Finding the Grail

Photo: Diana Durham

Merlin is one of the first characters we come across in the legends of King Arthur. Seeing into the future, Merlin helps Arthur unite the kingdom of Britain, and set the conditions that will make possible the quest for the grail. And this is of the greatest significance, because finding the grail is how we will align with the deeper order of our own identity.

In the first series of essays, I have explored how we have both an ‘outer’ personality identity and an inner identity, which is a flowing presence. And I have used predominantly elements of Tibetan Buddhist teachings and symbols from the early chapters of the Old Testament to show that when we feel connected to this inner flow, the world we live in and create will flourish. Conversely, when we feel disconnected, the world we inhabit deteriorates, as the ‘fruits’ or products of our actions will often lack value and meaning, or even be destructive. I have also looked at how our humanity and morality are sourced from the deeper part of ourselves, as is our creativity and ability to think and act coherently. Now, with the aid of the marvelous symbolism and narratives of the grail myth, I want to look more deeply at this two-fold identity, and how the sense of disconnection comes about and plays out, and what is involved in shifting it. And, as might be expected given that this tale abounds with knights and kings, we will also come to understand why alignment with the deeper order of our identity is the essence of leadership.

The legend and symbol of the grail has echoed and re-echoed throughout western culture, there are over ten medieval versions of the story, its themes have been picked up and retold in popular culture, and even today new books about its derivation and history are still produced. Why is such significance placed on what is essentially just a cup? Why has this symbol become so powerful, so wrapped in holiness, awe and mystery? The cup is round, gold, holder of precious things. From the side it looks like the womb — and so it symbolizes all things feminine — the feminine aspect of ourselves, our heart. Our heart as a container of something. And what can the heart contain? It can contain the feeling of love, the feeling of excitement, of energy — ‘my cup runneth over’, something spilling over. Therefore finding the grail means connecting with that part of us which is unconditioned, loving, powerful and enthusiastic. In other words, the experience of our whole identity.

But if the grail simply means our heart, why must we go on a quest to find it? How can our heart be missing in the first place? And what does that really mean? And why should finding our heart/the grail, be so important? In a way, the story is like a riddle that we have to unravel in order to understand who we are and how we work. In Chretien de Troyes’ 12th century version of the grail story, the action begins when the young and unsophisticated Perceval is out in the woods one day, and sees five knights come riding by. Perceval has never seen knights, for he has been brought up in obscurity, deep in the Welsh countryside, and he is dazzled by their magnificent appearance and stature. When he learns that they were dubbed knights by King Arthur, he sets off immediately for the court so that he himself can become a knight.

And to begin with, Perceval, free from all self-doubt, or preconceived notions of how things should be, is tremendously successful. He finds his way to the court, is knighted by Arthur, overcomes a very fierce Red Knight, who has been terrorizing the court, is taken in and trained by a well-meaning and experienced older knight, called Sir Gornemant, and also manages to free a beautiful maiden, Blanchefleur, from two evil knights who have been besieging her castle home, and become her sweetheart.

Therefore Perceval, in the first part of the story, embodies the experience of being full and overflowing with confidence that connecting to our being brings. He is already having the experience that finding the grail symbolizes, ie connecting to our whole identity. However, Perceval is not consciously aware of his own condition. He is riding the wave, but not fully in control of his experience, and he also has no idea that he is embarked upon a ‘quest’ to gain this awareness, a quest that will affect the fate of the wider world. As far as he is concerned, at this point in the story, he has done what he set out to do, which was to become a knight, and is now intent only on returning home to show his mother his new red armour, won from defeating the Red Knight.

But Perceval’s next encounter, and the central scene of the story, is something altogether different. For Perceval finds himself in the castle home of the mysterious Wounded King. The Wounded King, as his name implies, is ailing, suffering from a wound that gives him constant pain. Moreover, his kingdom has turned into a wasteland, where the crops fail, cattle cannot reproduce, and the land is ravaged by war. There are echoes in this figure of the belief that the king and the land are one. When the king was crowned he was also marrying the land. This linkage between king and kingdom meant that any troubles — drought, plagues, crop failure — were symptoms of something wrong with the king. Either he was ill, or had committed a misdeed. Sometimes ancient societies would seek to kill the king if he became ill or even elderly and weak, so that the land would not suffer (and thereby threaten the well being of the people). But in the Grail myth, there is another solution offered: and that is a way to heal the wound.

