Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The art of deciphering a box of chocolates...

I can remember seeing my mother standing in the kitchen, holding the lid to a box of chocolates in her hand and calling out, "Who's been poking holes in the bottoms of all the chocolates and then returning them to their little brown cups in the box?"

At that moment, every sound in the house fell into abeyance allowing for a clear path for her words to travel from one room to the next. That is, except for my heartbeat which, if it couldn't be heard in the kitchen, would have been visually apparent to anyone looking at me. My heart knew I was guilty of a crime far worse than getting my hands caught in the cookie jar. As much as I wanted at that moment to suggest that a stranger had entered our home and poked holes in the bottoms of the chocolates, leaving behind violated orange and maple creme squares, I remained silent. My face went flush. My head dropped in order to conceal it. My mother's words were echoing in my mind and there was no need for her to repeat them. But it wasn't the best time to share that bit of wisdom with her.

Again, her voice rang from room to room: "I said, who is poking holes in the bottoms of the chocolates and then returning them to their little brown cups in the box?" When I lifted my hand to push the long strands of hair that had fallen forward to wrap them behind my ears, I ever so slowly peeked from the corner of my eye. My brother had stopped snapping pieces of Lego together and my sister had quit watching the television and both were frozen in position staring at me.

Guilt and paranoia combine to produce a reflex with the neck that's very similar to what a hammer does when lightly tapped below one's knee. When my eyes met with my siblings' eyes, my head immediately lifted and turned toward where my mother was standing. Of course, if I wasn't totally innocent by nature, I wouldn't have felt so guilty. But it wasn't the best time to share that bit of wisdom with her. There I was, red-handed and eye-to-eye with my mother who was still holding the lid to the chocolates with one hand while motioning for me to approach the kitchen counter. My mother asked, "Why did you do this?" And then she taught me something I have never forgotten.

She told me I didn't need to damage the chocolates in order to find out what was inside them. All I needed to learn was the art of observing each piece of chocolate's characteristics and become acquainted with the patterns that were visible on their surface. Chocolate covered nuts are pretty easy to find, caramels are usually square versus rectangular, coconut filled are frequently round, mint cremes are round and flat, and covered toffee is square and flat. When I was younger, my mother told me about the squiggles that identified each piece of chocolate in a box that could be used to distinguish orange cremes from the nougats. Industry-wide standardized squiggles have gone with the wind, but every chocolate maker today uses their own consistent patterns of squiggles and drizzles. True and loyal connoisseurs of a chocolate maker know what they're going to get in their box of chocolates.

Something tells me that Forrest Gump's momma knew this because her wisdom about chocolate arrived in two separate sentences. "My momma always said, 'Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.'"

So maybe the question Forrest raises as he stands over Jenny's grave about whether we each have a destiny or are instead floating around accidental-like on a breeze is really about whether we're floating around accidental-like...or instead are moved by something that influences the direction our life takes, while we're fulfilling our destiny.

Forrest Gump, the movie, reveals patterns and storytelling strategies similar, but not identical, to what Chrétien de Troyes used in The Story of the Grail. If Eric Roth was true to Chrétien's work, which emulated Abelard's writing, any questions that are raised should find food for thought within the story that's been provided.


Photo by Danny www.flickr.com

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mirrored stories...

A few days ago I mentioned that the boy of the forest in The Story of the Grail could have been, for a brief moment, Abelard and Heloise's son Astrolabe. There's a glimmer of something that appears in certain scenes that resonates with the kind of love that exists only between parent and child, where Astrolabe's name is inseparable and permanently etched.

Astrolabe's presence is made more prominent when the scenes of the two knights in the story are mirrored, one against the other; a scene with Perceval is matched to a similar scene with Gawain as the prominent knight. From this perspective, the two scenes are both similar and in many ways opposite to each other, but in combination they become multi-faceted—like a gemstone.

Mirroring is a story writer's technique that Chrétien de Troyes was particularly gifted in projecting. Sometimes he wrote two separate stories to be read in tandem. In The Story of the Grail the mirroring occurs scene by scene and they don't necessarily occur in the same order within the two knights' exploits.

While Perceval is battling hardships at Belrepeire, Gawain is surrounded by abundance in Escavalon. When the two knights arrive in the same scene they are like best friends and engage in a celebration. While Perceval is wandering aimlessly and not pursuing his destiny, Gawain encounters the Evil Maiden possessed by the devil...who follows him everywhere he goes.

At the end of the story, Gawain learns that the queen of the Wondrous Palace is actually his mother who died twenty years before. In real life, Heloise had died twenty years before this tale was written. The scene that most closely resembles the Wondrous Palace within Perceval's adventures is his encounter with the wounded Fisher King at the nobleman's majestic manor house. When we know that Gawain has found his deceased mother in his scene, it allows for the possibility that Perceval was meeting his deceased father at the manor house...who had been wounded between the thighs, just like Abelard had been in real life. This ever so subtle glimmer that Astrolabe is among the knight's many identities only occurs in the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the story.

