For many people, the mention of the Holy Grail conjures up contemporary
images such as that of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones or more bizarrely,
a crowd of people leaping around and shouting "Ni!". It is obvious,
even from Hollywood's offerings however, that the Grail is of great historical
and religious significance. How this all relates to King Arthur, however,
is slightly less well documented.
The Holy Grail is generally assumed to be the cup from which Christ drank
at the Last Supper and also the one used by Joseph of Arimethea to catch
Christ's blood as he hung on the cross. The earliest record of this in
Arthurian legend is to be found in Robert de Boron's twelfth century poem
"Joseph d'Arimathie". This, however, represents just one account
of a story which has so proliferated over the intervening centuries that
it is impossible to tell if any amongst them contain even a modicum of
There is one school of thought, for instance, which has quite sound grounds
for believing the Grail to have actually been some sort of dish which
was brought to the dinner table at various stages. Indeed, the term Grail
comes from the Latin gradale, meaning dish and is taken to mean as such
by writers such as Chrétien.
Those aficionados of Indiana Jones will note that in this particular version
of the story, the Grail is endowed with powers of immortality. This theme
was first explored in Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival", whereby
those who behold the Grail are prevented from death, but only for a week.
We move now to the issue of precisely how the Grail and King Arthur came
to be so closely linked. It is said that in medieval times when Arthur
is meant to have ruled, the pursuit of the Grail was the highest form
of spiritual journey. However, in medieval romantic literature, Joseph
of Armathea is said to have actually brought the Grail to Glastonbury
in Britain. This would also tie in well with Arthur, as his legend is
strongest in the West Country of England and in Wales.
The French seem to have been particularly fond of the legend surrounding
Arthur, with Mannesier, Gerbert de Montreuil and others contributing much
to the fiction which has clouded the 'facts'. They further explored the
theme of the quest for the Grail with Sir Perceval and Galahad as the
chief Grail Knights of the Round Table. It was Tennyson who perhaps had
the greatest influence on the Grail quest capturing the English speaking
public's imagination, through his "Idylls of the King" and his
short poem "Sir Galahad".
It would appear that the link between King Arthur and the Holy Grail is
tenuous at best, yet when it produces films as entertaining as Monty Python's
Holy Grail, it all seems somehow worthwhile really.
© Stuart Macdonald 2001