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The History of the Holy Grail
(Prologue and Introduction)

Translated by Adrian Paterson from the XIIth century French[1] of the Sire Robert de Borron

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter, 1974). © World Wisdom, Inc.
www.studiesincomparativereligion.com


HE who cleaveth to and judgeth the least and the sinfullest of this world extendeth greeting at the beginning of this story to all those whose hearts and faith are in the Holy Trinity, which is the Father, which is the Son, which is the Holy Ghost—The Father by whom all things are established and receive the beginnings of life—the Son by whom all things are delivered from the torments of Hell and brought back to the joy which lasteth forever—the Holy Ghost by whom all things escape from the hands of the evil spirit and are filled with joy by the illumination of Him who is the True Enlightener and the True Comforter. The name of him who writeth this story is not named nor clarified from the beginning, but from the words which shall follow will a large number perceive what his name is, the country where he was born and a great part of his descent. But at the beginning he wisheth not to disclose himself, and for this he hath three reasons. The first is that if he named himself and said that God had discovered through him so high a story as that of the Holy Grail which is the highest story that there can be, the wicked and the envious would turn on him in their baseness. The other reason is that some could hear of his name who knew him and would think less of the story because so wretched a person had put it into writing. The other reason is that if he had put his name to the story and someone found something misrelated by fault of bad scribe who afterwards might transcribe it from one book into another, they would put all the blame on his name; for in all times there are more mouths that speak ill than good and more is one man blamed for one single ill than he is praised for a hundred goodnesses; and for that reason he does not wish that his name shall be too soon discovered. But what-ever he may wish to happen in this, he will be sooner found out than he would like it. But he will tell openly very soon how he was bidden make the story of the Holy Grail manifest.

It happened on the 717th year after the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, that I, most sinful of all sinners, was in the wildest place that I ever wish to get to know of and removed from all Christian peoples. But besides telling that the place was very wild I should also say that it was very pleasant and full of delights, for a man who wholly belongeth to God seeth all secular things by opposites. I was sitting thus in the place you have heard me mention on the Thursday in Holy Week and when Good Friday came I had said the service pleasing to our Lord which is called tenebrae; then a great desire for sleep seized me and I began to slumber, but it did not last long before a voice called me four times by my name. It said to me—“Wake thyself and understand in one thing three and from three things one and as much can the One as the Three.” At once I woke up and saw so great a brightness that never before saw I so great a one. And then I saw before me the most beautiful man that there ever was, and when I saw Him I was amazed and knew not what to say nor to do, and He said to me—“Understandest thou the words that I have spoken to thee ?”, and I answered Him fearfully, “Sire, I am not yet wholly certain of it”; and He saith to me, “It is the recognition of the Trinity that I have brought to thee; and it is because of this”, He went on, “that thou hast been in doubt whether the Trinity has three Persons and they only one Godhead and one Power”. “Never have I had doubts excepting only in this one point.” And again He saith to me: “Canst thou understand and perceive who I am ?” and I answered to Him that my eye was a mortal one and that it could not behold so great a brightness, nor am I yet capable of saying what all mortal languages had difficulty in expressing. And He bent Himself towards me and He breathed freely into my face and then was I aware that I had eyes a hundredfold more clear than I had before and I felt before my mouth a great miracle of tongues. And He said to me—“Canst thou still not understand nor know who I am ?” and when I wished to speak to Him I saw a great flame of fire which leapt from the midst of my mouth. I was so much afraid that I could say never a word; and He said—“Be not afraid. I am the Fountain of Wisdom. I am that One to whom Nicodemus said ‘Master, we know who you are’. I am He of whom the Scripture saith ‘All Wisdom cometh from our Lord’. I am the perfect Master. I am come to thee because I wish that thou receive instruction in all things in which thou doubtest; and I will make thee certain and through thee will it be exposed to all those that shall hear it told”. After these words He took me by the hand and gave me a book which was in no direction larger than the palm of a man’s hand and when He had given it to me He said that He had given me in that book so great a wonder that no mortal heart could think nor know one greater. “Nor ever wilt thou be in doubt of any thing but thou be able to confirm it in this book and herein are my secrets which no man may behold if he is not first cleansed by true confession and in such a way I tell it as by the language of the heart and as with a closed mouth and no words, for it cannot be named by mortal language without the four elements being disturbed by it, for the Heavens will weep at it, the air become troubled at it, the earth collapse through it and the water change its colour by it—all this is this manual and herein is more still, for if a man shall behold it in perfect faith it shall profit both the soul and the body, for never shall man be so in error if he look therein but he will not also be full of a greater joy than any man can devise nor ever, whatever sin he may have committed in this century, shall he die a sudden death; this is the Way of Life;” and when he has said this, a voice loud as thunder cried out and when it had cried out, there came a noise so great from above that in my opinion the firmament was crumbling and the Earth had collapsed and if the light before had been great, now it was a hundred times more bright for I thought I had lost my sight by it and there I lay on the earth as if in a swoon and when this emptiness of head was passed I opened my eyes and I saw about me nothing of what I had seen before and I was holding it all a dream until I found in my hand the small book just as the Great Master had put it there.

