Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Character and Development of Holy Grail Literature by Dorothy K Gardiner 1905

Literature and the Holy Grail by Dorothy Kempe Gardiner

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The critical work of the last forty years, and in particular the revival of interest in the remains of early Celtic literature, whether Welsh or Irish, has placed the study of the Arthurian Romances upon a somewhat different basis to that which it occupied when the History of the Holy Grail, in Lovelich's metrical rendering, was first published in 1861, and necessitates some further words of introduction to the present edition. These studies have not indeed solved all difficulties of detail, but they have provided an acceptable solution for the general problem; they have invested our well-loved tales with an even more venerable halo of antiquity; they have made more peculiarly our own that "matiere de Bretagne" to which alien learning had sometimes laid claim, by associating its origins with the primitive religion of early inhabitants of our islands.

The Arthurian Literature, in its manifold phases, represents in a unique manner the intellectual growth of a people: it mirrors from a remote past dark pictures of bloodshed and revenge; it reflects the age of courtly chivalry and the romance of Crusading days; the fervid morality of the monk; the activity and enterprise of the Elizabethan Age; the idealism of the nineteenth century.

To the modern mind it is seen, in Lovelich's version, in the least attractive stage of its growth, for as a literary monument, or as a work of art, his History of the Holy Grail is valueless. The interest of the so-called Grand St. Graal, and hence of its English rendering, lies in the fact that it is the principal witness remaining to us of a strange and anomalous phase in the development of the Graal Literature, namely, the introduction of the Christian Legendary element. It was no doubt owing to this fresh graft that the ancient tales made so powerful an appeal to the mediaeval mind, and that the growth of the cycle was so long continued. But at first the fusion of the new material with the old remained incomplete: in Lovelich's poem, as in its prose original, the combination from an artistic point of view spelt disaster. It was left for the master hand of Malory, in an age when myth and mysticism had become alike echoes from an unrealized past, to bring the jarring elements into final harmony. It is from his pages also that 'Solomon's Ship,' the 'Sword of Strange Hangings,' and the 'Turning Isle' which he took over from the prose romance, the Queste del San Graal, have become familiar to the general reader.

Lovelich writes of the ship "wondirly fair and riche," of the sword with its handle made of serpent scales and the bone of a fish of the Euphrates, and of the Yl Torneawnt. But, as always, he proves himself no story teller, and his version of the famous episodes may be commended with the rest of his voluminous and incoherent ramblings, to a merciful oblivion.

The problems connected with the Celtic originals of the Grail legend, both in their Welsh and Irish forms, have been so fully and satisfactorily dealt with by Mr. Nutt in his 'Studies in the Legend of the Holy Grail,' and in part also by Professor Rhys in his 'Arthurian Romance,' that I do not propose to enter anew into the discussion; but while briefly re-stating the position as they leave it, to treat in somewhat greater detail the problems specially connected with the version now before us.

This version is a translation into rhymed couplets of the French Prose Romance known to critics of the cycle as the Grand St. Graal. The translation was made about 1450 by one Herry Lovelich, a London skinner.

The material of that body of literature known as the Grail Romances has been shown by careful analysis to consist, broadly speaking, of two main elements.

To the more important of the two belongs a basis of Celtic popular tradition; to the less considerable a basis of Christian Legend. As might be expected, given their very diverse character, the combination of these elements is at first a merely tentative one, and only as time goes on, and the material is re-cast and re-handled, does the fusion become more or less complete.

But so composite in character are the Romances, that to discover their two chief constituents is but to take a first step in analysis. Turning first to the element of Celtic popular tradition, we are met by further complications. Here is no logical series of incidents, centring round the person of a single hero. The 'Quest of the Holy Grail' has played a large part in imaginative literature, but the romancers themselves wrote with no clear idea of what that Quest meant. The conception which they have in common can be stated only in the barest outline, and implied no more than "the hero's visit to a magic castle, his omission while there to do certain things, the loss and suffering thereby entailed." And this simple series of incidents may be found not once but many times in the work of the same writer; the hero of it is not always the same person—now Perceval, now Gawain, now Galahad fills the ro1e. Sometimes the visitor is seeking revenge for the murder of a kinsman of his own, sometimes he is charged with the release from spells and enchantment of the inmates of the castle; there is besides endless and bewildering variety of detail. The popular idea of a 'Quest' seems indeed rather to have resulted from the accidental coherence of certain minor incidents than to have been from the first the great central conception of the Romances, and there is the same kind of indefiniteness about the nature and properties of the magic vessel.

No theory of authorship, in the ordinary sense of the word, seems to meet all the difficulties of the case. The remains of Celtic Literature as they exist outside the cycle afford, however, valuable dues. Many of the episodes which are built into the Romances are found elsewhere, in quite different surroundings. Such, for example, is the account of the birth and upbringing of Perceval (or Peredur), given in the Romances of Chrestien de Troyes and the Mabinogi of Peredur, son of Evrawc. This episode figures not only in the Celtic, but in the Heroic Literature of all Aryan races as far as known. There is no tale extant in which such a vessel as the Grail plays a prominent part; but vessels with magic properties, cauldrons of knowledge and increase, and jars which hold the ointment of healing or of restoration to life, play a subsidiary part in very many such tales. To this fact its presence in the Cycle was originally due; its important position among the instruments of magic found there arose out of its gradual identification with the Christian Cup of Blessing, and was the chief result of the intrusion of the secondary or Christian element.

The Grail Romances were in fact the outcome of centuries of imaginative growth; the Romancers bound into sheaves what had been sown under other skies. The character of the whole body of romance is best understood when its moat prominent member, the 'Conte del Graal,' is regarded as "a North-French re-telling of popular tales long current in Britain, and probably also among the Celtic inhabitants of Brittany, and the idea of any definite Grail Legend is abandoned."

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