The legend of King Arthur, as many people recognise it today, is very much steeped in Christian iconography and Christian beliefs and values that it’s picked up over the millennium and a half it’s been around, and the Holy Grail must surely be one of the most recognisably Christian inclusions of this ever-evolving legend. Considering how much has been added to the Superman mythos – and only over 80 plus years – imagine how many changes, additions and deletions King Arthur has gone through!
From what is mentioned in Once and Future #3 by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamara Bonvillain, the King Arthur who has been resurrected owes much to his Celtic origins, but he still calls out for the Holy Grail to help him heal more quickly. After all, it is through drinking from this sacred cup that Arthur, and England, is healed in Malory’s L’Morte D’Arthur, the prime text upon which Gillen seems to be drawing a good deal of his inspiration. A vessel it was believed Joseph of Arimathea used to capture drops of blood from the crucified Christ side, and bring with him to Europe.
Originally introduced in the writings of Chrétien de Troyes, in the 12th century – by which point the Arthurian legend had already been around for almost a thousand years – the original Holy Grail was sought after by Perceval, who remains tied to this story for some time, only for the bastard son of Lancelot, Sir Galahad, to take poor Perceval’s crown, in subsequent versions , starting with the Vulgate Cycle only 100 years or so later. And most noticeably in the aforementioned text of Sir Thomas Malory, wherein Galahad gains the Grail through his purity of mind, body and soul.
Indeed, it’s because of Lancelot having been tricked into sex by Galahad’s mother, Elaine of Corbenic, that he’s prevented from accessing the Grail himself. Although, this act does drive him mad upon finding out he has been duped. It’s an absolute necessity, if you are following the high chivalric code as presented by Malory – but hugely informed by Chrétien de Troyes’s own romantic writings – that you remain chaste throughout your time as a Round Table Knight. It’s also the reason Lancelot eventually gives in to his desires and has an affair with Guinevere. Why remain celibate if you’re no longer a virgin, no longer pure? Just a shame he chose the king’s wife to break this code with. But then, he is French. What do you expect?
And so, it is Galahad who makes an appearance in Once and Future #3, and appropriately so, given his dominance in subsequent tales of the Holy Grail as depicted by such literary giants as Alfred Lord Tennyson in his Idylls of the King; a narrative poem that has a great deal to do with Victorian England’s rediscovering of then Arthurian legend. And, similarly to Gillen (albeit at very opposite ends of the spectrum) King Arthur is recast as a national hero. An appropriately regal icon for the ever-expanding and arrogant British Empire. Although, as a side note, it’s Perceval once again who gains the Grail in John Boorman’s film, Excalibur.
Of course, on another level, the Holy Grail is one in a long line of magic talismans heroes from myths, legends and fairy tales have discovered along their journey of self-discovery and adventure, and could easily be seen as a substitute by Catholic writers of the Middle Ages for more pagan artefacts. We’ve already looked at Excalibur, as well as the other non-religious arsenal items that Arthur once had, but if the Grail is a substitute for a more ancient, Celtic object, then what could it be standing in for?
The most obvious parallel can be found in the stories of The Mabinogion. A series of tales that loosely fit in with the Arthurian tradition, but older again, and with far more of a Celtic flavour to them, what with these being tales from Wales. A country with its own fiercely strong traditions and stories that remained less diluted by the influence of the English. The Arthurian legend has been the victim of its own literary colonialism, with the Christian influences having all but drowned out the more pagan aspect of yore. But not all. Indeed, in many of the names of places in Wales, there are still hints of the true King Arthur. If you ever find yourself in Carmarthen, then you’ve just stepped foot into Merlin’s fort, as it loosely translates into English. It’s also where Merlin (or Myrddin) was supposedly born. Wales still has strong, tangible ties to the Arthurian myth.
But, I digress.
Stories of magical, food-giving, all-healing cauldrons are rife in Celtic mythologies (and by Celtic, I refer here to Irish and Welsh stories) and in the pages of The Mabinogion is the story of ‘Branwen daughter of Llŷr’ in which a magical cauldron is offered up as a peace treaty by Bran the Blessed of Wales to the Irish king Matholwch. The cauldron, in this story, can resurrect the dead. You can see how this isn’t too far a leap when considering the Holy Grail’s own healing properties. After all, in many of the earliest of mentions of the Grail, it is often depicted as a mere cup, a dish and the aforementioned cauldron. Before it solidified in the Arthurian mythos, it was an ever-changing object in ever-changing stories. But, to me, as the Holy Grail it finally became, it’s another example of the literary colonisation of the Arthurian legend by the dominance of Christianity in the UK since the fall of Rome. To replace our pagan ways The Roman Catholic Church gave us Christmas, Easter, and a very English King Arthur. It’s easy to forget his pagan, Celtic roots. But, it would seem at least Gillen hasn’t forgotten them.
Of course, for many of us, we are probably all more familiar with the Holy Grail being the object Indy and his dad track down in my personal favourite of the original Indiana Jones films, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; a reminder that the Grail is still a potent, magical item but also a great reminder of how much has changed from the original Celtic sources that have been all but rubbed out by the writers of the Middle Ages.
Essential Reading: The Mabinogion, Chrétien de Troyes, The Holy Grail: Its Origins, Secrets & Meaning Revealed by Malcolm Goodwin
Check out our previous entries in this series of columns here.