A Question of Quests
November 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
According to the Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Arthurian legend owes its inception in English literature to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historium Regum Brittania. Thence it went to France, where a whole lot of detail was added, with Robert de Borron and Chretien de Troyes getting involved, and ancient Welsh ballads, Irish mythology and Christian symbology were all tossed into the pot and given a good old stir, until Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was set in print by Caxton in 1485, and set, therefore, in stone as well…until, that is, Steven Spielberg spiced it up with a healthy sprinkling of Nazis and Americans, but that’s (quite literally) a different story.
Arthur himself was a shadowy warrior, slippery and difficult to pin down to a historical figure with any degree of certainty. Joseph Campbell, in his Transformations of Myth over Time, traces him back to a first century Celtic god in the Pyranees, called Artehe, a name related to Arcturus, the bear (crude shrines to bear deities have been found as far back as Neanderthal times). We come across tantalizingly wispy fragments of tales going back to the 4th and 5th centuries AD that talk of a Celtic warrior named Arthur who defended the Celtics against the marauding Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Frisians who were pouring into the island to fill a vacuum left by the retreating Romans. Welsh ballads continued to fete Arthur for centuries thereafter, but the Anglo-Saxons paid them no heed, nor the Normans who supplanted them; it was the Plantagenets, under Henry II and his vivacious queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, who resurrected the legend and made much of it. Perhaps, as Matarasso hints, Henry encouraged the celebration of English valor and heroism as part of a conscious effort to create a national identity that could counter the French.
My own quest, in reading this book, is one that I have been on for several years, the one that led me to read the Mahabharata, the Mabinogion, the Shahnameh, the Iliad, and many others. It is to gain insights into the nature of mythology, to marvel at the many points of similarity and departure between the mythologies of cultures separated by vast distances, to explore mythology’s interfaces with religion, science and literature, but mainly with social history. One theme that has particularly fascinated me has been how looking for the historical origin of a myth is like peeling an onion: behind every ancient origin, there seems to be an even older inspiration for it; nothing was created out of nothing.
The story of the Quest isn’t complex. A voice commands the Knights at King Arthur’s Round Table to search for the Holy Grail, the platter on which Jesus ate the paschal lamb with His apostles, and which was brought into England by Joseph of Arimathea. Off they go, dutifully, all except the King himself, who is inconsequential to the plot. Most knights come to a sorry end, because (we are constantly reminded) of their arrogance, pride and inadequate faith; only three find the Grail, including the purest of them all, Sir Galahad; only one of those three, Sir Bors, makes it back to Camelot to tell the tale.
Was my own quest successful? I think it was. While on surface the tale is clearly a religious admonition to the warriors of the land – a substantial portion involves monks lecturing knights on their duties – the pagan origins and universal mythological themes are very much in evidence. The visit of mortal heroes to an otherworldly place, a maimed king who has been wounded with his own lance through the thighs, a dish whose attributes include being able to feed countless people the delicacies of their choice, two knights reading a signpost at crossroads and deciding to take different paths, a dead maiden being embalmed and set afloat in a boat: these are echoes from the mists of time that all cultures have heard before, in other tales, of other lands.
The feeling of deja vu is persistent through the book. The questing knights come across various strangers – monks, damsels, other knights – but are instantly recognized either by face, name or reputation, and everyone they meet knows exactly what is going to happen to them, as if they have already read the book, the book on the Quest of the Holy Grail, the book in which they are characters.
Perhaps the unknown author wants to show us that we too go through life living a story that is nothing new, that has already been told and retold a million times over in the mythologies of the world.