The Holy Grail

One of the smaller books in my pile has for some time been Giles Morgan's The Holy Grail (Chartwell, 2005), picked up at the Met's sale tables. If I had known what a useful handbook of Grail lore this is, with its noncommittal listing of the legend's principal accretions down through the ages, from Celtic myths to Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I'd have read it through at once, but I expected to learn something and was disappointed. I was already familiar with almost everything that Mr Morgan mentioned; what I didn't see was how good he would be at treating the Grail as a kind of pebble in Roman Catholicism's shoe, at once intimately associated with Jesus and yet infused with aristocratic and transcendent ideals that the Church found persistently uncongenial.

Mr Morgan is never so grandiose as to say such a thing, so I'll say it: his Grail comes off as a salvific talisman that will cure - should it ever be found - institutional Christianity of its thoroughgoing worldliness. This would not be the "worldliness" of corrupt popes, but the sanctioned, matrimonial carnality of the Augustinian settlement, which, in authorizing marriage, implicitly authorized not only the direct fruit of marriage (offspring) but the indirect fruit: the pursuit of wealth for the sake of one's children's security. (Hence its appeal to Templars and Cathars.) What the Grail stories seem to share is a concept of earthy fertility that somehow absolves human beings of the (lowly) need to reproduce. One can easily discern links between the Grail corpus and the misanthropic streak of modern environmentalism, which is always dreaming of the purity of a world that has been cleansed of People Like Us.

Among many passages throughout the book that deal with the ultimate impossibility of squaring the Grail with Christian dogma, this one is my favorite:

However the themes of the Arthurian romances sometimes proved problematic for Victorian sensibilities. When the artist William Dyce was commissioned to decorate the Queen's Robing Room in the House of Lords he put forward the idea of using Morte d'Arthur as the basis for a series of frescoes. Prince Albert himself thought it a wonderful idea but the artist soon ran into problems when trying to pick scenes to paint. He felt not only that the Grail stories contained a strong Catholic element [!] but that the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere was at odds with respectable Victorian moral values.

The Holy Grail, I'm sorry to say for Mr Morgan, is not a book to keep, but one to pass on.

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