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 truth.

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


The Holy Grail