Reviewed by Dr Kathleen Huxley
In this academic and scholarly book, Judith Shoaf has translated and edited the early-thirteenth-century canonical version of ‘The Quest for the Holy Grail’. The Quest being the next to last part or ‘branch’ of the Old French version of the Lancelot-Grail cycle. The cycle comprises a much larger number of works, by numerous authors ‘who may or may not have known each other personally, incorporating each other’s ideas until the whole has some sort of coherence’. The Grail concept being understood as something that ‘feeds chosen people; in addition, it heals many wounds’. But the “secrets” of the Grail are not a verbal inheritance. Rather, they require a capacity for gazing into the vessel (the main dish or chalice used at the Last Supper) and experiencing the truths it contains. The Grail transcends language, offering to the prepared eye what “mortal heart cannot conceive, nor tongue describe” (Corinthians 2:9).
An indispensable part of this book is the incredibly helpful, informed and interesting introduction which concisely explains the origins, ideas and historical significance of the translated work. Illustrations from various sources are used to present depictions of ancient works related to the tale and a list of proper names introducing the characters of the story.
In this introduction we are informed that ‘The Quest of the Holy Grail is a medieval fantasy… not a fantasy about the Middle Ages, but a fantasy in which a thirteenth century French author imagined the kind of adventures he would like to have if he had been born 700 years earlier, in the days of King Arthur’. The protagonist of the story is Galahad ‘a somewhat confused young man, raised by nuns, who gradually learns more about his ancestry and abilities, is able to meet his father as loving equals, and then leaves everything else behind to move towards a transcendent destiny’. Alongside Galahad are his close friends (Perceval and Bors), a girl who is Galahad’s soul mate and most importantly the perfect knight: Sir Lancelot, his only failing being his attachment to Queen Guinevere!
On reading the translation we discover there are many wise masters ‘the righteous men’ who help Galahad and his friends achieve their goals during lively adventures. There is a war with opposing sides which could crudely be described as ‘God with his army of righteous men against the Devil and the Enemy, who has human nature on his side’. This war is thought to represent, for the thirteenth century author, a war being fought in his own day.
Integral to the Quest is King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and what Shoaf describes as the ‘genius’ of the story is to bring ‘the wars of a long-dead king into contact with modern (that is, thirteenth century Christian) ways of viewing history’. King Arthur is thought to have made his literary appearance around the year 1138 in the Geoffrey of Monmouth book a History of the Kings of Britain, although he was probably already known in folklore tales in Brittany, Cornwall and Wales from around the year 500. Geoffrey, drawing on the tales, legends, history and poetry of the time, built a wonderful story which included Merlin and Guinevere and other characters (but not Lancelot or the Holy Grail) and claimed his book was factual. However, this was disputed by other historians and ‘it quickly became clear that Arthur’s real realm was adventure tales’.
The entire Arthurian legend builds on the world that the thirteenth century poet Robert de Boron created ‘but now the Arthurian legend is Lancelot’. An interesting section of the introduction in the book discusses Arthur and retroactive continuity (of which the Quest is a major part) and It refers to the fact that many of us have been introduced to the ‘Arthurian world’ through literature, TV and film. Many representations and versions abound in these modern interpretations and this is skilfully described by J.R.R. Tolkien, who when thinking of ancient and medieval European literature describes it as a ‘Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story’ in which ‘King Arthur may be flavoured or even shaped differently depending on what else is in the same ladleful’.
I am sure that this book succeeds in its purpose to assist students of medieval literature and romance understand the origins, complexities, characters and history of these ancient tales. The entire Lancelot-Grail cycle which includes the Quest is a modern educated view of a stage in an evolving Arthurian saga which continues to fascinate scholars and laymen alike. This book is an in depth and complex work that would interest anyone who has a liking for medieval literature and in particular enjoys perusing an excellent professional translation of an established tale.
Imprint: Broadview Press
Please use discount voucher code BCLUB18 at the checkout to apply the discount.