Holy Grails, Gardens, and Professional Generations

[the slides that ran simultaneously with the reading of the text can be found at http://faculty.bsc.edu/shagen/sabbatical_files/frame.htm ]

            To begin with, like most—if not all—of my colleagues before me, I must thank Birmingham-Southern College for maintaining a sabbatical program.   I am not certain, though, that all students realize what that means, or truly understand what a sabbatical is.  Allow me to briefly explain.  First of all, in his or her seventh year of employment and with a suitable sabbatical project, which must be approved by the Faculty Development Committee and the Provost, a faculty member may spend a summer, a term, and an Interim term in study at full pay. This comes to about nine months of concentrated time.  Or, at half-pay, the faculty member may take a full academic year and the summers before and after for study.  This splendid, but financially challenging, option allows for 15 months of focused work that professors have not seen since their glory days of graduate work.  While the faculty member is “on sabbatical,” the College picks up the tab, but one’s colleagues take up the slack—often rearranging schedules, sharing advisee loads, and maybe even increasing class size a little to make the sabbatical possible.  Now, don’t mistake this nine or 15-month period as time off.  It is anything but free time.  It is a time of reading, research, writing, and recovery.  And I do mean recovery.  It is a time paradoxically to recover both the student and the professional in one’s self—to learn new things and to recover and rediscover all the things one has not engaged in in the past six years.

            For me, this meant nothing less than rediscovering my professional self as a medievalist.  I was actually coming to this past sabbatical in my eighth year since the previous one.  I had been working in administration for all of those seven intervening years, delaying my sabbatical in 2003-2004 in order to co-chair the College’s reaffirmation team for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.  Moreover, I had decided in the fall of that year not to return to administrative work after sabbatical but to return to the classroom.  I have great respect and appreciation for my colleagues, and enjoyed working with them and for them—and I enjoyed the challenges of the work I was doing, but quite candidly, the challenges good students put before me are a little more nourishing to the soul.  Also, I find that engaging with students enlivens me.  Besides, I am just happier in the classroom.  By the fall of 2004, then,  I had so much had my fill of articles on the delicate balance between student: faculty ratio and student units per faculty member, and the hurdles for women in higher education, that I longed for the clear cut misogyny of the Middle Ages, which was more obsessed with the remission of sin than the remission of tuition dollars.

            I was also concerned that our students were not tackling the challenges of early English literature—whether because of the difficulty of Middle English or the alterity of the medieval worldview.  And for that to change I had to get back into the classroom and back to the literature I love.  But I could no longer really call myself a medievalist after so many years of administrative committees, program assessments, and 1Y course monitoring.  Now I am fully aware of the fact that Chaucer is dead, but critical approaches to his works is anything but moribund.  I had a lot to catch up with and a lot of creative thinking to do if I were to find a way again to engage students in the deeply perplexing, culturally foreign, and richly human literature of the Middle Ages.  So, my sabbatical proposal was two-pronged and pragmatic.  First, I would create two new courses on topics in medieval literature that I thought would interest students:  Arthurian material and the Holy Grail.  Second [start slides], I would continue to add to a database of images of medieval cities and cathedrals that I had started a year earlier with a Technology Fellow’s grant from the Associated College of the South.  And here, like some others before me, I must pause and thank Lewis Patterson for his work on and hosting of a web-based program that allows this to be a searchable database; moreover, it even allows some manipulation of the images through a Java update.  If those of you who were at the Provost’s Forum two weeks ago will remember, in his sabbatical report Jim Cook told you that his searchable database for the Organ Historical Society has had tens of thousands of searches since last May.  Well, my site on medieval English cities and cathedrals has had tens of hits since mid-September.  [And the Provost thought that few people aside from her and Cook were interested in historical organs!]  Nonetheless, the images that you see appearing behind me are all images that I have taken over the last 28 years.   Many of the cathedrals were taken so long ago that the 35 mm slides are now magenta or sepia.  Even Photoshop has limits on the fixes it can do for those.  Regardless of color hue or call for cathedrals, however, the images are now much better organized and useful to me in teaching.  The point of this long prologue is that I thank both the Board of Trustees and Administration of the College as well as my colleagues for making my sabbatical possible.  Mine like most others has infused my classroom with new ideas, materials, and freshness.  All in all, a worthwhile investment for everyone involved.

