31 Days of Lunasa: Days 19-20 — Grails



Grails plural, because if we’ve learned anything of value from millennia of religious and spiritual practice, it’s not that our beliefs are “true” — that’s a separate category of knowledge, for specific times and needs and purposes — but that our practices retain enduring value, and continue to transform and sustain lives into and through our present day.

I don’t “do Druidry” as a craft all that much in these blogposts — many others do it better. What I love to explore is so what? Who cares, or might care? Why — and how — does it matter, has it mattered, might it matter today and tomorrow? And how can those things inform what I do?

The 13th century Quest for the Holy Grail, medieval French Queste del Saint Graal, as one of its translators notes, “despite its Arthurian setting is not a romance, it is a spiritual fable” (pg. 9). The Grail, that great and glorious spiritual epic tradition of story cycles and shining mystery at the heart of medieval Christian Europe, is a fable?

We hear the word “fable” and think “untrue”, though we always have the option of hearing “fable — fabulous, remarkable, capable of inspiring and moving a reader to pleasure and awe”. We may carelessly abandon fable and metaphor to the academy, to late-night college bull sessions and topics for term papers, forgetting once we graduate that for our ancestors, as the Roman poet Horace puts it, nomine mutato, de te fabula narratur: “change the names, and the story applies to you”. Wise readers, whether or not they went into debt to attend a university, learn to allow that wisdom to sink deeper with each decade.

If we begin with the ending — not a bad strategy these days — we hear:

A great marvel followed immediately on Galahad’s death: the two remaining companions saw quite plainly a hand come down from heaven, but not the body it belonged to. It proceeded straight to the Holy Vessel and took both it and the lance, and carried them up to heaven, to the end that no man since has ever dared to say he saw the Holy Grail (pg. 284).

Sir Bors is one of the “two companions” along with Perceval, and they bury the body of Galahad. Perceval enters a monastery, but Bors returns to Camelot and Arthur’s court. The closing paragraph of the Quest:

When they had dined King Arthur summoned his clerks who were keeping a record of all the adventures undergone by the knights of his household. When Bors had related to them the adventures of the Holy Grail as witnessed by himself, they were written down and the record kept in the library at Salisbury, whence Master Walter Map extracted them in order to make his book of the Holy Grail for love of his lord King Henry, who had the story translated from Latin into French. And with that the tale falls silent and has no more to say about the Adventures of the Holy Grail (pg. 284)

Much here to work with: Stories end, and Story continues. It is right and fitting that the tale “falls silent”, because mortal lives have their particular shaping and their turn and their time, and they do indeed come to an end. Those who work with the Arthurian lore know that with preparation, initiation can equip one as part of the shining company of Camelot, and pick up anew some strands of the Quest today. The Four Elements as applied to human questing: to know, to will, to dare and to be silent, just as the story of the Grail itself runs.

Matthews: The Arthurian Tarot

It may be that the “Matter of Arthur”, as the great and still-living story has been named, isn’t a Story for you. It just may not resonate for you like other Stories do. (That’s why there’s more than One, whispers the polytheist to the monotheist.) Unlike what those invested in the “clash of cultures” would have us believe, the point isn’t which story is true, but which ones hold value for human life. And one test: if they hold value for human life, do they likewise have value for living that life on earth, in ways that honor and respect and return the gift given?

For there’s also that sense of loss at the close of every great epic. That’s one measure of its value to us, its mortal lesson. So we pick it up again, we re-read, we watch the video another time, we restart the CD or mp3. And we generously envy those coming after us, who have yet to encounter the delight and awe for their first time. And we may be privileged to open the door for them, or turn on the video, to play the opening scenes, and with the newcomer to pick up our parts in the Story once again.

It’s because we do dare. In spite of a culture that may often seem bent on destruction, we can rescue some volumes from the burning library of Alexandria. We can flee the sack and fall of Troy with a story, perhaps carrying out what our ancestors learned with such difficulty. We can lift the tale again. Before we must fall silent, what can we see and hear, and become?

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Matarasso, P. M. The Quest of the Holy Grail. Penguin Books, 2005.

Posted 20 August 2021 by adruidway in Druidry

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