A Writer’s Day: Working on the Lost Book of the Grail (Part II)

Skylight Press will be publishing The Lost Book of the Grail: Restoring the Voices of the Wells, Gareth Knight’s new translation of the 13th century Elucidation of the Grail with commentary by much respected Arthurian scholars and teachers, Caitlín Matthews and John Matthews. The Elucidation is a 13th century French poem that has lain virtually forgotten since its discovery in the mid19th century. It contains some of the most powerful and revealing clues to the nature of the Grail to be found in any of the many texts relating to this most mysterious of sacred objects.  While working on the book Caitlin decided to keep a diary of her thoughts and impressions, which we will present in weekly sections on this blog.  This is a new idea and we hope you enjoy her fresh insights on preparing an ancient manuscript for publication.  You can find out more about the Matthews’ work here.  

Caitlin
A WRITER’S DAY – WORKING ON THE LOST BOOK OF THE GRAIL

By Caitlín Matthews

WEEK 2 

29 January PALIMPSESTS

A writer’s day 8 on Book 70.

As many of you will have guessed by now, this book is about a little known Grail text which has been translated in its entirety for this purpose. I was just getting nicely into a little translation from the First Continuation when I had to break off and do some editing of an essay that is going into a collection. This is one of those days when past work comes back to haunt you, demanding to be reclothed, cleaned up or wiped down, depending.

When people ask which book you are working on, the answer is always ‘these three books,’ because the one you handed in is coming back for a visit with you, the one you are actually working on looks at you with a hang dog look, and the one you are planning and proposing and sending around to publishers is essentially in your mind because, if you don’t get another book lined up, you won’t eat in nine months – this last process can take a very long time. I have a book that is five years in circulation now!

From the dream side of things, the blanket which seems to represent this Grail text in my dreams, turned up black again but etched with frost. This makes me see how like a palimpsest this lost text really is, overwriting the Grail myth with another whole revelation.

30 January  THE WATERS RISE

A writer’s day 9 on The Lost Book of the Grail: Restoring the Voices of the Wells.

Hurrah! Yes, an agreed title, at last!  By a process of negotiation, John and I have sorted out a title and subtitle.  We are working on the Elucidation, a 13th century Grail text which tells a very different tale to the one told elsewhere. There is no edition with full commentary in print, and so we’re remedying this lack with the help of Gareth Knight with whom we’ve done the translation.  I spent the day painfully renumerating the poem’s lines from the awful formatting that Word applies – all bloody 484 lines of it – and sometimes having to renumerate my renumeration, since numbers are not my medium and I go into a trance when they are about!  Since the Elucidation is a prequel, it deals with matters before the Grail as most the medieval texts understand it, happens. This two level discovery has vast ramifications for everyone now: environmentally and spiritually.

The dreams last night were momentous.  In a 1930s scenario of a teaching a course which was also a detective story set near the south coast, I was in the process of thanking the four directions when, in the south, the sea rose up in one tsunami-like wave and filled the room, washing my notebook full of water – it then retreated as quickly, leaving us breathless and wondering.  Well, if you do decide to work with the Grail, this is the kind of thing you have to expect!  The major trajectory of the Grail story is about restoring the waters to flow once again after their drying up. 

31 January DREAMING IN OLD FRENCH

A writer’s day 10 on The Lost Book of the Grail

I was woken to my writer’s day rather early at 5.45am by dreams of a whole new (unknown to me) section of the Elucidation which was telling itself to me in old French, in the same verse as the original, which I was working on. It told of those who had somehow locked themselves outside of the story and had become sequestered at Moorfields (in London, where the eye hospital is!)  This was so compelling to me that my breasts filled with milk for these excluded ones.

Calling John to come and look at the snow and to please start the file check on my computer, I brought him coffee and he manfully complied at that early hour to ensure that all was well, before turning back to bed. Great Thanks!. Last night I nearly lost all the files I’d worked on yesterday, but my restore programme recovered them. We still don’t know what was going on, as it seems fine today. This has been an all out busy go through the poem, working on the commentary that points up the obscure details of this poem. This has resulted in 18 pages of work (which includes the poem’s translation within it, previously prepared.)

I now have an important link to prove how Arthur and the Wounded King have overlap from this text. This is cause of wriggle-making excitement in our house, I assure you!  My room is now uninhabitably cold as the day westers. I have an east-facing room and the light departs fairly rapidly at this hour. I now go to seek the fire and a hot cup of tea, having put in a good solid and almost interupted eight hours of work.

