Search Eleusinianm

Previous . . Home . . Contents . . Next

The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages

13

SIR PERCEVAL AND THE GRAAL

In Chrétien de Troyes' final work, the Conte du Graal, 'The Story of the Grail', which is of a similar length to all the others of his that have come down to us (the significance of this statement will become apparent shortly) this mysterious object, spelt 'graal' by Chrétien, makes its first appearance in writing. In a very real sense the present book is a quest for the 'Graal'. Because the whole point of the graal in Chrétien's story was a quest to understand it, not to find it. Perceval found the 'graal' in the castle of the Fisher King. It appeared as part of a procession behind a spear and two candelabra and was followed by a platter. The procession appeared to be some sort of domestic ritual and the word 'graal' itself was used by Chrétien as though it was an everyday word for a common object from which food was served. Perceval wanted to know what it all meant, but he didn't ask.

Blood was flowing from the tip of the spear that preceded the graal and the candelabra. We have already seen Sir Gawain throwing a spear at the face of his host in 'The Carle of Carlisle', a churlish host who then changed identity and became a nobleman. In an Irish tale of the Ultonian cycle, there is a spear with the property that the blood of enemies will flow from its tip, and whenever this happens, a cauldron filled with poison is required to staunch it. The Welsh Mabinogion tale of Perceval, called Peredur son of Evrawg, features a mythical monster that from the safety of a stone pillar 'kills everyone with poisoned stone spears.' In another part of the story, there is a vessel filled with warm water into which dead bodies are immersed and then rubbed with ointment, after which they miraculously come back to life again. Perhaps the two candelabra are similar to those at the prow of the Breton boat which carried Guigemar in a bed across the sea. But we shall never know. Perceval remained silent and a man's infirmity continued through Perceval's not asking what it all meant. His failure, as Chrétien makes clear, was in not asking.

As the 'loathly lady' admonishes Peredur - yes, the same loathly lady who slept beneath Diarmuid's blanket - in the Welsh version of the Grail story: 'When you sat in the hall of the maimed king and saw the spear paraded before you with blood running down its shaft, and other marvellous things as well, you did not ask for their meaning to be explained, nor did you show any interest in them. If you had done this, the king would have recovered his health...'.

Chrétien de Troyes' poem is ostensibly unfinished and it is widely believed that he died before completing it. The poem leaves Perceval in mid-quest, trying to rediscover the Graal Castle in order to ask the questions that he had failed to ask before. But it can legitimately be asked whether Perceval is in fact still looking, as the story follows Sir Gawain through a long train of events that ends the poem in mid-sentence. There is evidence, presented in a moment, to suppose that he is not. In fact, it can be argued, and will be argued shortly, that the story does end. It ends in an ellipsis. Chrétien de Troyes had said all that he had wanted to.

The apparently unfinished state of Chrétien's poem has diminished its impact slightly and focused attention unjustifiably on the many re-tellings and attempts by other authors to round the story off. Some writers simply tagged on a continuation to Chrétien de Troyes' story. Others, like the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, retold it with a seemingly proper ending. All of these, in part at least, Christianised the tale. From the pen of Robert de Boron came the association with Joseph of Arimathea and the cup that Christ used at the Last Supper, an association that fuelled a later Cistercian quest by the hero Sir Galahad and by many other, more sinful knights of the Round Table, for the Holy Grail. As far back as the age of Pope Gregory I (AD 540-604) a Catholic edict had urged the Roman Church to reform and absorb pagan rites and rituals into Christian practice wherever possible. Hence, sacred wells, for example, might be allowed to retain their sanctity but in association with the miracle-working of a Christian Saint. And so with this troublesome and enigmatic story. Even in the thirteenth century, Chrétien's graal was seized, melted down and reformed into the Holy Grail.

And Chrétien's story is troublesome. Perceval is the young and naive son of a knight, brought up in seclusion by his mother. On reaching an age at which his warrior instincts overwhelm him, and seeing knights for the first time, he leaves his mother abruptly and journeys to King Arthur's court with the intention of being made a knight himself.

Treating the King in the friendly but outlandish and arrogant way he may have treated his mother, he is sent out to capture the arms of a hostile knight who has just left the court and whom Perceval passed on the way in. Perceval, astonishingly, defeats this knight armed only with a hunting spear and dons the knight's red armour. Thus regaled, he rides away, leaving one of King Arthur's squires to hurry back to the King's court to tell of the marvellous encounter he has just witnessed.

