Imagination accompanies humanity from the ancient times. People bear in minds fantastic visions of objects and living beings that represent the most incredible things like power that has no limits or happiness that knows no boundaries of time and space. Some images give what one desire, others deprive from notorious elements. However, there are creations of mind that incorporate personal, sacramental, and ultimate items and echo in history through centuries. The paper discusses the image of the Holy Grail and ideas it represents. The Holy Grail is initially a substance that is described in literate in multitude forms. The Grail has no specific material features or genuine religious significance. There is no existing object that links the meaning to an actual form. Thus, research related to the Holy Grail discusses an issue of its multiple representations. The Grail is studied primarily through the means of literature. The current paper describes main ideas based on the works of different authors paying special attention to the texts written by of Sir Thomas Malory. This research is employed to identify the roots of the image, its religious and cultural significance in the Middle Ages and in the twenty-first century.
Vision of the Holy Grail by Malory
An idea of the Holy Grail finds its particularization in words, collected by writers and known in folklore and history. In order to show how illusive the symbol of the Holy Grail is, we may compare it with the description of the author who probably put more thoughts in it than others. We may say that “Sir Thomas Malory has given us no account of himself or his family, but he has left his name and his work”. The Holy Grail is even less than this in the meaning that we possess a whole library of information, but we lack actual facts and operate rather on legends and myths. The Holy Grail reaches beyond the limits of reality. We have the name or, to be correct, a number of names that are used to identify this mysterious substance in its widest sense. In Malory’s version, the Holy Grail is known under the name Sangreal. It is recognized as an important part of the story about Arthur and his noble knights. The book Le Morte D’Arthur (in translation from French The Death of Arthur) fascinates readers with the stories of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table such as Lancelot and Galahad.
Malory adopted his understanding of the Holy Grail and the tales connected to it from different sources. The main source was French poems La Queste Del Saint Graal. It is referred to as the Vulgate Cycle. The romances are dated by the thirteenth century. The author is believed to be a group of anonymous French writers. Originally, there are five romances with no clear structure. Here, “The History of the Holy Grail” is first. It is also an adaptation of earlier texts that say the Holy Grail is “the chalice used at the Last Supper and in which Joseph of Arimathea preserved some of the blood shed by Christ on the cross”. It is interesting how different writers interpret the thing that they have not actually witnessed through the choices of their characters. Malory introduces the Holy Grail as a cup. Though, the Sangreal finds its visual representation in the story, it is necessary to emphasize that the Knights participate in “the quest of the Sangreal”. This suggests understanding of the Holy Grail not only as the cup, but as a guest.
We may conclude that the idea of the Holy Grail as a long search is an allegory of a human life. People make choices and live with consequences that either allow them to find what they are looking for, or prevent from approaching a thing of desires. This is supported by a fact that unworthy knights are not able to see the Sangreal. According to legends, partly accepted by Malory, there always was one empty seat at of the Round Table. It was kept vacant until one of the knights could gain the honor to sit there. That should be the knight who manages to complete the quest for the Grail. What is more, “no knight had earned the right to occupy the place without being instantly swallowed by the earth”. Malory develops the image of the Holy Grail when he introduces Galahad. It was he who saw the Sangreal. The idea of being worthy and deserve the Grail is emphasized by the character of Galahad. He is the only knight without stains of sins on his life. His is loyal, true, and possesses virtues. His example shows heroism and valued chivalry and illustrates the cultural meaning of the quest and the Grail.
The Holy Grail in Culture of the Middle Ages and Twenty-First Century
An understanding of the Holy Grail depends on the surroundings. In the Middle Age this image becomes a vivid symbol. Dark Ages is a period when knights exemplify strengths, both physical and moral; the great king Arthur is a symbol of powerful and a ruler that Britain desired. Basic attributes of the Middle Ages romances are loyalty and heroism. Altogether, it is said that “the Grail romances belong to a great experimental and creative epoch”. It is interesting to imagine how would we behave if readings about king Arthur took people from the twenty-first century back in time to the Middle Ages? The question is whether a modern man would be able to show the amount of courage that the Knights of the Round Table illustrate on the pages? Does a person with an account on Twitter or Facebook has the loyalty that King Arthur values and prizes more than anything else?