1 February AT THE DESK

A Writer’s Day 11 on The Lost Book of the Grail

Book

I realise I’ve never taken a picture of my desk: this is what greets me daily – texts, more pages to go through and my essential mittens, as I work in a house with no central heating. (But I do have an electric heater though!)  Several kind people have offered me shawls and heating advice, but I truly don’t need any more shawls in this house, as the knitting of them is my evening activity!

Today I wasn’t planning on being that productive, but have enjoyed researching the faery angle of this book, as it is highly relevant to the old French poem.  I am still cross that I didn’t have the money to buy an edition of Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia when it was still remotely accessible. On the last look it was £170 but today is now a massive £270! (Our friend, Ari Berk, who owns this massive tome kindly offered to look up and scan any pages we really need, thank you!) Those people who wonder at the number of books in our house and the modesty of our living might be reminded that ‘spare money’ goes in the buying of such source texts as this most often.  This particular one was simply beyond me then, and certainly now.  Well, it just makes the day longer when you to do your own translations, I say!

I also entered some corrections from John’s reading of my yesterday’s output – we act as each other’s editors, maintaining a high but neutral criticality for the text and the needs’ of a reader.  John spots my lost words, as I think too fast for my typing, and I catch his spellings. 

Dreams were finally about something else: I was at the Melbourne Tarot Guild conference, which is coming up in August. An actor called Alex was showing me the pre-loaded meals that were ready stacked in an auto-dispenser with glass windows in the cafeteria.  Each was like a many coloured bird. They didn’t look so much like food as messengers ready to fly and sing their tale.

2 February THE GENTLE ART OF CO-WRITING

A writer’s day 12  

Other writers often approach us both with the tentative question of quite how we manage to write together. It is a hard enough business when you do en seule, but when two personalities are at it, writing can become a veritable monster.

We long ago sorted out the whys and wherefores of this process, since we started to write together on The Western Way in 1983 (now available in one volume and entitled Walkers Between Worlds).  We block out the chapters,  assigning overall charge of certain chapters and then we get on with the research for them. Any material that either of us dug up, that looks like it belongs in the other pocket (yes, this is very like billiards), then we lob it over and trust that it will fit or be useful.  The whole book has an overall editor and we decide this at the outset or else madness ensues! This is how we determined whose name goes first.

It is true that some co-writing can be nightmarish and both of us have had that experience, where the co-writer in question has shown greater interest in their own life than in any writing or editing! Or whose ideas are so at variance to one’s own that it is as if two books are struggling like the contending dragons in the stories of Myrddin and Lludd and Llefelys! Only one can win. Thank goodness we are not in that mode here!

John is busy working at another book, on Spring Heeled Jack, a Victorian phenomenon which caused great alarm and disquiet in the day; as this book has to be finished before Lost Book of the Grail, I am getting ahead and laying out the whole book. Also, because Gareth Knight and I have been at work on the translation of the text on which the book is based, this part had to come first anyway. I worked over the commentary yesterday and a little more this morning, and am now in the process of filling up those chapters. 

My dreams were about someone bringing back the dead for burial: those who had died in a place that was inimical to them. The honourable person doing this service was determined to make their burial place right, despite and because of the fact that their living had been in so desperate a way.  She rode on a horse that dragged a travois loaded with bodies. This reminds me that the reverse effect of revelation is often the clearing away of things and ideas that tried to flourish in the wrong places and were choked of life.  The lines of Yeat’s great poem Easter 1916

 ‘too long a sacrifice
          Can make a stone of the heart.’   

And I am forced to consider the many conflicts in which the innocent find themselves in the wrong places that were once their loving homes and are now a wasteland of violence where is no safety nor shelter any more.

3 February     BECOMING A TRACKER

A writer’s day 13

Becoming a tracker is an absolute essential for going on quest. Shields, lances, grails and quests, their antecedents and many adventures can take you on a series of quests of your own, as you trace them through the very muddled and overwritten versions that proliferated in the 12-13th centuries. They each leave their trace but you have to have your sniffer dog nose on to tell which came before the other.  

