The Sword and the Grail: Restoring the Forgotten Archetype in Arthurian Myth
It’s possible that I might have a slight obsession with mythology—one I learned when I first started reading C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien back in grade school, and first encountered the idea of deliberate myth-making. It’s certainly a part of my own writing. My novel Raven Wakes The World: A Winter Tale, coming in October from The Story Plant, is all about the power of myth to heal us when our hearts are broken, yes, and to help us create.
Just recently, the Library of Jungian Articles republished an essay I wrote a few years ago on the meanings of the two key archetypal images in the Matter of Britain, the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
I’ve been thinking about the ideas in that article a lot lately, mostly because I am working on a series of Arthurian novels called The Unbroken Circle. The individual books are called The Widening Gyre, Winter Kept Us Warm, What The Thunder Said, and The Last Light Flickers.
I’ve been working on these books for something like ten to twelve years, and I’ve been thinking about these since, well … at least since high school. They’re longish (the first is around 350,000 words … although in my defense, some of them are very short words, and I’ve used some of them more than once—and believe it or not, my publisher suggested I make the first one longer!) and, frankly, they’re hard. I think I finally cracked the first one last year. Since, I have finished the second, and around half of the third. They’re coming much faster now.
I imagine that I can guess what a lot of you are thinking about now. Really, John? Do we really need another King Arthur book? Obviously enough, I think the answer is a resounding yes. It is, after all, a topic that’s endlessly fascinating. And besides, there hasn’t (yet) been one set in modern Atlanta! There is another reason.
I’ve always felt that the Arthurian legends are, well, incomplete. While King Arthur is sending his knights out to find the Holy Grail, this amazing feminine symbol of healing and power, Morgan le Fay, his shadow self or opposite number, is trying to steal the sword Excalibur, the great symbol of masculine energy.
It seems to me that they’re both looking for something that’s missing in themselves. The whole thing falls apart in the end because no one is able to bring these two archetypal artifacts together.
According to the traditional story, Arthur is destined to return someday because the world needs him. But also, I think, because he still has things of his own to resolve and learn — his relationship with his wife, for example, and with his best friend and his sister. Not to mention his son. And why should Arthur himself be the only one permitted (or doomed) to return? What about the others? What if they all came back, in the hour of our greatest need?
Those are the questions I was asking myself when I started writing these books. I think I’ve come up with some pretty surprising answers.
In any case, writing the article that the Jung Article Library has kindly republished has helped me work through some of these ideas.
An updated version of the complete article follows just below. I’d love to know what you think. Please drop me a line let me know.
If it was even possible to assemble them in one place, the volumes written on psychological and mythic approaches to the Grail quest in Arthurian myth would bend even the sturdiest, stout oak bookshelves. From Emma Jung and Maria Von Franz’s definitive work, The Grail Legend, to the work of later luminaries ranging from Joseph Campbell to Robert Johnson, the Grail quest has evolved from Celtic lore to become a metaphor of astonishing power that continues to guide generations of seekers on their own journeys to individuation, to use the Jungian term.
The Arthur stories are no longer purely Celtic — they have become universal. It’s not too great a stretch to call the Matter of Britain, the cycles of legends surrounding King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the definitive myth of Western civilization. Here we find our modern concepts of equality (the Round Table had no “head” and no corners), romantic love, strength protecting the weak, and spiritual growth and enlightenment based on the achievements of the individual expressed in a single source — and arguably expressed with more power and greater resonance than in any other myth cycle.
How else can one explain the enduring popularity of the Arthur story? There have certainly been other romantic stories, probably even greater ones. Adventure? Our heritage of myth is full of it. Magic? We’re lousy with it. Fellowship and super human accomplishment? Look no further than the adventure tales of Fionn McCumhail, Jason and the Argonauts, or Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
All of these cycles, and thousands of others, have been enormously popular through the ages. Robin Hood and the men of Sherwood, especially, have inspired countless novels, songs, poems, films, and television productions. But none of them have approached the Arthur stories for enduring and significant popularity. It’s more than a subgenre — it’s an industry.
