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

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


A writer’s day 36 on Lost Book of the Grail 

When you are questing, the time passes without notice. Perceval, who is much given to falling into a revery, wherein time stops, is jolted out of his long quest when he meets a procession of pilgrims coming from confession. 

‘The source book’ tells us that Perceval had lost his memory to such an extent that he no longer remember God, and that April and May had gone round five times, without him entering a church or praying that whole time. In Perceval’s case, this is not to wondered at, since his mother neglected to give him any kind of education in the first place, so it wasn’t like he was inured or accustomed to  the habit of prayer in the first place, but this encounter brings him to realization just how long he has been out of time.

Stepping out of time is what happens when you quest. Whether you are making a garment with your knitting needles, or reading a book, or enjoying a deep conversation with friends, time stops running for that space. While children are playing, they are deep into the timeless zones where clocks don’t work.

So should some Office of National Statistics type people ask you, how long is an average quest? You should respond, ‘as long as it takes.’


A writer’s day 37 on Lost Book of the Grail 

Chrétien teases us with an allusion to the fact that Count Philip gave him the book which caused the Grail story to be told.  In a sense, this is ‘the holy grail of the Holy Grail,’ in the journalistic sense.  We don’t know whether it is a real book or just a literary device. Heaven knows that there are numerous such devices in this medieval tradition of tale-telling.  These supposed source books figure like a relic sought by Indiana Jones and some even appear in an archaeological or antiquarian way within the story, as one does in the little-known Perceforest:  ‘The kindly abbot showed the count around the abbey, leading him to a tower where, some years before, hidden within a wall full fourteen feet in depth, workmen had discovered a hidden cupboard….It contained a book….’

This is the stuff of legends indeed, some nicely plausible workmen who crack through the immensely thick walls and find a cavity wherein the wisdom of ages is houses.  We all enjoy these kinds of mysteries. Who knows what will be dug up?  In my lifetime, we have had reports of the recovery of the Lupercalia in Rome (not, unfortunately so), the antikythara device from the deep seas (which is a very complex calendar for reckoning sacred games like the Olympics), and the finding of the body of Richard III (whose memorial I shall be attending next month.)  Since my first visit to Orkney in 1977, a whole Neolithic temple and village have been found at the Ness of Brodgar. I go back very often, always astonished at what comes out of the ground. The fizzle of excitement never fails me. 

But will we ever have an excavation of the Holy Grail? – No, for the simple reason that it is one of the adamantine Hallows or holy things which appear in ways that are not susceptible to archaeology or museum curation.  The Hallows come and they go, but no-one will ever find them in the way the abbot finds the book.  So erase from your minds the Indiana Jones scene of the FBI warehouse full of stored treasures: this is never going to happen.


A writer’s day 38  on Lost Book of the Grail 

We all know the scene: naughty French knights stand tauntingly upon the battlements and mock the Grail seekers with inventive insults, while asserting that they already have a Grail, which is ‘vairy naice.’  Dignity is offended and, after offering to taunt them more, the French knights propel cows and their products via the mangonel onto the heads of the Grail seekers, who ride away, somewhat dirty and diminished.

In Chrétien’s Perceval, the art of mockery is refined in the case of Gawain who comes to Tintagel to help Tybalt, who is besieged by Meliant de Lis.  Ladies and girls come swarming around Gawain at a tournament, wondering why he doesn’t arm. They call him a pacifist, a tradesman and a money-changer: low charges indeed! For reasons of his own, Gawain is not intending to play at tournaments that day.  But when he finally gets his armour on, it takes the insults out of the ladies’ mouths, for he entirely trounces Meliant de Lis, whom the ladies have been supported, and everyone sees how Gawain’s opponent ended up on his back, with his legs in the air.

Chrétien was first class at showing how to strip a knight down to size. In his early story of The Knight of the Cart, the unhorsed Lancelot (in his full and heavy armour) has to take a lift in a dung cart in order to reach Guinevere and rescue her.  Carts, of course, were also the mode of transport taken by criminals on their way to the scaffold, so double shame is in order!


A writer’s day 39 on Lost Book of the Grail 

Today is St David’s Day, the patron saint of Wales, and it’s led me to thinking that, throughout medieval Europe, you could well be forgiven for imagining that the Welsh didn’t rate very highly on the international stage, although they had enormous influence at another. Chrétien’s description of Perceval as a gormless Welshman is repeated throughout the text of Perceval. From the moment that his mother attires him in a kind of canvas onesie, with a hooded deerskin as overcoat, and cowhide shoes, to the moment when he finally snaps out of his dream to realize it is Good Friday, Perceval is cast as the essentially daft, rustic Welshman who doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on.

