09.05.04, Carey, Ireland and the Grail

Main Article Content

Craig R. Davis

The Medieval Review baj9928.0905.004


Carey, John. Ireland and the Grail. Celtic Studies Publications 11. Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications, 2007. Pp. xxii, 419. ISBN: $29.95.
ISBN: 978-1-891271-15-1.

Reviewed by:
Craig R. Davis
Smith College

The Old French poet Chrétien de Troyes introduced the Holy Grail into the mainstream of European literary imagination with his enigmatic Perceval, ou le Conte del Graal, composed in the penultimate decade of the 12th century for Count Philip of Flanders, whom we are told gave the poet an unidentified book to use as his source. But even Chrétien's first copyists and continuators were puzzled as to what precisely the poet understood this "so holy thing" to be or meant it to signify. Indeed, his reticence on this point may have been a calculated artistic effect. It provoked myriad responses and retellings of the Grail legend throughout the rest of the Middle Ages and beyond. In many of these, like the 13th-century prose Queste del Saint Graal, the mystic vessel has become the chalice of the Last Supper, imagined to have caught Christ's blood as it flowed from his side on the Cross. The Sangrail in this version bears the living Eucharist--the body and blood of Christ manifesting his Real Presence on earth--an epiphany of divine grace toward penitents, but also of judgment upon the complacent worldly society of Camelot. This interpretation of the Grail's significance transformed the legend of Arthurian Britain from within, so that it came in Sir Thomas Malory's monumental English retelling of the 15th century to reenact patterns of Christian sacred history at all levels of its elaboration--an Old Law of the Table Round, a New Law of the Grail Quest, and finally, a disinherited Logres awaiting Arthur's Second Coming as rex quondam rexque futurus "once and future king" (cf. the reviewer's "Biblical Typology in Malory's Morte Darthur," Mediaevalia 17 [1994]).

Not all aspects of the Grail legend in France, however, can be explained as anticipating its liturgical symbolism or scriptural resonance. Leslie Jones (1994) and Claude Sterckx (2005) have traced the image of the Grail to ancient Celtic cauldrons of plenty and cults of the severed head, which functioned as interdependent symbols of vernal renewal and resurrected life. John Carey is the first qualified Celticist in many years to undertake a systematic review of the parallels between the earliest French Grail narratives and their Irish analogues, including a look at the even earlier iconography of monuments and material objects from ancient Britain, Ireland and Gaul depicting a variety of divine figures and symbolic vessels. The result of Carey's complex comparison is a new theory of the origins of the legend of the Grail and suggestions about how it might have come from Celtic-speaking lands to continental courts of the late 12th century. In addition to Chrétien's incomplete poem, then, Carey discusses its continuations and adaptations in other French works of the next generation, including the Elucidation, the Perlesvaus, Robert de Boron's prose and verse Joseph d'Arimathie, the Didot Perceval, the prose Lancelot, and finally the Middle Welsh Peredur, whose dependence upon Chrétien's romance or, alternatively, independent recruitment of traditional Celtic motifs remains a vexed question.

Even so, Carey believes he can identify a nexus of topoi which he believes "lie at the core of the first Grail narratives," most associated in some way with a lost compilation of early Irish texts from the second half of the 7th century, the Book of Druimm Snechtai. Even though "no single prototype for the Grail legend can be found in any of the medieval Celtic literatures" (xx), there are significant analogues to key episodes in five related texts: (1) Echtrae Chuinn "Conn's Adventure"; (2) Tomaidm Locha Febuil "The Bursting-Forth of Lough Foyle"; (3) Echtrae Chonnlai "Connlae's Adventure"; (4) Immram Brain "The Voyage of Bran"; and (5) Tucait Baile Mongáin "The Reciting of the Ecstasy of Mongán." A few other Old Irish tales supply glimpses of a similar tradition, but are unclearly related to the Druimm Snechtai corpus. These texts tell, among various suggestive episodes, how heroes like Conn or Bran traveled into or over water to encounter a mystic vessel representing the sovereignty of Ireland and supernatural blessing and prosperity. In one version, Gaels in pursuit of such a vessel attack the mute defenders of a tower of glass and perish in a subsequent onrush of water.