So here is an instance of the ubiquitous motif yet again. Having left King Arthur's court, this bumptious youth in shaggy deerskin trousers has changed his appearance. The red armour, it may come as some surprise, or perhaps as no surprise, has fitted him perfectly.

And when Perceval returns to King Arthur's court, he is not recognised, despite the knowledge that this youth has donned these red arms, and despite the fact that King Arthur is specifically looking for him at this time; just as Lancelot was not recognised when issuing from the Dolorous Castle, or Tristan, when arriving back in Ireland to bring the young Isolde with him to Cornwall, or as Gawain, Lancelot, Galehot and Hector were disguised as other people when riding to King Arthur's aid from Galehot's strange island. Or Sir Gareth when coming from the Isle of Avalon. When, after adventures to be described in a moment, Perceval returns to King Arthur's court, which is now encamped in pavilions, nobody recognises him. He fights in his red arms with two knights of King Arthur's retinue as though he is a complete stranger, despite the fact that King Arthur is looking for him and knows what he looks like! The reason given for this mutual failure of recognition is perhaps purposely ludicrous. A bird brought down by a hawk has left a patch of fresh blood in the snow, and it reminds Perceval of the damsel he loves; just as the white, red and black of a raven drinking the blood of a dead calf in the snow once fired hopes within an Irish damsel's heart that her highborn Celtic lover would have equally black hair, rosy cheeks and pale complexion! Caught in a deep reverie, Perceval defeats one knight and then lapses immediately into thoughtful oblivion. Sir Kay rides out, and here we have evidence for the slightly odd nature of King Arthur's court which we will look at more closely a little later. Sir Kay had slapped a lady while Perceval was seeking his knighthood and Perceval vowed to avenge her hurt. It never seemed to occur to him, however, having captured the red arms, to ride back to King Arthur's court in order to confront Sir Kay, although this would have been in keeping with his impetuous personality. Rather, he sent first one defeated knight, then another, and finally yet another to King Arthur bearing a message to remind Sir Kay that the maiden would be avenged. It is almost as though something was preventing him from returning himself. It was not a lack of confidence in his martial prowess, nor an unwillingness to face Sir Kay. But here at last, in the snow, Perceval faces the maiden's assailant, and neither recognises the other. Only when Sir Gawain comes out, after Sir Kay has sustained a broken arm from a fall occasioned by a blow from Sir Perceval's oblivious but deadly lance, does Perceval snap out of his hypnotic trance and recognise where he is. Only then is the spell broken.

Wolfram von Eschenbach, writing a decade or two after Chrétien de Troyes and following his story line quite closely up to the point where Chrétien breaks off, goes to great literary lengths to justify and rationalise this curious incident in the snow. It illustrates, for him, the power, often the destructive power, of love. But in the original work of Chrétien, the incident is presented in its full absurdity. There is no attempt to rationalise it; it is almost as though Chrétien wanted to alert his listeners, or his readers, to a mythological moment in the story, leaving it up to them to interpret it as they might.

Wolfram von Eschenbach puts a different 'spin' on the incident in the snow. He also makes two omissions from Chrétien's story earlier in the tale. When Chrétien's Perceval leaves his mother she gives him some advice. Always be ready to assist maidens in distress, she says. But when they show their gratitude, don't go further than kissing them. You may take a ring or a purse. Keep company with gentlemen, and always go to church and chapel and pray to our Lord and Saviour. 'What do you mean by "chapel",' asks the unworldly Perceval, and his mother explains. There is nothing of this last pious entreaty in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival. Probably he simply thought it unimportant and able to be discarded. But might it be another subtlety in Chrétien's poem?

Very soon after setting out, Perceval comes across a pavilion where a lady is lying on a bed. Following his mother's advice, so he thinks, to the letter, Perceval forces this lady to kiss him and steals a ring from her finger. This causes the lady much lasting distress when her lover returns. Listening to his mother's advice has led Perceval into serious error.

From this pavilion Perceval finds his way to King Arthur's court, asks to be knighted, is abused by Kay (who slaps the girl), defeats the Red Knight, dons his armour, and finds his way to the house of a gentleman who, seeing that Perceval has not the first clue how to use his new arms, instructs the young man in the martial arts. On parting, this gentleman knights Perceval and gives him advice which includes an instruction not to ask too many questions or speak out of turn. 'It is sinful to talk too much,' he tells him.

'And accept another piece of advice I would give you,' instructs the gentleman. 'Go willingly to church and ask our good Lord that you might remain a true Christian, and pray that he has mercy upon you and will hold you in his safekeeping.' Again, and curiously for a text that reproduces Chrétien's plot very faithfully in most ways, there is nothing of this last piece of advice in Wolfram von Eschenbach's version of the story.

It is soon after this that Perceval arrives at the castle of the Fisher King, a castle that emerges only slowly and mysteriously from a wilderness of forest. Here he witnesses the curious procession of spear, candelabra, platter and, particularly, the mysterious graal. By following the gentleman's advice and keeping silent, Perceval commits his greatest blunder of the tale, and one from which he never recovers, in Chrétien's version.

Perhaps it is coincidence that both these pieces of advice which lead Perceval into trouble and wrongdoing contain, in the original story by Chrétien de Troyes, the recommendation to be a good Christian. Or perhaps Chrétien was having a small joke at the expense of the Church.

Before we look at clues to the true identity of the Graal, from Chrétien himself, from Wolfram von Eschenbach and from the later Grail authors, there is the matter of whether Chrétien de Troyes had really finished his story when he left it in mid-sentence.

After the visit to King Arthur's court of a loathly lady, who is every bit as loathly as the hag that Sir Gawain was forced to marry and the Otherworldly crones who appear in the ancient Irish tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill, a shamed Perceval sets off to try to find the Graal Castle again. He had been resting with King Arthur and his retinue following the fight with Sir Kay in the snow, prior to her arrival. 'In place of eyes she had two small holes; her nose was like a monkey's, ...' and she had derided him for his failure to ask what was going on in the Graal Castle. 'The man is disgraced who lets an opportune moment pass in the hope of stumbling across a still better one,' she had declared. 'And you are that contemptible man...'. So Perceval sets off again to try to find the Fisher King.

But the reader, instead, finds himself, or herself, following a succession of adventures embarked upon by Sir Gawain, and catches up with Sir Perceval only much later, and for a final time, on the morning of Good Friday. Five years have elapsed since Perceval left King Arthur's court. During this time he has sent sixty 'worthy knights' to the King. But a curious statement opens this powerful scene. 'Perceval, as the story tells us, had so mislaid his memory that all thought of God had vanished from his mind.' This comes as a shock to the reader because nowhere up until now has anything like this been so much as hinted at. It is a bolt from the blue. All we knew was that Sir Perceval was seeking the Graal Castle in order to ask the questions that he had failed to ask the first time, and for which the 'loathly lady' had so admonished and derided him. He had set off to try to show the curiosity he had failed to show before. Perhaps the very act of showing this curiosity, or of wishing to ask the questions he had failed to ask, was tantamount to a renunciation of God.

Perceval meets, on the morning of Good Friday, with some pilgrims returning from a hermit's chapel, visits the hermit himself and is reunited with God. But then, surprisingly, he falls away from the story completely. Almost as a negation of the later Cistercian quest for the Holy Grail, Perceval finds God by seemingly abandoning his search for the Graal. He stays with the hermit for a while and then Chrétien informs us that: ''The tale no longer speaks of Perceval at this point; you will have heard a great deal about my lord Gawain before I speak of Perceval again.' Chrétien de Troyes had no intention of speaking of Perceval again! Perceval has abandoned his quest now that he has re-embraced the Christian God. The quest is taken up by Sir Gawain.

And indeed it is. In this final part of the romance, Gawain is charged to take up the search for the castle of the Fisher King before returning in a year's time to face single combat. But instead of finding this Graal Castle, he engages in a sequence of adventures that recall Lancelot in and around the Dolorous Castle and in the 'land from which no stranger returns'. He crosses the boundary into Galloway, despite being warned by a knight who lies close to death that 'no knight who followed those tracks and crossed those meadows has ever come back.' Gawain crosses into Galloway anyway and finds a castle in which there is a strange maiden who agrees to accompany him, but only to enjoy the pleasure of seeing the hardship he will endure, 'for I am certain,' she says, 'that I will bring about your discomfort: it is as inevitable as death.' Gawain rides back with this maiden and meets again with the seriously wounded knight, whom his lady fears is dead. But by giving him a herb found in the hedgerow, Gawain revives him enough for the knight to wish to ride to someone who can administer to him the last rites. But as Gawain turns his back, this knight leaps onto Gawain's own horse, Gringolet, and gallops off, fully recovered.

