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

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.  


By Caitlín Matthews

5th February  RUTHLESSNESS

A writer’s day 15 on the Lost Book of the Grail.

When I occasionally sit down with those who have a first book that they want to finish, or those who have planned a space in their lives to start one, I usually ask one vital question: ‘Are you ruthless enough?’  This usually results in dismayed looks, but it is a vital question if you are going to have the gall to complete something.  The fixative of finish isn’t just application and showing up to the desk, it is utter ruthlessness.

The deep legends gripped me so strongly yesterday that subsequent output was very pleasing. By 5.40pm I had some substantial bits of chapters 3, 6 and 8, while chapter 7 made it into first manifestation. Today, I’ve opened up dialogue boxes for the Seven Guardians of the Seven Branches of the Elucidation. What will pop into them is a delicate process of listening to the internal structures of the text which reveals and hides, suggests and removes suggestions in the most gnostic way.

I am trying to keep calm as I have the disruption of two whole days away from my desk coming up – family and ritual distractions – and everything is flowing so well. I am at the ruthless stage of needing to attend to the writing and let the universe do its own thing. Disruptions galore are also arriving,  severally as Shakespeare says, by mail and email from all over the world, right in the middle of  this pristine week of joined-up writing.  People who want me to write, plan ahead and get back to them. This is exactly how work stops and the fine pencil point of concentration becomes blunted. Even John keeps shouting from the other room, where he’s sorting books, do I still want X or Y? When I don’t respond, he mutters about ‘not having help’ but, you know, I am just NOT AVAILABLE, world! Head down, I keep at it.  


A writer’s day 16 on Lost Book of the Grail.

One of the favourite poems that we loved hearing read in my class when I was a child on a dull Friday afternoon, when the teacher let us put away the text books and read to us for the last half hour until the bell, was Kipling’s Smuggler’s Song, a narrative poem that grips you from the outset:

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,

Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,

Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.

Watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by.

Well, today I have been peering through the blind of the Elucidation, to try and see the gentlemen who are called ‘the Seven Guardians of the Story.’  These mysterious ones, we are told, are not only the guardians of this mystery, but they are also the seven branches of the story too!  The text doesn’t tell us very much about them – a few lines, sometimes two lines, that’s all. Although we can trace some of their tracks through different forests of the Arthurian quests, as I’ve been doing since 3am this morning, they remain allusively mysterious.

I want to know what they are smuggling in, as much as the curious child of the Kipling poem, aware that the narrator of the Elucidation is being very secretive with us.  But if just one crack of light showed through the blind, what might we see projected upon the wall that we are instructed to watch?  For me, it’s neither a wall or window option.  What if I ran out into the street, might I pass by them, softly, in the dark? 

Tip-toeing softly, I am going now…..

7th February          MYTH CAKE

A writer’s day 17

Since I mentioned it a few days back, several people asked for the recipe of Myth Cake. Here you all are, as this is a non-writing day for me and I’ll be visiting my son and daughter in law in their new house.  Myth Cake is what you need for Arthurian quests or those dull afternoons when you wish you were in a quest. It is the lavender that makes it mythic and the fruit contents that you can choose for yourself. This makes a blondie kind of cake: if you use fresh blueberries beware of keeping the cake for more  than 3 days or mould will begin! (That’s if you have any left after 3 days, of course!) I am loose with ingredients as I don’t weigh anything, so you need to be aware of this!  Make a cake-mixture that is of a nice dropping consistency.  You can add more fruit of your choice – or substitute other things that you like, such as chopped peel, cherries, raisins etc.  – you know what you like. 

I am notoriously mean with sugar, as I don’t like very sweet things, however, don’t put in any more lavender sugar but just ordinary sugar if you want it sweeter, or your mouth will not thank you! – you want to eat cake, not scented candle or bath salts! Oh, and I don’t do metric either, sorry!


3-4 oz melted butter 
1-2 tablespoons of lavender sugar  – see below
3 tablespoons lemon juice 
2 eggs                                             
6-8 oz plain flour 
1 teaspoon baking powder 
1 teaspoon salt 
quarter pint or so of almond milk (depends on flour content)
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest                                                                             handful of dried cranberries
handful of fresh or dried blueberries

2 tablespoons lemon juice 
1 tablespoon melted butter 
2-3 ozs icing sugar

Beat together butter, lavender sugar and eggs.  (I always put a spoon of flour in before adding the lemon juice to the mix, to avoid curdling.) Mix in flour, baking powder and salt; stir into egg mixture and add enough milk to make a dropping consistency. Fold in lemon zest, and fruit. Pour into a greased or lined cake tin. Bake in the oven on a shelf that’s not right at the top, but one notch down from that, at Gas mark 4, 350 deg for 60-70 minutes.  

