“The Grail: Cup, Stone – Santo Caliz? – and the Inklings?” by David Llewellyn Dodds

As I add one last little paper to our ‘baker’s dozen’ of contributions, I look back on them, and the comments by many and varied further hands, with gratitude and delight. It seems appropriate that I return to a central part of the subject of our first contributor, Suzanne Bray, which has, of course turned upon regularly throughout the series, whether, for example, in Emily Austin’s account of her cover design, or Grevel Lindop’s of Williams’s early epic ‘treasury’ of materials and plans: the Grail. I do so in a shorter but broader, updated variant of a paper in one of the later issues of The Charles Williams Society Quarterly which have not yet been added to the trove of 127 so handily available on their website.

David Llewellyn Dodds, Guest Editor

In a very interesting letter of 26 September 1960 to the late Father Peter Milward (1925-2017), C.S. Lewis’s writes, among other things, of

“the (really senseless) question ‘What is the Grail? ’ The Grail is in each romance just what the romance exhibits it to be. There is no ‘Grail’ over and above these ‘Grails’.”

This in the context of proposing

“The whole (unconscious) effort of the orthodox scholars is to remove the individual author and individual romance”,

after having remarked,

“We have a number of romances which introduce the Grail and are not consistent with one another. No theory as to the ultimate origin is more than speculative…. Each story is told by an individual, voluntarily, with a unique artistic purpose. Hence the real germination goes on where historical, theological, or anthropological studies can never reach it – in the mind of some man of genius, like Chrétien or Wolfram.”

To take those two, Chrétien’s unfinished Perceval and Wolfram’s Parzival, how mutually consistent, or not, may they be? Chrétien describes the “grail” as “made of fine, pure gold” set with “stones of many kinds”, “the richest and most precious” in the world, while Wolfram calls the “Grâl” itself a “stein” – but what does ‘stone’ mean, here?

What might be called the main French tradition from at least Robert de Boron on, which continued into English, most notably in Malory, saw Chrétien’s Grail as the Cup of the Last Supper. So, for what it is worth, did Wagner in his Parsifal (already admired by the 16-year-old Lewis). And, this seems Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of Wolfram in his 1909 lecture, “The European Mysteries and Their Initiates” as published in English translation in the Michaelmas 1929 edition of Anthroposophy: A Quarterly Review.

Some, however, have taken Wolfram’s ‘stone’ to have nothing to do with that Cup and to designate something quite different – such as Otto Rahn, whose Crusade Against the Grail (1933) caught the approving eye of Himmler (ultimately with deadly result for Rahn). And A.E. Waite, in typically cryptic fashion, in The Secret Doctrine in Israel (1913), discussing the stone Schethiyâ , inscribed with the Divine Name and cast by God into the abyss to form the basis and be the central point of the world, says that it is

“like the lapis exilis of the German Graal legend, for it appears to be a slight stone”.

I suspect Charles Williams is playing with this, in making his second novel published, Many Dimensions (1931), a sort of sequel to its predecessor, War in Heaven (1930). These have only one character in common, Sir Giles Tumulty, but in the former a sort of prophecy is spoken of him by Prester John in terms of the Graal Cup which seems to be fulfilled in the latter in terms of the Stone from the Crown of Solomon – a Stone which is also said to have been set in a Sword wielded by Charlemagne.

Thus Williams playing with Grail Cup and Grail Stone seems very quietly to unite the Matters of Britain and France, with Solomon in the background, as he is (in other ways) in more than one mediaeval Grail romance – notably in Malory (something Williams will take up in his Arthurian poetry later in the decade, with another relic, the Ship of Solomon).

In 2003, Michael Hesemann published a book, unfortunately not yet available in English translation, Die Entdeckung des Heiligen Grals [The Discovery of the Holy Grail] – fortunately, he has very kindly supplied me with a lucid brief English summary of its matter. He notes that in Parzival,

“Wolfram calls the Grail a ‘stein’, which can mean both, a stone or a stone vessel in mediaeval German”,

and, of a description in Book 9 of the poem, that this

“resembles the presentation of both forms of the Blessed Sacrament by a priest” – pointing to the Grâl there being “a Mass chalice of stone”.

