31 Days of Lunasa: Day 23 — “A mysterious and haunting image”



I’ve been poring over Richard Barber’s The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (Harvard University Press 2004) partly on the strength of another author’s recommendation* of it as the best survey available, and partly because the subtitle encapsulates two of my “ways in” when I’m exploring the worlds.

La cathédrale Saint-Corentin à Quimper/Quimper Cathedral, Brittany, France. Wikipedia/creative commons

Barber notes:

The background to the Grail romances, then, is a time of huge innovations in a society where tradition was highly valued, a moment both exciting and disturbing in terms of new ideas, new art forms, and new social culture. The Grail reflects, in addition, a heated debate about the central mysteries of the Christian faith, and its existence owes much to the shadowy borderland between imagination and belief, which are the two recurrent influences on its development. It never fitted into the orthodox scheme of things, and it produces questions and contradictions which seem strange to us today: how can medieval romances apparently invade the province of medieval religion, and how can secular authors write about the highest mysteries of the Church? Why, when the medieval Church never officially recognized the Grail stories, did the Grail become a powerful religious icon, but only to non-clerics? How did the Grail acquire its aura of perfection? (pg. 4)

In these opening observations in his introduction, then, Barber lays out his map. Or maybe a better image is that he casts his net. Part of the appeal of the coverage his book offers is its inclusion of the present flowerings of the Grail. He closes his intro with what is to me a highly evocative passage:

And finally, why, in the twenty-first century, are we unable to face uncertainty about past? Many of us are not content with possibilities as the answer to historical problems, but are driven to see questions like these as secrets locked from us by some vast conspiracy, for which a key must be found. The nature of this form of imagination is best defined by a demonstration of how such keys can be created from a few carefully selected striking facts (pg. 5).

Imagination and belief … powerful icon … a key found … created from carefully selected facts. In many ways the effloration and unfolding of the romance of the Grail mirrors the re-encounter and recovery that has shaped and become contemporary Druidry.

The accessibility of both Grail and Druidry, a kind of democratization of spirituality that needn’t also be religion, though it is not averse to religious forms of expression, means that anyone can now access tools, stories, images, realms, practices — in two words, spiritual technology — that opens many doors.

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The image above of a window in the Quimper Cathedral in Brittany rewards contemplation. It offers a depiction which is rich in symbolism but perhaps accessible to a wider audience than a more explicitly religious representation could be. It is in some sense an illustration of Barber’s words: “a powerful religious icon … to non-clerics”.

*”The book which serves as the best introduction and most reliable guide to the Grail myth in literature and literary consciousness from the twelfth century to the present day is Richard Barber’s The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. After giving full weight to the spectrum of medieval texts, it follows the Grail as symbol through to the wilder shores of New Age fantasy, covering a vast terrain with authority and grace” — P. M. Matarasso, The Quest of the Holy Grail, pg. 30.

Posted 27 August 2021 by adruidway in Druidry

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