However...there is always another way to gaze upon scenes in this tale. Imagine rotating the tale ever so slightly and seeing it from a different angle. When Perceval arrives at the Fisher King's manor house and gets situated in the grand hall, a squire enters with a sword and delivers it to the Fisher King who examines it in detail. Then the nobleman hands the sword to Perceval, saying, "This sword, dear brother, was destined for you and none other." Only later in the tale does Perceval find out that this sword doesn't hold up in life and death battles...it flies to pieces. It is the kind of sword that only a dialectic warrior would carry; a knight whose words provide the edge that wins a different kind of battle.

In real life and according to Abelard's own words in the story of his misfortunes his father bestowed upon him the opportunity to pursue battles of the mind in disputation and take as his armory, logical reasoning. Abelard left his home in Le Pallet as a youth to follow his passion. Now with a little imagination we can further combine the multiple aspects of the scene and see that Perceval is a little bit of the father and the son...all in the same moment.

Enter the 20th century. Almost exactly eight hundred years after The Story of the Grail premiered Winston Groom wrote the novel Forrest Gump. If cussing doesn't offend you, the novel is laugh-out-loud funny but there's a layer underneath the laughs that captures a glimpse of real life that is brutally honest. It shines a light on how our exploits on earth might appear to someone up above looking down upon us and observing our actions while having an inside line to the intentions behind them. We're seen killing each other over dirt, dressing like turds and vegetables for money, betting everything we have on a thrown match, basically doing anything for a buck including skewing peoples' perceptions of reality to grab a headline, without regard to who is hurt or suffers as a consequence. In the novel, Lt. Dan is the saving grace who seems to grasp the possibility that there is meaning behind the madness.

As Groom's portrayal draws to a close, Forrest is seen taking a look in the mirror while commenting that he's getting on in life. He's has wrinkles and gray hair and not nearly as much energy as he used to have. The shrimp company was his first honest living and has provided more than he and Bubba ever dreamed it would. But Forrest starts thinking that life is just "spinnin in place." Things are "slippin by." There's something missing and he supposes that Jenny Curran has something to do with it. But there isn't anything that anybody can do about it.

One day Forrest decides that he has to get away. Mama starts weeping and bawling and wringing her handkerchief while Mister Tribble says he completely understands.

"Why don't we jus tell everbody you are taking a long vacation, Forrest," he say. "An of course your share of the bidness will be here, whenever you want it."

So Forrest and Sue the orangutan get in a little row boat and travel up to Bayou La Batre and then to the bus station in Mobile. When the lady in the ticket window asks where they're headed, Forrest can't decide so the lady suggests they go to Savannah. And that's what they do.

Who should they find there, but Lt. Dan who's shining shoes from under a garbage bag and living on the street. Forrest starts performing as a one-man band as Dan polishes shoes and Sue collects quarters in a cup. One day they get their picture in the newspaper under the headline "Derelicts Loitering in Public Park." Not long after, while Forrest is playing the song "Ridin on the City of New Orleans" a little boy comes up to him and the next thing you know Forrest glances across the crowd and sees Jenny standing there.

Jenny is married. Forrest is introduced to the little boy who has the same name as him, and who happens to be named after his daddy. While Forrest and Jenny talk and catch up with each others' lives, Forrest senses something...a heartbeat between them. Jenny is on the verge of tears, but she doesn't let herself cry. She just keeps saying "I can't believe it all." According to the novel, Jenny leans over to kiss Forrest on his forehead. Her lips are trembling as she says "Idiots. Who ain't an idiot?"

Forrest calls Mister Tribble and makes sure that eighty percent of the shrimp company's earnings find their way to Jenny and little Forrest. Meanwhile, he starts to wonder if it would be possible to fix things up between them and after a whole night of thinking he decides that things are probably best the way they are. "Little Forrest doesn't need a peabrain for a daddy." In a turn of the page, Forrest, Sue, and Dan are packed for traveling and are last seen in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

As Winston Groom brought his novel to a close, Forrest is looking up to the stars, taking in the whole sky above him...contemplating and talking to nobody in particular, "...don't you think I ain't rememberin it all. I still got dreams like anybody else, an ever so often, I am thinkin' about how things might of been."

Eight years later Forrest Gump came to life on the big screen. The screenplay written by Eric Roth was a mirrored reflection of the novel: similar, opposite, and providing that multi-faceted quality that neither could achieve individually. And who said that nothing could be done about fixing Forrest and Jenny up?

While Forrest, in the novel, claimed his son deserved more than a peabrain for a daddy, in the movie Forrest keeps repeating that he and Jenny go together like peas and carrots.

Forrest Gump, the movie, begins where the novel left off, a few steps backward, and provides a more realistic view. The movie begins with Forrest sitting at the bus stop in Savannah. Sue the orangutan is captured in the child's book Curious George. Forrest is looking back upon his life and remembering it all. In the movie, his daddy isn't dead...mama tells the school principal that daddy's on vacation. In the movie, Forrest doesn't cuss anywhere near as much. The movie trades laughs for sincerity.

Lt. Dan has become the cynical one, but still manages to provide a bit of wisdom. He complains about the chaplains at the VA hospital: "Jesus this and Jesus that. Have I found Jesus? They even had a priest come and talk to me. He said God is listening, but I still have to help myself...."

Jenny is still singing in the movie, but her nice melodic love song from the novel that was called "Give it to Me Hard and Fast" is replaced with songs with lyrics that suggest the answers are blowing in the wind and that we should smile on our brother while trying to love one another, right now.

In the novel, Forrest thinks the awful pink sky makes faces look like death. In the movie, the sunrise across the desert makes it impossible to tell where heaven ends or earth begins. And it’s beautiful.

In the novel, Mama is working for the shrimp company as the last page is turned. In the movie, Mama dies. Jenny and Forrest acknowledge they love each other and finally get married. And then Jenny dies.

Forrest stands by the oak tree and talks to Jenny's grave, "Mama always said dyin' was a part of life."

"I sure wish it wasn't"

When I think about all the ways that Forrest Gump could be mirrored against The Story of the Grail, the novel by itself teaches us how to find similarities between what initially appear as vastly different stories with different casts of characters among totally new settings. The movie captures Chrétien’s writing strategies by repeating words and phrases two and three times: "Our house has been in Mama's family since her grandpa's grandpa's grandpa had come across the ocean about a thousand years ago…."

While the motion picture reveals Chrétien’s strategies with words, the novel reveals the final move necessary to bring closure to The Story of the Grail through action. And the scene that captures it is when Forrest is a player in the championship game at the "Grandmaster's Invitational Chess Tournament." Grand Master Ivan Petrokivitch, a.k.a. Honest Ivan, is his competitor. During the match Forrest uses a few moves he learned in the jungle from Big Sam that "weren't in the book," one of which uses the queen as bait, while trying to get Honest Ivan to risk his knight to take her.

If I remember how Winston Groom told this, it went something like this:
When the moment arrived for the last move, the crowd got so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. Forrest was so excited and nervous he thought he would bust. Honest Ivan moved his piece to square eight two or three times, but then always moved it back to square five. When it looked like he was going to make a different move while the piece was hovering over square eight, Forrest was holding his breath while his heart was beating so hard he could feel it. The room was as quiet as a tomb and suddenly Forrest "cut a humongous baked-bean fart that sounded like someone was rippin a bedsheet in half." At that moment, Honest Ivan dropped his piece on square eight and then flailed his hands in the air and cried, "Uggh!" as he fanned the space around him and tried to plug his nose. Forrest turned red in the face. But then he looked at the chessboard and saw that Honest Ivan's piece was perfectly set on square eight. In a series of swift moves he snapped up the piece with his knight, grabbed two of Ivan's pawns, then his queen, and finally the king and captured the moment with one word: "Checkmate!"

Honest Ivan wasn't too pleased about the way things turned out and filed a formal complaint against Forrest. The guy in charge of the tournament started thumbing thru the rule book to determine if a transgression had occurred. Mr. Tribble claimed it was an involuntary thing, everyone breaks wind from time to time. The tournament director said, "I don't know, I think on the face of it I'm going to have to disqualify him." But after giving it a little more consideration he was willing to give Forrest another chance. And then Sue came swinging into the ballroom on a chandelier.

Feather photo by Jim Champion, http://www.flickr.com Permission has been granted to use photo, it does not include endorsement of the content of this blog.

Monday, September 21, 2009

It came like a feather on the wind...

Photo by Jim Champion www.flickr.com
Towards the end of the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest is talking to Jenny's grave and he says: "I don't know if Mama was right or if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze..."

I had completely forgotten about the feather that arrives on the wind in the opening scene of the movie and how it takes to the wind once again as the film draws to a close.

Up until a short time ago, when I thought about Forrest Gump, I remembered the smiley face on the T-shirt when he was running across the country and how he got rich with an investment in that fruit company. I remembered that Forrest served in Vietnam while Jenny became a hippy and protested the war. And then there was Elvis, John Lennon, and medals and mishaps with Presidents from JFK through Ronald Reagan. I had only seen the movie and not read the book.

Since I've been focusing on details in The Story of the Grail, I've become more observant of patterns of words that appeared on its pages and my observations frequently journey beyond the medieval tale looking for traces of it in modern day life. When I started identifying the real life details woven through the imaginary tale, the first thought that came to me was "this is just like Forrest Gump!" And for a period of time, I thought that was where the similarities ended. But its funny what happens when a person starts working through details in their mind and all of a sudden other pieces of a memory begin to find their way back and fall into place.

