The Grail Legend Part One
There are at least six versions of the Grail legend, the earliest as mentioned above being that of Chrétien (c1190). The work of Wolfram followed (c1200-1210). The two works did not make much of an attempt to adopt the relics as Christian. That started with the work of de Boron and this association came to be completed with the work Queste del Graal (c1210).
Peredur, a 13th century Welsh romance is of unknown origin and the body of the story is very similar to what we find in the earlier works of Wolfram and Chrétien. Mallory (15th century) did not pay too much attention to the mystical significance of the Grail and as such the legend was not explored further through him.
We had to wait until the 19th century in Wagner’s Parsifal (1882) to see the greatest advancement in the story of the Grail for close to five hundred years. Taking the theme further, Wagner gave it a body and a significance that was at once beautiful and religious. His opera was so profound that he declared it sacred and forbade its performance outside his theatre in Bayreuth.
The Grail legend goes as follows: Parsifal was brought up by his mother in the seclusion of the wilderness after his father had died in a battle with his elder brothers. His mother, grief stricken sought to protect her only remaining son from the world of chivalry by withholding from him all knowledge of arms and of the outside world. He was only allowed to play with sticks, bows and arrows in the use of which he became very proficient.
One day, he happened to see some knights in full armour in the distance and asked his mother who these people were. The mother told him that they were angels. Parsifal then said that if these people were angels he would go and become an angel like them. He went over to them, exchanged a few words with them and was able to learn that these people were not angels but knights.
He intimated this knowledge to his mother who fainted as a result. He left her in that state and went to make a saddle for one of his mother’s horses imitating what he had seen with the knights. When he returned, his mother had recovered sufficiently to ask him of his decision. He declared that he would go if she allowed him and the mother gave him leave.
He left home and the accounts of his numerous adventures followed. He was trained to be a knight by a hermit called Gournemart. One day while he was returning home to see his mother, he happened to be riding along the bank of a river when he saw two fishermen and he asked them where he could find a passage across the river.
Since the passage was a long way off and he could not by any chance reach it by daylight, he asked for where he could get shelter. He was then directed by one of the fishermen to the top of a mountain where he would find a castle. He found the castle, was welcomed, fed and entertained.
While he was dining with the master of the house, a procession of youths passed several times with what appeared to be the Grail, a large cup which outshone all the lights in the room. A spear was also paraded which appeared to be dripping with blood from its tip. Though his curiosity was aroused by the spectacle and he wanted to ask about what he had seen, he, however, held his tongue, always calling to mind what he had been taught by the old knight, Gornemant, who had warned him against loquaciousness.
This king, called the fisher king because he regularly fishes, is infirm having been wounded some say in a javelin battle in the thighs or as in some versions as a result of his sins when he looked with lustful eye upon the female worshipper, with the lance spontaneously falling upon him, as mentioned above.
In any case, this king is maimed and is not able to carry out his functions fully as keeper of the Grail as he is in continuous pain. His cure according to the legend was for Parsifal to ask the magic question about the Grail which is “Whom does one serve with the Grail?” He fails to do this, however, and the country as a consequence becomes a barren land or a waste land as is so called in the legend.
Parsifal leaves the castle without asking this question and came to meet a lady who happens to also be his first cousin. She told him of the terrible deed he had committed for failing to ask the question and that the reason he failed was the sin he committed against his mother who had died grieving for him after he left her. That sin had been responsible for his failure.
Parsifal on hearing this broke down in woes of sorrow and did not return home again since his mother whom he was going to see had died. He left the lady and embarked on more adventures and entered Arthur’s court as a celebrated knight. While there a loathsome lady made her entrance and addressed Parsifal, bemoaned of his failure to ask the question and warned of the consequences of his deed which would lead to the land being rendered wasted as mentioned above.
Thereafter, he made a vow that he would not rest until he had found the Grail and learnt whom one served with it. He lost his way for five years and eventually on a Good Friday met a priest, made his confession because he had forgotten God for all these years and was absolved of his sins. Chrétien left his work unfinished.