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

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

19 February  THE GREAT VANISHMENT

A writer’s day 29 on Lost Book of the Grail

Over the last few days I’ve been dreaming serially of finding the Grail and then immediately losing it again. Sometimes I’m looking through books and there it is, and when I look back, I can’t find the reference again.  Several nights of frustration have ensued, but this is on track for the quest, since it is precisely what the knights do again and again.  They visit the Grail castle, see the procession of hallows (holy things) and then fail to ask the all important question. They go to bed in the castle and find themselves awake the next day ‘on the bare hillside’ – most definitely not inside anymore.  They try to find the castle again, but it is not a known location on a fixed map.

The great vanishment is one of the mysteries about which the Grail seekers fail to ask. We are told that after the procession of the hallows, the great lamentation that is being made ceases and then everyone vanishes, leaving a vast, empty hall. Neglecting to ask the question is like looking a gift-horse in the mouth.  In Classical times, the instruction on being offered some great fortune is to ‘seize it with both hands,’ in other words, not to refuse it or lose the opportunity. ‘When Fortune comes, seize her in front with a sure hand, because behind she is bald,’ said Leonardo da Vinci, drawing on this tradition.  Within the Grail legends, there are plenty appearances of a bald maiden, who is a kind of walking representation of the wasteland: a reproach to the questers who don’t get it.

When faced with holy things of great moment, the human ability to cope with multiple realities at the same time is somewhat circumscribed.  In the Grail legends, the knights generally fall asleep – exactly the same thing that happens to Gilgamesh in the Mesopotamian epic: when confronted with the possibility of immortality, he dozes off and cannot stay wakeful.  When the sacred moment of realization is upon us, we shy away, lose focus or just become sleepy. Something in us isn’t ready for it.  Like children confronted with the prospect of visiting Father Christmas in a store, we become excited at the notion, but when reality brings the child face to face with such an embodied being, the reaction is fear, aversion or shyness.  Like Gerontius in Elgar’s oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius, who asks to see the ‘face of God,’ but when presented with the prospect by his guardian angel, sings ‘Take me away, and in the lowest deep/There let me be,/ And there in hope the lone night-watches keep, /Told out for me.’

When the sacred vanishes you could say that it is our consciousness of it that is withdrawn, rather than the hallow itself that vanishes. Whenever we are in the right mode of consciousness, we can tune in and be present to it, but if we are out of tune then it isn’t possible to view it.  This out-of-tuneness is categorized as a sense of sinfulness in medieval terms, and many of the knights who career about without a thought for the consequences of their actions are invariably brought up short by two kinds of beings: maidens who harangue their lack of ability to act sensibly and practically, and hermits who kindly explain where sinfulness has entered into things and who offer confession and absolution, so that they can begin again. Fortunately, the vision comes round again, if we are lucky.

20 February  THE FOOD YOU MOST DESIRE

A writer’s day 30 on Lost Book of the Grail

Merton Great Hall.

Merton

Last night we ate in hall in Merton College. At the high table sat the Master and the Dons, while we sat with our friend at one of the long tables that run the length of the hall, like the elongated strokes of an E. The hall was noisy with the hum of many student conversations, while the portraits of past masters and notables peered down upon us, including  Walter de Merton, who founded the college in 1264.  It is about the only time in my life when dining resonates with the medieval experience of eating in King Arthur’s court. 

For those who’ve never visited a medieval university great hall (think Hogwarts, which is really Christchurch College’s great hall) the one thing you cannot prepare for is the totally ingrained odour of 7-800 years of cooked dinners. Yes, the great hall smells of gravy, custard and roasting meats.  There is a formality that we don’t often have at home, of course. No-one even so much as touches the bread on the side plate until Merton’s grace before dining is said:

Oculi omnium in te respiciunt, Domine. Tu das escam illis tempore opportuno.

Aperis manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione tua.

Benedicas nobis, Deus, omnibus donis quae de tua beneficentia accepturi simus.

Per Jesum Christum dominum nostrum, Amen.

