23 August 2010

Holy Grail

I have always loved the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and particularly stories around the quest for the Holy Grail. I don't even remember how I first got introduced to the legends - probably Dad told me some of the stories when I was small. I do remember reading the gorgeous Once and Future King by T H White as quite a young girl, maybe 8 or 9, and then finding other retellings of the legends over the years, including Mallory's lyrical Le Morte d'Arthur as a university student - in fact, the chance to read this in the original was a huge factor in me choosing to major in Middle English literature! Victoria University used to offer an Honours-level paper in Arthurian Literature that I always wanted to take, but one paper does not Honours make...

I also loved some of the fantasy writers who were inspired by the Arthurian legends. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s tour de force The Mists of Avalon was a complex retelling from the perspective of Avalon’s women, with Morgaine (Morgan le Fay) as the heroine. Patricia Kenneally-Morrison’s Keltiad novels took the Arthurian legends into a future world “in a galaxy far, far away,” but at the same time captured something of the beauty of Mallory’s language in modern times. She gave us Arthur with a Celtic twist (or Keltic, in her language). Slightly more down to earth and definitely more grounded in history were the Jack Whyte retellings, with an Arthur that fitted thoroughly into Roman Britain. I never quite figured out where Stephen Lawhead’s Arthur fitted but I liked the stories! I also enjoyed a recent version called Glastonbury Tor by LeAnne Hardy, which picked up the element of the Grail as small and insignificant (much like the plain wooden cup in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

I was musing about the mythology of Arthur and the Holy Grail the other day after my small daughter asked me where the suburb of Avalon in our hometown got its name. She wanted to know if it was named after a ship or a person (as lots of the streets are), and so I told her a very abbreviated version of the main Arthurian story. This got me thinking about the archetypes of this story, and why it holds so much appeal to me. It is the quest element that I have always responded to: the seeking, the looking, and the purity of those who achieved the Cup; whether the Grail ever existed for real; and what would happen if it was ever found.

And then it struck me. The Holy Grail is supposed to be either the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, or the cup that caught his blood as he died. Words from our Anglican liturgy came to me in a blinding flash: “May we who eat this bread live his risen life; we who drink his cup give life to others; we whom the Spirit lights give life to the world.” In communion, what are we but little Holy Grails, holding the blood of Christ? The quest for the Grail is nothing more and nothing less than the inner quest of finding God poured out in us and carrying that for others. It doesn't matter if it never existed. It is a way of telling inner truths that inspire us.  I hunger for good stories well told, and stories like this are hugely inspiring. I still cannot read the climax of the Grail quest in The Hedge of Mist (Patricia Kenneally-Morrison) without tears, and it teaches me something of what I need to be, the purity and love I need to seek.

I cannot believe that I’ve missed this all these years of reading Arthurian legends of love and betrayal, forgiveness and hope.

No comments: