Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The original meaning of "grail" (or graal in Old French) referred to a serving platter at a dinner. The term was introduced in this sense to the Arthurian canon by Chrétien de Troyes in his unfinished Perceval, ou Le Conte del Graal (begun ?1182), where it appears as part of some unexplained ceremony performed to Perceval in the castle of the Fisher King. The basis of the Grail is not explained – indeed, it is because of Perceval's failure to explore the mysteries of the Grail procession that Arthur's world is now blighted. Chrétien does not link the Grail with Christ – in fact, he was probably adapting some ancient Celtic Fertility procession. In an early Celtic Arthurian story, Preiddeu Annwfyn ["The Spoils of Annwn"] (?900), Arthur and his men steal a cauldron of plenty from the Irish Underworld. Such stories may reflect a folk memory from a time in the early years of Arthur's reign of plenty and good harvest, but which was followed in the later years by the plague and pestilence that seemingly scythed through Europe in the mid-6th century. The Cauldron of Plenty, sometimes called the Cauldron of Rebirth, was one of four objects of power in Celtic mythology, along with the Sword Fragarach the Defender, the Stone of Destiny and the Spear of Lugh.

All this symbolism changed (or was distorted) when Robert de Boron (?   -1212) linked the Grail to the chalice from which Christ dined at the Last Supper, so that it became the Holy Grail (or Sangraal, Sangrail or Sangreal). In Joseph d'Arimathie (?1200; vt Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Graal) Robert specifically imbued the Grail with Christian symbolism, making it the vessel which held Christ's blood; it thus came to symbolize life. Writing at the time of the Crusades, when Christianity was perceived as under threat, he made the Grail a powerful image in depicting Christ's sacrifice to give humankind eternal life. Within a generation of Robert de Boron's account, the anonymous author of the Perlesvaus (early 13th century) gave the Grail the power of rejuvenation, and the anonymous authors of the Prose Lancelot in the Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian stories (composed 1215-1235) converted it from a dish to a chalice (see Arthur).

All the main elements were there by the time Sir Thomas Malory completed Le Morte Darthur (1485), which established the Grail story we now know. Arthur's kingdom has entered a period of decline and pestilence. Some say this was caused by the Dolorous Stroke delivered by Sir Balin when he killed King Pellam with the Lance of Longinus; since this lance, a development of the Bleeding Lance (a phallic symbol for the giving of life), has been used to take a life, a blight settles over the land (see Waste Land). This blight is personified by the Maimed King, in some legends equated to the Fisher King, who lives in the Grail Castle.

Arthur prays for a sign, and at Camelot he and his Knights have a vision of the Holy Grail. One by one his knights set out on their Quests to seek the Grail. It is not their purpose physically to hold the Grail, merely to understand its significance. All the leading knights seek the Grail. Gawain and Lancelot are unsuccessful because they are impure. Some legends have Perceval and Sir Bors successful, but the true Grail Knight is Galahad, who solves the riddle of the Grail, restores the Maimed King and thus brings prosperity back to the land.

The Grail legend has had a significant impact upon Arthurian fiction in general, and within fantastic fiction. Authors have utilized it either directly, in reworking the Grail story for modern readers, or have used the symbolism to make the Grail represent something attainable only by perfection.

The basic Grail story turns up in most retellings of the Arthurian legend, notably in Perronik the Fool (1926) by George Moore (1852-1933), Kinsmen of the Grail (1963) by Dorothy James Roberts, The King's Damosel (1976) by Vera Chapman, the initial Parsival trilogy (1977-1980) by Richard Monaco, Perceval and the Presence of God (1978) by Jim Hunter (1939-    ); The Light Beyond the Forest (1979) by Rosemary Sutcliff (a more traditional version for younger readers), The Magic Cup (1979) by Andrew M Greeley (1928-2013), which presents the Celtic version of the quest, and The Grail of Hearts (1994) by Susan Shwartz, which links the Fisher King to the Wandering Jew. A collection of mostly new stories is The Chronicles of the Holy Grail (anth 1996) ed Mike Ashley.

The metaphysical aspects of the Grail and its significance today have attracted a different range of writers. Arthur Machen, a mystic who wrote extensive Grail studies, used Grail imagery in several of his stories, and it was the focal point of The Great Return (1915), in which the reappearance of the Grail results in a series of miracles. The Grail likewise reappears in War in Heaven (1930) by Charles Williams, where it becomes a focus for the battle between Good and Evil. A similar background is used in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence, particularly in the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), where a group of children recover the Grail. The search for the Grail is the theme of the Grail Quest series of role-playing gamebooks (see Games) by J H Brennan. Aspects of the Grail, both directly and indirectly, are found in Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion series, especially The War Hound and the World's Pain (1981), Jack Vance's Lyonesse series, especially Madouc (1989), and Diane Duane's A Wizard Abroad (1993).

The Grail has become symbolic for the attainment of perfection which can become a life's quest rather than a physical journey. The Grail motif has thus adapted itself into both High Fantasy and metaphysics as a quest for the ultimate in life. It can also be mirrored in many of those quest stories where the protagonist is seeking a sacred object. An anthology on this theme is Grails: Quests, Visitations and Other Occurrences (anth 1992; exp in 2 vols as Grails: Quests of the Dawn 1994 and Grails: Visitations of the Night 1994) ed Richard Gilliam (1950-    ), Martin H Greenberg and Edward E Kramer.

The Grail has had three recent cinematic treatments which between them have illustrated much of its appeal: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) portrays the continuing lure and desire for the Grail (see Indiana Jones); The Fisher King (1991) shows how the power of belief in the Grail can still heal; and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is sufficiently irreverent to spoof the entire Arthurian genre while retaining an intelligent understanding of the motifs. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.