The Holy Grail


The Grail Legend: Emma Jung and Marie-Louise Von Franz. Translator, Andrea Dykes, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1998: this essay first appeared in Paradoxa, the journal of genre fictions. Vol 5, issues 13-14 :

I come to Emma Jung and her continuator's study of the Grail legend with two very different appreciations: on the one hand a sketchy, schematic understanding ot the role the Grail legend plays in Jungian psychology and cultural philosophy; on the other a partial, personal knowledge of the relationship between the fantastic tales of mediaeval Europe and similar beloved genre fictions of the late twentieth century scene. Inevitably, because we are talking Jungian, I find myself seeing these two viewpoints as a pair of opposites: but which represents the light and which the dark? Which is the conscious ego of this Grail study review, and which the shadow side? Clearly, and appropriately, there is a theory here, and a pile of loose ends. My insider knowledge of fantasy genre writing must represent the latter, the repository for all those elements the ideological treatment of the legend cannot use.

Though this study engages with the story as psychological project, not as a literary or historical artifact, the first chapters offer fascinating historical and bibliographical detail -tracing not only the semi-historical Arthu (the dux bellorum against the Saxons whose career seems to have ended in 516 CE) but identifying links with Orphics, Osiris; Persian Islamic and Byzantine traditions; legends of Alexander; Cathars, Templars, and above all the alchemists -while never losing sight of the sheer, idiosyncratic and delightful fantasia of thirteenth century Anglo-Norman popular fiction, so different from the macho realism of the French genre in the same era. (There was, of course, nothing whatever faerie or delightful about the Anglo Normans, those cold hearts and bloody hands, in real life, but this makes good Jungian sense. People fantasize about what they can't or won't do in the real.)

It will come as a surprise and maybe a disappointment to some readers that the Matter of Britain cannot be satisfactorily tied to ancient Celtic mythology. But for Emma Jung's purposes the way the facts seem to place the Grail Legend firmly as an invention in early mediaeval Europe is positive and productive. The Grail, we are shown, is a story with many psychological connections to the ahistorical archaism of the unconscious, but culturally situated in a far from primitive state of mind.

In the Breton folktale where the Grail motifs first appear, the simpleton "Peronik" must reach the magically hidden and elusive castle of Ker Glas, to gain a miraculous goblet and lance (the lance that kills, the vessel that gives life). Success brings material rewards: the foundling child becomes a great and mighty lord. In the elaborate and sophisticated versions of Chretien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach and others, Percival the loutish simpleton arrives at the court of King Arthur determined to become a knight of the Table Round. He gets fast-tracked onto the Grail Quest to everyone's great surprise, makes a complete hash of things for several years of adventurous fantasy incident -and finally achieves the same Quest as Peronik; except that now the elusive castle is not only the hiding place of the Grail but also the stronghold of a sick king, (discovered to be Percival's uncle or other close relative), whose sickness has laid the lands all around to waste. Only Percival's achievement of the Grail can heal the king and restore the kingdom.

In the later, more familiar, Morte d'Arthur, Mallory awards the Grail quest to Galahad, the perfect Christian knight. The Percival narrative, in its many variants, is always richer, more complex and more fantastical. There are hints in the details (Percival is fatherless, he is brought up by his mother, it is his uncle who rules his fate) of a mundane matrilineal past, but it is equally easy to read this hidden realm, "difficult to find" of the Grail Castle as not only the otherworld of British mythology, the land of eternal youth and plenty, but also the lost paradise of the Jungian unconscious: the "realm of the mothers" from which, individually and collectively, we all take our being. The goblet and the lance (frequently increased to a quaternary of goblet, lance, sword and stone) are unmistakable as signs of female and male. The fact that Percival must make both treasures his own denotes a satisfying reconciliation of opposites, a healing that makes whole. But so far, this only brings us to a happy ending, higher-minded but essentially unchanged from the folktale. What is the project of the Grail, the forward purpose that makes it, as Emma Jung claims, still a living, working myth today?

Elements fo universal human mythology provide the framework, but the Grail story is specifically Christian, the product of a socio-religious culture in triumph, after hundreds of years of conquest and colonisation. The Grail vessel is (in the most favoured variant) the dish used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect Christ's blood at the descent of the cross. It appears with miraculous panoply, and to achieve the Grail means redemption. Emma Jung draws parallels with the secret mysteries of alchemy, and proposes that these two threads (magica, egotistic alchemy, and the mystical, self-realising Grail) served as a kind of alt.Christianity forum, a place where aspects of spirituality denied or suppressed by the domineering orthodoxy could be explored. Where orthodox Christianity failed the individual by insisting on a one-sided, positive, rational spiritual order, the alchemists and the Grail writers included the magical darkness, chaos and uncertainty of real inner experience. Where orthodoxy decreed salvation only through the mediation of priest and clergy, the Grail quest proposes a new vision (or a return ad fontes). From now on each individual can become the Christ, the ideal Self, through his (there are no questing women) own stumbling efforts. The achievement of the Grail is thus identified with the Jungian, modern project of achieving fully conscious Selfhood, the never-ending task of realising all that we are.

The argument that the mediaeval Grail legend is deliberately, purposefully a myth of emergent consciousness (and early bourgois individualism) may seem farfetched. In support of the proposal there are intriguing references to the Grail as the sacred vessel which, like the mind/brain, is mysteriously identical with its contents. More persuasively there is the precise nature of Percival's allotted task. To achieve the Grail, he must ask a question. Instead of killing a dragon, rescuing a princess, vanquishing the bad guys in mortal combat, he must question the transcendent, the great mystery. The first time he reaches the castle he is the simpleton, trying to be like everybody else. When he sees the Grail borne in procession, with all its divine attendants and special effects, he is so intimidated he pretends nothing's happening, just carries on eating his dinner, the poor sap -and as a consequence he gets thrown out of the magic castle, dumped right out of the game. When he finally gets back there, he rises out of the collective and asks, What is the Grail? Who is served from it? At once the wounded kind is healed, and Percival becomes the rightful lord of the castle and guardian of the Grail. Thus, this study leads us from fantasy to science fiction, from the reiterated archetypes of fairytale to the fiction of a dynamic culture in which fantasies can be "made flesh", drawn into conscious reality, by a constant questioning of the world of appearances.

But what about the shadow side, the missing side of the legend? As a genre writer and reader, I found myself impatient at the exhaustively respectful treatment, I am incapable of reading any of the texts in the original, but though I am now convinced that Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach were the real thing, most of their continuators were obviously shared-world hacks just making a living; and even the greatest of fantasy writers always knows how to make five hundred words fit where ten would do the job better. Jungian analysis, like Deconstruction, means you never have to ask the actual writers what they thought they were doing. Images and motifs just seep onto the page directly from the collective unconscious… and this is fair enough, but I feel there should have been some corrective reference to the mundane realities. Mediaeval Christendom's fantasy writers had loved the stories of the New Testament from childhood. When they grew up, they wanted to write their own Christ stories: endless variations on the original, beloved text, with characters and motifs from their own times and their own culture; and even better special effects. That's what's really going on, in these tales of Joseph of Arimathea meets Merlin, and Jesus tells new secrets of the Eucharist to a lonely British hermit… The coded messages about alchemical salvation came second. Don't ask me how I know this. I just know.

The other shadow is more serious. As even many enthusiasts would admit, the second book of the Morte d'Arthur is boring. Throw in all the magic boats and however many yards of glistening white samite, Galahad, the flawless human being, is useless as a fictional character. He is dull. This is sad news for the Jungian project. Percival is a much better hero because he starts from a much lower base. He is the macho man continually discussing his masculine acts of prowess, revisiting the scenes of his thoughtless triumphs and discovering what a mess he made of other people's lives. He remains personal -struggling to arise from the unrealised self, his persona in the collective- right to the end. But he still has to become flawless eventually, and that's the problem.

It is fascinating to examine the Grail legend, -a fiction in the act of turning into mythology, the individual writers still visible within the matrix. It is easy to see why both Jungs, Emma and Carl, found this story so important, a myth to open the doors of perception, a becoming-myth for Europe to match the riches of the East. But the Grail, we have to acknowledge, is not the fructifying myth it "should be". We have Wagner's Parsifal, we have the splendid (and right on the message) Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, but the Grail has never permeated European culture the way the Ramayana still permeates South and South East Asia. The nature of the quest is not socially cohesive. The Grail motif is interiorized by the individuals who are caught by its spell. It is singular, celibate; finally sterile. This is a story about being masculine, so it would be futile to complain that there is no role for a woman trying to achieve the Grail; but it is significant that though the cup and the lance are joined in the texts, (to be realised, masculinity must include the feminine), they never reached the popular imagination together. The reconciliation of opposites is not achieved. Percival reigns for a while, but then he goes off to become a hermit, and he has no heirs.
The Grail broke up the Round Table. Percival and Galahad both died childless; and the modern world's immensely successful questioning of nature has its own sterility. It certainly has not been matched by any consistent increase in conscience or enlightenment. Perhaps the question we should ask of the Grail legend is the same as the question we should ask of Jungian psychology, and of Christianity itself: Who is served? Is it possible for the realization of the individual Self (be yea perfect, the quest laid on his followers by Christ) to realise society? Or must the hero, once redeemed, always go out into the desert, and the Grail vanish with him… until the cycle starts again?