Dreams of lost, golden ages are called “Camelot.” Remember the Kennedy administration? A Google search on the Internet reveals more than 100 different companies and products with Excalibur in the name. Truly special treasures are “Holy Grails.” Remember the “Holy Grail of Christmas presents,” the coveted Red Ryder BB gun, in A Christmas Story? Metro Atlanta boasts at least five different neighborhoods with streets named after Lancelot, Galahad, Guinevere, and King Arthur himself.
When I began thinking about the original version of this article a few years ago, I stopped by a tiny mall bookstore (those were still around back then), and quickly located no less than 16 different contemporary novels, not counting children’s books, books that use the theme but aren’t specifically or overtly Arthurian (Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Stephen King’s Dark Tower, or C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, for example), or classics, on the Arthurian legends — in three different categories.
At present, two big-budget King Arthur films and one new television series are in various stages of development (the funny thing is … that was true when I wrote the original version, and it’s true again, now). Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, offers a new take on the Grail quest, but the core elements are the same: a man’s quest through terrible danger for a healing symbol of the Divine feminine. For some reason, the Arthurian legends have struck a chord that is arguably unmatched in Western culture, surpassing even the myths of classical Greece.
The question, again, is why? Why the Arthur stories, over so many other romances, adventures, wonder tales, and myth cycles? Why have they grown from forgotten history and half-forgotten Celtic myth to be so much a part of modern culture?
One possible answer, of course, lies in the image of the Grail itself. Something about that image endures, even as the shape of the image evolves (is the Grail a stone, a Celtic cauldron, a chalice, or the womb of Mary Magdalene?), and strikes a chord somewhere deep in the psyche. This answer is compelling, if only because it points to something missing in the other tales. The gold stolen by Robin Hood certainly doesn’t resonate as deeply as the Grail (not that I’d turn it down, mind) and even Jason’s Golden Fleece doesn’t promise spiritual healing.
Perhaps part of the answer lies in the quest itself, rather than merely in its object — the journey rather than the destination. In this sense, the Grail story serves as a roadmap rather than a simple travelogue describing the destination. The Grail tells us what, the quest tells us how. What differentiates the Arthurian Grail quest from mythic spiritual journeys in other cultures, what makes it uniquely and definitively Western, is the emphasis on the individual.
In the East (if you’ll forgive the broad, sweeping generalization) the emphasis in spiritual seeking is apart from the individual. Seekers often wear pictures of a guru to remind them to keep their focus on the path and away from the individual, the ego, or the self. The way is important; the self is not (or at least much less so). But the knights seeking the Grail all enter the forest alone, apart from their fellows, in a place where the wood is thickest and where there is no path. When there is no path, only the self remains.
I won’t bother to summarize the Grail myth or its significance. Emma Jung, Maria Von Franz, John and Caitlin Matthews, and Robert Johnson have already done so very well. If you’re unfamiliar with the stories or the symbolism that empowers them, I highly recommend any of their books on the topic. In short, the Fisher King is wounded as a youth. The nature of the wound varies from source to source, but to be delicate, the wound is above the thighs as below the belt. Ouch! As a result of the wound, the land is waste. The inner state is reflected in the outer world.
A knight must achieve the quest for the Grail before the wounded king, and the land, can be healed. If you’ll pardon a gross oversimplification (to go along with the sweeping generalization above), most Jungians view the archetype of the Grail quest as Animus’ quest for Anima — a joining of opposites resulting in the healing of the inner Wasteland of the soul, or individuation. The knight achieves the symbol of femininity, uniting the opposites and healing the wound. Ironically, the symbol of feminine healing comes from a male source, the Fisher King in later romances, and even the king of Annwn (Ah-noon), the land of the dead, in the legendary Welsh bard Taliesin’s mysterious poem The Spoils of Annwn, which may be an early source of the Grail romances.
The point is a pretty simple one. Like all good myths, the Grail quest is a roadmap, a trail of breadcrumbs that leads us through the dark forests of life. It shows us how we heal our own inner wounds and become the whole and functional (or individuated) people we were meant to be.
