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Duality and Heterodoxy of Legend.

To realise the fact that both divisions of the Grail legend have their source in twelfth century England raises afresh the question whether they are really parts of one harmonious whole, parts equal in age and import? Assume for one moment that they are, and let us endeavour to realise what was the intention of the legend-writer, and in what way he proposed to carry out that intention. He sought, it is evident, to glorify his own country, a land blessed, above all others, by the presence of Christ's faithful disciples and of the sacred relics of the Passion. The holiness of these relics, the raison d'être of the whole legend, must, we would expect, be insisted upon from the first. What, then, could be his object in devising an account of what happened to the relics after they had safely reached Britain? To explain why they were no longer found there? To describe how the Grail-keepers fell from their high estate, and were ultimately restored thereto? Such an object would be intelligible, nay more, would be the only one which, so far as we can see, could have occurred to a writer who planned the whole legend with deliberate foresight. Can it be pretended that it is carried out in the Quest portion of the legend? True, the Quête del St. Graal does assert the unworthiness of Britain to be the home of the Grail, but casually and without any attempt at explanation. True, the Parzival does give an explanation, the only one in the entire cycle which appeals to us as in any sense adequate, of the Grail-keeper's suffering. But would one legend-writer have set in motion Christ and Joseph and another have brought down the Grail from Heaven merely to point the moral of Anfortas' unlawful love? And if we could believe that such was his purpose, how are we to account for the fact that every other version (even the most ascetic in spirit) has utterly departed from it? Must we not rather recognise that the suffering of the Grail-keeper, so far from being an inherent element of a Conversion of Britain legend is rather in tacit disaccord with the essential spirit of such a legend and its purpose of exalting Britain as the land favoured by the Holy Vessel and its guardians?

Assume, on the other hand, that the Quest, as we have it in its oldest forms-the story of a hero seeking, by means of certain talismans, to restore a kinsman to health and prosperity, or to avenge an injury done him-became inextricably attached to a Christian legend with which originally it had nothing to do. Does not such an assumption provide a more plausible explanation of all the facts? Would not the attempt to interpret in a specifically Christian sense objects and incidents which in
themselves have nothing Christian, inevitably be carried in a half-hearted and inconsistent way at the best ? Would not the nature and intensity of the Christian transformation process vary according to the nature and zeal of the individual writer? Would not such portions as lent themselves less readily to the sanctity of association with Christ be treated with little ceremony, and reshaped at the narrator's fancy? Could we expect any strong regard for the original incidents from writers to whom they were only of value after they had received a Christian gloss, or much feeling for the pertinency of that gloss, provided its Christian character were sufficiently decided? Arguments of this kind cannot be dismissed as of an a, priori nature ; they are based on the ordinary working of the human mind. Every form of imaginative narrative, however fantastic, however detached from reality, has its own logic, to which it inevitably conforms so long as it develops naturally. It is because there is logical disaccord between the various sections of the Grail legends, as we have them, that we are justified in asserting they can never have formed parts of one harmonious whole. The logical inconsistency is even more flagrant if, turning from the legend as a whole, the nature and attributes of the Holy Vessel itself be considered. In the later stages of the cycle it is, as we have seen, an object of the utmost sanctity: by its origin, its properties, its effect upon its devotees, it appertains to what is holiest in Christianity, and yet it retains to the very end attributes which are purely material, and which could not have belonged to it, had it been from the outset the Sacramental Vessel and nothing else. Even the most definitely and fervently spiritual of the romances, the Parzival and the Quête, dwell strongly upon its food-producing qualities.

Before proceeding to examine the older versions of the Quest on the assumption of its original non-Christian character, certain aspects of the specific Christian portion of the developed legend claim attention. As we saw, this has its sources in apocryphal far more than in canonical Scripture; as we have assumed, it is superimposed upon a non-Christian basis. Little wonder, then, if we note a disconcerting, unorthodox aspect to be found nowhere else, to my knowledge, in the vast mass of mediaeval legend of a distinctively Christian character. After making every allowance, however, for these two factors they fail, I hold, to account fully for the effect produced, an effect only to be realised by reading the romances as a whole. Apocryphal legend is often puerile, often tainted by a questionable mysticism derived from Gnostic sources ; the adaptation by unskilful hands of non-Christian incidents to a Christian scheme of interpretation must needs yield occasional results of an unorthodox character. But the sense in which the Grail romances are unorthodox, or rather anti-orthodox, is far more deep-seated and thorough. They not only claim for the Church of Britain an origin more illustrious than any to which it had pretended before the twelfth century, one which, if seriously maintained, would have been most unwelcome to the chief ecclesiastical authority of Christendom, they also set up a kind of uncanonical church with sacraments, unexceptionable it may be from the purely dogmatic standpoint, but open otherwise to the most serious objections. What may be called the Grail Church has in either form of the Early History an origin only less sacred than that of the official Church of Christendom-nay, in the Sacramental Vessel form (Borron, Grand, St. Graal-Quête) it excels that Church as possessing the most sacred relics of the faith. The author of the Grand St. Graal is fully conscious of this when he tacitly claims his romance, the work of Christ Himself, as superior to Gospel.


Quelle: The Legends of The Holy Grail, Alfred Nutt, London 1902, S. 44ff