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

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


Writing is a mysterious process.  Some days it looks like nothing, and other days it is enough. Very occasionally, it is a pleasure to have written. Today wasn’t such a good day. I was tired and unsettled. When it’s this bad, I return to text and try a little immersion.

I happened to turn to the closing words of the Third Grail Continuation, where the narrator, known only as Manesier, congratulates himself on finishing for Jeanne, Countess of Flanders (1205-44) what Chrétien began for her ancestor, Philip of Flanders (1143-91). He tells us he has laboured to finish this story and finally brought it to the point where King Arthur sat before the Grail.  He then tells us that, ‘all those who travel the road can still see the story there, sealed all in parchment.’

Well, that brought on a shiver! Manesier is talking about bringing a story home. It isn’t like big-game hunting, there are no racks of antlers to impress the guests, but he has ‘sealed all in parchment.’ It is rare in medieval texts to witness the writing process so intimately, or to read acknowledgement of what has been a piece of ancestral, relay writing.

I refer you back to day 20 of this writer’s diary, where you might be reminded of how long a process this first writing of the Grail legends was: a kind of relay race to cover ground that is just too vast for one writer to encompass.  The Grail legends were a kind of marathon, truly, but to be told that ‘all those who travel the road can see the story there!’ Yes, I am inspired afresh. The story and the road ARE one, and now I am doing my part, using a computer and a printer, to seal it in parchment all anew.  

You too can travel this road, once the folios of this parchment are sewn together and done. Where will you walk then, I wonder? 


A Writer’s Day 26


MESS:  muddle, shambles, disarray, confusion. From Old French mes ‘portion of food’, from late Latin missum ‘something put on the table’

POTTAGE: soup or stew. From Middle English (as potage): from Old French potage ‘that which is put into a pot’. 

The horrible simplification and dumbing down of everything for the benefit of those who have no concentration seems to afflict everything, even history and literature. Writing about real history means having to deal with inconvenient and untidy parts of how it was.  History isn’t always an easy sound-bite, literature isn’t simply a crass quotation.  In his new novel, The Whispering Swarm,Michael Moorcock remembers the London of his youth, and rejoices that the bomb-damage of the blitz wasn’t taken as an opportunity to create a Disney-fied, theme-park kind of London. He deplores our general tendency to clean up the past:  ‘The real, messy, informative past disappears to be overlaid with bad fiction, with simplified folklore, easy answers. Memory needs to remain complex, debateable.’

Keeping memory bright and broad is the task in hand, if we are to bring these overlapping Grail stories into the foreground.  The historical context of their telling and the mythic memory to which they give access require a wide frame. Whatever my own opinions and tendencies, I cannot tidy the Grail tradition up, making some kind of standard ruler of these very different stories.  I have to let these talk for themselves, however inconvenient and divergent they can be from each other.

Some years ago, in one of his early books, John made a brief summary of the central core of the Grail stories, just as a base-line of reference, making it clear that the summary wasn’t ‘the whole or only story’ just a convenient point of reference to the main themes under discussion. Unfortunately, a psychologist took this summary as ‘THE Grail story’ and based a whole book upon it, using it to prove his theories. Because he depended entirely on the summary, the result was so sk3ewed that the book was worse than useless.  The writer never bothered to look at any primary sources for the Grail, not even in translation! When learning about anything you need the evidence of witnesses.

More information, taken from many different points of view, is required to see the whole Grail landscape. It includes failure, mess and divergent themes that don’t lead anywhere.  The complexity of overlapping stories that retell, forget and recast the adventures of other knights is just how it is.  It all bobs around in the pot together, creating a unique flavour. However many theories you might want to prove, the Grail legends come out differently every time, just like a mess of pottage into which you put whatever you have!


Medieval version: Take whatever you have in the fridge, vegetable rack and cupboards. Amalgamate, add stock/water, boil up and let it merge together over heat.  Ladle into dish and eat. To keep it going, add in more veg and other stuff, with a bit more stock/water. Lasts for days, this way.

Modern version:  Slice onions and garlic and sweat in butter. Chop whatever vegetables you have and add, stirring them up for a bit.  Create a stock from stock cube and water, if you have none ready made. Add any kind of beans from a tin. Add a tin of tomatoes, if you like these, with their juice. Pour on stock so that ingredients are just covered. Season with herbs you like. Boil, then simmer for 15-20 mins. Voilá, pottage!

