28 DECEMBER 1861, Page 17


No one can read the " Morte d'Arthur," or Tennyson's " Sir Galahad," without feeling some wish to know how the marvellous romance of the Holy Graal grew up. The strange mixture of Oriental names and Talmudical legend, in a story which centres round the heroic name of Arthur, is alone enough to excite curiosity. But the deeper meaning of the Graal speedily overpowers all slighter interests. As the vessel that contains the sacred elements, the real body and blood of the Lord, to mediteval belief it symbolizes the perpetual presence of Christ in the Church. Borne about by angels, heralded "by crack- ing and crying of thunder," and shrouded in its effulgence of light more surely than any cloud could overshadow it, it seems to typify, the Christ of glory even more than the Christ of sacrifice. There- fore, where the knight is "of poor faith and wicked belief," where "these three thing's faileth, chastity, abstinence, and truth," he " may not attain that high adventure of the sangreal." Such vision is re- served for the last ecstasy of the saint; the sinner must stand in the shadow of the cross. It was the instinct of a consummate artist that connected the quest of the sangreal with the first breaking up of Arthur's chivalry. King and knight bad sinned, and the doom of their past lives hung over them like a black cloud ; but if they had been frail and passionate, they had also striven after truth, and right manfully : it was felt that God's justice must include the splendid

i purpose, as well as the hot blood n its doom. Accordingly their last years of fellowship, before Guenevere's offence is dicovered, are devoted to the noblest enterprise of religion; they have conquered empires and built up law and righteous doing in their day, and they now go forth to achieve the sight of their Lord, with a great faith in their own right arms and prayer. It is the thought of the old mythology, when Thor was a knight-errant against the giants, and when Odin strode fearlessly into the darkness of Hell; but a spirit nobler than mere daring pervades the Christian story. "God with us" is a grander device for the brave man than any mere soldier's motto "Alone against the Gods." When the quest of the sangresi is ended, Galahad, the one true knight, who is innocent of offence, has been withdrawn from the rain that already opens under his friends. Arthur and Lancelot remain, lighted up by the rays of a last heroism, to pay forfeit for their sin. The very nobleness of spirit which the king has nurtured in his knights, deprives him of the most righteous amongst them when the hour of his sorest need is approaching.

But the History of the Holy Graal is only the preface to the Quest of the Graal. The marvellous legend bore to be treated in long volumes, and amplified into a thousand little stories, till it grew in itself to epical dimensions. The version of Robert de Birron, which Henry Lovelich Skynner put into bad verse more than two centuries later, begins with a curious preface, explaining how the book of the Holy Graal was miraculously revealed to a monk who had doubts on the Trinity. He is caught up into the Third Heaven, and sees clearly the supernatural life of the three Persons at once separate and one. But for better instruction of others, he is told by an angel to copy the mystical book. The narrative thus prefaced begins from the time of the crucifixion. When the cause of Christ seemed lost in a day, Joseph of Arimathea remains strong in faith. He has pre- served the dish in which the Last Supper had been eaten, and he now collects Christ's blood, that had flowed down the body, into it. The Jews, in their anger, imprisoned Joseph, and tell the gaoler to let him starve ; but Christ brings him the dish with the blood—in fact, the Holy Graal—into the prison, and Joseph is sustained by it, and lives thus forty-two years, forgotten by his persecutors. About this time Vespasian was emperor, and became leprous. A knight, whom Christ had healed of the same disease, tells the emperor of his cure ; pro- clamation is made for anything that Christ has touched, and the cloth of Veronica is brought over by Mary, Joseph's wife, and effects a cure. Then Vespasian vows to take revenge for the Lord's death. He captures Jerusalem, delivers Joseph from prison, and burns all who can be found alive who had taken any part in the crucifixion. But Joseph intercedes for the wretched prisoners, and even for Caiapha ; there is still hope that they may repent. The scene sud- denly changes to the Court of Evalach, King of Sarras and of the Saracens. Joseph is now an apostle of the faith, carrying the Graal with him as his credentials. But how Evalach is converted and defeats Ptolomes (Ptolemy), how he is carried by the Holy Ghost to the rock Peritous, must be read in the original, with the curious episodes of the story of the "Tree of Life," said of "Johnson's Ship." The Romance of the Great is not a specimen of perfect workmanship. The style of the French version, by Baron, is sometimes very beautiful in its simplicity, and many of the legends woven into the text are of rare interest. But the great object of the writer was to glorify the Holy Graal, by exhibiting its supernatural powers throughout a tangled web of incidents. It is like the phantasmagoria of a dream, brilliant, shifting, and unreal, without the unity of a real work of art. In attempting to understand how the story of the Holy Graal grew up, we must carefully distinguish the great moral idea that underlies it from its legendary superstructure. The prominence The History of the Holy Graal, partly in English Verse by Henry konelieh Skynner, and vholly in French Prose by 'Sire Robiers de Birron. Edited by F. J. Furnivall, Esq. Printed for the Roxburghe Club. London: J. B. Nichols and Son. given to the doctrine of the Real Presence takes us down at once to the ninth century, and the chivalrous spirit of adventure in connexion with a religious purpose, belongs almost certainly to the epoch of the Crusades. In its actual form, therefore, the Graal legend cannot be referred further back than to the end of the eleventh century, and Robert de Birron, in the reign of John and Henry III., may have been the first to put the story into shape. As, however, his contem- porary, Walter Mapes, pursued the same theme, it is, perhaps, most probable that they both drew from some common narrative of rather earlier date. The next point is to separate the component parts of the legend. Why, for instance, is the barbarous term Graal em- ployed, and why does the dish of the Last Supper do duty for the more common receptacle of the sacred elements, the monstrance ? Here we are thrown back for an answer upon British lq:end, which in several stories speaks of a Gradal, or mystical caldron, which possessed the power of renewing life, and of transforming bodily shapes. There is little doubt that we have here traces of early fetichism, and a legendary memorial of times when the commonest articles of use were regarded as endowed with supernatural attri- butes; the caldron sharing, so to speak, the repute of the mixtures brewed in it, and of the healing powers of nature. Another Welsh story, somewhat later in its form, introduces us to a king, incurably wounded, but living on through years of pain, whose attendants every day bring before him a basin with a bloody head in it. As the bloody head is a feature in common with the older miraculous caldron, while the wounded king figures as King Pelles in the "Morte d'Arthur," we have thus a link of connexion between the Pagan Gradal of British legend, and the Holy Graal of chivalrous romance. The next question is in what way the Real Presence came to be substituted for a magical charm? The passages in the gospels which describe how all who touched even the hem of our Lord's garment were healed, seem to have been taken as a sanction for belief in the healing powers of whatever was connected with Christ and his ministry. Gregory of Tours tells us how a leper, who bathed in Jordan at the spot where our Lord was baptized, was healed of his leprosy; and there is a story of a rich man who bathed in holy water to cure an attack of gout, against the orders of his bishop, and fortunately with ill effect. Historically, we are inclined to think that the idea of the Holy Graal is connected with the Veronica legend, which has actually been incor- porated with it, as often happens in such cases as a separate episode. Perhaps, however, the Greek form of the story in which Abgarus, not Veronica, figures, was the immediate original. There is an apocryphal correspondence of Abgarus, King of Eclessa, with our Saviour; Abgarus asking that he will come and cure him of a disease, and Jesus answering that he must do his work on earth, and be taken up into heaven, "but after my ascension I will send one of my.disciples who will cure your disease and give life to you." On this foundation, a story grew up in the sixth century that our Lord sent his picture on a tile, or piece of porcelain, which was revealed by _a miraculous effulgence to Abgarus, and which cared his leprosy. Here, then, we get the idea of a miraculous image of Christ, shedding rays of light, and healing disease; in other words the main features of the Graal, except that a picture is substituted for the Real Presence, an idea which grew up in a later century. It is remarkable that the name Abgarus figures in the Arthur legends; and the story might easily have been learned in the eleventh and twelfth centuries when the Crusaders passed through Greece into Asia, or met Greeks in the Levant. Assume a legend passing from man to man, perhaps, from generation to generation, before it was seized on by a poet as subject- matter for his art, and then changed, pieced, and informed with a new life by the Norman minstrel, and greater changes than we have indicated, can be understood. It is the very essence of tradition to confound time, place, and personality, and to transmit facts and thoughts from the remotest antiquity with the spiritual growth of new times clinging to them. Here, as in a hundred similar cases, we are dealing with straws in amber, and the stories of Pelles and Abgarus would be almost worthless, if they were not woven into the epical cyclus of Christian chivalry.

We have differed slightly from the view taken by Mr. Farnivall, and supported by Mr. Nash, who agree in seeing no connexion between the Graal legends and those of Britain. But the difference is almost unimportant, since the question only turns on superficial points of names and story, not on the essential meaning. Apart from the in- terest of tracing the growth of a myth, there is a certain value in arranging the discordant elements of history, and reducing all under a few heads. No man can study mythology long without being pro- foundly impressed with the great difficulty of ever laying his hands on an original fiction. It seems as if the faculty of invention were almost unknown in historical periods, oi as if all possible combina- tions of fact had already been exhausted ; so that just as the plots of Shakspeare's plays, and the stories of Rabelais may mostly be traced back to the Middle Ages, the romances of the Middle Ages may in turn be traced back till our records cease. Many episodes of the Holy Graal, such as the symbolism of priestly vestments, and the story of Pompey's war with the pirates, would admit, we believe, of easy identification. But a man who labours for love in the thankless task of editing an author, whom Mr. Ellis did not care to read for his history of Metrical Romances, cannot be expected to extend his labours to an uninviting field and small results. Mr. Furnivall has done what he undertook honestly and well. The table of contents and marginal notes are excellent, giving a good summary at a glance; and the TPreface, though we differ from it, is spirited and careful ; much more really valuable than M. San Mark's pretentious prefatory essay. We shall look forward with much interest to the forthcom- ing volumes which will complete the story of the Graal, and give the history of Merlin. Arthur's epitaph "King whilome, and King to be," is receiving noble accomplishment in "that full voice which circles round the grave?'