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Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth.

ROMANCE OF THE GRAIL: THE MAGIC AND MYSTERY OF ARTHURIAN MYTH. Joseph Campbell. Edited and introduced by Evans Lansing Smith. New World Library, 2015. 320 p. 9781608683246. $24.95.

This new edition offers an excellent collection of Joseph Campbell's lectures and papers on Arthurian myth and literature. Acting as one of his major sources for his research of monomyth in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and other works, Campbell's inquiries into medieval literature focus on the enduring message of the tales surrounding the Grail myth and King Arthur's knightly court. Furthermore, the book provides a good (although concise) overview of the Christian and Pagan sources of these stories.

Hence chapters one and two address the problematic relation between the Celtic and the Christian-Roman influence on Arthurian legend--although the brevity of both does not cover all of the points that are raised. Arthurian romance, Campbell claims in the first chapter, is the pinnacle of a complex assimilatory process: It merges the Christian belief system with Pagan elements, translating quest-motifs from Celtic religion into stories about Arthur's knights and their adventures. This amalgam is a direct consequence of the collapse of the Roman rule in Britain and the ensuing invasions by Picts and Germanic tribes--which in turn provided the historical background for the Arthurian legend. The second chapter explores the travels of Irish Saint Brendan of Clonfert as part of a timeless "mythological idiom" (14) rather than as visits to actual or imagined places. Campbell establishes links to Brendan's encounter with neutral angels who brought the Grail to Earth and his travels to the paradisiacal isles of the Hesperides and Avalon--all places and events that need not be factual but should rather be regarded as mythologized accounts of existing Celtic journeys of the period.

Chapter three acts both as an addendum to the first two chapters and as an introduction to Part Two: Knights in Quest, the major part of this volume. With the collapse of the Roman Empire and the shift of the center of belief from Rome to Constantinople, Christianity was faced with a variety of problems, effectively creating an era of spiritual confusion and frustration in the so-called Dark Ages that lasted until the 12th century. Specifically, this confusion resulted in two central motifs for the Grail legend: The image of the Waste Land and the struggle between divine and earthly love in German minnesang. Indeed, the works of authors of the period such as Gottfried von Strassburg and Wolfram von Eschenbach present a direct challenge to the Church, secularizing the divine and finding it outside of the official doctrine.

The core of the Grail legend is laid out in detail in the following fourth chapter: Campbell offers a humorous yet elaborate summary and discussion of Wolfram von Eschenbach's seminal epic Romance Parzival and embeds the poem within its historical and mythical context. Campbell sees Wolfram's magnum opus as a world-spanning narrative that again combines two sets of cultures, namely an Oriental and a Christian world-view personified in the brothers Feirefiz and Parzival. Their lives and adventures consist of both an outward, historical and inner, mystical journey, represented best by the initial failure of Parzival in the Grail castle and his self-inflicted exile thereafter. Particularly the oriental reflections on Parzival following the summary emplace the Grail legend within a bigger world and establish connections to sources as diverse as the Buddhist legend of Gautama, the Muslim stone of Ka'aba, and Indian dharma. Campbell emphasizes that some of his claims are rather speculative, but the aim of this subchapter is clearly taken up again in the third part of the volume.

The next two chapters provide further elaboration of the problematic ideal of love and of the Grail legend respectively. Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan is the topic of chapter five and exemplifies a love that is earthly but not sinful (since its source is the love potion that Tristan and Iseult drink, and not lustful thought). The central conflict of this love, as Campbell points out, lies in the juxtaposition of love and marriage, "amour against honeur" (109). Again, he also connects Strassburg's poem with similar romantic constellations such as Paris and Helen of Troy or Siegfried and Brunhild while at the same time investigating earlier versions and sources of the Tristan-Iseult saga.

Chapter six presents an equally source-based and intertextual approach to King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table: Campbell cites Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae as the first major written but still largely lore-based account of British royalty that acted as the crucial source for later Arthurian legend and epics. The pace of the book increases here, moving quickly from a historical and genealogical perspective on King Arthur to the individual adventures and fates of Galahad, Lancelot, and Yvain on their journeys to bring honor to Arthur's court. Campbell closes the chapter with a short summary of the romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, again referring to the recurring challenges of knightly valor and love with the earthly and spiritual tests that Gawain has to undergo over the course of the poem.

In the third part of this volume, Campbell offers insight into the more general motifs and themes of Arthurian legend. Specifically, his focus lies on the Waste Land, perhaps the most central and accurate representation of the crisis of spirituality in the Dark Ages. Life and love, Campbell claims, are seen as opposites during the Mddle Ages, one of them forming, the other one breaking social norm. It is here that the connection to The Hero With a Thousand Faces and monomyth becomes most apparent: Combining references and motifs from sources and works as diverse as T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, The Arabian Nights, Buddhism, and Celtic mythology, Campbell lays out the hero's journey as a universal journey. Parzival, whose name literally means "pierce the valley," represents the "middle way" between divine and worldly beliefs, both ignoring and uniting the opposing forces of spirituality and nature. Likewise, he can only break the spell of the Grail castle and heal the Fisher King out of spontaneous and honest concern, not being urged to do so by a sense of duty. Clearly, Campbell's focus lies on this motif of self-knowledge and healing--the Grail theme itself is covered with less attention to mythology and in a shorter manner for the rest of the final chapter, as is the isle of Avalon.

Campbell's strong interest in the Waste Land motif is given a final backing by an essential addendum to the book, namely his Master's thesis titled "A Study of the Dolorous Stroke." Written in 1927, the paper reveals Campbell's first steps towards the ideas that would take hold in his more popular and enduring works.

This book presents a thorough if at times brief overview of Campbell's vast interests and the lesser-known foci that nonetheless form a vital part of his later career. The only criticism that could be of importance is that safe for a paragraph on sources in the introduction by editor Evans Lansing Smith, neither the chapters nor the book in general give the precise dates of the papers and lectures collected by the Joseph Campbell Foundation. While this does not pose a problem for using the volume for academic purposes per se and dates may be looked up on the foundation's website, chronological information within the book would certainly have been helpful. This said, the arrangement and selection of the material are excellent, starting with a wider overview of the sources of Arthurian legend at first before addressing specific topics in more detail. Both for researchers and leisurely readers, this volume is therefore highly recommended.
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Author:Luthi, Daniel
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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