In fact the promise around which the grail story turns is that the Wounded King can be healed, and his Wasteland Kingdom restored, if the grail is found and the question asked, whom does this grail or cup serve? If the King is healed, the restoration of the wasteland will follow, because it is only a reflection of the wound. In this theme of the connection between the wasteland and the wound, we can see that, more recent as this myth is, it expresses the same, fundamental theme as the very early story of the fall. The change or ‘fall’ in consciousness that took place in Adam and Eve brought about a change in the outer world — they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. In other words — both myths tell us — the world reflects our consciousness. Therefore, if you want to change the world, you must change that consciousness — you must heal the wound.

Inside a splendid banqueting hall, Perceval is invited to sit beside the Wounded King as a sumptuous meal is spread before them. And then, while they are seated there together, the Grail is carried into the hall by a beautiful young woman who enters from an adjoining room. The maiden continues on through the banqueting hall and disappears, with the Grail, into another inner room of the castle. The appearance of the Grail, therefore, ‘draws’ for us the larger dimensions of this Castle, we find out that there are two adjoining rooms, either side of the banqueting hall.

The pain of the King’s wound is only assuaged when he goes fishing, and he is often known as the Wounded Fisher King. This association with fishing is a clue that connects this scene in the Grail Castle with the symbol of the ‘vesica piscis’ , vessel of the fish. In fact, the architecture of the castle echoes the shape of the ‘vesica piscis’, with its central ‘fish’ shape and two flanking half moons:

Vesica Piscis as Grail Castle

The Wounded Fisher King sits in the ‘fish’ shape of the ‘vesica’ or the banqueting hall of the Grail Castle, flanked by two adjoining rooms. So the Grail Castle is a symbol of our consciousness, the two adjoining rooms are the inner and outer dimensions and the banqueting hall is the overlap of our conscious awareness.

The lovely damsel carries the grail from that first room, through the banqueting hall, where Perceval sees it, and on into the second room:

And as Perceval watches the Grail pass, he wonders deeply about it — who is it for? Whom does it serve? However, during his adventures, several of the characters he interacts with — his mother, knights at Arthur’s court, Sir Gornemant — have given him advice. To begin with, he mostly ignored what they said, but he has taken in some of it. In particular, he listened to Sir Gornement who warned him against speaking too much, in case he should appear foolish. And Perceval took on board his advice, because Gornemant trained him in knightly combat, and Perceval, inspired by Gorneman’ts skill, learnt a great deal from him. In other words, Gornemant’s advice carried weight for Perceval. Therefore now, while he gazes at the grail, Gornemant’s words are ringing in his ears and Perceval overrides his desire to understand whom it serves, and does not ask about the grail.

Wounded King

So, Perceval, sat there next to the Wounded Fisher King in the banqueting hall, is witnessing a grand metaphor of his own (and our own) consciousness. The grail is the heart, and this movement of the grail symbolizes our heart shifting attention from the outer world, and connecting with the inner. It is ‘moving’ back through the space of conscious awareness, into the second room, into the inner world. In other words, the scene inside the Grail Castle is depicting for us — in all its elaborate medieval imagery — the law of polarity, whereby our conscious awareness once again becomes polarized correctly and the alignment of identity and insight reveals itself.

Perceval, therefore, has found the Grail. In fact, although he does not realize it, as he sits there, watching and wondering and wanting to know whom the Grail serves, he is within a whisper of completing the quest and fulfilling the prophecy of healing the King that is at the myth’s core. Healing the Wounded Fisher King would have huge implications, because his Wasteland Kingdom would then be restored. All its troubles — the crops that fail, the cattle that cannot reproduce and the land that is ravaged by war and conflict — would be resolved because they are only a reflection of the King’s wound. Once he is healed, they will all be righted again.

