Sarah-Jane Murray

title.none: Marino, The Grail Legend (Sarah-Jane Murray)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.003 05.09.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sarah-Jane Murray, Baylor University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Marino, John B. The Grail Legend in Modern Literature. Series: Arthurian Studies, vol. 51. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Pp. vi, 175. $70.00 1-84384-022-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.03

Marino, John B. The Grail Legend in Modern Literature. Series: Arthurian Studies, vol. 51. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Pp. vi, 175. $70.00 1-84384-022-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Sarah-Jane Murray
Baylor University

In The Grail Legend in Modern Literature, John B. Marino considers how modern adaptations of the Grail legend depend on trends in the scholarly community, and reflect three competing world-views: (1) controversy over the Grail's origin (pagan or Christian?); (2) the secularization of the Grail legends under the influence of modern humanism, which views the Grail as a metaphor rather than a material object; and (3) what Marino calls "esoteric mysticism", that is, the transformation of the Grail from a Christian symbol to one with a universal application and widespread appeal.

Marino's study is divided into four chapters. Chapter One provides a very brief introduction to the medieval Grail texts. Marino refers, in the following order, to: Chretien de Troyes's Perceval, the Welsh Peredur, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, the French Vulgate Cycle Estoire del Saint Graal, the Didot Perceval, the continuations of Chretien's Perceval, the Old French prose Perlesvaus, the French Vulgate Cycle Queste del Saint Graal and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Scholars should not look here for new interpretations of the principal works, as only twelve pages of the study are reserved for this discussion of primary texts. Marino indicates for each the early editions and first English translations, and goes on to provide a condensed summary of the plot narrative. In some cases, the author draws questionable conclusions about the works presented. Although Marino himself notes that Chretien de Troyes refers to the grail as sainte ('holy') and suggests that it "contains some kind of host or oiste" (15), he nonetheless concludes that, for Chretien, the objects of the Grail procession are not "particularly Christian," because the text is "not insistent about any ideology or religious affiliations." Marino does not have time in his overview to consider the profoundly religious twelfth-century readership (or audience) of Chretien's romance, and their sensibility to such allusions. Perceval's story unfolds during the Lenten season and culminates in the knight's confessing his sins and taking communion from the hermit in the forest on Easter Sunday. The overarching narrative, therefore, carefully situates the Grail procession within an overtly Christian framework. Yet elsewhere, Marino pays careful attention to detail. Chapter One concludes with a lengthier (five-page) discussion of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Here, Marino actively draws upon both passages from the text and secondary readings in order successfully to establish the importance of Malory's influence on subsequent articulations of the Grail legends. In all fairness, it is principally through Malory's mindset that the modern world has been introduced to the Grail. Within the scope of Marino's study, Malory merits, therefore, more attention perhaps than the other nine works introduced in this chapter. Nonetheless one cannot help but wish that the author had devoted more time and space to each of them.

Chapter Two explores in great detail the conflicts that have arisen from scholars' attempts to uncover the origin of the Grail. Marino links nineteenth-century philologists' quests for origins to the evolutionary theories introduced by Charles Darwin in The Origin of the Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). Similarities in Grail texts are seen by scholars as variants of one, lost, "original" (or Urtext), from which the others are descended. This search for the "Ur-Grail" ultimately led to two competing theories about the origin of the Grail legend: one positing the Grail as a pagan object, associated with ancient fertility rites; the other proposing, rather, a Christian origin and identifying the Grail as the cup from which Christ drank during the Last Supper, and in which Joseph of Arimathea caught Christ's blood at the crucifixion. Marino reflects upon the chief contributions to the debate, including the work of Alfred Nutt, John Rhys, William A. Nitze, Jessie Weston and Roger Sherman Loomis (who uphold a pagan origin, from which the Christian Grail derived), and, on the other side, Rose J. Peebles, James D. Bruce, Urban T. Holmes, Jr., and M. Amelia Klenke (who champion the Grail's Christian origin). The chapter culminates in Marino's discussion of the influence exerted by scholarly approaches to the Grail on the work of modern authors of Arthurian fiction, from Charles William's Taliessin through Logres (1938) to Frederick Lee's The Arthuriad of Catamundus (1996). Modern adaptations draw upon scholarship from either side of the debate depending on trends in popular culture. Under the influence of New Age philosophies, for example, the Grail legend has been used to synchretize Christianity and paganism, as in Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1982). Whom, then, asks Marino, does the Grail serve? At best, he concludes, it becomes a "platform" for each given author's "particular agenda" (81).

