In her lecture series, Eternal Chalice – The Grail in Literature and Legend, Professor Monica Brzezinski Potkay has expressed that the grail was not considered holy from the earliest of writings. In support of her opinion Potkay sites Chrétien de Troyes’ work Le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail), unarguably the earliest known Arthurian romance where the Grail first appears. The main character Percival, who lends his name as an alternate title for the story, journeys to the hidden castle of the Fisher King, a king who is wounded from battle. The king invites Percival to dinner, after which the grail makes its mysterious appearance by procession.
“As they were speaking of one thing and another, a squire came forth from a chamber carrying a white lance by the middle of its shaft…Everyone in the hall saw the white lance with its white point from whose tip there issued a drop of blood, and this red drop flowed down to the squires hand… Then two other squires entered holding in their hands candelabra of pure gold, crafted with enamel inlays. The young men carrying the candelabra were extremely handsome… a maiden accompanying the two young men was carrying a grail with her two hands; she was beautiful, noble and richly attired. After she had entered the hall carrying the grail the room was so brightly illuminated that the candles lost their brilliance like stars and the moon when the sun rises. After her came another maiden, carrying a silver carving platter. The grail, which was introduced first, was of pure fine gold. Set in the grail were precious stones of many kinds, the best and costliest to be found in earth and in sea. The grail stones were finer than any others in the world without doubt. The grail passed by like the lance. It passed in front of the bed and into another chamber.”
Percival then makes a costly mistake, much like a sin of omission, by not asking about what the grail is and who it serves he dooms the Fisher King to prolonged suffering, for as the chapter progresses we learn that had Percival shown the Fisher King this simple gesture of charity the king would have been healed. About the above quote where the grail first enters the story Professor Potkay explains, “One thing we need to note here is that this is not the Holy Grail. In the twenty-first century we’re used to thinking about the grail as always being holy but there is really no indication here that this is anything holy. All Percival tells us is that it’s a grail.” That Potkay is satisfied with this explanation after having spent the better part of her first lecture explaining how The Percival is all about interpreting signs and discovering that not all ordinary looking things are as ordinary as they seem, is frankly stupefying. She misses the very point that she teaches is tantamount in understanding The Percival. Potkay brilliantly explains the importance of signs from the first chapter of The Story of The Grail where Percival meets a knight for the first time and comically asks too many questions about the knight’s armor and weapons but for whatever reason, Potkay turns out to be like Percival in not asking the right questions at the moment when it matters the most. She doesn’t carry that process of learning from signs and questions over into the instance of the grail’s introduction. She doesn’t ask, “What could Chrétien be trying to teach us?” or “What is it that Percival is supposed to notice about this procession of objects passing before him?”
A breakdown of the four objects described and their bearers reveals categorically and by contrast and comparison, that the grail alone is the ideal combination of both beauty in appearance and beauty in substance.
There are four possible categories or combinations of ordinary vs. extraordinary objects and plain appearances vs. beautiful appearances. By ‘beautiful’ I am referring to external aesthetic beauty exemplified by ornamentation or decoration with jewels.
1. An ordinary object that appears plain (the silver platter)
2. An ordinary object that appears beautiful (the candelabra)
3. An extraordinary object that appears plain (the white lance)
4. An extraordinary object that appears beautiful (the grail)
Category one – the ordinary object that appears plain – is an object that appears to be what it is; it looks like what it’s supposed to look like, such as the silver platter. One might refer to this category as the book properly judged by its cover.
Category two – the ordinary object that appears beautiful – is an object that is plain but has been dressed up so to speak, like the candelabra that are merely expensive looking candle holders and nothing more. One might refer to this category as the book improperly judged by its cover; perhaps not living up to its hype or even lacking in substance.
Category three – the extraordinary object that appears plain – is an object that is unique because of a quality not usually belonging to it although by all other appearances is not dressed up and is rather plain, like the inexplicably bleeding but simple white lance. As in the previous category one might refer to this category as the book improperly judged by its cover; sadly prejudged and easily overlooked.
Category four – the extraordinary object that appears beautiful – It appears to be what it is: it looks like what it’s supposed to look like, however wild and wonderful that is – such as the grail that illuminates so brightly it is compared to the sun bleaching out the stars and moon by its brilliance, that is rightly ornamented with the finest of jewels, since to decorate it so is to make it look like what it is; beautiful. One might refer to this category as the book properly judged by it cover; those who find it are rewarded by its fullness.
By this set of definitions, both the lance and the grail are by their very nature extraordinary. These are the signs that Percival and the reader are evidently intended to read.
