Literary Notes - Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth

All page numbers correspond to the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell Series version. Direct quotes are in quotations, while paraphrases are not.

“It is one of the prime mistakes of many interpreters of mythological symbols to read them as references, not to mysteries of the human spirit, but to earthly or unearthly scenes and to actual or imagined historical events – the Promised Land as Canaan, for example, and heaven as a district of the sky – or to see the Israelites’ passage of the Red Sea as an event such as a newspaper report might have witnessed. It is one of the glories, on the other hand, of the Celtic tradition that ... it retranslates them from the languages of imagined fact into a mythological idiom, so that they may be experienced not as time-conditioned but timeless, telling not of miracles long past but of miracles potential within ourselves, here, now, and forever.” (Chapter II, pg. 14)

This is to simply say that mythological symbols have been misinterpreted as actual beliefs, rather than fictitious representations of eternal truths. Seeing myths as not faraway stories, but instead, as ever-applicable parables, enriches both the myths themselves and our connections to them.

"Our little human days and nights are miniatures of the Great Days and Nights of Brahma, the opening and closing of whose eyes bring forth and dissolve, again and again, all the forms of the universe; the beating of our hearts, meanwhile, remains in accord with the pulse of creation.” (Chapter II, pgs. 17-18)

In earlier paragraphs, Campbell presents his evidence that both the Hindu and Arthurian traditions support the idea that human life cycles are merely microcosms of the universe's life cycle. Above is his bold conclusion; that we are simply living out all of time and existence on a miniature scale.

“In Wolfram’s Parzival, as in the legend of the three temptations of the Buddha, the Middle Way between heaven and hell is entered through the exercise of three virtues, plus a fourth: 1) disengagement from the fury of the passions, 2) fearlessness in the face of death, 3) indifference to the opinion of the world, and 4) compassion. Throughout Arthurian romance, these are the four tests of the heroes, as in the Orient they have been, and remain to this day, the supreme openers to saints of the mystical passage through what in Buddhism is known as the Gateless Gate.” (Chapter IV, pg. 88)

Again, Campbell attempts to draw parallels between Arthurian and Indian myths. Although his exact conclusions both here and elsewhere may be questioned, it is certainly worth considering his overall argument that the mythologies of the East and West are far more interwoven than my we may think,

“We are of one consciousness and one life. Compassion (German: Mitleid, “cosuffering”), unself-conscious love, transcends the divisive experience of opposites: I and thou, good and evil, Christian and heathen, birth and death … And not righteousness or self-righteousness but compassion alone is the key to the opening of this all-uniting Middle Way.” (Chapter IV, pgs. 89-90)

“A second strain, [of the Bronze Age mythological cycle of the dead and resurrected deity] however, was derived from the Iron Age, which in the British Isles commenced roughly with the entry of the Celtic tribes. And the emphasis here was not on the generative powers of the earth, the heavens, and the waters beneath the earth, the female principle of nature’s spontaneity as symbolized in the Magna Mater, but on the war craft and shaping power of the male, as represented chiefly by a type of brilliant hero, very much like the Homeric hero, supported by the deities of an emphatically patriarchal, thunder-hurling pantheon. The characteristic myth concerns the conquest of a monster of some kind, usually of a serpentine, dragonlike form, who, in fact, in the earlier mythology had been the son-husband of Mother Earth (as, for instance, Typhon had been of Gaia). The dragon is now interpreted as the negative, binding, sterile aspect of the masculine principle, and the victory of the hero as the release of life (the gold, the maiden) from its hold. Typical in the Greek context were the deeds of Apollo against the great Python of the Delphic Oracle, of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea beast, and of Theseus overcoming the Minotaur.” (Chapter V, pg. 121)

This may be a lengthy read, but it presents a startling concept. It dives into the Indo-European conquests, not through an archaeological lens, but rather, through a mythological lens. In doing so, it gives us a startling reflection on how political and cultural developments shape the way in which we see our own mythologies.

“[The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight] concerns the two great temptations of lust for life and fear of death. Those are the same temptations faced by the Buddha. What you have here in these knightly adventures are spiritual adventures, and the tests are those of lust and fear. Gawain … was fearless, but not without fault. He was human, after all, and this is what keeps him in the world, you might say.” (Chapter VI, pg. 145)

“There is a Buddhist saying: ‘This world with all its ills, with all its horrors, with all its stupidities, with all its darkness, is the golden lotus world’.” (Chapter VII, pg. 154)

© 2019 by J. W. Barlament

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