THE GRAIL LEGEND IN MEDIEVAL AND MODERN FICTION
By Simon Acland, author of The Waste Land
The opening conceit of my novel The Waste Land is that a group of desperate Oxford dons discover an ancient manuscript in their library. They resolve to rescue the finances of their bankrupt college by turning this manuscript into a best-selling thriller (think The Da Vinci Code). The manuscript contains the autobiographical story of Hugh de Verdon, a monk turned knight who goes on the First Crusade (1096-99) and “discovers the truth about the Holy Grail”. What is more, the manuscript appears to be the Urtext, the original source material, for the very first medieval Grail romance written by Chrétien de Troyes around 1180.
I studied French and German at Oxford in the 1970s. Back then, Oxford was more than a little old-fashioned, and I found myself studying 12th and 13th Century Grail Romances as my special subject (that is Modern Languages at Oxford for you). However, I found them fascinating and became a fully signed-up Holy Grail geek. Later I read with amusement the books which adapted the medieval legends – The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, which caused a storm in 1982 by suggesting that the Holy Grail – the San Graal in medieval French – was actually a cipher for the royal blood line of Jesus Christ – the Sang Real in modern French. This was the central idea which was then taken into The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Not for nothing is Dan Brown’s villain called Sir Leigh Teabing.
My novel The Waste Land jokes that it all started with Hugh de Verdon’s story, but, in fact, it of course started with that fellow Chrétien de Troyes. Little is known about him, even though he was the Dan Brown of his day. He wrote several very popular chansons de geste, long poems with Arthurian themes about chivalry and damsels in distress, which in places were funny, and for medieval times, even erotic. Chrétien’s last work is called the Roman de Perceval.
In the Roman de Perceval, the knight of the title finds himself in a mysterious castle, and witnesses a strange procession, the centerpiece of which is a magical golden grail (in medieval French graal is a somewhat obscure word meaning a large serving dish, on which you might place a boar’s head or large salmon). Later on in the poem it transpires that the grail is used to feed and keep alive a wounded king, and it is at one point described as ‘tante sainte chose’ (‘such a holy thing’), but it is not linked specifically with Jesus Christ in any way. The land of this king (who happens to be Perceval’s uncle) is barren, laid waste, and Perceval missed the opportunity to lift the spell by asking questions of his host about the grail. The grail appears to be a cornucopia linked with Celtic legend more than a Christian object but it is never fully explained. So a great mystery is set up – what is the grail, why is the king wounded, what happens when the quest is fulfilled and the spell is lifted?
But Chrétien died before he could finish the story, leaving these questions unanswered. Imagine if Dan Brown had died before finishing The Da Vinci Code.
Such was Chrétien de Troyes’ popularity that several writers soon attempted to complete his story. The first of these to make a connection between the Grail and the vessel used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper and to catch Jesus’ blood when he was taken down from the Cross was Robert de Boron. This version contains many of the familiar elements of the legend - Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, King Arthur, the questing knights – but it too was followed by other medieval versions which adapted the story to the individual interests of the writers. One version, Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, introduced a loose connection with the Templars. Then, with the passing of the Middle Ages and of the interest in questing knights, the Grail fades from view. It isn’t really until the rekindling of interest in things gothic in the 19th Century that the Grail reappears as a cultural theme in Wagner’s opera Parsifal and the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites.
Sir James Frazer’s massive twelve-volume study of anthropology and folklore, The Golden Bough, published from 1890 to 1915, rekindled 20th century interest in ancient myth and legend. In 1919 Jessie Weston focussed in on the Grail myth in her influential work From Ritual to Romance, and tied its origins firmly back to Celtic fertility legends. Three years later TS Eliot seized on the imagery of the Grail for his poem The Waste Land. Eliot acknowledges his debt to both these writers in the controversial notes to his great poem. In my turn, in homage, I have seized on Eliot’s title for my book, used snippets of his poem for my chapter headings, and buried 23 direct quotations in my text for eagle-eyed Eliot enthusiasts.
There was a trickle of Holy Grail books through the mid-20th Century, and some films, not least Monty Python and the Holy Grail (to which I have also paid a sort of homage by dressing up in Monty Pythones-que Crusader costume to do video interviews about my book). You can watch the video here: http://www.meettheauthor.co.uk/bookbites/1915.html
But it wasn’t really until the 1982 success of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail spawned a flood of imitation pseudo-histories and a torrent of similar fiction that the floodgates really opened. Given the size of the genre, I am not sure that I should have added to it, but I hope that you enjoy reading my lesser Waste Land if you have a chance to do so. For all its proud pedigree, it is a simple adventure story about a knight who falls in love and loses his beliefs, and firmly, as its sub-title suggests, intended as an Entertainment.
Simon Acland worked as a venture capitalist for over 20 years and wrote several books on investing and leadership. The Waste Land is his first novel. For more information, visit his website at :http://www.simonacland.com/wasteland.htm