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
“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).