The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief

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Overview

The elusive image of the Holy Grail has haunted the Western imagination for eight centuries. It represents the ideal of an unattainable yet infinitely desirable goal, the possibility of perfection. Initially conceived in literature, it became a Christian icon which has been re-created in a multitude of forms over time even though the Grail has no specific material attributes or true religious significance.

Richard Barber traces the history of the legends surrounding the Holy Grail, beginning with Chrétien de Troyes's great romances of the twelfth century and the medieval Church's religious version of the secular ideal. He pursues the myths through Victorian obsessions and enthusiasms to the popular bestsellers of the late twentieth century that have embraced its mysteries. Crisscrossing the borders of fiction and spirituality, the quest for the Holy Grail has long attracted writers, artists, and admirers of the esoteric. It has been a recurrent theme in tales of imagination and belief which have laid claim to the highest religious and secular ideals and experiences. From Lancelot to Parsifal, chivalric romances to Wagner's Ring, T. S. Eliot to Monty Python, the Grail has fascinated and lured the Western imagination from beyond the reach of the ordinary world.

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Editorial Reviews

Daily Telegraph

Barber is an Arthurian expert whose purpose is to hack a path through the muddled, corrupted and conflicting versions of the grail story...[He] is scrupulous in his fairness, his conclusions are interesting and although he keeps his reins tight on some fun he might have had, he performs a valuable service in rescuing the original grail from 800 years of garbled and improbable misreadings.
— Nicholas Shakespeare

The Times

Richard Barber's splendid new book presents a comprehensive survey of the search for the Holy Grail from the 12th century to the present day. It is part summary of the medieval romances and part synthesis of the commentary and interpretation that the Holy Grail has attracted...[T]his is a rich book, and like the romances it discusses, taps into a seemingly unending well of meaning. Barber has created a splendid foundation for a continuation to a compelling story.
— Juliette Wood

Daily Mail

This is a stimulating study, which authoritatively explores one of the most enduring myths of Western culture. Its combination of scholarship and clarity might itself be described as an intellectual Holy Grail.
— Michael Arditti

Sunday Telegraph

Richard Barber, who possesses both the medievalist expertise and the requisite calmness and clarity of thought...has produced a really valuable and fascinating book...Not only has Richard Barber dealt skilfully with the original medieval evidence; he has also traced the long after-life of the Grail legend, above all in its various 19th- and 20th-century avatars. This not only gives him the chance to investigate some modern literary history (Charles Williams, John Cowper Powys, et al); it also enables him to take a properly historical attitude to the various 'loony tunes' modern theories, by setting them in their own historical context...Overall, then, this is the most reassuringly sane of all modern writings on the whole 'Holy Grail' phenomenon. One finishes the book just wishing there were more works like it.
— Noel Malcolm

Sunday Times

This book is a survey, as judicious as it is comprehensive, of versions of the Grail story, of the social and ideological contexts in which they evolved, of the symbols they employ and the literary conventions which shaped them. In it, Barber arrives at the conclusion, which will be shocking to new agers and conspiracy theorists everywhere, that the story of the Holy Grail had (in its original form) nothing to do with the cabbala, Cathars, Templars, Zoroastrians or Gnostics, that its origin is probably the obvious one, the first text in which it appears. The story of the Holy Grail is not a fragment of immemorially ancient lore: Chrétien de Troyes, the 12th-century author of the Le Roman de Perceval, made it up...In a book which consists largely of summaries of numerous versions of a single story some repetition is inevitable—this is a volume to browse in rather than one to read straight through—but Barber's sensitivity to the diversity of nuances in each of his many sources ensures that each one he looks at affords him some fresh insight. The result is a fascinating compendium of theology, literary criticism and cultural history.
— Lucy Hughes-Hallett

New York Times

Barber...demonstrates a gift for lucid, lively prose and an ability to make highly complex developments—cutting across religion, literature and politics—both immediate and accessible...[He] does a dexterous job of conveying the mood and texture of [the] variations on the Grail story, while at the same time illuminating the religious and political dramas that informed their creation...[M]akes for engaging reading as both literary criticism and cultural history, thanks largely to the author's fluency and aplomb as a writer.
— Michiko Kakutani

Washington Times

Consistently fascinating...It is essential reading for anyone interested in Arthurian romances and, chapter after chapter, offers sober correctives to countless misconceptions about the Grail and its supposed secret meanings...I doubt that anywhere else will one find so thorough and comprehensive an examination of the Grail, nor as careful and interesting a survey of the medieval stories that started it all. The Holy Grail is a major contribution to Arthuriana.
— Eric Wargo

New Republic

What we need is a cool-headed guide through the Grail's long and curious history, and in Richard Barber's lucid, fair-minded, and wide-ranging book, we get it.
— Richard Jenkyns