He further argues (without neglecting unique artistic purposes) that both Chrétien’s and Wolfram’s romances are concerned with an actual stone Cup now set in gold adorned with gems which has a very good claim to being indeed the Chalice of the Last Supper.

It is housed in the Cathedral of Valencia and known in Spanish as the Santo Caliz. Michael Hesemann is not the only scholar who has recently studied it in detail: it is also the subject of St. Laurence and the Holy Grail: The Story of the Holy Chalice of Valencia (2004), by Janice Bennett. Both of them can be seen in a 2015 documentary focusing on her work: The Chalice of Valencia, in the series Raiders of the Lost Past (UK)/Myth Hunters (US), which is attached below.

The movements of the Holy Chalice in Spain over many centuries are described in detail in various sources, and it has had its adventures in recent ones. For example, on the morning of 21 July 1936, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the Cathedral authorities in Valencia decided that it was prudent to bring the Holy Chalice into hiding. Elias Olmos Canalda, the Archivist Canon of the Cathedral, together with another of the clergy, both disguised, helped a laywoman, Maria Sabina Suey Vanaclocha, to bring it, wrapped in newspaper, to her house – three hours before the Cathedral was indeed attacked, looted, and set on fire, with iconoclastic violence, but also with concerted efforts to discover the whereabouts of the Santo Caliz – a veritable “attempt on the Graal” (to apply words from War in Heaven) – meeting, however, with no success. On 28 July the Republican Government declared the confiscation of all religious property. It was open season on the ‘Grail’, indefinitely.

The Holy Chalice was variously hidden – for example, under the cushions of a sofa – and in a secret compartment of a wardrobe (!). But, when two more “attempts” were made by vigorously searching its guardian’s house, it remained undetected (and later spent time in hiding at more distant family locations). So it continued in safety until the end of the war, after which it was, once more, thanks to its faithful guardian, in the words of Professor Dr. Salvador Antuñano Alea,

“solemnly given to the chapter on Holy Thursday, April 9, 1939, and was installed in its reconstructed chapel on May 23, 1943”,

the Fourth Sunday after Easter that year, when all those using the Roman Missal were united in prayer to God Who

“callest us to have part in that One and Most High Godhead Which is Thyself”.

While the fine details were presumably not publicly known until after the end of the Spanish Civil War – with Como Fue Salvado el Santo Caliz de la Cena: Rutas del Santo Grial desde Jerusalén a Valencia by Elias Olmos Canalda only published in 1946 – the attack on the Cathedral, and quite possibly also the return of the Holy Chalice and its reinstallation, would presumably have been in the news, in England as well.

But – tantalizing question! – did any of the Inklings ever read or hear anything of the Santo Caliz?

Tolkien’s first meeting with Roy Campbell would seem a likely opportunity for it to be discussed. He wrote to his son, Christopher, on Sunday, 6 October 1944 (Letter 83), “On Tuesday at noon I looked into the Bird and B. with C. Williams” – and “found Jack and Warnie already ensconced” with someone who turned out to be Campbell. This was followed by an evening together in Lewis’s rooms on the Thursday. He says, “If I could remember all that I heard […] it would fill several airletters.” But while the details of the Spanish Civil War which he notes include Campbell finding “St. Teresa’s hand with all its jewels” on a general’s table, after it had been looted – and abandoned in hasty retreat – there is no mention of the Grail. Then again, that does not mean it was not discussed.

In any case, I have not yet encountered any positive reference to the Santo Caliz by Williams, Tolkien, Barfield, Dyson, or the Lewis brothers (or any other Inkling). But perhaps someone else has – and can enlighten the rest of us.

Meanwhile, we might recall an earlier sentence from Lewis’s letter to Peter Milward:

“I think it is important to keep on remembering that a question can be v. interesting without being answerable and one of my main efforts as a teacher has been to train people to say those (apparently difficult) words, ‘We don’t know’.”

While we can also apply this to the identification of the Santo Caliz with the Cup of the Last Supper, and as a source of Grail romances, we can recall as well Archdeacon Julian Davenant both saying (War in Heaven, ch. 3),

“In one sense, of course, the Graal is unimportant – it is a symbol less near Reality now than any chalice of consecrated wine”

and also (in a style reminiscent of the Lady Julian of Norwich) praying (ch. 4),

“Ah, fair sweet Lord, […] let me keep this Thy vessel, if it be Thy vessel; for love’s sake, fair Lord, if Thou hast held it in Thy hands, let me take it into mine. And, if not, let me be courteous still to it for Thy sake, courteous Lord; since this might well have been that, and that was touched by Thee.”

