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Folk-Lore/Volume 2/Remarks on preceding article

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By Alfred Nutt.

According to Dr. Gaster, to explain the origin of the Grail legends we must “look for one central tale, containing a sufficient number of incidents, complete in itself . . . . it must contain the most important incidents, and that of the Grail as one of them” (supra, pp. 53-54). He finds this tale in a particular episode of the Alexander legend (pp. 59-63). Herein he makes no new discovery. In 1850, Weismann, in his edition of Lamprecht’s Alexander, commented as follows upon the same episode: “This description shows marked similarity with that of the Grail in mediæval texts. As the legend has its origin in the East, and may have taken shape in the first century, it is not strange to find it noticed here; this passage probably contains one of the earliest references to it” (op. cit., vol. ii, p. 212, note). Lamprecht’s poem and Weismann’s ambiguous hint were probably familiar to other students of the Grail cycle as they were to me. Dr. Gaster is the first, to my knowledge, to take Weismann's hint au sérieux.

Before examining the hypothesis, I would note a statement in which, if I may venture to say so, the fallacy underlying Dr. Gaster’s whole argument is especially prominent. I refer to the characterisation of the twelfth-century French Alexander romances (supra, p. 59): “One has only to see how they dealt with their originals, how they transferred the whole scenery from hoary antiquity to their own time, and to their own courts, to understand the liberty a poet of those times could take with his originals.” So far from the mediæval poet transferring hoary antiquity to his own time, he projected his own time back into hoary antiquity—a very different matter—and this he did because he was unconscious of any difference between the two. In the words of the most eminent living master of mediæval literature, “Le moyen âge n’a jamais eu conscience de ce qui le distinguait profondement de l’antiquité; il s’est toujours représenté le monde comme ayant été de tout temps ce qu’il le voyait être; il se figurait naïvement Alexandre avec ses capitaines comme un roi de France ou d’Angleterre entouré de ses barons.”[1] What follows? this—the mediæval poet never felt the need of renaming his antique heroes, of shifting the scenes of their exploits. An hypothesis which starts with the assumption that a twelfth-century writer took an Alexander story and transferred it into the Arthur cycle, changing names and locale, at once excites suspicion. The thing is not, indeed, impossible, but it is extremely unlikely. We know almost exactly how a mediæval poet would have acted. In this very cycle we have an instance which could not well be bettered. Wolfram von Eschenbach lays the scene of his Parzival at Arthur's court, or in the Arthurian region, but the father of his Arthurian hero is a knight-errant in the pay of the Soldar of Babylon. Not the least attempt is made to disguise the Oriental locale. It may safely be said that if any mediæval poet had formed the idea of the Grail legend in the Alexander cycle, he would have retained some, if not most, of the names of persons and places.

I pass from this preliminary objection to the consideration of the episode which Dr. Gaster seeks to equate with the Grail Quest. And I would at once ask Dr. Gaster why he quotes from Pseudo-Callisthenes and from Julius Valerius instead of from the French romances based upon these works, and which alone could have been used by Chrestien or any other of the Grail romance writers? I think I shall have little difficulty in answering the question presently. In Pseudo-Callisthenes the episode forms part of Alexander's account, in his letter to his mother, of the marvels he witnesses and the adventures he passes through after he has overcome the Amazons; he describes this struggle, then his visit to the temple of the sun, to the mountain of Nysa, and to the palace of Cyrus (the passages quoted by Dr. Gaster), then his strife with the cannibals, and his walling up of them and their leaders, Gog and Magog, and finally his delivery of Candaules, son of the Indian queen Candace, from the Turks and Armenians, The letter fills seven pages in Weismann's edition, of which two are devoted to the temple of the sun and to Mount Nysa, and half-a-page to Cyrus' palace. In Julius Valerius the letter fills a page only in Weismann's edition, the sun temple is described in four lines, Xerxes' palace in five, Alexander's visit to Paradise, the marvels of which he beholds quite at his ease, had already been described, as in Pseudo-Callisthenes, at a much earlier period and in a quite different connection. The two episodes have absolutely nothing to do with each other. The oldest form of the French romance (that of Aubry of Besançon or Briançon) has been lost, save a small fragment, but the substance of it has been preserved by the German translation of Lamprecht. There is nothing corresponding to the temple of the sun nor to the palace of Cyrus in Pseudo-Callisthenes, only the middle portion of the passage quoted by Dr. Gaster (i.e., the description of the mountain of Nysa) is reproduced by Aubry-Lamprecht. The differences between the two are as follows: In Lamprecht, access to the castle on the hill is given by golden chains, which hang down, and up which the visitors climb; there are 2,000 steps instead of 150; there is no mention of the images of gods nor of an old man, but there is of a golden vine, which encompasses the bed, and the grapes of which are jewels; the old man on the bed is described as asleep; there is no attempt on Alexander's part to carry off any precious objects; no threatening bird; no stirring of the old man; no remonstrance on the part of Alexander's friends (Lamprecht, verses 5260-5319).