Now let’s examine the pairing of the objects. The first two items – the bleeding lance and the candelabra – are brought through by squires, servants or young men in training for knighthood, while the last two items – the grail and the silver platter – are brought through by maidens. Pairing them in this way asks us to make a comparison not only between each item in each set but between each pair. Chrétien shows the ordinary candelabra and the ordinary silver platter to juxtapose these ordinary items against the extraordinary ones in their own sets. The lance is mysteriously, inexplicably, even supernaturally bleeding but not adorned at all, while the candelabra have no unique supernatural qualities even though they are made of gold and inlayed with jewels. Chrétien is showing us that things appearing to be ordinary are sometimes much more than they appear to be while even things made of precious materials can be worthless by comparison. True treasures, it would seem according to Chrétien are not valued by material riches but by heavenly ones.
Since the second set supersedes the first it gains greater meaning or importance; it reinforces the matter of reading signs and advances their meaning all the more. For example, the first object in the first set is the extraordinarily bleeding but rather ordinary lance, while the first object in the second set is the extraordinarily brilliant and very beautifully decorated grail. Hence the grail is greater than the lance because it is both extraordinary and beautiful. Likewise, the second object in the first set is the highly decorated but ordinary candelabra, while the second object in the second set is the undecorated plain silver platter. Hence the platter is more ordinary than the candelabra, being neither extraordinary nor beautiful. Lastly, by pairing the ordinary and plain silver platter with the extraordinary and beautiful grail the greatest contrast is made and the platter seems most plain while the grail seems most grand. Chrétien is teaching us that sometimes that those true heavenly riches, once discovered on earth, are often adorned with the finest jewels and that this is as it should be. Chrétien also pairs the grail and the lance by writing, “The grail passed by like the lance.” In this sense the two mysterious objects are brought together and their elusiveness is made poignant.
Having maidens carry the grail is significant in hindsight once Chrétien reveals to us that the grail is the vessel that delivers a miraculous Eucharistic host which sustains the life of the Fisher King. Knowing that the grail is the ciborium at the liturgy of the Eucharist where Christ becomes substantially present, it calls to mind a tradition that Mary, Jesus’ mother, is much like the Eucharistic vessel since she is the human vessel through which Christ came into the world. The maiden who carries the grail then personifies Mary as does the grail itself.
Additionally, the grail is like Christ, as is the lance but for different reasons. The lance is plain in appearance like every other lance and yet it is extraordinary in that it sheds blood as no other lance does: Christ is plain in appearance like every other human person and yet He is the perfect sacrifice. Jesus was humble though He was God (cf Philippians 2:5-8). The keepers of the grail beatified its appearance to Percival, the Fisher King and his son, and all the maidens and squires in the procession augmenting and affirming that it is extraordinarily radiant as no other grail is: God the Father transfigured Jesus radiantly before James, John, Peter, Moses and Elijah, revealing Him to be the Son of God. Just as the grail is surpassingly radiant so too is Christ transfigured (Matthew 17:1-8).
If these analogies are not enough to consider the grail sacred or holy then there are the words that Chrétien penned himself to prove this out. After wandering aimlessly for years Percival meets a hermit who turns out to be his uncle. The hermit explains to Percival and to the reader just who the Fisher King is and what the grail is used for.
“The man served from it [the grail] is my brother. Your mother was his sister and mine; and the rich Fisher King, I believe, is the son of the king who is served from the grail. And do not imagine he is served pike or lamprey or salmon. A single host that is brought to him in that grail sustains and brings comfort to that holy man – such is the holiness of the grail! And he is so holy that his life is sustained by nothing more than the host that comes in the grail. He has lived years like this, without ever leaving the room into which you saw the grail enter.”
This is a good place to interject a brief side note. The grail is often considered to be a large vessel more similar to a dish or bowl than to a cup, for the single reason that Percival’s uncle scolds him about how improper it would be to serve pike or lamprey in the grail. Because of this comment many literary scholars and critiques conclude that the grail must be a vessel large enough to fit an entire fish. I find this thinking rather obtuse, why should one have to speculate an entire fish? Wouldn’t a meal of fish fit for a king most likely be prepared in a much more delicate manner and served in small portions, especially to a sick person? So the reference to fish says nothing definitive about the grail’s size but it does equate it with Christianity since the disciples were fishermen and the Greek acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior (Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter) reads IChThYS, which means fish. Whether or not Chrétien intended to make this connection is yet to be proved but it is a far more relevant and important inference than determining the size of the grail. Taking away all speculation of these matters and sticking to the context of the story, what remains concerning Chrétien’s decision to include this comment about inappropriateness of the grail being used to serve a meal of fish is that Chrétien clearly wanted to contrast an ordinary meal against the Eucharistic meal; that which is regular against that which is sacred; that which is worldly against that which is holy.