Carey postulates that one or more Irish scholars must have brought a written collection of these narratives to Wales in the early ninth century, since soon after we find similar tales appearing in Cambro- Latin texts like the Historia Brittonum (829-30) and the earliest Arthurian poem, attributed to Taliesin, Preiddeu Annwn "Spoils of the Un-World" (mid-9th century). This latter text contains a cryptic account of Arthur's raid upon a Fortress of Glass in the sea--called among other epithets, Caer Siddi "Castle of the Otherworld"--in which the king is confronted by silent enemies as he attempts to rescue one his men, Gwaer, and make with off with a magic cauldron,

one kindled by the breath of nine maidens. The cauldron of the head of Annwn, what is its nature? Black around its rim, set with pearls, it will not cook the food of a coward: that cannot be! A deadly bright sword was pulled from it and in the destined hand it stayed. In the entrance to Hell's gate lamps were burning, and when we entered with Arthur, a brilliant disaster: save seven, none returned from Caer Feddwid "the Castle of Confusion." (st. 2, reviewer's translation)
Later reflexes of the story appear in the earliest vernacular Arthurian prose tale, Culhwch ac Olwen, and in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, both of which have been dated to the 11th century.

Carey traces the origin of this narrative cluster to the cult of Lugh ("Mercury" in the interpretatio Romana of Gaulish inscriptions), a multi-competent deity, founder of royal dynasties, and namesake of Lyons and Carlisle among other cities in Gaul and Britain, as well as of a harvest festival that was celebrated on August 1 at Lugnasadh "Day of Lugh." This youthful male divinity is often paired with a fertility and sovereignty goddess Rosmerta "Great Provider," who in British depictions is shown with a large bucket, cask or other container, sometimes holding a cup above it. In "Conn's Adventure," this lady with ale-vat and dipper is called "the Sovereignty of Ireland forever": she prophesies the names of all future kings of Tara. Michael Enright argues in his Lady with a Mead Cup (1996) that these Irish literary sources supply a textual gloss upon the material iconography of Celtic Britain and Gaul going back as far as the La Tne finds in Switzerland of the middle of the first millennium BC. In fact, adjacent to Lough Foyle in northern Ireland, a miniature gold cauldron or cup was deposited in the first century BC as part of the Broighter hoard. This apparently symbolic vessel has four tiny rings around its rim, where only two are found on full-sized Iron Age cauldrons. These anticipate the four chains that suspend a golden bowl representing the sovereignty of Dyfed in the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, supernatural supports which in that story simply rise into the air out of sight. Although Carey admits the possibility of mere coincidence in the parallelism between this object and the sacred vessels of later Arthurian romance, he offers the charmingly anachronistic suggestion that "this little artifact, now displayed in the National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street, Dublin, is the closest that we are likely to come to a physical manifestation of the Grail" (357). A fine photograph of this object is on the cover of the book.

While Carey understands the extant Welsh texts to derive directly from lost Irish literary sources brought to Wales in the early 9th century, he does not believe these Welsh texts themselves were sources upon "which French storytellers directly or indirectly drew" (341). Instead, he suggests that a Welshman by the name of Bleddri brought his own version of the legend to the Angevin court at Poitiers, either of William VII (1086-1126) or William VIII (1127-37). Carey is unsure whether we should understand this man to be Bleddri ap Cadifor of Deheubarth in southern Wales, a nobleman who traced his ancestry to the legendary kings of Dyfed-Pwyll (and his son Pryderi) of the First Branch of the Mabinogi--or a talented itinerant cleric, whom Gerald of Wales calls a "famous storyteller." It is in Poitiers, Carey reminds us, "that the Old French word graal itself first appears" (342), quite possibly derived from the medieval Latin gradale "course (of a meal), dish (of food), serving platter or bowl." It is also worth noting that William VIII's granddaughter was Marie of Champagne, at whose court we first begin to find in the 1170s an interest in the kind of Arthurian quest romance treated in Chrétien's Lancelot, ou le Chevalier de la Charrette. In addition, Carey finds hints of a Grail legend independent of Chrétien's work in southern poems by Rigaut de Barbezieux and Thibaut de Blaison, as well as in the Occitan romance Flamenca. He concludes that by the early 13th century the figure of Pryderi or (in later Welsh) Peredur was already becoming known in the south of France as Perceval li Galois "Perceval the Welshman." The author finds the most efficient explanation for the rapid dissemination of the Grail legend during the first generation after Chrétien to be a single source-book (or its copies) from Poitou, the very same that Philip gave to Chrétien and "which remained in the possession of the counts of Flanders after the deaths of the poet and his patron" (343). This text contained the story of the Grail as reformulated in Old French by Bleddri and Carey likes to think that Marie herself gave it to Philip, after having received it from her grandfather Count William.

