At the sources of the Grail

At the sources of the Grail

Few stories have left such a deep impression as the Grail myth.

Rewritten, expanded, commented on an incredible number of times, taken up in all the arts, diverted in every possible way, the story of the Grail is part, along with the Bible and the Greek myths, of the foundations of our Western culture.

But what is it that makes it so popular?

As far as the first version is concerned, the « Story of the Grail » by the Champagne novelist Chrétien de Troyes, it is a small medieval novel, of which the best translations do not manage to remove the old-fashioned aspect and which proves to be all the more disappointing at first reading because it is unfinished.

In the course of university studies, Chrétien de Troyes’s Grail novel passes from the stage of worldly entertainment to that of an educational novel (one imagines it was intended for the Dauphin, then under the guardianship of Philip of Flanders) and then to the stage of a novel of initiation. But why would a novel, even a novel of initiation, be so attractive that for 800 years it has given rise to so many adaptations and continuations in the most diverse forms?

Simply because it is not the initiation of the hero, Perceval, that is at stake, but the initiation of the reader himself. It is not an initiation story, but an initiation manual for anyone who aspires to a certain path of inner transformation. This initiatory path is universal and has been adapted by different spiritual masters throughout human history. Thus, if one is not too careful about historical reality, one can find the ‘sources’ of the Grail in a very wide range of initiatory traditions.

The patterns or motifs underlying the Grail tale – that is, the spiritual reality, the process described – are universal. When one reads the Grail tale, one therefore has exactly the same experience as Carl Gustav Jung 1 had when he realised that the same alchemical images, describing the same processes, were found in civilisations separated in time and space and without any valid transmission between these cultures 2.

There is therefore no reason to look for a source of the Grail tale from the most remote antiquity. On the other hand, it can help us in our interpretation by putting in parallel stories of the same family as suggested in 1920 by the medievalist Jessie L. Weston 3.

The novels of Chrétien de Troyes

It is necessary to understand that in spite of appearances, Chrétien is not a continuator of the novels of the round table. He is neither English nor Norman and is not part of a political propaganda for Henry II.

To begin with, he departs radically from the style of the French material. Chrétien can be counted among the leaders of a new literary style: the courtly novel (the only other document of this type at the time is Béroul’s Tristan, contemporary with Chrétien and perhaps even later than a Tristan by Chrétien). Here, the great epic fresco is relegated to the background. As with Ovid 4 – some of whose works Chrétien adapted – the novel is primarily concerned with the psychology of the characters, the consequences of their actions and the complex relationships between human beings caught up in a bundle of tensions: desires, morals, duties, and honour.

On the other hand, although Arthur’s court is the setting for Chrétien’s adventures, he abandons the Arthurian storyline altogether. The king himself is a character who will become more and more secondary as the novels progress. Gone is the warrior king who rides at the head of his men. Chrétien gradually moves away from existing models and creates a new framework for his stories in order to serve his own symbolism: Arthur, still active and vindictive in the first novels (he wages war and hangs traitors in « Cligès ») finally becomes the melancholic king of the Grail tale.

The action gradually shifts from England to France, then loses all connection with real geography to enter 5, not into an ‘other Celtic world’ but into a poetic landscape, or more precisely an inner landscape: a landscape of the soul.

It is clear that Chrétien is not here to write novels of chivalry, he is looking for something else. Thus, from « Erec et Énides », the first novel that has come down to us, we find all the elements of a Gnostic myth: the discovery of the soul, the renewal of the psychic structure (the new garment), the death of the ego, etc. And already the techniques and key elements that will be reused in all the novels: the double meaning prologue, the red knight, the most beautiful princess in the world, the meeting with Gauvain, the symbolism of the garment, to mention only the most recurrent.

With « Cligès », his second novel, we are confronted with the myth of rebirth, with the obvious parallel between the ordeals endured by Phenice and the legend of the Phoenix. In « Yvain », Chrétien begins to explore the individual inner processes, the transformations in the psyche of the mystery candidate. As for « Lancelot », it is almost a draft of the Story of the Grail 6.



Chrétien is looking for the perfect form of expression that will enable him to transmit his knowledge, as he tells us in the prologue to Erec with his parable of the talents, and when he writes « the Grail tale », he has finally found it. He knows it and he proclaims it from the first line: “Chrétien begins a new novel, he sows it in such a good place that he will reap a hundredfold”.

A text that speaks of something else

The Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes is thus part of a break with the Arthurian vulgate. And we must keep in mind the fundamental differences that this initiation manual presents in relation to later recoveries, written by authors with different aims, even totally opposed to those of Chrétien de Troyes: the Grail does not contain the blood of Christ, but a host. The spear that bleeds is not the one that pierced the Lord’s side. The procession of the Grail is therefore not linked to the passion, but to the Last Supper. We are not passively present at the sacrifice of the deity who offers his blood to redeem our sins, we are invited to a construction: to make use of the forces offered to us. This is particularly evident in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s description of the procession of the Grail, where the procession of the Grail is mingled with a procession of maidens who build the banquet table.

Another fundamental point is that Gauvain is not the symbol of earthly chivalry, a distorted reflection of Perceval who gets bogged down in materiality and fails at every pitfall. On the contrary, Gauvain is the perfect knight 7, the white knight, the solar knight who embodies all the values of spiritual chivalry:

  • Moderation,
  • Respect for others and politeness, even towards his enemies,
  • Non-violence – or at least in the context of chivalry, the use of violence as a last resort 8
  • Refusal to lie – even to death,
  • Integrity, transparency: Gauvain is the one who “never hides his name from anyone who asks him”.
  • Empathy, love of neighbour (caritas) praised by Chrétien in his prologue,
  • And a unique feature in all the Round Table romances: the healing skills.

The switch, so poorly understood, between Perceval and Gauvain in the Grail Tale, already present in the « Chevalier à la Charrette » is the key to the Grail story. It is impossible to make use of this initiation manual if one does not grasp this key.

As in the mystery cults and Gnostic myths (the family to which the Grail tale belongs), Gauvain represents the spiritual stature that we carry within us, which pre-exists our personality, but which cannot manifest itself until we accomplish a minimal transformation of our being. It is exactly the same as in the Christian myth: John and Jesus are born together, but Jesus can only really carry out his ministry once John has prepared the way, baptised Jesus and then stepped aside completely. In the same way, the Grail story presents us with a fourfold process.

Firstly, the process led by Perceval: the discovery of spiritual filiation, purification and a certain form of reconstruction or re-harmonisation of the personality, a process of individuation. Perceval will literally find his true self, his name, and at the same time he receives – as a mission – the vision of the complete plan of spiritual development. Perceval and Gauvain meet and recognise each other.

Secondly, Gauvain’s first adventures, which, when reduced to an inner process, have to do with a reworking of the sphere of the unconscious. The reading of this passage is unpleasant because it sends us back to all the experiences that we prefer to forget, to repress, the small shameful situations of our life (Gauvain taken for a cunning merchant, for a cowardly knight, Gauvain in the service of a child, Gauvain surprised in the arms of a woman insulted by his fault…). We are placed here on a higher spiral of purification of the unconscious sphere but also of acquisition of new powers of the soul: new will, love, wisdom.

Thirdly, the conquest and purification of the dimension that could be called cosmic (but not spiritual) consciousness of the personality: Gauvain finds the force that will guide him through the initiation, a force that the Rosicrucians will represent four hundred years later by the virgin Alchimia, and he enters another world, which is obviously not the Celtic “other world” – the realm of the dead – but the sphere of consciousness-energy of the human being.

Fourth, just as the process is about to be completed, the text stops. The encounter between the reconstructed spiritual stature and the Spirit shifts us into the wholly other, which cannot be described.

We are only skimming deliberately the process in which Chrétien de Troyes leads us, because what counts above all is that the one who deeply aspires to this quest really lives it. And for this, it is preferable not to base oneself on a purely mental construction. If we want to enter into a practice, into something concrete, we must therefore ask ourselves: how do we take the first step, how do we initiate this process described in the Grail Tale? Since it’s an initiation manual, then how do we use it?

To understand this, we must remember the fundamental discovery that Carl Gustav Jung made when he read the Taoist alchemy treatise « The Mystery of the Golden Flower ». There are texts and images that have a link with the unconscious of all mankind 9, and more: these images develop a force, are active on the psyche. The Story of the Grail is such a book, as Marie-Louise von Frantz notes: “The relationship between the Grail legend and alchemy is so rich and fertile that one wonders why Jung did not include it in his psychological research on alchemy 10.

But if knowledge of the alchemical images will help us (even if it is first-hand knowledge), what counts above all is personal experience. How does Chrétien de Troyes operate? To find out, nothing could be easier: all we have to do is look inside ourselves and ask ourselves: what do I feel when I read this book? If I close my eyes and have to picture key scenes in the story, what do I see?

By asking ourselves these questions, we discover that the strength of the Grail tale is that it gives us a very particular inner feeling through images. In reality, it is not a feeling, but truly our true self which for a moment awakens and rejoices. This is exactly the phenomenon that Marcel Proust tracks throughout his work 11. For Proust, one of the main triggers of this “remembrance”, of the access to

this dimension of eternity in us, is art. And at the end of the 19th century, Wagner resurrected, through art, the myth of the Grail by allowing us to rediscover, in his Parsifal, this feeling. Those who feel this way can begin the true spiritual quest if they have the courage to do so, i.e. if they adopt a new way of life that allows them to bring more and more of the nourishment that awakens their spiritual being.

