The Horn of Plenty


The Grail is variously described as a cup or deep dish. In the earlier Grail romances, the word graal is not explained, perhaps because the readers could be expected to be familiar with the word. Less than fifty years before Chrétien wrote his poem, the monk Helinand defined the similar word gradale as meaning scutella lata et aliquantulum profunda, a wide and slightly deep dish. Only later, in Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, was the Grail identified with a cup or chalice.

One of the characteristic properties of the Grail is the provision of food and drink. According to Manessier's Continuation, as the Grail procession passes through the hall, the tables are filled on every side with the most delectable dishes. Although Wolfram's Grail is a stone rather than a dish or cup, it too has this property: whatever one stretched one's hand out for in the presence of the Grail, it was waiting, one found it all ready and to hand - dishes warm, dishes cold, newfangled dishes and old favourites, the meat of beasts both tame and wild ... Clearly the Grail is related to the horn of plenty or ambrosial cup found in various mythologies — such as the Horn of Brân, one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain — although it never appears in any of the romances as a horn.

Image: procession at the Grail Castle
The procession seen by Gawain at the Grail Castle, in one of its many variants, with the grail (depicted as a ciborium), the bleeding lance and a sword (on the bier).

The Body

R .S.Loomis held that several of the strange features of the Grail romances had arisen as a result of mistranslation or the misunderstanding of ambiguous words in various texts. He pointed out that the Old French nominative case for both "horn" and "body" were the same: li cors; and he suggested that this might explain the remarkable feature of a graal, or wide and deep dish, containing a single consecrated wafer, the Corpus Christi. He suggested that originally this might have been a magic horn. Another possibility is that this is a development from the body of the dead knight, a feature of Gawain's visits to the Grail castle; in the First Continuation, for example, the body is carried on a bier in the Grail procession. So there are three possible variations on li cors:

  • The horn of plenty: possibly the original of the Grail, forgotten or rejected before any of the surviving Grail romances was written.
  • The body of the knight: which is a feature of several "Gawain versions" of the story, which J.L. Weston considered to have been derived from a version preceding the "Perceval versions".
  • The body of Christ, a consecrated wafer: which, carried on a broad dish, is the otherwise inexplicable feature of Chrétien's version of the story and those accounts that derived from it. Perhaps explained by Loomis' theory that li cors had been misunderstood.

The mystery that Perceval does not understand, in Chrétien's version of the story, is simply that the consecrated wafer is carried through the room in a strange procession to a door through which the Quester gets only a glimpse of an old king. It is later revealed that this person is the father (prototype of Wagner's Titurel) of the Maimed King (prototype of Wagner's Amfortas), who is kept alive by the wafer that is served from the Grail. For scholars, the mystery has been why a large dish was needed for this purpose; to which Loomis' theory provides a possible explanation.

The Grail Castle

As the genre of Grail romances developed, elements of Chrétien's story were modified and combined with other material, including Celtic traditions that Loomis identified in stories from Welsh and Irish mythology. A common feature in these varied romances is the Grail castle, which in all its variations is somewhere not of this world, even if it is, perhaps temporarily, in this world. It is of the essence that the Grail castle is hidden; it cannot be found simply by seeking it. Usually the Grail castle is surrounded by water; in addition it might be hidden in a mist, or in the depths of a pathless forest. Usually there is a river that must be crossed to reach the Grail castle; in one instance it is approached along a narrow causeway. It is not difficult to see the origins of this castle in the Otherworld palaces of Irish mythology or in a Celtic Underworld.

Whereas only one person was kept alive by the wafer, in Chrétien's story, other authors made it (more or less) clear that the entire community was kept alive — and perhaps also kept young and healthy — by the regenerative power of the Grail. In Chrétien's story, a banquet is served but it is not stated that the food and drink has been provided by the Grail. In later romances, it is usually stated that the food and drink appears as the Grail passes through the hall. In some of the romances, the Grail provides the guest with his favourite food and drink. What is certain is that the Grail became interpreted both as a fountain of eternal youth and as a cornucopia; what is less certain is whether these elements were drawn from an earlier poem or an oral tradition in which the magic castle contained a fountain of youth or a horn of plenty.

The Failure of Sir Gawaine: Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris
Above: The Failure of Sir Gawaine: Sir Gawaine and Sir Uwaine at the Ruined Chapel. Tapestry after a design by Edward Burne-Jones, woven by William Morris, 1896.

The Decline of Gawain

Reading the Grail romances, one can become sorry for poor Gawain. In the earliest texts, Gawain is a brave hero who usually achieves his quest. As the genre developed, the achievements of Gawain were played down. He fails, more and more. He is more interested in chasing damsels, whether in distress or not, than he is in seeking the Grail. In Wolfram's Parzival, Gawain becomes the more worldly knight who provides a contrast to the unworldly Parzival; and he meets his match in the haughty Orgeluse. In a later work, the Prose Lancelot, Gawain is not served any food by the Grail; apparently because he was more interested in the Grail maiden than in what she was carrying. It seems a little unkind when Loomis derives this element from the cauldron of a Celtic tale (The Spoils of Annwn) that would not cook food for a coward; which Gawain certainly is not. By the time we reach Wagner's Parsifal, Gawain only gets a brief mention.

© Derrick Everett 1996-2019. This page last updated (tweaked drop caps) --- Sun24 Nov 2019 13:05 CET ---