The Horn of Plenty and the Grail

Sir Gawain returns to Camelot where he is greeted by King Arthur.

Cornucopia: vessels that provide food & drink

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.

The strange ritual procession seen by Sir Gawain at the Grail Castle
Above: the procession seen by Sir 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 Rise of Gawain

Sir Gawain, also known as Gawan, Gavan, Gawen, Gayain, Gawaine, Gauwaine, Gauvain, or Walewein, is King Arthur's nephew and a Knight of the Round Table in the Arthurian stories. Under the name Gwalchmei (which might mean "hawk of May" or "hawk of the plain") — if we accept the identification with Gawain that was made by R.S. Loomis — he appears very early in Arthurian legend, being mentioned in some of the earliest Welsh sources. As Gawain, he appears in Latin, French, English, Dutch, German and Italian literature, notably as the protagonist of the alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of two other English poems in alliterative verse and of the related French verse romance La Mule sans frein ("The Mule without a Bridle"), as well as another verse romance Le Chevalier à l'épée (The Knight of the Sword). Other tales of Gawain include Diu Crône by Heinrich von dem Tûrlin, and The Weddynge of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell; he appears in the works of Chrétien de Troyes and in the Prose Lancelot.

Gawain is one of a select number of knights of the Round Table to be referred to as one of the greatest knights and closest companions of King Arthur. He is usually the son of Arthur's sister Morgause (or Anna, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth and in the early Latin romance De ortu Waluuanii nepotis Arturi, "The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur") and King Lot (or Loth) of Orkney and Lothian. His brothers or half-brothers are Agravain, Gaheris, Gareth, and Mordred. In earlier romances he is portrayed as a formidable, courtly, valorous and compassionate warrior, fiercely loyal to his king and to his friends. In later stories, in particular the French tales that influenced Sir Thomas Malory, Gawain is a less likeable character. He is a chivalric defender of damsels in distress including Orgelûse, as told in Wolfram's Parzival. Gawain married, in various tales, Ragnell, Amurfine, the daughter of Carl of Carlisle, and the daughter of the king of Sorcha. One of his sons is the Fair Unknown, Gingalain or Gyngolyn.

Gawain plays an important role in the Grail romances, where he is one of the questing knights. In the Perceval/Parzival stories the adventures of Sir Gawain and his "best buddy" Sir Perceval are interwoven, and the characters of these two very different knights are contrasted. In the Lancelot stories, Gawain is more of a supporting character but in many other medieval romances, as well as in more modern works based on them, Gawain is the central character and the story is about his adventures. In the early "Bleheris" version of the quest for the Holy Grail — appended to the Perceval as the "First Continuation" but according to Weston earlier than the Perceval — Gawain does not entirely succeed: he asks about the Lance only, which brings about a partial restoration of the land. He is more successful in the later version Diu Crône, in which Gawain breaks the spell which holds the Grail King in semblence of life: in this version the king is dead and not just infirm. In all later stories about the Grail, Gawain fails in the quest.

Gwalchmei (or Gwalchmai) was a traditional hero of Welsh mythology. His popularity greatly increased after foreign versions, particularly those derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, became known in Wales. An early Welsh romance Culhwch and Olwen, written in the 11th century and eventually included with the Mabinogion, ascribes to Gwalchmei the same relationship with Arthur that Gawain is later given: he is a son of Arthur's sister and one of his leading warriors. However, he is mentioned only twice in the text; once in the extensive list of Arthur's court towards the beginning of the story, and again as one of the "Six Helpers" who Arthur sends with the protagonist Culhwch on his journey to find his love Olwen. Unlike the other helpers he takes no further part in the action, suggesting he was added to the romance later, likely under the influence of the Welsh versions of Geoffrey's Historia. He also appears in Peredur fab Efrawg (Peredur son of Efrawg), a branch of the Mabinogion, where he aids the hero Peredur in the final battle against the nine witches of Caer Loyw.

The Decline of Gawain

Reading the Grail romances, one can feel sorry for poor Gawain. In the earliest texts, Gawain is a brave hero who either entirely or partly 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 damsel Orgeluse. Gradually Gawain is eclipsed by Perceval, who will in his turn (in the Vulgate Cycle) be superseded by Galahad. 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.