Tag Archives: grail

The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion – a review

I’m no Arthurian scholar, although my wide ranging reading habits and interest in folklore and mythology mean that I’ve run into King Arthur and the grail from all kinds of perspectives already. I was interested to see what Simon Stirling would do with the idea. I don’t feel qualified to comment on this as a piece of historical writing, but I found it in many ways persuasive.

In this book, Simon makes the case for King Arthur being Scottish. I found this argument compelling. To establish his case, Simon draws on mediaeval writing, period history (such as it is) place names and the names of known historical figures. He also explores why we have a southern Arthur and how that benefitted the church.

I found the exploration of texts and history to be especially interesting. One of the things this book does especially well is to look at the relationship between history making and myth making. These things are deeply related to each other. We tell stories to reinforce our sense of history. We use history as propaganda. We reinvent our stories to reinvent ourselves. Arthur has been used repeatedly in this way, and I found the exploration of the mechanics to be really helpful.

One of the other things that stuck out for me is the way language changes over time. The poetic sources Simon deals with are full of kennings, allusions and metaphors. It represents a world view rather different to our own. There’s a blurring of edges created by word play and pun, and resonance that may easily be lost to a modern reader. There’s no knowing how literally our ancestors took any of this – whether we’re dealing in straightforward symbolism where Bran = raven, or whether in some sense ravens are Bran, and Bran is ravens… How much mythology could be grown from a misunderstanding of poetic language? For me, this raises more questions than it answers, and I am very glad to have them raised.

I do not emerge from this book confident that I know what the Grail is. The case Simon makes is fascinating and I very much enjoyed reading it. It is a pleasing addition to my sense of what the grail might be, and might have been, but I’m not one for definitive answers. I’ve certainly learned a lot about how different people have perceived the grail. For anyone looking for a non-Christian take on the elusive artefact, this is a good book, I think regardless of whether you find the central argument persuasive.

For me, reading this was like investigating an ancestral dream world. Simon draws on sources from all over the world to explore ideas about what it means to be human, because in many ways, the quest for the grail is always a quest for something fundamental about humanity. This take on the grail is very much the warrior poet, masculine grail, and it has most to say about male mysteries around what is often taken to be an innately feminine object. It often reminded me of reading The White Goddess – this is not a wilfully obscure book, but it has that same sense of being a hairsbreadth from absolute truth, while never enabling me to completely grasp it. As I appreciate that sort of mythic, deep dreaming experience in a book, I really enjoyed reading this. I suspect different readers could have radically different experiences of this book, depending a lot on what you know and believe already.

Mote about it here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/grail


Reclaiming the wells

Let’s recap the story as it is currently told. The land suffers. Crops fail, hunger and misery are rife. The king lies wounded. Heal the king and the land will recover.

Do not ask what role the king played in turning the kingdom to wasteland. He and the land are one. It suffers because he does. Do not ask about exploitation, or the way wealth flows in opposition to water, from low to high.

Do not ask for the name of this king, or else you may reveal his specific failings. This could then cease to be a tale about asking the right question to heal the king. Ask the wrong question and you will damn him forever. He hopes you are persuaded that without him, the land is lost. It is better you do not ask.

Once upon a time there were wells and well maidens who gave water and life from their golden cups. Do not ask where the wounded king got his grail from. Do not ask why there are no more wells and no more well maidens. Do not ask why the land is so dry. Power flows uphill from the weakest to the greatest and the king demands that he alone matters in this story. Heal him, and only him.

Do not snatch the golden cup from his rotting hands. Do not run in search of the old wells. Do not lower the grail to bring up fresh draughts of water, cool from the dark embrace of earth. Do not offer water to all who need it. Do not imagine that the real world can tolerate anything as naive and generous as a well maiden.

Just keep telling the story the way the king says it has always been told. He wants to fester in his authority and he wants you to feel sorry for him. You, who have the power to take his chalice and go back to the source.