While it’s cooking, melt the butter, cool a bit, then add icing sugar, combine the  lemon juice judiciously so that you have a not too runny icing.

Leave the cake cool in the tin for 10-15 mins, turn out and let it cool a bit more – this is the hard part, I know! Then slather on icing and eat. Your mythic day has begun!


Buy sugar of choice – golden caster is good or white if you have to. In a mixing jug pour out enough sugar that will fill your screw-top jar.  Add to it the flower-tops of 2-3 lavender stalks (you don’t need the stalks!) Crumble the lavender kernels into the sugar, pour sugar and flowers into your jar. No cooking required! Use sparingly – really! A little is an awful lot.


A writer’s day 18

I meet many people who sidle up and tell me that they have written a book.  ‘Who have you shown it to or sent it to?’ I ask. ‘No-one’ is usually the answer. I keep silent at this point because, frankly, it is unlikely to come to much unless you engage with the process of publish and be damned.  Anyone who replies ‘no-one,’ doesn’t need my advice and I am not going to waste my time castigating or exhorting.  It will remain a dream book until in print or read by at least one another human being.

Professional writing is what it sounds like – professional. We do it for money, as dear old, blunt Dr. Johnson said, ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.’ And yet, even professional writing is being led to this very point, as advances shrink or vanish.  The smaller publishers can’t afford to pay authors and keep going, but  writers are the content-bearers and we are the dreamers of dreams, to  paraphrase Alfred O’Shaughnessy. Without us and our vision, the people perish, I am assured by Proverbs.  (Bible alert for those who don’t like it.) While I am there, I am reminded of a difficult and unpromising commission from the same quarter.

The prophet Isaiah, whom I regard as a good guide to surviving in difficult times, was given what must be the most unpromising commission in the world, to my mind.  And  he volunteered for it. Prophets, like writers, do have a choice, but once entered into it, well…..!  

After having a vision of the heavenly host, Isaiah hears the Creator asking, ‘“Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then Isaiah said, “Here am I. Send me!”  The Creator said, “Go, and tell this people:

Keep on listening, but do not perceive;
Keep on looking, but do not understand.
Render the hearts of this people insensitive,
Their ears dull, and their eyes dim,
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts,
And return and be healed.”’(Isaiah 6, 8-10)

Oh my, the irony!  If that isn’t publish and be damned, I don’t know what is! I bet Isaiah immediately swallowed hard on hearing this commission. 

Whether it’s prophecy or whatever else, if you put your hand up for inspiration, like Isaiah, you just have to get it out there, no matter the result! Though ears be blocked and eyes unseeing, no matter what the provocation or the subsequent result, we writers have to write, publish and be damned, like any prophet. It is mostly a thankless task. We mainly hope that those who don’t understand will return from the exile of ignorance, from the wasteland of the spirit, and will get it, but we don’t count on it. We just have to deliver what we were given and that alone is the task, just like poor Isaiah!

9 February   WANTED

A writer’s day 19 on the Lost Book of the Grail

The search is on for King Amangons, wanted for the violation of an ancient custom, unbroken for centuries, until he came along.  He and his followers are the cause of the Wasteland, if you want to know why this land isn’t worth even a couple of hazelnuts any more!  This parlous state of affairs has gone on long enough.  


Also wanted, someone to set things to rights. Must have own horse and arms, a wilingness to travel and a burning desire to rectify things.  Anyone answering to this description should apply to the steward at the court of Caerleon. 

Chasing king Amangons and his many doublets all over the Arthurian record today has turning this morning into a detective hunt. We have set up dragnets all over the place in all the most plausible and implausible places. Some are dead-ends, while others are people of the same name, answering to a different description.  We keep looking and assessing. 

At the heart of the early Grail quests is a desire for retributive vengeance, which causes the most gung-ho responses from those who think they are doing good. 

The answer to violation and wasteland is not always so easy. Apportioning blame and bringing home the perpetrators doesn’t heal anything, however satisfying it is to those who enjoy ‘salvific violence.’  On the ground, the Grail quest is largely a blundering round, trying to set things to rights, and some real, substantial failures. A lot of desires get projected upon the quest and these eventually become the obstacles that prevent its realisation. 

Yes, Amangons is the lynch pin of why things go wrong, but he may also be partially responsible for how they get right again.  Don’t judge things too early!


