It was a refreshing coincidence being asked to review this book immediately after those by Justin E. Griffin and Judith Faith on the Holy Grail and Glastonbury. Both of those authors, who believe that the Grail was a real object (or in Griffin’s case objects), exhibit a cavalier disregard for academic scholarship on the subject, airily sweeping aside the professionals’ position - that the Grail was a literary creation and the various traditions that became attached to it (such as the Glastonbury connection) the result of myth-making and romanticising – as down to their unimaginative inability to accept anything for which there isn’t irrefutable evidence. As I pointed out, that radically misrepresents the academic position, which is based on some hard and challenging facts, as well as giving Griffin and Faith an excuse to neatly sidestep those facts.
In Juliette Wood’s The Holy Grail: History and Legend we have what is effectively a 100-page primer on the academic view of the Grail traditions, written by someone with impeccable credentials - a specialist in Celtic folklore who holds positions at Cardiff University, the National Museum of Wales and the Warburg Institute - which demonstrates that there is much more to the scholarly position that mere conservatism.
Clear and concise though it is, however, the book’s brevity is its major drawback. In fact – although nowhere is this made clear – it is a condensed version of Wood’s 2008 Eternal Chalice: The Enduring Legend of the Holy Grail, which is more than double the length and has a good claim to be the best book on this complex subject. I say condensed rather than abridged, as (except for a few sections that are omitted entirely) The Holy Grail is the earlier work rewritten sentence by sentence to say the same thing in less words; indeed, some parts read as if Eternal Chalice has been put through Word’s auto-summarise function.
Sometimes this works in the book’s favour, providing a clear and concise summary of a particular aspect of the subject. At other times, however, it gives the text an off-putting terseness and a sense that Wood is rushing through issues that merit a more in-depth analysis. The awareness that there is another version which has neither of those shortcomings often made me feel that I was reading ‘Eternal Chalice lite’.
Wood gives a clear account of the literary development of the medieval Grail romances from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries (from Chrétien de Troye’s Le conte del graal to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur). This naturally includes the evolution of the image of the Grail itself, from ‘a’ grail to the Holy Grail. She also examines how the hero of the quest was changed to reflect developing ideas about the quest’s nature – from the gauche Perceval, through the almost-perfect but flawed Lancelot to the so-saintly-he-makes-you-sick Galahad. And - an aspect usually left out of analyses of the tales’ literary development - how the stories changed as they were adapted to an ever-wider audience, the first wave being written exclusively for a knightly elite and later versions being adapted to give a more general appeal.
Given the incompleteness of the evidence, there will always be room for disagreement. For example, Wood presents the Welsh folk tale Peredur [left] as one of the continuations of Chrétien’s unfinished first Grail romance, whereas to me there is a good case for it actually being Chrétien’s source and inspiration. (True, the earliest written versions of Peredur post-date Le conte del graal, but they are clearly based on tales that have been handed down orally, and to my mind the differences between the two - most obviously that there’s no Grail in Peredur, odd for a continuation of a story about one - are more logically explained by the Welsh version coming first.)
Interest in the Grail stories declined after the sixteenth century, but picked up again in the nineteenth, as part of a general revival of interest in all things Celtic (as the origins of the story were then – Wood believes incorrectly – believed to be Welsh) as well as a post-Industrial romanticising of the medieval chivalric ideal. In this nineteenth and twentieth century renaissance, the Grail came to be seen as ‘a symbol of personal transformation and cultural renewal,’ a concept that gave rise to new explorations of the meaning of the Grail in literature, art and cinema. The chapter covering this is a particular victim of the pruning process, as it becomes a rather breathless dozen-page gallop through everything from Eliot’s The Waste Land to the movie Excalibur that doesn’t do the subject any justice, especially when one knows that it’s given a much fuller treatment in Eternal Chalice.
In parallel with these new fictional expressions of the Grail legends, there was an interest in what it was that might have inspired them, which led to esoteric speculation on the spiritual meaning of the Grail and a multitude of theories about the ‘secret’ of the Grail, a trend that culminated in Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, ‘an extremely productive modern grail legend.’
In short, Wood places the whole story – the story of the Grail story, if you will – firmly in its historical and cultural context, showing how the legend’s evolution from the Middle Ages to the modern world was shaped by the preoccupations and values of each age that it passed through. This aspect, which is vital to a proper understanding of the subject, is what is lost by the likes of Faith and Griffin when they brush aside the relevance of scholarly opinion.
The contrast between the two approaches is most clearly seen in Wood’s chapter on the Grail and Glastonbury. Both Griffin and Faith base their cases on there being a real historical connection between the two. However, as Wood shows, the evidence very much points to the association of the Grail, Glastonbury and Joseph of Arimathea as being ‘relatively late’. She also makes the important point that promotion of the Joseph of Arimathea legend in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had a strong political motivation, as it was used (for example by Archbishop Ussher) to bolster Anglicanism against ‘papist’ claims that it was a young upstart by giving the English Church an origin that predated the Church of Rome.
