09.06.14, Lacy, ed., The Grail, the Quest

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Jean Blacker

The Medieval Review baj9928.0906.014


Lacy, Norris J. (ed.). The Grail, the Quest and the World of Arthur. Arthurian Studies LXXII. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2008. Pp. 214. ISBN: 9781843841708.

Reviewed by:
Jean Blacker
Kenyon College

Eight of the twelve contributions (not counting the editor's introduction) began as papers delivered at the First Annual Heritage Studies Conference at Penn State University in March, 2007, "The Grail, the Quest and the World of Arthur"; four were solicited by the editor. Both the editor and the press are to be applauded for having produced a handsome volume, with fifty-four beautifully reproduced color plates (primarily manuscript illuminations) and an extraordinarily useful chart which accompanies Richard Barber's contribution (chapter 12), in timely fashion. However, students and scholars interested in the French tradition (whose texts make up the bulk of medieval Arthurian fiction invoking the Grail) may be disappointed in that few essays deal directly with texts in that tradition (and perhaps that should somehow have been indicated in the title of the book, or by a subtitle). Also, some of the contributions do not touch on the Grail quest specifically (or on "the" Grail, or on any grail) but on other sorts of quests in Arthurian material. Despite these two potential drawbacks, readers will find in this collection a good number of compelling, original perspectives on a broad range of topic areas.

In Chapter 2 (Chapter 1 is the editor's introduction), "The Shape of the Grail in Medieval Art," Martine Meuwese provides a rich overview of manuscript illustrations of the Grail in Chrétien and the Continuations, the Lancelot-Grail cycle, the Queste du Graal, and the Italian and German traditions; fifty of the color plates printed in the book are contained in a section within this article. As if to shatter our pre-conceived notions of the universality and uniformity of the Grail--and perhaps this overturning of critical assumptions is one of the main goals of this volume--Meuwese concludes that "the search for Grails outside the romances has not been very rewarding: no medieval Grail representations seem to have survived outside the Arthurian manuscripts, which were not particularly eager to represent the Grail either" (27). Both the relative dearth of representations, as well as the variety of representations that do remain in manuscripts, sketchbooks and frescos--as dish, pyx, bowl, ciborium and chalice--suggest that the "shape of the Grail remains shrouded in mystery" (27).

In the only essay focusing on a French text as its primary arena of investigation, "The Crusaders' Grail" (chapter 3), Antonio L. Furtado constructs an elaborate set of parallels between Perceval's adventures surrounding the Grail in Chrétien's Conte du Graal and Philip of Flanders's participation in two crusades to Jerusalem, as narrated primarily in William of Tyre's Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum and two of its French translations and continuations, L'Estoire de Eracles and the Chronique d'Ernoul et de Bernard le Trésorier (although as Furtado points out, the latter two texts were too late for Chrétien to have known them). Each of the essay's nine sections suggests comparisons between Philip and Perceval. Noting that although it is usually thought that the romance was left unfinished due to the death of the poet, Furtado speculates that Chrétien may have abandoned the poem he was writing for Philip out of discouragement, not in small part because "the situation at the Kingdom of Jerusalem by the last two decades of the twelfth century justified no optimism" (44).

In Chapter 4, "Bounds of Imagination: Grail Questing and Chivalric Colonizing in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival," Will Hasty initially appears to seek to set Wolfram's grail questing in the context of postcolonial discussions of settlement and boundaries, though references to those discourses are not numerous; Hasty's contribution provides a careful, text-based reading of Wolfram's Parzival leading to the conclusion that by both downplaying the spiritual layer and by infusing his text with love quests and love found (e.g., Parzival's good love of and from his wife, and Ferefiz's conversion to gain the love of Parzival's aunt and high priestess of the Grail), "as part of the broader cultural and military expansion of Western Europe in the twelfth- [sic] and thirteenth centuries, Wolfram's Grail romance models an intrepid approach to, and occupation of, an imaginary world that is rendered with unprecedented differentiation and complexity" (61).

