The Grail Code 

Archive for July, 2006

Arthur fights apartheid

Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

Why were the British so completely displaced by the English in what we know as England? This is a question we haven’t asked yet in our search for the historical Arthur, but this BBC report suggests some very interesting answers.

To summarize, it seems that the English invaders established a kind of “apartheid” system that kept them from interbreeding with the conquered natives. The powerful economic advantages they had (Gildas tells us that the Britons who did not escape the English became their slaves) made the English breed much faster, with more of their children surviving to adulthood. In a few hundred years, the British had disappeared almost entirely, except in Wales and a few enclaves in the west.

The research is all very scientific, based on high-tech computer modeling, doubtless with blinking lights and beeping beepers. It’s not something that would have been news to the Britons, though. They knew what they were facing: not just conquest, but annihilation.

The genesis of Arthur in Geoffrey

Tuesday, July 11th, 2006

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History, Merlin is involved in Arthur’s very conception. That creates a strong link between the characters that Geoffrey doesn’t really develop as much as he might. (Later writers would more than make up for that missed opportunity.)

The story of Arthur’s genesis reads like one of those newspaper soap-opera summaries, with a bit of fantasy novel thrown in.

Merlin has predicted that the wicked Vortigern will die at the hands of the sons of Constantine, the legitimate heirs to the throne of Britain. And so he does: the elder son, Aurelius Ambrosius (Geoffrey’s name for Ambrosius Aurelianus), burns him up in his own tower. (Nennius tells a version of the same story, but in his version the fire came from heaven itself.)

Aurelius goes on to a glorious career of harrying Saxons, but eventually he falls dead from treacherous Saxon poison. His brother Uther succeeds him and looks set to continue his Saxon-harrying triumphs. But then he falls in love with Igerna, the wife of his vassal the Duke of Cornwall. Civil war results; the Duke locks Igerna safely away in his impenetrable castle of Tintagel.

Uther, pining away for love of Igerna, is advised to send for the prophet Merlin, who has a cunning plan. With certain remarkable drugs, Merlin makes Uther look exactly like the Duke of Cornwall. In his perfect disguise, Uther has no trouble simply walking straight into Tintagel, and then straight into Igerna’s bed. Arthur is conceived that night.

Meanwhile, at just about the moment Arthur is being conceived, the duke conveniently dies in battle. Uther, back to being Uther again, takes Tintagel; Igerna, who knows a good bargain when she sees it, marries him. Thus Arthur is raised as the legitimate son of Uther.

After that, Uther continues his glorious career of harrying Saxons for fifteen more years, until the Saxons finally get tired of being harried and poison him as they did his brother.

So Arthur comes to the throne at the age of fifteen, crowned by the Archbishop of the City of Legions. Everyone acclaims him, and he immediately picks up the Saxon-harrying mantle left him by his father and his uncle.

That’s the beginning of the story of Arthur in Geoffrey’s History. And since we’re looking for the historical Arthur, we’ve got to ask ourselves whether there’s any history at all in Geoffrey’s account.

I’ll admit up front that I’m going to do what every other historian does with Geoffrey of Monmouth: I’m going to latch onto what seems plausible to me and reject the rest as legend. But I’ll try to give you the reasons for my conclusions, so you can make up your own mind.

Let’s start with what we know. We know that Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus (Aurelius Ambrosius in Geoffrey) are real historical figures. Gildas tells us that Ambrosius came from a noble Roman family, and that his descendants were still ruling Britain, though they had not inherited Ambrosius’ virtue.

Geoffrey makes Aurelius Ambrosius the son of Constantine. Now, Constantine is an illustrious name in British history: Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor (at least if we don’t count Philip the Arab, who may have been a secret Christian) was in Britain when he was proclaimed Emperor. Constantine was also a common name among noble Britons, and Gildas scolds by name a certain tyrant Constantine who ruled in Gildas’ own day. It is quite possible that this Constantine was a descendant of Ambrosius, and that Constantine was a recurring family name in his line. So the idea that Constantine was Ambrosius’ father seems very plausible. I certainly can’t prove it, but it sounds like it might be real history.