Even so Potkay points out that the grail is only holy by association to the Eucharistic host. She says, “I want to remind you then that when Chrétien introduced the grail in his story of the grail there was nothing especially holy about it. When Chrétien describes the grail he emphasizes its opulence, its luxury, its beauty, it’s made of precious gold that’s studded with beautiful gems. This is the important thing about the grail. It’s beautiful. The only hint there’s anything holy about the grail comes when Percival’s uncle the hermit tells us what it’s used for and it’s the use of the grail that’s holy. The grail takes on holiness because it contains a Eucharistic host and it serves that host to a holy man and that’s why the grail is holy because of how it’s used. The grail itself is besides the point. The whole lesson of Chrétien’s story of the grail is that the grail is relatively unimportant; it’s what’s in it that counts… That’s what we find out about the grail, that’s the big revelation in Chrétien about what the grail means. I am apt to think at times that this is somewhat disappointing. So what! The grail always promises that it’s going to give us revolutionary secrets.” To be fair, Potkay’s point contains some truth, for it is not the chalice of the mass that makes the Eucharist holy but rather the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist which is holy and which by extension makes the altar, and the vessels holy. We can see this in Christ’s own words from Mathew chapter twenty-three (Matthew 23:20-22), “You blind ones, which is greater, the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? One who swears by the altar swears by it and all that is upon it; one who swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it; one who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who is seated on it.” So the grail being holy by reason of its use is theologically sound although perhaps semantic in this instance since the question at hand is whether or not the grail is holy. In the end the grail is in fact holy and Chrétien does refer to it as such, even if not by a proper name then at least by quality. Far more objectionable and tell tale than Potkay’s insistence that the grail is not holy, or that if it is it is only by association, is her flippant comment, “so what?!” This is the climax of the story, it’s where we discover the entire reason Chrétien wrote five-hundred lines. How the reader receives this message has everything to do with the quality and popularity of this book, which to remind you, even Potkay admits is aptly described as the greatest story ever told at court.
This revolutionary secret that Potkay says the grail promises, works the same way that parables do; only the hearer who wants to hear (those who have hears) will value it and understand (cf Mark 4:9-12 , Matthew 13:9-18). In the preface of Le Conte du Graal Chrétien even compares his poem to the very parable of the sower where Jesus says, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” The Story of the Grail opens with these words, “Chrétien sows the seed of a tale and sows it in such good soil that its greatness is ensured; for he does it for the best man in all the Roman Empire.” And what seed of truth has Chrétien sown? The host that the grail conveys to the Fisher King is a Eucharistic host transubstantiated into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. This is Chrétien’s message; that the Eucharist sustains life. The readers and hearers of Chrétien’s parable were most certainly Catholic and Chrétien writes that the story of the grail is “the best story ever told in royal court.” The royal court prized this story because they were Catholic and they understood and greatly valued the meaning of Chrétien’s parable.  Chrétien’s audience knew that when he wrote in 1181 of the miraculous Host that it was the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. At the time the topic of Transubstantiation was a raging issue, so much so that authors who came after him (such as Robert de Boron) continued the story of the grail in other poems and explicitly preached Transubstantiation. These authors would also explicitly describe the grail as the Cup of Christ; the one He used to institute the Holy Eucharist. Chrétien’s story is unfinished. It cuts off mid sentence, so that there is no way of knowing for sure if he would have Percival discover that the grail is in fact the very Cup of Christ, but it makes perfect sense to the culture at the time. In a sense Chrétien wrote for an audience who had the ears to hear. And so if there is any secret about the grail it is that the grail is holy because of the Eucharist and that when the faithful throughout the centuries read this in Chrétien’s story they naturally rejoice with the expectation that this is the Cup of Christ.
Since Potkay has devalued Chrétien’s portrayal of the grail as beautiful there remains a defense of beauty in relationship to holiness. Beauty is much like Cupid’s arrow which is shot into the heart and once lodged there changes the wounded forever. That’s what happens when Cupid shoots someone; they fall in love. So too the one whose heart has been wounded by the arrow of God’s love is now made capable of truly loving. True beauty is like an arrow or in this case a lance, rendering the beholder capable of adoring. Truth is the perfection of knowledge such that in learning truth the student is advanced toward perfection. This is what Christianity considers beautiful; for the revelation of Christ, who freely gave His life for us, is the pinnacle of truth and thus the ugliness of our fallen state is met by the beauty of Christ’s perfect offering of himself like an arrow or lance piercing our hearts and transforming us so that we no longer see just the ugliness in the image of Christ’s body crucified but rather we see the beauty of our salvation and this truth advances us in love and perfection. This is what the lance and the grail mean to Christians of any age. True beauty of the fourth kind (mentioned above) is the same as holiness because true beauty represents spiritual perfection. Thus the grail, a truly beautiful thing, is holy.
- In the mid 1100’s there was an abbot named Peter the Venerable who, among many other deeds, collected and published stories of Eucharistic miracles De Miraculis and traveled through the French and Spanish Pyrenees mountains where the Story of the Grail is famed to take place. [↩]
- Another French author in 1079, by the name Hildebert of Tours, referred to the process of the host becoming Christ as Transubstantiation [a doctrine which would in 1215 be ratified by the Fourth Lateran Council]). [↩]