Map of Roman London

The Secrets of a Map

Life can be seen as a journey into the unknown. Like most travellers going to where they have never been before, the journey is easier if you make use of a map. The Grail Quest is a map for the journey of life. The design of this map is an old one with a legend that marks out an ancient path. Despite its age, it remains as relevant today as it ever has been. This is because the journey of life has never really changed. We are born, we grow from childhood into a world of adult ambitions and desires. We die. Within this journey we face challenges, surmount obstacles and achieve ambitions. Even the most humble of us tread this path in the same way as the more illustrious.

We all share the journey of life

Our human history is full of the stories of those of us who have gone before. They have left their footprints in the sand of mortality and for those who wish to see, there is a real benefit in learning from these memories of life. Some may think that the world of today excludes the value of lessons learnt in past times. Such a dismissal of experience is rarely the foundation of a wise life. As true as it is that the world of
today is very different from the world of any past time, in life the fundamental nature of the challenges we face remain essentially the same. We need to raise families, we need to provide food for our tables, we need to deal with adversity and we need to understand our own story in the life of our communities.

This is the continuity of the drama each human life plays out on the stage of our lives. The settings may be different, the language of the narrative may differ, each drama may have its own plot but the nature of the story never changes. We are born into a place of mystery and own a life, our life, for reasons we find difficult to explain. As we share that common experience, we all face the final destiny of mortality. Such an inevitable consequence of the journey unites us both in awe and dread. All we can do is make our time on the path as worthy of the gift of life as we are each capable of doing.

We can travel the journey blindfolded or we can search out the wisdom and experience of those who have gone before us. The Grail Quest is just one map of many available to us. The old cartography offered here comes from a legend well known to many; The Arthurian Grail Quest. A story of a King and his knights, a tale of adventures, hard times, harsh battles and ideas of honour and integrity. Despite its setting, this life play tells of ways to face the challenges of life and much more.

As a map, the Grail Quest serves to show us where we are at any moment of our lives. The design enables us to look at our lives and see where we stand on the map. We can see where we have come from and which direction we need to take to move on. However, this map has a more powerful element of support than just pointing the way. Once you understand this map it can advise you on the actions you need to take in any situation or for any step forward.

The task here is to provide an understanding of this Grail Quest map in terms and references which are of our time. As the story unfolds the insights of the past act as signposts for the ways and routes we face now. No matter how you define your own sense of spirituality the Grail Quest map can inform because it is simply about the basics of human life. Whatever it teaches, the map leaves you free to define your own life in your own way. The lessons are about the topography of life but free of demands regarding how it is you travel the journey.

The Grail Quest is an old legend which probably first surfaced in the 13th century in a story by Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1160/80 – c. 1220.). Wolfram was a German knight and poet who still remains a great figure in German literature today. In his epic tale ‘Parzival’ he produced the first complete story of The Holy Grail. The story was based on an earlier unfinished work by Chrétien de Troyes

As part of the Arthurian legends, the telling of this story represents a moment of change in the history of European culture. This was when what is known as the Troubadour Movement surfaced in the high culture of western Europe between 1100 to 1300. Introducing the idea of courtly love, this is a movement which starts to revolutionise the relationship between men and women. Prior to this movement, women were seen as tradable economic and diplomatic commodities within the courts of kings. Within the poems of the troubadours an idea of romantic love surfaces. In the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult for example, the knight Tristan goes against his king by ‘falling in love’ with Iseult and ultimately pays a severe price.

Text Note 1: The story of Tristan and Iseult is said to have been originally a Celtic tale which was later taken up within French literature. The fundamentals of the story are that Tristan is sent by his uncle, King Mark, to bring Iseult to Mark’s court where she was to marry him. On meeting Tristan, Iseult gives him a love potion which they both take. They then go on to have a sexual relationship. The love potion, some say, is a device which allows the couple to escape the accusation of adultery. As the potion is magical by nature then the free will of the lovers is deemed to have been suspended. They could not help themselves.

