It was way back in 1976, when Evans Lansing Smith was a twenty-six year old spiritual seeker, that he first worked with Joseph Campbell during a two-week field-trip around Northern France investigating the Arthurian romances of the Middle Ages.
Smith could hardly have realized, whilst a young man, that his time spent travelling with Campbell, listening to his stories regarding the Arthurian legends, would ultimately lead him to travel a path in life so closely tied to his mentor’s unique and ground-breaking research into many classic mythological themes.
Following Campbell’s death in 1987, his extensive collection of written works, research notes, diaries, articles, letters and other important material were transferred to his Foundation based in America.
It is with a partial reference to this library that the first collection of Joseph Campbell’s writings and lectures on the Arthurian romances is taken.
In Romance the Grail, Evans Lansing Smith has sourced several audio lectures obtained from the Foundation’s audio collection, some of which are previously unreleased, as well as transcripts of a lecture that was given by Campbell at a seminar held in California in 1983.
In his personal recollection of Joseph Campbell, Smith describes how, even into his 80’s, Campbell displayed remarkable levels of mental and physical energy whilst holding day long lecture sessions over the course of a week.
‘Romance of the Grail’ is formed from three main parts. In the first of these a common theme is that of the Grail Romances; including a look at their foundations and backgrounds.
Although Campbell later traced the roots of the Arthurian mythos to the Middle East and to the Orient, he establishes that the height of the Arthurian Romances was between 1150 and 1259AD – a period that coincided with the building of Europe’s great cathedrals.
For Campbell though, it is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem, ‘Parzival’, that forms the core of his fascination in the subject.
Written around 1210AD, this literary piece is described by Campbell as a
truly magnificent work.
Of it he states
I think of it as a cathedral of love, celebrating the mystery in its many facets.
Part two of the book opens with Campbell’s personal synopsis of the Parzival story, along with an explanation of the story’s historical settings and consideration of that aspect of the tale that is focussed upon Gawain.
In addition to the story of Parzival and Gawain, there is another important pairing that takes a prominent role in the Grail romances – that which surrounds the somewhat darker tale of Tristan and Iseult.
According to Campbell, historians record that there are no fewer than six or eight different tellings of this romance from the Middle Ages – although, in his opinion, it is that of Gottfried von Strassburg that is the most important.
Following his detailed and descriptive interpretation of the story of Tristan and Iseult, Campbell considers the historical possibility that in fact all versions of the tale stem from a single source.
Even Gottfried asserts that it is Thomas of Britain’s version that aught to be considered the most authentic of them all.
Here, once again, Campbell plunges headlong into the historical and mythological sources in his own descriptive style where he uncovers what he feels to be a close reflection of the Tristan story in the legends of the Japanese Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) which originate from the same period.
In his commentary, titled ‘The Knights of the Round Table’, Campbell immediately identifies Arthur or Artehe, with the widespread worship of the bear – a word from which Arthur is said to be derived.
It is through consideration of the popular and widespread acceptance of Arthurbas – a primary Middle Ages deity that Campbell then draws into the mix the classic Arthurian associations of Avalon, the Round Table and the importance of Geoffrey of Monmouth in fixing the Arthurian legends in popular myth.
From this, we are naturally drawn into Campbell’s reflection upon the part that the Grail plays in the tales of the Arthurian knights; those such as Lancelot, Yvain and Sir Gawain,
Part three of Romance of the Grail opens with a commentary on ‘The Waste Land’ – a mythic world un which its inhabitants are living under the tutelage of a Wounded King with no ability to live lives that are reflective of their own unique natures.
This interminable condition was, of course, exemplified in T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem ‘The Waste Land’ and its references to Jessie Laidlay Weston’s famous book from the 1929s ‘From Ritual to Romance’.
Here, Campbell observes that
Each hero must disenchant himself before he is able to disenchant the Waste Land.
The main content of Romance of the Grail then concludes with an examination of the connections that exist between the Grail and Christ along with the possibility that the Grail is a vessel made from stone.
Some of Romance of the Grail is also comprised of Campbell’s early research material. This includes a never before published copy of his masters thesis on Arthurian myth, which he titled ’A Study of the Delorous Stroke’ and a list of works on the Arthurian Romances from the Joseph Campbell Collection; including notes, illustrations, sources and an index.
Our Review of Romance of the Grail by Joseph Campbell
There are two totally separate ways of considering the merits, or otherwise, of Romance of the Grail.
Firstly, careful regard must be made to the value of the original source material and, secondly, to the way that the author of this collected works has edited and collated Campbell’s writing.
In the first instance the material included in this book, despite being of a non-regular and historical origin, should not be considered of secondary quality by any means.
It is only ‘A Study of the Dolorous Stroke’, mainly as an inevitable result of it being written during an earlier period in Campbell’s life, that it is somewhat less-well polished than the other work in the book.
However, the passion and enthusiasm that Campbell shows for the subject is still clearly evident.
As for the rest of the material in this book it is easily of the high quality that we have come to expect from the pen and enquiring mind of Joseph Campbell.
Beautifully, written throughout, its only occasional failing is in the author’s assumption that the reader is as well versed in the historical background to the Grail Romances as he is. However, the actual myths are beautifully and engagingly well-presented.
As for the book itself, it is evident that its editor, Evans Lansing Smith, has done an excellent job seamlessly stitching together the material in a way that makes you think it was written as one complete narrative.
Also, it should be mentioned that the inclusion of the generous smatterings of period illustrations and line drawings really bring this material to life in deeply enriching ways.
The copy that was made available to us for review is a hardcover edition with inner-sleeve reproductions of Campbell’s original hand-written ‘mind map’ detailing his research, and this, to my mind, further adds a sense of quality and deep respect for Joseph Campbell’s work that the editors and publishers undoubtedly hold.
As Campbell’s legacy grows in the world of historical and mythological study, this work will undoubtedly find an important place in the collections of both seasoned Grail explorers and newcomers alike.
Romance of the Grail undoubtedly performs an important part of contemporary Arthurian commentary and is one that shows just why it is that Joseph Campbell is so deeply appreciated for his ideas – vitally important mythological research that has been beautifully drawn into a cohesive whole by its editor and compiler Evans Lansing Smith.