The Grail Code 
Bringing out the nuts (part 2)

We were asking why the story of the Holy Grail brings out the nuts, and I think to answer that, we have to decide what makes the story of the Holy Grail so appealing in the first place.

First of all, the story of the quest for the Holy Grail, as refined by the medieval writers, is simply perfect. It’s the story every other story wants to be when it grows up.

If I were to take any random novel and tell you that it was really, underneath it all, the story of man’s quest for what is ultimately desirable and how his own failings stand in the way, you’d probably tell me I’d got it just about right. Tom Jones, or Mardi, or A Christmas Carol, or War and Peace—I’ve just given you the facile undergraduate key to interpreting them all. Feel free to use it in your papers. You’ll get at least a C minus, which is better than nothing.

But the story of the Holy Grail is the story of that quest, not underneath it all but through and through, with no fillers and no artificial additives. I’m tempted to say that it’s the story, the one we’ve been telling each other since Gilgamesh, but refined and purified until it can’t be refined any more. It’s pure essence of story, or at least as pure as our current storytelling technology will allow.

But why does a story so good bring out the nuts? Probably because it’s so good—so good that we really want to believe it’s true, at least in some sense. Unfortunately, many of us don’t want to believe the Christian part of it, because we’re still rebelling against the cartoon Christianity that pop culture mistakes for the real thing.

But if you can’t have Christianity, what’s left of the story? Not much. When you unceremoniously dump out the blood of Christ, the Holy Grail is as achingly empty as—well, as a heart without Christ. It has to be filled with something: something ultimately desirable. What do we want most of all? That’s what we’ll put in it. Love, or sex, or the Holy Grail of Information Architecture—whatever we think we want the most, we put that at the center of the story. And then the story is just about magic, which actually isn’t very interesting in itself.

The amazing thing about the Holy Grail legends is the way they use our mundane desires to lead us toward what we really desire. The Grail appears at Camelot and gives each knight his favorite meal: a straightforward appeal to the stomach. The quest is actually undertaken on that basis. But if it never went beyond the stomach, it wouldn’t be much of a story. Things really get interesting when the quest, or the Grail itself, begins to lay bare all the knights’ deepest spiritual failings.

Now, as we said in The Grail Code, there’s a longing born into our hearts. It’s like a spiritual DNA, as Mike always says: everyone is programmed to feel it. It’s designed to lead us toward God, and it takes a powerful act of the will to force it to lead us away from God.

The combination of that profound longing and our willful avoidance of its real goal is what produces silliness in the most benign cases, and madness in the most extreme. Here we can see what’s so appealing about the various perversions of the Grail legend into crazy conspiracy theories: it’s as though, by taking control of what may be the world’s most perfect story, we can somehow take control of God—who is, after all, at the center of the story—and mold him into what we want him to be. That, of course, is madness; but it’s a very common madness. It’s almost an inevitable madness. And that’s why every nut with a grudge against God wants to take over the Holy Grail.

3 Responses to “Bringing out the nuts (part 2)”

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey