How could one not love a book that deals with the Holy Grail by looking both at the Arthurian legends and the Monty Python films? I finished this book last night, as 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', a film mentioned in the book, was playing in the background. Actually, I bought this book as a gift for a friend (who loaned it back to me) as her family has its own Grail legend, with the lore of her family from Wales holding that the cup was (or may even yet be) in the possession of her kin. As she returns to Britain in the winter to do some exploring, I thought this text would be a good primer to various issues surrounding the Grail, and Barber's text does not disappoint.
Particularly in an age where popular literature has a re-visioning of the Grail being not the cup of Christ, but rather a blood-line, to look at the way the Grail has been portrayed over time is fascinating. The first section of the book examines some of the earliest literature about the Grail - it was not in fact part of the earliest of Arthurian legends, but later grafted on. The French author Chretien de Troyes is credited with the first Grail story, who used romantic imagery and ecclesial symbols freely in this tale. It seems to be an original tale, so far as Barber is concerned - he finds no evidence that this was part of a legend oral or written that was handed down. Chretien de Troyes was author of many medieval romantic tales, and unfortunately did not live long enough to finish the one about the Grail.
The story was picked up by later authors, most notably Robert de Boron and Wolfram von Eschenbach. The tale became increasingly developed and embellished, continuing to draw in more and more characters - Perceval, Galahad, Lancelot, and more. Not all of the authors agree with each other (just as modern interpretations in novels, films, and 'historical' works also differ with each other), and Barber does a good, ecumenical job at laying out the different issues. But through the confusion, Barber draws forth these questions: 'Why should the new genre of romance aspire to take on the great problems of theology and the highest moments of mystical experience? But they remain in the background while we turn first to ask our own version of Perceval's Grail question: "What is the Grail?" '
Barber's second section is the most informative section, looking at issues of relics, legends, histories true and false, theological questions, and mystical images. The Grail remained an ever-present image in the medieval world because of the natural association with the Eucharistic cup, present at church services throughout Christendom on a regular basis, all being believed in this pre-Reformation society to be the bearer of the actual blood of Christ. The Eucharist is a piece of medieval drama and choreography as well as the centre of artistic expression (many churches and cathedrals also served as the local 'art galleries' of a sort, and also the place where music was performed on a regular basis). The Eucharist was a source of nourishment, reminiscent of a day when the communal feast was a real meal, and symbolically linking to the kind of spiritual nourishment envisioned in many of the Grail tales.
While stories of the Grail would fade in popularity as the church became worried about heresy and division (and thus tried to define a more narrow focus on acceptable kinds of interpretation and expression), the Grail idea was resurrected in the post-Reformation era, and again in the modern era. If the second section of Barber's text was the most informative, the third section was the most fun. It looks at different ways that the Grail has been presented in the modern world, both secular and academic-sacred, and asks anew the question, what is the Grail? Perhaps there is no Grail, such as in the Monty Python film; perhaps it is a piece of knowledge or understanding, as in the film 'Excalibur' by John Boorman. The revival of interest in the Grail coincided with interest in medieval, mystical and Celtic subjects; the cross-currents of influences in areas such as art and music extend to the idea that many find the opening musical sequence of a post-modern Celtic/British film like 'Excalibur' to be very fitting, not realising that it is Romantic German music from a Wagner opera, tied to a different kind of ancient legend (although Wagner would become a fan of the Grail retellings, adding his own with the opera 'Parsifal', which would explicitly link the Grail with sexuality and femininity).
Barber himself confesses to this being a different kind of book from the one he envisioned writing. 'I believed that I would be engaged with pagan myth and the marvellous Celtic stories on which much of Arthurian romance is founded, and that the first shape of the Grail would be dimly discernible in the remote past.' Instead, he found a treasure trove of theology, art, literature, even popular culture in the mix.
There are indexes and appendices that make this book useful for the scholar, as well as generous notes. There are colour plates which show paintings, tapestries and other works of art that are Grail-related, and many more grayscale graphics and prints throughout the text. The bibliography itself is thirty pages of small print.
This is a fascinating and fun text.