Perceval’s mother attempts to reduce his obvious Welshness by making him take only one javelin and not three ‘because he would have looked too Welsh.’ But having neglected to bring him in up in anything like a chivalric manner, because she has retired to the woods where no-one can involve her son in conflict or war – the way she has already lost her husband and other sons –  she does nothing to improve his manners by a series of last-minute pieces of advice: to help women in distress, to accept a kiss from a lady but no more, to accept a ring should a lady give one to him, to ask the name of anyone he lodges with, to seek out worthy men and to pray in churches. Unfortunately, Perceval remembers all this advice in a jumbled and literal way, snatching kisses that are not offered and stealing a lady’s ring, trying to get armour off injured knights like a man boiling a lobster and a series of other unfortunate antics, all very laughable.

At Arthur’s court, when it is clear that the rustic Perceval has never been instructed in courtly manners, one of the knights remarks that, ‘the Welsh are all by nature more stupid than the beasts in pasture.’ This casual racism doesn’t just arise in isolation, for Chrétien is just as rude about Lombards who are a byword in his mind for cowardice. During an all-out riot where townspeople are picking up sticks, clubs and farm implements, we are told, ‘even Lombards couldn’t make so much commotion should they be out to kill a slug.’

These kinds of assumptions are not new. Racist invective arises from the partiality of one people, who think themselves great, against a different people who are assumed to have all the worst traits. On one level it works as a convenient method of distancing belittlement, just as Irishman jokes work in England. But, even in Ireland, the Irish joke about Kerrymen. (Who the Kerrymen make jokes about has never been enquired – the only land to the left of Kerry would be the monks on Skellig Michael!) At the other end of the scale, this same mindset leads to zenophobia, assault and mistreatment, as we can see from the state of Europe today.

Chrétien, in writing about a comedic Welshman, conveniently forgot that the story by which his name is best remembered had its roots in Britain, and that the Cymru were the oral storytellers from whom he first heard about the Grail.  And there we have a lesson in itself: ‘Welsh’ (from wealhas, meaning ‘stranger’) was what the Saxons called the British when they invaded. The British, however, called themselves Cymru (pronounced cum’ree) which means ‘companions.’ So that then is the challenge: you treat zenophobia by changing strangers into companions – let’s start the process.  


A writer’s day 40 on Lost Book of the Grail 

In the Second Continuation of the Grail stories, we hit upon a passage where the narrator’s voice leaps up out of the story: ‘there are now many worthy fellows going around these courts as story-tellers, who are twisting the good stories, distancing them from their sources and adding so many lies that the stories are killed and the good books are dishonoured. And those who hear and listen to them don’t know what good stories are; no, when those minstrels sit in their houses for the night and they get them to relate some adventure – unrhymed – they think they’ve heard the whole story; but they’ll never hear it in their lives. They make them believe a pack of lies; and they’re good at padding and stringing them out.’ 

What makes this statement somewhat hypocritical is the fact that the narrator of the Second Continuation is himself another tale-spinner; alright, he did his in rhyme, unlike those whom he castigates, but his own efforts show all the signs of twisting, working up and other tricks that he inveighs against.

However, we still know what he is talking about. When a much-loved story gets a make-over or, even worse, ends up in a mash-up, you cannot help feeling betrayed. A storyteller’s job is to tell the story and, as any parent will tell you, try telling the story just one detail differently from the way it was first told and hear your child complain bitterly.  Laying down a story is a delicate business and its central skeleton should not be messed with, lest we create a deformity.

For example, about ten years ago, I was at a conference where a woman of about my own age or a little older told the story of Persephone as if it was a myth all about being a post-menopausal woman. How I stayed in my seat was entirely due to my friends who physically held me down, I was so incensed. Persephone’s story has aspects of many elements that can be brought into closer focus, but this is not one of them! It might have been better to look at the characters of either Demeter or Hecate within that myth, but Persephone, the Kore, as a post-menopausal woman? Rubbish!

Gerbert de Montreuil makes a prayer, ‘May God who made the earth and sea grant honour to those who honour minstrels!’ (p. 258) I will join him in that prayer  – as long as they take care with the story telling!