Daily Telegraph - Nicholas Shakespeare
Barber is an Arthurian expert whose purpose is to hack a path through the muddled, corrupted and conflicting versions of the grail story...[He] is scrupulous in his fairness, his conclusions are interesting and although he keeps his reins tight on some fun he might have had, he performs a valuable service in rescuing the original grail from 800 years of garbled and improbable misreadings.
The Times - Juliette Wood
Richard Barber's splendid new book presents a comprehensive survey of the search for the Holy Grail from the 12th century to the present day. It is part summary of the medieval romances and part synthesis of the commentary and interpretation that the Holy Grail has attracted...[T]his is a rich book, and like the romances it discusses, taps into a seemingly unending well of meaning. Barber has created a splendid foundation for a continuation to a compelling story.
Daily Mail - Michael Arditti
This is a stimulating study, which authoritatively explores one of the most enduring myths of Western culture. Its combination of scholarship and clarity might itself be described as an intellectual Holy Grail.
Sunday Telegraph - Noel Malcolm
Richard Barber, who possesses both the medievalist expertise and the requisite calmness and clarity of thought...has produced a really valuable and fascinating book...Not only has Richard Barber dealt skilfully with the original medieval evidence; he has also traced the long after-life of the Grail legend, above all in its various 19th- and 20th-century avatars. This not only gives him the chance to investigate some modern literary history (Charles Williams, John Cowper Powys, et al); it also enables him to take a properly historical attitude to the various 'loony tunes' modern theories, by setting them in their own historical context...Overall, then, this is the most reassuringly sane of all modern writings on the whole 'Holy Grail' phenomenon. One finishes the book just wishing there were more works like it.
Sunday Times - Lucy Hughes-Hallett
This book is a survey, as judicious as it is comprehensive, of versions of the Grail story, of the social and ideological contexts in which they evolved, of the symbols they employ and the literary conventions which shaped them. In it, Barber arrives at the conclusion, which will be shocking to new agers and conspiracy theorists everywhere, that the story of the Holy Grail had (in its original form) nothing to do with the cabbala, Cathars, Templars, Zoroastrians or Gnostics, that its origin is probably the obvious one, the first text in which it appears. The story of the Holy Grail is not a fragment of immemorially ancient lore: Chrétien de Troyes, the 12th-century author of the Le Roman de Perceval, made it up...In a book which consists largely of summaries of numerous versions of a single story some repetition is inevitable--this is a volume to browse in rather than one to read straight through--but Barber's sensitivity to the diversity of nuances in each of his many sources ensures that each one he looks at affords him some fresh insight. The result is a fascinating compendium of theology, literary criticism and cultural history.
New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
Barber...demonstrates a gift for lucid, lively prose and an ability to make highly complex developments--cutting across religion, literature and politics--both immediate and accessible...[He] does a dexterous job of conveying the mood and texture of [the] variations on the Grail story, while at the same time illuminating the religious and political dramas that informed their creation...[M]akes for engaging reading as both literary criticism and cultural history, thanks largely to the author's fluency and aplomb as a writer.
Washington Times - Eric Wargo
Consistently fascinating...It is essential reading for anyone interested in Arthurian romances and, chapter after chapter, offers sober correctives to countless misconceptions about the Grail and its supposed secret meanings...I doubt that anywhere else will one find so thorough and comprehensive an examination of the Grail, nor as careful and interesting a survey of the medieval stories that started it all. The Holy Grail is a major contribution to Arthuriana.
New Republic - Richard Jenkyns
What we need is a cool-headed guide through the Grail's long and curious history, and in Richard Barber's lucid, fair-minded, and wide-ranging book, we get it.
New York Times
Barber...demonstrates a gift for lucid, lively prose and an ability to make highly complex developments--cutting across religion, literature and politics--both immediate and accessible...[He] does a dexterous job of conveying the mood and texture of [the] variations on the Grail story, while at the same time illuminating the religious and political dramas that informed their creation...[M]akes for engaging reading as both literary criticism and cultural history, thanks largely to the author's fluency and aplomb as a writer.
— Michiko Kakutani
Sunday Times
This book is a survey, as judicious as it is comprehensive, of versions of the Grail story, of the social and ideological contexts in which they evolved, of the symbols they employ and the literary conventions which shaped them. In it, Barber arrives at the conclusion, which will be shocking to new agers and conspiracy theorists everywhere, that the story of the Holy Grail had (in its original form) nothing to do with the cabbala, Cathars, Templars, Zoroastrians or Gnostics, that its origin is probably the obvious one, the first text in which it appears. The story of the Holy Grail is not a fragment of immemorially ancient lore: Chrétien de Troyes, the 12th-century author of the Le Roman de Perceval, made it up...In a book which consists largely of summaries of numerous versions of a single story some repetition is inevitable--this is a volume to browse in rather than one to read straight through--but Barber's sensitivity to the diversity of nuances in each of his many sources ensures that each one he looks at affords him some fresh insight. The result is a fascinating compendium of theology, literary criticism and cultural history.
— Lucy Hughes-Hallett
New Republic
What we need is a cool-headed guide through the Grail's long and curious history, and in Richard Barber's lucid, fair-minded, and wide-ranging book, we get it.
— Richard Jenkyns
The Times
Richard Barber's splendid new book presents a comprehensive survey of the search for the Holy Grail from the 12th century to the present day. It is part summary of the medieval romances and part synthesis of the commentary and interpretation that the Holy Grail has attracted...[T]his is a rich book, and like the romances it discusses, taps into a seemingly unending well of meaning. Barber has created a splendid foundation for a continuation to a compelling story.
— Juliette Wood
Daily Telegraph
Barber is an Arthurian expert whose purpose is to hack a path through the muddled, corrupted and conflicting versions of the grail story...[He] is scrupulous in his fairness, his conclusions are interesting and although he keeps his reins tight on some fun he might have had, he performs a valuable service in rescuing the original grail from 800 years of garbled and improbable misreadings.
— Nicholas Shakespeare
Sunday Telegraph
Richard Barber, who possesses both the medievalist expertise and the requisite calmness and clarity of thought...has produced a really valuable and fascinating book...Not only has Richard Barber dealt skilfully with the original medieval evidence; he has also traced the long after-life of the Grail legend, above all in its various 19th- and 20th-century avatars. This not only gives him the chance to investigate some modern literary history (Charles Williams, John Cowper Powys, et al); it also enables him to take a properly historical attitude to the various 'loony tunes' modern theories, by setting them in their own historical context...Overall, then, this is the most reassuringly sane of all modern writings on the whole 'Holy Grail' phenomenon. One finishes the book just wishing there were more works like it.
— Noel Malcolm
Washington Times
Consistently fascinating...It is essential reading for anyone interested in Arthurian romances and, chapter after chapter, offers sober correctives to countless misconceptions about the Grail and its supposed secret meanings...I doubt that anywhere else will one find so thorough and comprehensive an examination of the Grail, nor as careful and interesting a survey of the medieval stories that started it all. The Holy Grail is a major contribution to Arthuriana.
— Eric Wargo
Daily Mail
This is a stimulating study, which authoritatively explores one of the most enduring myths of Western culture. Its combination of scholarship and clarity might itself be described as an intellectual Holy Grail.
— Michael Arditti
The New York Times
Mr. Barber, the author of The Penguin Guide to Medieval Europe and The Knight and Chivalry, demonstrates a gift for lucid, lively prose and an ability to make highly complex developments — cutting across religion, literature and politics — both immediate and accessible … Though the current best seller The Da Vinci Code didn't make it into these pages, Mr. Barber provides a sweeping if cursory index of allusions to the Grail, in works ranging from T. S. Eliot's Waste Land to Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" to "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." — Michiko Kakutani
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674018150
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/30/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 488
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Barber is one of Britain's leading authorities on medieval history and the author of The Penguin Guide to Medieval Europe and The Knight and Chivalry.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgements
A Note on Names
Introduction 1
1 Imagining the Grail: Chretien de Troyes 9
2 Completing the Grail: Chretien continued 27
3 Sanctifying the Grail Hero: Robert de Boron 39
4 The Old Law and the New Law: The High Book of the Grail 46
5 Creating the Grail Hero: The Lancelot-Grail 53
6 Visions of Angels, Versions of Men: Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival 73
Epilogue to Part One 86
7 The Grail 91
8 The Setting of the Grail 104
9 Obscure Histories, Dubious Relics 116
10 The Eucharist and the Grail 135
11 The Holy Grail 148
12 The Secrets of the Grail 161
13 The Grail Outside the Romances 167
14 'There is a thing that's called the Gral' 173
15 The Adventures of the Grail: The Later German Romances 187
16 The Adventures of the Grail: The Last Flowering 198
Epilogue to Part Two 222
Interlude 227
17 The Scholars and the Grail 231
18 The Revival of the Grail 256
19 The Grail as Mirror 290
20 The Grail Today 321
21 The Question Answered? 356
Epilogue 367
App. 1 The Major Grail Romances 1180-1250 373
App. 2 Visual Images Relating to the Medieval Grail Stories 374
App. 3 Theological Terms Used in Text 378
App. 4 Use of the Term 'Holy Grail' in Major Newspapers, 1978-2002 380
Bibliography 381
Abbreviations 412
Notes 414
Index 441
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