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The Quest for the Holy Grail

Text by: Novantyo Komintas

In this modern and industrialized age, it is simply odd to hear the terms adventure, quest, and treasure beyond the scope of the fantasy genre. Even so, one name of legend continues to pass through the lips of modern man: the Holy Grail. Though the actual chalice of mythology is not what people reference, this treasure serves as the Western metaphor for the pinnacle of achievement, the highest and greatest form of accomplishment. Often enough, people romanticize their quest for perfection and advancement by searching for their own Holy Grail. Whether it is a rock climber working towards the "Holy Grail of peaks" or a chef perfecting his craft to make the "Holy Grail of soufflés," there is no end of reference to this treasure of renown.

The actual story of the Holy Grail plays a large part in explaining why the term pervades our idea of challenges and rewards. The Arthurian tale of the Knights of the Round Table and their search for this most mythical of artifacts is so woven into the fabric of Western cultures that it is an eponymous tale of overcoming challenges and achieving the greatest of prizes. Yet while the Holy Grail is firmly entrenched in today's mindset, the other aspects of the story are largely forgotten. This is a tragedy of misunderstanding, since the actual quest, and not the Grail, is where the true treasure lies. The truth is the Holy Grail was never to be the ultimate reward; it was to be the ultimate challenge. The true seeker of the cup sought the opportunity to be tested by it, not to gain its power or glory. This missing perspective of the legend holds the true meaning of the quest for the Holy Grail: the seeker is the key to the treasure, the quest is the true reward, and the Grail is but a single test of many.

The history and legend of the Holy Grail tells us why the Knights of the Round would engage in the perilous quest to find it. The original tales of King Arthur stem deeply from Celtic mythology, where tales of magic, druids, and heroes rolled in every highland of Western Europe. As poor weather and famine were constant problems for the people of this land, legends of a magical cauldron that poured out rich foods, endless wealth, and eternal life and wisdom were created as a tantalizing contrast to their hardships. This idea is not so farfetched when you imagine the life of these peasants. After a hard day of work in the fields, what could be more satisfying than a hot, delicious meal from the family kettle, where stories and comfort spread across the warm fire against the harsh, cold nights? The idea of a magical vessel of plenty pervaded myths across the different Celtic tribes and can be observed in myths and legends like the leprechaun's pot of gold, the horn of plenty (which has Roman roots as well), and even the creation of the philosopher's stone through medieval alchemy.

The legend of the Holy Grail, also called Sangreal, is a late interpretation of this motif, and emerged around the time the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. As this new religion began to spread to the West, scholars began to spin tales that the Holy Grail, the cup used in the Last Supper of Jesus, which caught his blood when he was pierced with a lance, was also being carried westward. The tales of the legendary King, Arthur, were also spreading from the British Isles around the same time. As these two mythologies became intermingled, the natural progression of storytelling led to the creation of the ultimate and final quest of Arthur and his many knights: the quest for the Holy Grail.

It all started with one knight, the greatest of all knights: Sir Galahad. Borne out love between Sir Lancelot and Lady Guinevere, Galahad left the impression on all he met that he was destined for great deeds. King Arthur saw this firsthand when this new knight entered his halls and sat on the infamous Siege Perilous. This chair was said to only allow the greatest knight of all time to sit upon it and would also begin the downfall of the Knights of the Round Table. As soon as Galahad took his place at the table, a vision of the chalice appeared in its center. The halls were filled with light and splendor, and the knights ate and drank like never before. When the vision passed, all but King Arthur vowed to find Sangreal and bring it back to the table for good. Arthur instead lamented, because he knew this quest would bring doom to many of his good knights and realized the end of his reign was coming.

All the knights journeyed on their own path for the Grail. Sir Galahad journeyed alongside Sir Percival and Sir Bors. Though the stories differ, their search was filled with many, many tests and challenges. These were to test each their chivalry, their fighting skill, their honor. Percival and Bors struggled and lapsed in their moral judgment from time to time. But through each admitted fault, they were forged anew as better knights. The pair accomplished many good deeds along their way. Sir Galahad was also challenged during this quest, for to find the Grail it took more than perceived perfection alone. Galahad needed to live up to the destiny that fell to him. Through many difficult adventures across the land, he continued to set the bar of knighthood higher and higher and affirmed his title of greatest knight of them all, the "Holy Grail of knighthood."

At last, three great knights found themselves at Castle Corbin. There they met the mysterious Maimed King. That night, the three saw another vision of the Grail again, this time borne by Joseph of Arimathia. The vision passed to them the Spear of Longinus, the weapon that pierced Jesus' side, and they used it to heal the Maimed King's injuries. With the king's final blessing they traveled to the city of Sarras and met the end of their long journey. Joseph appeared once again, this time with the true Grail in his hands. The three knights approached the Grail, one at a time, to take this final test of their character. Bors approached the vision and was allowed to view the chalice but denied the chance to hold it as he was not deemed worthy enough. Percival approached the Grail next, and when he approached it, he felt his spirit leave his body. He left his mortal shell but was deemed worthy enough to be the new keeper of the Grail after Joseph. Finally, Galahad approached the cup and was allowed to hold and drink from it, due to being judged the most worthy of knights. At that, his spirit was carried directly to heaven. Sir Bors thus became the sole knight to have completed the quest for the Grail and return alive.

All those who sought the treasure of the Grail were their own, unmolded keys to the ultimate goal. Through their deeds, good or bad, they transformed themselves into different shapes and sizes of knighthood and chivalry. The knights who viewed this journey as a burden failed themselves, as they lost their will and fortitude to carry on. Those knights who saw the quest as the ultimate test of their knighthood, though, had the right idea. For through the virtues demanded by chivalry, these knights aided the lands and made the world a better, safer place for all. A true knight would find his goodly actions as his own reward and cherish every opportunity to practice and improve his craft. Thus, the Holy Grail served merely as a test of whether they had truly embraced their role as a chivalrous knight.

And so, as this summary tale of the quest of the Holy Grail ends, let's return to the true meaning of the quest: the seeker is the key, the quest is the reward, and the Grail is a test. As we seek our own, personal Holy Grails, this is the perspective we must keep in mind if we are ever to reach our journey's end. The only way to truly unlock our most coveted desires is through ourselves, for we not only hold the keys to our own futures, but we mold them ourselves through our actions. The journey toward finding our Holy Grail is the true reward, because it is an opportunity to do what we love. It is senseless to try to achieve a Holy Grail in something that does not interest us, because we end up burdening ourselves with unnecessary troubles. Rather, we should embrace every opportunity to do what we love for the betterment of all. By doing this, even a grand reward for what we've accomplished seems merely a minor consolation. Our Holy Grail thus becomes little more than a dangling carrot, pushing us to continue on our own path of happiness. It doesn't matter if we fail to reach it fully or completely surpass it. What matters most is that we control our own path and make sure we enjoy the path we're walking in life. For on that road we may find our own magic cauldron, endlessly brewing joy and self-fulfillment.