BOOKS AROUND MACHEN
The High History of the Holy Graal, Arthur Machen and the Inklings
By Dale Nelson
In Arthur Machen’s 1915 wonder-tale “The Great Return” we hear of marvelous lights, odors, bell-sounds, Welsh saints, the Rich Fisherman, and healings, as the Holy Graal is manifest, briefly, in Wales in the 20th century. The story needs no detection of “sources” to be reasonably well understood and enjoyed. However, our enjoyment of it may be enhanced if we see it – or recognize it – as a “sequel” to one of the great medieval Arthurian works.
That work is the Old French prose romance Perlesvaus, from the early 13th century, which Machen knew in Sebastian Evans’s 1898 translation as The High History of the Holy Graal. The Perlesvaus is a century and a half or more older than Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Readers of Machen’s Hieroglyphics may remember the Morte as belonging to a dozen or so literary works cited as examples of “fine literature,” works of the highest literary art, capable of conveying “ecstasy,” wonder, beauty, the longing for the unknown.
Machen also appreciated Evans’s High History. In his controversial essay “The Secret of the Sangraal,” Machen referred to Sebastian Evans as “the accomplished and admirable, if somewhat archaistic translator of one of the Romances, to which he gave the title The High History of the Holy Graal.” Machen’s friend A. E. Waite wrote, similarly, of the Perlesvaus as having been “translated into English of an archaic kind, beautiful and stately, by Dr. Sebastian Evans, a gorgeous chronicle, full of richly painted pictures and pageants” (in The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal from 1910, page 11).
The “archaic” style to which Machen and Waite refer should pose no difficulties for readers who can enjoy William Morris’s prose romances, such as The Well at the World’s End and The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Perhaps the main thing that takes a little adjusting to is the use of “and” where modern English uses “if.”
The High History’s imagined era is the first Christian century (so that a mule that had belonged to one of Pilate’s soldiers is still alive when Lancelot and Perceval meet). The Graal is mostly in the background, and there is no official setting-out of the Round Table knights in quest of it. At the long book’s end, Perceval lays down his arms and devotes himself, with his widowed mother and his sister, to the religious life, and we learn that the Graal will be seen no more.
Before this happens, though, we have read of the “rich King Fisherman” and King Arthur has learned that it is God’s will that chalices for the Mass be of the pattern he is shown and that churches be provided with bells.
But Perceval’s mother and sister die, and the moment comes for Perceval’s departure.
“Perceval heard one day a bell sound loud and high without the manor toward the sea. He came to the window of the hall and saw the ship come with the white sail and the Red Cross thereon, and within were the fairest folk that ever he might behold, and they were all robed in such a manner as though they should sing mass.” This sight is accompanied by a fragrance of supernal excellence; “no savour in the world smelleth so sweet.”
Perceval enters the boat and “never thereafter did no earthly man know what became of him.” In the years that follow, the chapel wherein he had resided falls into decay. However, one day, two young Welsh knights investigate the chapel; and they remain there for a long time as hermits. They have holy deaths and the people “of that land called them saints”; but they are not named.
Machen may well have found in such details a number of the germs of his story “The Great Return.” To them he added his devotion to the idea of the ancient Celtic Church.
By the way, Sebastian Evans’s book was there for the three famous Inklings, too.
Charles Williams, like Machen an associate of Waite, discusses it in his unfinished work The Figure of Arthur: “[Perlesvaus] was translated into English [prose] in the nineteenth century by Sebastian Evans. He was a poet of a certain power, though his medievalism is of the usual mannered and slightly picturesque kind common to that period; if not pre-Raphaelite it is at least kindred to that manner.”
Tolkien had a copy in his personal library, as we learn in Oronzo Cilli’s 2019 book.
And C. S. Lewis loved it for years. When he discovered it in his teens, he wrote to his best friend, “It is absolute heaven: it is more mystic & eerie than [Malory’s] ‘Morte’ & has [a] more connected plot.” Almost 30 years later, he wrote to a friend of E. R. Eddison that The High History of the Holy Grail [sic] was among his favorites, in company with Malory’s Morte, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and William Morris’s romances. It’s likely that Lewis’s weird poem “Launcelot” is derived from the High History rather than Malory.
The High History is episodic and repetitive, and perhaps not a book I will read twice in its entirety, but it was exciting to read a little-known book that mattered to four of my favorite authors. And I wouldn’t have wanted to miss certain details. One is a passing reference to the castle of Joseus, the son of King Pelles. Joseus “‘slew his mother there. Never sithence hath the castle ceased of burning, and I tell you that of this castle and one other will be kindled the fire that shall burn up the world and put it to an end.’”
This article is a lightly edited reprint of a piece first published elsewhere in 2019.
Machen’s essay “The Secret of the Sangraal” is quoted here from The Shining Pyramid (London: Secker, 1924). The same essay appears as “The Sangraal” in The Glorious Mystery, edited by Vincent Starrett (Chicago: Covici-McGee, 1924). In its initial form, the essay is currently available in The Great Return (Darkly Bright Press, 2017).
Nigel Bryant translated the Perlesvaus for 1978 publication as The High Book of the Grail. A little spot-checking shows differences in some word-meanings, perhaps due to use of different texts. Evans’s style seemed to me to fit the matter better than Bryant’s relaxed, contemporary fashion – and I wanted to read the book known to Machen, Williams, Tolkien, and Lewis.
4 thoughts on “The Holy Grail: Arthur Machen & The Inklings”
“The Great Return” is one of my favorite stories. Fine essay, Dale! A brother-in-law, who was an architect, had a book about William Morris, full of photographs of furniture he designed, among other artworks. I wish I had delved into that volume deeply now during a family visit.
Hi John! I’m glad you enjoyed Dale’s essay. Like you, The Great Return is one of my favorite stories. Several years ago, Darkly Bright released an annotated edition.
All the best,
Darkly Bright Press
Fine – thanks! If I recall correctly, Williams, returning to the High History, decided to adopt the name ‘Dindrane’ for Percivale’s sister in his latest poetry.
That tricky name — not “din drain” but probably more like “dan drahn.”
She will have a prominent part to play in at least some of the Arthurian cycle that poet Malcolm Guite is working on. He has read from this work in progress at his enjoyable YouTube channel — recommended, and people who generally avoid poetry will find it very accessible, from what I have heard, in contrast of Charles Williams’s cycle.