In Geoffrey, Aurelius Ambrosius is succeeded by his brother Uther. This also sounds suspiciously like history. If you’re just making up a plausible story, kings are usually succeeded either by sons or by usurpers. So I’m inclined to accept Uther as a real character.

Wouldn’t it be tempting to say that we’ve discovered the real genealogy of Arthur? Uther was his father; the famous Ambrosius was his uncle, and his grandfather was named Constantine.

But I’m not willing to go that far. The story of Arthur’s conception is just too odd. Arthur’s father, the story tells us, was Uther, the legitimate king; but at the time of his conception Uther was indistinguishable from the Duke of Cornwall. It sounds just like the sort of story later legend would create to account for the fact that Arthur, who took over the rule of Britain, was not the son of Uther. I’m not willing to stand by that conclusion, either: I can only say that I don’t think Geoffrey gives us any reliable genealogy of Arthur.

So we’ll just have to see what else Geoffrey has to say about Arthur, and whether we can find any real history buried in it.

The real Cup of the Last Supper

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

Mike and I did our first radio call-in show for The Grail Code on Monday. It was on Relevant Radio, which obviously has a large and loyal base of listeners standing by with intelligent questions to ask.

When you’re on a live call-in show, you know that the people who call are making that effort only because they’re really passionate about something. One thing I found especially interesting was how many people asked questions about the real Cup of the Last Supper—the cup Jesus himself held in his hands. What would it have looked like? Does it still exist? Is it the one in Valencia? Would it have been made of wood, clay, glass, or gold?

These are fascinating questions, and we spent some time on them in The Grail Code. Our answer is usually that we can’t really know: there’s no way to be absolutely sure what happened to that cup, and even the most likely claimants (like the one in Valencia) can’t be traced with any certainty all the way back to the Last Supper.

It really doesn’t matter from a theological point of view. Every cup that holds the Blood of Christ is the real Holy Grail, and you can find that Holy Grail wherever the Eucharist is celebrated. That’s probably why the New Testament never bothers to mention what happened to the cup: every congregation had the real Holy Grail on its humble altar.

But the fact that people (including me) are so fascinated with the subject shows us how powerful those stories of the Holy Grail really are. We’re champing at the bit even now, after all these centuries, impatient to be off on our quest.

Why do we care? Not because the cup, if we had it, would really have any more power than the Eucharist has in the most modest church. But just the feeling that it might, somewhere, actually exist makes us feel closer to Christ and the Apostles. For just the same reason, people hang pictures of Jesus in their houses—not because Jesus isn’t present if we don’t have a picture of him (usually looking like a sentimental late-Victorian English artist), but because the picture makes us feel the presence more.

I think that’s the real appeal of the Holy Grail romances. By telling the story of the quest for an object we already want to find, the romances draw us in from the beginning. Then they lead us to feel the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Eventually, we don’t need the object at all: Christ himself enters our hearts and makes his home there. When that happens, we’ve really achieved the quest.

Back from the beach

Saturday, July 1st, 2006

I’m back from an unexpectedly long vacation at the beach: three whole days. I say “unexpectedly long” because we had planned for two days, but we were having so much fun that we just lost control and, acting on a wild and irresponsible whim, stayed another night.

A beach vacation requires a beach book. That’s what Mike’s wife calls books like The Da Vinci Code: books that don’t require much thought and help you while away the time between ventures into the water. I didn’t actually bring a Dan Brown book with me. Instead, I brought a blank book and a fountain pen.

The great thing about a blank book is that you don’t have to be limited by the small selection of beach books at the drugstore. You can write your own beach book. Try it next time you go to the beach: you’ll be surprised by how much fun you can have.

The beach we picked was on Presque Isle, a beautiful peninsula that sticks out into Lake Erie and gives the city of Erie a fine harbor. The whole peninsula is a state park, a birdwatcher’s paradise where you can see Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, and a redwing blackbird every three feet or so.

Erie itself is a charming city, and the most charming thing about it is this: I spent three days there and not once did anyone mention The Da Vinci Code. Now that’s what I call a vacation.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey