The incidental allusions which have been made already to certain physical properties which are ascribed to the Holy Graal in several branches of the literature seem to call at this point for some further explanation, without anticipating what will be said at the close as to any higher aspects of this tradition or exhausting specifically its connections with folk-lore, which remain to be stated separately. The conception itself seems so repugnant to all that we attach to the Graal that it is at least desirable to ascertain its scope in the texts. As it is acknowledged to embody a reversion from old non-Christian fable, we should expect it to be most prominent in those texts which are nearest to the transitional stage, and m ore especially in the Chrétien portion of the Conte del Graal. It should be understood in the first place--as indeed it follows sufficiently from previous sections--that in the Perceval quests--one version excepted--and in more than one of the Gawain quests the visit to the Graal Castle is followed by a banquet or supper, at which the questing knight is treated for the most part as an honoured guest.
The exception as regards Perceval is in the longer prose romance or High History, the action of which is subsequent to the first visit of the hero, and he does not enter it a second time till he has taken it by force of arms out of the hands of God's enemy and the enemy of Holy Church. In other cases, where the ceremonial meal is described--sometimes at considerable length--it is nearly always at
the table and before or in the midst of the festival that the Graal and the other Hallows make their processional appearance, and there are certain texts which say that the Sacred Vessel serves the high company--sometimes with rarest meats, sometimes also with wine. In these specific instances the manifestation is that which occurs first after they are seated at table. It was to be expected, as I have said, that we should hear of this material efficacy in Chrétien, but though the courses of the banquet are described fully, and are rare and precious enough, it is only a high reverence in a lordly castle of this world, and it is precisely from this text that it proves wanting. The wonder resides in the Hallows, but they dispense nothing to the body. It follows from this that the metrical romance of De Borron was not written to explain Chrétien. It follows also that Gautier had no precedent in the poet who was his precursor, and it was therefore from other antecedents that he derived his notion of the Feeding Dish and from yet others his knowledge of early Graal history which does not appear in Chrétien. When Gautier brings Gawain to the Graal Castle, he says that the Sacred Vessel served seven courses, but the wine was served by the butlers. His idea of the Sacred Vessel must therefore have corresponded rather to the Paschal Dish than to a Reliquary of the Precious Blood. On the other hand, his account of Perceval's second visit contains no allusion to this side of the festival. Manessier, in continuation of the same visit, offers no suggestion; but when the time comes for him to tell the story of Perceval's third arrival, the Hallows appear in their order and all are filled at the table. At the fourth and final visit, and the coronation of the questing knight, Manessier recounts how the Graal feeds the whole company with costliest meats. On the other hand, Gerbert, preoccupied by far other matters, gives no indication of the kind.
Except in so far as the Early History of Merlin reproduces one episode from the Lesser Holy Graal, it has no allusion to the properties under consideration, and they
have passed out of all recollection in the Didot Perceval. On the other hand, the Greater Chronicles, represented by the Book of the Holy Graal and the Quest of Galahad, embody a marked development of this particular tradition. Between them there is the later Merlin without any reference whatever, the prose Lancelot--to which we shall see that it is a foreign element--and the Longer Prose Perceval into the consciousness of whose author it has never once entered and by whom it would, I think, have been repudiated. Its recurrence, on a single occasion, in the presence of Galahad, and in connection with his story, may seem un-searchable, having regard to the claims which inhere in this romance, but in the order of the texts it is explained by the antecedents in the first form of the first document of the cycle. We must recur, therefore, to the root-matter of the early histories.
The poem of Robert de Borron narrates that among those who accompanied Joseph westward a certain number departed from grace through the sin of luxury, but the spiritual mind of the minstrel has spared us all particulars. The result was a famine in the company; it does not appear that it fell upon all without exception, for the fact that there was want among the people had to be notified to the leaders; but, these apart, good and bad seem to have suffered indifferently. An appeal was made to Brons that he should take counsel with Joseph, which was done accordingly, and Joseph invoked the Son of God on his knees in the presence of the Graal, reciting the petition of his people, who were in need of bread and meat. He was told in reply to expose the Sacred Vessel openly in the presence of the brethren, on a table similar to that of his own Last Supper,--by which means the sinners will be discovered speedily. It is Christ Himself who was speaking, and He ordained further that Brons should repair to a certain water and there angle for a fish. The first which he caught must be brought straightway to Joseph, who, on his part, should place it upon the Graal table over against the
[paragraph continues] Sacred Vessel. The people were then to be summoned and informed that if they were true believers, who had kept the commandments and followed out the teachings of Christ, as given through Joseph, so that they had trespassed in nothing, they would be welcome to sit down at the table. These instructions were followed, with the result that a part only of the company accepted this invitation. The table was arranged duly, and whosoever was seated thereat had the accomplishment of his heart's desire, and that entirely. Petrus, who was one of the recipients, asked the crowd who stood about whether they did not experience anything of the good which penetrated those at the table, and they answered that they felt nothing. Thereupon Petrus denounced them as guilty of the vile, dolorous sin, and they went forth out of the house of Joseph covered with shame. The poem says:--
