Ritual to Romance
The Perilous Chapel
Students of the Grail romances will remember
that in many of the versions the hero--sometimes it is a heroine--meets with a strange and
terrifying adventure in a mysterious Chapel, an adventure which, we are given to
understand, is fraught with extreme peril to life. The details vary: sometimes there is a
Dead Body laid on the altar; sometimes a Black Hand extinguishes the tapers; there are
strange and threatening voices, and the general impression is that this is an adventure in
which supernatural, and evil, forces are engaged.
Such an adventure befalls Gawain on his way to the Grail Castle1. He is
overtaken by a terrible storm, and coming to a Chapel, standing at a crossways in the
middle of a forest, enters for shelter. The altar is bare, with no cloth, or covering,
nothing is thereon but a great golden candlestick with a tall taper burning within it.
Behind the altar is a window, and as Gawain looks a Hand, black and hideous, comes through
the window, and extinguishes the taper, while a voice makes lamentation loud and dire,
beneath which the very building rocks. Gawain's horse shies for terror, and the knight,
making the sign of the Cross, rides out of the Chapel, to find the storm abated, and the
great wind fallen. Thereafter the night was calm and clear.
In the Perceval section of Wauchier and Manessier we find the same adventure in a
Perceval, seeking the Grail
Castle, rides all day through a heavy storm, which passes off a night-fall, leaving the
weather calm and clear, He rides by moonlight through a forest, till he sees before him a
great oak, on the branches of which are lighted candles, ten, fifteen, twenty, or
twenty-five. The knight rides quickly towards it, but as he comes near the lights vanish,
and he only sees before him a fair little Chapel, with a candle shining through the open
door. He enters, and finds on the altar the body of a dead knight, covered with a rich
samite, a candle burning at his feet.
Perceval remains some time, but nothing happens. At midnight he departs; scarcely has
he left the Chapel when, to his great surprise, the light is extinguished.
The next day he reaches the castle of the Fisher King, who asks him where he passed the
preceding night. Perceval tells him of the Chapel; the King sighs deeply, but makes no
Wauchier's section breaks off abruptly in the
middle of this episode; when Manessier takes up the story he gives explanations of the
Grail, etc., at great length, explanations which do not at all agree with the indications
of his predecessor. When Perceval asks of the Chapel he is told that it was
built by Queen Brangemore of Cornwall, who was later murdered by her son Espinogres, and
buried beneath the altar. Many knights have since been slain there, none know by whom,
save it be by the Black Hand which appeared and put out the light. (As we saw above it had
not appeared.) The enchantment can only be put an end to if a valiant knight will fight
the Black Hand, and taking a veil kept in the Chapel, will dip it in holy water, and
sprinkle the walls, after which the enchantment will cease.
At a much later point Manessier tells how Perceval, riding through
the forest, is overtaken by a terrible storm. He takes refuge in a Chapel which he
recognizes as that of the Black Hand. The Hand appears, Perceval fights against and wounds
it; then appears a Head; finally the Devil in full form who seizes Perceval as he is about
to seek the veil of which he has been told. Perceval makes the sign of the Cross, on which
the Devil vanishes, and the knight falls insensible before the altar. On reviving he takes
the veil, dips it in holy water, and sprinkles the walls within and without. He sleeps
there that night, and the next morning, on waking, sees a belfry. He rings the bell, upon
which an old man, followed by two others, appears. He tells Perceval he is a priest, and
has buried 3000 knights slain by the Black Hand; every day a knight has been slain, and
every day a marble tomb stands ready with the name of the victim upon it. Queen Brangemore
founded the cemetery, and was the first buried within it. (But according to the version
given earlier she was buried beneath the altar.) We have here evidently a combination of two
themes, Perilous Chapel and Perilous Cemetery, originally independent of each other. In
the MSS. the Wauchier adventure agrees much more closely with the Manessier sequel, the
Hand appearing, and extinguishing the light. Sometimes the Hand holds a bridle, a feature
probably due to contamination with a Celtic Folk-tale, in which a mysterious Hand (here
that of a giant) steals on their birth-night a Child and a foal3. These Perceval
versions are manifestly confused and dislocated, and are probably drawn from more than one
In the Queste Gawain and
Hector de Maris come to an old and ruined Chapel where they pass the night. Each has a
marvellous dream. The next morning, as they are telling each other their respective
visions, they see, "a Hand, showing unto the elbow, and was covered with red samite,
and upon that hung a bridle, not rich, and held within the fist a great candle that burnt
right clear, and so passed afore them, and entered into the Chapel, and then vanished
away, and they wist not where4. This
seems to be an unintelligent borrowing from the Perceval
We have, also, a group of
visits to the Perilous Chapel or Perilous Cemetery, which appear to be closely connected
with each other. In each case the object of the visit is to obtain a portion of the cloth
which covers the altar, or a dead body lying upon the altar. The romances in question are
the Perlesvaus, the prose Lancelot, and the Chevalier à deux
Espées5.' The respective protagonists being Perceval's sister, Sir
Lancelot, and the young Queen of Garadigan, whose city has been taken by King Ris and who
dares the venture to win her freedom.
