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The Sunday Times
February 6 2004

The Holy Grail by Richard Barber

The Holy Grail is the dish on which Jesus Christ’s Last Supper was served. It is the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea, or an angel, caught the blood flowing from Christ’s wounds. It is the Ark of the Covenant. It is a jewel that fell from Lucifer’s crown. It is a stone whose magical powers allow the phoenix to be resurrected from its own ashes. It is an altar, a chalice, a cave, a mountain, a piece of writing, a flying saucer. It is God.

It is carried by a virgin of unearthly beauty. It floats around unaided. It contains a fish, or a pearl, or a small child, or unlimited quantities of roast duck and venison, or the bread of the Eucharist. It has been seen in Byzantium, where it was a two-handled silver cup, in Genoa in the form of a basin cut from a single emerald, and as a wooden bowl at the bottom of a well in Glastonbury; it has never been seen by anyone but Sir Galahad who, having laid eyes on it, immediately died.

It is in brief, an object that is sufficiently protean in form and elusive in significance to be capable of symbolising the satisfaction of any desire. It can represent the Beatific Vision that was the goal of medieval mystics or, in a line that Richard Barber plucked from a recent newspaper, it can be interchanged with Marmite, “pretty much the Holy Grail of foodstuffs”.

Its origin is as unstable as its nature. Barber, an experienced medievalist, writes that he expected his scholarly Grail quest to take him into the remote past, into pagan myth, apocryphal Christian scripture and “the marvellous Celtic stories on which much of Arthurian romance is founded”.

Plenty of authors have preceded him there. Even in the period between 1180 and 1250, when the romances on which all subsequent Grail literature is based were written, the notion that the story was part of an extremely ancient body of lost or secret wisdom was already current. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was seized upon by nationalists anxious to claim the legend for France, Germany or Wales and it was perpetuated by the numerous enthusiasts of the occult who have placed the Grail at the centre of a great gallimaufry of esoteric cultural traditions. But having explored the subject with laudable thoroughness, Barber rejects all of their claims.

This book is a survey, as judicious as it is comprehensive, of versions of the Grail story, of the social and ideological contexts in which they evolved, of the symbols they employ and the literary conventions which shaped them. In it, Barber arrives at the conclusion, which will be shocking to new agers and conspiracy theorists everywhere, that the story of the Holy Grail had (in its original form) nothing to do with the cabbala, Cathars, Templars, Zoroastrians or Gnostics, that its origin is probably the obvious one, the first text in which it appears. The story of the Holy Grail is not a fragment of immemorially ancient lore: Chrétien de Troyes, the 12th-century author of the Le Roman de Perceval, made it up.

Barber argues robustly and persuasively that there is nothing reductive about this assertion. A fictional creation is every bit as marvellous as a holy relic (quite a lot more so to the sceptic). The Grail is not a riddle to be solved; it is a mystery which longs to be discovered. Perceval fails to achieve it because when he sees it the first time he is too bashful or too solipsistic to ask what it is. It is not the answer which is difficult, but the question. That reversal would be enough to make the fable unusually interesting. But what ensured the story’s phenomenally long-lived popularity was that Chrétien died before he could finish it, leaving the tantalisingly gorgeous image of a precious and sacred object whose purpose is inscrutable. Everyone loves an unsolved mystery. Within the next 40 years no fewer than four authors had produced “continuations” of the story. Since then scores of others have tried their hand.

Barber takes us through them. In a book which consists largely of summaries of numerous versions of a single story some repetition is inevitable — this is a volume to browse in rather than one to read straight through — but Barber’s sensitivity to the diversity of nuances in each of his many sources ensures that each one he looks at affords him some fresh insight. The result is a fascinating compendium of theology, literary criticism and cultural history.

Barber writes about relic hunting and secret societies, about the drama of the mass and evolution of the chivalric ideal. He discusses the famous versions of the Grail story — Malory, Tennyson, Wagner, Eliot — and a host of other less familiar, more fantastic ones. He writes about Ludwig of Bavaria, whose palace at Neuschwanstein was originally intended to replicate the grail-temple, and about the ecclesiastical politics that made of Joseph of Arimathea’s putative visit to Glastonbury a serious threat to the Pope’s ascendancy. He is at once tolerant and gently critical of the battier fantasies that he relates. He is an agnostic, he says, one who, like Lancelot (whose sinful love for Guinevere debarred him from seeing the Grail), looks in at religious faith as though from a doorway through which he is not able to pass. He writes, however, with eloquent sympathy about the imagined ecstasies believers have hoped to achieve by means of the Grail, the object that has given rise to so many reams of writing and yet which remains, in the words of a medieval Sir Galahad, something that “tongue could not relate nor heart conceive”.  

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