            But, to the main topic of my sabbatical: my study of literary images Holy Grail.  Some in the audience might consider nine months study of the Holy Grail a little excessive since film writers and directors from John Boorman in Excalibur to Monty Python have clearly taught us that the grail is the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper—and if they were mistaken then Dan Brown cleared it all up in the DaVinci Code:  the Holy Grail or San Grael is actually Mary Magdalene, who carried the holy blood of the Savior or the sangre real.  Well, being an academic I thought it prudent to bypass the appropriated medievalism of popular culture and return to the source texts themselves.

            A grail-like cauldron or dish that could serve forth any warrior’s favorite food, appears in early Welsh legends, but the grail as it come to be known in medieval Arthurian tradition, does not appear until a late 12th century French work of Chrétien de Troyes’s: The Story of the Grail, or as it is more commonly known, Perceval.  In that work, the young knight Perceval is talking in a chamber with the infirm and wounded lord of the castle when two boys carrying lighted candles, a boy carrying a lance that drips blood from its tip, and a girl carrying a grail passed through the room.  This obviously miraculous event was to have elicited from Perceval the question, “Who is served by the grail,” but out of a mistaken sense of propriety, he said nothing.  Had he asked this question—a question of compassion for his host’s suffering—the lord of the grail castle  would have been cured.  Having failed to do so, however, Perceval found when awakening the next morning that all inhabitants of the castle had disappeared as mysteriously as the grail had appeared the night before.

            Chrétien does not explain what this grail actually is.  He does not call it the Holy Grail; he does not even say that it is a cup—it is described only as a richly bejeweled vessel.  In fact, he does not give it much more attention during the remainder of his unfinished work.  Its importance to him is as a prompt to action that will initiate in Perceval a desire to seek an understanding of his failure, to seek maturity in knighthood, and—in continuations of the story written after Chrétien—to seek the grail castle once again so that he might ask the necessary question and heal the keeper of the grail.            

It is not until about 20 years later in 1200, that the grail receives its full history as, “the vessel of the sacrament” of the Last Supper in the writing of a man named Robert de Boron.  Robert (Joseph of Arimathae) says the grail was given to Joseph of Arimathae who left it to the keeping of the wounded king who eventually placed it in the keeping of Perceval. Robert is the one, then, who gives the grail its history and its sacramental significance.  He also fuses it with Arthurain material as he links the table of the Last Supper with the table gathered around Arthur—the Round Table.  Throughout, though, Robert is fixated on mystical knowledge that is associated with the Grail.  For each time it is placed in someone’s keeping, knowledge that cannot be repeated is passed along with it: As Joseph is instructed in the care of the Grail by Jesus, the narrator explains, “Then Jesus spoke other words to Joseph which I dare not tell you—nor could I even if I wanted to, if I did not have the high book in which they are written: and that is the creed of the great mystery of the Grail” (Barber 42; Bryant 112-13).  Similarly, as the Maimed King bequeaths the Grail to Perceval for safe keeping, Robert tells us that he taught Perceval “the sacred words that Joseph had taught him, which I cannot—and must not—tell you” (Barber 45).

In about another 20 years, 1220 or so, the anonymous author of The Quest of the Holy Grail (in the Lancelot-Grail series) will exploit the secretiveness of this mystical knowledge to stress the uniqueness of his addition to the grail story—Galahad. Throughout the narrative it is clear that all knights who seek the Grail except Galahad will fail in their quests.  None will be able to look into the interior of the Grail and see its mysteries except Galahad by virtue of his purity.  Galahad alone proves fit to see the mysteries of the Lord, and the effect on him is startling:  “Galahad drew near and looked into the Holy Vessel.  He had but glanced within when a violent trembling seized his mortal flesh at the contemplation of the spiritual mysteries.” Galahad then thanks God in these words, “for now I see revealed what tongue could not relate or heart conceive” (Quest of the Holy Grail 283).

