WASTE LANDS MODERN AND MEDIEVAL
By Simon Acland, author of The Waste Land (see review of this book at this link)
Almost 750 years separates TS Eliot’s The Waste Land from the first Grail Romance, Chrétien de Troyes’ Roman de Perceval. Maybe readers would not have made any connection between the modern poem and the medieval Grail poems had it not been for Eliot’s mischievous notes at the end of his poem. To quote: “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance.” From the sound of it, without Jessie Weston’s book there might have been no modern Waste Land at all; one can imagine Eliot reading From Ritual to Romance when it came out in 1919, three years before his poem, and that sparking off the chain of creative thought that resulted in one of the 20th century’s greatest poems.
Most people think of the Grail as intimately connected with Jesus and Christianity. It is the chalice that was used at the Last Supper, or the vessel used to catch Christ’s blood when he was taken down from the Cross. We think of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, selecting the wooden carpenter’s cup in that cave high above Petra, and using it to save his dying father Sean Connery. Or maybe we think of it as in The Da Vinci Code: a symbol of the bloodline of Jesus – the San Graal of medieval French somehow being a corruption of the modern French sang real meaning royal blood. That was the idea that Dan Brown borrowed from Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s 1982 pseudo-history The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.
But actually, in that first Grail tale, Chrétien de Troyes does not make any specific connection with Jesus or Christianity. In the Roman de Perceval, the knight of the title finds himself in a mysterious castle. He witnesses a strange procession, the centrepiece of which is a magical golden grail (in medieval French a graal is a somewhat obscure word meaning a large serving dish, on which you might place a roast swan or large salmon). Later on in Chrétien’s poem it transpires that the grail is used to feed and keep alive a wounded king, and it is at one point described as ‘tante sainte chose’ (‘such a holy thing’), but it is not linked specifically with Jesus Christ in any way. The land of this king (who happens to be Perceval’s uncle) is barren, laid waste, and Perceval misses the opportunity to lift the spell by asking questions of his host about the grail. It is suggested that the king, poor fellow, has been wounded through the loins, and that his resulting infertility has turned his kingdom into a waste land. So the original grail appears to be a life-giving cornucopia linked with Celtic legend more than a Christian object. But it is never fully explained. Thus a great mystery is set up – what is the grail, why is the king wounded, why is his land barren, and what will happen when the quest is fulfilled and the spell is lifted?
Chrétien de Troyes was probably the most popular writer of his day (I will not insult him by calling him the Dan Brown of the 1100’s). A great storyteller, he would have explained the mystery, but he died around 1180 before he could complete the romance. Eliot deliberately shrouded the meaning of his poem, leaving the reader to interpret it; Chrétien did the same by the accident of his death before the completion of Roman de Perceval.
Of course, my book The Waste Land does not belong in the same illustrious company. It is sub-titled An Entertainment. The meat of it is an adventure story about a monk turned knight who travels East on the First Crusade, discovering the ‘truth’ about the Holy Grail and losing his ideals along the way. But I had great fun using some of the same imagery as Chrétien and Eliot did. There are some physical waste lands in my book – the Turkish desert where the Crusaders suffer appallingly from thirst, the surroundings of Antioch razed during months of siege, the bare wilderness around Alamut. And for my hero Hugh de Verdon the whole Crusade is a spiritual waste land. For that reason, and as an homage to Eliot, I borrowed his title, used snippets from his poem for my chapter headings, and hid twenty-three direct quotes in my text for Eliot fans to find. Most people spot ‘April was the cruellest month’ but some of the others are harder. Look out for a couple of father figures who are wounded in rather uncomfortable places too!
Simon Acland worked as a venture capitalist for over 20 years and wrote several books on investing and leadership. The Waste Land is his first novel. For more information, visit his website at: http://www.simonacland.com/wasteland.htm