Then I rose up very happy and rejoicing greatly and I set myself to prayer and orison and I yearned very much for the day to come; and when it was day, I began to read and found the beginning of my lineage which I had very much wanted to see and when I had looked at it much I marvelled how in so small a book there could be so many words and thus I looked through a third of the book until I had found a great part of my lineage and I saw there the lives and the names of all that I scarcely dared say I knew not that I was descended from them and when I saw their good lives and the travail that they had suffered on earth for the Creator, I could not think how I could so amend my soul as to be worthy to be led back to them, nor was I aware of being a man in my relationship to them, but only the features of a man.

When I had thought this over for a long time, I looked before me and saw that there was written “Here beginneth the Holy Grail” and when I had read so much that midday was passed, I found “Here beginneth the Great Fear”. I then read on so much that I saw many terrible things and God knoweth that I had great doubts in seeing them nor would I have dared to see them if this had not been commanded me by Him by Whom all things are commanded and governed; and when I had seen this, I began to think very hard and as I was thinking this I saw a ray as a burning fire and it descended from heaven and came before my eyes like lightning and it was very like a clap of thunder so the brightness was great and lasted long; and then it appeared before my eyes so that my whole eye glittered through it and then fell I in a swoon and when it pleased our Lord again, I knew He lifted me up and afterwards I saw such a great obscurity that one could see nothing more than one can see on the darkest night of winter and this darkness lasted the time to take a hundred steps. Then it pleased God that the darkness should pass away and it grew lighter little by little until the sun returned to his former brightness. Afterwards there came where I was such a sweet scent as if all the spices of the world had been strewn there and after this I heard the gentlest song which was ever sung; and those who sang were so close to me that I felt they were visible things and as if I could touch them with my hands, but I could see none of them but well I understood that they praised our Lord and they said towards the end of their song “Glory and honour be prepared to the Restorer of Life and the Destroyer of Death.” This praise I heard quite well, but in all the rest I heard nothing of it and afterwards they sounded a clarion of bells and when they had ceased to sound it, they began their song again. Seven times did their voices sing in this way; at the eighth song it broke so that I was aware that they sank below and then was I aware that the wings of all the birds of the world were passing before me and when the voices had departed, then the great fragrance which I had smelt before and which had so pleased me returned. Then the singing began again and I began to think of this great marvel when I heard a voice which said to me—”Leave thy thoughts and render what thou owest to thy Creator”. Then I rose and saw that the nones of the day was past and I marvelled greatly, for I thought it was still morning because I had looked so long at the book which pleased me very much. Then I began the service of our Lord as it is laid down for that day on which He died for us and wherefore one communeth not for the figure must be reversed until Sunday and on Good Friday one does not hallow it since it would have no meaning on the same day on which He was sacrificed on the Cross: and when with the help of God I had finished this and wished to receive my Saviour, an angel took me by the two hands and told me—“These three persons are due to be received by you; therefore I shall make you understand what they mean and in this beyond certainty”. At this word he raised me aloft and carried me to a place where if all mortal tongues spoke and all hearts and ears listened to them, they would not any of them understand such great joys without receiving from them an hundred-fold as great ones again and if I said this was in the 3rd heaven where St. Paul was carried, I should not be intending to lie. But I do not dare to boast of it, though I can well say that there was shown to me the sceptre of which Paul saith no mortal tongue may reveal it and when I had seen such great marvels, then the angel carried me and said to me—“Hast thou seen great marvels ?” and I said that I never thought such great ones could exist and he said to me that he would show me even greater ones. Then he took me and carried me again to another stage which was a hundred times more clear to behold. This was more coloured than any heart could devise, and there he showed me the power of the Trinity openly, and I saw them separately the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and I saw that these three persons belonged to one deity and one person and yet I say that I saw there three persons, one separated from the other; wherefore I shall enrage the envious whose only work is to blame others and who will say that I go against the authority of St. John, the high evangelist, who saith that never mortal man saw the Father nor ever shall be able to, with which I am in complete accord. But all those who have listened to this have not heard it well, for there he speaketh of mortal man, but once the soul is separated from the body it is therefore a thing spiritual and well can look upon the Father; and while I was beholding this great marvel, there came a thunderclap and after this thunderclap came half again as many celestial things as before and I lay again as in a swoon. There I saw so great a marvel that I cannot tell of it. In due course the angel took me and brought me back to that place where he had taken me from and he said to me before he returned my spirit to its body that I had seen many marvels; and I replied to him that there was no mortal who if he heard it told would not hold it for a lie, and he said to me “Art thou still not very certain of what thou hast been in doubt about”?, and I said to him that there was no man in the world how disbelieving soever whom, if he could listen to me, I would not make understand clearly how all the points of the Trinity are, because I have seen it and learnt it. Then he put my spirit back into my body and told me that from that time onwards I was never again to be in doubt and I leaped as one who wakes up and I thought to see the angel but he was already gone and I looked about me and saw my saviour before me and in the same manner as before the angel had taken me away; it shone in good faith. Then I took the manual and placed it in the place where the sacrament was for it was a very beautiful place and a proper one; and when I had gone out from the Chapel, I saw that it was near night time and then I entered into my house and ate there such food as God had given to me.