As I started doing research in grail literature, I began noticing rather frequent contemporary allusions to holy grails in news media and advertising. Holy grails of this, that, or the other thing seemed to be amassing armies of seekers.  So, I did a cursory check of electronic databases and came up with a kaleidoscopic variety of articles with grail allusions in them.  The obvious, if somewhat curious question arose, how do we make the long journey from the ineffable spiritual mystery contained within the 13th century Holy Grail to today’s academic journal articles that speak of the Holy Grail of radical history, which will make possible the writing of “popular history with a political impact” (Clark) or “the holy grail of air traffic management, a single sky with one global ATM system that allows airlines to operate aircraft the same way anywhere in the world” (Aviation Week).  Or more befuddling yet, how do we explain news stories that can speak ofIraq's quest for the Holy Grail called constitution” (Iraq-Syria Muslim).  Part of the answer can be found in another academic article that calls the detection of the Gunn-Peterson effect in physics "a Holy Grail, long sought after for decades" (Wu).  The key, of course, is in the phrase “a Holy Grail,” rather than “the Holy Grail.” 

The idea of a search for something of great value, but intractable elusiveness, finds easy association with the Holy Grail precisely because of the mystery teaching of Jesus associated with it by Robert de Boron and the extraordinary exclusivity of its finder attributed to the grail by the writer of the Quest of the Holy Grail.  What it contains is ineffable and unspeakable, to be sought after by many, approached by a very few, and beheld by one alone.  The vessel holds profound truths under the protection of Christ himself, and it resides in a realm inaccessible to people less than Galahad.  The Grail with its mystery, its knowledge, its unfathomable wisdom, becomes the metaphor for all the as yet undiscovered knowledge-treasure that will solve any problem we have, for the silver bullet that will kill any evil that threatens us, for the panacea that will cure any ill that plague us. In today’s popular parlance writers are concerned with finding a way to name a thing that as yet has no name because it as yet has no discovered identity.  Through metonymy, the Holy Grail becomes the name for all those things.

But to return to the question at hand: how did this happen?  Already by the time of Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, 1470, the Grail story is no longer an adventure whose core literary meaning is spiritual.  In Malory’s hand, it is an adventure that sets the character of Lancelot as the greatest knight who has loved, his son Galahad as the purist knight who has ever lived, and the Grail Quest itself as a hastily avowed adventure that will strain the brotherhood of the Round Table beyond what it can withstand.  The quest is undertaken not in religious fervor or as an ordained destiny, but in response to an impromptu vow by Gawain.  Arthur brought all of his knights of the Round Table together once a year at Pentecost.  On the same Pentecost that Galahad appears for the first time in Arthur’s court, the Holy Grail mysteriously appears hovering over the famous table with the knights seated around it.  The grail is covered in white silk and surrounded by a near-blinding white light. Every knight then finds himself miraculously fed with “such meats and drinks as he best loved in this world” (Malory 248, XII:7).  After the grail vanishes, Gawain makes the following promise:

“Now,” said Sir Gawain, “we have been served this day of what meats and drinks we thought on; but one thing beguiled us, we might not see the Holy Grail, it was so preciously covered.  Wherefore I will make here avow, that tomorn, without abiding, I shall labour in the quest of the Sangrail.” (Malory 248)

The wish is for an adventure to see what has been denied to them—not to know it, not to understand it, not to look into its depths for the mysteries it holds. For the vast majority of the Grail Knights, the silk-draped grail is merely a reason for adventure.  And Malory’s Arthur is acutely aware that as the adventures begin, his community dissolves. The quest and the failures of its participants will be a mirror in which the knights will see their chivalric beauty in a harsher heavenly light.  And Arthur knows this:

“Alas,” said King Arthur unto Sir Gawain, “ye have nigh slain me with the avow and promise that ye have made; for through you ye have bereft me the fairest fellowship and the truest knighthood that ever were seen together in any realm of the world.” (Malory 248)

Just as the Siege Perilous is for Galahad alone, the quest is alone for him and those who would be like him.  Arthur’s sorrow comes from what will be the undoing of the brotherhood, the end of the community of knights: “wherefore it shall grieve me right sore,” he laments,” the departition of this fellowship; for I have an old custom to have them in my fellowship” (Malory 248).

