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 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)

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