Has the Holy Grail been discovered at last?

The Holy Grail is one of the most difficult objects to discuss because its nature, meaning and purpose vary from writer to writer and from time to time.

The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail has been part of the western European Christian tradition since the late 12th and early 13th centuries when it was first mentioned by a Cistercian named Helinandus (d. c.1230) who repeats the account of vision of a hermit in c.717 AD during which he was shown the dish used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. The origin and subsequent development of the Grail story is important for to the later understanding, and ‘placement’, of the tale within the chronology from its’ inception to the present day. The first and most important point here is that the Grail was first mentioned in an allusion to an event (the ‘vision’) which allegedly occurred 500 years previously. In other words Helinandus was not recording known or accepted fact.

The Grail, Holy Grail, Greal, Graal, etc. is the name given to a legendary sacred vessel, variously identified with the chalice of the Eucharist or the dish of the Pascal lamb, and the theme of a famous medieval cycle of romance. In the romances the conception of the Grail varies considerably; its nature is often but vaguely indicated, and, in the case of Chrestien’s Perceval poem, it is left wholly unexplained.

The meaning of the word has also been variously explained. The generally accepted meaning is that is given by the Cistercian chronicler Helinandus (d. about 1230), who, under the date of about 717, mentions of a vision, shown to a hermit concerning the dish used by Our Lord at the Last Supper, and about which the hermit then wrote a Latin book called “Gradale.” “Now in French,” so Helinandus informs us, “Gradalis or Gradale means a dish (scutella), wide and somewhat deep, in which costly viands are wont to be served to the rich in degrees (gradatim), one morsel after another in different rows. In popular speech it is also called “greal” because it is pleasant (grata) and acceptable to him eating therein” etc. The medieval Latin word “gradale” because in Old French “graal,” or “greal,” or “greel,” whence the English “grail.” Others derive the word from “garalis” or from “cratalis” (crater, a mixing bowl). It certainly means a dish, the derivation from “grata” in the latter part of the passage cited above or from “agréer” (to please) in the French romances is secondary. The explanation of “San greal” as “sang real” (kingly blood) was not current until the later Middle Ages. Other etymologies that have been advanced may be passed over as obsolete.

When we come to examine the literary tradition concerning the Grail we notice at the outset that the Grail legend is closely connected with that of Perceval as well as that of King Arthur. Yet all these legends were originally independent of each other. The Perceval story may have a mythical origin, or it may be regarded as the tale of a simpleton (Fr., nicelot) who, however, in the end achieves great things. In all the versions that we have of it, it is a part of of the Arthurian legend, and, in almost all, it is furthermore connected with the Grail. So the reconstruction of the original Grail legend can be accomplished only by an analytical comparison of all extant versions, and is a task that has given rise to some of the most difficult problems in the whole range of literary history.

The great body of the Grail romances came into existence between the years 1180 and 1240. After the thirteenth century nothing new was added to the Grail legend. Most of these romances are in French, but there are versions in German, English, Norwegian, Italian, and Portuguese. These are of very unequal value as sources, some are mere translations or recasts of French romances. Now all of these romances may be conveniently divided into two classes: those which are concerned chiefly with the quest of the Grail, and with the adventures and personality of the hero of this quest; and those that are mainly concerned with the history of the sacred vessel itself. These two classes have been styled respectively the Quest and the Early History versions.

Of the first class is the “Conte del Graal” of Chrestien de Troyes and his continuators, a vast poetic compilation of some 60,000 verses, composed between 1180 qnd 1240, and the Middle High German epic poem “Parzival” of Wolfram von Eschenbach, written between 1205 and 1215, and based, according to Wolfram’s statement, on the French poem of a certain Kyot (Guiot) of Provence, which, however, is not extant and the very existence of which is doubtful. To these may be added the Welsh folk-tales or “Mabinogion” known to us only from manuscripts of the thirteenth century, though the material is certainly older, and the English poem “Sir Percyvelle,” of the fifteenth century. Of the Early History versions the oldest is the metrical trilogy of Robert de Boron, composed between 1170 and 1212, of which only the first part, the “Joseph d’Arimathie,” and a portion of the second, the “Merlin,” are extant. We have, however, a complete prose version, preserved in the so-called Didot manuscript. The most detailed history of the Grail is in the “Grand St. Graal,” a bulky French prose romance of the first half of the thirteenth century, where we are told that Christ Himself presented to a pious hermit the book concerning this history. Besides these versions we have three French prose romances, also from the thirteenth century, which, though concerned chiefly with the quest, give also an account of the history of the sacred vessel. Of these the most notable is the “Queste del St. Graal,” well known to English readers because it was enbodied almost entire in Malory’s “Morte d’ Arthur.” The others are the so-called “Didot Perceval” or “La petite queste” and the lengthy and prolix “Perceval le Gallois,” also known as “Perlesvaus.”

The poem of Chrestien, regarded by many as the oldest known Grail romance, tells of Perceval’s visit to the Grail castle, where he sees a Graal borne in by a damsel. Its accompaniments are a bleeding lance and a silver plate. It is a precious vessel set with jewels, and so resplendent as to eclipse the lights of the hall. All the assembled knights show it reverence. Mindful of an injunction not to inquire too much, Perceval does not ask concerning the significance of what he sees, and thereby incurs guilt and reproach. Undoubtly Chrestien meant to relate the hero’s second visit to the castle, when he would have put the question and received the desired information. But the poet did not live to finish his story, whether the explanation of the Graal, offered by the continuators, is that which Chrestien what the Graal signifies; in his version it has no pronounced religious character. On the other hand, in the Early History versions it is invested with the greatest sanctity. It is explained as the dish from which Christ ate the Paschal lamb with his disciples, which passed into possession of Joseph of Arimathea, and was used by him to gather the Precious Blood of Our Saviour, when His body was taken from the Cross. It becomes identified with the Chalice of the Eucharist. The lance is explained as the one with which Longinus pierced Our Lord’s side, and the silver plate becomes the paten covering the chalice. The quest in these v

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