The Grail

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol by Roger Sherman Loomis.

Loomis provides a full examination of the development of the legends about the Holy Grail, from Chretien de Troyes onward. He does not avoid speculation, but he works in a conservative vein, and admits that his explanations are likely to disappoint those who want the stories to be rooted in sacramental Christianity ab origine, as well as those who fancy Cathar or heretical Templar secrets to be encoded into them. (63) He does provide extensive passages in English translation from all of the early Grail romances, to the extent that these texts may occupy nearly as much of the book as his own theories.

Those theories, as the subtitle suggests, center on the derivation of tropes and characters from Celtic myth. In every major medieval retelling of the legend, Loomis finds reinforcement of the Celtic elements, which he takes to be of ultimately Irish origin, conveyed through Welsh culture to Breton storytellers in France who were the original purveyors of Grail romance. He proposes that the double meaning of li cors as horn (the enchanted drinking horn of the Welsh hero Bran) and body (the body of Christ, ergo mass wafer) is the key to misunderstandings at the root of the strange transformation of heroic episodes and otherworld journeys in the direction of Christian sacramentalism. (61)

Loomis seems a little too willing to speculate–repeatedly!–that his medieval authors may have had a screw loose, when he becomes frustrated with the plot paradoxes and improprieties of the stories examined. In one hilarious instance, he declares of Robert de Boron, “he must have been drunk or subject to fits of dementia when he forecast an important role for the son of a virgin!” (233) Loomis, evidently a Christian on the basis of other remarks, must have slipped in composing this sentence, since I’m confident there is an “important role for the son of a virgin” he would not want to ridicule. (In Robert’s tale, a celibate knight is supposed to have somehow sired an heir.)

Still, the highlighting of such difficulties in the texts is a serious service rendered by Loomis, as is his stress on the bewildering variety of forms taken by the story and by the Grail itself. The “heathenish concept” of identifying the fertility of the land with the virility of its king is one that Loomis is happy to point out, cementing as it does a kinship between the “late, realistic and pious romance of Sone de Nansai” and the pagan legendry of Bran. (145) He ultimately points to the Queste del Sant Graal and the Parzival as the versions most satisfying to pious Christian sentiment, but one cannot escape the implied conclusion that the Grail legends derive much of their appeal from a deep vein of pre-Christian wonder, compounded by healthy doses of hapless Christian confusion. [via]