I think it is now perfectly plain why Dr. Gaster did not quote the French version (which alone could have been known to Chrestien), and why he did quote the much older Greek and Latin versions. Had he quoted from the French it would at once have been evident that the only point of contact between the two cycles is this: In some of the Grail romances the hero comes to a castle, in the hall of which he finds an old man lying on a bed (in one, Chrestien, he had already met this old man fishing, in others the old man is at once described as dangerously ill, in none is he described as sleeping); in the Alexander story the hero comes to a castle in which is an old man lying asleep on a bed. With the best will in the world there is no possibility of building a theory on such a foundation as this.

Now for the Iter ad Paradisum, of which, according to Dr. Gaster, the passages he has quoted form a part, a statement for which there is absolutely no foundation whatever.[2] This is an addition, probably of Jewish origin, to the account given by the Greek and Latin writers, and, according to M. Paul Meyer (Alexandre le Grand, ii, 49), may be ascribed to the first half of the 12th century. It has been edited in Latin by Zacher in 1859, and in French by M. Paul Meyer (Romania, xi, pp. 228-241), and is in Lamprecht's German version of Aubry (verses 6438 ad finem). The contents are briefly as follows: Alexander having conquered the known world, full of presumption, sets forth to exact tribute from Paradise. He embarks on the Ganges, and after a month's journey comes to a walled city; one of the inhabitants hands the king a jewel in the form of a human eye, and bids him begone. The stone is of this nature which none but an aged Jew can explain; it outweighs any amount of gold, but is itself outweighed by a handful of dust; it is a symbol of human desire which no gold can satisfy, but which at last must be content with a little earth. Alexander humbles himself, repents, and in due course dies an edifying death.

It will be admitted, I think, that it would be difficult to pick out two legends which have less fundamental kinship or less similarity in detail than the story of Alexander's fruitless attempt on Paradise, and the story of Percival's or Gawain's visit to the Grail castle.

The reader has now before him the facts necessary for the appreciation of Dr. Caster's hypothesis; but even if these testified in its favour, I fail to see how any theory of development could be based upon them. We must assume, in fairness to Dr. Gaster, a stage intermediate between the Alexander romances and Chrestien, the oldest of the Grail legend writers. Let us call this stage x, and try and realise in what way the author of x went to work. Having before him the French romance of Aubry, he picked out a particular episode upon which absolutely no stress whatever is laid, which is but one of twenty or thirty other episodes, all possessing equal interest of conception and detail; he carefully eliminated all traces of the original personages and locale, he then modified every detail, and finally worked it into the Arthurian cycle. As Aubry's 100 lines did not give him enough matter, this 12th century writer went back to Julius Valerius and to Pseudo-Callisthenes, and spiced his narrative with a miscellaneous assortment of features, selected now from one now from the other. But even then he was not content, but went on a roving expedition through the Talmudic and Midrashic literature of the day, culling what he thought would fit in with his plan. All this while, with the severest self-denial, he rejected the many marvellous episodes which must have come before him in the course of his reading, and scrupulously refrained from retaining anything that could betray the Eastern origin of his narrative.

