The Sangreal (Holy Grail)

The Sangreal in Arthurian Legend

The Sangreal is another name for the Holy Grail, a legendary sacred vessel associated with divine revelation, whose origins go back to the Last Supper. In Arthurian legend, the Grail quest represented a heroic and mystic adventure attempted by the Knights of the Round Table and was achieved by Sir Bors, Sir Percival, and Sir Galahad.

The Sangreal makes its appearance in Arthurian legend between about 1180 to 1240, from various sources:

• ‘Le Conte del Graal’ (or ‘Perceval’), initiated by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes in a large collection of verses, c.1180 to 1240.

• The French poet Robert de Boron’s ‘Joseph d’Arimathea’ and ‘Perceval’, c.1200.

• The German poem ‘Parzival’ by Wolfram von Eschenbach, c.1205 to 1215.

• Walter de Mapp’s ‘La Queste del Saint Greal’, c.1220, one of a group of tales known as the Vulgate Cycle, believed to have been compiled by Cistercian monks. ‘La Queste del Saint Greal’ was later embodied almost entire as Sir Thomas Malory’s characterisation of the Sangreal in ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’.

• ‘Le Morte d’Arthur‘ by Sir Thomas Malory, published by William Caxton in 1485.

‘Le Conte del Graal’ – the Sangreal according to Chrétien de Troyes

Chrétien de Troyes wrote a series of five Arthurian romances: ‘Erec et Enide’, ‘Cliges’, ‘Le Chevalier de la Charrette’ (Lancelot), ‘Le Chevalier au Lion’, and ‘Le Conte del Graal’ – “The History of the Grail”. Earlier stories about King Arthur contain few knightly adventures, whereas here, the knights have become the heroes, reflecting the late twelfth century world with its gradually eroding monarchical power and increasing importance of knights, barons, and other noblemen.

‘Le Conte del Graal’ is the oldest of the Sangreal romances, and Chrétien refers to the story as the greatest ever told in any court. He tells of Perceval’s growth from being a simpleton in boyhood to assuming knightly grace, but the crucial part appears to be as follows: after his knighting, Perceval sets out in search of further adventures and arrives at the castle of the Fisher King, who presides over an empty hall, large enough for four hundred men. The Fisher King presents Perceval with a sword that “could not break save only in one peril which no one knew save him who forged and tempered it.” A procession comes through the hall. A squire carries a lance dripping blood onto the floor (the one with which Longius pierced Christ’s side on the Cross?), followed by two more squires carrying ten-branched candlesticks. Then a beautiful damsel enters carrying a jewelled ‘Graal’ – the Sangreal – which blazes so brightly that it outshines and extinguishes the light from the candles and the stars. Behind is another damosel carrying a talleors: a casket or tabernacle. Perceval sees all this but does not to ask its meaning. The following day he finds the castle empty and it disappears altogether as he departs over the drawbridge.

Perceval visits a hermit for confession after five years of godless adventure. The hermit rebukes Perceval for not having asked about the Sangreal, despite the fact that he was merely following the teachings of a mentor (his mother?) not to enquire too much, and didn’t know that he should ask or that he would incur guilt and reproach for not doing so. Then the hermit asserts that the Sangreal carried by the beautiful damsel did not contain a fish (as Chrétien implied it should) but simply a consecrated wafer intended for the King’s father. Church orthodoxy prevented women from serving in such a priestly capacity, but the Grail Maiden passes without an explanation.

Undoubtedly Chrétien meant to relate the hero’s second visit to the castle, when he would have put the question and received the desired information. But the poet did not live to finish his story. Whether the explanation of the Sangreal, taken up by others in four Continuations, is really what he intended it to signify remains open to question; in Chrétien’s version the Sangreal has no pronounced religious character, but in the Fourth Continuation (Gerbert de Montreuil, c.1226 – 1230) – influenced by the works of Robert de Boron and the Vulgate version – there are references to Joseph of Arimathea.

The Sangreal and the link with Christ – Robert de Boron

In ‘Joseph d’ Arimathea’ and ‘Perceval’ Robert de Boron presents the Sangreal as a chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, at which he instituted the Eucharist, linking it with the sacrement of the altar. It passed to Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man who used it to collect Christ’s blood when he took the body from the Cross and laid in the tomb.

The Sangreal was then brought by Joseph’s brother-in-law, Bron, from the Holy Land to the West, to Britain. To be precise, it was taken to the ‘Vales of Avalon’ – possibly Glastonbury in central Somerset… Robert didn’t say – where it became endowed with supernatural properties of a Christian kind. It was in 1191 at Glastonbury Abbey where the monks announced that they had discovered the grave of King Arthur and Guinevere in their burial ground. The bodies were supposedly marked with a cross inscribed (in Latin): “Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon”. This created an international sensation, and along with it, an appetite for stories about King Arthur and his knights, and their adventures in the quest of the Sangreal.

In Robert’s ‘Perceval’, the hero returned to the (sick) Fisher King’s Castle (unlike in Chrétien’s unfinished ‘Le Conte del Graal’). The original Grail Maiden procession repeated itself, but this time Perceval’s virtue shone through and he enquired “Sire, by the faith that you owe to me and that you owe to all men, tell me what one serves with these things that I see borne there?”

The Fisher King (another Bron) was miraculously restored to health, and said to Perceval “Dear grandson, know that this is the lance with which Longinus struck Jesus Christ on the cross, and this vessel that is called the Grail, know that this is the blood that Joseph caught from His wounds which flowed to the earth, and the reason that we call it the Grail is that it is agreeable to all worthy men and to all those who can stay in its fellowship; nor will it in its fellowship permit sin. And I will pray to Our Lord that He may guide me in whatever I can do for you.” After an apparition by the Holy Ghost, Bron placed the vessel in Perceval’s keeping and announced “Perceval is lord of the Grail by the choice of Our Lord.” Thus Perceval became the Grail-Knight.

Incidentally, on this same day, King Arthur was at the Round Table that Merlin had founded, and they heard a “crash of such greatness that they were frightened most severely by it”, and the stone which had split beneath Perceval when he
had first sat in the empty Siège Perilous – the thirteeth seat symbolising the place of Judas at the Last Supper – was reunited. Merlin said to the King: “Arthur, know that in your time was fulfilled the greatest prophecy ever made; for the Fisher King is cured, and the enchantments have fallen from the land of Britain.”

Percival visit to the Grail Castle

Percival visits the Grail Castle twice. The first time, in his youth, he remembers that he has been taught not to ask unnecessary questions, and when he witnesses the Sangreal he asks nothing. As a result, he fails and the world remains a wasteland. But he later finds the Grail Castle again, having achieved enlightenment, and is able to ask ‘The Question’, bringing healing and becoming the Grail-Knight.

The Sangreal in ‘Parzival’ – Wolfram von Eschenbach

According to Wolfram von Eschenbach, a German poet, the Sangreal was a wonder-working stone with celestial origins, not a vessel. He took up the Perceval theme in ‘Parzival’ (c.1205 to 1215), a long poem contained in 16 books which introduced the concept of the Sangreal into German literature. A simpleton, Parzival, sets out on his adventures without even knowing his own name – the classic fairy-tale motif of ‘the guileless fool’ – but who nonetheless, through innocence and artlessness, attains a goal denied to wiser men. Parzival’s development from dunce to wise and responsible keeper of the Sangreal is a subtle allegory of man’s spiritual development.

Wolfram’s tale is especially interesting because it’s almost devoid of any mention of the clergy. His Parzival finds grace through knightly prowess in pursuit of an agnostic, experiential faith rather than through any direct inspiration from Christ, the Last Supper, and so on. His Sangreal – the stone that fell from heaven – would eventually become, over the centuries, the philosopher’s stone.

Also of interest is that Wolfram claims one of his sources as a Provençal poet, Guiot (Kyot), whose own source for the existence of the Sangreal was supposedly an Arabic manuscript in Toledo.

Rather outside the mainstream of Arthurian legend, ‘Parzival’ still contains elements common to many of the medieval Grail romances: the ignorant youth arrives at the Grail Castle where he fails to ask the healing question; he grows from folly to wisdom through experience, then returns to the domain of the Sangreal where this time he asks the question and heals the wounded king, demonstrating the spiritual leadership that will enable the knights to go out, redeem, and bring healing to the world.

The Sangreal in the Vulgate Cycles

‘Lancelot en Prose’ is a trilogy: ‘Lancelot Propre’, ‘La Queste del Saint Graal’, and ‘La Mort de Roi Artu’, written by Cistercian monks between 1215 and 1230. In the Vulgate Cycle proper, the Lancelot trilogy was preceded by two other stories: ‘L’Estoire del Saint Graal’ and ‘Merlin’.

‘L’Estoire del Saint Graal’ is about the descendants of Joseph of Arimathea, who take the Sangreal with them to Britain where they build the Grail-castle in which the long line of Fisher Kings will live, as the keepers of the Grail. ‘La Queste del Saint Graal’ written by the one time Archdeacon of Oxford, Walter de Mapp (c.1220), is – as its title suggests – the story which deals most specifically with the quest of the Sangreal. The other three stories deal with general Arthur-related themes and are thought to be important sources for Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur a few hundred years later.

The Sangreal in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur

The popularity of Arthurian legend stories waned in the fourteenth century, but during the second half of the fifteenth century, the English ‘knight’ Sir Thomas Malory wrote his masterpiece, Le Morte d’Arthur.

Malory wasn’t an innovator like Chrétien and some of the earlier medieval writers – who were essentially his (French) sources – Le Morte d’Arthur is rather (amongst other things) an extensive recapitulation of previous medieval stories concerning King Arthur.

Le Morte d’Arthur was printed and prefaced by the ‘father of British printing’, William Caxton in 1485, as 21 books instead of Malory’s original eight. The Sangreal is referred to in various places but it’s in Book 17 that Sirs Galahad, Bors, and Percivale finally achieve it and heal the Maimed King at Castle Corbin.

Malory’s story is unlike its French ancestors in that the narrative is less complex, less interwoven, contains less magic, and is thus more realistically detailed. Its sequential character gives the reader a sense of the cumulative significance of events, increasingly apparent in a rising tide of unavoidable disaster: the death of King Arthur and the end of the fellowship of the Round Table. As regards the Sangreal, this is important, because its status is never exalted beyond its place amongst other more Earthly events.

Here, the quest of the Sangreal – spelt “Sangrail” by Malory – has an air of a real expedition. In Book 13, all one hundred and fifty of the Round Table knights left on the quest. In short: Sir Percevale survived the quest with his viginity intact, in Book 14, but did not achieve it. Sir Launcelot failed the quest in Book 15, and Sir Bors achieved a victory over temptation in Book 16.

In Book 17 it becomes highly uncertain as to exactly who is the Maimed King, what sword goes where, exactly what the Sangreal is, and how anyone can tell when it is eventually achieved. Several cursory and puzzling references are made to events that that may or may not have been introduced earlier in the narrative. It’s as if Malory was getting bored trying to make sense of his huge pile of assorted myth fragments and just threw everything in that was still left. Be that as it may, Galahad, Percivale, Bors, the Maimed King, and others finally found themselves gathered together at Castle Corbin, and at dinner, Joseph of Aramathie appeared, dressed as a bishop.

There followed a major scene, heavily based on the Christian mass, involving glowing babies turning into bread. Then Joseph left and Jesus came out of the holy vessel in person, and Galahad ‘received his saviour’. After a mission briefing for his twelve new disciples, Jesus declared that the Sangreal would now leave Logris, never to return. He blessed them all and vanished, leaving behind some of his blood on the Spear of Longinus. Galahad did as he was told, and used the spear to heal the Maimed King, who then became a white monk.

Galahad, Percivale, and Bors then travelled by ship to the city of Sarras, where Joseph of Aramathie appeared again. Galahad was eventually made king, then died, finding ‘the life of the soul’, whereupon Percivale became a hermit, then soon died too. At the end of Book 17, at King Arthur’s court, there was great joy at Bors’ return from the quest, and he and Launcelot swore eternal friendship – “thus endeth the history of the Sangrail”.

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In 1948 the Belgian artist and book illustrator Francoise Taylor produced a series of 18 wonderfully original and evocative engravings created specifically as illustrations for Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, including two pictures titled ‘The Sangreal‘ and ‘The Quest of the Sangreal‘.

See also Arthurian Legend homepage.