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Development of Legend.

We have now briefly surveyed the corpus of Grail romances and have found it to consist of Celtic pre-Christian mythic tales (involving ultimately the fates and struggles of gods and demigods), fused with tales which had as their object the glorification of Britain in their account of the illustrious origin and pre-eminent privileges of the Christian Church in these islands. Before this fusion took place the Celtic tales, originally mythic, had been largely heroicised; hero had supplanted demi-god. Yet they retained enough of the primitive intent and content to lend themselves to the creative impulse of the new and higher mythology. The Pagan vessel of increase, plenty and ecstasy was not so far emptied of its pristine significance, but that it could be reshaped as the holiest relic of Christendom, or be identified, by Robert de Borron, with the body of the dead and risen Lord; the Achiever of the Quest was not so oblivious of his primitive mythic status as to be unfitted for the approximation, vaguely suggested by Wolfram and the Quête, of his career to that of the Saviour.

But if, thus broadly surveyed, the general development of the stories clustering round the precious talisman may be summed up as the gradual transformation of old Celtic mythic tales into a legend charged with Christian symbolism and mysticism, many stages in this process remain obscure. What suggested the fusion of stories of a hero questing after talismans with those of the evangelisers of Britain ? Were these latter, as has been suggested, possessors of the holy vessel before that fusion took place ? If so, what was the form which the conversion legend had assumed, and how was it affected by, and how. did it affect the quest story after the twain had been welded into one ?

The conversion legend started, it is urged, with Joseph. The forty years' solitary captivity is an essential feature of the Joseph legend. The question naturally arose-how was he kept in life? By [sic] a wonderful food-producing vessel of the kind familiar in the folklore of nearly every race, a vessel naturally and progressively identified with the receptacle of Christ's blood, with the dish, and then with the cup of the Last Supper. To guard such a precious relic and to exhibit alike the mysteries of the Trinity and the Sacrament, the three Grail-keepers were imagined: Joseph, Brons, the grandson of Brons; the three tables were instituted: that of the Last Supper with its place left empty by Judas' betrayal; Joseph's table, on which figures the Grail; Arthur's Table Round, with its empty seat to be filled only by the last of the Grail-keepers.

Such a legend would naturally tend to centre round the precious vessel, to exalt it more and more. When a lucky chance suggested the identification of the last Grail-keeper, the filler of the empty seat, the final accomplisher of the dramatic action started centuries before in Palestine, with the young hero who quested forth in search, he, too, of a precious vessel, and thereby delivered his kinsmen and released their land from enchantment, the two vessels (in their ultimate origin the same) were also fully identified, with the result of strengthening such non-Christian characteristics as still survived in the Christianised vessel of the conversion legend. Thence onwards, the legend developed as each individual writer was attracted by the religious or by the knightly adventurous element, and in accordance with his capacity to shape these different elements so as to set forth his conception.

Ingenious as this hypothesis is, it leaves out of account why the conversion legend was associated with personages of the Arthurian cycle. Rather, I think, must the precious vessel be regarded as foreign to the Joseph conversion legend until after this association had taken place. What, then, gave rise to it? I can only point out that Borron's form of the conversion legend betrays not alone Celtic affinities (that inevitably followed once the evangelisers set foot in Celtic Britain), but specific Arthurian affinities in the mention of Avalon as the goal of the Grail host, a mention which Borron himself did not understand, so that even if the Arthurian machinery of the Merlin- the establishment of the Round Table in imitation of that of the Grail table-be ascribed to Borron, yet the fusion of conversion and Arthur legends must have begun before his time. Avalon is the Welsh form of the old Celtic Elysium, of which vivid and detailed descriptions have survived in Irish literature; an Elysium closely allied to the dwelling-places of the Celtic god-race, the owners of the inexhaustible food cauldron of the Dagda; of the Spear and Sword of Lug, the race represented in Wales by the Children of Llyr and Don. Second only in importance to Joseph in Borron's poem are his kinsmen, Brons and Alain, who bear distinctively Celtic names. Brons recalls the Welsh Bran, son of Llyr, possessor, in the Welsh tale of Branwen, of a cauldron of healing and rejuvenation, himself transported after his death on earth to an Elysium, where he continued a mystic life; when slain in battle, his comrades, at his bidding, cut off his head, and with it retire to Gwales in Penvro, where they pass fourscore years, " unconscious of having spent a time more joyous and mirthful ... it was not more irksome to them having the head with them than if Blessed Bran had been with them himself." At the end of the fourscore years infringing an injunction which Bran had laid upon them, and becoming aware of the flight of time and of all their past woe, they bury their lord's head near London, and so long as it remained concealed the isle of Britain was free from invasion. At a date which is uncertain, but of which, at least, no definite trace exists prior to the late thirteenth century, Bran was made the hero in Wales of a conversion legend, which may embody old tradition but may, on the other hand, be a reflex of the Grail romances, though, if so, it is the only trace in Welsh of any knowledge of Borron's version. In support of its embodying old tradition is the fact that, as just cited, in the tale of Branwen, the redaction of which goes back to the eleventh century, Bran has the epithet Blessed. This originally Pagan epithet, doubtless applied to him as possessor of the rejuvenation cauldron, may have been the starting-point of a legend ascribing to him a share in the introduction of Christianity into Britain.