but the experience of the sitters, thus collected together, seems to indicate that they were fed from within rather than from without. It will be seen and we must always remember that the chief necessity and often the chief privation of early quests and ventures in the voyages of romance was that of food in season, but in this case what I have called the spiritual mind of the poet could not clearly connect the idea of physical refreshment with the sacramental powers of the Relic. As regards the elect who were present, when the service was finished each of them rose up and went out among the rest, Joseph commanding that they should return day by day to partake of the grace administered. Thus was the vessel, says the poem, proved for the first time. In the speech of Petrus to the people who were rejected there is further evidence that the sustenance was more especially of the spiritual order, and it is important
to establish this point from the earliest of the Graal histories. He speaks of the great delight experienced in the Grace and of the great joy with which the communicants were penetrated. They were filled as the Psalmist was filled and she who sang the Magnificat: Esurientes implevit bonis. What was filled was the heart of man, and what was reflected was the entire soul. My contention is therefore that Robert de Borron had the idea of the Feeding Dish present to his mind when he made the scarcity of food for his company an opportunity for the discriminating test of the second great table of refection, but in place of bodily meat and bread, symbolised by the single fish, as something intentionally placed out of all reasonable proportion, he administered extasis. That question of Petrus to the unworthy crowd about him: Do you experience nothing? is so evidently impossible, in their case, as a reference to eating and drinking that there is no need to dwell thereon. It left no opportunity to the prose editors whose versions complete the trilogy, and they lose all touch with the notion.
As regards the Fish, by which we shall be brought at a later stage to another form of symbolism found in the poem, the text offers a comparison which, although a little cryptic, seems also significant. It says that in the sight of the Graal, in its company and the service thereof, true believers experience as much satisfaction as a fish, which, having been taken by a man in his hand, has contrived to escape therefrom and again go swimming in the sea. The specific fish of the story was placed before the Sacred Vessel exactly in the middle of the table, and was covered with a cloth. There is no suggestion that it was eaten, and it appears to have remained as a kind of fixed dish whenever the service was celebrated.
The noticeable point about the poem is that the material sustenance provided once only by the sacred vessel, as something nihil ad rem, is passed over so slightly and lightly that on the face of the text it is
a matter of inference whether the Company partook (a) of anything physical at all, except the broken meats which remained in the stewardship of the camp; or (b) alternately of anything except the Eucharist, which certainly provides bodily sustenance in the most material of the sacramental texts. On the other hand, all processes of language are enlisted by Robert de Borron to show that they were sustained spiritually. Further, the palmary miracle accomplished by the vessel on this occasion was not any kind of refreshment, spiritual or corporeal, but that of discrimination between the good and evil among the people: for this kind of judgment the table of Joseph was set up and the goats were separated from the sheep. There was, I suppose, in the poet's mind no question that what could nourish the soul, which is vital, could at need refresh the body, which is accessory only. It is therefore small wonder that when the fountain text says so little, those which derive therefrom are content to leave it thereat, and they add nothing. For Joseph and his brethren it remained that the Lord was the part of my chalice, and perhaps in the last understanding the famine which fell upon the companions was the scarcity of grace in the soul rather than of food in the stomach.
Now, on the other hand, the Book of the Holy Graal is in one sense the legend of the Feeding Dish consecrated and exalted, and seeing that as the texts stand it is that from which the greatest of all quests and the most wonderful version of all the quests which are accessory must be supposed to derive ex hypothesi, it is essential that we should understand its position clearly, and I will tabulate the references as follows:--
(1) The people on their way to Britain are fed marvellously with all manner of viands, both meat and drink, as, for example, at houses by the way and at lordly castles. (2) In this primary allusion the Graal is not said to feed them. (3) They receive nourishment from the table of the Graal, but this is
the Eucharist, and it is expressly stated that the company had nothing else on that day. (4) At a later stage, a second instance is given of this super-substantial refreshment. (5) It is not till we are approaching comparatively the close of the chronicle that we reach something more definite. The company are already in Britain, and through the persecution of their heathen enemies they are hungry. Twelve loaves are obtained; they are broken by Joseph, are placed in the Dish, and they feed 500 people, more than the twelve loaves being left subsequently. (6) It does not prove food of spiritual life, for those who were filthy before are filthy still. (7) At yet a later stage, the heathens test the feeding powers of the Vessel by the imprisonment of the Christians. In Wales the Vessel again furnishes all manner of viands, and one fish is a superabundant provision for the whole company. After a similar manner, they are fed with all possible delicacies in Scotland.
