By Mary Jones
Senior Honor Thesis, West Chester University, 2001
Introduction: One of the most enduring elements of the Arthurian legend is that of the Holy Grail, that mysterious vessel found at the court of the Fisher King. Cup or cauldron, dish or stone, it plays a significant role in the Arthur of Romance, even before Chretien de Troyes composed Perceval, or, the Story of the Grail; prior to that, it was an important part of Celtic myth, with prototypes found in various Welsh and Irish texts, which likely indirectly influenced Chrètien’s writing. The influence of the Grail continued through the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach (which would later inspire Richard Wagner’s Parsifal), to Le Roman du Graal of Robert de Boron, and then to the Vulgate Cycle, which introduced us to Galahad. The Vulgate Cycle had an immense impact on Sir Thomas Malory’s 1475 opus Le Morte d’Arthur, wherein the quest signifies not the restoration of fertility, but the beginning of the end for Arthur’s kingdom. With this landmark work, the Grail myth was forever changed.
This pagan relic is constantly returning to Western consciousness in new forms, always reflecting the society which grapples with it. But why? What is it about this particular myth which seems to resonate with people? And more importantly, why did it suddenly become prominent in the nineteenth century, a prominence which lasts to this day, when we are still producing movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Fisher King, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Why do people flock to books like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which argues that the Grail is really the bloodline of Christ?
The re-emergence of the Grail legend can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when such various figures as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Wagner, and Alfred Lord Tennyson began using it as an artistic subject. That this coincided with the Industrial Revolution is no accident, but a matter of cause and effect. With the Industrial Revolution came a scientific revolution comparable to that of the fifteenth century-anthropology, archaeology, and most importantly, the theory of evolution all made their debut, and with it came the fulfillment of the Enlightenment’s questioning of religious beliefs. At the same time, there were the devastating effects of industry on both the working class and the countryside-both were busy being destroyed by those in power.
This prompted the reactions of the Romantics; out of the Romantics came the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the first group to utilize the Grail legend as a political and social tool. For them, the Grail represented the lost order, which has been lost in the chaos of the Industrial Revolution. The Grail resided in an Arcadian myth, a Garden of Eden, which had been lost to the robber-barons and captains of industry. The Pre-Raphaelites were nostalgic for an age that never was, represented by Camelot and the Grail (as well as many other myths). This nostalgia was also prominent in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, a highly celebrated and popular work in Victorian England.