‘This is the history of that most sacred vessel that is named by men the Holy Grail, wherein the precious blood of Our Saviour was received on the day that He was crucified that He might redeem His followers from the pains of Hell.’
It is not known when The Book of the Grail was first written, or by whom. In this version of Percival’s quest for the Holy Grail, the world of Arthurian legend is brought alive. Predating the popular tales of Mallory and Tennyson, this forgotten account – revived by E. C. Coleman from its Middle English translation – presents us with a vivid story full of the moral import and sacred wisdom of its time of telling.
Following Chrétien de Troyes’ earlier poem, Perceval, le Conte du Graal, many surprises and deviations lie in store for those familiar with Arthurian lore. The test of the Sword in the Stone has now become a sword and an arrow, drawn from stone columns; Sir Kay is not the good knight of the other versions; Merlin makes only a brief appearance; and Queen Guinevere suffers a tragedy rather than experiencing a love affair with Lancelot. In this complete and uncorrupted version, the darkness and fears of the thirteenth century are illuminated by moments of chivalry, adventure and religious piety.
Reading E.C. Coleman’s new adaptation of the The Book of the Holy Grail by Josephus is just not enough. This book has to be devoured in its entirety. The author has taken great care in translating the story from Middle English, keeping the original atmosphere of the book while making it accessible to the modern reader. The book is pure pleasure for any lover of the Arthurian legends. All the heroes are present, battling lions, evil knights and trying always to prove their worth and follow the codes of chivalry.
The story differs in places from the more-familiar versions of the legend. Merlin only plays a minor role and the story focuses mainly on the adventures of Gawain, Lancelot and Percival. Although the main tenet of the story is the knights’ quest to find the Holy Grail, they are faced with many challenges and smaller quests throughout their journeys.
In The Book of the Holy Grail by Josephus our heroes face some fantastical beasts, such as lions, griffons and dragons. The bad guys are knights of pure evil, who have turned from God and war upon the innocent and women and children, throwing them from their homes and castles. The evil knights live in creepy castles, ruled by cruel men and protected by strange beasts; while the good, virtuous knights are sent out into the world by King Arthur, to bring his lands back to God and to recover the Holy Grail.
The story moves at an incredible pace, with a new adventure on nearly every page. The heroes are strong, brave and wonderful fighters, always looking to prove their worth in a valiant joust. Strange damsels hold the story together, explaining events and appearing whenever the heroes need a new direction, or a new quest. The story is full of kings and lords with strange names; such as the King of Castle Mortal, the King Hermit, Clamados of the Forest of Shadows. The ladies are often given designations, rather than names, such as the Widow Lady. There are damsels who have no hair or are forced to walk everywhere, who will only be restored once the Holy Grail has been recovered.
On the morrow, when he had heard Mass, Gawain departed and rode to the fairest land he had ever beheld. The meadows were many coloured with flowers, the rivers flowed clear and full with wholesome fishes, and the forest aboundeth with wild deer and hermitages. One night he came upon a hermitage wherein the good man had not gone forth for forty years. When he seeth Gawain the hermit looked forth from the window and sayeth, ‘A good welcome to you, Sire.’
‘And may God give you joy.’ sayeth Gawain. ‘Will you give me lodging this night?’
‘I cannot, Sire, for none hath entered herein for forty years but myself and I have sworn to allow none other in but God. But, Sire, if you continue but a little further you will see a castle wherein all good knights are lodged.’
‘What is the name of this castle?’
‘It is the castle of the goof Fisher King and is surrounded by plentiful waters and is of the fairest setting under God. But they will only lodge good knights.’
‘May God grant that I may be amongst that company. Before I go thither good hermit, will you hear my confession for I must be cleansed of all sin?’
‘Gladly,’ sayeth the hermit and heard him of Gawain’s true repenting.
The hermit the continued to say, ‘Sire, if God is willing, do not forget to ask that which the other knight forgot. Be not afraid at what you see at the entrance to the chapel and ride on without fear. Worship at the holy chapel within the castle for there is where the flame of the Holy Spirit comes down each day for the most Holy Grail and the point of the lance that is presented there.’
The flowery language adds to the atmosphere of the book and helps to recreate the Arthurian world. Gawain, Lancelot and Percival are the knights of legend we all know from Mallory; honourable, noble and great warriors. I love the way the book has them fighting their own quests, narrowly missing each other, or one not recognising the other because he has changed his shield; but once in a while, they join together to complete a greater quest, or give aid where one is wounded. The camaraderie and mutual respect of the Grail Knights and the Knights of the Round Table help to make this an amazing book.
This is the ultimate adventure story, from where all other adventure stories, stories of war and valour and of good versus evil find their origins; and this fact shines through on every page. Its a fabulous book to read – and devour – for any fan of the Arthurian Legends.