In the first
case the peril appears to lie in the Cemetery, which is surrounded by the ghosts of
knights slain in the forest, and buried in unconsecrated ground. The Lancelot
version is similar, but here the title is definitely Perilous Chapel. In the last
version there is no hint of a Cemetery.
In the Lancelot version there is a dead knight on the altar, whose sword
Lancelot takes in addition to the piece of cloth. In the poem a knight is brought in, and
buried before the altar; the young queen, after cutting off a piece of the altar cloth,
uncovers the body, and buckles on the sword. There is no mention of a Hand in any of the
three versions, which appear to be late and emasculated forms of the theme.
The earliest mention of a Perilous Cemetery as distinct from a Chapel, appears to be in
the Chastel Orguellous section of the Perceval, a section probably derived
from a very early stratum of Arthurian romantic tradition. Here Arthur and his knights, on
the way to the siege of Chastel Orguellous, come to the Vergier des Sepoltures,
where they eat with the Hermits, of whom there are a hundred or more.
"ne me l'oïst or pas chi dire
But there is no hint of a Perilous Chapel here.
Les merveilles del chimetire
car si sont diverses et grans
qu'il n'est hom terriens vivans
qui poist pas quidier ne croire
que ce fust onques chose voire6."
The adventures of Gawain in the Atre
Perilleus7, and of Gawain and Hector in the Lancelot of the
final cyclic prose version, are of the most banal description; the theme,
originally vivid and picturesque, has become watered down into a meaningless adventure of
the most conventional type.
But originally a high importance seems to have been attached to it. If we turn back to
the first version given, that of which Gawain is the hero, we shall find that special
stress is laid on this adventure, as being part of 'the Secret of the Grail,' of which no
man may speak without grave danger8.
We are told that, but for Gawain's loyalty and courtesy, he would
not have survived the perils of that night. In the same way Perceval, before reaching the
Fisher King's castle, meets a maiden, of whom he asks the meaning of the lighted tree,
Chapel, etc. She tells him it is all part of the saint secret of the
Grail9. Now what does
this mean? Unless I am much mistaken the key is to be found in a very curious story
related in the Perlesvaus, which is twice referred to in texts of a
professedly historical character. The tale runs thus. King Arthur
has fallen into slothful and fainéant ways, much to the grief of Guenevere, who
sees her lord's fame and prestige waning day by day. In this crisis she urges him to visit
the Chapel of Saint Austin, a perilous adventure, but one that may well restore his
reputation. Arthur agrees; he will take with him only one squire; the place is too
dangerous. He calls a youth named Chaus; the son of Yvain the Bastard, and bids him be
ready to ride with him at dawn. The lad, fearful of over-sleeping, does not undress, but
lies down as he is in the hall. He falls asleep--and it seems to him that the King has
wakened and gone without him. He rises in haste, mounts and rides after Arthur, following,
as he thinks, the track of his steed. Thus he comes to a forest glade, where he sees a
Chapel, set in the midst of a grave-yard. He enters, but the King is not there; there is
no living thing, only the body of a knight on a bier, with tapers burning in golden
candlesticks at head and foot. Chaus takes out one of the tapers, and thrusting the golden
candlestick betwixt hose and thigh, remounts and rides back in search of the King. Before
he has gone far he meets a man, black, and foul-favoured, armed with a large two-edged
knife. He asks, has he met King Arthur? The man answers, No, but he has met him, Chaus; he
is a thief and a traitor; he has stolen the golden candlestick; unless he gives it up he
shall pay for it dearly. Chaus refuses, and the man smites him in the side with the knife.
