem

Joseph d’Arimathie, written in the early 13th century. He pinpoints the

origin of the Grail as the “very noble vessel” which was used by Christ at

the Last Supper to perform the Holy Sacraments. It was then passed into

the possession of Joseph of Arimathea, a figure described in the New

Testament to have been present at the crucifixion, who used it to gather

the blood of Christ as his body was taken from the cross. The lance used to

pierce the thigh of the Maimed King is also associated with the Lance of

Longinus, the lance used to pierce Christ’s side. Joseph then left the Holy

Land and went to Britain, taking the Grail along with him, drawing a

parallel to the legend that Joseph was responsible for conversion of Britain

to Christianity. The grail was passed down through the generations of his

family, and set the stage for Perceval’s arrival at the castle of the current

possessor and protector of the Grail with Chretien.

In Parzival, by Wolfram von Eshcenbach, there is a different sort of

Grail altogether; it is said to be Lapis Exillis, a precious stone of special

purity possessing miraculous powers, though Lapis Exillis could be a

corruption of the name Lapis Elixir, translated as the “philosophers’ stone”.

It could also be derived from the term Lapis Ex Coelis, which translates as

“the stone from the heavens” and seems to fit with the usage in Parzival.

Wolfram’s story is basically the same as Chretien’s, with more

elaboration and details thrown in, and a decidedly Christian aspect. In

fact Chretien’s Perceval is considered to be Wolfram’s main source,

though he specifically denies that, and instead states his source to be a

heathen, Kyot, who was later baptized, and who told how angels left the

Grail on earth.

In Wolfram’s account, Parzival arrives at what he identifies as the

Grail Castle, called Munsalvaesche, the home of the Maimed King. As

with Chretien, in Wolfram’s account there is a procession of sorts through

the hall;

“A page ran in at the door bearing… a Lance from whose keen steel blood issued and then ran down the shaft to his hand and all but reached his sleeve” (von Eshenbach, 123)

After the Lance is removed from the hall, a large amount of maidens

enter carrying various items, such as trestles of ivory, and beautiful silver

knives. Wolfram comments extensively on this spectacle, mostly their

appearance, which is apparently quite remarkable. Last in the procession

came the Princess of the Grail castle, and

“upon a green achmardi she bore the consummation of her heart’s desire, its root and its blossoming – a thing called “The Gral”, paradisal, transending all earthly perfection. She whom the Gral suffered to carry itself had the name of Repanse de Schoye. Such was the nature of the Gral, that she who had the care of it was required to be of perfect chastity and to have renounced all things false” (von Eshenbach, 125)

Wolfram then goes on to tell us that

“whatever one stretched out one’s hand for in the presence of the Gral, it was waiting, one found it all ready and to hand – dishes warm, dishes cold, new-fangled dishes and old favourites, the meat of beasts both tame and wild… for the Gral was the very fruit of bliss, a cornucopia of the sweets of this world and such that it scarcely fell short of what they tell us of the Heavenly Kingdom” (von Eshenbach, 126-27).

As before, Parzival is curious about the objects and longs to ask a

Question. However, he remembers being counseled by Gurnemanz not to

ask too many questions, and opts to take his advice. Wolfram finishes what

Chretien left unfinished, and tells us of Parzival’s (eventual) redemption at

the Grail castle after he goes on a spiritual quest, on which he actually

finds out he is the nephew of the Maimed King. He is made worthy once

again of the Grail, and the Grail King is healed, as well as the surrounding

land restored, after Parzival asks, “Dear Uncle, what ails you?” As the

nephew of the Grail King, he is also to be his successor, and the story ends

with Parzival as the new Grail King.

There are details present in Wolfram’s story that weren’t in Chretien’s

telling, mainly that of an organized community centered around the grail,

and the idea of a hereditary line of guardians of the Grail, the Fisher

Kings/descendants of Joseph of Arimathea, whose chief duty was to

protect the Grail. These are both apparently additions of Wolframs own

creation.

The next major installment of the Grail legend is the Queste del Saint

Graal (The Quest of the Holy Grail) and attributed to Walter Map in the last

paragraph, but is more likely to have been written by a monk or monks of

the Cistercian order. The story of the Quest of the Holy Grail is entirely

encompassed in Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory in the chapter

“The Tale of The Sangreal”, and thus we shall examine the two stories

together. Both stories are concerned mainly with the actual quest for the

Grail, but also give some account of the history of the Grail.

Once again, as with Chretien, the Grail is depicted as the platter or

slightly deep dish which supplied whatever food one reached one’s hand

out for, but the hero of the quest is no longer Parzival/Perceval, but

Galahad, the virtuous son of Lancelot and the daughter of the Fisher King.

The story begins on the eve of Pentecost at King Arthur’s Court in

Camelot. King Arthur is told that a seat at the Round Table will one day be

filled by a knight who seeks and beholds the Holy Grail, most likely

referring to the “Siege Perilous”, a chair which no one but the appointed

can sit in without befalling some misfortune, or even death. Galahad

comes to Camelot that very day, and assumes his rightful place in the

Siege Perilous. Later that day, after assembling themselves around the

Round Table, the knights behold the Holy Grail,

“When they were all seated and the noise was hushed, there came a clap of thunder so loud and terrible that they thought the palace must fall. Suddenly the hall was lit by a sunbeam which shed a radiance through the palace seven times brighter than had been before. In this moment they were all illumined as it might be by the grace of the Holy Ghost, and they began to look at one another, uncertain and perplexed. But not one present could utter a word, for all had been struck dumb, without respect of person. When they had sat a long while thus, unable to speak and gazing at one another like dumb animals, the Holy Grail appeared, covered with a cloth of white samite; and yet no mortal hand was seen to bear it. It entered through the great door, and at once the palace was filled with fragrance as though all the spices of the earth had been spilled abroad. It circled the hall along the great tables and each place was furnished in its wake with the food its occupants desired. When all were served, the Holy Grail vanished, they knew not how nor whither” (The Quest of the Holy Grail, 43-44)

After the vision of the Grail, Gawain vows first to seek it out. After his

avowal, the knights of the Round Table also make similar vows. The rest of

the story consists mainly of the subsequent adventures of the various Grail-

seekers. Three knights succeed in their quest to find the Grail, but only one

beholds it and all its mysteries, the Christ-like Galahad. Lancelot and

Perceval also beheld the Grail, but only in a vision or a dream due to

Lancelot’s sinful love for Guinevere and Perceval’s having committed one

sin.

This reaffirms the idea that only the mentally and spiritually pure

may behold the mysteries of the Grail,

“the adventures that you are now to seek concern the nature and manifestations of the Holy Grail; these signs will never appear to sinners or men sunk deep in guilt” (The Quest of the Holy Grail, 174).

As seen, the story of the Holy Grail varies with author to author but

continues to remain an object of mystery and fascination. It involves an

otherworldly realm of which only a glimpse can be caught in stories and

in prose.

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