The Holy Grail by Richard Barber
Harvard, 488 pp, $27.95
Reviewed by Momo Sugawara
The literary and historical mystery of the Holy Grail has been a recurring motif in Western tradition for eight centuries. Richard Barber, Britain’s leading authority of medieval texts, traces the legend surrounding the Holy Grail from its beginning with Chrtien de Troyes’s The Story of the Grail, an Arthurian romance of the twelfth century. In de Troyes, the youthful knight Perceval first sees the Grail, which marks the nadir of fortune for Perceval, as well as the beginning of his redemption. Barber than analyzes the motif through Victorian enthusiasms and into twentieth century references. In de Troyes, Perceval’s lack of compassion for the wounded Fisher King condemns the latter to continue living a cursed existence. T.S. Eliot’s adoption of de Troyes’s tale has made the Waste Land one of the twentieth century’s most famous images linked to the Grail. The Waste Land is a consequence of Perceval’s thoughtlessness; the wounded Fisher King cannot lead his army into battle to defend his kingdom. Barber continues to discuss twentieth century usage of the Grail with an analysis of the rising popularity of “irreverent grails” and jokes made at the expense of knightly adventure, such as in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Here the grail appears in the castle of beautiful temptresses with a delight for spanking, to whom the knight Galahad happily resigns as a part of his holy quest.
Barber crosses the border of literature and spirituality to seek the history of the motif, its creation and subsequent evolution. After comparing the different avatars of the Holy Grail, Barber’s study returns to the Grail’s offer to us, the possibility of perfection. It functions to make the Grail out of the reach for those in the ordinary world; it reflects the hopes that arise from the challenges of the human spirit. This interplay between imagination and belief is the guiding force behind the Grail as we know it today.