The Epic of the Holy Grail II: Re-Writing the Epic

II. Re-Writing the Epic of the Holy Grail

If the Holy Grail were indeed the chalice of Christ, the sacramental vessel into which the Godhead poured His redeeming life even with His blood, in order to overcome man’s Fall from a better condition in which he was first created; if the quest for the Holy Grail were indeed man’s search for personal Transfiguration; then there is no doubt that this is the great epic theme of all themes, the one that fulfills them all.

How, though, should that story be told?

Much of the legendary material is too compelling to ignore. But this is a story above all others that needs to carry a bite of truth, especially for our own skeptical age.

This was the task, impossible as it seems, that I desired to see attempted. And so I called upon the Divine Muse for help            , and began the effort.

First, using the poet’s license to suspend disbelief, one must try to bring the God-man before the reader in all His power and tremendous goodness. I began right at the climax, in Gethsemene.

The next almost impossible task is to attempt a portrayal of the life of those transformed by that event. This needs to be presented as a new and revolutionary reality for most Western readers, who are not familiar with the Orthodox tradition of sanctity as anything other than legend. To portray real men and women, personally meek yet filled with Uncreated spiritual power, and at all times in unique personalities far from cardboard cut-outs – how can the artist do this? Only by drawing from real living examples. But how does one illustrate the awakening of the unseen illumination? How does the Uncreated come into creation, making Himself known, either silently and mysteriously, or, if necessary, overthrowing the laws of creation through miracle?

At the core of this new transformative existence lies the Sacramental life, the pure participation in the sacraments of confession and communion and the other sacraments guarded by the Orthodox Tradition – and there is the Holy Grail within the Sanctuary, not a symbol, but real with a Living Presence.

Weapons from Paradise

What I have attempted, then, is to combine several traditions of the relics of Christ’s Passion, historic and legendary, into a story worthy of epic. Using the wide scope of epic overview and tools of historic fiction, I expanded the background story to include everything that my research suggested, from the Provencal traditions of the coming of the Apostles to those indicated in the Antiquities of Glastonbury. I brought more focus upon the origins of the story, with the universal implications of Christ’s sacrifice. I began the story of human renewal without ignoring the tragedy of death – even the death of God, as Neitzche considered it. I did not shy away from the madness of contemporary philosophy, as will be seen by the reader.

What of the legendary bringing of the Holy Grail into peaceful Avalon? Joseph of Arimathea would have entered Britain against the background of continuing universal tragedy: during the Roman invasion of Britain, and the violent British resistance from the warrior-kings Cymbaline and Caradoc, culminating in the tragic heroine Boadica. The druids, preoccupied with inspiring Celtic kings to resist Rome, would have given little thought to Joseph of Arimathea and his little band of hermits. Except that British legend has developed this story also into epic matter. The Welsh antiquarian Edward Davies supplied a series of traditional triads that suggest the conversion of Bran the Archdruid, whose grandchildren were among the earliest saints of Britain. Even if these triads were simply fabrications of his own imagination, he has done nothing more than continued the British epic tradition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “history” of kings.

I saw no reason not to weave all this story into one, a story worthy of epic, in a poetic style appropriate to contemporary language – a language which is just as capable of poetic flexibility and brilliance as any. It is a vast story – and yet it is just the origin of the story.

The Grail Quest in the Days of King Arthur

In Robert de Boron’s epic trilogy, only the first section gives the legend of Joseph of Arimathea. I did not follow his story of the brotherhood of the Rich Fisher, which is too strange a mixture of mythology and medieval imagination. I was more interested in possibilities of hagiography and historical fiction.

De Boron’s next two sections deal with the background story of Merlin, and the Arthurian quest.

With Merlin and Arthur as well, I was looking for historical origins in the great Age of the Saints in the British Isles. Here, especially, my research struck gold. But the story before my mind became too vast to continue laboring over it in regular unrhymed verse.

I did try at first to continue an epic telling of the story of Arthur and his men in verse form. Merlin’s prologue, along with the first chapter of the Book of Taliesin, can still be broken into the poetic lines in which it was composed. After that, it became clear that my task was simply to get the story out.

So I fabricated the fiction alluded to in the Preface. The idea is that the Four Ancient Books were written in inspired prophetic verse by the great poet Merlin himself; but that the matter is presented in a prose translation.

The “Four Ancient Books of Wales” is the name scholars have given to the oldest medieval manuscripts preserving the poetry of Taliesin, the Celtic myths and Arthurian tales in the so-called Mabinogion, and the Triads of Britain. These four manuscripts are: the Black Book of Carmarthen, the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Riderch, and the Book of Taliesin. Colors refer to the hue of calf-skin used in the vellum. I imagined the original four books to be those written by Merlin himself (see About Merlin in the Four Ancient Books of the Prophet Merlin at the following address: https://orthodoxillumination.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/about-merlin-in-the-four-ancient-books-of-the-prophet-merlin/

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