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19.08.26 Dixon, Goddess and Grail

19.08.26 Dixon, Goddess and Grail

Jeffrey John Dixon's Goddess and Grail: The Battle for King Arthur's Promised Land is at once a broad, sweeping look at several centuries of Arthuriana, as well as a series of closely researched case studies drawing from several of the medieval and early modern Arthurian traditions. Indeed, throughout Goddess and Grail, Dixon touches upon the early Celtic legends, Chrétien de Troyes' late twelfth-century romances, the late medieval Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles, and Malory's early modern Morte d'Arthur, to name only the most prevalent of legends. At the center of Goddess and Grail lies the shifting (and, as Dixon argues, waning) role and power of women within the Arthurian tradition, and the literature's gradual thematic transition from pagan myths to Christological legends, as exemplified by the advent of the Grail in the mid to late Middle Ages.

Goddess and Grail is divided into two sections, each consisting of six chapters: "Part 1. Mythical Roots," and "Part 2. Realms of Symbolism." In between these two sections is a brief chapter titled "Interlude: The Deceitful Savior."

Part 1 opens with a discussion of the earliest references to King Arthur, beginning with the Matter of Britain, when the import and mysticism later transferred to the Grail was still conferred upon significant pagan female figures, such as the moon goddess, Diana/Artemis. Dixon next progresses through the early medieval Arthurian legends, discussing the roles of women who, although they continue to appear in the later, increasingly Christianised legends, are here still imbued with a sense of paganism, power, and otherworldliness. Such characters include the faerie, Lady of the Lake, whose main role is as foster-mother to Lancelot; the magically adept Ninienne, Merlin's would-be romantic interest; and Morgan le Fay, King Arthur's sinister, necromantic sister. As Dixon notes, "these supernatural women are eerie, mysterious, and powerful, sometimes destructive, sometimes beneficent, always ambivalent" (120). Although Dixon does at times seem to wander off on overly descriptive tangents, detailing events within the legends that he is analyzing, Part 1 is unified through his aim of exemplifying the agency of female characters within the earlier Arthurian legends, prior to the introduction of the Grail as an object of Christian significance. Indeed, Dixon aptly concludes Part 1 by stating that the remainder of the book will explore " the Promised Land of the Goddess is disenchanted and turned into the Promised Land of the Grail" (97).

However, before moving on to "Part 2: Realms of Symbolism," the overall flow of Goddess and Grail is interrupted by the brief chapter "Interlude: The Deceitful Savior." Within these twenty-three pages, Dixon discusses the prehistory of the Grail, focusing in large part on the Vulgate Estoire del Saint Graal, which, as part of a larger Christian allegory, details the passage of the Grail and Bleeding Lance to Britain after the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Dixon does a fine job in the "Interlude" of contextualizing the rise of the Grail in Arthurian literature with contemporary historical events, namely the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which perhaps most notably affirmed the miracle of transubstantiation. Although the "Interlude" provides a comprehensive background for the Grail, setting the stage for its role in Part 2, the "Interlude" does come across as a rather abrupt interruption from the main text. It seems possible that this information could have functioned better if incorporated into Part 2, wherein the Quest for the Holy Grail is discussed at length.

Part 2 takes as its focus the symbolism of the Grail, which, depending on the Arthurian legend being discussed, can be seen to inhabit varying positions on a sliding scale of greater or lesser Christological significance. More simply, the later the medieval Arthurian legends, the more strongly the Grail is imbued with Christian under (or perhaps over) tones. Dixon's overall argument within Part 2 is that the increasing import of the Christian Grail, and thus of the knights who go in search of it, is mirrored by the declining importance of the legends' female characters and pagan roots. This dichotomy is exemplified through several textual examples taken from the Vulgate La Queste del Saint Graal, in which only those who are Christian, male, and pure of body are able to search for and obtain the Grail. In other words, the Christian God has usurped the early worship of pagan goddesses such as Diana, illustrating the growing primacy of Christian morals and male dominance within the later Arthurian legends. While Part 2 is composed of well researched and well argued case studies of the Grail's varying importance in Chrétien's Le Conte du Graal, as well as in the Vulgate, and Post Vulgate Cycles, there is not little to directly connect Part 2 back to Part 1. Although both of great interest in and of themselves, Parts 1 and 2 seem not so much to fit together as to sit alongside one another. If what Dixon means to exemplify is that the sudden appearance of the Grail in the mid to late medieval Arthurian iterations ultimately usurps any of the earlier notions of goddesses and femininity, the lack of continuity between the two sections readily illustrates this.

As Dixon states at the beginning of Goddess and Grail, "Who has not heard of Lancelot and Guenevere, Galahad and the Holy Grail, Merlin the Magician and the Lady of the Lake (5)? Although it is true that the world of King Arthur and his Round Table has long been a part of the wider cultural lexicon, in order to be fully understood, Dixon's cross-textual connections and arguments require a not insignificant amount of prior knowledge on the part of the reader. For example, comparisons of the almost identical series of events in the French Vulgate and Post Vulgate legends will likely be of minor interest and some confusion to readers who do not specialize in the study of the late medieval French prose Arthurian legends. Dixon's literary analysis is well formulated, albeit perhaps not best suited to a book such as this, which is strongest when arguing for a thematic shift from feminine magic and influence to Christian symbolism and male dominance.

Certainly, what is most admirable about Goddess and Grail is also what could be considered most irksome to readers. Dixon's detailed knowledge of medieval and early modern English literature is obvious, and well suited to pulling together such wide-ranging material. At the same time, however, Dixon aims to make so many, and so disparate of textual connections, that at times his arguments lack coherence and interrelatedness. However, as an introduction to the medieval and early modern Arthurian texts and their broader themes of magic, Christianity, and gender roles, Goddess and Grail is a unique and helpful source. Dixon has created a thought-provoking, interdisciplinary view of the Arthurian tradition, one that should interest a wide audience of scholars: historians, specialists of medieval and early modern English and French literature, and specialists of gender studies, among others. Goddess and Grail: The Battle for King Arthur's Promised Land suggests new lines of inquiry for the broad field of Arthurian studies, and, in addressing topical issues such as gender roles and the pagan-Christian dichotomy, illustrates the continued relevance and complexity of the seemingly well-trodden Arthurian legends.