There is one more point to Carey's argument, however, which he never quite makes, that is, to explain why Chrétien's version of the story proved so much more potent than those of his immediate successors. Carey notes that in completing Chrétien's Conte del Graal these authors seem to have stuck far more closely to his source than he did, including some material from it in their own versions that Chrétien himself had chosen to ignore. In addition to his superior talent as a craftsman of elegant and expressive verses, then, Chrétien seems to have realized that much of the power of the Grail resides in its mystery, which could only be weakened by too explicit definition of its significance. Perceval, too, must learn discretion, we recall-- when and how to ask appropriate questions: not "what is the Grail?" but "whom does it serve?"

The author spends much effort trying to piece together the plot of this lost book of Bleddri, which he believes was used as a source by Chrétien and the other early Grail authors in France. His reconstruction is an important contribution to Arthurian studies, so that I quote it in full:

The young hero Perceval, at a royal court, trod upon a stone which uttered a terrifying cry; a thick mist fell, in which he lost sight of his surroundings. When he could see again, he found that he had arrived at a splendid castle, where he was made welcome. His host, an aged king maimed by a wound in the thighs, was named Pelles (or Bran, or the Rich Fisherman); although Perceval did not know it, this was his own father, whom he had believed to be dead. As they sat at the evening meal, strange objects were carried through the hall: the spear with which his father had been wounded, which still shed blood; a radiant Grail containing fish, which was taken into another room; and a silver platter on which their meat was carved. Perceval remained silent throughout the meal, and then went to sleep; when he awoke the next morning he found that everything had disappeared, and that he was alone in a wilderness.
Perceval subsequently learned that his failure to ask concerning the Grail had prevented the healing of the king's wound, or the restoration of his devastated realm, and he set out to find the castle again in order to ask the question. At one point in his adventures a ship carried him to a mysterious island far off in the sea: in the course of this voyage, he suddenly found that the ship was on dry land. Before him was a glass stronghold guarded by a warrior who would not speak to him. Within the stronghold was a feasting hall, occupied by immortal men free from any sickness or unhappiness; but at the same time as he saw the bliss of the feasters he witnessed the wretched imprisonment of a man named Goar (or something similar). Perceval was told that it was his destiny to be king of the island, to which he was to return after asking the question concerning the Grail. Having found the Grail castle again, and healed the king, he went back to the paradisal island taking the Grail with him. He has never been heard from since. (348-49)

Carey says that this imagined plot is no "more than guesswork, and sketchy guesswork at that" (349). In fact, his reconstruction is quite clear, painstakingly developed from a comparison of many extant sources, and an economical consideration of their possible origin and interrelationships. The author should be thanked for the thoroughness, care and accessibility with which he has studied the available comparanda in several hard languages over many centuries of time. Of course, there are still obscurities of relationship and the possibility of influences from unknown sources on the French Grail legend--oral or written, native or foreign, traditional or innovative- -so that Carey's hypotheses cannot be expected to explain all versions of the story in their entirety. His estimation of the contents of the Book of Druimm Snechtai or of the core narrative of Bleddri's book, or his serial hypotheses about how this cluster of motifs was transferred from archaic Celtic belief into early Irish legend, then into traditional Welsh poetry and cyfarwyddiad "prose storytelling," and then into Old French verse and prose, cannot be correct in every detail. But it is the first credible account offered by a seriously competent student of these texts, a highly salutary and useful exercise that will indeed provoke challenges, qualifications and corrections on individual points, but provides a working model that advances our grasp of the evolution of the early legend of the Grail far beyond the state of the question before. Further scholarship on the origins of the Arthurian legend and its literary lineages will return to this monograph as a new starting point. The author's warm devotion to his subject, his bold suggestions but modest claims, make this work itself a model for the study of early medieval literatures, where so much has been lost and so much remains to be explained. It takes a scholar of unusual humility, patience and courage to undertake the questions addressed in this volume with so much intelligent progress and so many searching results.

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Author Biography

Craig R. Davis

Smith College