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

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 43  on Lost Book of the Grail 

International Women’s Day is later this week. The pages of newspapers are full of items about both casual and premeditated violence to women. Unfortunately, neither is a new phenomenon, if the medieval texts were anything to go by.  The Arthurian legends are full of black-hearted knights who imprison ladies for their pleasure or pull maidens by their hair along the ground, fathers who slap their daughters bloody, partners who make their wives run around in a tatty frock and refuse to speak to them, and brothers who sleep with their sisters –  because it isn’t just archetypally nasty black knights who do all these things, but family members too!  A woman was always someone’s responsibility in medieval history: she was her father’s daughter, her brother’s sister, her husband’s wife or widow but never her own person, unless she was able to retain her dower and not get remarried off by another male relative desirous of getting his hands on her property by retiring her into a monastery. Being either an independent widow or an abbess was probably the most powerful thing to be.

In Chrétien’s Perceval, we are told that the safeguarding of women was a point of honour, ‘in King Arthur’s land girls are protected; the king has given them a safeguard, and watches over them and ensures their safe conduct.’ Indeed, it was the measure of a civilization in medieval times that a woman could travel the whole country from end to end with treasure about her person and not be molested.

I already see that this fact doesn’t impress many women, who would probably lump King Arthur’s Britain in with UAE and its anti-feminist stance.  At best it seems paternalistic and at worst manipulative. But stop! Who was reading or hearing these stories?  The Arthurian legends were the pulp fiction of their day. Women were at least half of the audience and, though the art of chivalry is well represented with tournaments for the sports-mad men of the day (Malory’s Book of Tristan is entirely full of what T.H.White called ‘the batting averages’ of more jousts that an entire month of sporting Saturdays could yield), the other half of the stories were about love and the deeds we do or suffer for love. 

The measure of civilization is still the same today: that anyone should be able to travel the length and breadth of the land without being attacked, raped or robbed.  But we are wiser today in knowing that violence starts and continues in the home, the place where women and children should feel safest. 

It is not all bad news, there are also those who are aware of the problem. As one of the many nameless hermits advizes the headstrong Perceval, ‘A man without gentleness and kindness in his heart cannot last long.’ He is speaking to a man who, inadvertently, kills his own mother, for she falls down dead with grief at losing him at the outset of the quest. It changes Perceval’s outlook. 

The Arthurian legends played their part in revealing the notion that, casual or premeditated, violence to women was unacceptable.  In 1371 Geoffrey de la Tour Landry wrote a book for his three motherless daughters, being fully aware that ‘ther be suche felawes now or worse, and there be still men’ of violence and lords who ‘wolde have a gentil-woman, bi faire or be force, for to do his foule lust with her.’ Caxton printed a copy of this book in June 1483, the month that Richard III was crowned, but it was a popular book throughout Europe for a century before that.  As Geoffrey wrote, ‘it is a good, noble and a faire thinge for a man or a woman to see and beholde hemself in the mirror of stories, the which hath been written by oure aunsetters forto they give us good ensaumples that they dide, to live and to eschewe the evil.’  As it says in Gerbert de Montreuil’s Grail Continuation: ‘Blessed be the man who cares for his wife or  his sweetheart, and loves her dearly, and can call himself a loyal friend; blessed be that kind of loving.’ 


A writer’s day  44 on Lost Book of the Grail 

Is there such a thing as Grail magic? Well, the only instance I have come across that might merit the definition is an incident in one of the Continuations where Perceval is beset up a series of demonic happenings.  The usual and standard method of clearing the atmosphere is to sign oneself with the cross in the Grail legends which causes castles to melt, beautiful maidens to dissolve into nasty hags and phantom horses to revert to vapour.  Perceval resorts just the once to a magic circle before sleeping. He draws a circle in the ground with his sword around where he and his horse have encamped, whereon he lies down, fearing nothing and sleeps securely till dawn.

All Perceval has done here is create a proper boundary and reinforce it with prayer.  The breaking of boundaries is what most people suffer from: that or their neglect of boundaries that should be kept firm. If I could have a five pound note for everyone who’s told me that they are ‘under psychic attack,’ I would be a rich woman.  When I first started to see clients in my shamanic healing practice, I was initially cautious about endorsing such fearful diagnoses lest I be encouraging paranoia, for the people who complained of psychic attack would be in a state bordering panic when they phoned me. Over time, I’ve learned that what most people call ‘psychic attack’ is actually psychic disruption: the disturbance of the soul. * Psychic disruption is the displacement or loss of soul or else an invasion taking place in the soul. We experience a sense of abnormality in which something is either missing from our being, or something alien has become part of it. Something essential has gone or something unwelcome has come. This may be accompanied by feelings of intense unease, self-doubt, fear or panic.  Psychic disruption is about change or confusion in the soul: it may originate from without or from within ourselves.  

Our world needs a whole new look at spiritual health for, unless we look after our souls as much as we look after our bodies, we will be ruled by fear and suspicion rather than living with confidence and strength.  Being clear with our boundaries for ourselves and for others is the best preventative, as Perceval clearly realises.

(*My book, Psychic Protection Handbook (Little Brown) looks at how we can bring our lives into better array from the point of prevention – how we cause it – as well as defence – how we suffer from it.  It’s no 53 on this list if you want a copy.


A writer’s day  45 on Lost Book of the Grail

I ask this question as someone who’s tried to be gluten free in periods over the last few months. The thing that never works, try as we might look for it, is bread. I’ve been keeping up a campaign around the major supermarkets for in-store bakeries to make fresh gluten-free bread, because I think they would clean up – so many people have wheat allergy or other problems which are probably not unrelated to the amount of insecticide and other nasty things that get sprayed on grain these days.  Nothing is like bread but real bread, sorry! It seems I am not the only one who complains.

When Perceval comes to stay at a hermitage where a reserve* of hermits live very frugally, they cut the loaf made for dinner into thirteen pieces, but we are told that the bread isn’t made of wheat. Perceval joins them but eats little, ‘for he had nothing to his liking and didn’t relish the bread.’ When you’re on quest some food is better than no food, I would agree, but you cannot substitute anything for real bread.  

Now very poor people make bread out of all kinds of substances: during a famine, acorn flour is highly esteemed, for example. For the people of besieged Leningrad, a siege lasted for a total of 900 days  from September 8 1941 until January 27 1944, anything and everything became edible, including bread made of boiled up book pages or scrapings of furniture, or things we don’t want to imagine here.

Three millennia of grain production have rendered us partial to a good loaf, but what passes for bread isn’t always real bread, in my book: the packet, sliced loaf isn’t really bread, is it?  A few years ago, I was interviewed ahead of a writer’s conference so that the answers might be printed in the conference brochure; among the many amusing and hypothetical questions, one of which was ‘what would be your first act on becoming prime minister?’ No contest for me, ‘A loaf of freshly baked bread delivered  everyone’s doorstep,’ to remind people what bread really was.  (They would have to obtain their own circuses, mind you!) My sympathies are entirely with Perceval.  

(* What do  you call a collection of hermits? A reserve of hermits is my suggestion, but do add your own!)

Grail 6


A writer’s day 46 on Lost Book of the Grail

While driving today, I caught the announcement of the BBC’s ‘Get Creative’ challenge, to get people using their creative skills: this is in the face of the many governmental cut-backs that are happening all over the country, as funding for the arts is withdrawn and basic survival takes over.  The impoverishment that faces those who run opera houses and art galleries is truly frightening, but what the local drama groups, outreach centres and small arts projects suffer is just as awful. On the radio they were asking, ‘what have the arts done for you? The immediate answer for me is ‘nourish my soul,’ without doubt. 