More recently I remembered how Forrest used to preface bits of wisdom with "Mama always says...." and it dawned on me that Perceval used to say "I was taught that by my mother...." In truth, Perceval was told to quit prefacing what he said with that statement—and to stop talking so much—which greatly influenced him at the Fisher King's manor house and was why he never asked the proper questions about the bleeding lance or the grail. Forrest Gump and Perceval are both considered to be lacking in intelligence while being largely successful at everything they attempt—except knowing how to love a maiden.

When I mentioned the similarities of the two stories to my son in a conversation that just so happened to include the significance of the oak tree in The Story of the Grail, he recalled that the oak tree had a special meaning to Forrest Gump but he couldn't name what it was. Everybody sees stories from slightly different angles; for those in Forrest Gump's audience, the mentioning of events from the past 30 years didn't have the same affect on someone born in the 1980's...so he grasped onto other details of the story to remember it by. More importantly, I had a sudden insight that suggested I needed to become more intimately acquainted with both the novel and the film.

Novels and their screen adaptations tend to differ and the two versions of Forrest Gump are no exception. In fact, the movie is very different from the novel. But what I see is a mirrored reflection between the two—in a Chrétien de Troyes' kind of way—that provides a greater depth to its meaning. In the opening chapter of the novel we learn that Forrest's mama is a real fine person, his daddy died shortly after he was born, and mama keeps him inside a lot, separate from the outside world. When Forrest is sixteen, the high school football coach drives by and stops to ask him if he's ever played the game and Forrest just shakes his head because he isn't good at conversation. It's a scene that is very similar to Perceval's first encounter with King Arthur. In fact most every scene in The Story of the Grail can be found within the novel of Forrest Gump, though not the movie. But where The Story of the Grail is compiled of layers of stories held in place with shared details, Forrest Gump only portrays the face value exploits of the imaginary knights.

As the screen adaptation of Forrest Gump begins, the first thing Forrest says is, "My name is Forrest Gump." Then he shares the wisdom passed on to him by his mama before he begins telling his whole life story to everyone that takes a seat at the bus stop. Forrest shares the moment he first set eyes on Jenny; she was like an angel. And they used to spend their time swinging like monkeys on the branches of an old oak tree. When Jenny dies at the end of the movie, Forrest buries her beneath the oak tree.

In reality, there's just one story that makes up the legend of the grail, but there are five books that help us discover its meaning. Forrest Gump is one of the them. What I've learned is that there are characteristics that every authentic story belonging to this legend shares. Each one raises at least one comment or a question and then leaves it unanswered for the audience to contemplate. You can consider this characteristic a tribute to a book that Abelard wrote called Sic et Non which was condemned because it raised questions and required the reader to apply their intellectual abilities and discover their own knowing versus accepting another person's opinion or belief.

Another characteristic of authentic stories of the legend is that each is bound to the others by threads that weave from one book to another. The underlying mystery is where these threads come from. Creativity for writers comes with inspiration. But what's the source? Forrest Gump was the first book in eight hundred years that is an authentic story belonging to the original legend of the grail. Understanding how the novel relates to the medieval story is an exercise that helps us understand how to find the answer to the question about the bleeding lance.

In The Story of the Grail, Mother said that one should never be in another's company for very long before asking them their name...but at the end of the tale, Gawain asked the queen not to seek his identity for one week. We can take this as a hint. It takes a few days for the mind to organize all the details so they can be retrieved and sorted and looked upon from different vantage points. It's like looking back on something that happened a few days earlier and imagining how things should have been, could have been, would have been, if only.... This time, if we wait until all the details of the five books are gathered and allow them to rest in our minds for a bit of time, I suspect the answer to the question about the lance is destined to come to each of us.

More to follow on Forrest Gump...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

If the world of stories is any indication ... It's Time

Photo: "Oak Tree at Sunrise" by Josh Townsley*

I think there must be a place where stories are kept, a world of their own where each is categorized by the intent with which they were initiated. Where the stories of our lives are woven together; where Sacred Stories gather the stories of their people like a mother hen gathers her chicks; and where the imaginative stories people create provide the threads that bind them all together.

I don't know of another story—other than the most sacred of stories—that was written with the intent that it would somehow find its way into reality and come to life.

However, Chrétien de Troyes did something that even The Holy Bible never once dared to do. In the medieval world, those who believed in the Bible believed it was a book written by God and that all the prophecies had to come to pass. They were always looking for signs that marked a turning point in the biblical story, but they hadn't an inkling of when the signs would appear, didn’t really know what they were supposed to be looking for, and were afraid of what the signs would usher in. In comparison, The Story of the Grail established a date, exactly 1,000 years in the future, for the audience to return with the answer to the question it raised concerning why the lance at the Fisher King's manor house always had a drop of blood forming at its tip.

