In last week’s Herald, American author and, as I would also describe him, Catholic culture warrior Charles Coulombe writes about the liturgical origins of “Pancake Day” (Shrove Tuesday) and the real meaning of Lent which, here in the western Church, we barely acknowledge as requiring 40 days of fasting and penance. I was glad to read this article as Coulombe has recently come up on my radar for his superb book, A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail (TAN Books).
At first I had some reservations about the theme: was this just another pleasant antiquarian ramble through medieval myths and legends, delightful to Catholic antiquarians and medievalists but nothing more? Nothing could be further from the truth. Coulombe is not merely erudite on the subject of King Arthur, the knightly orders, the literature that arose from the Grail story and the Catholic symbolism behind it all; he is also passionate about telling modern Catholics of their cultural and religious heritage and how they can bring their faith alive again by knowing more about its past.
His book, significantly, begins and ends with the core Arthurian legend, “an amalgam of received versions”, telling the story of Percival, Camelot, King Arthur, the courtly knights Galahad, Gawain, Lancelot and so on. The reason he repeats at the end is that, having read his book, the reader starts to appreciate the profoundly Catholic origins of the quest for the Grail (usually interpreted as the chalice used at the Last Supper.)
Coulombe carefully examines all the elements of the medieval romances to show their deeper meaning; for instance, Camelot has echoes of the kingly rule of Charlemagne and Alfred the Great; there are also constant references to the great feasts of the Church: Christmas is the time that Arthur draws the sword from the stone; Perceval recalls his faith on Good Friday; the King marries Guinevere at Pentecost and so on.
The author’s serious purpose behind all this is to remind modern Catholics of the “Waste Land” (experienced by Perceval at Monsalvatch and poeticised by TS Eliot centuries later) we live in today. He points to transgenderism, abortion, the “profanation of marriage” and suggests that much of the arts, music and literature of today “reflect this malaise, being empty, ugly and cruel.”
As a child, I loved a particular book, entitled Stories of King Arthur. Later at school we had to learn passages of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King by heart. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land – along with its footnotes – only deepened my intimations of this imaginative and literary “quest”. Reading Coulombe’s memorable book, in which he argues that “all that is miraculous, sacramental, devotional, royal and chivalric” is contained in the sacred symbolism of the Grail story, reminds readers how literature and legend play their part in helping us to appreciate and understand better the great truths of our Faith.