Fans of the perpetually popular Monty Python and the Holy Grail will no doubt get a kick out of the fact that Queste del Saint Graal—upon which the movie is based, is a real literary work in its own right. Although not nearly as entertaining as whether swallows can carry coconuts, the story of Arthur’s knights all leaving to seek the mystical “cup of Christ” is perhaps one of the lesser-known but highly significant classic works worth reading.
Here, the legend of King Arthur takes on a dual mantle of allegory and mysticism. It’s an allegory because there is clear symbolism in each phase of the quest. But it’s also a myth, and it’s a myth with a very heavy Christian gloss on it. For all the gloss, however, it’s a very powerful story about what we must do in our own lives to achieve what we ultimately want.
Whether that is the cauldron of plenty, the Grail itself, or simply a better understanding of ourselves.
To reiterate, I am specifically looking at the world named Queste del Saint Graal–which appears sometime in the late 1100s, much like the other Arthurian literature. LIke Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the author of the Queste is also lost to history.
Hidden Celtic symbols in a Christian gloss.
Medieval Christianity has been on the receiving end of abuse since the Protestant Reformation. Some of it, granted, is warranted. Most of it, however, is because petty minds and pettier superficial morality close us off that there is something more going on in stories like the Holy Grail.
For instance, is it really the “cup of Christ” here? No, that is a Christian gloss for something which we find in Irish myth—Dagda’s Cauldron. Haven’t you ever wondered why cauldrons are associated with witchcraft? Well, that is a tiny sliver of Celtic culture you’re seeing preserved. The Cauldron gave life to the Tuatha de Danann when they were hurt in battle and a never-ending supply of food.
The quest itself? That’s nothing new either. Celtic myth cycles from Scotland to Brittany are full of heroes undertaking quests. In fact, Dagda’s Cauldron itself is a major player in one of those quests—the original clash of cultures between the Tuatha de Danann and the Formorri. During one of the major battles between the two groups, the Cauldron helped the Tuatha de Danann on the battlefield.
So, why the Christian gloss? Well, I keep saying this, but again, our ancestors weren’t stupid. Of course, Christians latched on to the idea of the life-giving cauldron. Didn’t the chalice during the celebration of mass essentially do the same thing? To them, a life-giving cauldron was just confirmation of what they saw in church.
Same with the quest. The quest was to do some great thing, to win some great reward. Well, to them that was the essence of the Christian life and the struggle against sin.
They knew a good idea when they saw one and they didn’t hesitate to take it.
Mind you, the opposite of this is also true. Witches and cauldrons were associated with evil eventually, but again, that’s the work of petty and corrupt minds. And Christianity is just as full of those as any other religion. They’re just easier to spot because there are more people looking for them.
The quest and grail’s true meaning.
When the Law of Attraction hit the mainstream in 2006, the phenomenon that resulted wasn’t really all that new or different. Myths like the quest for the grail have all said the same thing for thousands of years. In Queste del Saint Graal, the ultimate moral is that to be worthy of the grail–the thing which is best—you have to be the best too.
In short, you have to be Christ-like in order to achieve possession of the Christ vessel. While on the quest, each knight realizes his own shortcomings. Melias, in the first adventure of the quest, is too egotistical and too covetous. Gawain, in the second adventure, lacks fortitude and can’t follow through on his boasts.
One by one, each knight discovers he can go no further than his failings allow and they have to turn aside to lodge in monasteries and with hermits to heal both physically and spiritually. Ultimately, only one can find the Grail. For Chretien de Troyes, this was Percival. In the anonymous Queste, this is Galahad.
So, does this mean that only the “perfect” ones can find the Grail? Well, if you take the story at face value, then that is the conclusion you will inevitably arrive at. But is the point that no one is worthy? Or is it that, in order to be worthy, put in more work than charging about the countryside with a lance and a sword?
Nearly all the knights do that and they end up having to turn aside because charging about with a lance and a sword doesn’t accomplish much that will actually last beyond this reality. It would seem the Queste was far ahead of Miguel de Cervantes on that one.
What is the “grail” itself? Well, you can look at it from the medieval Christian mind and say it’s a symbol of God’s grace towards humanity. On a purely symbolic level, this works perfectly well in the context, if a bit obvious.
Allegorically, you’re looking at the grail as a symbol of the Divine coming into human reality. In the storyline, it’s the dish from which Jesus and the Apostles ate the Passover lamb before the Crucifixion at the “Last Supper.” This should ring bells for any of you out there with a Christian upbringing, especially if you’re catholic. The Last Supper was also when the sacrament involving the bread and wine turning into Christ’s body and blood (either literally, mystically or symbolically) was first celebrated.
The mortal became divine just as the divine had become mortal. Allegorically, what you have is something akin to what we would now either call enlightenment, becoming one with your higher self, unity with the Holy Spirit, etc. And what must you do to achieve unity with the divine?
Go on the quest, do the inner work, and fight the good fight not on the battlefield, but in your own heart and mind.
That is the true quest involved.
Gloss or no gloss, the Quest is worth the read!
I personally am finding the Queste to be very engaging. Of course, it’s partially because of Monty Python just because it’s amazing just how many different details they kept in the movie. The mysterious boat the end of the movie? It’s in there.
The old man from Scene 42 is not in there, although there are a plethora of mysterious monks and hermits who come and go seemingly at liberty
If you know a little Celtic mythology, it’s also a bit like a treasure hunt to find all the different correlations and the hidden meanings they have and there’s always the appeal of finding the familiar figures and tropes that make up legends like this.
I also find that it’s almost a precursor to Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queen. It’s heavy on allegory in the context of knights and monsters. Also, again, there are dangers in the road but the biggest ones are the dangers within the characters themselves.
So, curl up this holiday season with a copy, pour some mulled wine, and settle in on a quest for your better self.
Will you find the Grail?
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