In order to contemplate answers for the questions above, it is important to understand the features of the Holy Grail that mesmerized knights more than five centuries ago. Malory explains that the quest for the Sangreal is important because the item is believed to have incredible powers. The Sangrail may cure the weak, prolong life or give power and glory. Old legends conferred it other magical features. As on abject related to magical cauldrons it can also provide with endless food and drinks. However, the Holy Grail was more than a magical cauldron. Those objects are rare and beautiful but the Grail is unique and it does not have one form. It usually is represented as a vessel that can create a paradistical state. This idea is illustrated through the description of Carbonek. The castle hosted Sangreal from the stories about Arthur. It is “an otherworldly heaven guarded by angels and wondrous spirits whose unearthly song was beautiful beyond imagining”. Presently, one may presume that people still dream of castles protected by angels and wish for some object with similar qualities. However, time imprinted other attributes on the image of the Holy Grail. One may argue that profit is above spiritual qualities on the background of consumption. People seldom wish glory, more commonly money is desired.
The theoretical interest to the possibility of a modern man comming back in time was shown by Mark Twain. According to Richard W. Barber, Twain’s satire A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur: “succeeds in making fun both of the world of medieval romance and of nineteenth-century American society by introducing a modern American into Arthur’s court by an accidental piece of time travel”. It is well noted that the Grail has “a chameleon-like character” and every epoch adds some new quality while other features are dismissed.
The twentieth century has produced a vision of the Grail in, for example, a novel To the Chapel Perilous written by Naomi Mitchison. The author contributed a few major features. She edited Camelot, the place where Arthur and his Knights lived, and made it a castle with a newspaper industry. The characters of the book investigate the Grail and report about it in a newspaper. Mitchison’s pen, or rather keyboard, produced a major alteration of the legend. On her pages it “is not just one Grail, but five, with the possibility of more”. The very idea of the Holy Grail being a unique object loses its meaning. Greed and gluttony are reflected in the novel. For modern people it is not enough to have just one Grail, there is always an appetite for more. This insatiability varies in the work of Den Brown under the title The Da Vinci Code. If in the past there were expeditions sent to find the Holy Grail, presently people are more concerned about getting to know what the Holy Grail really is. According to The Da Vinci Code, the Grail finds its form in the bloodline of Jesus Christ. Brown plays with words like puzzles and manages to conclude that the Holy Grail or Sangreal derives from the Old French Sang real and stands for the “royal blood”. The statement that the Grail is not a vessel but a line of descendants that started with a woman reflects gender issues of the modern society. This partly diminishes the role of chivalry and heroism.
One thing is left unchangeable in the twenty-first century – the Grail is still a popular topic in literature, cinematography and even Japanese comic books such as manga about Sailor Moon. In the anime version of Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, the image of the Holy Grail is reviewed. The Grail is a pure heart filled with love and compassion. This heart has power and glory but does not lose itself in it. Thus, we may say that every century modifies the cultural meaning of the Holy Grail. Presently, it may be seen as the ultimate quest of the human kind. A quest that is undertaken for spiritual growth and development. This also reveals religious aspect of the Holy Grail.
Religious Interpretation of the Holy Grail
More commonly the Grail appears as the cup. This cup has a religious significance as it accepted to be the cup from the Last Supper. Malory uses this legend in his work. Thus, the Holy Grail is a vessel from which Christ drank. After the crucifixion, the same vessel was used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect drops of Christ. What is more, Joseph is thought to deliver the Holy Grail to Britain where it disappeared.
The Holy Grail is as important for the Church as the Shroud of Turin. One can imagine that if the Church could give the authentic cup from the Last Supper it would help to strengthen the position of the Church and the power of Pope. In fact, we may often come across the headlines like the following: “Historians Claim to Have Recovered Holy Grail”. The Holy Grail is in the list of social and religious desiderata.
Joseph of Arimathea is a biblical figure. He was the one who took Christ’s body to a tomb. Legends share a story about Joseph living a long life while he was in possession of the Grail. The Holy Grail embraces more forms in myths about Joseph of Arimathea and the Knights of the Round Table: “good man took Our Lord's body between his hands, and offered it to Sir Galahad, who received it with humble joy”. Here, the Grail is considered to be more than a vessel, but a body of the Lord. The religious meaning of it cannot be underestimated.
However, the Church was partly forced to accept the Grail as one of the symbols of Christianity. This was an issue because of the connection to Celtic mythology and other gods. When the Holy Grail appeared at the Round Table, there was plenty of food and drinks. This corresponds to the Celtic cauldron of plenty. Also, the long life of Joseph of Arimathea is an example of the Celtic cauldron of rebirth. Even today the Grail has religious meaning but it is not purely a Christian symbol.
The image of the Holy Grail endures for centuries in one form or another. Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte D’Arthur describes the Holy Grail as a unique object with magical powers that illustrates its cultural meaning. The Church embraced the image, although, it has Celtic roots. In most cases, the Grail is a cup from the Last Supper, however, the myth of the Grail inherits the features of every historic epoch, reflecting the main accents of it. This is the reason why the Holy Grail is an important image of the culture and religion of the Middle Ages and the twenty-first century.