The Round Table and the Quest for the Grail – II
The whole Arthurian narrative is an allegory, whose knots must be solved by interpreting the symbols. So far, we have described the adventures of the Round Table as the normal turn of events in the course of the life of knights. To be clearer, the aspiring knight arrives at the presence of King Arthur and presents his nobility by birthright, specifying his father’s name and lineage. He then sets firth his request to receive the knightly initiation. The King then either keeps him close by his side or entrusts him to some other castellan, earl, duke or King, who is well-known for his knowledge on the art of chivalry. The aspiring knight passes his early years at the service (sskrt. sevā) of the Lord of a castle, learning the rules, virtues and behaviors required by the chivalry order. He, then, advances to squire and is entrusted to an experienced knight who trains him in the use of weapons and the art of war. Once his intellectual, moral and physical abilities are proved, the King, or another master on his behalf, initiates him to knighthood. The transmission of rituals (sskrt. prakriyā) and invocations (sskrt. japa) follow immediately after. Finally, the knight sets out to venture from castle to castle, from monastery to monastery, putting into practice his righteousness and his fighting skills in order to accumulate experience and merits.
In the case of the Grail’s quest, the narrative is apparently similar. However, it must be interpreted in an internalized form. Wandering from one castle to another must be understood as an inner path. Each castle is a stage that corresponds to the conquest of a knowledge, a virtue or a domain over the elements. In each castle the knight enjoys the love and care of a Lady. Often, between stages, he is taught new knowledge and higher virtues by a wise hermit. Each stage presents initiatic tests, such as the fight with ghost-knights, dragons, giants, witches, which the errant knight must overcome and dominate. It is evident that each castle represents a subtle center (sskrt. cakra) and that in each castle he is helped in the search by a loving fairy (sskrt. yoginī, ḍākhinī). Hermits symbolize the deities (sskrt. devatā) who teach new invocations (as bīja mantra) and impart the corresponding knowledge (sskrt. mahāvidyā) to the knight. Eventually, the initiate reaches the summit of the mountain of salvation, corresponding to the highest ventricle of the heart. Up there stands Corbenic Castle, whose literal meaning is ‘the site black as the crow’s wing’. But what appears as darkness inside the heart is actually the blinding light of the Grail guarded there1. The initiate concludes his quest by satiating his eyes with the divine essence contained in the sacred vessel. The supreme Reality, in this initiatic tradition, is called Love (lat. Amor). This explains the importance of the love that the knight obtains from the Ladies encountered at every step along the path to the Grail. Those loves are gradual anticipations of the infinite Love that the knight will conquer with the conclusion of his quest. The Ladies are therefore fairies or divine powers (sskrt. Śaktis) that help the inner master, the Fisher King, leading the sādhaka to his goal2. It is for this reason that in the chivalrous path the Lady is often considered as an initiator. But the symbolic name of the Divinity sought by the knights has another meaning. Amor must also be interpreted as a-mors (sskrt. a-marta or a-mṛta), which in Latin means non-death, immortality. After the conquest of the Holy Grail, the knight can remain at Corbenic Castle; or, if he has a special mission, can return to the outer world to straighten tradition in virtue of his new knowledge. After his death, he ascends to the Kingdom of Heavens at the court of God, which in this perspective is identical to the Brahmaloka of Hinduism. The Brahmaloka is the celestial transposition of Montsalvat. Given the importance of the female role in this initiatic path, it is evident its resemblance to a tantric sādhana, in particular to Śrī Vidyā3.
Parsifal, for example, after being initiated to chivalry by Arthur, departs to the castle of Sir Gornemant de Gohort4 to be educated. This experienced knight, considering Parsifal’s questions overly naive, advises him never to ask for explanations again so not to appear foolish. After marrying the noble Lady Kondwiramur5, he embarks in the quest for the Grail. Along his journey, he comes across many adventures, duels and loves, and wandering from one castle to another he eventually reaches a lake near Montsalvat. There he runs into the King of the Grail under the guise of a simple fisherman. While conversing with the King Fisher, Parsifal sees a wonderful procession of ladies and knights passing by and carrying a vessel blazing of light. Intrigued, but made prudent by Gornemant’s advice, he does not enquire with the Fisher King on that prodigy. Having not asked the question, Parsifal fails in his mission to seize the Grail. Thus, the land remains waste and the King wounded. The necessity of the question illustrates the importance for the initiate to invoke knowledge from his master. If the disciple does not ask the question, the teacher does not give the answer and, therefore, the symbol remains without explanation.