Taking all these indications into existence, it seems most likely that Borron, or rather the sources he followed, became acquainted with a Bran conversion legend, and fused it with the better-known Joseph one. In this way Bran's precious vessel would become associated with Joseph. True we only know of it from the Welsh tale of Branwen as a rejuvenation and healing talisman, but this conception is closely allied to that of a talisman of increase and plenty, and, as a matter of fact, it is found also in the Grail romances, though less insisted upon than the other. Moreover, we only know of one aspect of Bran's cauldron from our Welsh tale, because only one form of its power is there brought into play; the merest fragment of Welsh mythic romance has come down to us, and it is folly to argue as if what we do not find in that fragment cannot have existed.

The fusion of the two conversion legends would undoubtedly be facilitated by the fact of the localisation of the Joseph legend at Glastonbury. This ancient seat of British Christianity was at some unknown date identified with Avalon; the texts which have preserved this identification are comparatively late, and the identification has been ascribed to the influence of the romances. Undoubtedly the story as we have it bears traces of the efforts made during Henry the Second's reign to utilise the Celtic legends for political purposes. But the first germ of the conception that a venerable sanctuary of the Christian faith in Britain had succeeded, as it were, to the attributes of the wonderland of the Celtic gods must be far older than Henry's reign-older, indeed, than the twelfth century.

The fusion of a Brons and a Joseph conversion legend (a fusion, be it noted, which could take place in Britain and in Britain alone) would not only permit the introduction of the precious vessel into the latter, it would almost inevitably bring it into' contact with the Arthur cycle. The latter is largely made up of heroicised versions of themes
and incidents which had figured at an earlier date in mythic romance, and it had drawn many of the personages of the older mythic world within its grasp. In this way the connection between the hero legend of Arthur, defender of Britain against heathen invaders, and the religious legend of the evangelisers of Britain would be established naturally, and so as to allow of, nay, to invite, further development.

Assuming, then, that prior to Crestien's time, the two portions of the legend had been welded into a more or less compact whole, and that the Quest talismans had thereby acquired Christian attributes and properties, the question arises how far the process of fusion had been carried, and in what way it was affected by Crestien's work. Did the French poet find in his source any such coherent account of the early history of the Grail and lance as is yielded either by Robert de Borron, or by the rival version of the Grand St. Graal-Quête? If Crestien's continuators got their information from his source, that source must likewise have been the fountain-head of the Grand St. Graal-Quête. Crestien would in that case seem to have deliberately left in abeyance the definite religious element of his source, and to have devoted himself to the elaboration of the knightly adventurous portion. For, even if at his hero's second visit to the Grail Castle he had given the information we now find in his continuators, the religious aspect of his work would still be pale and slight in comparison with the adventurous. But whether the continuators of Crestien did resort to the latter's source is extremely doubtful in view of the marked divergence in the conduct of the story between both Manessier and Gerbert, and the poet whose work they were completing. Nor can the question be decided without reference to Wolfram's source, the lost French poem of Guiot. Two hypotheses respecting this are possible. It may have been, as is now more commonly assumed, composed within a few years after Oestien's death with a view to giving a complete version of the story he had left incomplete. If so, and if Crestien's source had contained either form of the Early History in as an advanced stage of development as in Robert de Borron, or to Grand St. Graal, would, or could Guiot have discarded it? He could have made it subservient to the greater glory of the Angevin princes as easily as the version which he offers; he could have adapted it as readily to the moral and spiritual conceptions which animate his work. If, on the other hand, Guiot's poem is older than that of Grestien, it is probably nearer to the common source of both in its lesser insistence upon the Christian machinery derived from the Conversion legend, although, thanks to the poet's personality, it is animated by a far deeper and more spiritual Christian feeling.

Thus, although both Crestien's and Guiot's accounts of the Grail seem to presuppose its previous identification not only with the receptacle of Christ's blood, but also with the sacramental cup (as evidenced in Guiot's case by the fact that the power of the Grail is renewed by a Host), it is unlikely that such a full and coherent form of the Early History as we find in the later romances was accessible to them. It may rather be conjectured that the stress they laid upon the knightly adventurous element in the story led other writers to elaborate the Early History by way of accentuating the religious element.