In Chapter 5, "The Land without the Grail: A Note on Occitania, Rigaut de Barbezieux and Literary History," Richard Trachsler investigates earlier claims that while there is very little Occitan Arthurian literature, the Arthurian tradition in the South may be older than that inaugurated by Chrétien de Troyes in the North. The Grail is mentioned even less often than other elements, and of the three Grail heroes from the northern Lancelot-Grail cycle (Galaad, Boorz and Perceval), only Perceval is found in Occitan; in Jaufre, the only surviving romance of the Round Table in Old Occitan, there is no mention of the Grail (or of any grail). Not surprisingly, in a corpus heavily dominated by the lyric, love has replaced the Grail as the object of questing in medieval Occitan literature. The only surviving Occitan "Grail scene" is in Rigaut de Barbezieux's canso III, where Perceval is used as an image of astonishment. If we are to judge by the eleven complete and two fragmentary manuscript witnesses of this poem, a vida, a razo and a note by Jehan de Nostredame (brother of the prophet Michel de Nostredame), Riguat de Barbezieux is noteworthy, however, not because he compared himself to Perceval but because he compared himself to a fallen elephant who could not get up until he regained the love of his domna. Trachsler speculates that, unlike an absence of chansons de geste from the Carolingian period to the twelfth century which Joseph Bédier postulated to explain the silence des sicles (a lack of echoes of the epic because there was nothing to echo), the silence surrounding the Grail in Occitania might not reflect an absence of narratives or disinterest, but rather an overabundance and resulting blaséness in the face of the Grail and associated Arthurian material. An appendix to the essay reprints the vida, razo and the note by Jehan de Nostredame.

Marianne E. Kalinke's "Female Desire and the Quest in the Icelandic Legend of Tristram and Ísodd" (chapter 6) is a study of the acculturation of Tristan motifs in Sagas of Icelanders (Íslandingasögur), including the ambiguous-oath motif and the abduction motif, as well as the even more drastic changes introduced in the fourteenth-century romance retelling, the Saga af Tristram ok Ísodd, due to the influence of indigenous Icelandic literature. The quest alluded to in the title of the article refers to the quest for a marital partner and underscores the blurring of gender lines as seen when comparing depictions of male-female roles in the Norwegian translation of Thomas's Tristan (the Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar) with those in the Icelandic Saga af Tristram ok Ísodd. Kalinke concludes that "the changes of plot and characterization in the Icelandic Tristram vis-à-vis the courtly legend are generated by two opposing but not necessarily mutually exclusive concerns, on the one hand the strong male bonds evident throughout the Sagas of Icelanders, on the other the appropriation by women of what might otherwise be considered male conduct" (91).

David F. Johnson explores compositional strategies in the Lancelot Compilation, possibly the single most important manuscript witness to the Dutch Arthurian tradition (The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek Hs. 129 A 10) in chapter 7, "Questing in the Middle Dutch Lancelot Compilation." He postulates five possible motives for the Compiler's interpolation of seven texts, two between the Roman van Lanceloet and the Queeste vanden Grale and five toward the end of the Middle Dutch Arturs doet. Johnson focuses on two of the interpolated texts, proposing for the Compiler a "two-fold agenda: the rehabilitation of Walewein and a teasing and a subtle questioning of the received, Old French, Lancelot-centric version of the history of King Arthur" (102). A useful appendix follows comparing in visual form the texts of the Vulgate Cycle to the contents of the Lancelot Compilation.

Like many scholars, Caroline D. Eckhardt notes the oddity of the relative lack of Grail material in the English tradition before Malory, especially in light of the fact that the French versions were well known (based on manuscript, patronage and ownership evidence) as were Latin texts on Joseph of Arimathea and Glastonbury, brief English versions or references. In "Keeping Company: Manuscript Contexts for Reading Arthurian Quest Narratives" (chapter 8), Eckhardt hypothesizes that in England the Grail quest may have been overshadowed by the prevalence of other types of quests in the English literary tradition, in particular the foundation quests seen in the Middle English Prose Brut, a text which in terms of popularity was second only to Wycliffe's Bible. In her analysis of manuscripts containing both chronicle and romance materials, including the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates 19.2.1), Eckhardt provocatively demonstrates how in English manuscripts the Arthur tale in romance and historiography was most often "encountered as a segment of narrative" and was read "as part of repeating patterns of (con)quest and localization" (124). The Grail quest, "the one quest that is unlike any other...is scarcely represented" (124) not only because it typically privileges spiritual power while the Bruts as national history privilege the exercise of secular power, but also, by marking what Norris Lacy has termed "the beginning of a repudiation of Arthurian chivalry," the Grail quest did not further the foundational and imperial agendas embodied in the Brut narratives (119).

