Explorations in Arthurian Legends

A Literature Review

Part 2: Robert de Boron

The Holy Grail as we picture it today is the product of the mind of Robert de Boron, a Burgundian knight who wrote not too long after Chretien de Troyes. In a trilogy of poems (Joseph d'Arimathie, Merlin, Perceval), Robert incorporates the Holy Grail into the Arthurian tradition permanently.

According to Robert, the Grail is the cup used at the Last Supper and also the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the drops of Jesus's blood after the crucifixion. Joseph has created the Grail Table in memory of the Last Supper; strangely, he gives the Grail to his brother-in-law Bron, who takes it with him into "the far west," to the vaus d'Avaron, or vale of Avalon. Now, Robert did not say Glastonbury here. But about the time he was writing, the bones of "Arthur" and "Guinevere" were found at Glastonbury, complete with the identifying cross and the sign that said Avalonthe Glastonbury-as-Avalon connection was off and running. Later stories would have Joseph himself founding the church at Glastonbury.

But back to Robert: The second part of his cycle is what Arthurian scholars are most interested in. Titled Merlin, this poem asserts that Merlin, through his magical powers, knows the history of the Grail. Building on the Joseph theme in the first poem, Robert says that Merlin advised Uther Pendragon to set up the Round Table and to base it on the Grail Table.

The first poem introduced the theme of the Holy Grail; the second theme ensconces the Grail into Arthurian tradition. It is interesting to note, however, that Robert envisions the Round Table as being created by Uther, not Arthur, and that Joseph is not said to have visited Britain. If Avalon was Glastonbury, then the man who brought the Grail to Britain was Bron, not Joseph.

Last for Robert de Boron was the Perceval story. Naturally, Perceval seeks and finds the Grail, having by now familiar adventures along the way. And as did Chretien, Robert left his Didot Perceval unfinished. The story, later finished by someone else, tells of Arthur's Roman wars and Mordred's treason (echoes of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace). Significantly, no mention of Lancelot or Guinevere occurs in the last section, which ends with Arthur's death, Perceval's learning of Arthur's passing, and Merlin's withdrawing from the world.

Robert de Boron is significant for many things:

  • He gives us the Holy Grail as the holiest of relics. He defines it and puts it in historical context.
  • He places the Grail in the Arthurian tradition via the divination powers of Merlin and keeps it there with the quest of Perceval, which he adapts from Chretien and uses to fit his own outline. (Remember that Chretien described Perceval searching for a graal, not a grail.)
  • He gives us the Round Table, based on the Grail Table. Joseph envisioned the Grail Table in memory of the Last Supper, at which 13 men sat. Later stories would make the Round Table have 13 chairs, one of which was the Siege Perilous, which was waiting for Galahad, who fulfilled the Grail Quest.
  • He gives us the Sword in the Stone, although he says it was in an anvil on top of a stone.
  • He introduces the idea of a cycle of poems, which would prove to be instrumental in the very near future as the inspiration for the Vulgate Cycle.

To continue this literature review, click here.

Related Links

Didot Perceval

More about the Holy Grail

A little about Joseph of Arimathea

A little about Glastonbury

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