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Salah ad-Din: Worthy Knight of the Holy Grail?

Posted March 1st, 2011 at 05:13 PM by Gile na Gile
Updated March 2nd, 2011 at 12:13 PM by Gile na Gile

From the Latin gradalis and old French greil or graal meaning cup, dish, platter or cauldron the Holy Grail is a complex literary symbol which evokes many different responses. It is usually found embedded in allegorical tales which draw freely from several different traditions. Being thus "overdetermined" with no single meaning or "signified" holding the day the story of Perceval (de Troyes), Parzival (Eschenbach), or any retelling such as the later "Quest for the Holy Grail" (contained in the 13th century Vulgate Cycle and attributed to the pseudonymous "Walter Map") will inevitably produce myriad differing interpretations.

The Grail motif was first deployed by the mediaeval French poet Chrétien de Troyes(c. 1180) and was meant, evidently, to remind readers of the cup of the Eucharist as used in the Roman Catholic mass. The cup/grail in his Perceval contains a wafer host meant to depict the sacrament which re-enacts the Last Supper and so taps into the heart of the Christian message. There has been an unconscionable amount of ink spilled over the centuries, and even today, in an attempt to refine the Catholic Church's position on the meaning of the Eucharist, it's central sacrament. Of the early "pre-Grail" theologians St. Bonaventure stressed the piety required to receive the Holy Communion and St. Augustine opined that before taking the host; "you must be enlightened as to what you have received".

In this sense, de Troyes was evidently giving literary form to the pre-existing Christian notion of an ideal spiritual state free from sin. His character of Perceval, for example, throughout the "Quest" displays his impertinence and immaturity on several occasions. He takes the ring from the maiden and grabs a kiss without her leave in addition to galloping forth to tackle the Red Knight while ignoring the remonstrations of Arthur. In fact, he is "not worthy to receive" the cup/grail at the first time of asking, the refrain familiar to all Roman Catholics.

So, finding the Grail is in a sense finding the true message of God, which is of course, finding oneself and living a worthy chivalrous life - the French chivalric romances of the 12th and 13th centuries being permeated with moral pointers and lessons on how to lead the "good life" - which, as much as anything, explains their enduring charm.

De Troyes has also synthesised many pre-existing elements from mainly Celtic folklore and myth and refashioned them for his own ends. The notion of the health of the king being tied to the land is largely the subject of Frazer's great anthropological study "The Golden Bough". It is a recurrent motif found the world over, most notably with the rituals of renewal associated with the new harvest as illustrated in the worship of the old corn gods such as the Roman Demeter.

These themes are also revisited in popular culture though with an occasional variant. We recall that in John Boorman's "Excalibur" (adapted from Thomas Mallory's "Le Morte D'Arthur" c.1485) Arthur presses his knights to seek the Grail on account of the deterioration of the land and the famine that stalks the country. Here, it was Arthur himself who had to drink from the Grail, and when he done so of course, fertility was restored. Elsewhere, the third installment of Raiders of the Lost Ark centred on the Grail - but this time it was supposed to deliver eternal youth. Our villain drank from the most splendid cup adorned with all manner of jewels thinking it must surely be the Grail only to find himself turned instantaneously into a writhing pillar of dust. Naturally, the real Grail was a non-discreet shabby vessel which, duly identified by our hero, was quaffed and the liquid therein had his bullet wounds magically healed on the spot.

However, in de Troyes Perceval, the castle, the magic cauldron and the hero who starts off as bumbling and selfish are all elements that seem to be drawn freely from the much earlier story of Peredur found in the Welsh Mabinogion. The magic cauldron, it needn't be said, has a rich lineage in Celtic myth and folktale. The Dagda's cauldron was one of the four magical possessions of the Tuatha De Danaan - producing an inexhaustible supply of porridge (among other things). Bran of the Mabinogion has a cauldron that resurrects dead warriors and the Welsh hag Cerridwen has a like vessel that produces a brew of 'inspiration and enlightenment'.
What is more interesting perhaps is how these varied elements (Christian tradition, Celtic myth and pagan/animist ritual) are woven together by de Troyes and expertly used to pass comment on the great issue of the day - the Crusades in the Middle East.