17 February  SOWING THE SEED

A writer’s day 27


We have to thank Chrétien de Troyes for inseminating Europe with the Grail story. Other anonymous folk also played their parts, but he is the one that first told it to a large and international audience.  In fact he begins his Perceval with this very image in the prologue, ‘He reaps little who sows little, and whoever wants to reap a harvest disseminates his seed in the places where God repays a hundredfold; if the good seed falls on worthless ground, it will thirst and finally fail.’

Chrétien’s patron was Count Philip of Flanders (1143-91) whose second wife, Sibylle of Anjou, was the daughter of Count Foulques of Anjou and sister to Geoffrey Plantagenet, the father of Henry II of England. Philip’s father, Thierry of Alsace, had been rewarded with a special gift or his services in the Second Crusade: the phial of Holy Blood, which can still be seen processed at Bruges in Belgiumevery year.  Philip of Flanders married Elisabeth of Vermandois, a niece of Eleanor of Aquitaine, so his court was fertile ground indeed.

A storyteller never knows where the seed of the story will sprout: will it be heard and implant as intended, or will it be diverted into a lesser channel to grow up deformed, or will it just bounce off the unyielding soil?  This is why storytellers and writers the world over have a dedication at the front of the book: no matter that no-one else reads what has been written, the person or group or people to whom it is dedicated, will see it is carried forward.  Occasionally you see a dedication to someone’s deceased relatives, of course.  Does the story then go into the land of the dead? I hope so, for a story should run backwards as well as forwards.

The deep abiding growth of a story is about how it seeds, ultimately.  The Grail stories seed in the context of the Second Crusade where relics of the Passion and knightly adventures in defence of Christian religion and culture were the news of the day.  Not everyone was able to go on crusade, but those left at home had their own stories because of Chrétien and the other, unnamed tellers.

For ourselves, reading these stories in different times, dealing with the legacy, and spiritual disparagement of crusade, the ground is different. The age of miracles has gone past us and re-emerged as nine-day wonders on Facebook. Instead of holy relics and black knights, it is two headed babies and the outrageous behaviour of partners to their spouses.  Yet the longing for a harvest of stories that will nourish us has not departed.  We still yearn for the touchstone that will turn our mess into order, our tattered hopes into glorious achievements. A quick twitter isn’t going to sustain the story, is it? Go-go, Chrétien, we are still listening!


A writer’s day 28 on Lost Book of the Grail

In the olden days, John and I used to live in a tiny four room flat. The office was the bedroom and there hoved an old Amstrad computer, whose screen was black with green letters. We used to share it. – Yes, share! – However did we do that?  Mostly we had different days off from work, so this made possible a whole day or half day in which to get ahead with any writing, but I remember evenings as ‘difficult.’  

Prior to this I had a typewriter called Dionysius the Areopagite on which we wrote the whole of Western Way. In those days ‘cut and paste’ meant what that sounds like – you’d written something in the wrong place? Well, print it out, get the scissors, cut out the piece in question and affix with glue in the required place!  Considering that Western Way (now entitled Walkers Between the Worlds) clocked in at about 240,000 words, that was quite a feat.  We don’t actually have any manuscripts from this time as they were all stored at John’s mother’s house and, when she died, these all had to be destroyed as we had no storage. But, occasionally, we find a file in which a sheaf of typewritten notes reappears and we look at it with the same wonder that most people reserve for recently discovered vellum parchments! 

Before even this, I had two fountain pens with which I used to write everything.  I remember visiting Rosemary Sutcliff, our absolute writing heroine, who still wrote with one right up till her death in 1992. She suffered from Still’s Disease, a form of juvenile arthritis that caused the fingers of her hand to be permanently turned into the palm of her hand: but she still used a fountain pen and had her manuscripts typed up. She wrote over 60 books this way!

I still use a fountain pen for writing up client notes, which apart from poetry on the hoof, is still my most oral form of writing, if you get my meaning.  When I fill my pen mid-flow, usually my client stops speaking and stares in bewilderment and asks what I’m doing: about 75% of them have never seen anyone fill a fountain pen before!

In our lifetime, the means of writing has changed beyond reckoning. From fountain pen to computer and printer is about as revolutionary as from quill to Gutenburg. Now I am on the verge of having to think about what to do, now that Windows 98 is unsupported on my computer. Do I stay PC or go Apple? This is a fearful step, as everything I’ve ever professionally written on a computer has been translated into this format. I know that if I upgrade, then scripts I’ve written in particular programmes will not go with me, notated music that I’ve composed probably won’t work either.  Like a monk on the verge of the monasteries’ dissolution, I tremble at the potential loss of these things.

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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