And so passed that day and the night all until the day of the Resurrection of the Saviour and when it had pleased Him that I had done the service of that day which is as high as the day of our salvation, as He Himself who made the day holy, I make a pledge that I should hasten to the book for its good words rather than take any meat, for so sweet were the words that they made me forget my hunger and when I came to the chest where I had put the small book, it was nowhere to be found there and when I saw this I was much grieved and knew not what to do and I marvelled how it could have got taken away from that place, for I had found it shut as before and as I was in this manner a voice said to me—“What dost thou marvel at? In such a way did Jesus Christ rise from the tomb without opening it, but comfort thyself and go and take food for it behoves thee to suffer before thou canst have the book back”; and when I heard that I would have it again I held myself well paid. I went and ate and when I had eaten I prayed to our Lord that He would give me possession of what I desired. Then a voice said to me, “This the High Master biddeth thee. Tomorrow when thou hast sung the Mass, thou shalt go and eat and then thou shalt set out upon Jesus Christ’s business; and when thou hast left this place, thou shalt go by the path which leadeth to the high-road; and this road will lead thee until thou comest to the ‘Siegestone’. Then thou shalt abandon that road and go at once along a path which will lead thee to a crossroads of seven ways which is on the plain of the ‘Bewildered Vale’ and when thou comest to the ‘Fountain of Grief’ there where the Great Slaughter lately was, thou shalt find a beast whose like thou hast never seen before. Here see to it that thou follow wherever it shall lead thee; and when thou hast lost it in the Land of Negnes, there shalt thou finish thy wanderings and there shalt thou know why the Great Master has sent thee thither”. Then the voice stopped speaking; and I rose on the morrow and sang mass and then I breakfasted and made the sign of the Holy Cross upon myself and upon my habitation. Then I set out all alone just as the voice had told me and when I had passed the sward, I went on until I came to the valley of the Dead. That Valley I should know well because I had been there before and had seen there a battle between two of the best knights whom one knoweth of in any land. Then I continued until I came to the crossroads. There I looked about me and saw a cross at the edge of the fountain and under this cross there knelt that beast which the voice had told me of and when it saw me, it rose and looked at me for a long time and I at it. But the more I looked at it, the more I marvelled at it, for it was different from all other beasts, for it was white as new snow and had the head and neck of a sheep; it had the feet of a dog and the thighs of one which were black as coal; and it had the breast, the hindquarters and the body of a wolf and the tail of a lion. Thus diverse was the beast and when I had sufficiently looked at it, I signalled it to go before and it entered the first way which it found on the right and we continued until evening began to set in and then it turned through a thick dingle and I after it and so we wandered on until it was night and then we came out of the heath and entered into a forest high and deep and when we were at the bottom of a valley, there saw I a lodge. I was very glad thereat. For I saw in it a man who was dressed in religious vestures and when he saw me he took off his hood and knelt before me. And I raised him up and told him that I too was a sinner like himself and could not give him the blessing; and what more shall I say; he would not rise in my presence before I had given him the blessing. Whereat I was very heavy of heart for I was not worthy to give benediction, and when I had given it him, he lead me by the hand into his lodge and when we had eaten he asked me much about myself for the goodman thought there was more good in me than there was and I answered him from beginning to end. In the morning the good man implored me to sing his mass and I did it. Afterwards I started on my way and he escorted me and when we were outside the gateway then saw I the beast which had led me and I had not seen it before I had first seen the goodman in the evening. Then I started on my way and my wanderings and the goodman escorted me far enough and on taking his leave implored me to pray for him. I agreed to pray for him if he would pray for me and he said that he would do it. Then he returned and I went after the beast through the midst of the forest until we came to a very beautiful moor; and already midday was passed when I saw before me a very beautiful pine tree and under this pine tree there was one of the most beautiful fountains in the world. In this fountain there was some gravel as red as fire and burning and the water was as cold as ice and changed its colour three times a day, for it became green and was as bitter as the great sea. Under this pine the beast lay down and made as if to rest itself and I looked about me and saw coming a messenger on a horse very fast and when he came near me, he dismounted and knelt before me and drew forth a napkin from his breast and said to me—“Sire, my lady saluteth you, she who received the knights of the Golden Circle on the day when the great marvel was known by him whom you know and she sendeth you to eat of such meat as she has.” And I took the cloth and undid it and I drew from it a cake very beautiful and very good and he prepared me a full pot of cervoise and a little cup. I ate and drank very grate-fully as much as I wished for I was very hungry and when I had eaten I said to the valet that he was to salute the lady from me in the name of the True Creator and he said that he would do that very willingly and with much pleasure. Then he departed down the valley; and between us we wandered on until evening began to set in and until we came to a crossroads where there was a cross where the beast stopped and immediately I heard a horse whinney and come towards me and now I saw coming towards me a knight who led a number of others with him and when he saw I was a man of religion he jumped down from his horse as did all the others. Then he saluted me and asked me to make his house my inn for the night and then he called his squire and gave him his horse to lead to the hostel and bade him bid his mesne that they should deck out the house in good manner. Then he led me to his house and gave me very good cheer; and all those of the house as well. But one thing happened which much displeased me for he began to implore of me a chain which I wore round me. He said that he had seen me elsewhere and named the place correctly to me; but then did not know how to ask me to make anything known to him. He was an excellent host to me that night and in the morning I rose and he put me on my way and when I came outside the doorway, I found the beast before me and was very pleased thereat. We wandered on until the third hour. Then I saw a way which led out of the forest. I continued until I came to a large mansion and a church very beautiful and when I came to the church I found there beautiful nuns who were chanting their hours and when they saw that I was a priest they asked me to sing them mass and I did it and afterwards they gave me dinner and begged me much to stay with them two days or three. But that was to no purpose, as I started on my way with the beast and when we came to the big stone where there was a cross and on the cross words which said that here I should achieve my journey, when I looked about me I saw not the beast nor did I know what had become of it and I looked at the letters which told me all that I had to do.

