Book: From Ritual to Romance
Author: Jessie L. Weston

From Ritual to Romance By Jessie L. Weston

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 169
Publication Date: 1920

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Written in a formal academic style, with extensive passages in a dozen different languages, this relatively short book is an attempt to explain the roots of the legend of the Holy Grail. Chapters include: The Task of the Hero; The Freeing of the Waters; Tammuz and Adonis; Medieval and Modern Forms of Nature Ritual; The Symbols; The Sword Dance; The Medicine Man; The Fisher King; The Secret of the Grail (1): The Mysteries; The Secret of the Grail (2): The Naassene Document; Mithra and Attis; The Perilous Chapel; and, The Author.

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As a first step towards the successful prosecution of an investigation into the true nature and character of the mysterious object we know as the Grail it will be well to ask ourselves whether any light may be thrown upon the subject by examining more closely the details of the Quest in its varying forms; i.e., what was the precise character of the task undertaken by, or imposed upon, the Grail hero, whether that hero were Gawain, Perceval, or Galahad, and what the results to be expected from a successful achievement of the task. We shall find at once a uniformity which assures us of the essential identity of the tradition underlying the varying forms, and a diversity indicating that the tradition has undergone a gradual, but radical, modification in the process of literary evolution. Taken in their relative order the versions give the following result.

GAWAIN (Bleheris). Here the hero sets out on his journey with no clear idea of the task before him. He is taking the place of a knight mysteriously slain in his company, but whither he rides, and why, he does not know, only that the business is important and pressing. From the records of his partial success we gather that he ought to have enquired concerning the nature of the Grail, and that this enquiry would have resulted in the restoration to fruitfulness of a Waste Land, the desolation of which is, in some manner, not clearly explained, connected with the death of a knight whose name and identity are never disclosed. "Great is the loss that ye lie thus, 'tis even the destruction of kingdoms, God grant that ye be avenged, so that the folk be once more joyful and the land repeopled which by ye and this sword are wasted and made void ." The fact that Gawain does ask concerning the Lance assures the partial restoration of the land; I would draw attention to the special terms in which this is described: "for so soon as Sir Gawain asked of the Lance...the waters flowed again thro' their channel, and all the woods were turned to verdure ."

Diû Crône. Here the question is more general in character; it affects the marvels beheld, not the Grail alone; but now the Quester is prepared, and knows what is expected of him. The result is to break the spell which retains the Grail King in a semblance of life, and we learn, by implication, that the land is restored to fruitfulness: "yet had the land been waste, but by his coming had folk and land alike been delivered ." Thus in the earliest preserved, the GAWAIN form, the effect upon the land appears to be the primary result of the Quest.

PERCEVAL. The Perceval versions, which form the bulk of the existing Grail texts, differ considerably the one from the other, alike in the task to be achieved, and the effects resulting from the hero's success, or failure. The distinctive feature of the Perceval version is the insistence upon the sickness, and disability of the ruler of the land, the Fisher King. Regarded first as the direct cause of the wasting of the land, it gradually assumes overwhelming importance, the task of the Quester becomes that of healing the King, the restoration of the land not only falls into the background but the operating cause of its desolation is changed, and finally it disappears from the story altogether. One version, alone, the source of which is, at present, undetermined, links the PERCEVAL with the GAWAIN form; this is the version preserved in the Gerbert continuation of the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes. Here the hero having, like Gawain, partially achieved the task, but again like Gawain, having failed satisfactorily to resolder the broken sword, wakes, like the earlier hero, to find that the Grail Castle has disappeared, and he is alone in a flowery meadow. He pursues his way through a land fertile, and well-peopled and marvels much, for the day before it had been a waste desert. Coming to a castle he is received by a solemn procession, with great rejoicing; through him the folk have regained the land and goods which they had lost. The mistress of the castle is more explicit. Perceval had asked concerning the Grail:

"par coi amendé
Somes, en si faite maniére
Qu'en ceste regne n'avoit riviére
Qui ne fust gaste, ne fontaine.
E la terre gaste et soutaine."

Like Gawain he has 'freed the waters' and thus restored the land .

In the prose Perceval the motif of the Waste Land has disappeared, the task of the hero consists in asking concerning the Grail, and by so doing, to restore the Fisher King, who is suffering from extreme old age, to health, and youth .

"Se tu eusses demandé quel'en on faisoit, que li rois ton aiol fust gariz de l'enfermetez qu'il a, et fust revenu en sa juventé."

When the question has been asked: "Le rois péschéor estoit gariz et tot muez de sa nature." "Li rois peschiére estoit mués de se nature et estoit garis de se maladie, et estoit sains comme pissons. " Here we have the introduction of a new element, the restoration to youth of the sick King.

In the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes we find ourselves in presence of certain definite changes, neither slight, nor unimportant, upon which it seems to me insufficient stress has hitherto been laid. The question is changed; the hero no longer asks what the Grail is, but (as in the prose Perceval) whom it serves? a departure from an essential and primitive simplicity--the motive for which is apparent in Chrétien, but not in the prose form, where there is no enigmatic personality to be served apart. A far more important change is that, while the malady of the Fisher King is antecedent to the hero's visit, and capable of cure if the question be asked, the failure to fulfil the prescribed conditions of itself entails disaster upon the land.