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Folk-Lore/Volume 32/Glastonbury and the Holy Grail

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Glastonbury and the Holy Grail.

(Vol. xxxi. p. 307.)

I have read Miss Berkeley’s notes on Glastonbury with great interest. I agree with her that the locality was most probably an early centre of Nature worship, but that it can be identified as the “High Place,“ the Grail Castle of the romances, I very much doubt.

It is worth noting that the only one of the romances that can be directly connected with Glastonbury, i.e. the Perlesvaus, appears to be interested in the Abbey as the burial place of Arthur and Guenevere, not as the home of the Grail. In fact, there is reason to believe that the romance was composed with the direct intention of exploiting the supposed discovery of the tomb in 1191. (Cf. Dr. Nitze’s “Notes on the Chronology of the Grail Romances,” Modern Philology, 1919-20, and my article, “The Perlesvaus and the prose Lancelot,” Romania, Dec. 1920.) It is by no means clear where the author located the Grail Castle; it is certainly not in Avalon, and the final home of the Grail is in a sea-girt island.

Before these cults became banned by the advance of orthodox Christianity, there must certainly have been more than one place of celebration, and the topography of Grail Castle, Perilous Chapel, etc., may well vary as the result of surviving traditions of different localities; but when our romances were composed I imagine that the tradition of one secret sanctuary where the banished ritual still survived was dominant. Where that sanctuary was located it is hard to say. The Grail Castle seems to be generally connected with living water, sea, as in the Bleheris-Gawain version, and the Queste, or river, as in Chrétien, ‘Didot’ Perceval, and Perlesvaus, not with a lake, or marshes. I should be inclined to look for it on the Welsh coast, but Dr. Brugger would place it in Scotland.

I do not think the identification of Corbenic with Glastonbury Tor can be maintained. In the first place, the correct form of the name has not yet been determined; it is written Corbenic, Corberic, or Carbonek. Secondly, it only occurs in the final, cyclic, redaction, where it seems to have been introduced from the Grand Saint Graal, which says that the name is Chaldaean. It may quite well have come from the Acts of St. Thaddaeus, to which I referred in my letter in the same number, and therefore really be Oriental, as Miss Murray contends. The connection of the Lit Merveil with the Grail Castle also comes from the same romance, and is equally “suspect”; Chrétien and Wolfram place it in the Chastel Merveilleus, which has nothing to do with the Grail.

The Balin and Balan story certainly contains Grail elements, but in a very confused form, and requires further study. Professor Brown has drawn attention to the parallels with the earliest Gawain version.

The Owain story is, of course, allied to this group of ideas, but I know no version of the Grail story where the hero has to slay the guardian of bridge or ford before arriving at the Castle. Such a feat, which would involve his taking the place of the slain knight for an indefinite period, would have formed a most inconvenient hindrance to initiation. The adventures which provide us with variants of the theme, such as Perceval’s adventure at the Ford Amorous, are isolated from the main theme of the Grail Quest. Miss Berkeley introduces too many elements into her enquiry. The Nature ritual, with its accompanying initiation ceremonies, is a simple concrete actual fact; it happened, and it seems a pity to mix it up with “Otherworld” speculations, Gods of the Head, of the Sea, etc. Such may be local, but are they Grail traditions? With regard to the Cauldrons, I have expressed my opinion in the book referred to; I do not believe they belong to the same line of tradition at all.

I purposely made no use of the Dionysiac, or Orphic, mysteries. All these Life Cults possess certain elements in common, but the later, and specifically Greek, rituals do not furnish us with the close parallels to the mise-en-scéne of the Grail stories which we find in their Asiatic prototypes, and I was desirous of simplifying my argument as much as possible.

Finally, I would point out that in the second paragraph of my letter I wrote direct, not different, affiliation. My readers have, doubtless, made the correction for themselves.