Sunday, February 6, 2022

Arthur Machen and The Mysteries of the Grail

As well as his Grail romances The Great Return (1915) and The Secret Glory (1922), Arthur Machen also used his British Museum researches in a long essay, ‘The Secret of the Sangraal’, collected in the UK edition of The Shining Pyramid (1925), and reprinted with other essays in a Tartarus volume of 1995 where it is the title piece.

It is a judicious and lucid survey: Machen was always practical and hard-headed on occult matters. He discusses and mostly dismisses other theories about the Grail, some with more respect than others, while acknowledging any insights they may offer.

He is clear about his own view: ‘It is my opinion, then, that the Legend of the Grail as it may be collected from the various Romances, is the glorified version of early Celtic Sacramental Legends, which legends had been married to certain elements of pre-Christian myth and folk-lore.'

Machen then idenitifes some of those pre-Christian elements, such as the quest motif and the magic cauldron, but he places more emphasis on the influence of early Celtic saints’ lives, exploring in particular parallels with the hagiography of St David. This is his own most original contribution to Grail studies and still provides an important context today. Some modern scholarship, though, now tends to favour a possible Cistercian influence on the romances even more strongly than the Celtic.  

The great literary and historical enigma of the medieval Grail cycle, which so fascinated A E Waite and Arthur Machen, among others, is how symbols and motifs from Welsh folk stories, themselves embodying elements of pagan religion, became the material of courtly and chivalric French romances of the late 12th and 13th century.

The connection between the two seems indisputable, as Machen points out: 'the origins of the Grail are certainly Celtic. Otherwise one would have to conceive the Anglo-Norman romance writer "mugging up" Celtic literature, learning Welsh, wandering over Glamorganshire and Carmarthenshire . . .' Not only are the characters and places often the same or similar to Celtic tales, but some of the motifs clearly belong together too. But yet we do not possess any text or tradition showing a clear link between the two, how the one became the other.      

Machen, in another essay, proposed that the conduit might have been the courts of Anglo-Norman lords in South Wales, such as, for example, Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire, a place he knew well from holidays at nearby Tenby. What more likely, he suggested, than that minstrels and storytellers should recount the wonder stories of Wales before these new conquerors, or that the retinues of these lords should then begin to change the tales to more closely mirror their own world?

R S Loomis (The Grail, From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, 1963) however, argues for transmission via Breton storytellers, descended from Welsh and Cornish emigrants and preserving their legends, who took them to Norman courts in the North of France. There is much to be said for this, but it does assume that these tales had survived from the time of British migration to Brittany (say c 500-600) to the early medieval period, so roughly five hundred years. There is still quite a gap here to bridge.

Loomis also suggests a keen Irish influence on the legends that became the Grail cycle, as well as Welsh and Cornish, but he overlooks (because it was then less clearly understood) the probable origin of much surviving Welsh literature in what the Welsh called the Old North, ie Cumbria. The eminent Welsh scholar Rachel Bromwich, studying the Triads, was among the first to identify this origin.

Loomis rightly says that a chief difficulty is that hardly any Breton or Cornish literature has survived, but the same is even more true of Cumbric literature, virtually effaced. This is not to deny any Irish influence on the legends, for, as he says, interchange between the two cultures was strong, but rather to notice that there is a closer possible source.

Constance Bullock-Davies, in a paper on ‘Professional Translators and The Matter of Britain’, suggested another theory. She points out that in post-Conquest Britain there were at least four languages in regular use: English, Welsh, Norman French and Latin, and that rulers and their retinues needed trustworthy people who could translate their orders for them. Royal and noble households therefore had official translators, known as ‘latimers’ (the origin of the Latimer surname).

We may be apt to under-estimate how important this role was, but latimers were often of high social standing and well-rewarded. Bullock-Davies proposes that it was through these officials that Welsh folk tales might have found their way into Norman society. There is no direct evidence for this, but it certainly seems plausible as at least one of the conduits.

A keen insight that Machen brought to discussion of the Grail was the point that there are other sorts of relics associated with early Celtic saints, in various forms, such as their bell, staff, stone altar, and these had sacred properties too, eg of healing or prophecy. He evokes these in The Great Return (1915), where there are three sacred relics, each in the care of one of the three saintly and mysterious ‘Fishermen’: the portable altar of many colours, Sapphirus; the holy bell that is heard from the headlands and at sea, filling the air with a sweet but powerful music; and the holy cup.

As both Machen and Loomis also note, the Grail takes different forms in the various romances. It is not always a cup. In the first (Chrétien de Troyes) it is a serving dish: and in the Parzival legends it is a stone. It is also sometimes accompanied by other sacred objects. The four Grail “hallows” or holy objects of myth are the cup, lance, sword and dish.

There is, however, another elusive idea about the Grail which hovers over 20th century depictions of the myth. It is the idea of the Grail as an ethereal presence in the landscape. Machen implies this in The Great Return, and it is expressed repeatedly by Mary Butts in her journals, where she records her sense that the Grail is about to descend on the Cornish village of Sancreed.

It is deployed in a highly metaphorical way by Charles Williams in his Arthurian poems, and it is also so treated by Anne Ridler in her poem ‘Taliessin Reborn’ (1942), a sort of pendant to Williams’ work. A similar concept is found in the mythic poetry of David Jones and implied in some of the poems of Sally Purcell. The Grail Legends continue to transform, reaching out now to suggest a symbol for our need for a spiritualised landscape. 

(Mark Valentine)



  1. Thank you for this! I see that the Houghton Library at Harvard has an 'Introduction to The secret of the Sangraal: manuscript, with autograph manuscript notes?' among Arthur Machen papers collected by Edwin Steffe and being a "Gift of the Estate of Virginia B. Steffe, 2001 July 9."

    It is good to note two fairly recent books, one by Michael Hesemann published in 2003 but unfortunately not yet available in English translation, Die Entdeckung des Heiligen Grals [The Discovery of the Holy Grail], the other by Janice Bennett, St. Laurence and the Holy Grail: The Story of the Holy Chalice of Valencia (2004). Both attend to this Holy Chalice in the Cathedral of Valencia in Spain. Michael Hesemann very kindly supplied me with a lucid brief English summary of his book's matter. He notes that in Parzival,

    "Wolfram calls the Grail a 'stein', which can mean both, a stone or a stone vessel in mediaeval German".

    I have a guest post of 18 April 2018, "The Grail: Cup, Stone - Santo Caliz? - and the Inklings?" at Brenton Dickieson's blog, A Pilgrim in Narnia, with some more interesting details.

    David Llewellyn Dodds

    1. Thank you, David, for this interesting news of recent Grail books relating to Valencia and your own post. Mark