Chapter Three is devoted to the process of secularization the Grail has undergone in British and American fiction. Because of extensive war and social unrest during the twentieth century, many lost hope in both humanity and religion, causing a radical skepticism: "heaven was irrelevant," writes Marino, "and our time on earth was the focus of concern" (83). Thus the sacred otherworld is looked upon with suspicion. Yet the Grail survived, explains the author, not as a transcendent heavenly object, but as a metaphor applicable to worldly experience. Driven by the concerns of their increasingly secularized age, British and American authors sought to adapt and radically transform the Grail, so that it might take on new meaning for their contemporaries. Already in 1848, James Russell Lowell's Vision of Sir Launfal narrates the story of a young knight, who learns that the Holy Grail is to be found not in a far away land, but in his own castle, in the alms he shares with the needy. For the Victorians, the Grail offered an opportunity to reflect upon the present and this approach is most fully developed by Alfred Tennyson, whose "Holy Grail" (1869), later included in the Idylls of the King, suggests that the "proper spiritual path is social responsibility in the world, and the quest, as a private spiritual experience away from the world, is a distraction from this" (85). In The Once and Future King (1958), T.H. White displays a more positive attitude towards the Grail, but worries that searching for a state of perfection in this world is aiming too high (89). White's humanist commitments lead him to articulate reservations about the sacred. Marino notes that although "the Middle Ages represent for White a time of ennobling faith" (91-92), the ideal of Faith (or any ideal, for that matter) is no longer applicable to our modern world. In discussing the progressive secularization of the Grail throughout this chapter, Marino introduces a wealth of other examples drawn from modern literary works, including Stephen R. Lawhead's Grail (1997), Harvey Seymour Gross's poem "Parsifal" (1968). Catherine Christian's Pendragon (1978-79), T.S. Eliot's Wasteland (1922), and even David Lodge's satire on academia, Small World (1984). Marino effectively demonstrates how, over the course of the twentieth century, the work of Carl Jung (responsible for developing a psychological approach to the legends) and Joseph Campbell (a comparative mythographer) facilitated the Grail's being "brought down to earth" (116) from Heaven, stripped of its marvelous powers, and, eventually, given new meaning as a metaphor invoking the hope for a better life.

The fourth and final chapter of Marino's study expands upon the process of re-spiritualization of the Grail, in an age hungry for new forms of spirituality. Following a period of skepticism, New Age spirituality filled a void, or longing, for the mystery and promise of a world beyond our own. Marino traces here the parallel evolution of twentieth-century occult movements--in particular mysticism--and the changing portrayal of the Grail in modern fiction. The chapter begins by considering the association of the Grail with Glastonbury, as studied by scholars like Geoffrey Ashe who sought to reconstruct the events of the Dark Ages and the source of Arthurian legends. In King Arthur's Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury (1958), Ashe proposes that the Grail was connected to an early Marian cult at Glastonbury, descended from a tradition of Celtic (and pagan) goddess-worship. Excavations of Arthurian sites were also undertaken by archeologists such as Frederick B. Bond. When science (and pseudo-scientific methods) failed to yield satisfactory explanations, Bond resorted to mystical and psychic approaches, such as the "automatic writing" of a medium, said to tap into the collective memory and write poetic revelations about Glastonbury's past (119). Esoteric mysticism, influenced by modern individualism, brings to the Grail a profoundly personal dimension: the mysterious object is transformed "from tangible presence to abstraction and flexible symbol for exploration of the inner self outside traditional religious communities" (122). Once again, Marino summarizes and draws upon a multiplicity of modern works--both scholarly and fictional--in order to illustrate the final stage (to date) in the Grail's transformation. Amongst the academic studies presented here are Mary H. Ford's Holy Grail: The Silent Teacher (1897), Francis Rolt-Wheelers' Mystic Gleams from the Holy Grail (1948), Corinne Heline's Mysteries of the Holy Grail (1977), Terry Ravenscroft's Cup of Destiny: The Quest for the Grail (1981), and Gareth Knight's Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend (1983). Marino then explores the infiltration of esoteric mysticism into Arthurian fiction, drawing upon books such as Arthur Machen's Great Return (1915) and Secret Glory (1922), C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength (1945), Eleanore M. Jewett's Hidden Treasure of Glastonbury (1946), and, once again, Catherine Christian's Pendragon. For all of these authors, and others, the experience of the Grail is highly individualistic and personal. Belief in the supernatural results in Jungian self-exploration. After a brief discussion of secret societies and conspiracies thought to surround the Grail (which also make their way into Arthurian fiction (an approach which Umberto Eco mocks in his 1988 novel, Foucault's Pendulum) Marino concludes his study with a discussion of the Grail in the New Age. To the question "whom does the Grail serve?"--posed by Marino at the end of Chapter Two--the answer becomes "everyone." Building upon the writings of John Matthews, Brian Cleeve, Hannah Closs, and Deepak Chopra, Marino shows that New- Age scholars and authors present a Grail which is available to seekers of all faiths, a vessel which unites traditions and transcends any one distinctively organized form of religion. "Since there is no longer such a thing as one true Grail," adds Marino with post-modernist verve, "since there are no longer any absolute truths, each individual is free to construct his or her own Grail" (145). The Grail legend becomes a tool for self-realization, which appeals to the pluralist spirit of New Age philosophies.

Marino successfully achieves what he set out to accomplish in this book. After briefly introducing the reader to the medieval Grail texts, he devotes three substantial and richly- documented chapters to the evolution of the Grail in modern literature. Distinguishing between three major trends in the scholarly community, Marino explores the influence exerted on Arthurian fiction by the scholarly quest for origins, the secularization of the Grail as a result of twentieth-century skepticism and humanism, and, finally, the Grail's ability, in relation to esoteric mysticism, to transcend any one religious or spiritual affiliation. Although no one work is studied in great detail, Marino constructs a careful dialogue between scholarly studies and literary fiction, thereby providing his reader with a comprehensive introduction to modern Grail texts. Throughout The Grail Legend in Modern Literature, we are exposed to an impressive array of legends and interpretations, and cannot help but recognize what Marino intends us to see: the Grail's undeniable flexibility, which has ensured its "survival throughout modernity's most radical intellectual and cultural changes" (150). From the romances of the Middle Ages, to twentieth-century fiction and film, Marino has skillfully shown that the Grail has fulfilled, and will continue to fulfill, many purposes.