Folk-Lore/Volume 2/The Legend of the Grail, 1

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Folk-Lore, Volume 2
The Legend of the Grail. No. I.
by Moses Gaster


IN the history of mediæval romances there is none so complicated as that of the romance of the Holy Grail. Many a scholar has tried to solve the problem of its origin, and yet a final solution is still wanting.

No one who has ever trodden the enchanted land on which the castle which contained the Holy Grail stood could entirely escape the charm that overhangs it. Just as difficult as was the ancient quest in romance, is the modern quest after the origin and sources of this remarkable and weird tale.

This romance now exists in various forms, more or less akin to one another. These have been subdivided into groups, according to the affinity in which the incidents narrated therein stand to one another, and also in how far one tale is developed more than the other: a work which has been successfully carried out by Mr. Nutt, who, in his admirable Studies on the Grail, has endeavoured to disentangle the skein of this complicated problem, and to make some order in the mass of versions, texts, and alterations in which this legend has been preserved. Mr. Nutt rightly distinguishes between an Early history of the Grail and the Quest; the former containing the origin and source of the Grail, and the Quest, on the other hand, consisting of the description of the adventures the expected hero had to undergo until he finally reached his goal. Stripped of all the embellishments which made out of these simple facts the most renowned of mediseval romances, the numerous versions of it are practically one. The differences begin with the detailed accounts given in the Early history, and still more with the peculiarities of the Grail, of the hero and his achievements, The work is the same, but the contents vary almost in every version.

At the head of the whole literature stands Chrestien de Troyes, the famous minstrel, who, as far as our present knowledge goes, was the first to sing the praise of the Grail, and of the hero in search of it. Next in point of time, and, as I may at once add, first in importance, is the German follower of Chrestien, Wolfram von Eschenbach. In spite of the likeness, there is also a very great diversity in the treatment of the Grail by both these writers. Besides, Wolfram claims an independent source for his poetical composition, ridiculing Chrestien for not following the original closely.

Everything tends to make us believe that there must have existed a common primary source whence both Chrestien and Wolfram drew their tale. Of what kind was this primary source, and how much did it contain? Were both those parts which we find afterwards united, or was only one of them contained in the original? Did Chrestien and Wolfram know the Early history of the Grail or not? I entirely agree with Mr. Nutt that they, or even the original they followed, did not know much of it, the origin and properties of the Grail being only vaguely indicated. It is chiefly the Quest which plays the most important part in their poems. Whence did they take it from? It is round this question that a literary battle has now been fought for over fifty years. I do not flatter myself that I shall be able to bring the battle to an end, but I intend attacking this question from a different point of view altogether.

It is a futile attempt to reduce every incident of these poems to one and the same source. Every work of art, every poetical production is, to some extent, a kind of mosaic, a kind of blending in one of a mass of different, sometimes widely divergent, elements. Composite as our modern knowledge is, so must also have been that of the ancient or mediæval author who drew the elements of the romance, not from one source alone, but from many, sometimes quite different ones.

Two main sources of inspiration have been suggested by the various writers on this subject. To some, the legend in its entirety owes its origin to Christian lore; others have divided the matter, assigning the Early history to the Christian source, whilst the other—Quest—would be of Celtic (Welsh) origin. It is remarkable, however, that both sections have totally ignored another main source of mediæval poetry and of modern civilisation; I mean the old classical literature of Greece and Rome, But before proceeding further, I must first make clear my standpoint.

The Celtic origin does not rest upon documentary proof, upon older texts and MSS. than Chrestien's poem, but on parallels to be found in Celtic folk-lore, and some later versions. I still hold to the theory that these versions are, in fact, only variations of Chrestien's poem of later origin, and that, through the instrumentality of such versions and adaptations, these romances entered into the possession of the people, and became its unwritten lore, the modern folk-lore.

Far, therefore, from being the primitive source for Chrestien or his predecessor, modern tales are merely the reflex of that written literature, and are by no means anterior to it. Parallels adduced from modern tales do not therefore prove that these tales were the direct sources whence Chrestien drew the elements of his poem, but, as I contend, they are the outcome of that literature.

We must look for older parallels than the time of Chrestien, older than the second half of the twelfth century. We must study first the surroundings in which Chrestien grew up, what amount of knowledge was accessible to him, what great events stirred the nations of Europe, and what kind of literary currents swayed the people at that time. It is only by answering such questions that we can come to a more positive result, and then draw our inference also for Wolfram, and for the host of Chrestien's continuators. These also must have had access to some store of similar learning, to be able to tread in his footsteps, and to take up the thread where his dying hand let it fall. A few lays cannot, and could not, suffice for the explanation of the great mass of incidents embodied in these romances.

It must also first be proved how such Celtic tales, if they existed at all, could come to the knowledge of a French poet, living as he did in France, of whose sojourn in England not a trace has been found. One has only to compare the widely different parallels adduced from Celtic lore, to be convinced that Chrestien, or the author of the original which he adopted, must have had a herculean task to perform, to alter and change, to blend and to assimilate, an immense mass of tales, mythical and heroical, and mould them together into one tale, which, after all, does not appear in a coherent form in any of its modern parallels. For it must be borne in mind that such a Celtic tale, containing most of the striking incidents, and older than the time of Chrestien, has not yet been discovered. What we have instead is a number of lays, or other tales, where either the one or the other incident is said to occur, the similarity not being absolutely identical, and in very many cases only the result of skilful interpretation.

If one would follow the same line of argumentation, one could easily adduce parallels to those Celtic lays and tales from various quarters of the globe, which would thus destroy the claim of the Celtic origin. The moment the same incident could be proved to exist elsewhere, we might just as well consider it to have originated there also, and not be limited to Celtic lore alone. We would have then one source more for the supposed origin of the legend: the folk-lore of Europe.

The natural way, however, is to look for one central tale, containing a sufficient number of incidents complete in itself; and round that tale, other minor incidents drawn from various quarters, could have been added afterwards by the continuator and amplifier of the tale.

But that primary one must already contain the most important incidents, and at the same time this primitive tale must contain that of the Grail as one of its incidents, but only in a vague, indefinite form, so as to afford the possibility for the double interpretation of the Grail as presented on one side by Chrestien, and on the other by Wolfram.

The problem, therefore, is to find a tale containing some of the principal elements of the Quest, the Grail or something akin to it being an important one; this Grail, or whatever would be standing for it, must be conceived in a vague, indefinite form, so as to be able to be filled with any kind of interpretation—religious, material, metaphysical, according to the poetical bent and the intentions of the poets. It is, further, an absolute necessity that such a tale should be of an older date than the time of Chrestien, and also it will have to be shown that it was, or could have been, accessible to him.

Before I proceed further, let us first examine the state of things as they existed in Europe at the end of the twelfth century, the psychological condition, in the midst of which Chrestien lived, and moved, and wrote.

It is in the twelfth century that the great French epical poetry flourished. Through patient investigation it has been proved that the history of the old Merovingian period was changed by the trouveur in some of these epopees into the history of Charlemagne. A battle at Roncevalles became the theme of one of the most celebrated old French romances, the chanson de Roland, and this was soon followed by a stately line of Chansons de Geste. Once started on the line of changing old history into modern, poets took a bolder course, and changed heroes of antiquity into national ones. Very well known is the tendency of the age to connect their own national history with that of the Greeks and Romans. The Roman de Brut of Wace, the old chronicles of Geoffrey and others, are examples of this tendency. Homer, i.e., Dictys and Dares, Virgil, and other writers of classical antiquity, furnished the materials for the writers of the middle ages, who drew upon them largely, only altering them, so that from Greek and Latin they became French and English.

The crusades had furnished further new themes for the fancy of the trouveur of the time. The whole world was stirred to its innermost depth by that general upheaving; the exploits of the first and second crusade had already begun to belong to the history of the past, when Chrestien began his poem. How many oriental legends were brought home and circulated by various pilgrims, especially such as were in Jerusalem, now once again in the hands of the infidels? The highest aim of the Christian world of that epoch was to regain possession of those sacred places; and the Order of the Templars represented the most ideal aspirations of the time—to live a chaste life, and to be found worthy to keep watch over the Lord's sanctuary.

Rumours of a great Christian kingdom in the far East, the kingdom of Prester John, reached Europe at the time, and like lightning these tidings spread from country to country, reviving the hopes of the crusaders by announcing help from an unexpected quarter in the deadly fight against the Mahommedan power.

At the same time a great dogmatic change was taking place in the teachings of the Church. The theory of Paschasius Radbertus found many adversaries, but no less adherents, and the twelfth century is the time when that dispute reached its climax, and the dogma of Transubstantiation was finally settled. The mystery of the sacrament, and the more than symbolic meaning of the Eucharist, was the central point of this dogma which has profoundly altered the Catholic Church, and was in later times one of the principal elements of discord between the Reformed church and the Church of Rome.

In naming these factors, classical literature, so to say modernised in an epical form, the French Chansons de Geste, the Crusades and the legends of Palestine, and, finally, the question of transubstantiation and the pseudo-epigraphic literature of the mystery of the sacrament, I have pointed out the chief sources to which the romance of the Holy Grail owes its origin, without any further admixture of Celtic tales or lays, or Celtic mythology. The life that is described in the romances is that of the authors' time. Knightly deeds, adventures, miracles, and spells all belong to the machinery of the romantic literature of the time, and though important for determining the exact character of the surroundings, vary, as is natural, in every version, and if more MSS. had been preserved the number of variations might have increased.

I shall now proceed to prove my case as far as possible in the order indicated.

Classical influence.—Working the romance backwards to its primitive form, we shall find that the main feature of the Quest may be summarised as follows:

A young man starts on an unheard of adventure, which no human being has ever achieved before him. It is by mere chance that he alights at the very spot where he had determined to go, although nothing definite is said as to the nature of that adventure. What he has to do, or to see, or to accomplish, is by no means clear. He himself does not know what to do, and fails thus in his first attempt.

According to Chrestien,[1] he comes to a river, upon which there is a boat, wherein are two men fishing. One of them, in reply to his questions, directs him for a night's shelter to his own castle hard by. Perceval starts for it, and at first, unable to find it, reproaches the fisher. Suddenly he perceives the castle before him, enters therein, is disarmed, clad in a scarlet mantle, and led into a great hall. Therein is a couch, upon which lies an old man; near him is a fire, around which some four hundred men are sitting. Perceval tells his host that he has come from Beau-Repaire. A squire enters, bearing a sword, and on it is written that it will never break, save in one peril, and that known only to the maker of it. 'Tis a present from the host's niece, to be bestowed where it will be well employed. The host gives it to Perceval, "to whom it was adjudged and destined." Hereupon enters another squire, bearing in his hand a lance, from the head of which a drop of blood runs down on the squire's hand. Perceval would have asked concerning this wonder, but he minds him of Goneman's counsel not to speak or inquire too much. Two more squires enter, holding each a ten-branched candlestick, and with them a damsel, a "Graal" in her hands. The Graal shines so that it puts out the light of the candles, as the sun does that of the stars. Thereafter follows a damsel holding a (silver) plate. All defile past between the fire and the couch, but Perceval does not venture to ask wherefore the Grail is used. Supper follows, and the Grail is again brought, and Perceval knowing not its use, had fain asked, but always refrains when he thinks of Gonemans, and finally puts off his questions till the morrow. After supper the guest is led to his chamber, and on the morrow, awakening, finds the castle deserted. Issuing forth, he finds his horse saddled, and the drawbridge down. Thinking to find the castle dwellers in the forest, he rides forth, but the drawbridge closes so suddenly behind him, that had not the horse leapt quickly forward, it had gone hard with steed and rider. In vain Perceval calls: none answer.