The business of tracking inevitably leads you in interesting but irrelevant dead-ends.  I nearly landed in one today when I accidentally stumbled through the wall of one story to another, upon a Loathly Lady episode previously unknown to me in Gerbert de Montreuil’s Continuation.  It tells how the ugliest woman ever seen comes at night to a scene where Perceval has just killed some enemy knights. She carries two jewelled casks and proceeds to anoint the dead bodies and brings them back to life with the potions within them.  This figure, so redolent of early Irish hags and cailleachs, immediately provoked my interest, as I collect these stories.  Perceval is famed in Peredur, the Welsh version of the Grail quest, found in the Mabinogion, for being trained in arms by the ‘Witches of Gloucester,’ so  I thought I’d found a through connection. But it was just an isolated incident that Gerbert had lifted from who knows where.  It didn’t advance the current book one whit, but it reminded me of lots of other things: a kind of antithesis to Joseph of Arimathea’s two cruets, and allusively like the cauldron of Bran that brings the dead back to life.  In a cartoony way, Perceval, having disposed of the old cailleach, tries the potion on the knights he has just re-slain, only to have them pop up again and try to murder him some more.  Better than a Punch and Judy show – I’d like to see it illustrated, I must say!  

Today I’ve been tarting up the chapters I’ve assembled so far so that John has some sense of where I’ve been going with this.  Wordage currently stands at 11,587 – of which 3378 is the translation – not bad  for 13 day’s work, which has included quite a bit of research. But because we have all the texts already in our library, it does mean we can read blessedly by the fire, rather than waiting in the Bodleian, thirstily in need of quarts of tea, for texts to be delivered (never less than 2 hours’ wait, and can be up to several days, if it’s coming from a library store in another location.)

To honour last night’s snow fall (finally!), venison stew tonight, if the meat defrosts in time to be put on by mid-afternoon. I have a spare half-bottle of indifferent French wine which is only fit for meat tenderization, but it will need a lot of help, so I’ve whizzed up some spices, including juniper berries, bay and cassia to deepen the stew and make it ‘thick and slab,’ in true weird sisters fashion.  Popping down stairs for some Myth Cake and another cup of green tea to see!

4 February  WAYBREAD: WHAT DO WRITERS READ WHILE WRITING?

A writer’s day 14

What do writers read while writing?  You might expect me to respond ‘only books for research,’ but the truth is that writers need to have sustaining waybread, a viaticum that helps keep you on the road.  After having recently consigned two really bad novels to ‘leave the house’ heap, I needed some really good writing, so I enquired of the arch book-doyen and purveyor of all recreational reading in our household, what was new?

Now, often, John and I read very different things, but currently we are doing a weird book-share. We are sharing one copy of Michael Moorcock’s new book, The Whispering Swarm by finding a way to both read it at the same time. John reads slower than myself – I read like an express hoover – so it’s working.   I read this novel when I go bed and then leave it for John to read when he comes up – hours after I’m asleep usually.  This is doing the job.   Moorcock is himself the character in his own novel, an author on a quest for a lost location and I can’t wait to see where it leads. Unfortunately, being the first of a series, disappointment lies ahead of me. Moorcock’s book will be quest that, like the Grail legends, will have its continuations – just may he live long to finish them!

Usually I am quite capable of waiting years for an author to complete a series of books so that I can devour the lot at a sitting, as I did with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: the last one struck our threshold at the same time as a bad bout of flu, and I was luxuriously free to read them all in my sick bed, in a Miltonian-gnostic haze. Neither Pullman nor Moorcock are ‘believers’ in a faith sense, and yet they are both believers in something far more fundamental: the story itself. Neither is afraid to trek to whence it stems, nor to follow where it might lead.

Today, I’ve started to do the same thing: to grapple with the deep understory that causes the Grail legends to flow: the myths of ‘how did this all go so wrong?’ This takes you inevitably to the vast coagulant drains of primal myth, to the ancestral effluvia, shame and guilt. Fortunately, it simultaneously takes you to paradise – you have to see both sides of the myth as the verso of the coin. I am no dualist, but the one does lie within the other. I am fascinated in how the Grail becomes a secondary or auxiliary fixing of what went wrong, and have been following this all afternoon. Happy that I can continue, because I did make the venison stew yesterday and its ample remains will suffice for this evenings, I don’t have to stop writing but can wend onwards.

Many blessings

Caitlín Matthews
Courses, books and events: www.hallowquest.org.uk
Divination blog: http://caitlin-matthews.blogspot.co.uk/

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About Daniel

Writer & Musician
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