The real achievement of Crestien and Guiot, the decisive influence they exerted upon the evolution of the cycle, lay in their conception and presentment of the Quest. Substantially the non-Christian framework and texture, with all their fascinating charm and variety, are retained, but the story is lifted on to a loftier moral and intellectual plane, and thereby enabled to hold its own against the competition of the purely Christian portion of the legend. This intellectualising, spiritualising process is far more developed in Guiot than in Crestien, and it is a matter for profound regret that, as ingeniously surmised by Dr. Wechssler, the Angevin (i.e. English) tendencies of Guiot's poem brought it into disfavour in France as soon as the French royal house had got the better of its formidable rivals. Had it been otherwise, had Henry II. been succeeded by a son wise and able as himself, and England thereby secured the hegemony of the French-speaking world, Guiot; instead of Crestien, might have yielded the standard, the dominant version of the Quest. As it is, we must at least be thankful that his work fell into the hands of a man as well fitted as was Wolfram to appreciate its moral and spiritual aims.

We can measure the service rendered by these two great poets to the story of the Grail Quest by comparing their work with the aimless and rambling jumble of disconnected adventures found in the continuations of Crestien.

The after development of the cycle, though presenting numberless problems of detail, is yet fairly clear in its main outline. Crestien and Guiot made the Grail Quest story fashionable as much by their skill in relating the marvellous feats and ventures of the hero as by the moral and spiritual aim of their work. One set of following writers simply worked such veins of the knightly adventurous mine as have been left unexploited by the two great poets; others elaborated the distinctively Christian portion, the Early History; others, again, fused the two, more or less maladroitly. But the normal development of the cycle was profoundly modified by influences which were modifying the entire body of Arthurian romance. To understand the later versions of the Quest we must realise the nature of these influences.

In the earliest stages of the Arthurian cycle the pre-eminent hero is Gawain, who is also second only to Perceval as hero of the Quest story. Perceval's rank in the latter gave him a position in the Arthurian world, generally, inferior only to that of Gawain. At a later stage both were superseded by Lancelot, who became the acknowledged mirror and exemplar of chivalry. To attain this position Gawain had to be degraded, and a sure test of the age of any given Arthurian text is yielded by the view it presents of Gawain's character. Lancelot owed his pre-eminence to the fact that he became, as the Queen's lover, the exemplar of the ideal of courtly love. But this very ideal provoked what may be called a Puritan reaction among a certain section of romance-writers, who eagerly sought out whatever might yield matter for an opposing ideal of ascetic life. The Perceval Quest was thus rewritten by the author of Perceval le Gallois in a spirit of militant asceticism; the hero's virginity is insisted upon aggressively. But the progress of Lancelot towards the headship, after Arthur, of the Arthurian world kept pace with the increasing favour shown towards the Grail Quest as the most marvellous "branch" of the whole Arthurian cycle. A time must naturally come when Arthur's mightiest hero could no longer be kept out of the chief venture of Arthur's Court. Yet when that time came the Puritan reaction had fixed a deep chasm between the two sets of tendency exhibited in the cycle-the knightly amorous and the spiritual ascetic. How could Lancelot, the Queen's lover, be permitted even to view, much less to become possessed of, the holy vessel into which by this time the full potency of sacramental mysticism had been poured? Yet how could he, pattern of knighthood, be excluded from its blessings? The dilemma was solved, the chasm was bridged by the creation of Lancelot's son Galahad, in whom was exemplified in a yet more uncompromising, yet more inhuman spirit the ideal of militant asceticism imperfectly set forth by the author of Perceval le Gallois. In this way arose and took shape the Galahad Quest of the Grand St. Graal-Quête. It is possible that the writers of these romances may have embodied some earlier features, possible that they may have built up their hero round the personality of some forgotten hero of the Arthurian cycle; but in his very essence, as in the major part of his adventures, Galahad is emphatically the latest comer in the world of Arthurian romance.

Only a word need be said about Sir Percyvelle and the Peredur. The former reproduced, with hardly a trace of the prodigious development which had taken place, one of the pre-Christian component stories of the Grail Quest; the second, the Welsh tale, reproduced another pre-Christian component form accurately, as regards the essence of the story, but with a considerable amount of ornamental detail taken from Crestien and other French sources. As a rule, this extraneous matter remains simple ornament, but at times it obscures and distorts the march of the story.

Such, all too briefly sketched, has been the development of the Grail cycle from the time when legends relating the evangelisation of Britain were brought into contact with heroicised versions, belonging to the Arthur cycle, of older mythic tales. The composite legend thus formed, lived and flourished because it was composite, because it drew sustenance and spirit from the two worlds the fusion of which constitutes Modern Europe, the world of Christian classic culture, and the older barbaric world which that culture was to transform, but by which it was also to be itself transformed. The most diverse types of spiritual and artistic intelligence could thus find sustenance for their imaginings. The magic talisman of the Celtic gods, the Holiest Relic of Christian faith, gave to each "the food he most desired." Its bounty is not exhausted though countless generations have fed from it. Within the last fifty years this marvellous legend has proved as fertile in the mind of genius, as it was eight hundred years ago, to set forth and typify the longings and ideals of humanity.


Quelle: The Legends of The Holy Grail, Alfred Nutt, London 1902, S. 60ff