Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 194

“Si lebent von einem steine
Des geslähte ist vîl reine . . .
Es heizet lapsit [lapis] exillîs,
Der stein ist ouch genannt der Grâl.”

It was originally brought down from heaven by a flight of angels and deposited in Anjou, as the worthiest region for its reception. Its power is sustained by a dove which every Good Friday comes from heaven and lays on the Grail a consecrated Host. It is preserved in the Castle of Munsalväsche [Montsalvat] and guarded by four hundred knights, who are all, except their king, vowed to virginity. The king may marry, and is indeed, in order to maintain the succession, commanded to do so by the Grail, which conveys its messages to mankind by writing which appears upon it and which fades away when deciphered. In the time of Parzival the king is Anfortas. He cannot die in presence of the Grail, but he suffers from a wound which, because he received it in the cause of worldly pride and in [pg 408] seeking after illicit love, the influence of the Grail cannot heal until the destined deliverer shall break the spell. This Parzival should have done by asking the question, “What aileth thee, uncle?” The French version makes Perceval fail in curiosity—Wolfram conceives the failure as one in sympathy. He fails, at any rate, and next morning finds the castle empty and his horse standing ready for him at the gate; as he departs he is mocked by servitors who appear at the windows of the towers. After many adventures, which are quite unlike those either in Chrestien's “Conte del Graal” or in “Peredur,” Parzival, who has wedded the maiden Condwiramur, finds his way back to the Grail Castle—which no one can reach except those destined and chosen to do so by the Grail itself—breaks the spell, and rules over the Grail dominions, his son Loherangrain becoming the Knight of the Swan, who goes abroad righting wrongs, and who, like all the Grail knights, is forbidden to reveal his name and origin to the outside world. Wolfram tells us that he had the substance of the tale from the Provençal poet Kyot or Guiot—“Kyot, der meister wol bekannt”—who in his turn—but this probably is a mere piece of romantic invention—professed to have found it in an Arabic book in Toledo, written by a heathen named Flegetanis.

The Continuators of Chrestien

What exactly may have been the material before Chrestien de Troyes we cannot tell, but his various co-workers and continuators, notably Manessier, all dwell on the Christian character of the objects shown to Perceval in the castle, and the question arises, How did they come to acquire this character? The Welsh story, certainly the most archaic form of the legend, shows that they did not have it from the beginning. An [pg 409] indication in one of the French continuations to Chrestien's “Conte” may serve to put us on the track. Gautier, the author of this continuation, tells us of an attempt on the part of Gauvain [Sir Gawain] to achieve the adventure of the Grail. He partially succeeds, and this half-success has the effect of restoring the lands about the castle, which were desert and untilled, to blooming fertility. The Grail therefore, besides its other characters, had a talismanic power in promoting increase, wealth, and rejuvenation.

The Grail a Talisman of Abundance

The character of a cornucopia, a symbol and agent of abundance and vitality, clings closely to the Grail in all versions of the legend. Even in the loftiest and most spiritual of these, the “Parzival” of Wolfram von Eschenbach, this quality is very strongly marked. A sick or wounded man who looked on it could not die within the week, nor could its servitors grow old: “though one looked on it for two hundred years, his hair would never turn grey.” The Grail knights lived from it, apparently by its turning into all manner of food and drink the bread which was presented to it by pages. Each man had of it food according to his pleasure, à son gré—from this word gré, gréable, the name Gral, which originated in the French versions, was supposed to be derived. It was the satisfaction of all desires. In Wolfram's poem the Grail, though connected with the Eucharist, was, as we have seen, a stone, not a cup. It thus appears as a relic of ancient stone-worship. It is remarkable that a similar Stone of Abundance occurs also in the Welsh “Peredur,” though not as one of the mysteries of the castle. It [pg 410] was guarded by a black serpent, which Peredur slew, and he gave the stone to his friend Etlyn.

The Celtic Cauldron of Abundance

Now the reader has by this time become well acquainted with an object having the character of a talisman of abundance and rejuvenation in Celtic myth. As the Cauldron of the Dagda it came into Ireland with the Danaans from their mysterious fairy-land. In Welsh legend Bran the Blessed got it from Ireland, whither it returned again as part of Branwen's dowry. In a strange and mystic poem by Taliesin it is represented as part of the spoils of Hades, or Annwn, brought thence by Arthur, in a tragic adventure not otherwise recorded. It is described by Taliesin as lodged in Caer Pedryvan, the Four-square Castle of Pwyll; the fire that heated it was fanned by the breath of nine maidens, its edge was rimmed with pearls, and it would not cook the food of a coward or man forsworn:

“Am I not a candidate for fame, to be heard in song
In Caer Pedryvan, four times revolving?
The first word from the cauldron, when was it spoken?
By the breath of nine maidens it was gently warmed.
Is it not the cauldron of the chief of Annwn? What is its fashion?
A rim of pearls is round its edge.
It will not cook the food of a coward or one forsworn.
A sword flashing bright will be raised to him,
And left in the hand of Lleminawg.
[pg 411]
And before the door of the gate of Uffern the lamp was burning.
When we went with Arthur—a splendid labour—
Except seven, none returned from Caer Vedwyd.

More remotely still the cauldron represents the Sun, which appears in the earliest Aryo-Indian myths as a golden vessel which pours forth light and heat and fertility. The lance is the lightning-weapon of the Thunder God, Indra, appearing in Norse mythology as the hammer of Thor. The quest for these objects represents the ideas of the restoration by some divine champion of the wholesome order of the seasons, disturbed by some temporary derangement such as those which to this day bring famine and desolation to India.

Now in the Welsh “Peredur” we have clearly an outline of the original Celtic tale, but the Grail does not appear in it. We may conjecture, however, from Gautier's continuation of Chrestien's poem that a talisman of abundance figured in early Continental, probably Breton, versions of the legend. In one version at least—that on which Wolfram based his “Parzival”—this talisman was a stone. But usually it would have been, not a stone, but a cauldron or vessel of some kind endowed with the usual attributes of the magic cauldron of Celtic myth. This vessel was associated with a blood-dripping lance. Here were the suggestive elements from which some unknown singer, in a flash of inspiration, transformed the ancient tale of vengeance and redemption into the mystical romance which at once took possession of the heart and soul of Christendom. The magic cauldron became the cup of the Eucharist, the lance was invested with a more tremendous guilt than that of the death of Peredur's [pg 412] kinsman. Celtic poetry, German mysticism, Christian chivalry, and ideas of magic which still cling to the rude stone monuments of Western Europe—all these combined to make the story of the Grail, and to endow it with the strange attraction which has led to its re-creation by artist after artist for seven hundred years. And who, even now, can say that its course is run at last, and the towers of Montsalvat dissolved into the mist from which they sprang?

The Tale of Taliesin

Alone of the tales in the collection called by Lady Charlotte Guest the “Mabinogion,” the story of the birth and adventures of the mythical bard Taliesin, the Amergin of Cymric legend, is not found in the fourteenth-century manuscript entitled “The Red Book of Hergest.” It is taken from a manuscript of the late sixteenth or seventeenth century, and never appears to have enjoyed much popularity in Wales. Much of the very obscure poetry attributed to Taliesin is to be found in it, and this is much older than the prose. The object of the tale, indeed, as Mr. Nutt has pointed out in his edition of the “Mabinogion,” is rather to provide a sort of framework for stringing together scattered pieces of verse supposed to be the work of Taliesin than to tell a connected story about him and his doings.