Books: In the frame: The holy grail

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ABOUT 1200 AD, the Holy Grail took hold of the literary imagination. Magisterially realised in long poems by Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, it soon became the ultimate quest-object of the Middle Ages. It was an object in both senses: what is travelled towards and what is substantial, destination and solid reality.

'Real' is an important word in The Holy Grail: Its Origins, Secrets & Meaning Revealed (Bloomsbury pounds 14.99), Malcolm Godwin's popular pictorial history of this strange artefact. The common conception of the Grail (Christ's cup at the Last Supper, containing His blood) arose from a linguistic crux: the mystical coincidence (or plain confusion) of the phrases San Greal, the holy vessel, and Sang Real, 'Blood Royal', the kingly blood-line stemming from Jesus. In one strain of the legend, Joseph of Arimathea brings the Grail to Europe, establishing a regal line, and given the related doctrines of the divine right of kings and of transubstantiation, it is not surprising that this crux was to prove such a powerful one.

The Grail legend came to the fore at a time when Europe was in turmoil. Crusaders were returning full of esoteric knowledge, heretics were challenging Rome, war's dark shadow fell everywhere. The age was ripe for renewal and transformation. Christian tenets of redemption and salvation dovetailed with the rites of cleansing associated with knightly quests; Arabic alchemy, astrology and mathematics fed into beliefs about metamorphosis, predestination and magic numbers. It was in such a climate that two branches of the Grail's three-fold legend - the Christian and the Chymical - flourished.

The third branch, the Celtic, came earlier. Its main exponent is the Welsh poem Peredur - Chretien's Conte del Graal and Wolfram's Parzival being major representatives of the Christian and the Chymical branches. Proceeding from fertility myths surrounding a Cauldron of Rebirth, the Celtic versions were pre-eminently female in spirit (fuelling the later tradition of courtly love) and associated with the 'sovranty' of the land. The cauldron-grail as vessel is significant, a figure for the womb (in one version, literally Mary Magdalene's womb) and cyclical plenitude but also something more. Linking the Celtic and Christian branches is another eucharistic crux, cors benoiz and cors benoit, respectively the Celtic Blessed Horn of Plenty and the Blessed Body of our Lord, 'cors' having both meanings in Old French.

It was probably from the Celtic branch, too, that the myth of the Fisher King (Keeper of the Grail, grandson of Joseph of Arimathea, Amfortas in Wagner's version of the Parsifal story) sprang. He once ruled over a fertile realm, but when he was maimed 'between the thighs' his kingdom turned barren. In some versions this is because the 'Maidens of the Wells' were violated, the female principle (if you want to see it in a psychoanalytical light) betrayed. It is the Fisher King - so called because it hurts him too much to hunt on horseback and he has to fish instead - whom the hero (Perceval, Gawain, Galahad) must seek out during his initiation journey, and heal by asking the right question and taking possession of the relic. In effect the Grail hero, progressing from a primal state of innocence, evolves into a 'rich' Fisher King, redeeming the time and renewing the Wasteland.

T S Eliot's poem draws substance from these deep wells. (It is the least of the editorial failings of Malcolm Godwin's book that Eliot is spelt 'Elliot' in the glossary.) Godwin, the 'author and recluse', and possibly our only half-decent mystic, made his name with books about spirituality called Unknown Man and Angels: An Endangered Species. While the historical parts of this book are enjoyable and informative, the section in which Godwin tries to apply the myth to our own culture is severely underpowered. With the exception of a few captions to film stills (the Monty Python spoof, The Fisher King, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) he does not mention any of the great modern quests, such as those of the Romantic movement in France, or even the vagabondage of Beckett's Molloy.

For all that, the images Godwin has gleaned from the mass of Grail material are undeniably powerful: the three drops of blood on the snow that throw Perceval/Peredur into a trance; Gawain defending himself from a riot by using a giant chessboard to deflect projectiles; the baby Merlin born covered with hairs; a knight immobilised in a glass cage; 10 mechanical leopards that turn and make harmonious sounds when the wind blows . . . The music is strong, as Tennyson puts it, but what does it all mean? It is for us to fill the tale's empty vessel. The same emptiness keeps us reading through all the knightly trials, the object always receding, and returning to the source, which is the thing itself.