With a loud cry the lad awakes, he is lying in the hall at Cardoil, wounded to death, the
knife in his side and the golden candlestick still in his hose.
He lives long enough to tell the story, confess, and be shriven,
and the dies. Arthur, with the consent of his father, gives the candlestick to the church
of Saint Paul, then newly founded, "for he would that this marvellous adventure
should everywhere be known, and that prayer should be made for the soul of the
The pious wish of the King seems to have been fulfilled, as the story was certainly well
known, and appears to have been accepted as a genuine tradition. Thus the author of the Histoire
de Fulk Fitz-Warin gives a résumé of the adventure, and asserts that the
Chapel of Saint Austin referred to was situated in Fulk's patrimony, i.e., in the
tract known as the Blaunche Launde, situated in Shropshire, on the border of North Wales.
As source for the tale he refers to Le Graal, le lyvre de le Seint Vassal and
goes on to state that King Arthur recovered sa bounté et sa valur when he lost his
knighthood and fame. This obviously refers to the Perlesvaus romance, though
whether in its present, or earlier form, it is impossible to say. In any case the author
of the Histoire evidently thought that the Chapel in question really existed,
and was to be located in Shropshire11.
But John of Glastonbury also refers to the story, and he connects
it with Glastonbury12.
Now how can we account for so wild, and at first sight so improbable, a tale assuming
what we may term a semi-historical character, and becoming connected with a definite and
precise locality?--a feature which is, as a rule, absent from the Grail stories.
risk of startling my readers I must express my opinion that it was because the incidents
recorded were a reminiscence of something which had actually happened, and which, owing to
the youth, and possible social position, of the victim, had made a profound impression
upon the popular imagination.
For this is the story of an initiation or
perhaps it would be more correct to say the test of fitness for an initiation) carried
out on the astral plane, and reacting with fatal results upon the physical.
We have already seen in the Naassene document that the Mystery ritual comprised a
double initiation, the Lower, into the mysteries of generation, i.e., of physical
Life; the higher, into the Spiritual Divine Life, where man is made one with God13.
Some years ago I offered the suggestion that the test for the primary initiation, that
into the sources of physical life, would probably consist in a contact with the horrors of
physical death, and that the tradition of the Perilous Chapel, which survives in the Grail
romances in confused and contaminated form, was a reminiscence of the test for this lower
initiation14. This would fully account for the importance ascribed to it in the
Bleheris-Gawain form, and for
the asserted connection with the Grail. It was not till I came to study the version of Perlesvaus,
with a view to determining its original provenance, that I recognized its extreme
importance for critical purposes. The more one studies this wonderful legend the more one
discovers significance in what seem at first to be entirely independent and unrelated
details. If the reader will refer to my Notes on the Perlesvaus, above
referred to, he will find that the result of an investigation into the evidence for locale
pointed to the conclusion that the author of the Histoire de Fulk Fitz-Warin
and most probably also the author of the Perlesvaus before him, were mistaken
in their identification, that there was no tradition of any such Chapel in
consequently no tale of its foundation, such as the author of the Histoire
relates. But I was also able to show that further north, in Northumberland, there was also
a Blanchland, connected with the memory of King Arthur, numerous dedications to Saint
Austin, and a tradition of the Saint driving out the local demons closely analogous to the
tale told of the presumed Shropshire site. I therefore suggested that inasmuch as the Perlesvaus
represented Arthur as holding his court at Cardoil (Carlisle), the Northern
which possessed a Chapel of Saint Austin, and lay within easy reach, was probably the
original site rather than the Shropshire Blaunche Launde, which had no Chapel, and was
much further away.
