The legend of the Holy Grail is one of the most enduring in Western
European literature and art. The Grail was said to be the cup of
the Last Supper and at the Crucifixion to have received blood flowing
from Christ's side. It was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea,
where it lay hidden for centuries.
The search for the vessel became the principal quest of the knights
of King Arthur. It was believed to be kept in a mysterious castle
surrounded by a wasteland and guarded by a custodian called the
Fisher King, who suffered from a wound that would not heal. His
recovery and the renewal of the blighted lands depended upon the
successful completion of the quest. Equally, the self-realisation
of the questing knight was assured by finding the Grail. The magical
properties attributed to the Holy Grail have been plausibly traced
to the magic vessels of Celtic myth that satisfied the tastes and
needs of all who ate and drank from them.
The Holy Grail first appears in a written text in Chrétien
de Troyes's Old French verse romance, the Conte del Graal
('Story of the Grail'), or Perceval, of c.1180.
During the next 50 years several works, both in verse and prose,
were written although the story, and the principal character, vary
from one work to another. In France this process culminated in a
cycle of five prose romances telling the history of the Grail from
the Crucifixion to the death of Arthur. The Old French romances
were translated into other European languages. Among these other
versions two stand out: Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal
(early 13th century) and Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur
(late 15th century).
With the passing of the Middle Ages, the Grail disappears until
the 19th century when medieval history and legend awoke the interest
of writers such as Scott and Tennyson, of the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite
Brotherhood, and of composers, notably Richard Wagner. The symbol
of the Grail as a mysterious object of search and as the source
of the ultimate mystical, or even physical, experience has persisted
into the present century in the novels of Charles Williams, C.S.
Lewis and John Cowper Powys.