From Ritual to Romance (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]


From Ritual to Romance explores the connection between ancient fertility rites and Arthurian legends of the quest for the Holy Grail. Rarely is literary criticism so riveting. Like a detective digging for clues, Jessie Weston builds the case that the Holy Grail was probably once part of Neolithic coming-of-age rites and religious ceremonies honoring fertility deities. She reminds her readers that the search for the Holy Grail is not about finding the actual cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper, but about...
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From Ritual to Romance (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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From Ritual to Romance explores the connection between ancient fertility rites and Arthurian legends of the quest for the Holy Grail. Rarely is literary criticism so riveting. Like a detective digging for clues, Jessie Weston builds the case that the Holy Grail was probably once part of Neolithic coming-of-age rites and religious ceremonies honoring fertility deities. She reminds her readers that the search for the Holy Grail is not about finding the actual cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper, but about attaining a higher level of spiritual enlightenment.

From Ritual to Romance has taken on significance once again given renewed interest in the legend of the Holy Grail as part of a larger search for enlightenment as seen in recent media, like The Da Vinci Code and Spamalot. Weston's well-cadenced, lucid prose has a British charm and a strong academic assurance that create a book of graceful depth sure to be appreciated by both the casual reader and the serious scholar alike.
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Meet the Author

Jessie Laidlay Weston was born December 29, 1850. Her study of the arts, particularly her interest in pagan rituals and Arthurian legend, was enabled by the inheritance she received upon her father's death. Of the more than twenty books she wrote, her final book, From Ritual to Romance, is her most celebrated work. In 1923, the University of Wales awarded her the Doctor of Literature degree for her contributions to the field.
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Jessie Weston's classic From Ritual to Romance, originally published in 1920, explores the connection between ancient fertility rites and Arthurian legends of the quest for the Holy Grail. Rarely is literary criticism so riveting. Modern readers are familiar with the Holy Grail from Arthurian legends and think of it as the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper and that Joseph of Arimathea used to collect Jesus' blood. However, Weston explains that the Grail symbol is far more primitive, and like a detective digging for clues, she builds the case that it was probably once part of Neolithic coming-of-age rites and religious ceremonies honoring fertility deities. She reminds her readers of what they already knew as part of a mythical human cultural unconsciousness: that the search for the Holy Grail is not about finding an actual cup, but about attaining a higher level of spiritual enlightenment. T. S. Eliot noted that From Ritual to Romance was one of the works that most influenced the composition of his famous poem The Wasteland, and Weston's seminal work has taken on significance once again given renewed interest in the legend of the Holy Grail as part of a larger search for enlightenment as seen in recent books and movies. Weston's well-cadenced, lucid prose has a British charm and a strong academic assurance that create a book of graceful depth sure to be appreciated by both the casual reader and the serious scholar alike.

Very little is known about the life of Jessie Laidlay Weston. The eldest of three daughters, she was born December 29, 1850, and died September 29, 1928. Her father, William Weston, a tea broker and member of the Salters' Company, saw to her education at Brighton, where she received her elementary education, and at Hildesheim, where she studied music; she also studied art at the Crystal Palace school in London. Later, in Paris, Weston studied French medievalism with the scholar M. Gaston Paris. Although she never attended a university, Weston developed a keen interest in the arts, especially pagan rituals and Arthurian legend. Her attention to the arts was enabled by her inheritance of a fortune upon her father's death. Weston also held memberships in various organizations, including both the Lyceum and Halcyon clubs (which she founded) as well as in the Folk-Lore and Quest societies. She undertook her first serious scholarly study when she was asked to translate Wolfram's Parzival into English. A devoted Wagnerian, she jumped at this opportunity, which led to a substantial canon of literary works. After her fortieth birthday, Jessie Weston wrote more than twenty books and numerous articles, many of which are about the Arthurian legends. From Ritual to Romance, her final book, is her most celebrated work, for which she was awarded the Rose Mary Crashaw prize in 1920. In 1923, the University of Wales awarded her the Doctor of Literature degree for her contributions to the field.

