Folk-Lore/Volume 31/Review/From Ritual to Romance

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From Ritual to Romance. By Jessie L. Weston. Cambridge University Press, 1919. 12s. 6d. net.

Miss Jessie Weston’s new volume follows, in general, the line of argument laid down by the author in her earlier book published in the “Quest” series, but it treats the subject more at large and reinforces the argument with much fresh material.

The main contention of the book is that neither the theory of Christian origin nor that of a folk-lore source combines all the chief features of the Grail story or explains the gravity and sense of mysticism with which the subject is approached and handled. Abandoning these two theories, Miss Weston traces the rise of the story to a survival of Mithraic beliefs still vaguely remembered in Britain at the time the Grail story arose; these Mithraic observances themselves being, in her view, but one form of the almost universal cult of agricultural deities, the outcome of the universal desire for the fecundity of nature and of human life. Her book is an attempt to combine the largest possible number of the incidents of the Grail story under one system which will, she believes, co-ordinate them, and thus provide an explanation of the whole cycle. The attempt is an ingenious one, and it comes with all the weight of Miss Weston’s long and careful study of the subject, and minute criticism of the texts. Her volume, on the one hand, shows the influence of the Golden Bough turned to new uses and, on the other, is the outcome of her study of certain works dealing with mediaeval mysticism, of which she specially mentions the Naassene Document, which has been translated with much penetrating comment by Mr. G. R. S. Mead in his Thrice Greatest Hermes.

Miss Weston’s book undoubtedly supplies new points for consideration and fresh lines of investigation, but whether any single explanation can unite into one whole the entire body of symbolic meanings which attached themselves to the central idea of the Grail, we still see reason to doubt. As the Quest for the Grail united in a single great adventure the separate legends belonging to various Champions, who had originally no place in the Arthurian legend, so the Holy Cup itself, with all its mysterious surroundings and mystic symbols, fails to be explained on any single theory. It is not only the symbol of fecundity of the agricultural theory, or the inexhaustible cauldron of Celtic tradition, nor is it simply the sacred vessel of the worshipper of Mithra or the Christian Eucharistic cup. It is all of these “and something more” as the thoughts and traditions of many periods have read their own meanings into it. To Plato it is the Cup in which the Creator mixed the elements of the World-Soul. In Pistis Sophia the Purified Soul “bringeth a cup full of intuition and wisdom and also prudence, and giveth it to the soul, and casteth the soul into a body which will not be able to fall asleep or forget, because of the Cup of Prudence which hath been given unto it, but will be ever pure in heart and seeking after the Mysteries of Light, until it hath found them, by order of the Virgin of Light, in order that the soul may inherit the Light forever.” It is not only in the rites of Mithra that the Cup has been the symbol and the means of union with the divine. How large a part the Cup played in Mithraic worship we do not know; it does not appear on Mithraic monuments so frequently as the bull, the serpent or the torch-bearers. This, however, does not argue that it was of less importance. It occurs quite often enough to show that it was a most sacred element in the cult. Like the Christian Sacrament of the Eucharist, it may have been a part of the final entrance into the Mysteries, the higher initiation not displayed to the ordinary worshipper. There are living folk-tales such as the Gaelic story of the “Temple of Horrors,” which seem to contain a reminiscence of ancient rites in which a bull or human being was fed up for sacrifice with some secret ritual, and into whose body the spirit of the god was believed to descend, to be afterwards imbibed by the worshipper at the sacred feast which followed the slaying of the victim.

Miss Weston contends, quite rightly in our opinion, that writers like Mr. Nutt are inclined to exaggerate the Celtic element in the Grail story. Yet a larger number of the incidents which she considers to embody the main features of the story—the Waste Land, the Fisher King, the Hidden Castle with its solemn feast and mysterious Feeding-Vessel, the Bleeding Lance and Cup—than she seems inclined to admit, are found in Celtic tradition. They are not all found together in any single prototype, but a number of the incidents are found combined (all, indeed, except the cup) in the Welsh Peredur; the fact that the cup does not appear in the Welsh story seems to show that it belongs to another cycle of tradition. We do not feel convinced by the author’s argument from the fish-meal in the Messianic Feast of the Jews. Nor does her contention that the Welsh and Irish speak of a “cauldron” and not of a “cup” hold much weight. The point is not the size but the form of the vessel; a crater in Plato, a cauldron in folk-lore, and a cup in the Mysteries or Ecclesiastical tradition carry the same symbolic meaning. The cauldron of nourishment or renovation or healing in Irish story does really represent a very similar idea.

