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THE Book of the Holy Graal is the most conscious, most cumbersome, most artificial romance in the literature. It is that also which is beyond all prodigal of wonders, and its wonders are the least convincing. In so far as concerns the history of the Sacred Vessel, it must be said that it materialises the symbol and it also distracts the legend. Robert de Borron finished his metrical romance by confessing that for want of materials he must, for the time being, hold over those branches of his chronicle which were intended to deal with the further adventures of Brons, Alain, Petrus and the connected characters of the story. In the meantime he proceeded to the life of Merlin, bridging the gulf of centuries by a promise to retrace the path when he had obtained the necessary data, though it is possible enough that the intervening distances of time may have spelt little to his mind. All that could be construed as wanting is supplied by the Book of the Holy Graal, leaving nothing undone, but working through I know not what mazes of great enchantment. I have said that the artifice of the design--which obtains also for its expression--stands forth in
full manifestation, even upon its surface. A hand more sparing might have worked greater marvels and left some sense of realism, at least in the order of faerie. And yet the prolix history has a certain touch of enchantment, all paths of disillusion notwithstanding.
From whatever point of view it is approached, the entire text will prove to be sown with difficulties--curious things in truth of the worlds within and without, but even as difficulties these have also their secret charm. It has vast sections of unnecessary matter which suggest an imperfect art of mere story-telling, and it also deals with materials which do not belong, more especially at its own period, to the horizon confessed by that art. Moreover, nothing is really finished, for, as one of its sub-titles indicates, it is the first branch of the romances of the r Round Table, or it is rather the prolegomenon to these. A cycle of the literature of chivalry is supposed to follow thereafter, which may mean that the writer had a mind to go further, or, alternatively, that his intention was to present the collated antecedents leading up to other documents which in one or another form were there already in being. Accepting either alternative, this prolix introduction in general, which presupposes and from which ex hypothesi there follows so great a cloud of romance, offers herein a first point of distinction from the trilogy ascribed to Robert de Borron. The latter lies, comparatively speaking, within such a narrow compass and yet A has a claim to completeness within its own lines and measures. There are other distinctions, however, which are not less marked in their character and are very much more important. The account which I propose of the document will differ from ordinary critical and textual apprehension by way of direct summary, since it is actuated by exclusive objects which connect with the design of my study.
As the Lesser Chronicles of the Holy Graal are concerned with the reservation of a great secret or sacramental formula, so there is also a secret in the Book of
the Holy Graal, and herein is the second distinction which we are called to make between them. That particular form of the Eucharistic mystery which we find in Robert de Borron and his line of anonymous successors is made void by the later romance; as if it had planned to show that there were no secret words of consecration, the actual mass-words are given in full, and although they are those of a liturgy which differs from the formula of the Latin rite and betrays oriental influences, the variations are local and accidental, and, except for liturgical history, they wear no aspect of importance. At the same time, when the Hermit of the Book of the Holy Graal is first received into that state of vision from which the transcript of the text follows, what he is promised by Christ is the revelation of the greatest secret of the world. But this is the book itself, which is invariably spoken of as very small--so small indeed that it can lie in the hollow of his hand. This notwithstanding, it is the greatest marvel that man can ever receive. In its original form it was written by Christ Himself, who committed to writing only: (a) the Book of the Holy Graal; (b) the Lord's Prayer; (e) the words written in the sand, according to the New Testament. To pronounce aloud the words contained in the book would convulse the elemental world, and it must therefore be read with the heart.
Not exactly on this consideration but not for less cogent reasons, the first thing which is apparent concerning it is that although the Hermit is covenanted to transcribe it and to occupy in this task the period which intervenes between the fifteenth day after Easter and the day of the Ascension; although further he states expressly that what he wrote down is that which follows his prologue; the secret book committed to his charge is not that which he transmits as a memorial for those who come after him. I suppose that in registering this with a certain touch of fantastic gravity, my motive can be scarcely misconstrued; we are dealing with a parable
or pretence, and the point is that it is not especially consistent within its own lines. After making every allowance for the variations of late editing, both intentional and otherwise, it remains that the text of the story voids the claim of the prologue, and this to such an extent that a substitute only is offered for that which was brought from heaven for the assumed illumination of Logres.