Then I started on my way. I entered a path to the right in the middle of the most beautiful forest which was ever seen and I wandered on until the forest became clearer and then I looked about me and saw on a lawn a very beautiful chapel but I still had half a league to do, and now I heard a cry so hideous and terrible that never was so hideous a one heard. I was very astonished thereat. But nevertheless I did not leave off going on thus for our Saviour wished it and when I came to it I found it already open and I found a man lying on the threshold in a swoon and I looked at him and I saw that he had his eyes turned into his head. I immediately made the sign of the cross before his face and he rose up from that moment to a sitting posture and then I perceived that the devil was entered into his body. I told him to leave it but he said that he would not yet on no account and I knew well that it was time I entered into the chapel and looked to-wards the altar and there I saw a small book. I rendered thanks to Jesus Christ first and carried it in front of me and when I came near to the possessed one, the devil began to repent and then there came so many devils that I never thought there had been so many in the world and when they saw the small book they all fled and the one that was in the body could not go out through the mouth because of the book and the sign of the cross. He began to cry—“Remove the small book and I will go away”; and I told him to go out underneath it and he did so very soon, and when he was gone out he departed at such speed that I thought he would knock down the forest before him. Then I took the man in my arms and carried him to before the altar and remained there until it was day; and then I asked him if he would eat and he asked me who I was; and I told him not to be afraid for I was come there for his good and I asked him what meat he was used to eat; and he said that meat which he was accustomed to eat for he had passed twenty four years and a half as a hermit and he had spent nine years eating only herbs and fruit nor so long as he lived would he eat other food unless God sent it to him.

