Is it a Religious Book?

by | Nov 13, 2011 | What is the Meaning of All This?

That’s what a potential customer, her eye on the title, asked the other day.  She was not, she warned me, religious.

No, I assured her.  Not a religious book at all.  It’s based, in fact, on one of the stories surrounding King Arthur and his famous Table.

Usually the religious question comes up only once they see the subtitle or after I foolishly explain that the story is based on the story of the grail.

The Holy Grail? they ask.

Not exactly.

Strange, that I should have got wrapped up in the grail story.  I’d had Wagner’s operatic take on the grail inflicted on me, at the tender age of twenty, in Vienna, where they pull every single stop when presenting Germanic culture heroes.  Five hours this pageant went on.  Says Mark Twain, “I have witnessed and greatly enjoyed the first act of everything which Wagner created, but the effect on me has always been so powerful that one act was quite sufficient; whenever I have witnessed two acts I have gone away physically exhausted; and whenever I have ventured an entire opera the result has been the next thing to suicide.”

Twain also said Wagner’s music is better than it sounds, to which I would add: in small doses.  Everyone, for instance, knows the first nineteen notes of an excerpt from Scene 1, Act 3 of the second opera of a four-opera cycle.  The Valkyrie number.  Chiefly these days, we know this theme from the movie Apocalypse Now.  A well-chosen piece of soundtrack.  The movie is a bombast-fest.


About halfway through Wagner’s opera, there in Vienna, I entered another dimension.  I had been, up to that point, utterly bored.  We’d already read the very short text, and discussed it, and been assured by our professor, Herr Spycher, of the deeply deep meaning of the thing.  Herr Spycher had also vehemently but unconvincingly denied any racial slant to the opera, brushing aside the Jewish girl’s query anent Wagner’s anti-Semitism.  But that’s yet another story.  In this one, I’m sitting in something like the 5th balcony, looking down on this lavish and utter nonsense, bored out of my skull and unable to get on my hind legs and go because Herr Spycher is sitting two seats away.  When, two and a half hours in, I was no longer bored.  I had entered a state in which time had no meaning.  I could look on, as from a great height, and find a certain detached amusement at the pageant going on below, at the whole scene of being at the Vienna Opera House, of me sitting there trapped but irremediably clocked out.  At some point in not-time, the spectacle was over.  There were numerous curtain calls, adulation, then up came the house lights.  I found my out of the really very ornate temple known as the Vienna Opera House.  In a most peculiar state, somewhere between wakefulness and lucid dreaming, I headed north around the Ringstraße to Wáhringer Straße to the long hike up Nußdorfer Straße to where I had a room in the 19th district.

My version of the grail story is more down-to-earth than Wagner’s.  It also takes longer to read, but in recompense it has a lot more going on in it.


However I got involved in this story again, I began to consider it from the point of view of the characters.  The story has dozens and dozens of characters who have, over the centuries, simply disappeared.  The story has been whittled down to almost nothing, all the richness trimmed away.  The number of characters missing from Wagner’s version (which is, unfortunately, the last serious version out there) is legion.

So here they sit at Castle Caerleon, these knights and ladies cast aside by the whims of fashion and narrative simplicity.  Depressed is what they are.  Drinking too much, and growing more loutish by the hour.

What happens is, Arthur – good old King Arthur – asks the semi-mythical Welsh master bard Gwion Bach, better known as Taliesin, to tell their tale again.  To show the actors that the story still goes on in forms they would scarce have expected.  Gwion takes them back to an older version of the tale, before the grail got holy and all.  It used to be, before it got holy, just a grail.  A grail is a shallow serving dish.  How it is that the word ‘grail’ came to refer to some historical object associated with Jesus and/or his crucifixion is a tale in itself, and a long one.  But originally, in the early tellings of the grail story, it’s just a common ordinary everyday grail with a certain mystically bloody aura attached.  The oldest written version we still have is a Welsh thing called Peredur son of Efrawg.  In this version, the grail is a minor element.  When we do run across it, what it contains is a bloody severed head.  Of one of Peredur’s many uncles, if memory serves.  Most of the story is about Peredur finding his strength, becoming worthy and all that, and finally killing a bunch of witches.

This story got re-written, about 1190, by a French chap named Chrétien de Troyes who turned the quest for the grail into a major plot point.  The story was then taken up by a number of other authors with completely different takes on the story.  A certain French Cistercian monk, for example, threw out much of what made it a story about human beings.  This version forms the basis for what most of us know as the story of the grail, which is now the holy grail.  In Germany, a penniless knight and minnesinger named Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote his own version of the story.  It’s not religious at all, except for the occasional hermit.  It has little to do with holiness at all, except that it has a lot to do with a holy little thing called love.