Now on an old nag, Gawain's journey takes him to an enchanted castle which can only be reached by ferry across some water. The castle itself is full of ladies, recalling the Isle of Ladies or the Land of Women that Bran sailed to. No knight has ever before gained entry to this place, in the same way that the Dolorous Castle had never before been conquered until Lancelot defeated its ten murderous defenders. And as we shall see in a moment, it is truly a Castle of the Dead.

The particular danger of this castle consists of a perilous bed. It is a bed that is similar to the one that Lancelot lay on in the hall to which he was led in a cart in Chrétien's 'The Knight of the Cart'. Lancelot survived, or appeared to survive, a burning javelin cast through the mattress; one of many symbolic deaths that he had to endure before reaching 'the land from which no stranger returns' (the precise expression used by Kibler and Carroll (1991) is '...the kingdom from which no foreigner returns.' If we can assume from the necessary means of entry into this place that it is a land of the dead, the implication is that anyone returning from it to our world and looking like a newcomer to us (or a stranger) is not one).

This hall, in the Graal story, has five hundred windows of glass, and in Wolfram von Eschenbach's version the bed lies on a floor of glass. In this perilous hall, Gawain survives an attack by five hundred arrows and crossbow bolts and then the hostile intentions of a savage lion.

There is a clear parallel, then, with Chrétien's earlier story. And in fact the parallels do not end here. Again, as in The Knight of the Cart, events are duplicated. Gawain rides into Galloway, a land, we are told, from which no knight has ever returned. But he returns. Then he arrives, in the company of the malevolent damsel, at the banks of a stretch of water that separates them from an enchanted castle. Defeating a knight who has attacked him, this knight is given by Gawain to a boatman to ferry across the water towards the castle, just as souls were once entrusted to the ferryman Charon to take across the river Styx. Then Gawain himself crosses this stretch of water and achieves the adventure of the enchanted castle, surviving (seemingly) the hail of arrows and the attentions of the lion. He is the first ever to have done so.

Or is he? For inside are a multitude of maidens and squires, all under the governance of a white-haired old lady, her daughter and her granddaughter; maiden, mother and hag, a threefold female presence we have met with before. Gawain refuses to give his name, in the same way that knights sometimes arrive at King Arthur's court without any recollection of their names, as we will see. Perhaps even more puzzlingly, he recognises neither the old lady nor her daughter; puzzlingly because he is later told that the elder lady is none other than the mother of King Arthur, and that her daughter is none other than his own mother. Sir Gawain's own mother! But King Arthur has not had a mother for sixty years, we are told, and Sir Gawain's mother has been dead for twenty years. She died while still carrying in her womb Gawain's unborn sister, who is now alive and well in the castle - and very beautiful, of course. Can there be any further doubt that this is a Castle of the Dead?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Sir Gawain is initially under the impression that he cannot leave the castle. It is, indisputably, a place of the dead. But, in fact, Sir Gawain finds himself able to sally forth quite easily into the countryside surrounding the castle and its encircling moat, just as Lancelot was able to from the Dolorous Castle - which later became the Joyous Castle.

Soon afterwards he is outside again, where he meets with the malevolent damsel once more, defeats another knight, whom the boatman also leads away, and leaps his horse across a 'Perilous Ford'. 'You have achieved today a thing that no knight has ever before attempted,' observes a knight whom Gawain encounters on the other side of the river. 'Your leap into the Perilous Ford required great courage, and be assured that no knight before you has ever come out of it again.' Here then, is more of the duplication that we saw earlier.