Nobody knows precisely when The Story of the Grail premiered...so there's no way of knowing exactly when the 1,000 year deadline arrives. But there are a few details in the story that help narrow the possibilities. After Gawain had survived the Wondrous Bed, the queen who ruled the palace struck up a conversation with him and inquired as to how many sons, throughout his life, King Lot had by his lawful wife? And Gawain answered, "Four, lady." After he named them, she responded, "Please Heaven that his four sons all were with us now!" Gawain also mentions King Urien's two sons, one a bastard who had the same name as his half-brother, but was just called “the Bastard” at King Arthur's court. In reality, Eleanor of Aquitaine had four sons with Henry II—excluding their first son who died at age two—and also raised one of the king’s bastard sons who coincidentally shared the same name as their own son Geoffrey. Henry the Young King was no longer with us after the year 1183.

The other side of this window of time is marked by the elm tree where Gawain encounters the Evil Maiden. In reality, the elm tree at Gisors was where the kings of France and England would meet to negotiate their differences. This particular elm tree was supposedly 800 years old and held special meaning for the Merovingian dynasty. In 1188, Philippe II, the king of France, had the tree cut down in the course of a dispute with Henry II. It isn’t likely the cutting of the elm would have been omitted from The Story of the Grail had it been part of history at the story's writing.

Also, in 1188 a suspicious fire raged through the town of Troyes, hinting at the possibility that the story was enjoying the tremendous popularity it became famous for…and had attracted the attention of less kindred spirits. If the story was given to a minstrel to perform around the year 1185, there are 176 years remaining before the deadline is upon us. But something has happened that suggests the time has come for us to become more intimately acquainted with the story and begin to experience its potentiality.

Before I delve into what has transpired, let me share what I learned about the oak trees in the tale. In the opening scene of The Story of the Grail, a group of five knights in full armor are heard riding through the forest with the mighty oak and hornbeam branches thumping on their weapons as their lances clatter against their shields. All the noise they’re making captures the attention of the boy who’d been raised in the forest and had never seen knights before. At first he was sure they were devils, then he considered them angels, and finally he asked one outright if he were God. Before their meeting was over, he determined he wanted to become a knight himself.

After the knights in the forest, three characters appear in various scenes, each sitting beneath an oak tree: Perceval's Cousin is discovered cradling the body of a beheaded knight…and knows everything there is to know about Perceval. Gawain sits under an oak tree where he is in full view of the maidens watching a tournament taking place outside Tintagel, and where, much to his displeasure, he can distinctly hear everything they say about him. Later in the tale, Gawain comes upon a maiden sitting beneath an oak tree, raising loud laments while cradling the wounded Greoreas. Although this maiden isn't aware of Gawain's past, Greoreas reminds him of his prior wrong doings.

Chrétien provided all the clues necessary for the audience to experience the full potential of the story, beginning with misquoted verse from the Bible prefaced by the comment that he had read it there himself. Knights traveling beneath oak trees that are somehow related to God, led me to look for an oak tree in God's story. And I found one in Judges 6:1-40 that tells the story of a youth named Gideon. Now, you’re supposed to read this story yourself…but let me share what I perceive to be the key points that Chrétien wanted us to come upon.

In the biblical tale, an angel of the Lord takes a seat beneath an oak tree next to where Gideon is threshing wheat in a winepress. When the angel appears before the youth, he says, "The Lord is with you, mighty warrior." Gideon answers back, "If the Lord is with us, why have terrible things continued to happen to us? Where are the wonders that our fathers and grandfathers have told stories about? You have not only abandoned us, but allowed our enemies to destroy us." As the Lord tries to convince Gideon to work with Him in rescuing his people, Gideon says, "Give me a sign that it really is you talking to me."

Before Gideon's tale ends, the youth has asked the Lord THREE times to wait while he goes off to gather items in order to test Him; each time he asks the Lord to prove His presence and His powers.

When I came upon Gideon's story, a whole new dimension of Chrétien's tale unfolded as I allowed Gawain to be of a spiritual nature—whose exploits coincidentally mirrored Perceval's. But as one thing has led to another, the most important contribution of Gideon's story is something that only the audience of the 21st century might fully appreciate.

It isn't necessary to encounter an angel beneath an oak tree in order to discern the voice of God...whispers from the Overseer. In my mind, thoughts arrive in quiet moments and I imagine they come to everyone in much the same way. I've learned to appreciate insight, inspiration, and intuition...I wouldn't have been able to find my way through this tale without them. I was inspired to learn about the emerald ring and the meaning of the oak tree. I felt a need to understand where Chrétien was taking this story. I was struck by insights when I found information that answered questions that I raised. All of the thoughts came to me in my own voice.

