THE study of a great literature should begin like the preparation for a royal banquet, not without some solicitude for right conduct in the King's palace--which is the consecration of motive--and not without recollection of that source from which the most excellent gifts derive in their season to us all. We may, therefore, in approaching it say: Benedic, Domine, nos et hæc tua dona, quæ de tua largitate sumus sumpturi.
But in respect of the subject which concerns us we may demand even more appropriately: Mensæ cœlestis participes faciat nos, Rex æternæ gloriæ. In this way we shall understand not only the higher meaning of the Feeding-Dish, but the gift of the discernment of spirits, the place and office of the supersubstantial bread, and other curious things of the worlds within and without of which we shall hear in their order. Surely the things of earth are profitable to us only in so far as they assist us towards the things which are eternal. In this respect there are many helpers, even as the sands of the sea. The old books help us, perhaps above all things, and among them the old chronicles and the great antique legends. If the hand of God is in history, it is also in folk-lore. We can scarcely fail of our term, since lights, both close at hand and in the unlooked-for places, kindle everywhere about us. It is difficult to say any longer that we walk in the shadow of death when the darkness is sown with stars.
Now there are a few legends which may be said to stand forth among the innumerable traditions of humanity, wearing the external signs and characters of some inward secret or mystery which belongs rather to eternity than to time. They are in no sense connected one with another--unless, indeed, by certain roots which are scarcely in time and place--and yet by a suggestion which is deeper than any message of the senses each seems appealing to each, one bearing testimony to another, and all recalling all. They kindle strange lights, they awaken dim memories, in the antecedence of an immemorial past. They might be the broken fragments of some primitive revelation which, except in these memorials, has passed out of written records and from even the horizon of the mind. There are also other legends--strange, melancholy and long haunting--which seem to have issued from the depths of aboriginal humanity, below all horizons of history, pointing, as we' might think, to terrible periods of a past which is of the body only, not of the soul of man, and hinting that once upon a time there was a soulless age of our race, when minds were formless as the mammoths of geological epochs. To the latter class belongs part of what remains to us from the folk-lore of the cave-dwellers, the traditions of the pre-Aryan races of Europe. To the former, among many others, belongs the Graal legend, which in all its higher aspects is to be classed among the legends of the soul. Perhaps I should more worthily say that when it is properly understood, and when it is regarded at the highest, the Graal is not a legend, but an episode in the æonian life of that which "cometh from afar"; it is a personal history.
The mystery of the Graal is a word which came forth out of Galilee. The literature which enshrines this mystery, setting forth the circumstances of its origin, the several quests which were instituted on account of it, the circumstances under which it was
from time to time discovered, and, in fine, its imputed removal, with all involved thereby, is one of such considerable dimensions that it may be properly described as large. This notwithstanding, there is no difficulty in presenting its broad outlines, as they are found in the texts which remain, so briefly that if there be any one who is new to the subject, he can be instructed sufficiently for my purpose even from the beginning. It is to be understood, therefore, that the Holy Graal, considered in its Christian aspects and apart from those of folk-lore, is represented invariably, excepting in one German version of the legend, as that vessel in which Christ celebrated the Last Supper or consecrated for the first time the elements of the Eucharist. It is, therefore, a sacramental vessel, and, according to the legend, its next use was to receive the blood from the wounds of Christ when His body was taken down from the Cross, or, alternatively, from the side which was pierced by the spear of Longinus. Under circumstances which are variously recounted, this vessel, its content included, was carried westward in safe guardianship--coming, in fine, to Britain and there remaining in the hands of successive keepers, or, this failing, in the hands of a single keeper, whose life was prolonged through the centuries. In the days of King Arthur, the prophet and magician Merlin assumed the responsibility of carrying the legend to its term, with which object he brought about the institution of the Round Table, and the flower of Arthurian chivalry set out to find the Sacred Vessel. In some of the quests which followed, the knighthood depicted in the greater romances has become a mystery of ideality, and nothing save its feeble reflection could have been found on earth. The quests were to some extent preconceived in the mind of the legend, and, although a few of them were successful, that which followed was the removal of the Holy Graal. The Companions of the Quest asked, as one may say, for
bread, and to those who were unworthy there was given the stone of their proper offence, but to others the spiritual meat which passes all understanding. That this account instructs the uninitiated person most imperfectly will be obvious to any one who is acquainted with the great body of the literature, but, within the limits to which I have restricted it intentionally, I do not know that if it were put differently it would be put better or more in harmony with the general sense of the romances.
It might appear at first sight almost a superfluous precaution, even in an introductory part, to reply so fully as I have now done to the assumed question: What, then, was the Holy Graal? Those who are unacquainted with its literature in the old books of chivalry, through which it first entered into the romance of Europe, will know it by the Idylls of the King. But it is not so superfluous as it seems, more especially with the class which I am addressing, since nominally this has other concerns, like folk-lore scholarship, and many answers to the question made from distinct points of view would differ from that which is given by the Knight Perceval to his fellow-monk in the poem of Tennyson:--
[paragraph continues] This is the answer with which, in one or another of its forms, poetic or chivalrous, every one is expected
to be familiar, or he must be classed as too unlettered for consideration, even in such a slight sketch as these introductory words. But it is so little the only answer, and it is so little full or exhaustive, that no person acquainted with the archaic literature would accept it otherwise than as one of its aspects, and even the enchanting gift of Tennyson's poetic faculty leaves--and that of necessity--something to be desired in the summary of the Knight's reply to the direct question of Ambrosius. Those even who at the present day discourse of chivalry are not infrequently like those who say "Lord, Lord!"--but for all that they do not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven or the more secret realms of literature. And this obtains still more respecting the chivalry of the Graal. In the present case something of the quintessential spirit has in an obscure manner evaporated. There is an allusiveness, a pregnancy, a suggestion about the old legend in its highest forms: it is met with in the old romances, and among others in the longer prose chronicle of Perceval le Gallois, but more fully in the great prose Quest, which is of Galahad, the haut prince. A touch of it is found later in Tennyson's own poem, when Perceval's sister, the nun of " utter whiteness," describes her vision:--
[paragraph continues] And again:--
[paragraph continues] So also in the chivalry books the legend is treated with an aloofness, and yet with a directness of circumstance and a manifoldness of detail, awakening a sense of reality amidst enchantment which is scarcely heightened when the makers of the chronicles testify to the truth of their story. The explanation is, according to one version of the legend, that it was written by Christ Himself after the Resurrection, and that there is no clerk, however hardy, who will dare to suggest that any later scripture is referable to the same hand. Sir Thomas Malory, the last and greatest compiler of the Arthurian legend, suppresses this hazardous ascription, and in the colophon of his seventeenth book is contented with adding that it is "a story chronicled for one of the truest and the holyest that is in thys world."
But there is ample evidence no further afield than Sir Thomas Malory's own book, the Morte d’Arthur, that the Graal legend was derived into his glorious codification from various sources, and that some elements entered into it which are quite excluded by the description of Sir Perceval in the Idylls or by the colophon of Malory's own twelfth book, which reads: "And here foloweth the noble tale of the Sancgreal, that called is the hooly vessel, and the sygnefycacyon of the blessid blood of our Lord Jhesu Cryste, blessid mote it be, the whiche was brought in to this land by Joseph of Armathye, therefor, on al synful souls blessid Lord haue thou mercy."
As an equipoise to the religious or sentimental side of the legend, it is known, and we shall see in its place, that the Graal cycle took over something from Irish and Welsh folk-lore of the pagan period concerning a mysterious magical vessel full of miraculous food. This is illustrated by the Morte d’Arthur, in the memorable episode of the high festival held by King Arthur at Pentecost: in the midst of the supper "there entred in to the halle the Holy Graal couered with whyte samyte, but ther was none mighte see hit nor who bare hit. And
there was al the halle fulfylled with good odoures, and euery knyzt had suche metes and drynkes as he loved best in this world." That is a state of the legend which has at first sight little connection with the mystic vessel carried out of Palestine, whether by Joseph or another, but either the simple-minded chroniclers of the past did not observe the anachronism when they married a Christian mystery to a cycle of antecedent fable, or there is an explanation of a deeper kind, in which case we shall meet with it at a later stage of our studies. For the moment, and as an intimation only, let me say that the study of folk-lore may itself become a reverence of high research when it is actuated by a condign motive.
We shall make acquaintance successively with the various entanglements which render the Graal legend perhaps the most embedded of all cycles. I have said that the Sacred Vessel is sacramental in a high degree; it connects intimately with the Eucharist; it is the most precious of all relics for all Christendom indifferently, for, supposing that it were manifested at this day, I doubt whether the most rigid of the Protestant sects could do otherwise than bow down before it. And yet, at the same time, the roots of it lie deep in folklore of the pre-Christian period, and in this sense it is a dish of plenty, with abundance for an eternal festival. So also, from another point of view, it is not a cup but a stone, and it would have come never to this earth if it had not been for the fall of the angels. It is brought to the West; it is carried to the East again; it is assumed into heaven; it is given to a company of hermits; for all that we know to the contrary, it is at this day in Northumbria; it is in the secret temple of a knightly company among the high Pyrenees; and it is in the land of Presbyter Johannes. It is like the cup of the elixir and the stone of transmutation in alchemy--described in numberless ways and seldom after the same manner; but it seems to be one thing under its
various ways, and blessed are those who find it. We shall learn, in fine, that the Graal was either a monastic legend or at least that it was super-monastic--and this certainly.