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THE HOLY GRAIL

IN Number 1 of these studies I sketched the historical and social conditions which determined the great outburst of romantic literature in the twelfth century. In Number 4 Miss Weston enumerated the chief themes and incidents, the combination of which makes up the Arthurian cycle, the most prominent and characteristic example of the mediæval romantic spirit. One section of the Arthurian cycle, that which comprises a number of stories describing the search after, and the history of, a mysterious object known as the Grail, or the Holy Grail, she left on one side. Although now inextricably bound up with the Arthur legend as a whole, the connection is late and secondary. In part, at least, the Grail stories were originally independent of the Arthur cycle, and they present a series of problems differing, in a marked degree, from those involved in the consideration of the other Arthurian romances, and necessitating separate investigation.

Much unnecessary mystery has accumulated around the Grail stories, and they have become the happy hunting ground of mystical enthusiasts. There are good reasons why this should be so. In the first place, whatever be the Interpretation placed upon a certain sequence of incidents which recurs repeatedly and in varying forms in these stories, it undoubtedly described from the first a search for wonder-working talismans, the possession of which constituted, in a measure, a summum bonum; in the second, this fact was apparent to several mediæval writers who have left us their version of the Grail quest, expressed in the terms of mediæval Christian mysticism ; thirdly, and this is perhaps the chief reason, several of the Grail stories, and notably one of the oldest and most important, have come down to us in an unfinished or fragmentary form. We cannot be sure how this or that writer conceived the story as a whole, or in what sense he figured the Grail to himself.

Thus we have the primary and essential element of mystery inherent in every story which sets forth a quest for that which transcends the ordinary conditions of human life ; we have the secondary, but also essential, element of mediæval mystical Interpretation ; finally, we have the purely accidental element of fragmentary and enigmatic presentation. It is not surprising if, under these circumstances, so much nonsense has been written about the Grail.

The chief cause which has led many able, learned, and ingenious men to spin idle theories deserves a moment's consideration. In the immense and confused mass of the Grail romances some particular fact or set of facts has been picked out, isolated from its setting, and interpreted without reference to the romances as a whole. The only way to avoid this error is to survey, however briefly, all the essential facts, and to arrange them in the order of their development. To understand how these stories came to assume their present shape is to be near understanding what they originally meant.

The Grail romances, of which I propose to enumerate, succinctly but sufficiently, the leading themes, incidents, and sequences of incident, may be divided into two main classes. In the first, the chief stress is laid upon the adventures connected with the quest for certain talismans, of which the Grail is only one, and upon the personality of the hero who achieves the quest; in the second, upon the nature and history of these talismans. The first may be styled the Quest, the second the Early History versions; but these designations must not be taken as implying that either class is solely concerned with one aspect of the legend.

Quelle: The Legends of The Holy Grail, Alfred Nutt, London 1902, S. 3ff