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Book of the Month

The Grail Code

Revelations of an Ancient Mystery

By Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey

Loyola Press  Paperback RRP$34.95 ISBN: 0829421599

Reviewed by Terry Monagle, writer and speaker

Yes, I’ve read the Da Vinci Code, on an international flight. And yes, I finished it, but got increasingly alienated by its cheap narrative devices.

Meanwhile the success of the book and the film have got some churchmen worried. The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury is the latest to raise his voice in warning lest people be taken in by the glamour of secrets and newly discovered texts,  texts like The Da Vinci Code and the Gospel of Judas.

The phrase The Holy Grail is becoming a generic word for anything of great desire. It is used as a synonym for a football premiership, for a dream home, for the best job in an industry.

The Grail Code very usefully puts on the record the real historical beginnings and history of the Grail Legend. It parades before us the multiple uses, versions, interpretations, of the legends of the Holy Grail. I didn’t know, for instance, that word grail comes from the Latin word for a shallow bowl.

The book offers us a vast historical panorama: Christ’s use of a cup at the Last Supper to institute the Eucharist of the wine, and thereby making sacred the grail, the cup; myths about Joseph of Arimathea, the Roman invasion of Britain, the Christianising of Britain, Its connections with Arthur and Camelot, with mediaeval French romances and knightly culture, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the embellishment of the legend by Walter Map, down to the Operas of Wagner such as Parsifal. And then it’s fateful use by Hilter, and the terrors of the middle of last century.

The book sees itself as a vaccine against the Da Vinci Code and a false dreaming and illusion. It is an erudite yet popular book which exposes us to the real history of the legend, and its many expressions in the literature and history of many European countries and Art Forms.

But at the same time it argues that the allure of the stories illustrates the restlessness in our hearts, a restlessness placed there by and only satisfied by meeting God in the Eucharist. The universality of desire is taken as proof that we are not destined to be happy here.

The book is sharply aware of the many uses made of the grail narrative by the movie industry: Excalibur, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The book puzzles about the enduring attraction of such narratives.

It has an after word entitled ‘The Antidote to Grail Nonsense’.

One cannot argue with either the ‘real’ history of the legend we are offered nor with the invoking of the restlessness in our hearts. The theological position offered in relation to the Eucharist itself seems theologically unnuanced, buts not the main issue here and it is refreshing to follow through the sweep of history we are offered. This is history, not mythic titillation, but a history of great interest.

The human desires aroused by sacred secrets show no sign of abating.

Table of contents:

1 In Which Our Enterprise Begins with a Question and an Answer.

2 Which Reveals the True Origin of the Holy Cup

3 In Which We Seek the Holy Cup and Find the Eucharist

4 Which Introduces that the Paragon of Christian Knighthood, Joseph of Arimathea

5 In Which We Seek the King Arthur of History and Find Instead a Moral Principle

6 In Which King Arthur and His Best Knights Set Off on a Quest for a Magical Cauldron or Grail; with Observations on Grace and Nature

7 In Which a Longing for a Lost Paradise Leads to the Rise of Medieval Civilization

8 In Which the World Goes Mad for Love

9 In Which We Go Looking for Love and Find the Grail

10 On the Futility of Knightly Virtue; or, The Spiritual Malaise of Perceval

11 Which Takes Us into the Shadowy Wood Where Allegories Lurk Unseen

12 In Which the Unfinished Story of the Grail Tempts Many a Writer to Take Up His Pen

13 In Which the Mysterious Master Walter Map Begins to Weave a Grand Allegory of Sin and Redemption

14 The Genesis of Lancelot; or, The History of a Perfect Worldly Knight

15 The Entrance of Galahad; or, The History of a Perfect Spiritual Knight

16 In Which a Rash Vow Begins a Quest for the Deep Secrets and Confidences of Our Lord

17 The World Turned Upside-Down; or, The Parable of the Talents

18 The Sorrow of Lancelot; or, The Conversion of a Worldly Knight

19 In Which Sin Destroys the World, but the Repentant Sinner Is Saved

20 In Which the Decline of Medieval Civilization Finds Its Mirror in the Decline of Romantic Allegory

21 In Which the Long-Dormant Grail Revives and Goes Looking for Something to Fill It

22 The Longing Fulfilled; or, The End of the Quest

Afterword: The Antidote to Grail Nonsense


‘The story of the Holy Grail has dominated the English-speaking world like no other myth or legend. Its elements even predate the English language. Poets, novelists, and filmmakers have told it again and again: the story of the quest and the miracles, the nobility and the treachery, the selflessness and the sensuality. The quest doesn’t get old or tiresome or go out of style. The adventure of the pilgrimage is what everyone wants, but not nearly so much as the goal: the Holy Grail.

These days, most people know the Holy Grail from books like The Da Vinci Code or Holy Blood, Holy Grail, or from Monty Python. What we’ve lost in these pop-culture transformations of the Grail is what made it Holy in the first place. That original theme is what this book seeks to unfold.

In popular entertainment we see all kinds of attempts at understanding the Grail.

The movie Excalibur tried very hard to give us a pagan Grail. The secret of the Grail was simply this: “The King and the land are one.” Why we needed a cup to contain that secret is not adequately explained. The movie’s interpretation did give us one of the cinema’s rivetingly beautiful moments: Arthur and his knights, roused from their lethargy, ride forth to their last battle, and the wasteland turns green and fertile in their path. But it’s an ultimately unsatisfying interpretation. Why did we need a Grail Quest in the first place? Couldn’t someone just have told Arthur that the King and the land are one and saved everybody a lot of trouble? And does anyone in our age of republics and constitutional monarchies actually believe that the king and the land are one? We have a hard enough time believing that we actually elected our Congresses and Parliaments.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown gave us a reinterpretation of the Grail as a holy bloodline, the lineage of Jesus Christ and his supposed wife Mary Magdalene. It was already a popular idea long before the novel came out: Holy Blood, Holy Grail had been a permanent bestseller for twenty years, and Dan Brown took his Grail ideas from there. The reinterpretation gives us the lure of a deeply hidden secret centuries old, and the Gnostic promise of enlightenment once we know the secret. That so many people have been enchanted with the notion proves it has some attractive power; the main problem with it is that the historical foundations of such a hypothesis are easily dismantled.

Other modern Grail stories have dwelt on the swashbuckling adventure of the quest, but kept deliberately fuzzy about the nature of the Grail itself. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade gave us a Grail that seemed to have something to do with Christian legend, and that—like the Grail in the best medieval romances—rewarded the worthy and punished the unworthy. “But choose wisely,” says the ancient knight who guards the Grail and dozens of decoy grails. “For as the True Grail will bring you life—the False Grail will take it from you.” And soon enough expensive special effects show us exactly what the knight means.

But Hollywood could not confront the whole force of the Christian symbolism in the Grail legends: we’re never quite sure what the Grail really means for Indiana Jones, and it’s just as well that the quest is entertaining enough to distract us from asking too many questions about the object of it. Asked what he found in the Grail, Indiana Jones’ father Henry tells us only “illumination”—which really could mean anything. Practically speaking, neither he nor his son seems very much changed by meeting the Grail. And that’s a bit surprising when we consider that the whole purpose of seeking the Grail is usually to change the seeker’s life. If nothing is changed, then the longing is still there, unfulfilled.

Revived pagan mythology, anti-Christian propaganda, swashbuckling adventure—none of these give an adequate account of why the Grail legend has survived. After all, the empty Grail is just a cup.

“Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?”

This is the question that begins our quest for the Holy Grail. Every seeker of the Grail must answer it: Can I drink from the Grail?’

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