Mark does marry Iseult but she and Tristan continue their affair. The stories from different times and sources have many variations. In most Tristan is killed by Mark. In some he rescues Iseult and they run away as lovers. Despite the device of the potion, the stories are all about the concept of love breaking the rules of court.

Romance and love become concepts which are given a previously unrecognised legitimacy during this period known as the High Middle Ages. The work of Eschenbach is very much the promotion of an idealism, what we would call now ‘Blue Sky Thinking’. As a story, its central theme is the role of the spiritual in the life of the knights of a court. This consideration of values was part of the dialogue of the time which produced the code of chivalry that developed sometime between 1170 and 1220.

Text Note 2: The chivalric code was a culmination of ideas concerning the behaviour of knights. In part an early ‘Geneva Convention’ governing conduct in war but also a code of civil behaviour. The code aimed to provide the knights with a set of ideals which placed them above ordinary men and underlined their social status. Areas of life in which it instructed the role of knighthood were behaviour as a warrior, a duty to religious piety and manners within the setting of a court. Chivalry was seen as the way of being which conferred honour and nobility on the lives of the knights and set them up as role models within a society and world which was often violent.

Over time the story of The Grail was taken up by others and developed. In Christian interpretations, the Grail becomes a chalice which caught the blood of Christ as he hung on the cross. We are going to be looking at the story of the Grail as a later interpretation of the Arthurian legend tradition.

Purists or Grail academics may be critical of such an approach to this story but you are welcome to read their works at your leisure. Here we are looking at a myth as a metaphorical tale. We are considering a classic story through the lens of later interpretations and understandings. Our purpose together here is not to be historians of ancient literature but to understand how stories, metaphorical readings of myths, can inform our lives today.

Text Note 3: Comprehending myth as metaphor is a very important understanding to achieve. Many of the problems we face in our world today come from an inability of individuals and organisations to read a myth as metaphor. When we read a myth structure as a literal, historical fact we are concretising rules and ideas of a fixed time and fixed past and trying to apply them to our here and now. This is how we find ourselves under attack from fundamentalists who believe that the universe was created in seven days. They are reading a myth as a literal truth, they do not understand the use of metaphor and thus lose all sense of the deep beauty of life.

Metaphor is a powerful facility of the human mind. Professor Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist, spoke of the two ideas; “John runs like a deer.” and “John is a deer.”. He suggested that many people mistake “John runs like a deer.” as a metaphor when it is a simile. That is to say, we are making a comparison between John’s running and the running of a deer. A figure of speech making a comparison between one thing and another. When we say “John is a deer.” that is the use of metaphor. We know that John is actually not a deer but we recognise something about his spirit which is that of a deer. This is metaphor; the application of a name or descriptive term or phrase to an object or action to which it is imaginatively but not literally applicable.

We can see the problem here when we look at the Christian mythology. “Jesus is the son of God.” should be read, as all mythologies should be read, metaphorically. This metaphorical reading does not in any way undermine the faith a believer in this mythology might hold. Once it is read literally all sorts of complications flow not least the process of concretisation which stands the myth structure as an incontrovertible historical truth. Myth is never history but, especially in our world today, history is often myth. Any inability to know and understand the structure of myth leaves an individual and group boxed into a ground of being which is more like a tomb than a sunrise.

In his book Creative Mythology, Joseph Campbell wrote about the Grail Quest through the lens of a Jungian interpretation. He set out the six stages of the Grail quest as a series of psychological challenges. This is the design template for the map we will be using here.

Campbell’s six stages were:

1. The Call to Adventure
2. The Threshold Guardians
3. The Dark Forest
4. The Grail
5. Asking the Rights Questions
6. The Return.

We will be using these six stages to look at how they can work in our lives here and now when understood and read as metaphor.

Image: “Maps are memory.” Scanned from an original copy of a Map of Roman London (page 15), London Old and New by Walter Thornbury, Volume 1, Cassell & Company, Limited, London, Paris & New York, 1880, and catalogued in the Jack Adams Library.

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