 I was immediately remembering the Irish text, Cormac’s Adventures in the Otherworld where King Cormac, in search of his lost family, enters the otherworld and sees many wondrous things, including:

in the enclosure a shining fountain, with five streams flowing out of it, and the hosts in turn drinking the water. Nine hazels of Búan grew over the well. The purple hazels dropped their nuts into the fountain and sent their husks floating down the streams. Now the sound of the falling of those streams was more melodious than any music that men sing

Later on, he is told the meaning of these are ‘the five streams of the senses,’ by which inspiration flows out into the world. They are also the five senses by which we understand and appreciate inspiration which can be woven into many forms: the textures of plastic arts, the taste and smell of the edible arts, the sound of the oral arts and  the sight of their appearance and shape.  There is no art that does not partake of these.  Our five senses take inspiration into every pore.

So who is the Búan of the nine hazels of Búan? Búan in Old Irish means ‘lasting, enduring, constant, firm, persevering,’ which is how the arts appear to us. This ancient figure is beyond mythology, so ancient we have no deeds. She is known as  the mother of Baile Binnbérlach, a name which means ‘vision of the clear voice.’  When Baile died, a yew tree grew from his grave and poets and seers cut slips of the tree to make tablets for writing.  If you live in the country, you know that hazel is a renewal resource, however many times you cut it down for coppicing withies, it grows back, and this is what we all hope will be so with the arts in this country.

As someone whose Grail dreams are scrambling in through every possible gap, I hardly need to be challenged right now. From 2-7am, I am getting solutions to the wasteland on all channels, which is wonderful, but hardly conducive to deep sleep, as it’s too exciting.  But as long as the inspirational waters flow, I will be listening.


A writer’s day  47 on Lost Book of the Grail

Listening the other day to the novelist, *Kazuo Ishiguro,  I was heartened to hear him speak quite normally about stories that we set aside when we’re writing them, because we cannot find solutions to the dilemmas and scenarios that  the characters are in at the present time.  Writers often set stories aside for years, well,  I know I do.  A window opens, you take notes, you research the background and observe how characters seem to arrive, then suddenly, when everything gets into motion, you find the next bit isn’t there, like being in a department store where the escalators suddenly stop and there is no way to get to the floor you wish to visit: no stairs, no lift, nothing.

This is a process that we see at work throughout the Grail Continuations which, if you remember, continue where another writer left off – each obviously marooned in a place where the story had stuck.  The Third Continuation is the one that has least plotting and most explanation, where we get to hear the solutions to the mysterious parts of the legend that previous authors couldn’t quite reach.  Rather like the dénouement of a detective novel, where the Inspector corrals the inhabitants and guests at big country house, we hear the back story of why the sword was broken, how the chapel came to be so perilous, why the Fisher King is in a bad way and a host of other unravellings.  In fact, the Third Continuation is like the last act of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, which has the longest unravelling of any of his plays.

I have lots of novels in development and novel-stubs that have been set aside for the same reason. I cannot yet see the way through to plotting difficulties and I know that these will resolve another time. If it takes a few years, so be it. This will stagger non-writers and those who work out plots ahead of time, but I am listening to the characters when I plot and they know what needs to happen, not I.  In the early Grail legends, I believe that this is why the plotting is episodically loose, because the main Grail seeker is Perceval, an unformed, uneducated and so tabula rasa youth who meanders through his quest without much forethought. Leaving things be and returning periodically to them is the state of play. When we have lived a little more life, we can return via a different approach and see what, a few years earlier was impossible to discern. It just takes an accepting patience.

*Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant, is set in an Arthurian world. John is currently finishing it and finding it awfully odd, suggesting that it should have been set aside a while longer, perhaps?


