“The journey is the treasure.” – Lloyd Alexander
Myths have been recurring elements in storytelling down the ages, and none more so than the Holy Grail. It has fascinated writers for centuries and is a popular theme in TV series and movies. You only have to look at the success of films the Grail has inspired to see how modern audiences love it: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Excalibur (1981), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and The Fisher King (1991). Then there are novels such as Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, Bernard Cornwell’s The Grail Quest Series, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, plus a host of lesser-known stories too many to mention. Holy Grail fiction has haunted our imaginations for generations, and I’ve written a fantasy quest myself called Graëlfire. But the myth has left many unanswered questions. Does it exist? And what exactly is it?
Fact or Fantasy?
First things first! There is no mention of the Holy Grail anywhere in the bible. Everything we know about it stems from the Middle Ages and is the work of fantasy rather than scripture. It first appeared in the late 12th century poem “Perceval, le Conte du Graal,” composed by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes. Troyes calls it “a” grail as opposed to “the” Grail, and he never describes it as holy or associates it with the Last Supper. Rather, he imagines it as a shallow dish with miraculous powers like the Cauldron of Plenty of Welsh mythology.
Another French poet writing just after Chrétien’s death, Robert de Boron, was the first to associate the Grail with the cup of the Last Supper. In de Boron’s version, Joseph of Arimathea took the Holy Grail to the Crucifixion and used it to catch Christ’s blood. In Germany, by contrast, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic thirteenth-century poem, “Parzival” transformed the Grail into a miracle-working stone that fell from Lucifer’s crown.
That these versions have so little in common only magnifies the Grail’s mystique, leaving today’s writers of Holy Grail fiction enough scope to speculate more colorful theories about its nature, like those that interpret it as Christ’s surviving bloodline.
Holy Grail Fiction: More Journey Than Discovery
There’s no question that the Grail makes for a gripping story. But not all treasure-hunt adventures are Grail quests in the classic sense. In a nutshell, a Grail quest is as much an internalized quest for personal healing or redemption as for a physical object. The seeker embarks on a quest and comes home changed or transformed. The crux is not achieving the goal, but what the seeker discovers along the way. Whether they return enlightened or disillusioned, cured or sick, quest heroes are never the same people who set out on the journey. An experience or a lesson alters them. For all their action, Grail-quest fiction focuses on the seeker and their transformation rather than what they do with the object when they find it.
Eschenbach’s story inspired my reinterpretation of the Grail for my fantasy novel, Graëlfire. In its multiverse cosmos, Graëlstones (a.k.a. Graëls) are the rarest matter in the cosmos formed from particles of graëlfire, which is the substance of creation. They are forged during a big bang when universes are created and can tap into and channel graëlfire.
Graëlfire has all the classic elements of Arthurian Grail myth:
- the quest for a lost object with awe-inspiring properties;
- a Camelot-style home to a company of “Grail knights” ruled over by a female representation of Arthur;
- a liminal Merlin figure;
- a wounded Fisher King symbol who guards the secret of the lost Grail’s whereabouts;
- a Lancelot-like hero turned anti-hero who sought the Grail but was prevented by the sin of his forbidden love;
- a seeker of the Grail who alone is pure enough to achieve the goal.
Graëlfire is a dual-timeline novel with parallel narratives set during the thirteenth century persecution of Cathars and in present-day Switzerland. Although it has elements of several genres—thriller, mystery, and adventure—it is a quest story at its heart in which the pursuit of healing motivates the seekers.
Whatever form the Grail takes in legend—a dish, a cup, a stone or a bloodline—the seeker’s selflessness and healing is often the culmination of a classic quest. Action and mystery may make for a page-turner, but we experience the grail through the lens of the seeker’s transformation. If you love Holy Grail fiction, Graëlfire brings the myth into the present-day and puts a fresh twist on a compelling theme.
Stephen Chamberlain is the author of the fantasy novel Graëlfire. He draws inspiration from the impact of landscape on myth, and the association of liminality with the supernatural and magic. Stephen lives in Switzerland.