But just as we might expect, the land is beginning to lose its enchantment. Soon the mythical, or metaphoric, ambience begins to melt away to reveal something approaching normality. Sir Gawain returns quite effortlessly across the ford and, with his damsel, is ferried by the boatman back across the other stretch of water to the castle. Here, he sends a squire off to ride to King Arthur with a message to meet him in the meadow beside the castle with his entire court as retinue. Five hundred squires who were incarcerated with the ladies are made knights by Sir Gawain, and are now able to ride off at will. At least, one feels certain they are, because right at the outset Gawain was told by the boatman that if such a knight as he were to achieve the adventure of the castle: 'he could govern there and restore the ladies to their lands and bring an end to many conflicts. He could find husbands for the damsels, give the squires the knighthoods they all seek, and quickly rid the place of its enchantment.' The castle is now a part of the real world and its inhabitants - even those who were dead! - reunited with this world.

Chrétien may have wished to leave the tale hanging at this point. He may have felt he had nothing further to say. The story ends in an ellipsis. The dead have been released, the wasteland restored, the questions answered.

These are the adventures which take up the story of the hunt for answers to questions that dared not be framed in Medieval Christendom. Where Perceval failed, Sir Gawain achieves success. And in Wolfram von Eschenbach's version of the story, there is a curious point of contact between Gawain's encounter with this Castle of the Dead and with Parzival's (or Perceval's) own encounter with the Graal. When Gawain asks the ferryman and his daughter who the ladies are that he has seen at the windows of the fortress across the water, he is rebuked for asking such a question. They beg him not to ask. Such foolish curiosity will cause his death, they insist. Here, then, is a question prompted by curiosity, a question of the same kind that Perceval failed to ask at the castle of the Fisher King, when he should have asked, according to Chrétien's loathly lady, why the spear bled and who was served by the graal. But by asking the question he did - who are the ladies at the windows of the castle across the water? - Sir Gawain is coached by the ferryman in the course of action he should take when he arrives at the perilous hall, achieves the adventure of the castle and secures the release of the ladies so that they can find husbands, and their squires can sally forth as knights. In Chrétien's story, Gawain succeeds where Perceval fails.

In Wolfram von Eschenbach's ending, Parzival is eventually taken to the Graal Castle and becomes the keeper of the Gral (Graal, Grail). Its ending is undeniably Christian. In Chrétien de Troyes' version, the earlier version, it is Sir Gawain alone who achieves success. But there is one aspect of Wolfram's story that remains fascinating. This is his description of the Graal, or Gral, itself.

In all the other Grail stories, it is a vessel of some sort. Chrétien himself does not describe the use to which the graal is put, implying only that it is something from which someone is served at a feast. It is made of gold and set with precious stones. When it was carried in, by a maiden, a great light was emitted which dimmed the candles, in the way that the stars are dimmed when the sun rises.

Perceval encountered this mysterious vessel, in Chrétien's story, inside a strange and Otherworldly castle. He had wanted to cross a river and on being told that there was no way of doing so before nightfall, he had accepted an invitation of shelter for the night. But upon climbing a ridge in the direction he had been shown, he could see no building at all in the forested landscape that spread before him. Then, like a fairy castle, it emerged into sight. Within this castle lived a maimed king, and it was whilst dining with him that Perceval witnessed the strange procession. First came the lance that dripped blood down onto the hand of the young squire carrying it. Then came two young men carrying candelabra filled with candles, followed by a maiden with a 'graal' that filled the hall with such light that the candles lost all their brilliance. Then came a silver carving dish. At every course of the meal, the graal was paraded, uncovered, around the table and the food was the best that Perceval had ever tasted. But he failed to ask who at this banquet was served by the graal.

Perhaps Sir Thomas Malory can answer this. In the later, Christian epic, retold by Sir Thomas Malory in his story of Sir Galahad and the 'Sankgreal', the original mystery remains. 'Then into the hall came the Holy Grail, covered with a white cloth, and it was not at all clear how it was being carried about. Suddenly there was a smell of roasting meat and spices and beautiful dishes, and every knight found in front of him the food and drink that he loved best in all this world - 'And there was all the halle fulfylled with good odoures, and every knyght had such metis (food) and drynkes as he beste loved in thys worlde.' This description very much recalls a 'pail', or perhaps a cauldron, that Maeldun encountered on an island set in an enchanted sea in the twelfth century Irish tale of his wanderings: Maeldun, who embarked upon a similar voyage to Bran. '"Greetings, Maeldun,"' said a lady who kept a fortress with a glass bridge on one of the islands 'and everyone was welcomed as though she knew them by name, and there was food and wine in plenty, all from a single cauldron, and everyone found within that vessel that which he most wished to find.' So here, perhaps, is the answer to one of the questions that Perceval should have asked. Question - who is served by the Graal? Answer - everybody!