Moreover, two of the main themes that have a part in the Grail legend, the idea of a circle of Champions contesting with each other for priority in strength or virtue, and surrounding a king who has a less marked personality than any of his followers, and the idea of a Quest, are commonplaces of Gaelic native tradition. The group of the Conchobar champions is a true prototype, though in a ruder and more primitive form. of Arthur’s knights. The folk-tale of perilous quests for articles of magic virtue is one of the most persistent of folk-themes down to the present day, its chief prototype being the story of the Adventures of the Children of Tuireann. The story of the Tain itself was the object of a Quest, for it had been lost, and was carried, men thought, to Armorica, where (or perhaps in Connaught) it was sought and found. To our mind, the ground-work of the Grail story is more native than Miss Weston is disposed to admit. The oriental doctrines were, to our thinking, fitted into a native framework.

On the other hand she is inclined too much to minimize the part taken by ecclesiastical tradition. This has recently been revived in a new form in two very able articles contributed by Miss M. A. Murray to Ancient Egypt (1916, Parts I. and II.), which Miss Weston does not appear to have seen. Miss Murray contends for an Egyptian origin for the Joseph of Arimathea legend, and for a Coptic origin for the Grail or Eucharistic Cup. Her parallels between the ceremonial of the celebration of the Eucharist in the Coptic rite and the description of the procession of the Grail in Wolfram von Eschenbach are very curious and interesting, the most remarkable being the carrying of the decapitated head, in the Coptic ritual the head of St. Mark, the founder of the Egyptian church. Further resemblances are the bowl and towel for washing the hands at Mass, the censering and anointing and the breaking of the bread into three fractions. The Ark in which Joseph carried the holy blood she considers to be a reminiscence of the wooden ark adorned with pictures, in which the cup is placed in the Coptic churches; and she points to the statement of Wolfram that the legend was of eastern origin, written in Arabic, and introduced into Spain by Flegetanis. Its introduction into England she puts down to the Melkin, mentioned in the History of Glastonbury by its compiler, John of Glastonbury.

The story itself and still more the ideas it enshrines, are surely composite; we doubt whether any single line of tradition will account for all.

In America the problems arising out of the Arthurian romance are being attacked from different sides by a number of folk-lorists. The careful studies appearing in Modern Philology from time to time especially are worthy of notice by all folk students in these countries. The March number (1919) contains a study of the relations between the English Sir Perceval and Chrétien’s Conte du Graal, by Professor Arthur C. L. Brown. He disputes the assumption that Sir Perceval is “merely a retelling by a clever Englishman of Chrétien’s famous romance,” and endeavours to demonstrate by a close study of the incidents and comparison with Wolfram von Eschenbach that it has an independent origin. He seems to us to have made out his case. The general tendency of modern investigations goes to show that the existing romances are deeply rooted in primitive folk-belief, and that the Märchen precedes the epic.

A useful hint is given by Professor Brown in a note on p. 126, where he remarks that when a romance grows out of a fairy-tale, then the older form of the story will be more logical, for it will conform to fairy logic. He instances the use by Shakespeare in King Lear of a theme which is perfectly coherent in its original form as a folk-tale, where people act as fairy-folk do, according to fixed laws; but when transformed into real people in the play, “the king’s action is left poorly motivated.” This provides a rational explanation of the sense of impatience we are inclined to feel in reading Lear at the apparent folly of the action of the king, while nevertheless we feel that he is intended to impress us as great and good.

In April of the same year there appeared in the same organ a useful paper by Professor T. Peete Cross on the Gaelic Ballad of the Mantle. He brings together a series of instances from mediaeval narrative dealing with a chastity-testing mantle, capable of detecting feminine fraility. In this study he contests the theory of Otto Warnatsch, who, after an examination of the available material, came to the conclusion that this peculiar form of test originated in Celtic territory, but first took literary form in old French poetry. Professor Cross contends that the theme had found an earlier literary framework, independent of the Continental versions, in the Gaelic ballad, and especially in tales belonging to the Ossianic tradition. The author’s intimate knowledge of Gaelic folk-legend enables him to prove his point by a series of convincing episodes. It would seem likely that Dr. Cross may take the place, as the champion of Celtic and especially of Gaelic origins, which Mr. Nutt’s lamented death has so long left unfilled.

From the same writer comes also a study of Witchcraft in North Carolina (July, 1919). The author tells us that he had originally intended to deal only with witchcraft, “but that, owing to the heterogeneous character of the collectanea submitted, the paper has become a sort of omnium-gatherum of North Carolina tradition regarding magic and supernaturalism.” The paper is, in fact, a compendium of instances of the witch-beliefs, haunted houses, sympathetic magic, black arts, etc., collected within the area in which the North Carolina branch of the American Folk-Lore Society works. Its object, the writer tells us, is two-fold: first, to enumerate such items of witch-lore as had already been collected in the district, and to point out their traditional character; secondly, by means of illustrations from the folk-lore of the neighbouring territory, to indicate what other articles of the diabolical creed future collectors may hope to discover. The author has brought together a large mass of material on these uncanny subjects. The people of America appear to treat witchcraft in a kindlier spirit than did their forebears in the old country, for Professor Cross gives us no examples of witch trials, or even witch-duckings.