Richard Barber,
The Holy Grail: Imagination & Belief
(Harvard University Press, 2004)

The Holy Grail, the Cup of Christ, the Sangreal -- it's been called many names. The Grail has been the stuff of legends for centuries. Almost always associated in some way with King Arthur, the Grail has made its way through time to the modern day through stories, epic poems and other forms of media. Where did it come from? Was there some element of truth this all was based on? Or was it a figment of some writer's imagination that caught fire and lasted throughout the ages? Richard Barber's new book, The Holy Grail: Imagination & Belief, sets out to answer these questions. Unlike some books, Barber does not try to prove the Grail is real or describe where it can be found. Instead, his intent is to examine the Grail legend, to trace its history through the Arthurian romances of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, all the way to the modern day. When a book mentions both Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade and Monty Python & the Holy Grail, you know it's complete!

Barber begins at the beginning, probably the best place to start. The first Arthurian tale of the Grail is thought to have been written by Chretien de Troyes, a French writer probably from the town of the same name. Chretien was a writer of medieval romances, and he called this particular selection "The Story of the Grail." There is no indication that he was adapting another story, either verbal or long-lost written, so it is widely believed he invented the thing. Unfortunately, he did not live to finish the story, and a number of men tried to continue it. Barber examines the original in great detail, reprinting a great many passages from it. He quotes it for four pages, then says: "I have quoted this at length, because it is the original of all subsequent descriptions of the Grail and its surroundings, and we shall see how the least detail becomes critical to our investigation."

He does this with many of the tracts that he analyzes, from the continuations of Chretien's poem after he died to Robert de Boron and numerous others. Then he expertly analyzes the text to demonstrate just what part of the legend has changed or been reused by subsequent authors. He goes into great detail about variations of the Grail story that appeared in the late 12th and 13th centuries. It's fascinating watching the history of the Grail, one of the most intriguing objects in literature, virtually change before your eyes as you get a different author's imagination applied to it. These first few chapters seem long at first, with great blocks of text, much of it in a smaller font because it's quoted material. However, I quickly lost myself in these stories and Barber's dissection of them. It's very important to establish this base before he moves onto later centuries.

In these early tales, the Grail was representative of the Eucharist or other rituals from Christian mythos. Each story contained a procession of young virgins carrying the Grail through a castle as Percival or Galahad looked on. There was always religious meaning to the story. As the Church clamped down on heretical ideas in literature, Grail stories died off -- but were quickly unearthed when things lightened up in the 16th century and beyond, during the Enlightenment. Since that time, variations of the Grail story have been told, usually leaving out some part of it or adapting it to the politics of the time. Barber points out that the story of the Grail has become more secular, making commentary on society or current events. He ends the book with a discussion of the Grail in modern times, where it has lost virtually all religious significance, instead becoming defined as the unreachable goal, such as a Unified Theory being "the holy grail of science."

Barber has undoubtedly left out some stories, but it's hard to imagine how little they must have to do with the Grail to deserve being left out. His research is very thorough and his commentary on each piece is fascinating to read. He's not afraid to call something nonsense when it clearly is, especially the attempts to tie the Grail into occult practices in the late 1800s. He viciously tears apart Holy Blood, Holy Grail, calling it not real history, but a "conspiracy theory of history." He even examines the Grail as portrayed in movies, with an especially adept analysis of The Fisher King with Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. As more evidence of its completeness, there are over 300 endnotes (a lot of them for quotes from the various stories) and the bibliography contains close to 600 books and stories. If you have any interest in the Grail or medieval history, this book holds your attention from beginning to end.

The Holy Grail: Imagination & Belief is about exactly that: the contrast between the imagining of the Grail, all those years ago, to the belief in the ideal of the Grail. Barber never goes down the path of asking if the Grail is real. Instead, he tells us how the idea of the Grail has affected western literature and, at times, history through the ages. From religious icon to chivalric symbol to secular goal, the Grail has stayed with us since its beginnings, buried at times but never truly forgotten. It's been the spark of some very imaginative stories and strange conspiracy theories. This book takes you all along that winding path, on a journey of discovery that won't let you go.

- Rambles
written by David Roy
published 18 December 2004

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