A writer’s day  48 on Lost Book of the Grail

In Chrétien’s Perceval, we hear how Perceval, failing to ask the Grail Question, meets with a young woman who rigorously puts him through a catechism of what he saw and remembered from the Grail procession. The results, like those of a spot test at school, are unpromising. The young woman finally asks him his name. On this point, Perceval is so flummoxed, he can barely get it out: ‘Perceval the Welshman.’ The young woman immediately proclaims angrily, ‘Well, your name is changed!’ ‘What to?’ he asks. ‘Perceval the wretched, luckless Perceval!’  She then proceeds to tell him that, had he had his wits about him, he would have healed the wounded king and what else is wrong with him while she is about it.  Up till this point, he has just been plain Perceval, but now?

(In another later Grail texts, Perceval will become known as Perlesvaux or ‘He who loses the Valley,’ but that’s a story for another time.)

We all remember how our name can become a term of reproof – it is one of the reasons lots of people hate their birth name, as it was used throughout their childhood in this way.  Others are simply called bad names that become reflections of a reputation they are supposed to possess. Some people can stand it no longer or, on adulthood, change their names by deed poll, so that their new identity expunges that reproof.  Recognising who we each really are is a skill, just as naming a child appropriately to their nature.  We all know people whom we repeatedly call by the wrong name because they ‘look like’ a name. I know a Paul who is definitely a Peter in demeanour, for example. No matter how many years I’ve known him, the other name still comes to my lips.

Changing your name is a perilous occupation because it has to recognize who you really are.  It must be said that there are some aspirational name-changings that are frankly embarrassing: how do we deal with a friend called Laura who decides that she is now going to be known as ‘Daisy Moon-Flower,’ for example? Hope that it is just a phase she is going through and that this, too, will change?

Perceval’s name change to ‘Perceval the wretch’ is likewise not a permanent one. Although it remains the thing everyone remembers about him for quite a bit, at the other end of the Grail Continuations, someone recognizes Perceval in quite another way. The ugliest woman in the world, an unnamed hag who seems quite deformed and loathsome to Perceval, knows immediately who is: ‘Your name is Perceval.’ She also reminds him of his undone task of asking the right questions about the Grail procession and then, because he has discovered the secret balm that she carries in two casks, says.’ You are rightly called Perceval, for you have pierced the vale and plundered the place where the balm is kept.’  She also swears never to reveal one piece of information about the Grail to him, ever.

But this literal rendition of Perceval as ‘Pierce-the-vale’ does him justice; it truly discerns who he really is. And when someone sees who you are, it can have another result: for you are now someone who can achieve something everyone said you wouldn’t.  Which is precisely what happens. 


A writer’s day 49 on Lost Book of the Grail

In the course of writing a book, one’s mind continually seeks the support of other books that nourish that journey. Like the clothes we put on in the morning, these books proclaim our mood on that trek. Of course, there are some books that become us better than others.  On this journey most of the books are in French, although one or two are Welsh: all medieval. We travel well together.

‘Becoming the book’ has another resonance for me, brought sharply into focus by certain images in the news. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 presented a world where all books were banned, and so subversives had to ‘become the book’ they loved best by memorising it. When together, the book memorizers would introduce themselves as ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Alice in Wonderland’. If that time came again, as is even now happening in Syria and places where ISIL are confiscating and burning the books (as well as people), which book would you choose to be? I would be happy to be the Elucidation, personally, and maybe The Eagle of the Ninth or Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff, which are books I read again and again. 

A writer becomes the book she is writing, imperceptibly at first and then more and more obviously: you see it in the turns of speech, the mode of approach, the steadily growing obsession with all things to do with its topic.  In the past, especially with fiction, I’ve found that this obsession becomes distilled by the characters who dictate the book: like an actor taking on a part, I find that the main or guiding character leads the way and I am subsumed in him or her. I start wearing garments that he or she wears, and the mannerisms and turns of speech also subtly elide with mine. With non-fiction it is not so obvious, perhaps, but nevertheless there.   

I’ve been teaching or with clients for the last few days and so I now happily re-assume the colouration of Lost Book of the Grail, back in the battered garments that belong to questing, alert once again to the signs that take me along the way.  I can become this book in uninterrupted mode for the rest of the month now.

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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