In Chapter 9, "Grail and Quest in the Medieval English World of Arthur," Philip C. Boardman offers an historical overview of Grail narrative in England then outlines how because of Malory "the French Grail became the Holy Grail for English readers" (127). Following a discussion of Malory's double treatment of the Grail, as magical but very physical, very geographically located in Sir Tristrem de Lyones and as more ethereal and spiritual in the Tale of the Sankgreall, Boardman closes with a reading of one of Malory's minor sources, John of Hardyng's Chronicle of England and an application of Lacy's well known conceptual framework of the interrelationships between quest, task, and ordeal in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Peter J. C. Field opens Chapter 10, "Malory and the Grail: The Importance of Detail," with a broad history of the physical descriptions of grails and the range of contradictions among different narratives and then turns to Malory's treatment of the Grail in selected passages from some of the eight tales that make up the Morte Darthur. "The most striking feature of Malory's Grail is its elusiveness" (143), leading Field to suggest that "when Malory's book speaks of the Holy Grail, it is not only unforthcoming and enigmatic, but self-contradictory" (146). Field's contribution provides a fascinating and revealing tour through those contradictions, implicitly illuminating many future avenues for Malory scholarship as well as intertextual studies.

In Chapter 11, "Glastonbury, the Grail-Bearer and the Sixteenth-Century Antiquaries," James P. Carley provides for both beginners and experts an authoritative, thorough and concise history of the connections between Joseph of Arimathea, Arthur and Glastonbury, including the importance of a marginal note in a thirteenth-century manuscript of William of Malmesbury's Historia Anglorum which tells of a book about a search for a vessel called the Holy Grail, Galahad, Lancelot and a miraculous shield, thereby incorporating those elements into the story of Arthur and the foundation story of Joseph's coming to Britain: "The metamorphosis from courtly aventure to monastic chronicle is a crucial one, and the claim for Joseph's mission to Glastonbury/Avalon made by this brief note would have reverberations over the next three centuries and beyond" (160). What follows is a compelling account of the political uses of the Joseph-Glastonbury connection, ending in the late sixteenth century with the historian, John Dee, who, while writing for Elizabeth I in 1577, used Arthur and Edgar to justify the monarch's imperial claims, with Joseph as an apostolic equivalent. The image of the Grail and Glastonbury are divorced from that of Joseph, the British apostle, since "Glastonbury becomes a crucial symbol of the corruption of the Roman church" in the eyes of the Protestant monarchy, following the dissolution of the monastery in 1539 (171).

In the final critical essay, "The Grail Quest: Where Next?" (chapter 12), Richard Barber surveys a half century of scholarship on the Grail, beginning with the proceedings volume of the conference on Grail romances from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries held in Strasbourg in 1954, where Jean Fourquet expressed the desiderata of proper editions and close linguistic analyses of the results. Barber suggests, in light of the enormous headway that has been made in the area of editions and the staggering amount of scholarship generated recently, that although we may be "uneasy about what real contribution we can make to the study of the mainstream romances" and the temptation may be to look at "the more obscure texts" which may be "less valuable as literature, and therefore less appealing," there remains a "great deal to be done off the beaten track, particularly on topics such as the Prose Tristan, both in French and in its Italian version" (176). Further areas suggested by Barber include the Anglo-Italian connection, manuscript contexts and reception of medieval texts by contemporary readers, the influence of patronage and book ownership on the genesis of Grail stories, and subsequent versions of the Grail stories which modify the Vulgate cycle. Barber is also to be applauded for creating the fold-out table inserted in the back of the book, listing thirty works containing the Grail, including date, hero, name of grail, procession, attendants, religious aspects and descriptions, major editions and translations. His chapter also concludes with a bibliography which would have been a useful feature for each of the other contributions (except for Harty's which contains substantial bibliographies by its very nature).

Although it is puzzling that Kevin J. Harty's annotated filmography of narrative Grail films (readers are referred elsewhere for information on documentaries, films of operatic productions and episodes of television series) was relegated to an Appendix ("Appendix: The Grail on Film"), this contribution is excellent due to its level of detail and convenience of use and forms a welcome part of this volume.

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Jean Blacker

Kenyon College