I think, however, that focusing solely on the Grail is a mistake, because we’re missing half the story when we do. We de-emphasize the other primary archetypal treasure in the Arthur story — the Sword Excalibur.
Like the Grail, the sword of power is an artifact of supernatural (even Divine) power, surrounded with golden light. In many ways the polar opposite of the Grail, Excalibur is a symbol of power in the world — of victory in battle and ruling a kingdom. The feminine Grail comes from a masculine source, the Fisher King in his Grail castle, but the sword comes from a woman — a goddess figure, no less — the Lady of the Lake.
While Animus quests for Anima, Anima is busy, too. While Arthur sends his knights off to find the Grail, his shadow, his sister Morgan le Fey (herself a goddess figure), is attempting to steal Excalibur. She has no interest in the Grail — in fact, when the Grail part of the sword, the scabbard that heals wounds, is briefly in her possession, she throws it away. She has no interest in it at all, because she doesn’t need it. Anima has no need for the feminine — she is the feminine. Arthur needs the Grail; Morgan needs the sword. They’re both looking for something missing in themselves. There’s a clue here.
I think it’s fair to say that the Arthurian story is a longing for the missing half, an attempt to unify the missing elements into a whole — sword and Grail, anima and animus, man and woman. Throughout the stories, you find clumsy attempts to unite the two, to find that missing… something. Some few are successful (Gawain’s union with the goddess in the Marriage of Sir Gawain), but most fail. Think of Uther’s conquest of Igraine (the “rape” that leads to Arthur’s conception), Arthur’s unfortunate coupling with his sister (the tryst that leads to the birth of Mordred), Lancelot’s affair with Elaine, and of course, the doomed love of Lancelot and Guinevere. These characters are forgetting that they’re supposed to be looking inside, not outside. A man can’t expect a woman to be his Grail — it’s tremendously unfair to the woman. He has to find the Grail himself, inside, before he can have a healthy relationship. The reverse is also true. The Arthur myth gives us this clue, too.
Which leads me (at last!) to the point of this article. No one succeeds in the Arthur stories. Galahad finds the Grail, but it does no good. Why? He goes off to Heaven. According to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey ends with the refusal of the return (the longing to stay in the place of bliss), which must be overcome so that the hero can bring the object of the quest back to his people, the ones who need it. Galahad doesn’t do this. He is lost in bliss. He has achieved the Grail, but the quest has failed all the same. He didn’t bring it back.
Don’t be too hard on poor Galahad, though. He’s not alone. Morgan never successfully steals the sword — at least not for long — and the lovers, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult, all seem to find only disaster, not wholeness and unity. No one is ever able to combine the two opposites into a successful whole. No one is able to combine the powers and use them together. In achieving the Grail, Galahad leaves the sword behind. In the end, everything falls apart.
Our only brief glimpse of what should have been happens in the moment of Arthur’s death (or, if you prefer, when he is taken to the Isle of Avalon to heal). At Arthur’s command, the last knight, Sir Bedievere, casts the sword back into the Lake. It is caught by a feminine hand, the hand of the Divine female herself, the goddess, and brandished three times before it disappears beneath the waves. The masculine symbol is reunited with the feminine. Only then can Arthur rest in peace.
Everyone fails and Camelot falls. But all is not lost. The legend ends with a promise. Arthur is the once and future king, after all. He is destined to return someday. This, too, is a clue. The Arthurian legends are incomplete. Arthur must come back to us in our hour of need, because something is left undone. What? That’s the real question and, of course, we are not given the answer.
When Robert Johnson wrote his book on the Grail, He, he worked with an incomplete version of the quest myth. In the last chapters, he could only speculate on how the myth might have ended, or what might have happened when the knight achieved the Grail. Using his example, I think it is fair to look at the clues we have in the Arthurian canon and guess what might come next. I’ve tried to briefly sketch those clues above, a few of them anyway. We have the main characters seeking their opposites, the “something” that’s missing in themselves. The Grail quest fails because the knight, Galahad, leaves the sword behind, getting lost in the inner world so that the outer world (the one that needs its hero!) is left forgotten. In the end, Excalibur is reunited with the goddess, masculine with feminine, before Arthur can rest. Now, what do those clues suggest?
