Monday, July 14, 2008

NIGEL BRYANT versus Dan BROWN: "The Origin of the Grail"

MERLIN'S MOUND author Nigel Bryant appeared on ITV's much-publicised programme The Grail Trail (25.9.05) to attack the vision of the Holy Grail in Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE.

Preface: Origins of the Grail legend?
No-one will ever know for certain, but a personal view which may well be wrong is this: I think it most probable that the story of the Grail which developed in the Middle Ages was (a) first and foremost, to all intents and purposes, an entirely original creation by Chretien de Troyes, the astonishingly brilliant French poet who, were he not stigmatised in most modern eyes by being medieval, would be regarded as one of the all-time greats; but (b) he had in the back of his mind the potent motif of a magic feeding vessel / cauldron of regeneration from Celtic oral tradition - Bretons were prominent professional story-tellers in medieval France.

It's crucial to understand that in Chretien's magnificent, inspirational poem the grail is NOT explicitly Christian - it is NOT "the Holy Grail" - but it does arrive on the scene with another object - a bleeding lance - which has been interpreted by some as a phallic male symbol accompanying the female grail, but which Chretien's audience would INSTANTLY and UNDOUBTEDLY have connected not with a phallus but with the Lance of Longinus (the lance with which Christ was stabbed on the Cross). This is overwhelmingly probable because holy relics - not least that particular holy relic the Holy Lance, which a man named Peter Bartholomew claimed to have found during the First Crusade - were a hot topic at the time, since holy relics and holy places were being lost to the forces of Christendom in no uncertain manner (in 1187 the True Cross itself was lost to Saladin at the catastrophic - if you're a Crusader - battle of Hattin). It is possible, and very interesting, to think that Chretien might have been inspired to the idea of the bleeding lance by a pagan ritual object, but in a way it's irrelevant, because whether he was or not, his audience would simply not have made that connection - or if they had, it would have been intriguingly interconnected in their minds with Peter Bartholomew's Christian "Holy Lance". But that's symbols for you. And the presence in Chretien's poem of an object so suggestive of that sacred Christian relic alongside the by-no-means-obviously-Christian grail prompted another poet, Robert de Boron, to claim the vessel unequivocally for orthodox Christianity by writing a "prequel" in which he identified the grail as the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper and by Joseph of Arimathea at the Crucifixion.

But isn't it interesting that in other developments of Chretien's unfinished Grail story, the vessel has the power to heal, and also to feed endlessly... Then again, an orthodox Christian might say that a plate of communion wafers is a magic feeding vessel, and has the power to heal... Then again, a pagan might point out that the mother of all magic feeding vessels is the earth... And then there's the matter of the womb...

And Dan Brown . . .
"It may seem strange," he says, "that I laid into Brown for using the Grail as a symbol of the womb, of the sacred feminine, when that very thing is central to MERLIN'S MOUND. But the difference is that I'm using it knowingly as a symbol. And I don't claim that MERLIN'S MOUND is anything more (or less) than a story.

"The trouble with Brown's book is that it's a prime example of a dire new literary genre of pseudo-fact. Unfortunately, in THE DA VINCI CODE Dan Brown has swallowed hook, line and sinker the central thesis of a best-seller of two decades ago - The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail - which can be demolished in 30 seconds.

"The theory depends entirely on a mistake caused by astonishingly sloppy scholarship. The play on words by which the SANGREAL (the Holy Grail) is supposedly a code for SANG-REAL ('royal blood') - leading on to the hilarious notion (after all, let's just stop and think about it for a second) that a child born of Jesus and Mary Magdalene was the start of a bloodline which kept going in secret for 2,000 years - simply doesn't work. Dan Brown lists a series of 'facts' at the start of his book; well here's a fact he doesn't mention: the spelling SANGREAL doesn't exist in any French work. It's a pun that works only in French, but no French writer ever used it. In French it's invariably written SAINT GRAAL. The only person who ever did write SANGREAL was the 15th-century Englishman John Hardyng whose French wasn't very good, so he heard 'saint graal', didn't know how to spell it, had a guess and wrote 'sangreal'. And on that simple mistake, almost akin to a typing error, is the whole wild theory based.

"I've no problem with it, actually - the Mary Magdalene / bloodline of Christ idea's a fun story - but claiming it (and other supposed 'facts' in Dan Brown's book) to be 'true' is sad in the extreme. We've got to be able to distinguish fact from fiction. Pseudo-fact does no favours either for fiction or for history or, for that matter, for the world of symbols.

"I'm seriously interested in the medieval Grail stories - hence my book The Legend of the Grail [Boydell Brewer, 2004], which brings together the eight great French grail romances of the 12th and 13th centuries and creates from them a single, coherent narrative. Womb imagery is nowhere to be seen. But that doesn't mean I can't use the Grail's potential symbolism and work it into a story of the sacred feminine in MERLIN'S MOUND. But I'm not going to do a Dan Brown and claim it to be 'true' in the sense of being a 'fact'. Let's all grow up a bit. The Grail doesn't exist and never did. But it's there even though it's not there. It's absolutely 'true', profoundly 'true', when you take it as a symbol."

Click on title for more information on Nigel Bryant's young adult fiction novel Merlin's Mound