From Ritual to Romance

Chapter XIII

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 dislocated form2.
   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 comment.
   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 source.
   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 version.
   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
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."
   But there is no hint of a Perilous Chapel here.
   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 squire10."
   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.
   At the 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 Shropshire, and 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 Blanchland, 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,
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."
   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.
   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 century A.D.
   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 in question.
   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.
   The 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, find satisfaction.
   Were 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 and Gorlagon.
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 Initiation.
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.