Being that it is school holidays currently, I have been able to add to the year’s ‘books completed’ tally. This week I’ve added five and six to the list:
- Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley
- The Prayers of Jane Austen (compiled by Terry Glaspey)
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
- Quiet by Susan Cain
- The Quest of the Holy Grail (translated by Pauline Matarasso)
In my trawling through eBay and Amazon looking for penguin classics for my year 12s, I came across the Arthurian legend. Originally purchasing for students, I changed my mind when the book arrived in the mail. It appealed to me too much.
I wasn’t expecting that. Nor was I expecting to place it on my ‘Jesus shelf’ (the bookshelf with my Christian books on it) after having read it; but I will. I guess the word ‘holy’ in the title should have given me a clue on that front. Yet when I read it, Mort D’Arthur was nothing like the quest, so how was I to know, right?
I’ve got to say, I’m not sure what I think of the book, though. I feel like the Hunters and Collectors song with the book’s namesake, is easier to dissect. (It’s also enjoyable to listen to…yes, I just did…)
Written in the Middle Ages, the sources of the story are complicated and the influences appear to be Celtic, Christian and some other mythology, which makes the whole thing a little spiritually complex. Why exactly they started going on the quest in the first place I didn’t quite follow either. However, this may have been because I started reading the book on a plane bound for Singapore, whilst surrounded by 36 teenage boys, starting a school tour to Japan for two weeks (the first chapter of the Quest is called ‘Departure’, so it seemed fitting). I may not have paid as close enough attention as I should have.
At times, the symbolism was a little heavily caked on, but apparently this was rather en-vogue in the Middle Ages. However, my main issue with the book is the whole concept of grace – rather central to Christianity.
So, the Knights of the Round Table (for whatever exact reason, need to re-read that bit) decide to go on a quest for the Holy Grail (if they said what it was at the start, I also wasn’t paying enough attention). It turns out that the Holy Grail is the platter on which the Passover Lamb was placed during the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples before his execution (hopefully I was paying more attention at the end and I’ve got that right).
When I read the Death of King Arthur way back when, the knight of knights was Lancelot. However, in the quest, Lancelot’s sin stops him from entering into the Holy Grail room completely. He’s no longer ‘the man’.
Contrast this with…Lancelot’s son, Galahad who is deemed the Ultimate or True Knight and who gets to the Holy Grail in the end and who peers into the vessel (at least in my version of the story).
The reason why Galahad is able to do this, is because he is described as a man as sinless as possible. Towards the end, he also appears to gain the ability to perform miracles and heals people of their infirmity (there’s a fair bit of that actually, in some bizarre ways too…).
Yet, Galahad appears to have earned the right to receive the Holy Grail through his holy living, whereas his father cannot go all the way into the room in which the grail is kept.
This more than just irks me.
I agree that there are consequences for sin in a person’s life, some of which we will know about in our lifetime and some of which I don’t think we’ll know about until we reach heaven. However….
The grail represents the grace of God. Whilst we can ignore God and miss out on that grace, I don’t think the book does justice to how freely available grace is for anyone, no matter what they’ve done.
There appears to be a somewhat obsessive focus on chastity in the book. This may explain why Lancelot (who isn’t just good at using his lance…. hmmm…) is barred from the ultimate bliss of the Holy Grail’s ecstasies.
It probably also explains why Galahad can look into the vessel. And yet, this is not Biblical thinking, not by a long shot. Whilst we may be disciplined for our sin, there is no one worthy to look into the holy of holies. No one other than Jesus.
This is probably why after reading the book I feel a bit bizarre and don’t really know what to do with it in the end. I might go read something else instead before the holidays are over…
Yours in Arthurian legends,
Image Credit: Personal Collection