A writer’s day 20  

Back in the late 12th century, Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval  was left perilously unfinished,  right in the middle of Sir Gawain’s adventures where he had just sent a page to King Arthur’s court to explain how he will be coming to the Pentecost gathering but that he had to fight a knight first. (Remember, a page was the equivalent of a text back in those days!) The page arrives to find the court dolefully lamenting that they’ve not heard from Gawain and fearing the worst for him. The page is poised to enter the castle and tell the good news when a lady who is up on high spots the page and runs to the queen, who asks her what was wrong dot dot dot.  And the story breaks off. 

We don’t know whether Chretien died or the scribe ran out of ink, or what, but  a whole series of writers – no doubt in response to readers’ and hearers’ dismay at a truncated story – continued the adventures which just went on expanding and changing as subsequent writers evolved the Grail quest into ever new adventures.   The author of what is called the First Continuation, actually begins ‘dot dot dot and what had alarmed her so,’ exactly where Chretien broke off. The same thing happened again and again, until there were four continuations, and a whole series of other stories, in many different European languages from French to Dutch, that hacked into these continuations and extended even more corridors until we have a whole Grail castle of Grail stories. 

This process, now so familiar to us from television soaps and multi-volume novels, went on within the Grail legends from 13-15th centuries almost unchecked. This is why there is not just ONE Grail story.  The extrapolations and imaginative interpolations so cross-track and reinspire each other that a whole series of pathways have to be explored in order to find out what is going on and who had read who. 

The text that we are working on, The Elucidation, is very different in many ways from all these. It has its own mysterious messages and an alternative vision that fuses Christian chivalry with pre-Christian faery and folkloric traditions.  Our job is to go to the mythic heart of the Grail legends and discover the mainspring that makes this one of the longest running quests in the world.


A writer’s day 21 on Lost Book of the Grail

This morning I needed a big broom to sweep away all the little tasks that are made so much more arduous by what I call ‘creeping death by pin code.’   In order to transact anything online, we need codes, phone numbers (and their menu systems) in order to access things, but sometimes the tools provided, as on my online bank today, are just not adequate.  Not only was a vital phone number not actually shown in the ‘help’ column of my account, neither was the box big enough to insert the very long Portuguese name of a company to whom I am sending money.  I got as far as phoning for help to complete this transaction, only to find that I still need the recipient’s bank name and address, which I don’t have. So not only have I wasted an hour of my life, I didn’t even achieve this small task.  This one transaction and my quest to find the item I am buying has taken 4 months in total, so it has become a quest in itself! And to think that this would have been just 5 minutes on Paypal! (which the company doesn’t possess.) It was nearly 1pm before I got to my real work, as a result.

We are at the stage with the book when the material is beginning to pile up, which also means that other facts and interesting things are also coming to litter the main hall of gathering. At this point, we don’t want to sweep too hastily as we might throw aside something that proves to be a vital clue, but we do need a system of stacking it tidily until wanted or discarded: that means dumping it into a likely chapter at present.  With this book, I am being meticulous with references and sources: too many times, I’ve pounced on a piece of information with glee and run off to write, only to forget where I first found it, creating for myself an endless search another time.  Yes, we’re back at access codes again.  The vital key codes for me to rediscover Grail clues live in brackets immediately after the information is written down, so (Bryant 1982, p.98) or (Morris 1892, v.543) will help me get back to the place again.  This is the petty stuff of writing that is part of essential daily practice, leaving patrins or traveller’s waymarks to get back to the glade or fountain again. 

However, the real keys to the Grail lie in the texts themselves which is always where I go first, not to the critique, because what other people have to say is never as important as what the story says about itself.  Immersion in a text is the first requisite: learning to swim in that world through the metaphors, images and story developments that have their own unique flavour.  Once the initial context is clearer, only then I might look at other supporting works.  Just as no alternative pin code will unlock the secure site you trying to enter, so  too, no amount of information will open up this delicate process of accessing the text, only the pin code of the same flavour – the language of myth itself.

Myth has its own rules, as we all know. We’ve seen how no amount of battering upon the door will open the faery gates once the hero/ine has messed up in fairyland; no amount of kind thoughts will revive the Beast who languishes in his distant castle, only the return of Beauty with a loving kiss; no matter how near Gilgamesh is to gaining eternal life, sleep still overcomes him and keeps him mortal.  We glimpse the Grail, don’t think to ask the question, and wake on the bare hillside.  We have to learn the sequence, remember the notes, recite the chant, respond from the heart, and never, never, forget these precious keys to the door.

Many blessings.

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


About Daniel

Writer & Musician
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1 Response to A Writer’s Day: Working on the Lost Book of the Grail (Part III)

  1. elyn aviva says:

    Caitlin–I am so grateful for you generosity in sharing your writer’s days. As a fellow professional writer, so much resonates. And on the level of the grail quest, so much is hinted at; a moment of revelation; blinds closed again. I am learning a great deal from your process. Many blessings.

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