When Arthur returns, the sword must be reunited with the Grail. (I say reunited, even though the two are never actually together. Nonetheless, the Grail is accompanied by a Spear, a similar archetype, and Arthur draws a sword from a stone, a feminine symbol. Remember, in some of the early romances, the Grail is a stone that fell from Heaven.) The two powers must be used together. How? For now, that’s a question yet to be answered. I don’t know the answer, but I’m challenging you to solve the riddle. At least until Arthur returns, the quest is yours.
I think artists will answer it with new Arthurian tales — something new and different, as opposed to the countless retellings that currently fill even the tiny mall bookstores. After all, as Joseph Campbell reminded us, “the people who can keep (myth) alive are the artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” That’s how I personally intend to explore the question.
I’m trying to do that with my own four-volume cycle of modern-day Arthurian tales, The Unbroken Circle, which begins with The Widening Gyre.
But the artists aren’t the only ones who should explore the idea. After all, if therapists and analysts use the Grail myth, shouldn’t they use the entire myth? If the fragment is powerful, shouldn’t the complete archetype be even more so? Shouldn’t those who work with the myths, especially Jungians, use both the Grail and the sword?
Again, I’m not sure what the answer is. I only mean to raise the question in the hope that others will explore it. But if the Grail is a symbol of internal healing, perhaps the sword is the tool for taking that healing beyond the individual and out into the world.
The Grail focuses our attention internally. It’s the symbol of our ultimate spiritual destiny, our individuation after trials. Excalibur is something different, and it is something that, perhaps, is missing in Jungian psychology. Excalibur is the tool of power in the world. Coupled with the Grail, however, it becomes something new, a sword that both cuts and heals. Perhaps the time has come to combine the two into a new archetype.
James Hillman was fond of talking about psychological activism, complaining that, generally speaking, therapists are trained to listen and focus on the individual, not to speak out and challenge the things in the outer world, the things that wound us in the first place. Hillman claims that so much emphasis is focused on treating the disease in the individual that it is easy to forget to eliminate the metaphorical “germs” in the environment — he horrors of war, poverty, ugliness, marginalization of the arts, environmental disaster, child prostitution, and greed, just to name a few — in the Wasteland around us, that make us sick.
In the Arthur stories, Excalibur is at least as important as the Grail. The two are equals. We’ve forgotten that. When you use only half a myth, you only harness half the potential power. Arthur promises to return in our time of need, when the world needs him most. When he returns, he will at last unify the chalice and the blade. At least, that’s what the hints in the myth seem to tell us. But do we really need to wait for Arthur? Can we afford to? Or is it time to forge a new myth for the information age?
In the meantime, we can restore the missing archetype, the shining sword of power, to the Grail myth. We can heal inside using the power of the Grail, and use the power of Excalibur to make a difference outside, in the world around us. That is Arthur’s challenge to all of us, especially those of us living in dangerous times and wounded societies (don’t we all?): to drink from the Grail, and use the power of the sword to make a difference, to turn the Wasteland into a Camelot, with white towers standing tall in a golden age.
It’s our turn to complete the myth. How? That’s for us to determine. After all, it’s not enough merely to live and breathe the myth cycles that are our inheritance — it is our duty to add to the treasure trove for future generations. Our dreams nourish tomorrow. This isn’t a call to merely keep myth alive. This is a call to mythopoeia, to myth-making.
It’s not enough to simply tell and retell. We have a responsibility to add to our birthright. It is our job to bring myth into our modern world, to see how the heroes and monsters might respond to our modern world, with all its shining glories and nightmarish horrors. This is a call to knights and queens, wizards and accountants, psychologists and artists, teachers and leaders. It is a call to pull the sword from the stone and bring back the Grail. Used together, united, the opposite forces, anima and animus, masculine and feminine, chalice and blade, can build Camelot.
I know it’s not fair to raise questions without attempting to answer them. I can only plead that I am an enthusiast, rather than a scholar or a psychologist. The best I can do is what’s in The Widening Gyre and the other books in the series. All the same, I’d love to know what you think. Please drop me a line let me know.