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Ink and blood

June 26, 2010

Since getting my first tattoo in January, I’ve been wondering on and off what to do for the next one. (Apparently it is true. They’re like Maltesers – you can’t stop at one.) More recently, one possibility has come to seem more and more like the natural one: I want some representation of, or something to do with, the Holy Grail.

It’s something that’s come into my academic orbit before, and no doubt will again, and fascinates me. (I talk about it as an Arthurian specialist; it’s the Arthurian conception of the Grail that mainly concerns me here.) It’s such a mess of contradictions and conflicting implications collected over centuries of narrative evolution. It’s a spiritual icon that’s become a shorthand for any ultimately desired thing: we talk about a unified theory being ‘the Holy Grail of physics’, and so on. It’s a McGuffin with as many powers as the writers want to give it. It’s a golden chalice, it’s a bowl, it’s the cup of a carpenter.

One thing it probably isn’t is the secret descendants of Christ and Mary Magdalene, cool though that would be (who was married at the feast of Cana?) The possibility of a Jesus/Magdalen relationship and its consequences, while a fascinating source of speculation, doesn’t fit with the Grail as it appears in the Arthurian mythos. Dan Brown’s/Baigent and Leigh’s/whoever’s (I really don’t know or care who got there first) spotting that san greal ‘holy Grail’ can be moved into sang real ‘royal blood’ is kind of neat, but honestly, that’s all it is; a halfway clever play on words constructed after the fact.

We interrupt this blog post to give a public service announcement regarding movies, books and TV shows wherein crucial information is discovered via wordplay in a message centuries or millennia old: it does not work like that and you fail history of language forever. Specifically, you cannot hang vital plot threads on ancient spelling, because spelling barely even existed as a concept until after the advent of print.

I know of precisely one example of this being got right: in Disney’s Atlantis, our hero Milo Thatch discovers that a runic message purporting to place the passage to Atlantis off the coast of Ireland has been misinterpreted and in fact says ‘Iceland’. As it happens, the Old Norse words in question, Írland and Ísland, are indeed only one letter apart. I would, however, bet money that this was a complete accident, because I’m cynical like that.

. . . We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Anyway. The Grail is also spelt Sangraal, Sant Graal and every possible variation; Malory tends to refer to it as (something in the region of) Sankgreall. The pun just doesn’t work.

Dan Brown’s dodgy etymologies aside, the Grail is intimately associated with blood in the literal and metaphorical senses. In the commonest version of the story, it’s the vessel (either calyx ‘cup’ or crater ‘bowl’) used to catch Christ’s blood at the Crucifixion; some strands also make it the vessel that served the wine at the Last Supper, linking it into the Catholic tradition of transubstantiation.

In the Arthurian tradition, though, its function is as closely bound up with the blood of the men who seek it as it is with the blood of Christ. The chivalric world is dependent on, and is sustained by, the ties of noble blood: it is ‘jantyll blode’ (Malory’s spelling), rather than prowess, that determines knights’ places at the Round Table. Those in the club are ranked by skill and prowess, but the only way to get into the club in the first place is to be of noble – preferably royal – blood.

Rather like how in fairytales the poor peasant girl always turns out to be a bona fide princess (Sleeping Beauty, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles) and therefore is cleared to marry the prince, the kitchen knaves who want to be knights never turn out to be real kitchen knaves. I can think of two would-bes who appear lowly, Bewmaynes and La Cote Male Taylé (respectively, Fair-Hands and Badly Cut Coat) and they both turn out to be noble enough to be allowed into the club.

Bewmaynes turns out to be the youngest brother of Gawain, Gareth; La Cote is also closely related to a Round Tabler. Other new knights introduced over the course of the Morte D’Arthur are almost always the son, nephew, younger brother or other miscellaneous relative of a knight already at Camelot, a tactic astute readers will notice is exactly the same one used by incompetent fanfic writers to bring in their new Mary Sue.* All of the major cast are kings, or sons or nephews of kings whose kingdoms have been absorbed into Arthur’s.

The Arthurian world runs into an extremely large problem, though, when the Grail story is incorporated.** Specifically, the morals of the Grail story uphold devotional chastity as a high ideal, and it is three chaste knights (Galahad and Perceval are virginal, and Bors has only ‘sinned’ once) who succeed at the Grail Quest. Lancelot fails at it because of his ongoing lust for Guenevere – even though, if you believe Malory, they hadn’t consummated their relationship.

The Grail story is generally extremely weird about sex, actually. In most versions of the story, the Grail is kept in a castle guarded by a king, who somehow*** receives a terrible wound to his groin or thigh. As a result of this injury to the king (think of the many traditions that suppose a spiritual link between the land and its leader) three countries under his rule immediately become wasteland and the castle falls into ruin. He is only cured, decades later, by the arrival of Galahad.

It’s a weirdly contradictory image: it’s made massively, unsubtly clear that the survival of a kingdom depends on the literal potency of its king, but the knight who gets to ascend to heaven with the Grail is one who through his voluntary celibacy extinguishes both a distinguished royal line and the last known bloodline of Jesus Christ.**** Shortly after said ascension, the Christian kingdom of Arthur crashes in on itself and we get a Dark Age. So yeah, nice job breaking it, hero.