Wolfram von Eschenbach described the 'Gral' thus: that in its presence one may stretch out one's hand and find whatever one wishes to find - it is there waiting; 'salads, hot dishes, food one has loved since childhood, new culinary creations that one has never tasted before, meat and game...'.

Before the entry of the Gral into the hall, the bleeding lance had been paraded, followed by eighteen maidens carrying golden candelabra, ivory trestles, a sheet of precious stone to form a tabletop, candles and silver knives. Then six more maidens preceded a princess who carried the Gral. 'The refined gathering happily accepted everything the Gral provided. Parzival looked about him and saw the magnificence of it all, but in keeping with the rules of etiquette as he understood them, he did not ask any questions.'

At the hermit's forest home, on Good Friday, Parzival learns more about the Gral. It sustains a company of Templars, warrior-monks, he is told. 'And this is the way they are fed,' explains the hermit. 'A stone provides for them, and it is through this stone that the Phoenix is reduced to the cinders from which he is reborn again. In this way the Phoenix moults his feathers and becomes pristine and beautiful once more.' The stone gives such power to humankind that their bodies are made young again and on Good Friday it accepts everything that the Earth produces in the way of food and drink. Whatever the Earth produces, the Gral contains.

A vessel that provides everything a man or a woman might wish for in the way of food and drink, or a stone that does the same thing, particularly in the springtime, when the land of northern Europe casts off the barren mantle of winter. Perhaps the Grail is beginning to take shape.

In Irish mythology, the 'King of the Floods' lived on an island across a magical sea and owned a great cauldron, a 'cauldron of plenty', that was never without food but always had enough in it to feed the whole world. The Tuatha de Danaan had pigs that were slaughtered for meat one day and were found alive and well again the next. And in another of the tales retold by Lady Gregory and set in the ancient, mythical world of pagan Ireland, Credhe is a lady of the Otherworld whose home is thatched with birds' wings and filled with marvellous vessels. When a horn is dunked into Credhe's cauldron, four apples always fall into the vessel from a tree growing beside it. In other words, nature replenishes all that is taken from this vat. Credhe also has a bowl containing the juice of berries that will restore youth, and she owns a crystal well.

One of the earliest poetic works of Geoffrey Chaucer's to survive is his translation from Old French into Middle English of a part of 'Le Roman de la Rose' and this features a crystal 'well'; in other words, a spring. The Romance of the Rose, remember, 'that is an heresye ageyns my lawe...' - a heresy - as God rebuked Chaucer while he stood in a meadow among a multitude of ladies surrounding Alcestis, who had been turned into a daisy. This romance features a 'well' and two stones. The poet wanders into a walled garden that shares some idyllic similarities with the island in which the dreamer found himself in the poem 'The Isle of Ladies'. It is a self-contained paradise. A self-contained world. Every tree is charged with fruit: pomegranates, nutmeg, almonds, figs, dates; and spice trees, cloves, liquorice, ginger and cardamom. And many familiar trees - apple, peach, pear, plum, chestnut and cherry. Nuts and berries were a comfort to see; high laurels and pines were everywhere, cypress and olives, so rare in England, great elms, sycamore, ash, oak, high planes, spreading yews, poplars and beautiful lindens, and a host of others.

'How can I describe it further?' asks the poet. 'There were so many trees that it is impossible to pause long enough to give a description of them all.

'These trees,' he continues, 'were mostly spaced about ten or fifteen yards apart, but all were broad and high. And to keep out the sun, the highest branches were so densely interlaced, knitted together and covered with green leaves that direct sunlight could not penetrate strongly enough to harm the tender grasses beneath. There were deer wandering in the shade, does and roes, a great number of squirrels leaping from bough to bough and rabbits leaving their burrows to play games on the grass.