More elaborate is the version of Heinrich von dem Türlin.[2] "After monthlong wanderings, he meets with Lancelot and Calocreant, and all three come to the Grail castle. They are led into a hall, which passes in splendour aught earthly eye ever saw. The floor is strewn with roses; on a bed lies an old man in gold-embroidered ments, and watches two youths playing at chess. Towards night the hall fills with knights and dames; a youth enters, bearing a sword, which he lays before the old man. . . . Then enter two damsels, bearing lights, followed by two knights, with a spear, and two more damsels, with a toblier of gold and jewels. After them comes the fairest woman ever God created, and with her a maiden weeping. The spear is laid on the table, by it the 'toblier', wherein are three drops of blood. In the box borne by the fair lady is a piece of bread, one-third part of which she breaks off and gives to the old man. Gawain, recognising in her Gansguoter's sister, stays no longer, but asks what these wonders mean. Straightway knights and dames, all with mighty shout, leap from table, and great joy arises. The old man says what he has seen is the Grail; none saw it before save Parzival, and he asked not. By his question Gawain has delivered from long waiting and suffering both those which are dead and those which live. The old man himself and his companions are really dead, though they seem it not, but the lady and her damsels are living; for their unstained womanhood God has granted them to have the Grail, and therewith yearly to feed the old man."

So in all the versions it is a magnificent castle, wherein the one constantly-recurring figure is that of an old, sick or dead man, surrounded by jewels, plates or dishes of gold, and a mysterious thing, a cup with blood, or a box with bread, and a bloody lance. Only in Wolfram is it a mysterious rock or a jewel upon which a dove lays once a year a holy wafer. The hero asks, or omits to ask, and upon that action the whole tale turns. It is not, however, clear from the beginning what kind of task the hero has to achieve, nor is it more clear afterwards when he has achieved it. This portion seems not to be in the original, as not one version can clearly account for it. The original tale must have been also quite obscure on this point, thus affording free scope to the poet to interpret and to use it according to his own fancy. The less definite the task was the easier it was for the subsequent author to introduce into it what was nearest to him, and to give to it either a material or a spiritual meaning; the whole history of the legend points to such a kind of development as that which it really did undergo.

But whence comes that fundamental motive, an adventurous knight endowed with superior gifts, striving after an undertaking quite unique, never attempted before and never afterwards?

A glance over the literary activity in France at the time will give us the answer.

It was in the middle of the twelfth century that the Trojan war had been made the theme of an elaborate epos of 30,000 verses by Benoît de St. More, who, basing his work upon that of Dares Phrygius, Paulus Orosius, Ovid, etc., wrote his Roman de Troie. At about the same time the fabulous history of Alexander the Great was changed into a national epos by Alberic de Besançon, Alexander de Bernay (c. 1150), and very much amplified by Lambert li Tort (c. 1190–1200), the contemporary of Chrestien. One has only to see how they dealt with their originals, how they transferred the whole scenery from hoary antiquity to their own time, and to their own courts, to understand the liberty a poet of those times could take with his originals.

Seeing the manner in which the old kings and heroes were changed into knights and squires, the old gods into magicians and fairies, I do not think that I shall be considered very bold if I say that the legend of the Quest is nothing else but also a transformation of the most interesting episodes of that very legend of Alexander; the hero of the Grail romance is none else but Alexander, the Quest the counterpart of his attempt to force the Gates of Paradise, and the wonderful castle or temple, the one that Alexander saw in his marvellous expedition.

There is not one old version in which that journey—the Iter ad Paradisum—is not contained either in an amply developed form, or in an abridged one; but all contain the description of that marvellous castle. As we shall see presently, not only is it contained in the Greek text known under the name of Callisthenes (book iii, ch. 28), but also in the Latin version of Julius Valerius, and in that of the Archipresbyter Leo. The oldest French versions and the German of Lamprecht, which is based upon these French poems, contain it also. Thus, there is no difficulty from a historical and literary point of view; this legend was earlier than Chrestien, this legend was then not only accessible, but surely well known to Chrestien.

Starting from the oldest version, I will give here an accurate translation of the "Pseudo-Callisthenes' " version:

"We sailed away from that river, and came to a large island, 150 furlongs distant from the mainland, and there we found the city of the sun. This city had twelve towers, built of gold and emerald. The walls, the circumference of which was about 150 furlongs, were made of Indian stones. In the middle of the town there was an altar built, like the towers, of gold and emerald. Seven steps led up to the altar, at the top there stood a chariot with horses and driver, made likewise of gold and emerald. But all these things were partly invisible on account of the fog. The priest of the sun, Aeteops, was clothed in real Cyssus. He spoke to us in a savage tongue and ordered us to leave that city. After we had left we wandered about for seven days. Everywhere was darkness; not even fire lit up those parts. So we turned back, and came to the fields of Nysa, and there we saw a high mountain. We climbed to the top, and there beautiful houses, full of gold and silver, met our view; and these were enclosed by a wall of sapphire, with 150 steps cut into it, and upon the top stood a round temple, with seven pillars of sapphire and 100 steps. Inside and outside were images of demigods, bacchantes, satyrs, and of others, initiated in the sacred mysteries, but old Maron sat on a beast of burden. A couch was placed in the middle of the temple; on this couch lay a man clothed in silk. I could not see his face, for it was veiled; but I saw strength and greatness. In the middle of the temple there was a golden chain weighing a hundred pounds, and suspended from it was a transparent wreath; a precious stone which illumined the whole temple, took the place of fire. From the ceiling hung also a gold cage, in which was a bird about the size of a dove. This bird called out to me in the voice resembling man's, the following, in Greek:—'Alexander, cease now to oppose (the) god; return to your home, and hasten not through thoughtlessness (recklessness) your transit to the celestial regions.' And as I was about to take down the bird and the lamp, which I intended to send to you, it seemed to me as if he who was resting on the couch moved. Then my friends said to me, 'Forbear, for it is holy.' And as I was going out into the grounds of the temple, I saw two amphoras of gold which were capable of holding sixty metretes; we measured them at table. I commanded the soldiers to encamp there, and to enjoy themselves.

"A house also stood there, and it contained many beautiful and valuable goblets of precious stones. But just as we and the army were on the point of sitting down to the repast, there was heard suddenly a heavy thunder of flutes and cymbals, and pipes and trumpets, and kettledrums and zitters; and the whole mountain was covered with smoke, as if a heavy storm had broken down on us. Seized with fear, we hastened away, and wandered on until we came to the castle of Cyrus; and we came across many deserted towns, and one beautiful city, in which there was a house, in which the king himself received. I was told that there was a bird that spoke with human voice. I went into the house, and saw many wonderful sights, for the whole house was of gold. From the middle of the ceiling hung suspended a golden cage, like the one which I have mentioned before. In it was a bird like a dove, of gold colour; it was told to me that this bird prophesied to the king through its different tones, and that it was holy. I also saw an amphora capable of holding sixty metretes. The gold-work was marvellous, for all round it were figures, and above these a sea-battle, and in the middle was an inscription; everything was made and finished with gold. This amphora was said to be Egyptian, having been brought from the city of Memphis at the time when the Persians conquered Egypt. There was a house there, built in Greek style, in which the king had held his receptions, and in which there was a picture of the sea-fight of Xerxes. In this house there stood also a golden throne, inlaid with precious stones; and there was also a sweet-sounding zitter, whose strings moved of their own accord. Around it there stood a golden sideboard sixteen ells wide, and next to it another twenty ells wide; six steps led the way to it, and on the top of these stood an eagle with his wings spread out over the whole sideboard. There was also of gold a wild vine, with seven branches all worked in gold." So far Pseudo-Callisthenes. The text of Valerius has some variations, which I think essential, and I therefore mention them here. In fact, we have here two accounts, one of the temple of the sun, and the other of the palace of Cyrus and Xerxes. Being very much like one another, these two have been blended into one tale, some of the first description being left out by ignorant copyists, who took the former to be a mere narration of the latter (Zacher, pp. 170, 171).

