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What is the Grail Legend?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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The Grail legend refers to several stories involving the Holy Grail. It can refer to the stories contained in the Arthurian myths, where men were able to search for and find the relic. In other cases, the legend is representative of all the lore concerning the origins and whereabouts of the Grail.

There are different traditions describing the Grail or "Graal" and its origins. The earliest Arthurian tellings describe it as a stone that may have fallen from heaven. Upon this stone, one may receive any food or drink one requires, or may receive everlasting life. The stone has also been described as a dish or flat platter. The roots of this description lie in the concepts of alchemy. A philosopher’s stone could provide one with nourishment and also sustain life. The stone or dish is present in early accounts dating from the 12th and 13th century.

Later accounts of the origins of the Grail refer to it as a cup. There are two possible sources for the cup. It was either the cup Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper, or it was a cup used to catch the blood of Christ. If the cup caught Christ’s blood, it is thought that Joseph of Arimathea originally owned the cup. Some versions of the legend have Joseph giving the cup to Christ for the Last Supper, and then using it to catch his blood during the crucifixion.

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The decision of what constitutes the Grail is tied to the popularity of the Arthurian myths, and as well, to the hero who obtains sight of it. The earlier legends were penned by Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach and are quite similar. Chrétien’s work Perceval is unfinished. Wolfram’s work Parzival is considered to be one of the best examples of early Germanic writing.

In both early works, a man who is married, but has never consummated his marriage seeks the Grail. Along his journey, Parzival encounters several of King Arthur’s knights. In fact in Wolfram, nearly half the book is dedicated to the quest of Sir Gawain, who never obtains sight of the object. The quest for worldly success is contrasted with the spiritual quest.

Later accounts change the hero, and this is important because it represents the interference of the clergy in an effort to make the books less scandalous. The dish is changed to a chalice, and this greater sacred nature means that a married man should never gain access to it, even if the marriage remains unconsummated. Instead, the hero becomes Galahad, the virgin son of Lancelot and Elaine.

The purity and virginity of Galahad is tantamount to the last medieval retelling of the Grail, Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. The popularity of Arthurian myths should not succeed the rights of the Church, and Mallory was commissioned to add morality and turn Galahad into a saintlike figure. As such this last telling of the medieval period lacks references to paganism, and is essentially the Roman Catholicized version of the legend.

Some aspects of the story remain unchanged. King Arthur commissions the search for the Grail which proves to be a failing point for many of the Knights of the Round Table. Only one knight reaches it, and then returns to tell Arthur about the quest. In regards to the object itself, legend continues that the Knight’s Templar, at some hidden location, guards the Grail.

Retellings of the legend in literature tend to stick closely to the Mallory version. In opera, however, the Parzival by Wagner celebrates the German epic. In modern films, the story is much perverted, particularly in Steven Spielberg’s and George LucasIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is doubtful that original authors of any version of the legend would have allowed someone of Jones’ unworthy nature to catch a glimpse of the Grail, let alone hold it in his hands.

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