Unfortunately, though, as I said, Perceval does not know this. He is not aware that he is on such a quest. And he remains silent when he sees the Grail, and does not ask, and therefore, the healing and the restoration do not happen. At the end of the grail story, Perceval learns that there was some one else living in that second room of the Grail Castle. Perceval did not realize it at the time, but there was a very important person living there, another king — the Grail King.

The Grail King’s nature is so pure and refined, that all he needs to live on is one white communion wafer served to him from the grail. It is he who is served from the grail! That is why the grail is carried into the second room where he lives. And of course, this refined, pure character is a symbol of the high-level energy of the flow. The Grail King represents our core identity. So the heart moves back through the space of conscious awareness to the second room, the inner world, and as this happens we become aware again of the whole dimension of our consciousness — the layout of the Grail Castle — and the full nature of our identity. In this way, the grail, as it moves across the banqueting hall draws not only the architecture of the castle, but the line of fundamental measure, connecting the outer awareness (intellect) with inner awareness (intuition).

The answer to the question: ‘whom does the grail serve?’ is that the grail serves the Grail King. And, translated, this means that the heart serves or is supposed to connect to, this high frequency energy in us. So the heart has been ‘found’, brought back from its involvement and distraction with the outer realm; and the question, whom does it serve, has been answered or at least, understood. The heart serves the core energy. The primary role of the heart or intuitive aspect of our conscious awareness is the connection to the flow.

We are back here, of course, for the moment anyway, in thinking about the‘vesica symbol’ in its relatively simple depiction of inner and outer worlds, with the wellspring of the flow focussed within the inner realm. Now we understand though that this inner room of the castle, represents the possibility of a deeper interiority of self and identity, one which we can lose awareness of, when our attention is too firmly fixed on the ‘explicate’ forms of the manifest. The task for Perceval is to become aware of this deeper, causal source of self.

When Perceval sat watching the grail pass through the hall, and decided to override his desire to find out who was served from it, he is right on the cusp of becoming aware of his deeper identity. He has the experience, but In T S Eliot’s words, ‘missed the meaning’. This is like those moments of heightened awareness in ourselves, or epiphanies of meaning and emotional fullness. We have moved from the childlike condition of simply being in that flow, to becoming aware of the condition. But because we we listened to Gornemant’s voice inside our head, to the conditioning voice of society, we are dropped back into ordinary raw ‘reality’, and the possibility of there being any other way to see things seems delusional.

While we may not grasp the full implications at the time, finding the grail, having the epiphany, involves a complete reversal of perception.

Up until this point, Perceval, like most of us, has been externally focussed, goal oriented: he becomes a knight, he wins the red armour. He finds people that inspire or guide him: the knights in the wood, Sir Gornemant. He acquires skills, overcomes obstacles; receives advice and experiences his first love affair. All of these things appear to be external to him, drawing him away from his childhood home, and out into the world. And again, like us, as his experiences mount up, he is becoming less unworldly, more skillful and, at the same time, a little more conditioned.

Now, suddenly, the locus of insight and attention is not not outside ourselves anymore. It is inside. We are no longer outside the pageant of meaning, looking in or on, we are experiencing the flow of meaning as it moves through us and illuminates the external world.

What are the implications? That the whole order of the world is not what we have taken it to be. That we ourselves impact it, are systemically connected to it. The king and the land ARE one. But we had not realized it.

And even now, we barely understand what has happened. We have met the unknown source of ourselves, the emergent, always new, always expanding potential of who we will become. Yet, conditioned as we have started to feel, we hesitate. We don’t ask whom the grail serves. We don’t yet trust the the power we feel.

So our task, like Perceval’s is to become fully aware of who we are, of where the source of our power lies. Asking the question — or, more importantly, coming to understand the answer — signifies the act of becoming fully conscious. We not only have the experience, and are aware of having the experience, but we know how the experience comes about. We know who we are, we know how we work. We are no longer just riding the wave, we understand how to ride the wave!




British/American poet and writer who draws on archetype to explore our identity. Author ‘Coherent Self, Coherent World.’

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Diana Isabel Durham

Diana Isabel Durham

British/American poet and writer who draws on archetype to explore our identity. Author ‘Coherent Self, Coherent World.’

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