How does anyone distinguish between the whisper of the Overseer and their own thoughts? Nobody "told me" to share what I've come to learn. Do I think it's important? Absolutely. I think as a people we are destined to understand the true meaning of The Story of the Grail. The signs are everywhere. The choice of sharing what I've learned is entirely my own because...nothing comes into reality without the effort of a human being. Maybe the line is drawn where personal choice and human will take over.

The Story of the Grail is no ordinary story. It was written for us in the 21st century who have to answer the question, but it was written to the original audience in the 12th century. In order to engage their imagination and ensure the seed of the story was firmly planted, those who were present in the courtyard and heard the minstrel perform this tale had to know the real-life details that were woven through it...so the story would somehow attach to memories that already existed.

The third clue to this tale arrived in the opening scene when Mother tells her son that he should never be in a person's company for very long without asking them their name, for in the end, by the name you know the man. Chrétien intentionally avoided naming the important characters. The audience was left to imagine who each might be based upon the character's actions and the words they spoke, aided by what other characters in the tale said to describe situations. Kind of the same way we figure out the identity of people in real life.

Depending upon the angle from which the story is observed, each of the main characters could take on a different personage as each was a collage of many people. Mother was a bit of Eleanor and as the widowed lady who lived in the forest she was Heloise; she was the mother of everyone with ties to the story...she was Eve. For a brief moment, Mother's son—who was only two when she arrived in the forest—might have been Eleanor's first born son or he could have been Abelard's and Heloise's son Astrolabe, who they had tried to hide in a distant town; the identity of dear son transformed as the story progressed. The young knight's most prominent identity was established when he put on the armor red. Afterward he had occassion to send messages to King Arthur via prisoners he'd captured and showed mercy upon, saying tell the king "the one in red sent you." The red knight's name wasn't revealed until after his encounter with the wounded Fisher King. Actually, as the story tells, the knight had never heard his name before...but when asked what it was, his name suddenly came to him; his name was Perceval, which means press on through the valley.

There have been many stories that lay claim to the legend of the Grail and have kept it alive in imagination. But when it comes to understanding and experiencing The Story of the Grail, the number of stories is greatly reduced. Some have come and gone like a feather on the wind and we never recognized their significance.

* Photo via http://www.flickr.com/ : photographer has provided permission to use the photo, no endorsement of the content of this blog comes with it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Chrétien asked: Who is served by the grail? And someone followed: It was a chalice!

The last time I checked, the Western world couldn't agree on what the grail was, although 80 million people had at least contemplated the possibility that it had something to do with royal blood.

I'm making an assumption that Chrétien's grail—which was made of the purest gold, set with a manifold of gems, and such a holy thing—transformed through the years into the Holy Grail before its most recent appearance in The Da Vinci Code. As Dan Brown frequently reminded us, his book was a modern day imaginary tale, which permitted details to be presented in ways that weren't exactly in accordance with how we might expect to find them. And he spent a good portion of his novel pointing out that there was always another way to look upon words, symbols, and situations.

Consider for a moment that Robert Langdon claimed he gasped aloud when he first saw Disney's The Little Mermaid because of a portrait in Ariel's underwater home...and her flowing red hair was no coincidence. Eleanor of Aquitaine had red hair. The novel put forth a clue that the Holy Grail could be found 'neath the ancient Roslin which sent the symbologist and his accompanying cryptologist to Rosslyn Chapel and in the end lured Langdon out to the streets of Paris to follow the ARAGO markers. In reality, when considering England's royal family, the Plantagenet's are 'neath the Rose line, while ancestral history clearly identifies Eleanor of Aquitaine as part of the Merovingian bloodline.

In the opening scene of The Story of the Grail, Mother shares a little bit of the family heritage before sending her son off to become a knight:

I am descended from the best
knights of this land, and they attest
in the sea's isles, no line has shown
itself more noble than my own,
but now the best have been brought low.

When The Story of the Grail was introduced in the 12th century, the Prologue of the tale claimed it was a story that was being disseminated and initiated in such fertile soil, Chrétien could only profit for his toil. Before the Prologue was finished, a passage from the Bible had been misquoted even though it was prefaced with the comment "I've read the text in which Saint Paul has said...." As I mentioned in my previous blog, one layer of this tale captures the life and teachings of Peter Abelard. Abelard's troubles with the Church began in 1121 when he was forced to burn one of his books. In his defense, he told his persecutors that they should read the Bible for themselves, because portions were being misrepresented.

It seems that over the course of the last eight hundred years, The Story of the Grail has also been misrepresented. It never included a quest to find the grail. After Perceval became a knight, he moved from one scene to the next in hopes of finding his way back to Mother, at least until he came upon the wounded Fisher King. That evening, as the nobleman and the young knight waited for the start of dinner, a procession including a bleeding lance and a grail passed before them and entered a small room on the side. With every course of the meal, the grail passed by again.

Perceval's destiny required that he answer two questions:
  1. Why did the lance bleed?
  2. Who was served by the grail?
In his final appearance in the tale, Perceval is told by his hermit uncle that the Fisher King's father was served by the grail. Actually, the hermit provides a few additional clues when he states that nobody should consider the idea that the king took food like salmon, lamprey, or pike from the grail, because it contained a single mass wafer which sustained his life.

One way of looking at this is that the size of the fish denotes the shape and size of the grail. But from a slightly different vantage point, the clues shed light on the identity of the king. Every detail has a story behind it. Heloise was the abbess of the Paraclete and she would send questions that arose in the women's study of the Bible to Abelard to respond to. The ladies were curious about why only the beasts and the birds were described in Genesis 2:20, as being led to Adam to be named. Why not the reptiles of the land or the fish in the water? His response was that reptiles and fish are not able to raise themselves up, they are like reprobates. And for this reason, it isn't permitted to offer fish as a sacrifice to God...one would never serve fish to God.

The mass wafer as unleavened bread is symbolic of a life free of sin and has a long history in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The description of the grail was borrowed from Ezekiel 28:13: You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: ruby, topaz and emerald, chrysolite, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared. (New International Version.)

The Story of the Grail is the story of the spirit that contains a unified life free of sin. While it requires the participation of the individual, it represents the journey of a civilization. It's impossible, in reality, to find the grail and hold it in one's hands.

The key to understanding this story is that Perceval had been wandering for 5 years. In the year 1183 it would have been about 5,000 years since the story of Adam and Eve was first told. Gawain, who takes center stage in the last few scenes of the tale, is given 1 year to return with the bleeding lance in order to save his name and reputation. Then Perceval is written out of the story and Gawain is forbidden to leave the Wondrous Palace. It becomes the destiny of the audience to answer the remaining question about the bleeding lance and return to the story. When the elements of time are transposed into reality, the deadline was established for exactly 1,000 years in the future.

Picture of Eleanor of Aquitaine is from Queens of England, 1894
Source for questions between Heloise and Abelard: http://epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/letter/178.html

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Story Behind the Story

This past weekend I read The Story of the Grail for the first time since developing an idea of Chrétien de Troyes' true identity. Once again I was reminded of what a magical tale this is. The story transforms. It knows what's on your mind and it responds to it. More importantly, for those who have devoted a portion of their life to unlocking the mystery of the grail, this means if you arrive looking for signs of Celtic myth, you'll find them. But it will never reveal its true intent under those circumstances.

The Story of the Grail is actually layers of stories held in place by shared details, many of which serve as double entendres. When you arrive with new meaning for one of these details, the scene it belongs to can suddenly take on a new appearance. It might be topsy-turvy in comparison to what you'd expect, and therefore all the more likely to engage imagination.

For example, the high winds that blow across the sea outside Belrepeire share something with the wind that blew, in reality, at the Siege of Ascalon in the year 1153. There's also something familiar about this mighty wind and the mighty wind that parted the Red Sea and saved the people from certain destruction in the biblical story in Exodus. From Clamadeu's perspective out in the field, the mighty wind in combination with the portcullis crushing his army, bringing loss upon loss, is reminiscent to details found in the biblical story of Job.

The imaginary tale is comprised of real-life history superimposed on top of select biblical stories that all work together to accomplish a specific intent.

But whose story was this? The author, Chrétien de Troyes, appeared on the scene in what is now France sometime after the year 1160 and vanished without a trace following the story's premiere around the year 1185. He wanted this tale to come to life and strategically positioned it on the boundary that separates make-believe from reality. And if I'm correct in my thinking, the person behind the name lived long enough to experience the potentiality and beginning for what was initiated.

The Story of the Grail was intentionally left unfinished; a situation which raised numerous questions over the course of several hundred years. The original tale abruptly stops with King Arthur fainting in a heap of distress and Queen Guinevere asking lady Lore about what had just happened.

I've learned that when the right questions are raised and intuitions are followed, that answers are provided. Some are direct; others lay out a path.

I wondered about the significance of the emerald ring that Perceval takes from the maiden in the tent on his way to become a knight. Knowing that biblical stories were woven through scenes of the tale, I searched for the use of "emerald" in the Bible. The answer didn't explain the meaning of the ring, but it did reveal the source for the words used in describing "the grail" at the Fisher King's Manor House.

The timing of this information was perfect. I didn't yet know the people or historical events woven as another layer of the story, and likely wouldn't have recognized the meaning of the ring if I'd come upon it.

The more I tried to get inside Chrétien's mind, the more I found myself bumping into Eleanor of Aquitaine. When I came upon three letters that Eleanor had written to Pope Celestine III, I knew that she knew The Story of the Grail on an intimate basis. She flaunted it. When I allowed for Eleanor to play a significant role in the story's writing, it was as if the floodgates that had held back information suddenly opened.

One small paragraph appeared that mentioned an emerald ring given to Henry II by the English pope, Adrian IV, when he extended authority of the king to rule over Ireland. Eleanor was Queen of England, but she had a few issues with the authoritative rule of both her husband and the Church.

Not only does this story transform...it has transformative powers. The emerald ring that Perceval takes from the Maiden in the Tent in the beginning of his journey seemingly reappears in the closing scene when Gawain is asked by a nobleman to deliver an emerald ring, as a token of love, to a certain maiden living inside the Wondrous Palace.

The Story of the Grail collaborates with the powers of the Universe. It demands Atonement for one's actions. It risks everything to make way for Love. The story takes hold of the reins of Destiny.

Destiny's Hidden Cast of Characters

Eleanor of Aquitaine was conceived the year that Peter Abelard's troubles with the Church began. Fate not only brought them both to Paris, they shared an interest in the university of Notre Dame, a religious connection through the Abbey of St. Denis, and a nemesis by the name of Bernard of Clairvaux.

Although Abelard is the famously castrated lover of Heloise, he was fated to cross paths with Eleanor on the Octave of Pentecost in the year 1141, the day the Council of Sens convened for the primary purpose of condemning Abelard’s life work. The invitation for this event was woven into the closing scene of The Story of the Grail:

Then tell the queen the selfsame thing,
to come, by the great faith between
her and myself, because the queen
is both my lady and my friend.
She will not fail me when I send
for her to come and bring with her
the ladies and the maids who were
at court that day, for love of me.

In the spring of 1141, Eleanor was barely nineteen. However, as Queen of France she was given prime seating at the trial where all of "the evolutionary forces of the Western world, represented by their most prominent personalities" were in attendance.

Despite the potential for this day, the Church against Abelard's brazen ideas, the historical record for this place and time was left blank.

It would seem that no matter how much anybody wanted to speak up, and thought they should, just like Perceval during the procession of the grail, everyone remained silent. The king, the queen, even the great dialectic warrior refused to defend himself against multiple charges of heresy. Abelard, once upon a time a mesmerizing philosopher and theologian, was subsequently sentenced to silence for the remainder of his life.

He died in 1142 and was buried at the Paraclete, a monastery he helped establish for Heloise in the forest a few miles down the road from Troyes.

Every twenty years or so, Eleanor’s life crossed paths with vestiges of Abelard:

In 1163, Heloise died. The love letters and other correspondence that were exchanged between Heloise and Abelard likely found their way to Eleanor via her daughter Marie, countess of Champagne, whose husband had inherited the responsibility of overseeing business transactions of the Paraclete. It was about the same time period that Chrétien de Troyes emerged as a court poet. For a period of time, the queen and countess promoted courtly love in their respective royal courts.

In 1183, Eleanor was as old as Abelard the last time she’d seen him and had been imprisoned by her second husband, the king of England, for nearly a decade when she received word of the death of her son, Henry the Young King. In Eleanor’s darkest hour, Chrétien’s work took on a higher purpose. And the first order of business was to rescue Abelard’s voice from the grave and bring his ideas to life in the exploits of the Arthurian knights.

In the year 1204, Eleanor died. At 82 years of age, she had lived long enough to recognize that details from The Story of the Grail were finding their way into reality.

Within the story, Gawain survived sitting upon the Wondrous Bed despite a barrage of arrows. He was plucking the ones that penetrated his armor when a lion entered the room; it died in the midst of his arms. In 1199 Eleanor’s son, Richard the Lionheart, was struck by a crossbow and attempted to pluck the arrow that penetrated his shoulder. The wound became gangrenous and he died in his mother’s arms.

In 1202 Eleanor came under siege by her grandson Arthur and was unable to escape the town of Mirabeau. The opportunity arose for her to send a messenger to son John, the king, requesting aid. In the imaginary story, Gawain was forbidden to leave the Wondrous Palace and sends a messenger to King Arthur, requesting him to come. At this point in The Story of the Grail there are only about 100 eight syllable lines remaining. As soon as John arrived with reinforcements and took Mirabeau by surprise, Eleanor returned to the Abbey of Fontevrault. The very same scene in the story that was reminiscent of the invitation from Abelard, for the queen to join him at his last public appearance, became the scene that corresponded to her own last public appearance.

The details from reality woven into the imaginary tale raise new questions: Was Chrétien de Troyes a person or a pseudonym? Was the one-time Queen of France, who became the Queen of England and the most powerful woman of the 12th century, also it’s most engaging storyteller?

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a woman scorned and expunged by the medieval Church. Her effigy at Fontevrault is lavishly decorated with jewels--like the grail--and depicts her holding The Holy Bible.

Above Artwork: Abelard and Heloise Surprised by Abbot Fulbert, by Jean Vignaud, [1819] (Public Domain Image)