An object that has inspired geniuses as unlike each other as Richard Wagner and Monty Python is unlikely to be just an object. Suspended in the fertile intersections of history, devotion, art, myth and farce, the Grail has been part of a treasure hunt that started in medieval Europe and seems not to have lost its capacity to enthuse well into this century. Its identity has hovered uncertainly between being the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper and the one in which his blood was collected post-Crucifixion. Over the centuries, this apotheosis of a cup has aroused both faith and the fancy most ardently when the uncertainty has been foregrounded. The point has always been to seek the Grail, not to find it, see it and keep it, though its keepers have been imagined as the purest of the pure. In the process, not only has a cup holding some wine or blood in it been turned into a symbolic object with its own unspeakable aura, but also something that is almost banal in its ordinariness has become an elaborately crafted and bejewelled thing of immense value — just as an ancient instrument of torture turned into a universal symbol of holiness in the Cross. Somewhere along the path of these transformations, the first thing to get blurred, and then become altogether irrelevant, is the line between faith and reason.
So, it must be both terribly exciting for some, and somewhat anti-climactic for many, when two flesh-and-blood historians claim, supposedly in a book of scholarship, to have identified the ‘original’ Grail among the 200 or so vessels in Europe alone that claim to be the real thing. The site of this discovery is a basilica in northern Spain, and already its curators have had to take the piece off display and look for a larger space to put it in, for people have started to come to see it in unmanageable droves. All religions operate in this twilight zone between the literal and the symbolic, so that ordinary objects or bits of the human body — relics — are suddenly shot through with mystery and beauty. And it is this confounding of the mysterious and the beautiful, literal and figurative, that produces what is called ‘holiness’, in the parlance of personal and institutionalized devotion. This is a quality that is generally assumed to be beyond the realm of rational interrogation or scientific logic, and might be as productive of violent conflict, which this country knows too well, as of spiritual meaning and bliss. In Wagner, too, the Grail is enshrined among the mountains of northern Spain, and finally revealed to Parsifal, a ‘fool’ who turns out to be the purest in heart. But in Monty Python, medieval and modern get hopelessly muddled at the end, with a murdered historian of the Grail thrown in for good measure. The film comes to an abrupt and Grail-less end as a post-modern policeman knocks the camera out of operation. Meanwhile, the pedigreed Knights of the Round Table have all but perished in the jaws of the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh.
“Who is the Grail?” Parsifal had asked in Wagner’s opera. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between sublime music and black comedy.