Mixing Memory and Desire: Seven
VII. The Grail in the New World Order
The story of the Grail then lay dormant through the prosperity following WWII. It wasn't until the coming of the Vietnam War and the youth movement that it re-appeared in Western consciousness, and it did so in two fields-film and the New Age movement. Why? For much of the same spiritual reasons that it did during the Industrial Revolution. Society was in a state of upheaval, and questioning the direction that it was taking seemed to be a necessity. The Grail appeals because of its theme of healing the Waste Land, which, when looking at a society which produces both the Columbine tragedy and the waste land of North Jersey, we could certainly use it.
The first major Grail film was, oddly enough, a comedy: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), a farce aimed at any number of worthy subjects-pretentious art films, the current trend of medievalism, perhaps even the futility of Vietnam. How else does one explain the Black Knight? Or the fact that Arthur never does achieve the Grail, but is instead arrested by a couple of modern-day cops? However, Terry Gilliam, in the director's cut, argues his belief that through the New Age movement, man has begun to turn back to the pagan nature religions, and the folktales that go with them, and that this helped inspire his direction. It is also worth noting that Gilliam made The Fisher King, which also centers on the legend, though within a more modern setting, with New York City as the Waste Land.
More significant in terms of actual theme is the film Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola with a plot structure derived from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, updated and applied to the Vietnam War. It is as much derived from Eliot as it is from Conrad-particularly the scene where Kurtz is reading from "The Hollow Men"vi; the camera pans to his desk, where we can see three books most distinctly: the Bible, James G. Frazier's The Golden Bough, and Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance, all of which inspired Eliot's The Waste Land.
Now, it has been argued in the past that Heart of Darkness is itself not only based on Conrad's experiences in the Belgian Congo, but also on Chrètien's Perceval, with Marlowe as the questing Perceval, Kurtz as the Fisher King, and the Congo as the Waste Land (or perhaps Kurtz's madness, or perhaps even the Europeans' attitudes towards imperialism; this is all up for debate). Coppola's film hammers home the point, however, by incorporating the poetry of T.S. Eliot, particularly "The Hollow Men," "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and "The Waste Land." Coppola is applying this theme of the Waste Land to Vietnam-era American society.
Capt. Willard comes in search of mad Col. Kurtz, who has committed numerous atrocities and currently has a cult worshiping him in the jungles of Cambodia. The Vietnam War is raging, and Willard's search through the jungle is as much a search for himself and for truth as it is for Kurtz. Upon reaching Kurtz, he finds the colonel half-insane, quoting from Eliot and holding pagan rituals. Bodies litter the jungle, not from war but from Kurtz' devotees. Though Willard respects Kurtz, by the end of the film he knows there is no turning back--Kurtz must be stopped so as to restore order to the land. As the people outside slaughter a sacrificial cow, Willard slaughters Kurtz with a machete in an act of sacrificial king-killing, comparable to the release of the Fisher King or the ritual sacrifice of Osiris-Attis-Adonis-Jesus. Willard is the new king, ready to restore order.
As well as Grail movies, the legend has been adopted by the New Age movement. There are two divisions in the New Age-the Pagans and the Conspiracy Theorists. The Pagans believe in a nature religion, in reconstructing the pre-Christian religions of Europe and worshiping the natural cycles of the earth, which are seen as a manifested deity; the Conspiracy Theorists believe in a much stranger doctrine descended in some sense from the Nazi and occult beliefs about the Grail.
The Conspiracy Theorists believe that the Grail Legend is only a code. Taking the word "Sangreal" and dividing it not as "San Greal"-"Holy Grail," but as "Sang Real"-"Royal Blood," they have worked up a theory that the true Sangreal is a secret bloodline descended from Jesus Christ and passed on through the monarchies of Europe through the French Merovingian line. The promoters of this theory are usually Freemasons or ex-Masons, and bolster this theory through the belief that Freemasonry is the remains of the Templars, and that the Templars held the secret, and so were burned at the stake for threatening to reveal that Christ didn't die on the cross, but was taken away, married Mary Magdalene, and sent her and Joseph of Arimathea to France and then England. The book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982) was even a best seller, despite the fact that much of their "proof" has since been found to be forgeries made by French occultists and monarchists during WWII. That doesn't stop Barnes & Noble from publishing other books on the subject, even to this day.
The Pagans tend to be of a different sort. If one were to go to Glastonbury today, you would be surrounded by New Age stores, neo-Druids, witches, and various other nature-worshiping pagans who see the Grail as a symbol of fertility and the womb of the Mother Goddess, much like the Celtic Cauldron of Cerridwen. Glastonbury is the physical manifestation of Avalon, the Celtic paradise, home to the Holy Grail (supposedly hidden in the Tor or perhaps the aptly-named Chalice Well) and the sleeping King Arthur, who will come again like Christ, carrying the Grail with him, to lead Britain it its time of greatest need, restoring order to a damaged world.
The New Age movement is the outgrowth of the occult lodges of the nineteenth century, and is admittedly indebted to men like Aleister Crowley (who helped found the Wiccan religion), and W.B. Yeats. Though Neo-Paganism is as amorphous a religion as one can find-pulling bits from every religion, like a smorgasbord-there is generally a belief in some form of deity, call it God, Goddess, Hermes, Cerridwen, Cernunnos, or Isis, and a belief in the connectedness of all living things. We all have a soul, and all share in the greater soul; moreover, the earth is a sacred thing to be revered, not polluted and abused. The New Age has leapt upon the idea of the Grail both because of the workings of the Golden Dawn, who identified the Grail legend with the Tarot cards, and because of its theme of a fertility rite, a ritual of healing the land. To the New Age, we must heal the earth and our society, or we will forever remain in a Waste Land.
Mixing Memory and Desire: Eight