Bors and Galahad, on the other hand, having chosen a caste life (sskrt. brahmacārya), are not limited to the contemplation of the symbol of the Grail. They ask the question and, therefore, gain access to the contemplation of what is contained in the vessel. Galahad, surrendering to the Supreme Mystery contained in the vessel, merges with it and leaves his body. Then, along with the spiritual Grail, ascends to the highest of heavens where he remains forever immersed in bliss6.
Bors also conquers the Grail and, thus, heals the wounded King. He then decides to bring the sacred vessel to Camelot. But it was too late to establish the Universal Empire. A civil war had broken out devastating even more the Waste Land. The conflict ends with the death of the rebel Mordred. Also Arthur is mortally wounded and transported prodigiously to the island of Avalon7, in the middle of the Ocean. There, he remains between life and death, waiting to return and bring back the tradition to the West8.
Although connected to each other, the tales on the quest for the Saint Grail are distinct from those of Arthur and the Round Table. The search is the representation of the inner path of the initiates of chivalry, of their endeavors and their acquisition of knowledge and virtue. For some knights, the initiatic path stops at some initial or intermediate stage. In this case, the knight remains madly in love with a beautiful chatelaine and neglects to continue his search. In other tales, he is taken prisoner by an evil fairy, an ogre, or a ghost-knight, thus prematurely ending his inner quest. Others renounce their quest and return to lead a worldly life in Camelot Castle. Few among them, however, reach Corbenic Castle and obtain the vision of the Grail. Only two heroes (sskrt. vīra) eventually drink at Holy Wisdom. After accomplishing this, they have two possibilities: they can either remain there until death to contemplate the divine vessel as King or knights of the Grail9, or they can return to the exterior world radiating the benefits of the divine wisdom. Therefore, the tale of quest for the Grail can be considered as a handbook on the path of inner purification, leading all the way up to the highest spiritual goal.
Instead, the narrations of the Round Table, which are the introduction to the search for the Grail, are the description, in the exoteric domain, of the efforts for the restoration of a Universal Empire to replace the collapsed Roman Empire. Arthur, following the guidance of his druid-master Merlin, establishes a kingdom of peace and justice and founds the initiatic order of the knights of the Round Table. However, unless a knight realizes the inner knowledge of the Grail, the grandiose restoration design cannot be spiritually completed. Arthur, therefore, is a figure in which one can recognize Charlemagne and those successors of his who were most aware of the imperial mission.
Unfortunately, Arthurian novels testify to the partial or even complete failure of the Imperial restauration dream. The foundation of the Holy Roman Empire could not be completed due to a lack of knights qualified to reverberating the divine light into the outer world. Even though certain Emperors and feudal Lords possessed high knowledge, adverse circumstances and personalities hindered their efforts to realize the religious, political and social order. The Empire remained an unachieved esoteric project for the foundation of a complete Tradition. The lore concerning Arthur’s unconscious state following the fatal wound suffered in battle, hints to the possibility of a return to complete his universal dream, however, testifies to an undying awareness that not everything was lost.
Thus, these literature appeared in the described historical period and served as written guides indicating how the Imperial Christian tradition could have been properly established. On several occasions, the prophetic vision narrated by these novels and tales was nearly realized. But, once again, Galahad-Bors arrived too late. The last “world’s best knight” was embodied by Dante Alighieri, master of the complete wisdom of the warrior esoteric tradition. But even he, as we will see soon, arrived too late to restore the Empire.
It is interesting to note the behavior of the Catholic Church towards the legend of the Grail. The Cistercian monk Hélinand of Froidmont (1160-1229), who first reported the story of Joseph of Arimathea and the Grail, wrote:
“That basin or vessel, which is called the Grail, is a large and quite deep bowl, in which, according to its own rituals, precious foods are presented with solemnity […] I have been not able to find this story in Latin, but only in French, written by some noblemen; it was not an easy task, but, as they say, [seeking, at last] you can find everything.”10
“Despite its definitely religious character11, the legend was not recognized by the Church and the clergy. No ecclesiastical writer tells us about the Grail. In the so rich ecclesiastical literature available, nowhere can we even recall mentioning the name of the Grail, except in work of the chronicler Hélinand. However, they could not have ignored the wonderful tale of this symbol of faith. Rather, they must have perpetuated a conspiracy of silence around the legend.”12
As we said at the beginning, the texts relating to the Grail appeared in a short period of time and then retracted as if a precise obstacle or danger had been felt.