The assumption of x is a sufficient tax upon our credulity, but nothing to what is involved in the after development of the legend according to Dr. Gaster's theory. The legend writers fall into two classes: (i) the oldest of them all, Chrestien; (2) all the later writers. But these latter contain a host of details not to be found in Chrestien, argal they must have been present in x, for I do not suppose that Dr. Gaster imagines there was a bevy of writers at the close of the 12th century capable of harmonising Pseudo-Callisthenes and the Talmud. Now, how did these later writers act? They would seem to have gone upon the principle—when in doubt, consult x. For while in the main their presentment of the legend is that of Chrestien, each writer picked out some special feature of x which took his fancy, and added it to Chrestien's account.

All who are acquainted with the methods and nature of mediæval romance need no assurance that not a writer of the period ever acted as Dr. Gaster postulates half-a-dozen having acted.

Is there, then, nothing at all in the series of parallels brought forward by Dr. Gaster? Just this much. One version of the Grail quest, that of Wolfram von Eschenbach, does undoubtedly show traces of Oriental influence, as he himself states. Whether these are due to Wolfram himself or to the French model he followed it is impossible to say. The nature and origin of the Oriental traits in Wolfram are well worth discussing, and Dr. Gaster has brought together some valuable illustrative material. But it must be clearly understood that light is thus thrown, not upon the origin of the Grail legend, not upon the nature of the Grail, but simply and solely upon the special secondary form of the legend found in Wolfram.[3]

I have thought it best to deal at once with the only solid portion of Dr. Gaster's argument, and to show how baseless it is. Because I say nothing of the other points which he adduces, I would not have it thought that I have no objections to urge against them. As a matter of fact I do not think there is a single definite conclusion of his concerning the Grail legends to which I do not take exception, not one which I could not, if space were allowed me, show to be improbable if not impossible.

At the end of this number of Folk-lore will be found the reprint of an article which appeared in the last number of the Revue Celtique, to the courtesy of whose director. Monsieur H. d'Arbois de Jubainville, I am indebted for its appearance here. In it I defend myself against the strictures passed upon my "Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail" by three eminent German scholars. As the Folk-lore Society did me the honour of issuing my work to its members, I felt it was right, a feeling shared by the Director of the Society and by the Editor of Folk-lore, that these should have the opportunity of seeing what I had to say in my defence.

I may be permitted to add a few general considerations upon the criticism of the Grail romances. No theory concerning the origin and signification of the legend can be acceptable which does not explain the relation to one another of the various romances, which does not account in a fairly intelligible manner for the development of the ideas and incidents contained in them. Nothing is easier than to pick out, as Dr. Gaster has done, this or that feature in this immense body of romance, to adduce parallels to it, and to fancy the problem solved; nothing harder than to fit all the features of all the versions into an orderly scheme of development.

At the same time no theory can, I think, be successful which makes any one existing version the fons et origo of the whole cycle. Even if we had not positive statements, which there is no reason to disbelieve, we should be compelled to assume an earlier written stage than any we now possess. Behind this written stage we discern an oral stage in which the incidents of the legend were singularly vague and formless, but in which they still hung together. I conjectured that they did this because they came to the French wandering minstrels or story tellers, to whom the first spread of the legend in France was due, mainly from one source and connected with one group of personages. The facts that the majority of these personages bear Celtic names, some perfectly recognisable, others greatly disfigured, and that the scene of their exploits is, in the main, lands dwelt in by Celtic-speaking populations, seemed to me to warrant the conclusion that the traditions underlying the romance came to the French from Celts (whether Bretons or Welshmen is indifferent), and were essentially Celtic, i.e., had passed through the mind of Celts (whether Gaels or Brythons is indifferent), and had received the distinctive stamp of the Celtic temperament.

Three years have passed since I formulated these conclusions. I have striven to keep touch of the subject since then; I have recently had occasion to review it in all its bearings. With all respect to my learned opponents, I may venture to assert, not only that my conclusions have not been controverted, they have not even been seriously challenged

  1. Gaston Paris, Litt. Franç, au Moyen-âge, p. 75.
  2. The Iter ad Paradisum is quite different from the visit to paradise described in Alexander's letter to Aristotle (Book iii, ch. 17, of Pseudo-Call.). The chief marvels described in the visit to paradise are the male and female prophetic trees of the sun and moon.
  3. It will not have escaped notice that most of Dr. Gaster's Jewish parallels are to Wolfram. Under the circumstances, surely Dr. Gaster's first object should have been to prove that Wolfram represents an earlier stage of the legend than Chrestien.