            Furthermore, the profound mystery of the Grail—even upon its attainment by Galahad—is mediated by Malory.  When the three knights who prove most worthy of find the grail—Bors, Percival, and Galahad—are met by Joseph of Arimathea, Joseph calls the latter forward with the words, “and thou shalt see that thou hast much desire to see.” We are told that Galahad “began to tremble right hard when the deadly flesh began to behold the spiritual things” (Malory 369)  We are told no more of what he saw.  Galahad says nothing to his fellow knights of “what tongue could not relate or heart conceive.”  He says only that his desire has been fulfilled and he no longer wishes to live.  For Malory the wonder of the scene is in the identification of Joseph of Arimathea as the man addressing them, and the mystery of the scene is in a disembodied hand that comes down from heaven to take the vessel from this earth.  The force of the scene falls on Percival and Bors not as spiritual wonderment, but unrelenting sorrow over the death of Galahad, “they made as much sorrow as ever did two men” (Malory 370).  For Malory, the story of the Grail is ultimately a story of the loss of community and brotherhood.  Fittingly the tale ends with Lancelot and Bors pledging never to depart from one another while their lives may last (Malory 372).

            From Chrétien’s plot instigator to Robert de Boron’s sacramental and holy artifact to Malory’s community dissolving impulsive adventure, the story of the grail remains one in which the questing knight searches the world for something external to himself—some elusive thing that provides the seeker with an occasion to define, prove, or judge himself.   But something happens, something significant shifts, in the medieval revival of 19th-century England and America.  Grail quests turn inward; the search is no longer in the world, but in the self.

            The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester catalogues a number of grail poems written primarily between the mid 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century.  One of the earlier selections is by American James Russell Lowell (1848).  In his 300-plus line poem, “The Vision of Sir Launfal,” Launfal sets out in his “golden spurs” and “richest mail” to find the Holy Grail.  Spurning a leper begging alms by the castle gate, the knight goes proudly forth only to grow cold, gray, dejected in his search.  Returning home and finding a new man occupying his castle, Launfal now sees in the leper a remembrance of Christ crucified and offers him what bread he has left and some water to drink.  The moldy crust and water turn into fine bread and red wine, and Sir Launfal, bathed in a celestial light hears the transformed leper address him:

"Lo, it is I, be not afraid!
In many climes, without avail,
Thou had spent thy life for the Holy Grail;
Behold, it is here,--this cup which thou
Didst fill at the streamlet for me but now;
This crust is my body broken for thee,
This water His blood that died on the tree;
The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
In whatso we share with another's need,--“

So after all that searching, Launfal finds that the Grail is not an artifact at all but an action.  There is no physical grail.  There is only an act, albeit an act of compassion, the very thing that could have saved Perceval years of wandering had he asked the proper question, “Who is served by the grail?”  Launfal’s act, though, is an act that can be performed by any of us.  The quest is no longer only for the appointed Grail Knights it is for all of us.  At the pen of the American Lowell, the quest has become democratized.   In his prefatory “Author’s note” to the poem, Lowell writes, “I have enlarged the circle of competition in search of the miraculous cup in such a manner as to include, not only other persons than the heroes of the Round Table, but also a period of time subsequent to the date of King Arthur’s reign.”  He knew what he was doing.

