Le Livre du Graal. 3t. Edited by Daniel Poirion and Philippe Walter. Coll. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 2001–2009. ISBN 9782070113422, 9782070113439, 9782070113446
Having completed reading these three substantive tomes, I feel as if a milestone in my reading life had been achieved. It took me the better part of six months, still rather quick for a 4000+ page novel, if I take into account the fact that I occasionally changed my mind by reading the Iliad, the Odyssey, as well as other Arthurian novels on the side.
The edition I have read uses the moniker Livre du Graal, but the term known to scholars is Lancelot-Graal. It is the massive space-time continuum altering hypermass resulting from the collision of the Lancelot tradition with the expanded tradition of the Holy Grail stories, all of which architectonically held by the glue of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s historical canvas of the rise and fall of Arthur and his kingdom.
Here is a brief outline of the story: the Lord Jesus Christ died on the Cross for us, and the most holy relic of the Grail, a cup that He used at the Last Supper and which carried His blood during His Passion has found its way to Great Britain in great secrecy. It is hidden, but must be found so that the enchantments that populate the land may end. Only the greatest knight will find a way to the Grail, while all others will perish trying. Merlin establishes the foundation of the Arthurian kingdom, and sets it on the path of greatness before being whisked away by an enchantress he fostered. Arthur is the king who builds the greatest realm in the world, renowned for the valour of its men, and their generosity towards the meek and the humble. He leads the Round Table that Merlin established, and to which the best knights in the world are attracted. Lancelot is one such fine example. An expatriate from Gaul whose realm was stolen from him, a changeling who will learn who he really is only late, he is the best knight of his time, and accomplishes many deeds of valour, until he fatally falls in love with Guenevere, Arthur’s queen. This adulterous relationship will be the downfall of Lancelot, but also of Arthur and his whole realm. After spending folio after folio of Lancelot’s brave accomplishments under duress for the love of his lady, the LG mainly liquidates his prowess by barring him the way to the divine bliss that is the Holy Grail. The great meeting between the Best Knight in the World and the Most Holy Thing was bound to fail. However, just before the end, Lancelot will unwillingly father Galahad—the best knight in the world who will never sin and conquer the Grail—before amending his ways and making a belated penance. After Galahad has accomplished the adventures of the Grail, helped by Percival and Bors, who fall just short of perfection, he is whisked away to Heavens by angels, and the kingdom of Logres now has to deal with intestine strife that will prove fatal to all. Mordret, Arthur’s illegitimate and incestuous son, will wage a devastating war upon Arthur, and cause everyone’s downfall. None of the Knights of the Round Table will escape, including Lancelot, and Arthur is taken away, perhaps forever, to the isle of Avalon to be healed.
But let’s settle the main question: is it good? Yes, but not for the same reasons that Malory or Geoffrey are memorable. The English tradition, especially after the middle ages, has tended to favour the Arthurian stories for their action-movie characteristics: valour, honour, and kick-ass fights. On the other hand, the French tradition (from which the LG issues) is more concerned with the question of love and the conflict between courtly and Christian ideals. It’s long, long, long; it proceeds in an exceedingly methodical and exhaustive manner, but it is never prolix or convoluted. It took me a while to find my metaphor (near the first third of the last tome!) but I now see it as a mosaic rather than a tale. Using a limited number of plot elements (knights jousting, damsels in distress, warring realms, predestined children, and magical objects), the LG weaves together an enormous thing, but it’s when you understand that its rigour and repetition (with subtle variations) are the art of it that you stop sighing in despair at yet another lance breaking and shields crashing for a lady.
You could say something similar of Dante’s Commedia (he was very familiar with the prose Lancelot and the Commedia evidences it many times): using a very rigorous method, strict poetics, and linear progression, Dante achieves celestial glory. But the theology of the LG is much more earthy and practical than Dante’s: fight for Jesus because he will save you from dire straits; also, he will give you food. Anybody who isn’t a Christian can be easily disposed off with weapons. There are many moments when some familiarity with Christian doctrine will make you wonder whether the authors of the LG ever cared about “turning the other cheek” and all the meekness we associate with Christianity…
So why would the modern reader check it out? Well, because it’s probably the only chance you have of figuring out if you really feel for the medieval way of writing. Unlike a modern novel, which aims at that roller-coaster effect of feelings, surprise, and variety of prose textures, the LG is an exceedingly homogeneous bit. There are moments of grandeur, and some (by modern standards) very fine moments, but to digest it all you must let go of your modern expectations. The tone varies a little between the main sections (they have not all been composed at the same time, nor in the order they are meant to be read), but it is on the whole very even. If you can’t stomach that evenness, you won’t make it through the first (and in my opinion more tedious) part, Joseph d’Arimathie. But if you do, then you have just bought yourself an almost never-ending vacation in the world of authentic medieval fantasy.