David Llewellyn Dodds has edited the Charles Williams and John Masefield volumes of Boydell & Brewer’s Arthurian Poets series, the first while President of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, living at and looking after The Kilns. His most recent publication is “‘Tolkien’s Narnia’?: Lit., Lang., Saints, Tinfang, and a Mythology – or two – for Christmas”, in Tolkien Among Scholars (Lembas Extra 2016). He is currently editing  Charles Williams’s Arthurian Commonplace Book, and an early cycle of Arthurian poetry, The Advent of Galahad,  for publication (with tortoise-like slowness, if not steadiness).

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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26 Responses to “The Grail: Cup, Stone – Santo Caliz? – and the Inklings?” by David Llewellyn Dodds

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    How delightful that photo of Valencia Cathedral with the 1976 Turia Fountain by Manuel Silvestre Montesinos (Silvestre de Edeta) in the foreground looks on this scale – thank you! That statue of the River Turia in Person holding up the Cornucopia makes me think of chapters 14-15 of Lewis’s Prince Caspian with their illustrations and of the iconography of the Baptism of Our Lord which includes the River Jordan in Person: quite an appropriate (and Inklings-y) juxtaposition, it seems to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Even more than any of the other Narnian chronicles, it is Horse and His Boy that I find most Mediterranean. But although Lewis was trying to capture pre-Mulsim Arabic lands, Tashbaan still pops in my head with the Spanish and Greek churches and their courts.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        My memory of it is bright and bathed in southern sun in much the same way (it would be interesting to check descriptive details).


        • Yes–the desert stuff all fits Arabia/Persia. But for some reasons the buildings are to me less golden brown than dark brown. Just my Mediterranean misreading perhaps.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            You open a tantalizing world of architectural history and imagination and depiction! For instance, how have ancient scenes been depicted in the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ and by illustrators and painters – and storytellers – over the past couple centuries? And I remember reading somewhere – maybe Norman Baynes’s The Byzantine Empire (Home University Library)? – or Runciman? – about early Islamic architectural debts to Armenian sources.

            And then, in the long Narnian history, what did the Calormene ancestors bring from our world in the way of ‘architectural ideas’ and what did the Calormenes discover (for practical and aesthetic reasons) – or borrow – throughout the course of the rise of their civilization?


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      While I was doing my ablutions today here in the (temporarily?) summery Netherlands, T.S. Eliot’s lines suddenly came to mind in a new way: “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river / Is a strong brown god” (‘The Dry Salvages’, I)!


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    As an sort of little appendix on something I have never yet sufficiently attended to, I will say something about the Antioch Chalice, the first vessel appearing in a photo above – of silver, with a richly decorated exterior. It was supposed to have been discovered “in a well in Antioch, on the Orantes in Syria, in 1910” (to quote Gustavus A. Eisen, in his 1916 “Preliminary Report” in the American Journal of Archaeology). The simpler, inner Cup was taken to be a relic (enshrined in the richer, outer shell, then dated to the mid- to late-First century A.D.), and, indeed, by many, “was then ambitiously identified as the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper” (in the words of its Metropolitan Museum online description).

    It seems to have enjoyed an international fame during the the early decades of the century – for example, Sir Martin Conway wrote an article on it for the Burlington Magazine (London) in September 1924 – so it’s quite possible the future Inklings knew of it, and even that Williams was playing with it in War in Heaven (first drafted in 1925-26) in having a simple silver Cup suddenly turn up and be identified as the Graal in the Twentieth-century. The Wikipediast writes, “It was displayed as the Holy Grail at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933”.