At the Council of Verona in 1184, pope Lucius III instituted the Inquisition against heretics and schismatics. At once, however, the Inquisition was also used by the papacy for other purposes; on the one hand to strike the Empire, seen as a threat to the temporal power of the pope, on the other hand to repress the initiatic organizations that, being above his religious authority, escaped his control. The consequence was that from that moment the initiatic ways of Western Europe, although protected by Imperial favor, had to hide even more in order to operate and survive.
- “[…] In this citadel of Brahmā [Brahmapura] which is like a palace, there is a little lotus who has inside a small space. That, in truth, must be sought to get the Knowledge” (Chāndogya Upaniṣad, VIII.1.1); “There the sun does not shine and neither does the moon and the stars, nor do the flashes of lightning shine. How can this fire light it? He [the Ātman] shining all these shine, through his lustre all these are variously enlightened” (Kaṭha Up. II.2.15; Śvetāśvatara Up. VI. 14; Muṇḍaka Up. II.2.10). It is well known that vessel and lotus are interchangeable symbols. In the macrocosmic perspective, the citadel of Brahmā is situated on the top of Mount Meru (Viṣṇu Purāṇa, II.21).
- To the knight who conquered the Grail is given in wife the daughter of the Fisher King, whose name Repanse de Schoye, ‘full of joy’ (sskrt. pūrṇānanda) epitomizes her true nature. Parsifal, when in his second attempt becomes King of the Grail, offers her in marriage to his pagan half-brother Feirefiz. Since the state of decay of the Waste Land is beyond repairing, the newlyweds take the sacred vessel to India, considered as home of the Primordial Tradition (G.G. Filippi, “La Cerca del San Graal e il suo significato”, Parsifal, Venezia, ed. Gran Teatro La Fenice, 1983, pp. 46-55.). He who has successfully completed the spiritual quest forever joins the state of bliss (sskrt, ānanda). In the Mahābhārata the king Śantanu, during an unaccompanied hunt (in Hindū tradition the quest is often replaced by the hunt motif), runs into Satyavatī, the daughter of the Fisher King (sskrt, dāśarāja), with whom he falls in love and marries. Satyavatī means ‘full of Truth’. In a tale of the 11th century (Somadeva, Katharsaritsāgar, V.2) the Fisher King (here named dāśapati) is identified to Manu Satyavrata, as he was called before the last flood.
- It is also true that Saint Bernard, whose relationship with the Templars is well known, was the founder of a Christian current which can well be called tantric. This current was based on veneration of the female element represented by the Virgin Mary, considered as a mediator (Lat. advocata nostra) between the human worshippers and God. He was the first to mention her as Madame (my Lady) and to call himself the ‘Knight of the Virgin’. The presence of Tantrism in the West is, however, much older, as it is testified in ancient Greek epics, where the main steps of the initiatic journey of Odysseus are marked by loves with different Goddesses or Nymphs.
- ‘Ornament of the Cohorts, i.e. ‘Glory of the Army’.
- ‘Leading to Love’.
- In other accounts, Gawain, conquers Lady Orgueluse and makes her his wife. That is, he overcomes the sin of pride, the most common sin among the knights. Transcending his inclination to pride, he is able to ask the question and, finally, becomes King of the Grail.
- The island of Apollo or Belen, the Sun God of the Celts.
- It is generally said that Arthur will come back at the end of the current human cycle to bring back the order and to prepare the future cycle.
- In the Parzifal and in the Titurel of the Templar Knight and great poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170-1220) the knights who reside and guard the castle on the Montsalvat, are named Templists. A historical allusion of great importance, which makes us understand the initiatic function of the Order of the Temple for Western Christianity.
- Edward Strachey, Le Morte d’Arthur, Plano Tx., Digireads.com, 2017 (I Ed. London- New York, 1876), addendum.
- Rather than ‘Religious’, it would have been more correct to define ‘initiatic’ the character of the legend of the Grail. It is evident that in these tales there is no trace of the clergy. Only monks and hermits appear, performing magisterial functions both in doctrine and conduct. It is no coincidence that the only ecclesiastic (Hieromonk, the Byzantines would say) who has spoken of the Grail, Hélinand of Froidmont, was a Cistercian like Saint Bernard. Ibid.
- Eduard Wechssler, Die Sage vom heiligen Gral in ihrer entwicklung bis auf Richard Wagners Parsifal, San Bernardino, California, Ulan Press, 2012 (I Ed. Hall 1898), p. 9.