The Book of the Transcript is by the hypothesis of the prologue divided into four branches, of which the first concerns the lineage of the Hermit himself; and on the assumption that the Huth Merlin is correct in identifying the latter with that second Nascien, who, in the days of the enchanter and those of Uther Pendragon, was at first of the order of chivalry and afterwards a holy recluse, it will follow that the entire romance corresponds to this designation rather than an individual part. The second branch is that of the Holy Graal, which is the title of the collection itself: Li Livres du Saint Graal, and it cannot be allocated to a section. The third branch is called the beginning of the Terrors, and the fourth is that of the Marvels, which in like manner will not assist towards any logical classification, as we are concerned with something which answers in all its modes to the title of a wonder-book.
The most express, most ordered, most reasoned part of the entire history is assuredly what is termed the prologue; it is there that the Hermit accounts for the manner in which he came for a period into the possession of the original text. It reads in certain passages like a story of initiation. The parti pris is quick to self-deception, and one sees too easily that for which one is looking; but here are words which are exceedingly like the sign of recognition in a secret society: "The first Knight," says the Hermit, who has found refuge in a house of chivalry, "recognised me, as he believed, by a sign which I bore about me; he had seen me in a place which he named." But the Hermit evaded disclosures, for he was bent on
concealing his mission, even as through the whole of his narrative he veils also his personality, though perhaps for the express object that it should transpire in the .subsequent texts.
The circumstances under which he came to begin his story took place in Britain, 717 years after the Passion of Christ. It is to be inferred that prior to his mission he knew nothing concerning the Mystery of the Holy Graal, though he did know of his lineage, which may be intended according to the flesh or according to the mystical spirit, if its reference is to the grades of his initiation. On Maunday Thursday, after the office of Tenebræ, the Grand Master awoke him from sleep and gave him a book to ease his doubts on the subject of the Trinity. His immediate experience thereafter was the possession of a further gift, which was that of an infinity of tongues. He began reading the book and continued till Good Friday, when he celebrated a Mass of the Presanctified; between the breaking of the Host over the Chalice and his reception of the elements he was transported to the Third Heaven, and there was enabled to understand the Trinitarian Dogma by the dilucid contemplation of the Blessed and Glorious Trinity, with its distinction of Persons combined in the mystery of their Unity. In other words, this was the ecstasy of the Eucharist consequent upon his initiation into the sacramental power and grace enshrined in the Book of the Holy Graal. After Mass he placed the book in the Eucharistic dovecote, or tabernacle, with the intention not to reopen it till Easter Sunday, when he found that it had been abstracted strangely, and he undertook a wonderful pilgrimage in search of it. The explanation of this disappearance is perhaps that the Mystery of the Graal is of that which was buried with Christ and with Him rises, and the subsequent communication of the priest signifies that Christ is placed spiritually in many sepulchres.
That he might be directed rightly on his journey, the Hermit was led by an animal which combined the characteristics
of the lamb, the dog, the fox and the lion; it was in fact that questing beast which reappears in later romance, and, according to its mystical sense, is explained by the Longer Prose Perceval. Ultimately he recovered the book; and this restoration was followed by a vision of our , Saviour, who ordained its transcription, and on Ascension Day the original was reassumed into heaven. It will be seen that no pains are spared to exalt the work which 1 follows this introduction; it is of mysterious and divine origin; a parchment copy is produced for earthly purposes by the highest of all ordinations; and as regards its source and nature it takes precedence of everything, even the canonical gospels.
The Doctrine of the Trinity was the great crux and mystery which seems to have exercised the minds of those who had entered the Path of Sanctity at the period immediately preceding the literature of the Holy Graal. It was the triumph of Faith to accept it, and he for whom 1 it presented no difficulties had attained a very high grade of illumination. The hermit of the prologue to the Book of the Holy Graal is moved profoundly by the question, and its solution is the great incentive which is offered him when he sets out on his pilgrimage to recover the vanished book, which, in spite of the content exhibited by its assumed transcript, is intended of itself--as we have seen--to allay his doubts on the subject. We should remember that in the year 1150 the Church had established the Festival of the Most Holy Trinity, and it was a quarter of a century later that the transformed Graal legends began to manifest on the horizon of romantic literature.