Passing over the later Merlin romances, which are neither exactly Graal histories nor quests, and offer nothing to our purpose, we find that the shadow of the Quest is projected into the prose Lancelot, though there is no questing intention, and the visit of Gawain to the Graal Castle is the one example of indignity offered to a guest therein. The responsibility, however, does not rest with the royal and saintly host, whose high-erected thought "is seated in a heart of courtesy." There is the flight of the mystical dove from casement to inmost Shrine, as if the bird went to renew the virtues of the Holy Graal; there is the apparition of the unattended damozel, bearing that which itself bore the likeness of a chalice; there is the genuflection of all knees before the Holy Vessel; and there are sweet odours with all delicacies lavished upon the great table. But in the feast which follows, the peer of the Round Table alone has an empty plate. It was the discrimination and forejudgment of the Hallow in
respect of that Knight, who, in the days of Galahad, would indeed propose the Quest but would not persevere therein.
In the Longer Prose Perceval, after the restitution of all things, there is abundance everywhere in the Castle, "insomuch that there is nought wanting that is needful for the bodies of noble folk," even as for noble souls. But the source of all this plenty is in a river which comes from the Earthly Paradise and not in the Holy Graal. On the occasion of Gawain's visit, the table is garnished richly, but it is with game of the forest and other meats of this world; it is the same on the arrival of Lancelot; and then even the earthly food does not vary.
In the Quest of Galahad the manifestations of the Graal are as follows: (1) In the banqueting-hall of King Arthur, and it is the only record of its appearance in any castle of the external world, the reason being that the Graal is "going about." On this occasion--yes, even in the presence of Galahad--"every knight had such meats and drinks as he best loved in this world." As the table was dight for the festival, it seems to follow that what was otherwise provided already underwent transformation, probably in the minds of the participants. (2) At the stone cross in the forest and in the waste land, where stood the old chapel and where in the presence of Lancelot the sick knight was made whole by the Precious Vessel. (3) To Lancelot in the Graal Castle, where there was, firstly, a Mass of the Graal, and, secondly, a banquet at which all were fed by the Vessel. (4) To Galahad and his elect companions at the consummation of the Quest, but the sweet meats were those of the Eucharist exalted to the arch-natural degree. (5) In Sarras at the close of all, "when the deadly flesh began to behold the spiritual things," and Christ's transcendence was manifested in Christ's immanence. Of these five changes in the exposition of the Holy Graal, the first
only and the lowest was that of earthly food; it was communicated by a special indulgence, in the palace of a lord of the world, as an encouragement to the quest of Heaven.
If we turn to the German cycle, we shall find that the feeding qualities are before all things obvious in Wolfram. At the first visit of Parsifal, what is taken from the Graal is bread, but other dishes stand before it in right great plenty, both rare and common. Some say that there are no such riches on earth, but to the poet this is a word of foolishness, since the Graal is the crown of all. The wine also was the gift of the precious object, and the cups on the table were filled by the power thereof. In the great and high festival, when the questing Knight was crowned as King and Warden of the mystery, even the ordinary fowl of the forest were taken from the Graal. I am afraid that such ministry in the Parsifal is comparable to the procession therein, somewhat indiscriminate in method and "like a tale of little meaning, though the words are strong." In the curious chronicle of Heinrich, the service of the table is after the manner born of this world, but the host does not partake till he is served from the sacred Reliquary with something which, by its description, bears the external semblance of the symbolical Bread of Heaven. The poem, however, has otherwise no sacramental connections, nor has the Vessel, strictly speaking, what is understood here by feeding properties.
It remains now to sum up and to ask in our hearts--though the answer is remote in our quest--what is the meaning of all this disconcerting medley, which out of the Holy Graal, as an issue in time and place, brings now the voice of an oracle, like the classical Bætylus; now a certain Βασανος or touchstone, a criterion of judgment which separates the good from the evil; now a suspended viaticum, which keeps the sick alive and the dead in a false life, but offers no relief in suffering; now manifests the corporeal changes in the growth of
the Divine Body; now shows Christ crucified; and now out of all reason--like a coarse Talmudic allegory--provides the game of the forest--all commonest and rarest meats; yet in all and through all is (a) the Mystery of the Eucharist, and (b) a simple reliquary containing ex hypothesi the Precious Blood of the Redeemer. At the moment let us note further--and this only--as a little curious, that two out of the three express texts of transubstantiation are texts of the Feeding Dish, but the third in the series has spiritualised all its houses and acknowledges not the flesh or its ministry except in the Eucharist. The Chrétien portion of the Conte del Graal is a pagan wonder-book tinctured thinly with Christianity, but it is not nearly so gross regarding the service of the Sacred Vessel as the Book of the Holy Graal or the Great Quest itself. There is more in Gautier than in Chrétien, and very much more in Wolfram than in the putative Walter Map. But those who continued and those who finished the Conte are fitful in their introduction of the feeding element, and the romance of Galahad puts the disconcerting ceremonial outside the holy places of the mystic Castle.
I think, in conclusion, that the intention of the Greater Chronicles concerning the Feeding Dish is to be taken in another sense of the Quest of Galahad, which says of Lancelot: "Yf ye wold aske how he lyved, he that fedde the peple of Israel with manna in deserte, soo was he fedde. For every day when he had sayd his prayers, he was susteyned with the grace of the Holy Ghoost." And, as the Welsh version has it, "so that he thought himself to be full of the best meats."