But it is Wood’s treatment of ‘alternative history’ theories of the Grail that is of most relevance to the Magonian.
She is less scathing about some of the modern theories than many of her peers. Although critical of the theorists’ historical methodology and ‘this odd looking-glass world of secrets and conspiracies,’ she does treat them and their views with some respect, rather than dismissing them as idiots or charlatans. For example, she describes the Holy Blood and Holy Grail’s linking of the Grail to Mary Magdalene as a ‘blend of poetic imagination and scholarship’ and ‘ingeniously speculative’, which is fairer than many would, and have, put it.
Wood examines the various theories linking the Grail to such places as Rennes-le-Château, Rosslyn Chapel [right] and Shugborough Hall, all of which she finds wanting. The condensing into the ‘lite’ version does sometimes give an unfortunate air of glib academic dismissal that isn’t found in Eternal Chalice. For example, her conclusion that ‘the historical evidence does not offer much support for an ancient mystery at Rennes-le-Château’ is backed up by a one-paragraph summing-up of the mystery, which although fair as far as it goes doesn’t really do justice to such a complex subject.
An oddity of the medieval romances that forms the starting point of many alternative interpretations – allowing it to be linked to the theme of the sacred feminine – is that, although the Grail is associated with the Eucharistic chalice, the Grail-bearers are consistently female, with the heretical implication that these ladies have a role equal, or even superior, to that of a priest officiating at Communion. As Wood points out, this isn’t so strange in Chrétien’s original version, since he didn’t associate the Grail with the Last Supper – that came from a later conflation with the separate legends about Joseph of Arimathea - and the central themes of courtly romance pretty much demanded that women should have such a role in the quest. What is strange is that they retained the role after the Grail evolved into the cup of the Last Supper, and Wood’s explanation for this – that it was ‘quite possibly because the romances were not devotional works and there was therefore no conflict with religious practice’ – doesn’t strike me as strong enough for what must, surely, have been perceived at the time as a shocking challenge to religious conventions.
Wood notes that the alternative theories share two assumptions. The first is that the Grail legends conceal a great secret, a notion with which she disagrees on the grounds that there’s no specific evidence that the writers of the romances were trying to hide or encode a secret into them. The second is that ‘the guardians of the grail are targeted by a sinister conspiracy mounted by the establishment.’ The guardians almost always include groups such as the Cathars and, in particular, the Knights Templar.
Wood explains the introduction of the Templars into the mix as entirely the creation of politically-motivated nineteenth-century French ‘romantic revivalists’, arguing that it has no historical basis, and here, in my view, she overstates the case.
There is evidence – perhaps not conclusive and open to interpretation, but not non-existent – of a connection between the Templars and the early Grail romances. Most obvious is that in his telling of the tale, Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach specifically describes the order of knights who guard the Grail as Templars (templeisen). Although, as Wood points out, the word is ambiguous, and there are several possible meanings, one of those meanings – and arguably the most obvious – is Templar!
Wood asserts that there was nothing secretive about the Templars, arguing that ‘sources have been over-interpreted to imply a level of secrecy and conspiracy that did not exist.’ This isn’t really accurate. The Order was obsessed with secrecy; given that it was involved in military strategic planning, intelligence-gathering, behind-the-scenes diplomatic manoeuvring and high-level financial dealings, it had to be in order to do its job! That might be all there was to the Templars’ secretiveness, but secretiveness there certainly was.
She also states that the Templars and Cathars were ‘never linked historically,’ which is again an overstatement, as there is documentary evidence from the Languedoc that places at least individual Cathars in Templar properties.
Wood accepts the explanation that the Templars were suppressed by the French King, Philip IV, for entirely political reasons, and that the charges of heresy and diabolism levelled against them were ‘more of a matter of political expediency.’ Again this isn’t entirely fair, as there is a good case that Philip genuinely believed that the Templars were up to something blasphemous, and some solid evidence (for example from the recently-discovered ‘Chinon document’) that heterodox practices really did form part of their initiation ceremonies.
Those criticisms – or rather differences of opinion – aside, Wood presents a refreshingly balanced picture of alternative theories centred on the Holy Grail. In fact, despite finding fault with the theories, she does see them as having a positive side. As she points out, the appeal of these alternative theories is that the reader gets personally involved in the quest to discover the secret of the Grail, and to explore the history, mythology and spiritual ideas that the theories weave together. The reader becomes the hero of their own Grail quest: ‘However it changes, the grail still has the power to inspire readers and to send them on their own imaginative journey.’
The Holy Grail certainly has its value. (And any book that includes a mention of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch gets my vote.) However, if you want an academic survey of the historical and cultural significance of the Grail tradition, you’d be better off going for the ‘full-fat’ version, The Eternal Chalice. – Clive Prince