(or ‘The eyes of the world look up to thee, O Lord. Thou givest them food in due season.

Thou openest thy hand and fillest every creature with thy blessing.

Bless us, O God, with all the gifts which by thy good works we are about to receive. Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord, Amen.’)

One of the main features of the Grail is that it goes round the great hall serving everyone, individually, the food that you most desire.  We are sometimes told what kinds of foodstuffs are available, as here where Chrétien (obviously a pudding man) homed in on the afters: ‘dates, figs, nutmegs, cloves and pomegranates, and to finish, electuaries and ginger from Alexandria, with sweet, aromatic wine, mulberry wine and clear syrup.’ And sometimes it is left to the imagination: 

‘And never were such marvellous

Meals as were taken to them

And the food that they were given.’

Our food last night was in Lenten season and brought to us by servers rather than Grail: vegetable soup and black bread, fish with vegetable terrine and rice, and caramel apple tart. It was very good indeed.

Of course, at the Grail feast, you needed to keep your wits about you quite as much as in Merton, where the most academic of conversations goes on. It is no good getting caught up in the food and forgetting to ask about all the strange things that you see. In fact, it is the one essential of the feast. Well we did our best last night. The after-dinner grace at Merton is much shorter: Benedictus benedicat (Let him who has been blessed, give blessing); after which we repaired to the recreation room where good, mythic conversation was to be had until a late hour.  It was good to relax a little as I have finished my peregrinations to form chapter 3 which is now printed out. I now await John’s pronouncements upon the same.

21 February  HERMITS – THE WAYSIDE ANALYSTS

A writer’s day  31 on Lost Book of the Grail 

Hermits

Hermits are to the Grail quest what Jungian analysts are to the spiritual quest, I suppose. In the Grail legends, the hermits are gravely monitory presences who show up along the way periodically, usually after some strange happening, to explain what has gone on. These chaps would seriously consider questions like ‘who was that masked man?’ and ‘what’s with the mysterious candlestick in the perilous chapel?’ 

Without hermits, the Grail legends would have no means of explication, because they perform the same role as Dr Who does to his assistants. A roving Grail seeker is, by virtue of his solitary quest, a traveller alone, equipped to deal with armed assault but completely at sea when it comes to weird stuff.  Knights don’t exactly go around saying, ‘Wow, dude,’ but almost!  They are usually on safe ground if they cross themselves on viewing the weird stuff, but mostly they forget.

Hermits are also on hand for heart-felt confession, comfortable absolution and hospitality.  Their daily fare, however humble is up for sharing, so the benighted Grail seeker might find himself being given a hermit’s robe for the night and sit down to a plate of barley bread, cabbage and plain water, so he doesn’t go hungry to bed.  As constants throughout the deserted places of the quest, they act as social companions who put the knights back on the oath of the quest.

22 February  A YARD OF ALE AND OTHER TESTS 

A writer’s day  32 on Lost Book of the Grail 

We are white-hot and ablaze with research as we crack through even more corridors to the Grail Castle.  After reading a little-read Breton lay, we have the core of our book and the means to restore what the Elucidation doesn’t tell us so clearly.  There is much girning over the Old French as comparisons race between Welsh and Middle High German for verification. Books pile up on desks and the postman is urgently and impatiently besought since he brings yet more texts for our perusal or translation.

Vessels old and new come into focus and fade out again: it is like the test of the drinking horn. A messenger comes to court bringing an ivory horn to Arthur’s court. Anyone may drink from it if their sweetheart is of the faithful kind but, if she is not, woe betide.  Like the British test of drinking a yard of ale, it isn’t an easy task. 

For those not so inducted, a yard of ale is a long, hunting-horn shaped length of glass from which manly men attempt to drink – it holds rather a lot of ale – at one swallow. That is 2.5pints or 1.4 litres.  Some say that this practice arose in 17th Cambridge with ‘the long glass’ as recorded by John Evelyn in his diary, when men made a yard of ale toast to King James II at Bromley in 1685.