After hundreds of years of adaptation and appropriation, the modern grail quest emerges far more human-centered than the 13th century mystical quest of the Christ-centered medieval world.  Today’s quest might be a professional search.  It might be a personal search.  Either way, it is a longing to serve very human needs.  Maybe in this, however, we do maintain a tenuous connection with the Holy Grail of medieval romance that provided every knight of the Round Table with “such meats and drinks as he best loved in this world” (Malory 248).   No longer the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper, the Holy Grail is now the well of human inspiration that we drink from in order to maintain our faith in ourselves either as a society or as an individual.  Maybe the best summary of this can be found—and I am not being factious—in popular culture itself, that is in the musical remake of Monty Python and the Holy GrailSpamalot.   Encouraging Arthur in his most despairing moment, the Lady of the Lake sings

If you trust in your song

Keep your eyes on the goal
Then the prize you won't fail
That's your grail
That's your grail

So be strong
Keep right on
To the end of your song
Do not fail
Find your grail
Find your grail
Find your grail

Life is really up to you
You must choose what to pursue

Set your mind on what to find
And there's nothin' you can't do
So keep right to the end
You'll find your goal my friend
You won't fail
Find your grail
Find your grail
Find your grail

[Arthur then returns,]

When your life
Seems dejeffed
When we all need a lift
Tell yourself you won't fail
Find your grail
Find your grail

Life is really up to you
You must choose what to pursue
Set your mind on what to find

[And the Company concludes]
So keep right to the end
You'll find your goal my friend
Find your grail!

One of the finest pictures in the musical’s souvenir playbill is of a gloved hand holding a “grail” aloft with the overarching words “You Got Grail”!

Three qualities, then, seem to characterize modern references to holy grails and grail quests:

  1. the grail represents an entity, a thing, desired but as yet unfound,
  2. the nature of the desire is variable, depending on the person seeking the grail, and
  3. there is value in striving to find the grail, regardless of success.

Norris Lacy, an eminent critic of Arthurian romance, makes this last claim in a short introduction to volume 8 (1998) of Arthuriana.  “The process of seeking,” he writes, “is at least as crucial as the act of finding” (4).  Umberto Eco makes this same claim, too, albeit with a particular existential flair in Baudolino, a novel in which lies beget truth and their own fictions becomes its story-tellers’ reality.  Near the close of the novel, two of Baudolino’s companions comment on their search for the actual truths that they have spun out of their fraudulent schemes:  They have been searching for an old wooden cup that they have convinced other  people is the Grail.  One of the companions (Boron) says to Baudolino,  “What united us was the search for that object you are holding in your hand.  The search, I say: not the object.  . . .  I realized this evening that I must not have the Grasal, or give it to anyone, but only keep alive the flame of the search for it.  So you must keep that cup, which has the power of moving men only when it can’t be found” (501).  Then another companion [Kyot] adds, “I will remain faithful to my search of so many years if I can impel others to desire the Grasal.  I will not even speak of that cup you are holding in your hand.  Perhaps I will say, as I have said once, that the Grasal is a stone, fallen from heaven.  Stone, or cup, or spear: what does it matter?  What counts is that nobody must find it, otherwise the others would stop seeking it” (502).

            So, the contemporary critic and contemporary writer place a quintessential   value in the grail quest on the search not the object of the search.  But I believe Lacy and Eco have missed something about the grail quest and the grail tradition that is common to both medieval and modern literature alike—something that T. S. Eliot saw in The Waste Land, something that F. Scott Fitzgerald saw in the Valley of Ashes in Great Gatsby, something that Robin Williams’ delusional character embodied in the 1991 film The Fisher King, something that vitiates the value of the seeking if this thing is not achieved.  Remember the wounded king of the first French story and the deserted castle in the morning after Perceval’s failure to ask the necessary question?  The quest for the grail is also a quest for healing, for the return of fruitfulness to the wasteland, for the return of—the return to—the fecundity, beauty, and peace of the garden.  The garden is a rich and complex image in medieval literature; it signifies the site of our creation, our failure, and the eventual home of our redemption; the grail tradition’s image of the wounded king healed and the blighted land turned lush and alive again is a fundamental image of human recovery [redemption].   This summer as I was reading a book called the Wound of Knowledge written by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, I came across one of those brief but powerful statements that you know has just made a fundamental change in your mind, if not your life.  The goal of life he writes is “not enlightenment but wholeness” (12).  As one who always prized enlightenment, knowledge, understanding, in a moment of personal epiphany, I suddenly understood the great treasure of the whole and accepting self, the great value of Bors and Percival who accompany Galahad and see the grail, but do not gaze into its interior mysteries.  Wholeness, completeness, fruitfulness, and the peace of the garden.

