Mixing Memory and Desire: Two
II. A Brief History of Grail Romance
The Grail legend was originally a Celtic myth, with elements found in many different Irish and Welsh texts (Loomis 23-24). Among these texts scholars have included the Irish tales "Cormac macAirt in the Land of Fairy," "The Phantom Frenzy," "The Second Battle of Mag Tured," and from Wales The Mabinogion's Four Branches, and the poem "The Spoils of Annwfn," attributed to the sixth-century bard Taliesin. Each of these tales contains the elements which are later found in Chretien de Troyes' Perceval-the naïve hero, the Maimed King, the vessel and spear, and the healing question or action.
The Grail was in origin a vessel of plenty and of rebirth, as well as a cup of sovereignty; it symbolized the feminine aspects of the fertile land-a receptacle, a womb, a cauldron of rebirth (Markale, 27-28). The Lance-as it wounded the Fisher King, and in this function would represent the masculine aspects of the fertile land-would then represent the danger of not respecting the female aspect; that is, as the Fisher King's wound is the result of wrong actions, whether the thoughtlessness of Perceval or the Fisher King's own sins (for instance, one could argue that Bran's easy giving of the cauldron as a gift in the first part of the Mabinogion comes back to haunt him in the battle in the second half; also the illicit affair of Amfortas in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival), he is wounded by a phallic object, and loses his fertility.
Grail Romances proper begin with an unfinished story-with Chrètien de Troyes, court poet to one of the most powerful families in medieval Europe. The age of the Grail's emergence in French Romance was one of great change, and it is my contention that the Grail legend only appears at tumultuous times, such as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the War of the Roses (Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur), the Industrial Revolution (of which we are arguably in the latter stages). Chrètien's poem Perceval, ou, Le Conte del Graal appeared in the twelfth century, which had seen the rise of the troubadour movement, the Crusades, Courtly Love, and two of the most important (though opposed) religious thinkers of the time-St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic. The Cistercian order was founded by St. Bernard; Bernard's cousin Hugh de Payen founded the Knights Templar. Notre Dame and Rhiems were both built; Oxford was in the process of establishing itself as a university; Hildegard of Bingen was prophesying in Germany, Robin Hood is said to have been hiding in Sherwood Forest, Gnostics wandered Provance, and at the center of it all (or at least much of it) was a family called the Plantagenets. These origins of the Grail Romances would later inspire men like Adolph Hitler.
The Plantagenets are the line of English kings stretching from Henry II to Richard III (1154-1485). It is Henry II's immediate family that is most important in light of the Grail myth. Henry was descended of two interesting lines-the House of Anjou and the Kings of England and Scotland. The House of Anjou was a powerful family in western France. Fulk V was not only one of the original Knights Templar, but also King of Jerusalem, fourth after Godefroy de Bouillon. Fulk's son Geoffrey Plantagenet married Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England and granddaughter of Malcolm III of Scotland; their son was Henry II, whose wife Eleanor of Aquitaine was the granddaughter of the first troubadour. Eleanor's daughter Marie de Champagne was a great patron of the arts, setting up the system of Courtly Love, and furnishing Chretien de Troyes with some of his material. Henry's cousin, Philip of Flanders, also patronized Chrètien, giving him the material for Perceval. The family was intimately connected to the legend, either through the existence of Breton minstrels at Eleanor's court, as Giraldus Cambrensis tells us, or through a book possessed by Philip.i It is possible that Philip acquired this book during one of his trips to England.
After Chrètien's Perceval appeared, there was a sudden boom in Grail Romances-shortly after Chrètien, Robert de Boron's Le Roman du Grail appeared. Composed of three parts-Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, and Perceval, only Joseph and the first five hundred lines of Merlin still exist. It is with de Boron that the Grail becomes a specifically Christian object, and the purity of the hero makes its appearance. This emphasis on the purity-spiritual or otherwise-of the hero had in immense impact on later writers, who would give us Galahad, a superman above all other knights and all human desire. The Grail would remain a prominent theme up until the writing of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur in 1475. After that, it would fall out of Britain's consciousness until the Industrial Revolution began.
Mixing Memory and Desire: Three