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.

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