The poem will be read aloud at court but also at festivals and other public gatherings and so there will be an attempt to cater for the pre-existing popular folk tales - many of which would have arrived in Brittany and further afield along with the displaced "Celts" after the Anglo-Saxon upheavals in Britain during the 5th century. There is an evident need to proselytise here and "sell" the story of the Crusades and so the story of Perceval and the quest for the Holy Grail will function much like a mediaeval army recruitment video. If Perceval, the lowly Welshman, can become a Knight and contribute to the cause, then surely any one can.

On the other hand, some commentators have suggested that the allusion to the Eucharist may have been useful to the Plantagenet king Henry II in his bid to conquer Ireland. He had cited heretical Celtic practices within the Irish church as a means to achieve the all-important nod from Rome. However, the Papal bull for Ireland's conquest, as requested by Henry, Laudabiliter, was issued in 1155 with Strongbow's Norman invasion eventually coverinmg the years 1167-72. We have firm dates for the composition of Perceval - 1180 to perhaps 1182/3 - so it would seem to place it outside the required timeframe. If this were the true intention behind the work - to combat heretical practices - then his benefactors would surely have pulled de Troyes from working on his other Romances which were completed between 1170 and 1180.

Although there is evidence that de Troyes may have trained as a cleric he appears to have been solely employed as court composer under various well-heeled patrons. Also, his conception of "courtly love" was much earthier than the ideals of chastity espoused by the church. He preferred homespun wisdom and the use of the vernacular rather than quoting the Bible at length - unlike the later scribes, who completed the unfinished Perceval by swamping the poem with Biblical quotations. In other words, he isn't at all in the mould of a "God Squad" propagandist intent on bending the faithful to the dictats of Rome. Having said that, he completed his first major work Eric and Enede in 1170 while serving at the court of Marie of France, Countess of Champagne who was the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine who in turn had been the wife of Henry II from 1152. (Gaston Paris has speculated that he was merely employed here as a herald at arms).

But to find the true meaning of the Grail (as conceived by de Troyes) we need to look at the career of his last patron, Phillip II of Flanders, for whom the work was, after all, dedicated. In the poem, knights travel from many lands to heal the wounded king, but only the chosen, the pure etc. can do so. The king is mortally wounded in the leg and so must stay at the castle, while the Fisher King is mobile and can entertain the guests. What is interesting in this tale of the two kings, the one mobile, the other crippled, is that Phillip' s cousin was the leprous Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem from 1174-1185. In fact, Phillip was the closest male relative to Baldwin who would evidently remain childless; "barren and infertile", like the land subjected to the plague. The king's leprosy was in fact a closely guarded secret, known only to trusted courtiers.

In 1177, three years before de Troyes had begun work on Perceval, Phillip had gone on crusade to Jerusalem, where he was rebuffed by the haut cour feudal council in his plans to cement certain strategic marriage alliances. This was obviously a period of high intrigue with many wealthy families jostling for position; well heeled suitors, knights and sundry connected elites all staking claims to the throne. There seems a good case to be made therefore that Phillip himself was the model for the Fisher King and the wounded king was Baldwin which would leave the significance of the Grail as the right of succession to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Unfortunately for all concerned, the Kingdom of Jerusalem (whose land covered roughly the same area now occupied by Israel and "Palestine") was retaken within the decade by Salah ad-Din.

Ironic indeed then, that the great Muslim general should prove, in the end, to be the Knight worthy of the Christian Grail!
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  1. Old Comment
    Kuon's Avatar
    Another edifying post there. You may find the following interesting, a, shall we say, more esoteric perspective on the continuation of de Troyes' work, The High History of the Holy Grail:

    Avalonian Aeon Publications: The Mystery of the High History
    Posted April 16th, 2011 at 02:48 PM by Kuon Kuon is offline

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