The Springs

'There were many crystal-clear springs in a pleasant shade. I cannot number the many small streams that bubbled merrily along. By these springs, and beside all these streams, the grass lay like velvet, on which a man might make love with his woman as on a feather bed, for the ground was soft and sweet. The moisture kept the grass lush, as though cared for by hand, and the ground was covered with blooms, both winter and summer-flowering. There were fresh violets, the trailing myrtle, yellow flowers, white and red; such an abundance that it surpassed all meadows. I shall not linger unduly in my description, since it is impossible fully to describe half the beauty of this scene. I walked to right and to left about the place and did not cease until I had explored every arbour and every secret place in the garden. And as I wandered, the God of Love was always behind me, following in the same way that a hunter stalks a deer, until he sees his moment to strike. I rested beneath a pine tree, beside a spring, and there had not been seen for many an age such a tall and handsome tree; it was the tallest in the garden. And welling from marble ground beneath the pine tree was a spring, and on the stone was written, in small letters: 'Here died the fair Narcissus'.

Narcissus

'Narcissus was a young man who was so badly trapped in the net of love that grief killed him. For a beautiful lady loved him and bore such pain because of her love that she told Narcissus that she would die if he could not love her in return. Her name was Echo. But Narcissus, despite her pleas, would not grant this. And so she died. But before she died, she prayed to the gods that Narcissus himself might be overcome by an equally painful and hopeless love as hers and feel the sorrow that she felt. This reasonable prayer the gods acceded to and Narcissus, to cut a long story short, came into the shade above this spring to rest from hunting. He was weary from a day's activity, thirsty, hot and out of breath. When he came to the spring he thought he would refresh himself in the clear, bright water beneath the shade of the tree. He fell on his knees and reached forward in order to drink from the spring, and in the water he saw looking back at him his own bright features, his nose, his mouth and eyes. Seized by a self-conscious awe, he was undone by his own reflection. He knew he was looking at a child of great beauty. Love could now direct Narcissus's own vanity against himself, for he mused so deeply beside the spring that before very long he had fallen so much in love with his own reflection that he died of grief and longing. For when he saw that there was no way he could give expression to his passion, nor have it returned, he was lost. And thus he got his reward from the lady he had rejected.

'When this inscription had told me that this was the pool of Narcissus, I drew away from it out of fear, knowing what had happened there.

The Spring

'But at last I thought that, since it could do no harm, surely, to go and see THE SPRING, why should I be hesitant? So I went over to it again and bent down to see the clear water running over the stone and gravel that shone like silver; it was the clearest spring I had ever seen, with fresh water welling up into a small fountain a few inches in height. And about it, the grass was lush and I was convinced that there was no more likelihood of this grass dying in winter than there was of the sea running dry. Down at the bottom of the water I saw two stones of crystal. And I shall tell you something that is true but which you will find marvellous. For when the bright sun cast its warm beams down through the water and onto the stone, then the stone took from the sun a hundred colours. And moreover, the marvellous crystal had such power that the entire place, the birds, the trees and all the green leaves, in fact all of the garden, could be seen reflected in it. And so that you can understand, I shall explain; in the same way that a mirror reflects everything in front of it, so the crystal stone, without a lie, revealed the hidden parts of the garden to he who gazed into the spring. Half of the garden could be seen, and if the gazer were to alter his position, he could see the remainder of the garden - everything. For there was nothing, however small, so well hidden that it could not be seen in the crystal.'

Like Wolfram von Eschenbach's Gral, the focus of this inclusiveness is a stone. A crystal, like those around Chrétien's graal and around Credhe's well. But it is also a vessel, a spring, whose waters lead, in a thousand Irish Celtic tales, to the Otherworld. The world beyond the grave. But this world reflects the real world. And much more than this, it is the pool of Narcissus, who saw only himself reflected in the water. Why else lead the reader to a 'pool of Narcissus' unless it is to bring into the front of the reader's mind the vital episode of a well-known story and to make clear that the reflection is that of the gazer himself? And what did the poet see reflected in the waters? Not his own face but the entire garden, the entire self-contained and complete garden, deer, squirrels, trees, flowers - everything! A garden that was enclosed and contained everything that exists on the Earth. The entire Earth itself.

Here is a riddle. What is made of stone and provides everything that one needs on this Earth? Choose a sunny day, go into a quarry lined with trees, feel a gentle breeze against your face and ask yourself this question.

Next

eleusinianm : Old Religion of Britain about · author · contact