            During two of my previous three sabbaticals I had audited courses, one in art history at UAB, one in field zoology here at BSC.  This past sabbatical I took the Master Gardner course through the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service in Blount County.  There were 40 hours of classroom instruction, a mammoth handbook, and a killer final exam.  I learned a lot about fertilizer, insect infestations, soil quality, and the propagation of woody shrubs.  I now understand why some grafted trees revert to their rootstock and why some flowering shrubs never bloom. 

            One of the requirements for certification as a Master Gardener is 40 hours of volunteer service in the first year, and 20 hours of volunteer service and 10 hours of continuing education each year after that.  For the bulk of my first 40 hours of service I decided to create another database of images—this one of the native plants in the Alabama Meadow section of the Ecoscape on campus.  A great frustration of many online plant databases is that they only show images of specimens in full bloom and provide little perspective on size.  In this database, which believe me is designed for the gardener not the botanist, I wanted to provide two to three images of differing perspectives throughout the growing season.  Of course, I thank Lewis Patterson and CS UNIX2 for hosting this website as well.  And you might be pleased to know that the native plant index is doing much better than the magenta washed cathedrals and castles of my first database.  It has had over 200 visits since mid-September.   As well as providing a service to the Ecoscape that has no image index of all the lovely plants displayed there, this project—like my other image collection—gave me impetus to gather into some usable system flower images that I had been taking for some years as a visual index of my own garden.  By the way, if you have not visited the Ecoscape, which is located behind the intramural playing fields, you are missing one of the gems of experience here at Birmingham-Southern College.  Take a lunchtime walk over there.  The exercise will be good for your body; the experience will be good for your spirit.

            I have found this same desire to learn new things completely out of our fields or to engage in something fundamentally creative while on sabbatical to be common among many of my colleagues who are at similar times in their careers.  And sabbaticals do change through an academic career.  The first one is often spent in preparing manuscripts or creative compositions for publication, performance, or exhibition.  The second is spent seeking that second avenue of inquiry after dissertation research is exhausted.  The third is spent addressing an exhaustion of a different sort.  And the fourth, like the one I just had (retirement) presents itself as an amazing freedom to rediscover, reshape, re-form the professional self, to seek wholeness instead of tenure, promotion, or disciplinary kudos.     So in this sabbatical I became a medievalist again, I turned back to the classroom, and I literally returned to the garden.  I guess you could even say that along with T. S. Eliot in “Little Gidding,” I realized that

 the end of all our exploring

 Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time  (“Little Gidding” V.240-42).  

Aviation Week and Space Technology, Vol. 162 Issue 22 (5/30/2005) 42-43.

Barber, Richard. The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.

Camelot Project. University of Rochester. http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/launfal.htm

Chrétien de Troyes. Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Trans. Burton Raffel.  New Haven. Yale UP,


Clark, Anna. “The Holy Grail of Radical History.” Radical History Review 79 (2001) 87-88.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Four Quartets, “Little Gidding.”

“Iraq-Syria Muslum” News Agency, Emirates. Arabia 2000, 08/28/2005.

Lacy, Norris. “Introduction.” Authuriana 8.1 (1998) 3-5.

Malory, Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. Vol II, Ed Janet Cowen. Penguin, 1969.

The Quest of the Holy Grail. Trans. Pauline Matarasso. London: Penguin, 1969.

Wu. C. “Physics ‘Holy Grail’ finally captured.” Science News 148 (July 15 1995) 36.