The quest for the grail is an extended metaphor. The grail itself (graal in Middle English) is nothing. Okay, it’s a shallow serving dish.
The story of the quest for the grail is not about finding a shallow serving dish. If it’s about finding anything, it’s about finding one’s self.
The usual hero of the story is Perceval. Who is the son of a king (and thus eligible for hero-hood) but has been brought up in ignorance of his true identity. His mother, heartbroken by the death in battle of her husband, has tried to shield her boy from any knowledge of knights and knightly deeds. So she raises him deep in a forest, far from any court. But one day, of course, he meets some knights. They have really cool armor and stuff, and he decides he wants to be just like them. He runs off to become a knight, which kills his dear old mum.
Percy really has no idea what that is: being a knight. He knows, quite literally, nothing at all. He is a blank slate. The pure fool. He does not even know his name (see – it’s all about finding your identity) because mum never called him anything but ‘dear boy’ and ‘pretty boy’.
Pretty boy sets out for knighthood and adventure. Utterly clueless (and a double-barreled ass to boot) he makes lots of mistakes along the way. Lots and lots. Slowly, painfully, he learns the things one needs to learn in order to become a complete human being. The first of these is love, and the last is regard for others. (Yes, it’s a little bit backwards.)
Actually, he finds the grail long before he’s ready, as they say, to achieve it. He stumbles upon it at the mystical Castle Munsalvaesche. The lord of the castle (the grail king) is Anfortas. Anfortas, centuries before the time of our story, achieved himself a certain mystical wound. He’s got the point of a spear lodged in his nuts, and thus can neither walk nor ride a horse. He can neither stand not sit nor lie. All he can do is lean on things. The only thing that can cure him (and, incidentally, save the world) is for a pure and perfect knight to arrive at the castle and ask him the redeeming question – What ails thee?
Percy does not ask the question. He sits dumbly all through the elaborate ceremony of the grail without saying a word. In the morning the castle is empty (or completely gone – there are different versions). Percy rides around for five more years, and then is given a second chance. This time (having been given a crib sheet) he gets it right. The world is saved, and Percy becomes the new grail king.
What does the grail have to do with all this? Nothing, really. It’s only a McGuffin. What’s a McGuffin? Hitchcock says: “It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” In the grail story, it’s a shallow serving dish with certain magical properties. For instance, it’s a bottomless cornucopia of food and drink for anyone present at the daily grail ceremony. Also, if you look at it, you cannot die for at least another week. Anfortas sees it every day. Hence his centuries-long plight.
How does the McGuffin of a story get confused with an actual physical historical (and holy) object? In two words, wishful thinking. If you were a member of the Knights Templar, the two words would be: bad luck.
The Knights Templar were a by-product of the Crusades. Briefly, they were founded around 1129 with the mission of protecting pilgrims to the newly conquered city of Jerusalem. Where their headquarters was the Temple Mount. Although the individual members were sworn to poverty, the order itself grew quite rich. Also popular. But when the Muslims took their conquered lands back, support for the Templars began to fade. In 1307 (see the fine Wikipedia article on them for a fuller treatment) Louis IV of France decided he wanted their money. And treasures. Among which, most certainly, was the holy grail. All that time in possession of the Temple Mount, they must have dug the damn thing up.
The strategic error the Templars had made was in running their organization like a boy’s clubhouse. Secret initiation ceremonies and that sort of thing. Like the Masons. Secrets, wealth, and power – of course they became a target.
By 1307 the grail tale, a piece of fiction, had been for a hundred years one of the most popular stories in Europe. People were all to ready to accept parts of it as fact. (This is a problem today as well; we get our history from the movies. A recent study shows that college students, even if given factual information and also warned that the movie treatment they are about to see is a fictionalization, are more likely than not to accept the tinselized version as real.)
The king of France, strapped for cash, wanted that grail. Members of the Knights Templar, under torture, confessed that they had it. More members were tortured. Remarkably, none of them revealed where it was hidden. Unremarkably, this merely served as proof that it was somewhere to be found.
We love secret mystical stuff. We want to believe in the grail’s physical existence. Which is a mistake that keeps us from understanding what it really is. Which is: a McGuffin. An element that helps drive the story. What the story is about, is us.