    In 1950, it was sold to The Cloisters – where (among countless other people) I later saw it. As far as I recall, I knew to look for it there thanks to reading the cover of a historical novel I have never yet got around to reading (!), Thomas B. Costain’s The Silver Chalice (1952). Nor, so far as I know, great fan of Biblical films though I am, have I ever seen the 1954 movie version of the same name. Of course, any of the Lewises, Tolkien, Dyson, and Barfield could have done either or both – but, again, I am not aware of any Inklings references to the Antioch Chalice or its fictional career. (The Wikipedia summary suggests The Silver Chalice would be interesting to compare with Williams’s April 1940 play, Terror of Light, in its depiction of both the Apostles and Simon Magus and his female companion!)

    Interestingly, in an interview, Janice Bennett is quoted as saying that, while, by the sixteenth century about twenty different cups were claimed to be the Cup of the Last Supper,
    “today none of these are considered authentic — with the exception of the Holy Chalice of Valencia and the silver cup of Antioch. The cup of Antioch has a two-liter capacity and is much too large to have been passed around the table of the Last Supper for the Eucharist. What is interesting, however, is the fact that St. Jerome mentions that there were two cups on the table of the Last Supper, a silver cup that held the wine for the meal, and one of stone that was used for the institution of the Eucharist. Only the Holy Chalice of Valencia, with its upper cup of agate stone, fits St. Jerome’s description of the cup used by Christ for the consecration.” (The ‘Met’ seems today to favor a date of “500-550” and “its shape […] as more closely resembling sixth-century standing lamps” for “The Antioch ‘Chalice'”: the detailed case for which i have not yet seen!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is very cool, David. Thanks for enlightening the blog with your thoughts.
      I grew up as an irreligious child in a heathen family (now I’m an irreligious Christian in a religious family). But as a child I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Indy’s choice of the cup–the real grail chalice–is a theological principle that has stayed with me since then. Isn’t the chalice of the Christ’s blood as earthy and humble as the Christ’s manger?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Yes, but I think that means it might have been as fancy as the vessel containing the ointment with which the woman anointed Jesus at the meal (Matthew 26:7; Mark 14:3, Luke 7:37) – though just how fancy that was seems to be open to interpretation. Florentine Bechtel, in the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia article, “Alabaster”, writes, “Among the ancients Oriental alabaster was frequently used for vases to hold unguents, in the belief that it preserved them; whence the vases were called alabasters, even when made of other materials”, adding of those verses, “The vase, however, though probably of alabaster, was not necessarily of that material”.

        I love that passage from the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp: “we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom” (ch. 18, Roberts and Donaldson translation) – with the obvious gorgeousness of a reliquary often pointing to the less apparent exalting of the earthy and humble.


        • And I suppose is there is a patron like Joseph of Arimathea around to offer a burial site–and a tomb would be far more costly than a bejewelled cup or plate–it might not be that crazy of an idea that there’s some nice china kicking around.
          Still … I am a doubter.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Since this post went up on what was once the Feast of St. Joseph as Guardian of the Universal Church in the Roman calendar, I will add something from my erstwhile newsletter calendar notes: “Joseph, of whom all that is certainly know is written in the Gospels (Sts. Matt. 1-2, & 13:55; Luke 1-2, & 4:22; John 6:42, and Mark 6:3) was of the house of David, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and foster-father of Our Lord. His profession, ‘tekton’, mentioned twice, was understood by St. Justin Martyr (165: 14 Apr, & 1 June), for example, to mean a ‘carpenter’, and he says, Jesus ‘was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes’ (Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 88). And it has long been usually so understood. But scholars have pointed out its range of meaning includes an artisan in various materials including wood (even, a ‘shipwright’), stone, or metal. It could be associated with poverty or wealth. And Jewish scholars have pointed out that in somewhat later, Talmudic use, ‘(son of a) carpenter [‘naggar’]’, could be used to designate a very learned and wise man.” I was first made aware of the ‘tekton’ discussion by a documentary in which someone was speculating about the possibility of the Holy Family’s contacts with Zippori/Sepphoris – and see that at the moment its Wikipedia article includes “It has been suggested that Jesus, while living in Nazareth, may have worked as a craftsman at Sepphoris”.


  3. joviator says:

    I’m delighted by the thought that the Holy Grail might be a beer stein. A bunch of Arthurian scenes just got turned around in my mind’s eye, and Parsifal may never recover. Therefore, I went and searched Google Books for anything that might contain both phrases. The first hit was, “The Stanley Cup is both the Holy Grail and a beer stein.”

