From Romance Motif to Modern Genre

The Holy Grail: From Romance Motif to Modern Genre

Juliette Wood

In his search for the Grail, Tennyson’s Lancelot follows a “sweet voice singing in the topmost tower”:

… as in a dream I seemed to climb

For ever: at the last I reached a door …

It gave, and throe’ a stormy glare, a heat

As from a seventimes-heated furnace …

And yet methought I saw the Holy Grail

All palled in crimson samite … (Idylls of the King, 2:829-44).

Just over a century later, publishers regularly advertise Lancelot’s vision of the Holy Grail with promises of new discoveries about the world of ancient Druids, Templars and assorted mystics. Books purporting to reveal the secret behind the Holy Grail literature of the Middle Ages are a widespread phenomenon of modern popular culture. Indeed so prevalent are they that any attempt at a comprehensive survey would be out of date as soon as it was printed. Nor, given the autodidactic nature of this writing, is there much point in trying to refute any of the assertions by unravelling the tortuous arguments which underpin this material. This article intends to trace the Holy Grail theme from a set of motifs in medieval romance to the modern genre of grail literature and to focus on the resulting interface between literary and popular culture.


Suggestions put forward as to the source and meaning of the “Grail story” include Celtic myth, the Eucharistic rites of Eastern Christianity, ancient mystery religion, Jungian archetypal journeys, dualist heresies, Templar treasure, the descendants of Christ and Mary Magdelene, several actual objects, and any combination of the above. All these positions have adherents who are fierce in defence and detractors who are equally dismissive of these suggestions. The common thread which links these theories is the assumption that the grail story has a single source and that this source has a meaning which is obscured in the romances themselves. The question one might ask at this stage, from the point of view of folklore studies, is whether a series of repeated motifs necessarily implies a common tale and a priori source. In other words, is there a grail problem to be solved or is this simply an artefact of the methodology of grail criticism? Recent academic studies have stressed influences rather than origins and concentrated on the romances as literature rather than as repositories of secrets which the authors do not understand. [1] However, an earlier, and very influential, stream of romance criticism considered that the origin of romance was the primary question to be answered; and many modern grail studies, however eccentric the research they embody may be, still make use of such assumptions. Many current popular ideas derive from earlier grail scholarship which dates from the 1880s to the 1960s. In order to clarify why this particular story should exercise such a fascination in the popular imagination and in a particular corner of the publishing industry, it would be well to trace earlier research.

The theories discussed in this lecture developed as a by-product of renewed interest in medieval romance, and the middle ages generally, in the nineteenth century. This has to be seen in the wider context of the occult revival of this time, with its tendency to interpret Renaissance philosophy and the innovations of the Age of Enlightenment, such as masonism and Rosicrusianism, as carrying information which, while it could provide personal or cultural transformation, threatened the establishment. Many of these movements were tied in a complex way to the increasing power, and increasingly democratic interests, of the growing bourgeoisie. The appeal of the grail theme, particularly in the early part of the twentieth century, was very wide and broadly European.

Summary of the Grail Romances

One of the frustrations of this material, and a feature which has undoubtedly contributed to the increasingly bizarre theories about its origin, is the fact that no consistent “Grail story” emerges from the several romances in which material appears. However a basic story outline would be something like the following: A mysterious vessel or object which sustains life and/or provides sustenance is guarded in a castle which is difficult to find. The owner of the castle is either lame or sick and often (but not always) the surrounding land is barren. The owner can only be restored if a knight finds the castle and, after seeing a mysterious procession, asks a certain question. If he fails in this task, everything will remain as before and the search must begin again. After wanderings and adventures (many of which relate to events which the young hero fails to understand the first time), the knight returns to the castle and asks the question which cures the king and restores the land. The hero knight succeeds the wounded king (usually called the Fisher King) as guardian of the castle and its contents.

The grail episode in the relevant romances is summarised here and references to editions and translations of the romances are given in the appendix. In the text of this article references to individual romances are given in brackets using the name of the author where this is known or the identifying titles (which are themselves often a matter of convention) used in this summary. An object referred to as the grail and later as the Holy Grail occurs in a number of medieval romances written between the end of the twelfth and the end of the thirteenth century. Despite the vast antiquity for the material, its appearance in literary form occurred within a single century.

The motif first appeared in an unfinished romance Perceval ou Le conte du Graal by Chretien de Troyes dated to about 1190. Chretien’s romance was written at the behest of his patron, Count Philip of Flanders, a crusader knight. The fall of Jerusalem occurred in 1187 just before the first appearance of the grail as a literary motif. The historical crusades, their effect on Europe generally and on the nobility in particular, form an important backdrop to this material, although it is equally important to distinguish between the social and economic effects of the crusades on the medieval world and the mystical speculations about Templars and such which are a part of later grail speculation.

In Chretien de Troyes’s romance, Perceval sees the grail during a feast at a mysterious castle presided over by a lame man called the Fisher King whom he had met the day before. Chretien calls the object simply “un graal,” and its appearance is just one of the unusual events which takes place during the feast. Indeed at this time Perceval is also shown a broken sword which must be mended. The two objects together, sword and grail, are symbols of Perceval’s development as a true knight.

Chretien de Troyes died before finishing this romance, but the story was completed by other writers. The Continuations, as they are referred to in critical literature, expand several themes and the grail gradually acquires a more “sacramental” character. The First Continuation is also incomplete and the author is unknown, but it can be dated before 1200. Besides Perceval, Gawain also has a grail adventure (the womanising Gawain is the type of the perfect worldly knight and regularly forms a contrast to Perceval in these romances). During a procession which Gawain sees, the “rich grail” (as it is now called) floats about the hall and provides food for all; the bleeding lance is later identified as the Lance of Longinus (beginning the trend to see these objects as relics); and the broken sword belongs to a dead knight who is laid out on a bier. He who mends the sword will know the secrets of the grail castle (thereby strengthening the link between sword and grail). A new adventure, the Chapel of the Black Hand, is added in which a mysterious hand snuffs out the candles in the chapel.

The Second Continuation, written by Gauchier de Donaing (c. 1200), is also unfinished but pushes the story even farther into the realms of mysterious supernatural happenings. Perceval plays with a magical chess board; and a lady offers him a hunting dog and white stag’s head, which he loses and has to recover before returning to the grail castle. He fails to mend the sword completely. The Third Continuation (c. 1230), written by Manessier, completes the story of Perceval and Gawain. The Fisher King explains the items in the grail procession: the spear was used by Longinus to pierce Christ’s side at the Crucifixion; the cup belonged to Joseph of Arimathea; the trencher covered the cup to protect the blood; and the sword wounded both the Fisher King and his brother. Perceval undergoes the adventure of the Chapel of the Black Hand. When the sword is mended, Perceval as grail ruler heals the land. After seven years, he retires to a hermitage, and when he dies the grail, lance and dish go with him.

Unfortunately Manessier’s explanation of the grail was replaced by yet another, and final, continuation of the story. The Fourth Continuation by Gerbert de Montreuil (c. 1230) has a strong moralising tone. It takes up the story after Perceval’s first failure and introduces a long series of adventures before Perceval returns to the Grail castle to mend the sword.

While Chretien’s romance was the first, and remains in many ways central to developments within the tradition, other medieval writers took up the theme; as well as development, there is cross fertilisation. Between c. 1191-1200, the Burgundian poet, Robert de Boron, also writing at the behest of a crusader patron, the Lord of Montfacon, produced three romances, Joseph d’Arimathie, Merlin (most of which is lost) and Perceval (which may or may not actually have been written). All these romances treat the grail theme. Robert de Boron puts the grail into the context of Christ’s passion. In Joseph d’Arimathie, Pilate gives the cup used at the Last Supper and Crucifixion to Joseph of Arimathea who is subsequently imprisoned. Christ brings the grail to Joseph in prison where it sustains him and teaches him its secrets. Joseph is freed by the emperor Vespasian who has been cured by Veronica’s veil (another mysterious relic associated with Christ’s passion). Robert introduces two more characters, Joseph’s sister and her husband, Hebron (Bron). Joseph establishes a second table of the grail, and Bron catches a fish which is placed on the table and separates the just from the unjust. The object is called the Holy Grail at this point and gives joy to all who sit at the table. Alain, the leader of Bron’s twelve sons, goes to Britain to await the “third man” (Perceval?) who will be the permanent keeper of the grail. Bron becomes the “Rich Fisher” and journeys with the grail to Britain, while Joseph returns to Arimathea. In Robert de Boron’s Merlin, the magician constructs the Round Table in imitation of the Grail table and adds the Siege Perilous which awaits the truest knight who will find the grail. Later Merlin helps Perceval on his grail adventures, and after Perceval becomes Grail King Merlin retires to the woods to dictate the grail story to the priest, Blaise. Whether Robert de Boron actually wrote Perceval is not known but the prose version based on these romances (usually called the Roman du Graal) established the fashion for a new format which traced the history of the grail from its origins in the biblical story of Christ’s passion to its achievement by one of the knights. In effect this became a grail cycle which focused on the knights who undertook the quest for the grail rather than the courtly knights who accomplished adventures for the love of a lady and the honour of the king.

The Didot Perceval (c. 1220) is a prose romance based on Robert de Boron’s lost Perceval and the Second Continuation. Here, Perceval is the son of Alain le Gros (evidence of the Joseph of Arimathea tradition). After he sits in the forbidden seat at the Round Table, the stone splits, the grail appears, and a voice announces the quest to restore order and lift the enchantments. The context is Arthur’s court and the grail is absorbed into the Arthurian saga in which all the knights undertake the quest. Perceval’s adventures include the loss of a stag and hound (from the Second Continuation), the fight with the knight of the tomb, the children in the tree, the hermit uncle and the Fisher King (from Chretien), and an encounter with Merlin (from Robert de Boron). Perceval asks the grail questions which cure the Fisher King, repairs the stone, reveals the secret of the grail (not to the reader of course), and remains as ruler of Grail castle. Then the tale continues with Arthur as its focus.

An anonymous French prose romance, the Perlesvaus was written c. 1212-1220 for another crusader patron, Jean de Nesle. It uses elements from Chretien and Robert de Boron. As well as the material relating to Perceval, Gawain sees the grail and lance but fails to ask the required question, and Lancelot too has a grail adventure. Perceval avenges his mother and frees the Grail Castle from the king of Castle Mortal. The romance has strong religious overtones with references to “New Law versus Old Law” and a number of violent adventures. In the thirteenth century this romance was adapted into middle Welsh as Y Saint Graal and about the same time grail-romance material became attached to the outlaw-knight figure Foulk fitz Warin.

Chretien’s story begins with Perceval living in the forest with his mother who is determined to keep him from the life of knightly adventure which killed her husband and her other sons. This incident is expanded in two “prologues,” which are really independent romances that tell the adventures which lead up to Perceval’s upbringing in the woods. Both prologues were written in the early thirteenth century. One, the Bliocadron Prologue, recounts the adventures of Bliocadron, Perceval’s father, who is the last of twelve brothers killed in a tournament. The Elucidation Prologue tells the story of twelve well maidens who serve travellers. When they are raped and their golden cups stolen, the court of the Fisher King is lost, but Gawain and Perceval restore it. Castle Orguellos, another adventure which underlines the importance of the grail castle by reflecting it in reverse form, is set up and subdued by Arthur after a siege.

The German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach composed Parzival (c. 1200-1210) for his patron who was a crusader. Parzival is based on Chretien, The First Continuation and the Bliocadron Prologue, but with much else. Wolfram prefaces his tale with the story of Kyot, the mythical Provencal poet who is his supposed source. He adds the story of Perceval’s father and gives Perceval a pagan, piebald half-brother. Perceval is related to the Arthurian line through his father and to the grail family through his mother. The grail is a stone, the lapsis exillis. There are many eastern elements and a mystical tone. The grail family and a company of guardians guard the object. Wolfram calls them “templars” but there are women as well as men.

The thirteenth-century Welsh romance, Peredur, differs from the other romances in many ways. Its theme is vengeance for the death of a kinsman, not a grail quest. Peredur sojourns with his mistress, the Empress of Constantinople, for fourteen years. When he returns to Arthur’s court, the loathly damsel berates him for failing to ask questions. He sees a head on a platter swimming in blood as part of a procession at a castle. Later he learns that it is the head of a cousin murdered by witches. These witches teach Peredur the craft of war, and subsequently he kills them.

Another romance with unusual features is Diu Crone written c. 1220 by Heinrich von dem Turlin. Here, Gawain wins the grail which is a reliquary with bread inside. Lancelot and another knight fall asleep, while Gawain sees the grail procession which includes both spear and grail.

The Vulgate Cycle, sometimes called “The Lancelot Grail,” is a long cycle composed between c. 1215-1235 by different hands. Scholars suggest that the Cistercians were the principle authors and that they combined many elements in the earlier romances and further allegorised the story adding the figure of Galahad who follows the grail back to heaven and Sir Bors who returns to Arthur’s court to tell the tale. The Vulgate Cycle is divided into five separate romances, given here in chronological order according to the development of the story, not in order of composition. Estoire del Saint Graal in which Joseph of Arimathea’s son, Josephe, is Grail keeper followed by Alain, the first Fisher King, who places the grail in Corbennic Castle and waits for the Grail knight. In the Estoire de Merlin, Merlin dictates the grail story to Blaise and tells Arthur about Seige Perilous and Galahad. The Prose Lancelot contains the story of Galahad’s birth, and the appearance of Sir Bors who joins Perceval, Gawain and Lancelot on the grail quest. The knights of the Round Table have a vision of the grail at which a voice announces the quest in Queste del Saint Graal. The grail here is the dish from which Jesus ate the Passover lamb. Lancelot’s vision of the Grail is hindered because of his adultery with Guenevere and this reflects the emphasis on the corrupt nature of secular chivalry which is the underlying theme of the Vulgate Cycle. Gawain, Perceval and Bors sail to the Grail Castle in a mysterious ship. Galahad achieves the vision of Holy Grail and the two other knights return to Sarras (the grail castle on earth). Perceval becomes the grail king in this world and Bors returns to Camelot. The final romance, Le Mort le Roi Artu, links the success of the grail quest to the unravelling of the Arthurian world.