The text of Valerius has now the following very remarkable detail in the description as he says of the palace, whilst, in fact, the temple is meant, as will be seen from the very wording, which runs as follows:

"In the temple hung from the ceiling a tropheum aureum (Cod. Mediolan.: stropæum aureum), from that 'trophæum' hung a ball in the form of 'vertiginis cœlitis' (the heavenly). Upon that ball sat the image of a dove, which prophesied to the king. And as I was about to take down that 'trophæum' which I intended to send to you, those present counselled me not to do it, as it was a sacred place, and that I should not expose myself to the dangers awaiting the intruder."

It is obvious that this passage here belongs to the description of the temple, as it has nothing whatsoever to do with the palace of Xerxes; and so we find it also afterwards in the Latin and French versions of the Alexander legend.

Substituting Perceval for Alexander, we have in this chapter the central motives of the Grail legend: the marvellous castle or temple Alexander had been the onlymortal who could reach after long and severe hardship; the mysterious old man on the couch, who appears in the romances as the maimed, sick king; the marvellous stone or cage, with the mysterious dove endowed with supernatural gifts—what could be more welcome for a poet than such a figure as that of the unknown powerful and yet half-concealed man lying on a couch? Fancy was quite free to picture in him either an ideal or a physical sufferer, tortured by a wound, inflicted either by a shaft, or by the dart of sin. Nothing could therefore adapt itself better to another cycle of tales and legends than the things seen in the temple; the jewel, or the dove, the huge amphoras and cauldrons, the numerous demi-gods and mystics, they could afterwards be substituted by Christian emblems or by other conceptions, drawn from different sources. The vagueness of the objects beheld in the temple, which can be seen already in the Latin versions of Valerius, whose words (almost unintelligible) I have retained, is the same which clings to the Grail, to the castle, its inmates, and the task of the hero.

It is, therefore, neither a feud-quest nor an unspelling-quest, to which two formulas Mr. Nutt has reduced the legend (p. 181), but simply the journey to the earthly Paradise, and the marvellous castle or temple of the sun, which form the primitive nucleus of the romance.

Following up that clue we shall be able to explain many an incident in the romance through the legend of Alexander. There is in the romance the chief fisher standing by the river, who directs Perceval to the castle. In the legend it is not a fisher, but a fish, which is quickened to life by being dipped into the water of the river, which attracts the attention of Alexander and arouses his curiosity. He follows up the river, and is thus led to Paradise. Out of that fish there grew the fisher-king. I need not further insist upon the almost identical legend of the dove sitting on the ball (or jewel) and prophesying to the king in a human voice—i.e., to the man lying on the couch—and the dove which lays a holy wafer upon the stone in Wolfram’s, and the bread by which the sick king is kept alive in Heinrich’s poem. Perceval is led by lights to the magic castle, which are almost identical with the lights that go before Alexander in the version of Valerius.

We shall see presently how deeply these elements taken from the legend of Alexander, have been modified through the agency of Christian ideas and Christian conceptions. This episode with the lights, and especially that of the tree full of lights whereupon one child (two children) sits, will find its explanation later on.

M. Gaster.

  1. Nutt, p. II, Incid. 7.
  2. Nutt, 27.