The Holy Grail by Richard Barber is a detailed study of the history of an enduring, yet mutable, legend.

The book is structured into three main sections. The first part describes the creation of the grail, based on a close reading of the original source texts by Chretien de Troyes and his successors, by Robert de Boron and others and by Wolfram von Eschenbach, author of Parsifal.

The survey provides the reader with a solid working knowledge of the key textual sources of the legend and Barber quotes some lengthy passages to this end. He emphasises the importance of direct evidence from the texts over speculation and inference, as well as the key role of the author’s imagination in their creation.
The second section examines a set of themes as they arise from the sources: the grail itself, its setting, the historical and religious contexts – the importance of relics and the grail’s relationship to the eucharist – and how these themes were carried through into later grail literature.

This moves us on to the third section, which narrates the grail’s entrance to the modern world: its discovery and embellishment by scholarship, its revival within the European cultural landscape and its adoption by modern mystics and conspiracy hunters, though he does note the strong relationship between such works and ‘urban myths’.

Most surprising to me was Barber’s refutation of the Celtic origins of the legend, something that was simply ingrained in my understanding of the grail. His case is pretty convincing though.

Barber has some devastating things to say about The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, ‘…essentially a text which proceeds by innuendo, not by refutable scholarly debate’ (p.310). But most damning are the quotes he takes from the work itself, where the authors describe their procedures: ‘By means of cryptic asides and footnotes, each piece… enlarges and confirms the others’; and later: ‘What is necessary is an interdisciplinary approach to one’s chosen material – a mobile and flexible approach… (where) it is not sufficient to confine oneself exclusively to facts’ (p.310-11).

For me, this is probably the most interesting part of the book. Conspiracy history can perhaps be regarded as a form of speculative fiction, although its practitioners seldom, if ever, recognize or admit this – Carlos Castaneda being a possible exception. In some (largely superficial) senses all history can be characterised as fictional, but there are useful distinctions to be drawn between writers who allow refutation and work within a critical framework, and those who glory in their ‘outsider’ status, taking any denial of their assertions as evidence of a plot against them. I particularly recommend Richard Evans’ work if anyone need reminding how important responsible history is and that it can have foundations beyond taste or preference, especially his book In Defence of History.

I enjoy reading conspiracy histories – they can be a lot of fun, but in the end careful scholarship is nearly always more interesting and rewarding. Did the Maya migrate into space, or did they survive on in their region after the Classic period decline, where they still live today? Were the Egyptian pyramids built by aliens, or perhaps by local inhabitants?

I suppose that people usually have an agenda behind their beliefs, as well as an ego stake and the need for mystery, for something more, is clearly extremely potent. Indeed, that is the very origin of the grail stories themselves, though Barber argues that this was largely from within medieval Christian orthodoxy, pretty mysterious in its own right.

What bothers me is that the ‘conspiracy’ stories tend to be so much less rich than interesting than the ‘mainstream’ theories that they deride. Isn’t it more amazing to suppose that humans built the pyramids, or that millions of people still speak Mayan languages? As for the Holy Grail, it is ironic that such a powerul work of the imagination has spawned the compulsion to insist on its physical reality, thus leaching it of its true magic.

It reminds me of the character in Philip K Dick’s A Maze of Death, after he’s been watching a rendition of a Tolkien story on holo-vid or some such device. He stops the film and speaks to the image of Gandalf, wondering whether he ever really existed or not. Maybe one day people will be writing books (or holo-vids) about a secret key pointing to the survival of the One Ring, which didn’t actually fall into the crater of Mount Etna after all.

Now there’s a short story plot…

In summary, I would really recommend this book. The material it explores is actually quite seriously strange in its own right and the author manages to take us through a lot of confusing material and abstruse imagery with remarkable clarity and narrative skill. Some of the hidden gems he uncovers are worth further investigation, for example the writer Mary Butts (‘an interesting and neglected figure’ p.329) and her novel Armed with Madness, which sounds truly amazing.