Because requiring your knights to be chaste notably does not mesh well with the need for them to perpetuate their bloodlines in order to sustain a kingdom. And thus we get arguably the greatest of the Arthurian cycle’s many horrible dramatic ironies: the very virtue that distinguished the greatest knights of the Table ensures the ruin of everything they worked to uphold. The kingdom cannot be resurrected after its fall, because there are no heirs.

It’s ironic and yet peculiarly apposite, it seems, that the Grail is so heavily implicated in the death and destruction accompanying the fall of the Round Table, given its history. Most obviously, it’s the original of the Mass cup, a ticket to eternal life; but it also has roots in a number of magical cups and cauldrons from Celtic legend, notably the recurring motif of a cauldron which brings back to life people dunked in it. (There’s one in Culhwch and Olwen, in the Mabinogion; another in Irish myth; and readers of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy will recognise the Cauldron of Khath Meigol as a twentieth-century version.)

Since the late medieval period (where my academic interest mostly stops), of course, that evolution has come on still further: versions of the Grail pop up all over the place, it would seem. As well as latter-day Arthurian works like those by T.H. White, Rosemary Sutcliff, Bernard Cornwell, Mary Stuart, Guy Gavriel Kay, Monty Python, and so on, it’s made its way into non-Arthurian contexts. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade preserves its connection with both life and death and adds the detail about it being ‘the cup of a carpenter’ (the various medieval versions tend to have it gold and shiny); an offhand reference in Assassin’s Creed dismisses it as nonexistent (which has to mean it’ll be involved somewhere); it’s nodded to in the D&D 3.5 splatbook Complete Warrior with the Knights of the Chalice; and modern conspiracy theorists have attached it to any number of wild conjectures, as visible in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and, naturally, The Da Vinci Code.

As icons of Western literary history go, you don’t get much more iconic than the Holy Grail. For me the Grail epitomises a lot of the twisty, intricate, contradictory things the Arthurian mythos has to say about heritage and identity and blood, literal and metaphorical. And it’s the perfect symbol of how stories grow and change over the centuries, and that’s something I wouldn’t mind having a constant reminder of.

My first tattoo reads Forþon scyle ascian deophydig mon dygelra gesceafta, bewritan in gewitte wordhordes cræft, which is a fragment from The Order of the World that translates out of Anglo-Saxon as “Therefore should the deep-minded one ask of hidden things, and inscribe in mind the craft of words.” That injunction, to question and to read and speak, is one that I now carry with me wherever I go.

The Grail’s meaning is different: it’s also about literature, but it’s less about the words than about the substance of story, and how that shifts and changes as the centuries pass and how the meanings we give to our stories change as well. That, I think, is an equally important thing to remember.


*It’s amazing how old this trope is.

**Arthur had been turned into a Christian hero before this point – as opposed to the saint-baiting pagan of some early texts – but the spiritual side of the canon took on new dimensions once the Grail arrived.

***Exact versions vary wildly. Malory alone tells it two completely different ways in the same book; personally I prefer the version told in “Balyn and Balan”.

****Galahad is heir to Benwick, approximately Brittany insofar as Arthurian!Europe bears any resemblance to the real one. He’s also the last relative of Christ, being ninth in descent from Jesus’ cousin Joseph of Arimathea. Dan Brown’s Mary/Jesus ‘shipping has no place here.



The general rundown of the Grail’s significance I give above is by no means wholly original: most of the interesting connections were made not by me but by real Arthurian specialists. I’d recommend the work Jill Mann, Felicity Riddy, and Catherine La Farge if you have access to a university(-level) library. The most accessible medieval text for an English-speaking audience is likely to be Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur – it’s canonical enough that there should be decent editions easily available. Translations of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval are also relatively easy to find. If you’re interested in the Celtic side of the legend, try Culhwch ac Olwen and/or Peredur ab Efrawg in the Mabinogion.

EDIT: Literally just been informed by a friend that the seminal text From Ritual to Romance, which explores some of the possible pre-Christian roots of the Grail legend (an angle I’m hazy on, being more concerned with the romance incarnation), is available in its entirety for free online. Interesting note: Weston capitalises ‘It’ in reference to the Grail throughout – first time I’ve ever seen that done.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2010 1:52 am

    I don’t know if you’ve ever seen William Morris’s grail tapestries (Victorian homages to medieval tapestry), but if you’re looking for images to inspire you, they’re worth a look. My favourite one is actually one I first saw in a local pub – a collection of the Grail questants’ shields, presumably so if you meet them, you know to help them!

  2. August 12, 2010 1:04 pm

    Just a nudge about a detail in this interesting piece: it is Rosemary Sutcliff without an E who wrote Sword at Sunset and some other books about Arthurian times. See

  3. August 12, 2010 2:40 pm

    Ah, oops. I’ll correct that.

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