The Grail Code 

Scriptorium

In which the benevolent reader may find many of the texts mentioned in The Grail Code

The Grail Code can only summarize the great literature of the Middle Ages. But there are no space limits on the Internet, and you can find most of the important histories and romances if you know where to look. Wherever possible, we’ve included a link to the text in the original language as well as in a modern English translation.

Gildas: On the Ruin of Britain

Reading all of Gildas doesn’t take long, and it’s the best way to get an idea of how the British understood their history at the time of the Saxon invasions. His style is lively and descriptive, frequently angry, and always passionate. Reading excerpts of Gildas can be misleading; if you read the whole work, you’ll avoid some of the wrong conclusions that even good scholars who ought to know better sometimes jump to.

Latin original (this transcription is still in progress, but the passages relevant to Arthur are finished)

Scanned pages of a critical edition

English Translation by J. A. Giles

The Welsh Triads

The Welsh—descendants of Arthur’s British—loved numbered lists. These lists of threes must have been fine mnemonics for bards who wanted to remember which were the best stories in their repertory. All we have, however, is the mnemonics, without the stories they’re supposed to make us remember. Nevertheless, there are some tantalizing Arthurian references here that suggest what kinds of stories the Welsh bards must have been telling about Arthur.

English translation

Nennius: History of the Britons

Everything the Welsh thought they knew about their history is piled in a heap here, although Nennius is not as random as some writers accuse him of being. He has a definite point of view: Gildas was right, and the disasters of the Britons really were God’s judgment on them.

Nennius is hard to pin down. The different manuscripts of Nennius vary so widely that it’s impossible to establish a standard text. It looks as though every scribe who copied the work corrected and added to it from his own store of historical traditions and tall tales. Finally, many scholars now believe that Nennius did not, in fact, write Nennius, which leaves us wondering why some anonymous author would pretend to be an ignorant Welsh monk.

Whole academic careers have been built on interpreting the Arthurian material in Nennius, and if you want to get started on the project yourself, here you go:

Latin original

Scanned pages of a critical edition that compares the widely divergent manuscripts

English translation by J. A. Giles

The Lais of Marie de France

Marie de France was one of the great storytellers of the Middle Ages, and reading her ought to be more of a pleasure than it is in English. Marie wrote in rhymed octosyllabic couplets, in which rhyme and rhythm carry us dancing along through the story. English prose translations seem cumbersome and repetitive, and a good English verse translation has yet to be made. For some of the passages we quoted in The Grail Code, we made new translations ourselves.

Old French originals

We haven’t found an online translation of Guigemar, the story we spend the most time with in The Grail Code. Judith P. Shoaf’s verse translations of eight of the Lais are described by the translator herself as “doggerel,” but they do translate the text. An inexpensive Penguin edition of the Lais translates them in prose.

Peredur the Son of Evrawc

From the collection of Welsh stories known as the Mabinogion. If you want to get a medievalist talking, ask which came first: Peredur or Chretien’s Story of the Grail. There are strong, and strongly defended, opinions on both sides. Perhaps the most likely answer, though, is that neither came first. Peredur might be an old Welsh story retold by a bard who had heard and admired Chretien’s work, but knew that his audience demanded certain details from the time-honored Welsh version. In other words, the story of Peredur might be older than Chretien’s Story of the Grail, but the telling of it might be influenced by Chretien.

English translation by Lady Charlotte Guest. (The Guest translations of the Mabinogion are lightly expurgated for Victorian sensibilities, but nothing essential to the story of Peredur is left out.)

Chretien de Troyes: Lancelot; or, The Knight of the Cart

Here Chretien introduces a new theme that will become one of the great obsessions of the medieval world: the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere.

Old French original

The Charrette Project makes all the known manuscripts available in electronic form.

English Translation

Chretien de Troyes: Perceval; or, The Story of the Grail

The first of the Grail romances: an unfinished enigma that inspired a whole literary industry.

Old French original

Right now, we don’t know of an English translation on the Web. The most common translations are still under copyright. An inexpensive Penguin edition is available; David Staines’ translation of all Chretien’s romances is only slightly more expensive; and this Modern Library anthology includes the Story of the Grail in a broad miscellany of medieval romances. For The Grail Code, we translated a few passages into a verse form as close to Chretien’s as we could get in English.

The High History of the Holy Graal

One of the strangest and most surreal medieval romances takes us into a Christian-Celtic otherworld where the line between dreaming and waking is erased.

English translation by Sebastian Evans

Sebastian Evans uses the language and style of Thomas Malory to translate the Old French original. The result is strange at first, but it has the effect of taking us out of our modern world and plunking us down into another world altogether—which is exactly the effect the original romance was striving for. After a few pages, it’s hard to imagine reading the story in modern everyday English.

Walter Map: The Quest of the Holy Grail

This is the greatest of all the Grail romances. It is part of a much longer cycle, all attributed to Walter Map. As The Grail Code will tell you, there’s quite a bit of mystery about this “Walter Map,” and the name is almost certainly a pseudonym. But it’s the only name we have for the author (or authors) of this great work of art.

If you read one Grail romance, this should be it.

English Translation by W. W. Comfort

Comfort’s translation is solid and fairly literal. It’s not as elegant as it might be, but it’s in the public domain, and that’s what counts. A more modern translation by Pauline Matarasso is available in an inexpensive Penguin edition. Matarasso’s first-rate introduction is itself worth the price of the book.

Sir Perceval of Galles

This tale in verse has nothing to do with the Holy Grail—which is exactly what’s interesting about it. It tells the story of Perceval, obviously taking Chretien’s Story of the Grail as its model, but it deliberately excludes all the mysticism and allegorical content.

In Middle English

We don’t know of a modern English translation, but this file has marginal notes that translate every unfamiliar word.

The Alliterative Morte Arthure

One of the great works of Middle English storytelling. This epic gives us the more realistic, less magical and allegorical Arthur who was favored by English writers. Nothing about the Grail, but everything about betrayal and revenge.

In Middle English

We don’t know of a modern English translation, but the Middle English is not too hard, and the text has marginal notes that translate every unfamiliar word.

Malory: Morte D’Arthur

Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the Arthurian world is still the most familiar one to English-speaking readers. Most of the countless children’s retellings, novelizations, and scraps of poetry about Arthur, Camelot, and the Holy Grail in English are based on Malory. It’s no wonder. Malory is one of the great masters of English prose, and he tells a story as well as anyone. He’s not much for allegory, though. Sometimes he translates almost word for word from Walter Map, but Malory is much more interested in the human drama than in the allegorical meaning of it.

In the original late Middle English

Modernized spelling and punctuation: Volume 1, Volume 2

Tom Thumbe: His Life and Death

An amusing little piece of doggerel from 1630—shortly after Shakespeare’s time—that celebrates the life of the inch-high knight who was “the best of all the Table Round.”

In English

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey