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.

Malcolm

You can find more information about Joseph Campbell and his work on the Joseph Campbell Foundation website.

 

 

 

 

Thank you to my 26,250 visitors

83grandThis blog has been staggering along for awhile like a sailor trying to find his way back to the ship after a night on the town in a foreign port. (Been there, done that.)

When I started Malcolm’s Round Table, I was thinking of King Arthur (indirectly in my family tree) and the Knights of the Round Table. Not that I would admit that I was looking for the Holy Grail. I had no idea what I was going to say or that I’d end up saying it for some 1,050 posts about everything from writing to Glacier National Park, to the USS Ranger to the Florida locations for some of my recent stories.

Somehow along the road, 26,250 of you stopped by for some 83,252 visits. And, according to the WordPress gurus, the busiest time has been Thursday at 2 p.m. This tells me you guys are logging on at work after drinking your lunch.

Thursday2pm

Seriously, were you trying to stay awake or were you looking for the Holy Grail? (And, were you successful in either quest?) Truth be told, I bring to this blog and to most of my fiction the premise that every one of us is on a hero’s journey in search of that moment and/or that insight that transforms us into the individual we were destined to become if we allowed it to happen.

In my novel The Sun Singer, I explore the hero’s journey from a masculine perspective. In Sarabande, I look at the journey from a feminine perspective. A recent article on Brain Pickings called “If Librarians Were Honest” caught my attention because it’s based on the premise that “If librarians were honest, they would say, No one spends time here without being changed…”

Vision of the Holy Grail at the Round Table.
Vision of the Holy Grail at the Round Table.

Hero’s and Heroine’s journeys change us, often in spectacular ways under dangerous circumstances. Libraries can also change us. Potentially, every book, article, and post we read will change us a little or a lot. We never quite know at the beginning of a journey or a book, just who we will be at the end of it.

So, it’s a glorious risk, right?

Perhaps I should have posted this yesterday on my birthday because each of your visits is a gift. It’s a gift of your time, just as reading The Sun Singer, Sarabande, and Conjure Woman’s Cat is a gift of your time. Perhaps you felt different when you finished some of the posts and some of my stories.

Or, perhaps you were changed in imperceptible ways. If you’re also a writer, you will know that you not only change as you read but also as you write. I’m slightly different than I was when I wrote, “This blog has been staggering along for awhile like a sailor trying to find his way back to the ship after a nigh on the town” at the beginning of this post.

We don’t often notice the smallest changes in ourselves because movies and books lead us to believe that when we find the Holy Grail, we’ll find it all at once rather than little by little. Perhaps we need a magic mirror that shows us, not how we’ve aged over time, but how we’ve changed.

If we did, I think we’d not only be surprised by the results, but we’d all feel a lot better about ourselves. At any rate, that’s why I write and that’s why I’m happy that 26,250 of you have stopped by to read.

–Malcolm

KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the 1950s-era novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat” about a conjure woman who fights back against the KKK with folk magic.

Visit my website to learn more.

 

Review: ‘Labyrinth’ by Kate Mosse

Labyrinth (Languedoc Trilogy, #1)Labyrinth by Kate Mosse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kate Mosse’s engaging and well-researched novel Labyrinth (2006) brings readers another version of the Holy Grail and those who would protect it, seek it, destroy it and use it. Labyrinth joins Khoury’s The Last Templar (2006) and The Templar Salvation (2010) and Neville’s The Eight (1997) and The Fire (2008) in its presentation of a religious secrets story that switches back and forth between time periods and characters.

Set in thirteenth-century Languedoc and twenty-first century southern France, Labyrinth presents readers with medieval and modern characters who are searching for the Grail with good and bad motives. Alaïs du Mas, the daughter of the steward of historical character Raymond-Roger Trencavel in Carcassona, resides in a world where Cathars and Catholics live in harmony with each other. Alice Tanner, a professor of English literature in Sussex, is a volunteer in an archeological dig in the Sabarthès mountains in France in 2005.

The lives of these dual protagonists—and the characters around them—become intertwined across history when Alice inadvertently discovers some of the Grail secrets Alaïs dedicated her life to protect. Alaïs’ world is under attack by a Crusade and subsequent inquisition ordered by Pope Innocent III in 1208 against the Cathars who were viewed by Rome as a heretical sect. Alice’s world is that of a modern police investigation into deaths and thefts linking a mainstream archeological dig with a shadowy world of those who follow or oppose the Grail.

The mirror aspects of the characters’ lives across the centuries serves Mosse and her plot well. Unlike Dan Brown, who viewed the Grail as Mary Magdalene and Arthurian literature that viewed the Grail as a sacred chalice, Mosse presents instead the secret artifacts which are intended to lead true seekers through both a real and a figurative labyrinth to the Grail as a transcendent experience.

With the exception of a slow beginning and a few sections where the detail in both the modern and medieval worlds becomes more history and travelogue than a novel, Labyrinth is a well-told story. The novel’s discussion guide notes that the book begins with short glimpses of the leading characters without any narrative to tie them together or explain their motives, and then asks “what effect does this have on you, as a reader?” It’s a good question. Some readers will find it slow and unnecessarily obscuring of the story, while others will find that it heightens the intrigue and suspense.

For readers who want to know more about the life and times of the Cathars, Mosse includes a historical note, a selected bibliography, information about the langue d’Oc spoken in Alaïs’ world as well as a glossary of Occitan words.

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Copyright (c) 2011 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of two hero’s journey novels,The Sun Singer and Garden of Heaven.