Now in view of the evidence set forth in the last chapter, is it not
clear that this was a locality in which these semi-Pagan, semi-Christian, rites, might, prima
facie, be expected to linger
on? It is up here, along the Northern border, that the Roman legionaries were stationed;
it is here that we find monuments and memorials of their heathen cults; obviously this was
a locality where the demon-hunting activities of the Saint might find full scope for
action. I would submit that there is at least presumptive evidence that we may here be
dealing with the survival of a genuine tradition.
And should any of my readers find it difficult to believe that, even did initiations take
place, and even were they of a character that involved a stern test of mental and physical
endurance--and I imagine most scholars would admit that there was, possibly, more in the
original institutions, than, let us say, in modern admission to Free-Masonry--yet it is a
'far cry' from pre-Christian initiations to Medieval Romance, and a connection between the
two is a rash postulate, I would draw their attention to the fact that, quite apart from
our Grail texts we possess a romance which is, plainly, and blatantly, nothing more or
less than such a record. I refer, of course, to Owain Miles, or The
Purgatory of Saint Patrick, where we have an account of the hero, after
purification by fasting and prayer, descending into the Nether World, passing through the
abodes of the Lost, finally reaching Paradise, and returning to earth after Three days, a
reformed and regenerated character15.
;"Then with his monks in Prior anon,
Now if we turn to Bousset's article Himmelfahrt der
Seele, to which I have previously referred (p. 157), we shall find abundant
evidence that such a journey to the Worlds beyond was held to be a high spiritual
adventure of actual possibilty--a venture to be undertaken by those who, greatly daring,
felt that the attainment of actual knowledge of the Future Life was worth all the risks,
and they were great and terrible, which such an enterprise involved.
With Crosses and with Gonfanon
Went to that hole forthright,
Thro' which Knight Owain went below,
There, as of burning fire the glow,
They saw a gleam of light;
And right admidst that beam of light
He came up, Owain, God's own knight,
By this knew every man
That he in paradise had been,
And Purgatory's pains had seen,
and was a holy man."
Bousset comments fully on Saint Paul's claim to have been 'caught up into the Third
Heaven' and points out that such an experience was the property of the Rabbinical school
to which Saul of Tarsus had belonged, and was brought over by him from his Jewish past;
such experiences were rare in Orthodox Christianity16. According to
Jewish classical tradition but one Rabbi had successfully passed the test, other
aspirants either failing at a preliminary stage, or, if they persevered, losing their
senses permanently. The practice of this ecstatic ascent ceased among Jews in the second
Bousset also gives instances of the
soul leaving the body for three days, and wandering through the other worlds, both good
and evil, and also discusses the origin of the bridge which must be crossed to reach
Paradise, both features characteristic of the Owain poem17. In fact the
whole study is of immense importance for a critical analysis of the sources of the romance
And here I would venture to beg the adherents of the 'Celtic' school to use a little
more judgment in their attribution of sources. Visits to the Otherworld are not always
derivations from Celtic Fairy-lore. Unless I am mistaken the root of this theme is far
more embedded than in the sifting sands of Folk and Fairy tale. I believe it to be
essentially a Mystery tradition; the Otherworld is not a myth, but a reality, and in all
ages there have been souls who have been willing to brave the great adventure, and to risk
all for the chance of bringing back with them some assurance of the future life. Naturally
these ventures passed into tradition with the men who risked them. The early races of men
became semi-mythic, their beliefs, their experiences, receded into a land of mist, where
their figures assumed fantastic outlines, and the record of their deeds departed more and
more widely from historic accuracy.
poets and dreamers wove their magic webs, and a world apart from the world of actual
experience came to life. But it was not all myth, nor all fantasy; there was a basis of
truth and reality at the foundation of the mystic growth, and a true criticism will not
rest content with wandering in these enchanted lands, and holding all it meets with the
outcome of human imagination.
The truth may lie
very deep down, but it is there, and it is worth seeking, and Celtic fairy-tales, charming
as they are, can never afford a satisfactory, or abiding, resting place. I, for one,
utterly refuse to accept such as an adequate goal for a life's research. A path that leads
but into a Celtic Twilight can only be a by-path, and not the King's Highway!