Between 1898 and 1907, Weston published a seven-volume work called Arthurian Romances Unrepresented in Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Thomas Malory completed his great work Morte d'Arthur in 1469 or 1470, but it was not until William Caxton printed it in an abridged form in 1485 that the work was widely read. This complete story of King Arthur's life is the first major English literary work composed in prose--albeit in later Middle English--and is still widely read today in a three-volume set. Much as the French had their Charlemagne, the English quickly adopted Arthur in their quest for national identity. Until the Morte was published, the exploits of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, while well known, existed mainly in hand-transcribed chronicles. For the first time, Malory gave the characters depth by removing much of the convoluted religious digressions found in previous works and relying upon terse conversations exploring the many meanings of loyalty. Weston, however, thought that Malory's condensation had overlooked and omitted many important components of earlier Arthurian romances by leaving out too much exposition and description.

In earlier works, the Holy Grail was assimilated into Arthurian legend as a beautiful ceremonial glass or dish, and into the early Catholic Church as the eucharistic chalice used for Communion mass, long after its acceptance as part of prehistoric religious acts. Many other elements of pagan worship became elements of the stories about Arthur, who was thought to be the first Christian king of the Britons. Critics continue to disagree about whether King Arthur was a real man or a derivative of a mythological god. No deities' names are similar, but the Roman name "Artorius" was known early in Britain and suggests that Arthur may have been a local warrior who lived sometime between 450 and 550 CE and who engaged in a form of guerrilla warfare successful enough to unite other men. The Britons desperately needed a hero, so they may have elevated this fighter to deity status by the oral transmission of tales that grew in each retelling.

The Grail story first became a part of the Arthurian legends in the last years of the twelfth century when it was included in the Arthurian works composed by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes. The general plot used by Chrétien and added on to by later writers begins in a remote castle where a king lives who is sick, wounded, or old and therefore must be restored to vitality. His wound may be in the thigh (like Adonis in the Greek story) or in his sexual organ. His troubles have caused the Fisher King mental, physical, and spiritual angst. The Fisher King's illness is reflected in his people and land, both of which become unproductive. The vegetation dies, a drought occurs, animals and humans do not reproduce, and the country is further destroyed by attacks from invaders until it becomes a vast wasteland.

A questing hero, usually Perceval, but sometimes Gawain, must find the Hidden Castle and then ask the correct question about the Grail in order to cure the king and his land. This hero is awestruck and therefore fails to speak about the wonders he sees in the Hidden Castle during the Grail processional wherein a transcendent eucharistic chalice or Grail is carried by a young virgin and a lance dripping blood into the Grail is carried by a young male. The old Fisher King's illness therefore continues, the land remains unfruitful and dry until it is later healed by Galahad, who makes no errors in his quest for the Grail and is rewarded in all ways because he is a perfect, spiritual being.

Robert de Boron, a Burgundian poet who wrote the first cycle of Grail romances, explains the title "Fisher King" in his Joseph of Arimathea, part of a three-volume Arthurian text composed between 1180 and 1199. In de Boron's work, Joseph of Arimathea and his followers wandered in the wilderness after Jesus' death, and some sinned. God told Bron (or Hebron), Joseph's brother-in-law, to catch a fish. The Holy Grail and the fish Bron caught created a meal that fed all of the righteous people, but sinners could not eat, so they were thereby separated from the pure. After this miracle of feeding the crowd, Bron was called the "rich fisher." The Fisher King is depicted as old because Bron was said to have lived from the early days of Christianity until the time of King Arthur, probably about five hundred years. Also, a fish is the ancient symbol of life given by water to feed all primitive peoples. Therefore, concerning the Fisher King, Weston notes, "He is not merely a symbolic figure, but the essential centre of the whole cult, a being semi-divine, semi-human, standing between his people and the land, and the unseen forces which control their destiny." It is no wonder that this fish symbol was so easily assimilated by the early Church.

Much of Weston's prior writing was basically building up the background work for From Ritual to Romance, first published in 1920 by Cambridge University Press. Years earlier Weston had become convinced that there were no obvious roots in Christian literature for the many Grail legends and that they did not come from the "cauldron of plenty" of Celtic folklore as was once believed. Therefore, she believed that the Grail material must stem from some other, earlier tradition. When she read Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough (first published in 1890), she noticed that some of the rituals that early nature cults once secretly observed might explain certain aspects of the Grail legend. Weston writes:

The more closely I analysed the tale, the more striking became the resemblance, and I finally asked myself whether it were not possible that in this mysterious legend--mysterious alike in its character, its sudden appearance, the importance apparently assigned to it, followed by as sudden and complete a disappearance--we might not have a confused record of ritual, once popular, later surviving under conditions of strict secrecy?

Weston explains that at first humankind was rather desperately concerned with worshipping in a way that would encourage plants and animals to flourish, believing that the seasons were regulated in some way by human praise of various gods in charge of particular aspects of nature.

Eventually interest in generative power merged over time with desires for encounters with the divine. Weston correlates the clandestine nature of ritual observances with the reverent tones surrounding discussions of the Grail legends' main features: the Hidden Castle, ailing Fisher King, the Wasteland, the Grail, and the Lance. In The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (2004), Richard W. Barker disagrees with Weston's anthropological approach to the Grail legend and asserts that the sudden appearance of the tale is much more easily explained: Chrétien de Troyes invented it and later romance writers expanded upon the new idea. However, his response is atypical and many critics agree with Weston's thesis.

Weston's observations, such as that ceremonial marriages, perhaps involving sacred feeding vessels, were important in fertility rituals, or that the health of crops reflected the king's health, come across as important discoveries rather than esoteric interpretations. As a connection between ritual and literature, she traces the Gnostic (various late pre-Christian cults that passed down knowledge, much of which was both secret and sacred) roots in ancient rituals, sometimes using the Naassene Document, a work written by the Naassene sect sometime between 50 BCE and 220 CE. The work was recounted by Hippolytus (d. c. 236 CE) and attempted to link the old and new faiths. It is easy to see how the Grail story could be a mixture of Christian religious observations and elements demonstrating the provocative acts at young people's coming-of-age ceremonies or other such secret rituals, given that many early Christian converts would have been aware of, if not actually practicing, these older observances. In other words, the worship of the powers that kept plants and animals thriving also extended to include human reproduction, and this was eventually partially grafted into Christian ideas as well.

Weston also associates the recorded symbolism of mystery cults with the persistent Aryan traditions of early Buddhism, finding parallels in the Rig-Veda (c. 1200-900 BCE) stories of ancient India. The Aryans were a group of East Europeans who invaded and settled in the Indus Valley region of present-day Iran and northern India c.1800-1500 BCE. Their recorded religious material comprises mostly early nature hymns written by an agrarian population of remote antiquity dependant upon the fruit of the land. The writers worshipped gods of fertility as though their lives depended on them because they believed it necessary to stimulate the divine to immediate action to ensure the people's continued well-being. Without human supplication to nature, gods might forget the Earth. Birth in spring, fruit in summer, death in fall and winter: These were the natural cycles the gods' lives reflected in both Indian and Greek cultures, often noted as the Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic.

In the myths, typically a god leaves in winter and the suffering people must beg him to return in spring or they will starve to death. Weston explains that the entire focus of primitive peoples' worship practices was the life-giving aspects of nature. Further, she notes that earthly kings were viewed as the gods' mouthpieces or as god-like themselves. These rulers were seen as semi-divine beings who were one with the land and people. Therefore, whatever befell the living king would physically affect his lands and subjects as well. Early writers of Arthurian legend would have had an understanding of this connection that has been lost in the modern world where we purchase food at giant grocery-store chains instead of growing it ourselves.

In addition, mysterious ceremonial rituals probably involved some form of feasting, or at least offerings to placate a god through sacrificial meals served in a sacred vessel. It makes sense that the addition of a Christian veneer turned the dish or Grail into the prototype of the chalice used in Catholic Mass and thus the vessel that regenerates life in a new way: not merely ensuring the train of generations through the procreative act, but also guaranteeing a personal eternal life for believers. The primitive religious rites were at least partially intended to explain life after death, the rebirth and renewal of vegetation as well as the human train of generations. There is always a bit of life in death because the earth does revive in spring and because human ancestors live on in future generations; therefore the importance of nature cults cannot be exaggerated in terms of human development or as defining the start of religious consciousness.

The resurrection and rebirth that are an essential element of Christianity are easy to understand as the next obvious step in such a religious progression, and Weston explains that it was simple for the early church to assimilate older pagan worship practices. The Christian elements of the Holy Grail legends are many, the most important being as a sustainer or giver of eternal life. Weston shows, though, that these devices were tacked on to more primitive religious agrarian observances concerning the natural world, a connection probably also understood by early writers of Arthurian legend. Also significant is the Grail's description in literature as the vessel used to hold the wine symbolizing Christ's blood as Jesus explained at the Last Supper. According to Arthurian legend, Joseph of Arimithea later used the same Grail cup to collect blood from Jesus' body as he prepared it for burial in the tomb.

Some accounts have Joseph later bringing the Grail to Glastonbury, England, where it was either lost forever or found by Galahad, the only pure knight. In Malory's Morte, both the Grail and Galahad ascend into heaven. When Arthur's knights left the fellowship of the Round Table to embark on the quest for the Holy Grail, they were mostly doomed to failure because it was an inward journey of grave spiritual importance undertaken by knights who had little interest in anything beyond jousting, wenching, and drinking. They were part of the morally corrupt atmosphere at Camelot that obscured the treachery of the adulterous Queen Guinevere, who was trysting with Lancelot, the highest knight and the king's most trusted friend. Thus the knights were unworthy and could never see the Grail, and most of them did not return from the quest.

The ever-unattainable Grail is the perfect symbol of a society that is morally and spiritually bankrupt, and linking it to ancient religious ceremonies only strengthens its significance, especially since this symbolism continues to be relevant in contemporary culture. T. S. Eliot, known for abundant literary references in all his poetry, used the Fisher King and the Wasteland to symbolize the sterility and ruin left by World War I. In what is perhaps the most famous acknowledgement of indebtedness to Weston's work, Eliot discusses From Ritual to Romance several times in his notes to The Wasteland (1922). In his first note to The Wasteland, he explains that his work cannot be properly understood without an exploration of her text: "Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston's book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem is worth the trouble."

Several recent writers of Arthurian literature have incorporated Weston's ideas into their works. Also, in the films Apocalypse Now and Excalibur directors Francis Ford Coppola and John Boorman clearly base their interpretations on Weston's work. In Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando's character is the spiritually wounded Fisher King trapped in a Wasteland of death and immorality in Vietnam. In Excalibur, Boorman shows, as Weston clearly described it, the delicate balance of the king and nature, for as soon as Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone, Merlin tells him, "You will be the land and the land will be you. If you fail, the land will perish. When you thrive, the land will prosper." In a new twist, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) presents the Holy Grail as being human: Mary Magdalene is the wife of Jesus and the mother of his child. Here, the Grail is an ongoing bloodline of Jesus' seed. Although Brown's interpretation is not given credence by serious scholars, one imagines that Weston would be pleased by The Da Vinci Code's thesis because it is based upon reproduction and blood.

Jessie Weston's theory seems so obvious that one wonders why she was the first to make the connection in 1920. Now, nearly a century after it was first published, From Ritual to Romance remains interesting and relevant. The more we explore connections between ancient fertility rites and Arthurian legends of the quest for the Holy Grail, the more we realize that this quest is and has always been more spiritual than literal. It is not about finding a real, tangible cup, but about gaining enlightenment and true self-consciousness. Our intense reaction to Grail legends must be a response entrenched by centuries of secret religious rituals that we cannot quite recall but instinctively and powerfully understand nonetheless. Weston shows us the connection, thus enabling casual readers and Arthurian scholars alike to approach the Grail material much more profoundly. This text truly is a classic.

Laura & Robert Lambdin both have Ph.D.s in Medieval Literature from the University of South Florida. They have written and edited seven books together and have also produced many articles mostly focusing on Arthurian legend. They both teach management courses at the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2004

    A must for Golden Bough readers

    From Ritual to Romance is an indispensable work for those who read both the Golden Bough and T.S. Eliot. It clearly presents the mystery and evidence for the 'land and the king' being one. Consequently movie buffs will find it intriguing that it is one of the books that Colonel Kurtz has by his bedside in the film Apocalypse Now, right under the Golden Bough! (And he reads Eliot aloud too in the film)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2010

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