And so, we see how Chrétien de Troyes challenges us from the very first lines of his novel by describing our own inner state at the very moment we read:

It was the season when the trees blossom, the forests are covered with leaves, the meadows turn green, when the birds sing softly in the morning and all creatures are filled with joy. The widow lady’s son, in the heart of the wild and desolate forest where she has her domain, stood up…

Who is challenged by this book? Anyone who is a son of the widow lady, in the great wild forest, in the time when nature flourishes. That is to say, anyone for whom the world full of life and experience (the wild and desolate Forest, i.e. the wilderness) has become a desert (a wasteland). But in this desert, he knows that he is the son of Isis, the widow lady par excellence, and therefore of divine descent. He soon discovers that there is a high calling for man: Perceval meets the knights, beautiful as angels, who appear to him in a revelation not unlike the vision of the Apocalypse of John: light, great noise, colours, and then finally the vision of the perfect man. “These are angels!” exclaims Perceval, and like the seer on Patmos, he throws himself face down.

What should he do then? Go to the place where knights are made, to King Arthur’s court, to the alchemical forge where a community of seeking souls has gathered to carry out this quest.



1 C.G. Jung – Psychology and Alchemy – Routledge and Kegan Paul LTD, New York

2 From this point of view, the most accurate analysis is in my opinion provided by Jessie L. Weston (Jessie L. Weston – From Ritual To Romance (1920) who concludes her inventory of stories similar to the Grail tale as follows: “Our investigation has gradually led us to the conclusion that the elements constituting the Grail legend – the plot of the story, the tasks awaiting the hero, the symbols and their meanings – although finding their counterpart in prehistoric stories, also show remarkable parallels with beliefs and practices of countries as far apart as the British Isles, Russia and Central Africa.”

3 Jessie L. Weston – op.cit. : “In highlighting these parallels, I wish to make my position perfectly clear; I do not claim that we can find the source of the Grail legend in the Rig-Veda, or any other literary monument of the early Aryans, (…) When all the parallels with the Grail legend are part of a well-defined circle of beliefs and practices, carefully studied, and that each of them is part of the same corpus of a well-studied tradition, then I think that these parallels can be considered as a reliable basis and that it is not unreasonable to think that this corpus of traditions is part of the same family and that it should therefore be interpreted as such. ”

4 Typically, in the Metamorphoses, Ovid dispatches the adventures in a few lines to dwell on the psychological changes in the protagonists.

5 See on this subject Joseph J. Duggan: The romances of Chretien de Troyes – Yale University Press 2001 who notes, in addition to the inventory of imaginary places such as Lac, Galvoie or Dinasdaron that globally “Chretien clearly does not know Breton geography. His heroes travel from Wales to Nantes on horseback without worrying about the distance or the sea”.

6 Chrétien refines his technique to pass from the novel of initiation to the manual of initiation as many academics such as Daniel Poirion have pointed out in his introduction to the complete works of Chrétien de Troyes (La Pléiade): “In the diptych composed of Yvain and Lancelot, what can be called an aesthetics of the symbol is developed, calling upon the image to condense the meaning. The heroic reading is coupled with a hermeneutic reading that deciphers the network of images. (…) The poetic text weaving a network of pictorial motifs in the background, like an “intertext”, is there to tell us something other than what it is telling us.

7 It is very surprising to note the evolution of the character of Gauvain in the tradition of the “novels of the round table”. But what is even more astonishing is that the vast majority of commentators and academics who have written on the subject have rallied around the personality of Gawain from the last text: “la Queste del saint Graal” and thus consider Gawain to be the archetype of earthly and superficial chivalry. In Chrétien de Troyes, however, Gawain is very explicitly the perfect knight. If there is a celestial chivalry, it is Gauvain who embodies it. In this respect, it is worth noting that Gauvain is never defeated in any of Chrétien’s texts. A hero of exceptional bravery (such as Cligès or Yvain) may eventually find himself on a par with him. Gauvain embodies such perfection that the first continuators of the Grail tale eventually make him the hero of the adventures, the one who finds the precious cup. However, the later continuators, Benedictines and Cistercians, were determined to make him an increasingly vulgar character. In the novel “La Queste del saint Graal”, nothing will remain of Chrétien’s Gauvain, and he will end up being killed unhappily by Galaad, the new white knight.

8 And it seems important to insist on a point specific to Chrétien de Troyes’ quest for the Grail: with the exception of the case of the ruddy knight, no battle ends in the death of the opponent. The vanquished is sent to King Arthur’s court (or to the service of the knight, which is equivalent) where, recognised for his worth and himself entering the service of a superior knighthood, he becomes in a way victorious.

9 The Secret of the Golden Flower – translated and explained by Richard Wilhelm with a European Commentary by C G. Jung, London Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, LTD

10 Emma Jung, Marie Louise Von Frantz – The Grail Legend – Princeton University Press

11 Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time. See for example « Le temps retrouvé », Folio classique – Gallimard 1990 p.178-179: “A being that appears only when it can be found in the only environment where it can live, that is to say, outside of time (…) at once the permanent and usually hidden essence of things is liberated, and our true self which, sometimes for a long time, seemed dead, but was not entirely so, awakens, comes to life by receiving the celestial nourishment that is brought to it. A minute freed from time has recreated in us to feel the man freed from the order of time. And it is understandable that he is confident in his joy.”


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Share this article

Article info

Date: June 5, 2024
Author: Yoann Lamy (France)
Photo: Hugues Coutin

Featured image: