Grail myths, where they came from, and how they were changed
I suppose I was probably destroyed <g> at an early age by the originals of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Or maybe the vicissitudes of magic led me into a mythic approach to understanding “the big picture” and the storytelling surrounding it. Be that as it may, I enjoy deepening my understanding (or further brainwashing myself) about myths and legends by constantly looking for new resources and re-reading old resources.
This past weekend, it was King Arthur and the Holy Grail. I can’t count the number of variations of this story I’ve read since childhood. Early on, I liked T. H. White’s Once and Future King, Mary Stewart’s trilogy, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s alternative approach in The Mists of Avalon. The approach of these and other authors is as varied as the approach of those credited with the early versions of the stories. This weekend’s reading was Joseph Campbell’s The Romance of the Grail.
Campbell, best known for The Hero with a Thousand Faces, spent a lifetime studying the Grail stories. In reading his book, we see immediately that there are two major approaches. One comes from Celtic sources and is probably indigenous to Ireland. This approach sees the Grail stories as a pagan manifestation of tales about fertility gods. The other major approach shows the stories as Christianized, that is to say, in which the Grail was considered to be the chalice from the Last Supper and the lance was said to be the one brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea. I see this second approach as a “cleaning up” of older stories so that they were acceptable to the church. Yet another theme, further “touches up” the stories with mythic stories and practices from mysteries out of ancient Greece.
Joseph Campbell died in 1987, a few years after Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982) was published, advancing the theory that Mary Magdalene was, in fact, the Grail, had been Jesus’ wife, and carried his bloodline. I wonder if Campbell was aware of this theory before he died.
I tend to like the original sources of myths rather than the glosses painted over them by subsequent poets. So, I see the Christianized versions of the Grail stories as deviant. Yet, those are the versions most people know and accept as part of the entire King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table storyline. It’s too late to change that, I suppose. Yet, paradoxically, I do wonder about the realities of Mary Magdalene even though she’s outside the Grail romances.
One issue that arises when the myths are retold properly (Elliott’s The Waste Land) or badly (Tennyson’s “Balin and Balan” in Idylls of the King) is that modern authors may or may not understand the deeper meanings of the original myths. So, those stories become–to put it crudely–writing prompts that can be spun out into all kinds of fiction that–due to egotism or ignorance–distort the intent of the basic story.
Writers of local and regional myths and legends from their own countries face the same problem. We want to base our stories to one extent or another on the legends surrounding the place, but may not have the time or resources to fully explore where those legends came from or why they were passed down through the ages. As writers, we do the best we can because, unlike Joseph Campbell and the Grail stories, we don’t have a lifetime’s worth of scholarship with which to shore up our stories.
You can find more information about Joseph Campbell and his work on the Joseph Campbell Foundation website.