However, this drinking test goes back further, we feel. While an ivory drinking horn isn’t the same as a glass yard of ale, the effects are clearly similar. No sooner has the drinker raised the horn to his lips when he finds himself covered from head to foot in wine. Only the man with a virtuous sweetheart can do the deed without embarrassment at Arthur’s court, just as only the manliest of men can drain the yard of ale.

As the texts drip from our lips and fingers, we know how the knights and ladies of the court felt – saturated!

23 February  KNUCKLE CAKES

A writer’s day  33 on Lost Book of the Grail 

What did knights eat on quest? Well, yes, they do get invited into castles and hermitages a lot, and no, I’ve not discovered even one instance of a Grail knight preparing food for himself.  They don’t seem to have pages to run errands and cook for them but, just supposing they were on the road with a few ingredients, these Knuckle Cakes could be cooked over an open fire on a griddle pan or even a flat stone. They also make good offering cakes to the faeries if you should be on quest. Since we are in the faery part of our Grail quest, it seems good to pass on this information.

Ingredients:  

1½ cups of self raising flour

3 oz butter

pinch salt

½ cup currants or other dried fruit

1 large egg

½ cup runny honey

a little milk for binding

Rub fat into the flour, add salt and currants. Bind together with honey, egg and enough milk to make a soft dough – it will be dough, not batter, mark you!  Heat a griddle on top of stove or use a large frying pan to medium heat, with a little fat for each batch of cakes.  Flour both hands and lift one dessert spoon of mixture onto one palm, shaping between palms to a rough oval. Punch the top of each cake with floured knuckles and cook in small batches on griddle until cakes set and rise, turning them once.  Warning: faeries hate burned cakes!

If, like Gawain, you squint down out of your castle window and can’t tell the difference at distance as what kind of guests you have arriving: ‘Are those ladies or faeries by the riverbank?’ then you could either leave a batch out on the bankside, or else invite them in for tea, depending.

25 February  FRAMING THE MYTHIC VIEW

A writer’s day  35 on Lost Book of the Grail 

When we dined at Merton the other night, we had the opportunity to discuss myth with our friend in a wide and sweeping way, about what it was and how we understood it. We came to the conclusion that there is a commonality to myth which is experienced by everyone, wherever they live. It is not the same as Jung’s collective unconsciousness, or even his sense of archetype, but it comes to us through metaphor, which is experienced in your body.  Metaphor is the universal language, a pre-linguistic language, that we share. Here myth is always true or, as Sallustius, the philosopher who had the job of helping the Emperor Julian reframe the world as Pagan, said, ‘Myth is something that has never happened and is always happening.’

The stories of the Grail legends are stories that have never happened and yet they are always happening.  The story happens to all of us, in every generation, over and over.  We just need to frame the view.  We got to talking about the aperture required for getting this view, and so naturally, as we’d been roaming about Roman religion quite a bit, we brought up the lituus or divining rod of the ancient Etruscans. Because we’d also been eating foil-wrapped cherry chocolates with our rosé wine, I made a couple of visual aids to the conversation: here are the Grail and Lituus – symbols from very different eras, you might think, but right on the money when it comes to framing the Grail.

The lituus was used to help make a templation of the sky: this was the viewing field for augurs looking at bird-flight, lightning and other phenomena in the different quarters of the field. A lituus looks a little like a bishop’s crook, which is what it’s evolved into, many think. However we frame our vision, we need to examine the field to discover what is coming and how we ourselves experience it within our metaphor’s understanding.  We agreed that this is not something that many people do today or, at least, it is what many diviners call ‘intuition.’  

When we abandon our metaphor, we can no longer understand anything mythic however it shows itself to us. We can easily see why, in our society, myth is understood as ‘an untruth:’ this is the view of people who have closed off to what  the metaphor in their own frame of reference is telling them.  In our conversation we agreed that we must have the greatest possible respect for the myth: it is what informs us completely and without it we are steering blind.  Get a lituus, folks!

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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