Two further romances should be mentioned. Henry Lovelich’s The History of the Holy Grail c. 1450 is a translation from the French Vulgate Cycle, but adds the burial of Joseph at Glastonbury and stresses Merlin’s role as prophet of the Holy Grail. The best known of these treatments is Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur written c. 1470 and published by Caxton in 1485. Malory uses the Vulgate Cycle for the adventures of the “Sangreal.” He emphasises the role of Lancelot, and eventually the Grail is returned to the Holy Land.

Patterns and Themes

In many romances, the grail episode is only one among a number of adventures, and not always the obvious point of the story. The pattern in these complex texts is one of expansion and development. The writers were sometimes aware of other romances on the subject and often indicate their dependence on Chretien or other sources. However, in assessing sources one needs to take into account medieval conventions in romance writing. References to strange sources and hidden books were used to give intensity to the act of composition, and writers did not necessarily intend an audience to take these literally. Although a grail and a procession lie at the centre of these stories, even these are not portrayed consistently. The grail can be a jewelled dish (Chretien), a head floating in blood on a salver (Peredur), a stone (Wolfram), or a ciborium containing bread (Diu Crone). The grail procession includes a bleeding lance (Chretien, Wolfram, de Boron), which is sometimes carried by a member of the procession but at other times in a lance-rest from which blood flows freely and is piped away (First Continuation). Often, the knight observing the procession is shown a broken or flawed sword, and an integral part of the task is to mend this weapon (First, Second, Third Continuations). In other versions (e.g. Second Continuation), a lady gives the knight a stag’s head and hunting dog, which he subsequently loses and must restore before the main task can even be attempted. There is also an earthly counterpart to the grail castle, the Castle Orgellous or Castle of the Maidens (Elucidation Prologue), dominated by women who seem to represent the worldly aspect of chivalry. This adventure also needs to be completed before the return to the grail castle. Frequently Gawain, the embodiment of earthly chivalry, achieves this, while Perceval completes the graft task (Third Continuation). In some romances the knight plays chess with a self-moving magic chess board (Second Continuation). In another variation a corpse, together with a bleeding lance or broken sword, is laid out in a chapel or castle. In Perlesvaus it actually occurs as part of the grail procession. Once the Last Supper material was introduced early in the thirteenth century (Robert de Boron), the contrast between worldly chivalry and chivalry of a higher kind became sharper. The grail quest began to supersede the other quests in Arthurian literature and a new knight, Galahad (Vulgate Cycle), was introduced as the perfect grail knight. The figure of Merlin also became linked to the grail quest (de Boron, Estoire de Merlin, Lovelich, Malory).

Five Arthurian knights achieve a vision of the grail. Subsequent scholarship calls them “the Grail Knights,” but this term is not found in the romances themselves. Perceval and Gawain are often paired; the latter as representatives of worldly chivalry. Gawain has a weakness for ladies and eventually wins a wife at the Castle of the Maidens. Some romances designate Perceval as the expected grail keeper whose adventures test and prepare him for his destiny and specify his relation to characters associated with the object and its castle (Chretien, The Continuations, Perlesvaus, Parzival, Peredur). The other grail knights are Bors, Lancelot and Galahad. Lancelot is denied a full vision of the Grail because of his liaison with Guenevere, and it is his son, Galahad (Vulgate Cycle), who sits in the Siege Perilous, draws a mysterious sword from a stone, is tranformed by the vision of the grail, and disappears from Sarras the earthly home of the grail. Bors sees the grail, and in the later versions (Vulgate Cycle) it is he who returns to Arthur’s court to report on the events in Sarras.

It is worth pointing out, that the grail quest is always accomplished in medieval romances. During the tale the object may be withdrawn when its keepers prove unworthy or the knights are not yet ready, but eventually the destined knight finds it. This contrasts sharply with modern use of the term “holy grail” which implies something desired and sought, but never found. After he sees the grail, Perceval becomes ruler of the grail kingdom, while Galahad follows it into another realm. Malory incorporates the grail quest into his Morte d’Arthur where it supersedes the earthly quests of the Round Table fellowship and provides the catalyst for the ultimate failure of Arthur’s kingdom. In Malory’s source, the Vulgate Cycle, Lancelot’s adultery with Guenevere causes the failure of the grail quest. Malory is more sympathetic to Lancelot, and the idea that immorality was at the root of the Camelot’s fall is not prominent until Tennyson’s revival and re-interpretation of the grail material in the nineteenth century.

Origin and Meaning

Earlier scholarly interest in this material was devoted to considering whether these episodes constituted a single narrative, and if so, what was its original meaning and purpose. On the whole, opinion favoured a myth about an otherworld talisman which medieval romance authors never fully understood yet attempted to explain. In other words, commentators assumed an original unity which became diversified subsequently by a process of corruption during transmission. However, if the texts are read in the sequence in which they were written, the grail material becomes more, not less, consistent over time. This suggests other possibilities, namely that romance writers adapted these diverse motifs into narratives whose meanings varied according to artistic purpose, and that, while the sources may be mythic, they do not have to feature in later contexts.

The grail itself is associated with sustenance, in particular the health of a wounded king. It appears at the beginning of some tales as a mysterious vision in the midst of Arthur’s court and then it becomes the explicit object of the quest (Vulgate Cycle), and occasionally, and without the aid of human hands, it provides food and drink at a banquet in the Grail Castle (Gawain in First Continuation). Its major function, however, is to sustain the wounded king or kings in the mysterious castle. Robert de Boron makes it clear that the Eucharist is the sustaining food, linking the grail through Joseph of Arimathea to the Last Supper story. Chretien de Troyes mentions “un graal” only as a jewelled dish with no aura of holiness, but even Chretien hints that the Fisher King is sustained by sacred food. As well as the grail, the procession in Chretien’s romance includes a lance, a carved salver, several candelabra, and a sword which is shown to the hero beforehand. The table on which Perceval dines with the Fisher King is of ivory and ebony, two substances considered indestructible, and the whole passage is redolent of the kind of evocative but unspecified significance which was the stock-in-trade of medieval romances. Later a hermit describes the grail to Perceval saying that it brought food, but not a fish, to the Fisher King. This implies that “un graal” was a kind of gradulus, a large flat dish used to bring food to the table. The most likely derivation of the word grail is from Latin gradulus, but even if this derivation is correct, the object varies within romance tradition. Sometimes there are two dishes (Perlesvaus), a knight on a bier (Continuations), a head in a dish (Peredur), a stone (Wolfram), or a ciborium/ reliquary (Diu Crone).

