Without a doubt, Arthurian legend is filled with many magical and noteworthy items. However, no item is more noteworthy than the Holy Grail; it is an artifact that has inspired people throughout the ages and has been both reimagined—from a serving dish, to a stone, to a bloodline—as well as the subject of conspiracy theories, for as long as it has existed. Why is this so?
In 1191 it was Chretien de Tray who introduced us to the concept of a grail in Arthurian literature. But in Chretien’s time, it merely means serving dish; its Latin root indicating a kind of crater or mixing bowl used for diluting wine. So, it is just a fancy dish in his work. It would only be later, with Robert Lebou, that the grail would make its way to Glausterberry where the grail was supposedly dropped. However, Lebou’s stories are similar to ‘The Saint’s Life’ genre of narrative. As a Trinitarian, Lebou filled with works with the number of threes and so connects an open seat on the Roundtable (“The Siege Perilous”) to one who will locate the Holy Grail.
It is Perceval, the man able to sit on the seat, who eventually attains the grail, but only after a long journey and the healing of the Fisher King. The rest of the story proceeds fairly along Arthurian tradition.
Other Arthurian grail tales focus on the grail’s feeding ability—whether it is restorative or actual feeding. Soon after Lebou, though, other authors take up the grail focus. The Pearlouvo, a large document which scholars tend to become confused about, is one such a text which examines Arthurian concerns with an emphasis on the conflict between the Old and New Testament. As a text it is anti-Semitic, something uncommon to Arthurian literature; other differences include Arthur having a legitimate son who is promptly killed, an event which causes Guinevere to die of grief. This is also the appearance of something called the ‘questing beast,’ a mysterious creature which roams the margins of the Arthurian legend. Over all, it is a very strange text and has caused on scholar to even call the author “deranged.”
The French Vulgate Cycle sees the grail as a solidified concept, something distinctly grail-like, as in a cup form which feeds the knights and makes people fairer than before. Here though, in the Lancelot Grail, we see Lancelot attempt to find the grail and fail. Gawain is the one who galvanizes the knights to journey but he too fails to locate the grail. It is Galahad, in this version, who attains the grail after taking his seat in the Siege Perilous.
Modern fascination with the Holy Grail continues, obviously, despite most medieval texts claiming that the grail has been taken up to Heaven: we see Indiana Jones hunt for it, Dan Brown and more. But it is such a vital fixture in the Arthurian tradition that it practically has to show up in Arthurian texts after the middle ages; so, in Mark Twain’s seminal work, for instance, characters try and find it by sending out great expeditions. In the 20th century, in John Glauster Powel’s work, he argued that the Grail was a symbol which predated religion. Movies from the early 20th century lambast the grail quest, as we see in the Monty Python sketches, whereas others, like John Borman set the grail quest as an epic quest with quasi-mythical attributes. And, of course, the Da Vinci code with its actual personhood incarnate.
Why does the grail continue to fascinate? It may be because that it is malleable, magic, and mystery in such a combination that people continue to be fascinated by it no matter what period or time that they are from and enables them to brainstorm their own solutions to contemporary problems.