The Torture of Ganelon from the 14th century Grandes Chroniques de France

A writer’s day  41 on Lost Book of the Grail 

Enemies of King Arthur are called ‘worse than Ganelon’ in one of the Continuations.  Not many people remember who Ganelon was today but, back in the day, everyone knew the Song of Roland and how vilely he betrayed his brother in law, Charlemagne,  by showing the Moors the way through the Passof Roncevaux where Roland held the pass alone. Ganelon’s  name is said to derive from the Italian word inganno, meaning deception, but he is probably based on the historical Wenilo, the archbishop of Sens who betrayed King Charles the Bald in 858.  Dante banished Ganelon to the depths of Cocytus in hell for his betrayal. Chaucer has the Nun’s Priest’s tale say,  ‘O false assassin, lurking in thy den! O new Iscariot, new Ganelon!’

It is my belief that Tolkien based his Gollum upon Ganelon, but then his Gríma would also serve in that place. Both are betrayers: Gollum betrays Frodo into Shelob’s lair in a pretty much parallel incident of a narrow pass, while Gríma betrays Theoden and the Rohirrim to Saruman and his mutant orcs.

Without traitors and betrayers, stories wouldn’t have much purchase.  The role of the anti-hero is essential grist to the mill of the story’s turning, and he is the miller – also a deeply unpopular figure in medieval lore.

Gerbert de Montreuil’s Continuation has an incident where Perceval releases a man trapped in a tomb, in a compassionate gesture, only to discover that it is a deceiving demon who has been secured there by Merlin to stop him halting the Grail seeker in his tracks.  Despite his pleading, Perceval gets him back under the stone and thrusts back the spike that held him there once more. Somehow this incident doesn’t upset or dismay us at all: a stock character who is bent on deceiving is all we have here, but when the deceiver is a human being, it is another matter.


A writer’s day  42 on Lost Book of the Grail 

Lost Book

The Chapel in the Park by David Jones

Medieval audiences enjoy a horror story as much as we do. The Perilous Chapel of the Grail legends is typical of the genre, with just a little touch of M.R.James. This one begins in the First Continuation and ends in the Third Continuation.

It is a dark and stormy night, lightning bolts strike on all sides as Gawain approaches a chapel at a great crossroads in the middle of the forest. Still on horseback, he goes in to shelter and finds a bare altar with a candlestick upon it which sheds a brilliant light. Through the window behind the altar comes a black and ghastly hand which clasps the candle and snuffs it out. A groaning voice  shakes the whole chapel. Gawain’s horse reads and throws him and he crosses himself, mounts awkwardly and rides swiftly away.

Much later on, Perceval has a similar visit to the Perilous Chapel and encounters the phantom black hand which comes out and extinguishes the candle in the chapel. He also escapes. On coming to a hermitage, he enquires of the hermit what this is all about. The hermit relates how, once upon a time, Queen Brangemor of Cornwall was the mother of cruel King Pinogres.  In reparation for this, she served as a nun between the hours of 6am-3pm every day at a chapel until her evil son beheaded her, burying her there. Subsequently, every day, any passing knight who goes into the Perilous Chapel is killed there: a phantom black hand comes out to extinguish the candle in the chapel, whereupon the thunderous noise kills them.  

But, says the hermit, in the chapel is a cupboard, wherein is a white veil that can stop this haunting. If it can be seized, plunged into holy water and the water sprinkled over the chapel, this will cease. Perceval bravely returns there and exorcises the chapel with the veil.  He also removes a dead and blackened corpse and returns to the hermit to have it buried. He is led to a cemetery where stand thousands of graves and the trees over them bearing the arms of those buried therein. The cemetery was made by Queen Brangemore before her son killed her, and every day a new knight has been buried in this place, all victims of the perilous chapel.

Perceval says he will read all the names on the marble slabs that miraculously cover the bodies of these knights. The hermit remarks that that will take him till midday, but Perceval is a slow reader, evidently, and remains reading the names until evening. But at least he can report back to the court of King Arthur, which of the Round Table knights have been killed there.

I own a print of the David Jones’ picture of the Chapel in the Park which in my shamanic studio, which I regard as a suitable image for the work that I do there: dealing with the ancestral trauma of things that repeat down the generations until they are put to bed. We also say the names of the dead aloud, like a medieval reader of tombs. Sleep well!

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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