The Holy Grail

Joseph Campbell on Western culture’s iconic quest

Adapted from "The Power of Myth" by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers

Holy Grail

Above: “The Arming and Departure of the Knights,” a tapestry woven by Morris & Co., 1895-96

The quest for the Holy Grail is the archetypal tale of the search for a precious object. Since its origins in the 12th century, it’s inspired everyone from T.S. Eliot to Monty Python, and supplied an essential metaphor for critics, sportscasters, and copywriters everywhere. Here, renowned and sometimes controversial mythologist Joseph Campbell, who spent his career teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence and unraveling the spiritual meanings of myths from around the world, talks with journalist Bill Moyers about the symbolism in Western culture’s favorite quest.

CAMPBELL There’s a very interesting statement about the origin of the Grail. One early writer says that the Grail was brought from heaven by the neutral angels. You see, during the war in heaven between God and Satan, between good and evil, some angelic hosts sided with Satan and some with God. The Grail was brought down through the middle by the neutral angels. It represents that spiritual path that is between pairs of opposites, between fear and desire, between good and evil.

The theme of the Grail romance is that the land, the country, the whole territory of concern has been laid waste. It is called a wasteland. And what is the nature of the wasteland? It is a land where everybody is living an inauthentic life, doing as other people do, doing as you’re told, with no courage for your own life. That is the wasteland. And that is what T. S. Eliot meant in his poem “The Waste Land.”

In a wasteland the surface does not represent the actuality of what it is supposed to be representing, and people are living inauthentic lives. “I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life. I’ve done as I was told.” You know?

MOYERS And the Grail becomes?

CAMPBELL The Grail becomes the—what can we call it?—that which is attained and realized by people who have lived their own lives. The Grail represents the fulfillment of the highest spiritual potentialities of the human consciousness. The Grail King, for example, was a lovely young man, but he had not earned the position of Grail King. He rode forth from his castle with the war cry “Amor!” Well, that’s proper for youth, but it doesn’t belong to the guardianship of the Grail. And as he’s riding forth, a Muslim, a pagan knight, comes out of the woods. They both level their lances at each other, and they drive at each other. The lance of the Grail King kills the pagan, but the pagan’s lance castrates the Grail King.

What that means is that the Christian separation of matter and spirit, of the dynamism of life and the realm of the spirit, of natural grace and supernatural grace, has really castrated nature. And the European mind, the European life, has been, as it were, emasculated by this separation. The true spirituality, which would have come from the union of matter and spirit, has been killed. And then what did the pagan represent? He was a person from the suburbs of Eden. He was regarded as a nature man, and on the head of his lance was written the word “Grail.” That is to say, nature intends the Grail. Spiritual life is the bouquet, the perfume, the flowering and fulfillment of a human life, not a supernatural virtue imposed upon it.

And so the impulses of nature are what give authenticity to life, not the rules coming from a supernatural authority—that’s the sense of the Grail.

MOYERS Is this what Thomas Mann meant when he talked about mankind being the noblest work because it joins nature and spirit?

CAMPBELL Yes.

MOYERS Nature and spirit are yearning for each other to meet in this experience. And the Grail that these romantic legends were searching for is the union once again of what has been divided, the peace that comes from joining.

CAMPBELL The Grail becomes symbolic of an authentic life that is lived in terms of its own volition, in terms of its own impulse system, that carries itself between the pairs of opposites of good and evil, light and dark. One writer of the Grail legend starts his long epic with a short poem saying, “Every act has both good and evil results.” Every act in life yields pairs of opposites in its results. The best we can do is lean toward the light, toward the harmonious relationships that come from compassion with suffering, from understanding the other person. This is what the Grail is about. And this is what comes out in the romance.

In the Grail legend young Perceval has been brought up in the country by a mother who refused the courts and wanted her son to know nothing about the court rules. Perceval’s life is lived in terms of the dynamic of his own impulse system until he becomes more mature. Then he is offered a lovely young girl in marriage by her father, who has trained him to be a knight. And Perceval says, “No, I must earn a wife, not be given a wife.” And that’s the beginning of Europe.

MOYERS The beginning of Europe?

CAMPBELL Yes—the individual Europe, the Grail Europe.

Now, when Perceval comes to the Grail castle, he meets the Grail King, who is brought in on a litter, wounded, kept alive simply by the presence of the Grail. Perceval’s compassion moves him to ask, “What ails you, Uncle?” But he doesn’t ask the question because he has been taught by his instructor that a knight doesn’t ask unnecessary questions. So he obeys the rule, and the adventure fails.

And then it takes him five years of ordeals and embarrassments and all kinds of things to get back to that castle and ask the question that heals the king and heals society. The question is an expression, not of the rules of the society, but of compassion, the natural opening of the human heart to another human being. That’s the Grail.

MOYERS Eliot speaks about the still point of the turning world, where motion and stasis are together, the hub where the movement of time and the stillness of eternity are together.

CAMPBELL That’s the inexhaustible center that is represented by the Grail. When life comes into being, it is neither afraid nor desiring, it is just becoming. Then it gets into being, and it begins to be afraid and desiring. When you can get rid of fear and desire and just get back to where you’re becoming, you’ve hit the spot. … The goal of your quest for knowledge of yourself is to be found at that burning point in yourself, that becoming thing in yourself, which is innocent of the goods and evils of the world as already become, and therefore desireless and fearless. That is the condition of a warrior going into battle with perfect courage. That is life in movement. That is the essence of the mysticism of war as well as of a plant growing. I think of grass—you know, every two weeks a chap comes out with a lawnmower and cuts it down. Suppose the grass were to say, “Well, for Pete’s sake, what’s the use if you keep getting cut down this way?” Instead, it keeps on growing. That’s the sense of the energy of the center. That’s the meaning of the image of the Grail, of the inexhaustible fountain, of the source. The source doesn’t care what happens once it gives into being. It’s the giving and coming into being that counts, and that’s the becoming life point in you. That’s what all these myths are concerned to tell you.

The Power of Myth ©1988 by Apostrophe S Productions, Inc., and Bill Moyers and Alfred Van der Marck Productions, Inc., for itself and Joseph Campbell. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.