When it comes to the Bible, there seem to be two “camps.” (I will not call them “schools of thought,” since thought seems to have little to do with the choice of camp.) One is the the group that has investigated the actual origins of this collection of writings called “Bible”, come to the conclusion that it’s a mess (partly because of politics — is anyone surprised?) and the other is the group that accepts the miraculous origin of this “Book” in another level of reality as an absolute guide, but chooses to conveniently skip over the contradictions, impossibilities, and fuzziness — to say nothing of the boring parts.
So let’s just leave that issue to the side and take up the origins of the King Arthur story as described in Steven Moore’s big fat book, “The Novel: An Alternative History.” (He’s also cogent on the subject of the Bible but you can chase that fox on your own.) Coyly called “The Matter of Britain,” as Brits like to do, this is a tale that came out of the surf between cultures colliding across the English Channel: the French and the English and their many sub-sets.
Geoffrey of Monmouth is evidently the one who pinned the complex of inherited, invented, and embellished tales on a vague king from the 5th century called “Arthur.” His manuscript, c. 1136, was called “Historium regum Britanniae” because important authors in those days wrote in Latin. Most of the versions are verse, because probably they were sung or recited for the benefit of non-readers. Chrétien de Troyes was one of those using verse between 1170 and 1190 while “Arthurmania” swept the courts of Europe. Moore points out that these creative types were christianizing the Celtic legends brought back from the Norman Conquest of England in the eleventh century, to make them more respectable, but also injecting them with the cult of chivalry and courtly love. The practice has survived until now — even as Diana Gabaldon’s sweeping epics are audible on mp3’s. The types remain, though I’ll let the fans work out who is Arthur, Galahad, Lancelot and Mordred.
Other versions of this long “soap opera” about Arthur and his Round Table that Moore discusses include Chrétien de Troyes’long poem, “Story of the Grail” but it’s unfinished. About 1200 Robert de Boyon wrote a three part verse interpretation called“The Book of the Grail” but not all of it survives, except as a prose paraphrase. No one can figure out for sure which version came first or even whether both were written by de Boyon. Taken together, they could be called “Merlin and the Grail.”
This interesting back story to Arthur is the Christian connection more recently made notorious by novels about the kings of Europe descending from Jesus. De Boron used two books of Apocrypha, “The Gospel of Nicodemia” and “The Vengeance of the Savior.” Apocrypha are early writing that are sometimes included in certain traditions and versions of the Bible. They are often printed sandwiched between the Old and New Testaments and are variously considered esoteric, suppressed or discredited. Even scandalous. This attracts curious readers.
Moore says the Holy Grail that is the link comes from the Welsh myth of the Cornucopia, a vessel that is inexhaustible, an appealing thought on rocky isles where it is hard work to survive. The relevant version says that at the house of Simon the Leper, the Last Supper is being shared from a “vessel.” After the crucifixion — which this diplomatic ancient writer blames entirely on the Jews so that the Romans bear no responsibility — the vessel goes into the hands of a secret convert, a Roman soldier, who receives from Pilate the vessel plus permission to take Jesus’ body off the cross. The soldier collects some of Jesus’ blood in the vessel.
The resurrected Jesus appears and assigns the vessel, now the Holy Grail, to Joseph and his sister, Enigeus, her husband Bron, and a circle [sic] of converts. Things go along until Enigeus and Bron violate the Code of Courtly Love by having an affair, Egyptian-style, between sibs. Jesus speaks through the Grail, telling them they must re-enact the Last Supper. Bron is directed to catch a fish for this meal, so he becomes “The Fisher King.” The illicit lovers cannot feel the holiness of the Grail. (I know of NO art image of a fish in the Grail.) Joseph says that a son of Bron and Enigeus will be the keeper of the Grail.
Bron and the enigmatic Enigeus have twelve sons. Alain li Gros is the privileged one but he says he’d rather be flayed alive than get married. Meanwhile, down in hell, demons are plotting and one manages to get a virtuous and virginal young woman pregnant: the issue is a very hairy baby named Merlin. By similar magic, sending a lustful man to impregnate Arthur’s mother by simulating his legal father, the king is produced. It seems clear that courtly love is an attempt to deal with the problems of genetic succession to thrones, the possibility of a conception being illegal, and the exceptional attributes of some individuals. These elements had been around for a while and still persist in spite of scientific genomic discernments of who is related to whom. Nowadays they are somewhat shadowed by Queen Victoria’s legacy of hemophilia. (Meaning the blood disorder, though logically the word should mean blood-loving, which sounds like vampires, but also suggests Communion.)
Perceval, a knight in King Arthur’s court, is the grandson of Bron, but fails to secure the Grail. He has a story of his own.“Perlesvaus” translated as “The High Book of the Grail” by Nigel Bryant, with the Fourth Crusade as a background. Now religion is expressed as war seeking dominance, a defense of destruction.
In the days when education included such matters, we read Jesse L. Weston’s 1920 analysis of this version, called “From Ritual to Romance” which then informs T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland.” The element that seems to persist until now is not the many marvelous superhero and CGI- friendly events of violence — oh, boy, is someone missing a bet by not bringing these tales to the screen! — but the ennui and heart-sickness of the king who has lost faith and meaning.
So! Is this relevant or what? The cornucopic Grail of prosperity has eluded us again. The land is locked into climate change and bureaucratic unreason. Who among us will go to find this precious connection to Greater Powers? And must we crucify our leaders?