And there I left him very hungry as one who had not eaten since the devil had entered into his body. Then I said in order my hours and sang mass, then I came back to the place where I had left the goodman and I found him asleep; and I who had not slept that night slept a little and when I was asleep I was aware that I was near a fountain at the foot of a hill and I saw a man who offered me apples and pears. Then I awoke and went to the hill and there I found a man at the fountain and when he saw me he brought me some apples and put them in my lap and he told me that every day from then onwards I was to go and fetch our food at that fountain and at the Great Master’s command. Then I carried them to the goodman and readily did he eat of them for he was very hungry as he had fasted much and was hardly able to support himself on his feet. I was in his company until he was wholly recovered; and when the 8th day after Easter came we went away, which weighed heavily upon him and after that he related to me how the illness had first come to him; and he said it came to him through a sin he had committed. He did not think in his whole life he had sinned excepting only this one which mortal flesh can guard itself against once it has received the cowl; and when he had confessed himself he asked me to pray to our Lord that through His gentle pity He should keep him from the sin through which he had merited His wrath.

Then we embraced one another and left each other with much weeping and if one may judge a man by looking at him, I do not think that one can find a better than him. When he had conveyed me as far as his gateway, there I found the beast that had led me and when the goodman saw the beast he asked what it was; and I told him that I had no other guide on the way and he said to me that very well ought one to serve that Lord who so protected his servants; nor could I ever perceive that any except him saw the beast, but again I thought of the word spoken before, for our Lord judgeth so well that there is none who if he had done all the goodnesses and then undone one would not lose everything and he who hath committed all the sins of the world if he cry God mercy for them will not have a hundred times greater joy than the other. And thus must he have lost God’s love through one misdeed, though he had been in His service for the greater part of his life. Then we parted and came to the Way where we were come before. We journeyed on until I was come on the Saturday to my dwelling and when I was come there I sang vespers and complines and then went and ate what God pleased and then went and lay down on my bed for I was very tired. And when I had lain down there appeared the High Master to me as He had also before appeared and He told me to take the book on the first working day and write what was in it in another book and take from the aim’s room what it behoved to write with, as I should find it there. In the morning I rose up as He had bidden and found all that was necessary for writing, pen, ink, parchment and knife; and when Sunday was passed and I had sung mass on Monday I took the book; and the beginning of the writing was of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.….




NOTES

[1]  This mediaeval French text, together with a Middle English translation done in the reign of Henry VI, was published in London in 1861 by the Roxburgh Club and again in 1874 by the Early English Text Society. But in both these editions the Prologue and the Introduction are given in the French only, for the sole surviving manuscript of the English version, now in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is defective at the beginning.


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