From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L Weston

From Ritual to Romance, published in 1920, is perhaps most well known today for being the first work T S Eliot lists in his “Notes on The Waste Land”, where he says that Weston’s book suggested “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism” of his poem. Eliot, of course, later said these notes were a publisher’s requirement to bulk out the book publication of The Waste Land, which has led some to dismiss them entirely, or to see them as one more layer of obfuscation around the poem, and Eliot himself later said he regretted sending so many readers “on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail”. But From Ritual to Romance, which aims to trace a link between medieval Holy Grail romances and the earliest fertility rituals, certainly had its influence on what the poem says and how it says it. As Eliot wrote in 1957 (quoted here):

“I was certainly not concerned with the validity of her thesis, but with the value of the imagery as a spring-board!”

Sir Gawain approaching the Grail Castle, illustration by Caroline Watts

Weston’s book makes no bones about its own debts. It’s firmly in the tradition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a work of syncretist anthropology that first came out in 2 volumes in 1890 (and had expanded to 12 volumes by 1915), causing both scandal (for its treatment of Christ’s story as just another myth) and literary influence. Both Weston’s and Frazer’s books have their basis in the idea that “vegetation rituals” — “a symbolic representation of the death and re-birth of the year” — by which ancient peoples sought to ensure the fertility of their crop lands, are the foundation for later religious practices — though it becomes clear from Weston’s book that for her, at least, the fertility sought through such “vegetation rituals” extends not only to the fertility of the soil but human fertility and, later, a sort of spiritual fertility through union with “the supreme Spiritual Source of Life”.

Central to the Grail quest is the idea of a king and a land that are ailing. The king and his land are one. As one sickens, so does the other; to heal one is to heal the other. Weston traces this idea back to “the prehistoric heroes of the Aryan race” (a phrase which immediately highlights a huge cultural gap between Weston and the reader of today), from the Rig-Veda and Babylonian Ritual to the Ancient Greek cult of Adonis. At this point, she says, the belief surrounding such “vegetation rituals” can be seen as having two sides, the exoteric and the esoteric, the public ritual and the secret Mystery cult:

“…and with this change the role of the principal actors became of heightened significance. That of the Healer could no longer be adequately fulfilled by the administration of a medicinal remedy; the relation of Body and Soul became of cardinal importance for the Drama, the Medicine Man gave place to the Redeemer…”

Weston says: “the original use of the ‘Tarot’ would seem to have been, not to foretell the Future in general, but to predict the rise and fall of the waters which brought fertility to the land…”

Ultimately, she sees in the Grail story a continuity between Ancient Attis-Adonis & Mithraic cults and early Christianity, an “essential harmony… between the Old Faith and the New”, which somehow survived the point at which Christianity, on becoming dominant in the West, sought to distance itself from past beliefs by declaring any similarities to be the mockeries and snares of the Devil. This essence of ancient-to-medieval continuity “lingered on; openly, in Folk practice, in Fast and Feast, whereby the well-being of the land might be assured; secretly, in cave or mountain-fastness, or island isolation, where those who craved for a more sensible (not necessarily sensuous) contact with the unseen Spiritual forces of Life than the orthodox development of Christianity afforded, might, and did, find satisfaction.” Weston sees, in the essence of the Grail romances, a “Christianized Mystery” — an esoteric heart to what is, to most, a purely exoteric religion.

Weston sees surviving Grail romances, though, as being mostly written by people ignorant of their deeper meaning. To Chrétien de Troyes (who died in 1185), for instance, she says, “the story was romance, pure and simple. There was still a certain element of awe connected with Grail, and Grail Feast, but of the real meaning and origin of the incidents he had, I am convinced, no idea whatever.” Traditional folk-tale themes get thrown in with the relics of ancient rituals, and “We have here passed completely and entirely into the land of romance, the doors of the Temple are closed behind us.” Weston even suggests the severance might have been deliberate:

“The remodelling is so radical that it seems most reasonable to conclude that it was purposeful, that the original author of the Queste had a very clear idea of the real nature of the Grail, and was bent upon a complete restatement in terms of current orthodoxy.”

In speculating on how these ancient rituals passed into medieval romances, Weston suggests an intriguing possibility, worthy of a modern-day weird tale, which might have occurred in a Christian land where remnants of the pagan past could still be found in crumbling mountain temples or island retreats, and which might be chanced upon by some lone, wandering knight:

“The earliest version of the Grail story… relates the visit of a wandering knight to one of these hidden temples; his successful passing of the test into the lower grade of Life initiation, his failure to attain to the highest degree.”

There’s an obvious similarity between Eliot’s Waste Land and Weston’s book. Both are reacting to how new ideas had undermined religious belief and, along with that, the sense of a deeper meaning in life. But whereas Eliot’s poem is all about the loss of faith, and takes on a highly fragmented form, Weston seems assured of renewing the sense of meaning in modern life by deepening the roots of her culture’s religious life beyond Christianity and further into the ancient past. Her approach is all about seeing the whole, rather than the parts. (She criticises earlier commenters on the Grail stories for concentrating on the meaning of only one particular element at a time — the Cup, or the Lance, for instance — without seeing each as part of a necessary whole.) Towards the end of her book, Weston breaks out in what sounds like a moment of passionate and genuine belief:

“…the Grail is a living force, it will never die; it may indeed sink out of sight, and, for centuries even, disappear from the field of literature, but it will rise to the surface again, and become once more a theme of vital inspiration even as, after slumbering from the days of Malory, it woke to new life in the nineteenth century, making its fresh appeal through the genius of Tennyson and Wagner.”

I’m sure Weston’s methods don’t stand up to modern academic standards but, like the seed of ancient ritual she herself finds in medieval Grail romances, there remains in her book the kernel of a poetic ideal, a link between ancient human beliefs and modern needs. And, while we may think it’s nothing but magical thinking that led previous cultures to think that, by performing their “vegetation rituals”, they could take an active part in renewing the land’s fertility, today it’s become essential that we take part in what was, before, a natural process, if only to undo the damage we’ve done to the Earth’s ability to support life. Perhaps the Grail is needed today more than ever.