The Fisher King’s food is mysterious in the early romances, and this may have prompted Robert de Boron to introduce the idea that the grail was the cup used at the Last Supper and the lance was the Lance of Longinus which pierced Christ’s side and drew the last of his blood. In some romances, the sword seems to become identified with the sword which beheaded John the Baptist (Vulgate Cycle, Diu Crone). A number of factors which do not involve complex conspiracies to hide heretical secrets might have influenced this increasingly religious interpretation. One such development, for example, was the rise of popular piety movements and the increasing popularity of the Eucharist service among the laity (Gillett 1935, 95-110). Another might be that, since the Crusades had been going badly for the Europeans, there might have been increased interest in this kind of material (several of the romance writers’ patrons were themselves crusaders). Again, the alleged discovery of Arthurian antiquities at Glastonbury, which occurred in 1191, might have increased interest in relics associated with biblical events located in the Holy Land. It is interesting that, although a number of relics purporting to be associated with the story of Christ’s Passion (the True Cross, the Lance of Longinus, Veronica’s Veil, the Holy Shroud) were brought into Europe at this period, there are no objects which claimed to be the Holy Grail. Such “grails” as exist are post-medieval. Whatever the source, Robert de Boron’s verse romance written about 1210, placed the grail story on a new and fruitful track. Joseph of Arimathea and the Glastonbury connection (the latter is not clearly mentioned by de Boron) have proved just as durable as the grail, and indeed the two meld at many points (Treharne 1967, chap 2; Lewis 1955, 13-24). Labyrinthine arguments about Templars and eastern mysteries are part of the modern grail interpretation, but it is well to note that the Albigensian Crusade took place at the beginning of the thirteenth century (Sumption 1999, 77-88) and the Templars were suppressed in 1307 (Seward 1974, 197-213) by which time the grail narratives were already well established.

Development of the Holy Grail Motif

The story of Joseph of Arimathea is developed in the context of the biblical apocrypha, specifically the Acts of Pilate which is part of the Gospel of Nicodemus. In the apocrypha, Joseph is imprisoned and freed by Christ (no mention of a grail), but this is expanded in Robert de Boron’s poem and in the prose Estoire del Saint Graal written about twenty years later and using Robert as a primary source. Robert de Boron’s work creates a kind of apocryphal gospel within the romance itself in which Joseph gets the cup of the Last Supper from Pilate, is imprisoned, and visited by Christ, who teaches him the meaning of the grail which sustains Joseph during his imprisonment. At this point, the romance genre takes over once again. Joseph’s brother-in-law Hebron (later called Bron) catches a fish, which is placed on the grail table. This table serves to distinguish the true followers from the corrupt ones, and parallels the Last Supper story even to an outcast figure who dies. The Round Table of Arthurian romance then becomes the third table, succeeding the bible story and the Joseph/Bron grail supper of romance, and it too contains an implied threat to the impure in the form of the Siege Perilous. Robert de Boron may have known a legend which connected Joseph of Arimathea, or perhaps another Joseph, to Glastonbury. As the man who buried Christ, Joseph may have become associated with the grail by extension. Romance writing delighted in complexity and there is no need for secret theories to explain this.

In only one romance is the original language a Celtic language, and that is rather late in the schema of this material. The thirteenth-century Peredur is one of three tales in the Mabinogion that are paralleled by French romances. Whatever their relationship to French romance, there is no indication that they formed a group in Welsh tradition or in the Mabinogion. Alfred Nutt, a significant scholar in the context of grail scholarship, linked them in his edition of Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion (Nutt 1902b). Recently some very exciting work has been done of the language of the Peredur text, and will no doubt help to contextualise it better. [2] Peredur represents something of a problem for the line of argument which favours a mythic Celtic vessel for the source. The grail episode is less prominent than in other romances. As was noted earlier, if there is a theme to this Welsh tale, it is vengeance; the grail is not a mysterious object, but a platter which holds the head of Peredur’s relative. This might fit in as a primitive version of the grail story if Peredur could be shown to be an early tale, but it is not.

The 25,000 lines of rhymed couplets which make up Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival have provided the jumping off point for many unusual theories (Cavendish 1978, 125-83; Godwin 1994, 184-240). Wolfram expands the story of Perceval’s mother and father, adds a pagan piebald brother, and knits together a number of details and relationships. Although there are references to Saracens, they are not the evil pagans of Crusade literature, but one of many groups who oppose the grail, and Wolfram does not mention the Crusades directly. Wolfram’s Grail society is not the family of Arthur with its courtly associations, but a divinely ordained instrument in world affairs, and it is in this context that there are a few references to “templars.” As with many romance writers, Wolfram takes no personal responsibility for the story, but includes an origin tale to explain his sources. He introduces the figure of Kyot, a fictional Provencal poet who learned Arabic in order to read the discarded grail story found in a manuscript at Toledo, which had in turn been recorded by a Jewish astronomer. This complex origin tale about lost manuscripts contrasts effectively with Wolfram’s claims to be an illiterate master storyteller.

Wolfram’s grail is indeed marvellous, a stone called lapsis exillis which was brought to earth by the angels who were neutral in the fight in heaven. It is guarded by a particular family, for whom it provides sustenance and prevents death. There are grail knights (sometimes called “templars,” but this is not necessarily a reference to a particular order especially since there are grail women as well). Parzival’s mother is one of the women, thus the hero is related to Arthur through his father, but to the grail family through his mother. Naturally he knows nothing of this at the beginning of the story. Another difference is that Parzival is already married before he arrives at the grail castle. The current grail king, Anfortas, has been wounded in the groin but cannot die because of the presence of the grail. The grail stone shows a message saying that his successor will come but must ask the question on the first night. Parzival observes the procession and the bleeding spear, says nothing, and two days later is reprimanded by Cundrie, the loathly maiden. There is a meeting with the hermit uncle, an episode found in most romances with grail material. Wolfram calls him Trevizont, and from him Parzival learns about his relationship to the people in the grail castle. As with other romances of this type, Parzival’s story is periodically interrupted with Gawain’s adventures so that the contrast between the two knights and their very different relationship to the ideals of chivalry is maintained. In addition, however, Parzival fights with his pagan (i.e. part-Saracen) half-brother, and after a reconciliation, the two go to the grail castle together. Parzival finally asks what ails Anfortas and becomes grail king. He is joined by his wife and two sons, one of whom, Lohengrin, is the hero of another romance cycle.

Interpretations of the Romances

There is a clear contrast in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival which is not found in earlier romances such as Chretien de Troyes’s, between the courtly world of Arthur, typified by Gawain, and the grail world to which only knights like Parzival can aspire. Wolfram von Eschenbach adds further dimensions to this complex theme, and it is perhaps not surprising that so many secret meanings are attributed to his romance (Godwin 1994, 6-13). As such, it is probably as good a place as any to consider the grail story as an aspect of medieval narrative and folklore, rather than as some unique and inexplicable phenomenon. Wolfram’s stone grail, the tapsis exillis, may be a deliberate distortion of the Latin term for “lapsis ex caelis” (that which fell from heaven) or it may be related to the stone in the Alexander legend, which served as a warning to the earthly conqueror when he attempted to enter the Earthly Paradise. There are possible references in Wolfram to alchemical literature, although these are never clear. Here, too, the mystery may be more apparent than real, since alchemical literature uses many of the same metaphors–hunting, kingship, sexual union–as the romances. The use of colours is important in alchemical thinking, but is not consistent in alchemical sources and certainly does not form a consistent pattern in Wolfram or any other romance.

Wolfram says that the grail knights were sent out in secret, and he occasionally calls them “templars.” This has become a staple of secret message theories, and has been applied to other romances where there is no mention of Templars or secret grail societies. The order of the Knights Templar was not suppressed until a century after Wolfram’s romance was written, although the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars did take place about this time. A number of historians, notably Sir Steven Runciman, have seen links between gnosticism, the Albigensian beliefs and the Templars (Seward 1974, 204). In contrast to the hierarchical position of orthodox Christianity, in which God represents the forces of good whereas evil is the absence of God/good, the basis of dualism is that the cosmos is motivated by two opposing but equal forces. There have been suggestions that the accusations against the Templars indicate that they had absorbed some of these dualist beliefs, and inevitably perhaps a link was made between Albigensians and Templars. Since both were persecuted, this gave them a heroic quality in the eyes of many of the romantic and rationalist historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who tended to regard matters medieval, especially if they concerned the church, in a very negative light (ibid., 277-89). Part of the problem lies in the fact that most of the Templar records were destroyed and they thus present a vacuum. The general consensus now is that the persecution was purely opportunistic, an attempt to undermine an economically powerful faction who had operated largely in a foreign arena but who were beginning to make their presence felt in Europe because of the failure of the crusade (ibid., 204-10). All of this strays somewhat from the topic of the grail, but it provides the background on which many of the later Templar fantasies are built. There is an interesting and often overlooked reference to both Templars and Cathars in the work of Walter Map, a courtier and friend of Henry II. A famous wit and storyteller, he was for many years credited with the authorship of the Vulgate Cycle. Certainly he was contemporary with the writing of many of the romances, and King Henry II’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was the mother of Chretien’s patroness. Whole theories have been built on more tenuous connections in the world of the grail. Map describes a Cathar orgy complete with black cat, osculum infamum, cannibalism and promiscuity, but one feels he had little real contact with them. On the other hand, he mentions that there are stories circulating about the Templars (alas, he gives us no details), but that those whom he has met in England seem harmless enough (Map 1983, 69).

For so long grail scholars assumed that the grail episode had a meaning prior to its inclusion in romance material that it is sometimes surprising to realise that there are no real contemporary references to the grail outside these same romances. There is no equivalent of the popular relic legends such as those attached to the Holy Cross or the Holy Blood or even the Lance of Longinus (Peebles 1911; Jung/Franz 1998, 87-8), and no objects among the extensive medieval relic collections which claimed to be the Holy Grail. Traditions attached to the current crop of grail objects post-date the medieval period. Neither did the church make any comment on the subject. Some commentators have taken this silence as “ominous” (Godwin 1994, 8) but here, too, if the grail episode is a narrative fiction incorporated in the romance genre, then the silence on the part of the medieval church is just silence, and not evidence of an institution fearful of powerful heretical secrets.

A popular basis for origin theories are the “source tales” contained within the romances. Chretien de Troyes says he got his grail tale from a book given to him by his patron, Philip of Flanders. Robert de Boron also cites his patron, the Lord of Montfacon, as a source and, in addition, claims the authority of the church for his story. Wolfram von Eschenbach uses the labyrinthine Kyot tale, while the Vulgate Cycle has knights, Merlin and even God himself telling the story. These elaborate devices do not necessarily point the way to hidden meanings. Creating a spurious authority was a common feature in medieval storytelling; sophisticated, and often quite selfconscious, awareness of narration underlies these tales. The conflation of oral and written in the Vulgate tale especially may tell us more about the medieval world’s awareness of its complex heritage than the origin of the grail material.

The crux of the argument is whether all this rich complexity had a primary meaning which was a fragment not completely understood by medieval authors, or a secret coded into the romances. Alternatively, the material could be explained as a set of motifs deriving partly from folk, partly from literary, tradition and developing diverse, but related, meanings within the context of the romance genre. Eugene Vinaver’s work represents something of a watershed for the latter view. His theory of “interlacing” presented a coherent theory of romance composition which gave primacy to the skill of the author and still recognised the variety of sources, both literary and traditional (Vinaver 1941). More recent studies also emphasise the techniques of narration. All of this creates a context in which the skill of individual authors, and the resemblance between romance and traditional narrative forms such as folktale, can be discussed without these very speculative theories about survival and fragmentation.

Early Grail Scholarship: Alfred Nutt and Celtic Myth

As already mentioned, current popular grail writing, in its search for prior meanings and secret codes, makes use of assumptions rooted in what was respectable academic discourse at the beginning of the twentieth century. Central to the creation of this discourse is the work of Alfred Trubner Nutt, president of the Folklore Society at the end of the last century. Jessie Weston wrote that Nutt’s main contribution to Celtic and romance studies lay in illuminating the role of Celtic tradition and in pointing out that evolution rather than literary invention was the dominating force in the development of Arthurian romance (Weston 1910, 512-14). This comment says as much about Weston’s attitude as it does about Nutt’s, but it provides a respectable starting point which helps to account (ultimately) for the fact that books with titles such as The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail (Baigent et al. 1984), The Shroud and the Grail (Currer-Briggs 1987), The Sword and the Grail (Sinclair 1992), The Ninth Century and the Holy Grail (Stein 1988), The Search for the Grail (Phillips 1995), The Mystic Grail: The Challenge of the Arthurian Quest (Matthews 1997), The Flying Saucer Vision: The Holy Grail Restored (Michell 1967) manage to get published. The point of contact between the literary grail romances and popular speculation is Nutt’s thesis that a grail myth existed in early Celtic culture and that medieval romance authors re-worked material trying to make sense of an ancient myth which they no longer understood. Many of these popular works accept the idea that the grail story existed prior to the romances, but assume that the authors of medieval romance were members of an elite which was privy to some cosmic insight and, rather than rewriting a story which they only partially understood, used the romance genre to conceal secret information from members of an establishment which was seeking to suppress it. Coded as a romance story, the secret escaped the notice of this antagonistic establishment until the code could be broken and the secret revealed. The ideas prevalent in these popular works are considered in the following section, but first one needs to examine the original academic criticism from which they developed.

In 1888 Alfred Nutt published The Holy Grail with Especial Reference to its Celtic Origin under the aegis of the Folklore Society. This seminal work examined material in Irish, Welsh and Scots Gaelic relating to Otherworld vessels which had magic properties. These, together with vengeance tales and stories of heroes seeking supernatural objects and/or Otherworld women, were put forward as the ultimate source for the grail story. Nutt was not the first scholar to explore Celtic food-producing vessels as a source for this material. The earliest suggestion came from a neo-druid writer, Nash Williams, who noted the similarity between the grail and an object included among the Arthurian regalia in traditional Welsh lists. The relationship between the grail story and Celtic tradition was placed in a folklore context by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1878 (Baring-Gould 1976, 16-22). Ten years later Alfred Nutt published his study of the grail legend detailing the argument for a Celtic origin. He compared material in medieval romances with analogous motifs in medieval Irish and Welsh texts and with modern folklore material (Nutt 1888). Both in this work and in his subsequent writing on the subject, Nutt drew on and acknowledged a number of sources. Among them were newly edited texts from noted Irish scholars like Kuno Meyer, a substantial amount of recently collected folk narrative from collectors such as Douglas Hyde, Campbell of Islay and Paul Sebillot (Nutt 1889a; 1891; 1899; 1902a) and the Mabinogion tales from Charlotte Guest’s translation which he re-published with his own commentary (Nutt 1902b).

All this fitted neatly into the theory that Celtic tradition had survived since pagan times and that Christianity had provided a force for preserving that tradition while introducing significant transformations and adaptations. Initially Nutt accepted J. G. Frazer’s theories about a myth concerning the death and rebirth of a vegetation god, and Nutt felt that such a myth was central to Celtic mythology. Although he did not pursue this notion, it became essential to the grail theories of a scholar whom he encouraged to edit and publish Arthurian romance, namely Jessie Weston (Weston 1894; 1897; 1904; 1906-9; 1920). For Nutt, the real meaning of the grail lay in the original Celtic myths, while the romances preserved this meaning to a lesser degree. The noted French scholar Gaston Paris came to much the same conclusion quite independently, but Nutt used the then-current theories of folklore to substantiate his theory. For him, as for so many of his contemporaries, human intellect, while progressive, never left the past entirely behind but always retained “distinct marks of the ruder simpler stage out of which [it] emerged” (Nutt 1889b, 88). The Celts seemed the ideal embodiment of this. Their lively “pagan” imagination was fashionable thanks to such writers as Matthew Arnold, and was about to become more so in the next decade under the spur of W. B. Yeats’s romantic ideas about Celtic culture (Yeats 1959). In addition, the prevailing view about the contact between the Celts and Christianity provided a mechanism for the transformation (and inevitable distortion) of myth. Thus the, often quite dramatic, inconsistencies between early Celtic tradition and themes in the medieval romances which incorporate grail material could be accounted for by the distorting effects of oral transmission and the adaptation of pagan myths to the context of Christian doctrine.

Nutt’s folklore analysis of the grail has had an enormous influence. One hundred and twenty years later the idea that the original meaning of these romances lies in the distant past outside the romances themselves is still a basic assumption among popular writers. Through the work of R. S. Loomis it continued to be a major concern among medievalists into the 1960s when Loomis’s linguistic assumptions began to be questioned; even now there is still a trickle of books which see medieval literature as a distortion of mythic material. In a volume for his “Mythology and Folklore” series produced for the general public, Nutt called the grail romances “the happy hunting ground of mystical enthusiasts” (Nutt 1902a, iv); his own rigorous studies were an attempt to redress this.

More than a hundred years later, even if attitudes to sources and subject have changed, many of his perceptions are still worth considering and any serious study of the grail material must begin with his scholarship. Although he himself never learned any Celtic languages, translations were supplied by noted specialists such as Kuno Meyer, Julius Pokorny, John Rhys and Eleanor Hull, while Jessie Weston provided continental material from medieval French, German and Dutch romances. A number of interesting studies followed his lead: Dorothy Kempe’s The Legend of the Grail (1905); A. C. L. Brown’s The Origin of the Grail Legend (1943); Helaine Newstead’s Bran the Blessed (1939); and, most influential of all, the work of R. S. Loomis ([1927] 1935; 1949; 1956; 1959; 1963). Julius Pokorny’s study Der Graal in Irland und die mythischen Grundlage de Graalsage (Pokorny 1918) is interesting, both because of the early date and because it represents the Celtic theory in a German language work (not perhaps very surprising, considering that Pokorny was a Celtic language specialist).

Later Lewis Spence was to combine the idea of Celtic origin with a suggestion in Nutt’s early work. This set a mythic food-producing vessel at the centre of a Celtic agricultural myth (of the type Frazer had created). Spence’s interest in shamanism and ancestor cults led him back to the neo-druidic speculations of the eighteenth century (which Nutt had rejected), especially speculations on druidism as proto-Christianity. The result is a Celtic Christian mystery religion which centres on the grail as a mystic experience (Spence 1995). In addition Spence distinguished between the benevolent occult arts and black magic. His attitude to Germanic tradition during the war was coloured by this, and he certainly contributed to the idea of a black magic conspiracy at the heart of the Nazi hierarchy (Spence 1944). In his defence Spence’s ideas, particularly when he called for the revival of Celtic religion as a bulwark against the corruption of modern world, have more to do with Nietzsche than the excesses of Celtic romanticism, and there is no evidence of his involvement with the Order of the Golden Dawn or any other occult body. He created a Celtic religion out of a magpie collection of Scottish folklore, snippets of Celtic texts (always in translation), fragments of Alfred Nutt’s theories, hints of George Freidrich Neitzche and oddments of Native American lore. The proposed link between the grail episode and early Celtic myth was not the only suggestion put forward to explain the grail.

Early Grail Scholarship: Alternative Origin Theories

In the 1890s, about the time that Nutt was taking a serious look at the Celtic ramifications, others began to look at the grail as a symbolic experience. Rudolf Steiner was among the first to suggest that the Grail Quest was actually a personal initiation experience coded into a narrative (Steiner 1963). Rudolf Steiner’s intuitions about the grail as a symbol were taken up by W. J. Stein who put forward the idea that “grail experiences” began to be important in Charlemagne’s court in the eighth and ninth centuries and then again in the twelfth. He identified the grail guardians with Charlemagne’s “heirs.” Stein suggested that the grail material, especially in Wolfram’s romance could be interpreted as real, although hidden, history (Stein 1988). Jessie Weston’s eccentric work on the “mystery rituals” allegedly behind these romances is an excellent example of the neo-Fraserian approach. Weston saw in the romances the sexual initiation of the knights which was a survival of ancient mystery religions which had to be disguised to escape the notice of Christianity (Grayson 1992).

The Meaning of the Grail in Popular Theory

Spence’s strongest influence seems to be on modern Celticism, particularly the idea of Celtic Christianity and its relation to the grail. Writers like John Matthews clearly owe a great deal to his work (Matthews 1997). The theme of quest as initiation into some kind of mystery’ has also proved very fruitful. British occult interpretations like those of A. E. Waite, G. R. S. Mead and Jessie Weston proliferated (Wood 1998, 15-24; 1999, 3-12). The idea of quest as personal initiation, too, figures prominently in the new Celticism (Matthews 1997); and Steiner’s interpretation has proved very fruitful. Rudolf Steiner himself has been suggested as the embodiment of the grail as part of an elaborate conspiracy theory linked to the theft of a relic alleged to be the Lance of Longinus from the Habsburg treasury in Vienna and involving occultism at the heart of the Nazi hierarchy (Ravenscroft 1973).

A link between the grail and the Crusades has also been seen as significant. Eastern Christian rites in which a lance-like knife is used to cut the bread at the Eucharist service have been put forward as a possible source for the grail (Holmes and Klenke 1959), although the grail procession as a whole bears little resemblance to these rites. As early as 1909 a more general eastern context was suggested and an origin in Persian tradition ultimately leading back to the followers of Ghenghis Khan in Iran (Jung/Franz 1998, 106-9; Iselin 1909, 7-12 and 61-75). Though Ghenghis Khan seems an unlikely Grail hero, the idea has been reworked recently by applying Dumezil’s Indo-European theories to all Arthurian literature. A recent, and rather contentious, article in Folklore applied this idea to a group of Sarmatian mercenaries who settled in northern Britain in the second century. While it is difficult to accept that a small group of mercenaries would dominate a larger culture group rather than be absorbed, it is at least worth pointing out that the Roman leader of this band was a man named Lucius Artorius Castor (Wadge 1987, 204-15).

The grail episodes in romances have also been said to contain traces of alchemical and hermetic lore (Kahane 1965). Jungian analysts link the grail with alchemical and hermetic interpretations so that the Quest becomes an initiation, or “integration” in Jungian terms. The most complete and most intelligently written of these studies is that by Emma Jung, completed after her death by Marie Louise von Franz (Jung/Franz 1998). Another archetypal approach is Helen Adolf’s study Visio Pacis which considers the grail theme in the medieval romances and in subsequent literature. She treats contemporary events such as the Crusades as a possible background for the grail romances (rather than a source for mysterious themes) and suggests the Templars might have been a model for the grail knight and his devotion to a higher chivalry (Adolf 1960).

Another grail theory favours the Templars over the Celts, and centres on the town of Rennes-le-Chateau in southern France. The ideas, which were published in the 1970s, have spawned an entire industry (Baigent et al 1984). Here, alleged links between the Holy Grail, the Templars and the Cathars go back to gnosticism, and the medieval legend concerning Christ and Mary Magdelene is added for good measure. The claim that there is a continuous dualist alternative which challenges the prevailing orthodox Christian view is a study in itself (Wood 1998, 15-24). The suggestion here is that the “grail” is a person rather than a thing, a lost royal heir. The idea owes much to Stein’s ideas, presented in the 1930s, that the Grail is linked to Charlemagne and his successors. Stein’s work forms the background to the assumptions made in The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail (Baigent et al. 1984) which links the Capetian king Dagobert and the Merovingians to a legend in Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend in which Christ married Mary Magdelene and had children. According to this theory, the descendants of Christ are the heirs of Dagobert, one of whom was interviewed for the book. The assumptions underlying this study have been questioned in a recent BBC documentary, but they illustrate two essential features of much of this writing. These are, detective story analysis in which similarities are taken as proof of influence and connection, and an increasing tendency to refer to other popular works on the subject rather than to original source material. The Holy Blood theory has blossomed in recent years. Claims about occult geometrical patterns in certain classical paintings have been applied to the landscape around Rennes-le-Chateau (Fanthorpe 1991) to “locate” the tomb of Christ and to link the Roslyn Chapel “grail” in Scotland with buildings constructed by “Templars” in Nova Scotia (Sinclair 1992). The pattern of an explicit or an implicit group of guardians, a theme introduced in Wolfram’s Parzival, now links Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and perhaps most intriguingly (or bizarrely) Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum which was written as a satire on this very theory (Fanthorpe 1991).

In most of these romances the grail is a cup used at the Last Supper and there are several actual vessels that claim to be the Holy Grail. The earliest is an “emerald” vessel, the sacro cratino associated with Genoa. A sixteenth-century chronicle calls it “Saint Grail” and associates it with Christ or with King Arthur, which suggests this refers to the romances themselves rather than their sources (Jung/Franz 1998, 164). The sacro cratino was allegedly taken back to France by Napoleon and found to be green glass. Napoleon functions as a generic villain in many of these stories (his theft of the Templar records, for example) in providing a good excuse why something has gone missing. Two objects called confusingly the “Antioch Cup” and the “Cup of Antioch” were suggested as candidates for the grail in the 1930s. The former is a magnificent silver eucharist cup (now dated several centuries later) which is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The other is a glass krater, probably near-eastern glass, brought back from the crusades and fitted with a leather case to protect it some time during the Middle Ages (Cackett 1935, 7 and 23-7). There is supposedly a “grail” in Russia, and there is certainly a stone chalice in Valencia cathedral.

The beginning of this century was a peak period for grail objects. The mystic Tudor de la Pole who was much involved in transforming Glastonbury into a centre for Arthurian/Grail/Christian activity had an experience which led him to “discover” a blue glass bowl which he believed to be the grail and to expect a “third chosen one” as grail guardian. The object is still at the Chalice Gardens in Glastonbury (Villiers 1968, 26-9; Lehmann 1979, 13-24). The Powells of Nanteos, outside Aberystwyth, possessed a healing cup, recently identified as a fourteenth-century mazer bowl. The Powell family owned the site of Strata Florida Abbey and in 1905 this cup, which had been used locally since the 1880s as a healing object, suddenly acquired the title “Holy Grail.” [3] Another candidate is a Roman alabaster cup in the possession of the Vernon family of Hawkstone manor. The alleged trail leads back through a medieval Welsh poem included in the story of Fulk le fitz Warin, a romance entitled “La Folie de Perceval” in B.N. Ms. 12577 (a compendium of French grail romance material) and a reference in the fifth-century by a Greek historian to the grail being taken to Britain for safety (Phillips 1995). Alas, there is no Welsh poem in the Anglo-Norman romance which tells the story of the outlaw knight, Fulk. There is no such romance as “La Folie de Perceval” in this particular French manuscript, nor is there a reference to the grail in the writings of the fifth-century Greek historian, Olympiadorus. But this work, like so many others is full of mysteries, codes and exciting “discoveries” overlooked by establishment historians and academics.


This lecture posed two initial questions–whether a series of repeated motifs necessarily implies a common tale and a prior source, and whether the “grail problem” is an artefact of the methodology of grail criticism.

It has been suggested recently that early medieval Irish culture had an awareness of ancient heritage and to some extent of the transition between oral and written (Nagy 1997). Whether the writers of medieval romance working in the context of Norman culture had the same perception we do not know. Some of them refer to earlier sources, such as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Kyot or the book given to Chretien by his patron. These sources are likely to be literary conceits which need to be seen in the more general context in which writing was validated by an appeal to authority rather than by claims of uniqueness. Nevertheless, this certainly suggests that writers of romance recognised this material as an inheritance of some kind. Many of the motifs do resonate with earlier material such as Celtic food-producing vessels, although it is difficult to determine which, if any, myths concerned this material in earlier Celtic cultures; certainly to see the material as the survival of an important cult ritual goes beyond the evidence. The structure of the romances is broadly similar to the structure of Marchen in that both focus on the actions of a character who undergoes a series of adventures leading to an ultimate achievement. Here, traditional material has no doubt had an impact on a literary form, but one must caution against interpreting the formal logical structure shared by both folktale and romance as a secret code. The romances themselves show too much variation to be reduced to a single set of events and any attempt to reconstruct a coherent narrative at an earlier stage involves too many of the survivalist fallacies which folklore methodology has, quite sensibly, rejected.

The answer to the second question depends on the definition of “grail problem.” The methodology used in many popular works is an eccentric application of ideas which were once current in academic circles, but the process itself is interesting from a folklore point of view as a way of reclaiming the past. Secret codes link the past with future hopes. They imply that aspects of the present which are disturbing can be overcome by reinstating a past Utopia. Such theories are now worked out in the arena of mass media, in publishing, newspaper and television. They manifest the characteristics of a real living tradition in their ability to attract material and to keep re-forming it in ever more intricate variations.


[1] The focus of this article is to examine the stream of popular grail material rather than academic grail scholarship as such. This is covered in medieval and specialist Arthurian bibliographies. There are, however, a number of useful general sources which survey the material without arguing for any particular theory. For example, there are: a number of relevant articles and bibliographical references in Norris J. Lacey’s The New Arthurian Encyclopaedia (1986); excerpts and commentary in King Arthur in Legend and History, edited by Richard White (1997); Richard Cavendish’s King Arthur and the Grail (1978, 125-83 and 209-11) is still a balanced survey and introduction to the material; as are Charles Williams’s and C. S. Lewis’s study Arthurian Torso (1948). Arthurian web sites focus on the concerns of the popular grail genre, although they change too often to be listed. One such can be accessed at http:\

[2] Glenys Goetinck’s study, Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends (1975), has been extended by textual work conducted by Dr Peter Thomas, Celtic Department, Cardiff, which will appear in a forthcoming book on Peredur edited by Dr Sioned Davies.

[3] The Nanteos Cup and other “holy grail” objects are the subject of an extended chapter in Nanteos edited by Gerald Morgan, forthcoming in spring 2000. Also see Evans 1937.

Representative Editions and Translations of the Grail Romances

Perceval/Le conte du graal

Arthurian Romances of Chretien de Troyes. Translated by William W. Kibler. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.


Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Translated by N. Bryant. In Arthurian Studies, no. 5, ed. D. S. Brewer. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982. Contains: The First Perceval Continuation, The Second Perceval Continuation; Gerbert De Montreuil, Perceval Continuation [the third continuation]; Manessier, Perceval Continuation

Robert de Boron

Le Roman de l’Estoire dou Graal. Edited by William Nitze. Paris: Champion, 1927.

Didot Perceval

The Didot Perceval. Edited by William Roach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1941 (this edition was translated by D. Skeeles and published by University of Washington Press in 1966).


The Elucidation: A Prologue to the Conte del Graal. Edited by A. Thompson. New York: Publications of the Institute of French Studies, 1931.


Perlesvaus: or The High Book of the Grail. Translated by N. Bryant. Ipswich: Brewer, 1978.


“Peredur.” In Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. London: Dent, 1949; revised edn. 1989.


Parzival. Translated by A. T. Hatto. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

The Vulgate Cycle

The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances. Edited by H. O. Sommer. 8 vols. Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1909-16; reprint New York: Carnegie Institution, 1979. The Quest of the Holy Grail. Edited and translated by P. M. Matarasso. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Diu Crone

The Crown (Diu Crone) by Heinrich von dem Turlin. Translated by J. W. Thomas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.


The History of the Holy Grail. Edited by F. J. Furnivall. 4 vols. London: Trubner, 1874-1905.


The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Edited by Eugene Vinaver. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.

Other References Cited

Adolf, Helen. Visio Pacis: Holy City and Grail. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1960.

Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail. London: Corgi, 1984.

Barber, Richard. King Arthur Hero and Legend. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1992.

Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Holy Grail. 1878; reprint Llanfynydd: Unicom Press, 1976.

Brown, A. C. L. The Origin of the Grail Legend. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1943.

Cackett, S. W. Gentle. The Antioch Cup. London: Palestine and Bible Lands Exhibition, 1935.

Cavendish, Richard. King Arthur and the Grail. London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.

Currer-Briggs, Noel. The Shroud and the Grail. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987.

Evans, George Eyre. `Cwpan Nanteos’. Cardiganshire Antiquarian Transactions, no. 12 (1937):29-30 and 58.

Fanthorpe, Lionel and Patricia. Rennes-Le-Chateau: Its Mysteries and Secrets. Middlesex: BelleVue Books, 1991.

Gillett, H. M. The Story of the Relics of the Passion. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1935.

Godwin, Malcolm. The Holy Grail: Its Origins, Secrets and Meaning Revealed. London: Labyrinth Books, 1994.

Goetinck, Glenys. Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1975.

Grayson, Janet. “In Quest of Jessie Weston.” In Arthurian Literature XI, ed. Richard Barber. 1-80. Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1992.

Holmes, Urban T. and Amelia Klenke. Chretien de Troyes and the Grail. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

Hopkins, Andrea, ed. Chronicles of King Arthur. London: Collins and Brown, 1995.

Iselin, L. E. Der morgenslandische Ursprung der Grallegende. Halle, 1909.

Jung, Emma and Marie-Louise von Franz. The Grail Legend. 1960. 2nd edn. Translated by Andrea Dykes. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Kahane, Henry and Renee. The Krater and the Grail. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965.

Kempe, Dorothy. The Legend of the Holy Grail. London: K. Paul, Trubner and Co, 1905.

Lacey, Norris J. The New Arthurian Encyclopaedia. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1986.

Lehmann, Rosamund. My Dear Alexias: Letters from Wellesley Tudor Pole to Rosamund Lehmann. Sudbury: Neville Spearman, 1979.

Lewis, Revd Lionel Smithett. St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury. London: James Clarke and Co., 1955.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance. New York: Columbia Press 1927; revised edn 1935.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. Arthurian Tradition and Chretien de Troyes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. Wales and the Arthurian Legend. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1956.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1959.

Loomis, Roger Sherman, ed. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.

Map, Walter. De Nugis Curialiam: Courtiers Trifles. Edited and translated by M. R. James; revised by C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Markale, Jean. Le Graal. Paris: Retz, 1982.

Marx, Jean. La Legende Arthurienne et le Graal. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1952.

Matthews, John. The Mystic Grail: The Challenge of the Arthurian Quest. London: Thorsens, 1997.

Michell, John F. The Flying Saucer Vision: The Holy Grail Restored. London: Sidgewick and Jackson, 1967.

Nagy, Joseph Falaky. Conversing with Angels and Ancients. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997.

Newstead, Helaine. Bran the Blessed in Arthurian Romance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.

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