    It is fitting and proper that this series should wind up in Canada.

    Liked by 2 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’ve been lazily wondering about that sense of “stein” – I supposed it had to do with ‘stoneware’, and, the Wikipediast says it does – but also, though ‘stoneware’ is ‘Steinzeug’ in German – that “Beer stein […], or simply stein, is an English neologism […]. In German, the word stein means stone and is not used to refer to a beverage container”! (The corresponding German Wikipedia article does list ‘Steinkrug’ among the various names for it…)

      Till I got reading up, I had not realized two more Canadian connections – Costain was a Canadian citizen for his first 35 years, and The Silver Chalice (1954) was Lorne Greene’s first movie rôle – as St. Peter! George Grant and Lorne Greene knew each other as undergraduates at Queen’s University, and Grant went on to be active in the Socratic Club, so that’s one intermediary between Greene and the Inklings, as well!

      Liked by 2 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      One of my high-school Latin teachers told us when he was younger he and his friends had got hold of what was supposed to be an ancient Egyptian beer recipe – and the result was awful. But it makes me wonder who drank beer out of which vessels, where, in antiquity – would the ‘Grail-class’ fancy stone cups have been reserved for wine, or might beer have been equally likely in the ordinary way of things?

      Liked by 1 person

      • joviator says:

        I’m told that prehistoric beer is closer to porridge than beverage. This goes very well with the debate over whether the Grail was a cup or a plate.


        • Gross. Still, given the water most people have access to in urban areas, a little fermentation would do the body good.

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:


            Is Stephanie Pappas’s 2014 article, “Ancient Nordic Grog Intoxicated the Elite”, one of the sorts of things you were thinking of?:


            “‘You’d think, with all these different ingredients, it sort of makes your stomach churn,’ McGovern, the study’s lead author, told LiveScience. ‘But actually, if you put it in the right amounts and balance out the ingredients, it really does taste very good.'” And a lot of the evidence concerns (imported) strainers!

            When my Inklings Gesellschaft friends, Barbara and Christian Rendel, were visiting at The Kilns, and I was lamenting how difficult it was to get sourdough rye-bread in
            England, Barbara taught me how easily you could make a rye-flour and water pap and set it for a while in the open air to catch useful natural yeasts… But when I helped Clive Tolley with his wine-making experiments there (including pure grape wine from the Kilns vines), we used commercial yeasts.

            Liked by 1 person

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Wow – ‘Archaeologists discover bread that predates agriculture by 4,000 years’!

              Professor Dorian Fuller: “Bread involves labour intensive processing which includes dehusking, grinding of cereals and kneading and baking. That it was produced before farming methods suggests it was seen as special, and the desire to make more of this special food probably contributed to the decision to begin to cultivate cereals.”


              I feel confident that David Jones would have loved this, from his attention to the prehistoric pottery origins of the Grail in Anathemata (a long poem Lewis mentions in his Cambridge inaugural lecture).


              • We are definitely in an “ancient grains” revival. My wife and I went to dinner with her brother and his wife–both of whom are highly gluten intolerant (I’d say the disease but I can’t spell it). However, the chef encouraged them to try their bread, made with old-sourced grains that they have grown on their local farm. And they were fine! We had a woman who would break out in a rash if she had our church’s communion, just a tiny speck of bread. We changed the recipe to gluten-free, but perhaps we should go pre-historic!


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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    When I just saw a headline about an ‘Underwater Robot’ discovering “‘Holy Grail’ Shipwreck”, I thought, ‘Huh? Is there another ‘contender’ to be the Grail, and one long lost beneath the sea among “$17 Billion in Treasure”?’ But it was ‘the popular expression’: the San José, which “went down with a treasure of gold, silver, and emeralds in 1708 during a battle with British ships in the War of Spanish Succession”, is “often called the ‘holy grail of shipwrecks'” – I suppose because it’s existence and richness were known, but its whereabouts mysterious:


    Liked by 1 person

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I see from John Garth’s site that José Manuel Ferrandez-Bru’s “Uncle Curro”: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Spanish Connection (Luna Press) has just been published – I wonder if it includes any reference to the Santo Caliz?

    Liked by 1 person

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