The Grail romances repose eventually, not upon a poet's imagination, but upon the ruins
of an august and ancient ritual, a ritual which once claimed to be the accredited guardian
of the deepest secrets of Life. Driven from its high estate by the relentless force of
religious evolution--for after all Adonis, Attis, and their congeners, were but the
'half-gods' who must needs yield place when 'the Gods' themselves arrive--it yet lingered
on; openly, in Folk practice, in Fast and Feast, whereby the well-being of the land might
be assured; secretly, in cave or mountain-fastness, or island isolation, where those who
craved for a more sensible (not necessarily sensuous) contact with the unseen Spiritual
forces of Life than the orthodox development of Christianity afforded, might, and did,
the Templars such? Had they, when in the East, come into touch with the survival of the
Naassene, or some kindred sect? It seems exceedingly probable. If it were so we could
understand at once the puzzling connection of the Order with the Knights of the Grail, and
the doom which fell upon them. That they were held to be Heretics is very generally
admitted, but in what their Heresy consisted no one really knows; little credence can be
attached to the stories of idol worship often repeated. If their Heresy, however, were
such as indicated above, a Creed which struck at the very root and vitals of Christianity,
we can understand at once the reason for punishment, and the necessity for secrecy. In the
same way we can now understand why the church knows nothing of the Grail; why that Vessel,
surrounded as it is with a atmosphere of reverence and awe, equated with the central
Sacrament of the Christian Faith, yet appears in no Legendary, is figured in no picture,
comes on the scene in no Passion Play. The Church of the eleventh and twelfth centuries
knew well what the Grail was, and we, when we realize its genesis and true lineage, need
no longer wonder why a theme, for some short space so famous and so fruitful a source of
literary inspiration, vanished utterly and completely from the world of literature.
Were Grail romances forbidden? Or were they merely discouraged?
Probably we shall never know, but of this one thing we may be sure, the Grail is a living
force, it will never die; it may indeed sink out of sight, and, for centuries even,
disappear from the field of literature, but it will rise to the surface
again, and become once more a theme of vital inspiration even as, after slumbering from
the days of Malory, it woke to new life in the nineteenth century, making its fresh appeal
through the genius of Tennyson and Wagner.
1. MS. B. N. 12576, ff. 87vo et seq.
A translation will be found in my Sir Gawain at the Grail Castle, pp. 13--15.
2. MS. B. N. 12576, ff. 150vo, 222, 238vo.
3. Cf. here Prof. Kittredge's monograph Arthur
4. Cf. Malory, Book XVI. Chap. 2.
5. Cf. Perlesvaus, Branch XV. sections XII.--XX.; Malory,
Book VI, Chap. 15; Chevalier à deux Espées, ll. 531 et seq.
6. B. N. 12576, fo. 74vo.
7. Cf. B. N. MS. 1433, ff. 10, 11, and the analysis and remarks in my Legend of Sir
Lancelot, p. 219 and note.
8. Cf. passage in question quoted on page 130.
9. B. N. 12576, fo. 150vo.
10. Perlesvaus, Branch I.
sections III., IV.
11. Cf. my notes on the subject, Romania, Vol. XLIII. pp. 420--426
12. Cf. Nitze, Glastonbury and the Holy Grail, where the reference is given.
13. Vide supra, p. 147.
14. Cf. Legend of Sir Perceval, Vol. II. p. 261. I suggested then that the
actual initiation would probably consist in enlightenment into the meaning of Lance and
Cup, in their sexual juxtaposition. I would now go a step further, and suggest that the
identification of the Lance with the weapon of Longinus may quite well have replaced the
original explanation as given by Bleheris. In The Quest, Oct. 1916, I have
given, under the title 'The Ruined Temple,' a hypothetical reconstruction of the Grail
15. Owain Miles, edited from the
unique MS. by Turnbull and Laing, Edinburgh, 1837. The Purgatory of Saint Patrick
will be found in Horstmann's Southern Legendary. I have given a modern English rendering
of part of Owain Miles in my Chief Middle-English Poets,
published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, U.S.A.
16. Cf. Op. cit. pp. 148 et seq.
17. Op. cit. pp. 155 and 254.