The legends of the Grail have an enthralling atmosphere of mystery, of some tremendous secret which stays tantalizingly just outside the mind’s grasp, in the shadows beyond the edge of conscious awareness.
-- Richard Cavendish,
“King Arthur and the Grail”
The stories of the Grail had been of the greatest importance to me ever since I read them, at the age of 15, for the first time. I had an inkling that a great secret still lay hidden behind those stories.”
--C. G. Jung,
“Memories, Dreams, Reflections” So we have two mysteries here: that of the Grail, and the question of why Carl Jung never wrote a book about the subject--seldom, in fact, ever mentioned it in his voluminous works.
After all, the great psychologist had devoted his last 30 years to a study of Western myth and mysticism.
The answer lies in a couple of sentences further on in “Memories, Dreams, Reflections.” Jung’s wife had made a study of the Grail “her life’s task” and planned a book. “Had it not been for my unwillingness to intrude upon my wife’s field, I would unquestionably have had to include the Grail legend in my studies of alchemy.”
Emma Jung has always been a shadowy figure. She is best known for the support she gave her husband--an inheritance providing money for their work and lakeside home, her attitude toward his relationship with Toni Wolff, surpassing tolerance and becoming friendship. Emma’s work as analyst and writer has received scant attention, her only other published book being the 94-page “Animus and Anima.” That insightful if slim volume and the far larger accomplishment of “The Grail Legend” indicate that there were little-appreciated depths to the woman.
The spectral availability of “The Grail Legend” has abetted the obscuration. Emma died in 1955, leaving the book unfinished. It was completed by Marie-Louise von Franz, the leading Jungian analyst and writer since Carl’s death, but was printed in only two limited editions--in German (1960) and in English (1970). Grail scholars have had a devil of a time locating a copy, and even this Sigo edition was delayed for three years.
It has been worth the wait. Previously, anyone who wanted to read a comprehensive, nonfiction book on the subject was strangely out of luck--despite the growing interest in Arthurian lore since the ‘60s. True, there’s plenty of fiction--from Thomas Costain to Richard Monaco--but nonfiction considerations are hard to come by (Cavendish’s, for example, is a difficult-to-find British publication). There is a Doubleday paperback of Jessie Weston’s “From Ritual to Romance,” the brilliant 1920 study that inspired T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” But it presents a specific theory rather than an overall view of a complex subject.
And what a tangled web the Grail legends weave! Malory, Tennyson and all those children’s books about King Arthur and his knights have given many people the idea that there is one simple, straightforward story. Instead, several Grail legends suddenly popped up around the same time (1180-1230) in northwestern Europe, and they often contradicted each other in even the most basic details.
The Grail is a cup in some of the stories, a dish, platter or even a stone in others. Sometimes the knight seeking the Grail is Parzival (or Parsifal or Perceval), sometimes it’s Gauvain (Gawain) or Galahad. Some tales have a strong Christian tone, emphasizing that the relic was the Chalice of the Last Supper. Others have few Christian elements. Arthur plays no part in some versions.
Then there are the interpretations. Most scholars agree that the legends existed before the known versions and even, in some basic form, prior to Christianity and the Arthurian Matiere de Bretagne . However, beyond that it’s a free-for-all: Celtic mythology, Manicheanism, Orphism and the Vedas are just some of the origins offered. While “The Grail Legend” remarkably organizes this material, the reader will still emerge confused about many matters. Still, this is the most comprehensive book on the legends and theories, and it’s enhanced by the authors’ own Jungian approach, solid and thought-provoking.
But surprise: Quotes from C. G. Jung are sparse, and Jungian implications aren’t always followed very far. The Jungian “wholeness” suggested by the Grail quest is pointed out and concepts such as individuation are frequently applied, but none of them are greatly emphasized. Connections to alchemy are indicated but not thoroughly explored. Jungians may be somewhat disappointed, but the book benefits from the wide scope that results. Christian elements in particular are discussed at more length than one might expect. Even though leading to the three most puzzling, sidetracked chapters (two on the Trinity, one on Adam), this examination is generally insightful and rare among 20th-Century books on the Grail.
The strangest thing about the book, though, is its final five chapters. In them the authors arrive at a vague conclusion similar to Weston’s--pointing toward tribal medicine men as the ultimate source of the legends. Yet Jung and von Franz follow this trail not through a character who is at least fairly central to the tales, as Weston does with Gawain, but through Merlin , of all people. True, Arthur’s seer/magician makes perfect sense as a symbolic vestige of the tribal shaman, whose trance “journeys” and healing role probably served as the basis for much of the Grail material. But Merlin plays an important part in only one Grail version, Robert de Boron’s, and there he seems to be as much a latter-day addition as other Arthurian or Christian aspects.
Still, however marginal, Merlin serves as a catalyst for a fascinating, convincing exploration of Grail implications, even though the authors advance no concrete theories nor take sides in the Celtic-Oriental-etc.-origin debate.
And once again, as Joseph Campbell has elucidated in “Myths to Live By,” we are impressed not only by the power of the Grail as a symbol of renewal and healing but by the continuing ability of this and other myths themselves to intrigue and inspire. But now that we have “The Grail Legend,” how about a good biography of Emma Jung?