The Quest for the Grail

Poulson, Christine. The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art, 1840-1920. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-7190-5379-X, hc, $79.95.

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(This review originally appeared in Mythprint 38:5 (#230) in May 2001.)

Reviewed by Edith L. Crowe

The most important thing for the potential reader of this book to know is that it is considerably more than an art book. Anyone concerned with the Matter of Britain, even without a strong interest in the visual arts, might find this volume worth examining. The author considers the cultural context in which the art was created at least as much as the art itself (and in some chapters even more). The introduction provides a brief history of the major contributors to the Arthurian mythos (Celtic, German and English); a summary of Malory and the historical context in which he wrote Le Morte Darthur; the reasons why legends of Arthur fell out of favor in the eighteenth century; their eventual rehabilitation and the renewal of interest in things Arthurian in the early nineteenth century. In the early days of the Victorian era, Arthurian themes were something of a hard sell for artists. Between the Papist overtones of the Grail legends, the lax sexual morality of major characters, and the “doubtful historicity” of Arthur himself, it was an uphill battle. The first chapter deals with the difficulties of William Dyce in carrying out (reluctantly) his commission to decorate the Queen’s Robing Room in the then-new Houses of Parliament. He decided to illustrate various Christian virtues with scenes from the Arthurian legends. However, finding suitable incidents to illustrate proved more difficult for some virtues than others. Fitting the courtly love attitudes of Malory into the world of Victorian sexual morality took some doing, and Dyce achieved only partial success.

Despite the importance of the building for which they were commissioned, Dyce’s paintings had little influence on subsequent artists. By the time his work became available to the public (in 1864), Tennyson’s version of the Arthurian mythos was dominant. His earlier Arthurian poems received a less enthusiastic reception, since these legends were still a touchy topic in the 1830s and 1840s. By the publication of the first Idylls in 1859, Tennyson was an established poet. Moreover, he had made The Matter of Britain Victorian-compatible, although it required major distortions of Malory. Tennyson turned Arthur into a noble, Christlike figure, eliminating all of his morally reprehensible or even ambiguous actions, such as the incest that conceived Mordred. This left Guinevere the villian of the piece and primarily responsible for the downfall of Camelot. Tennyson also pandered to Establishment (and Royal) notions of Anglo-Saxon superiority, and most artists followed suit. Although Celtic decorative elements were often used in the setting, Arthurian protagonists were usually portrayed in a manner stereotypically Germanic or even Viking-like. The interpretation of the Arthurian mythos in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was dominated by Tennyson and Malory (with a few nods to Wagner). Artists unhappy with Tennyson’s version were often led to Malory via the *Idylls*, and found Tennyson’s original source more compatible than the Poet Laureate’s distorted version.

Most of The Quest for the Grail looks at various themes within the Arthurian mythos and the ways that they inspired particular artists or groups of artists. The Pre-Raphaelites and the artists of the Arts and Crafts movement tended to favor Malory. For example, Burne-Jones was drawn to the mystical, secret, and ritual aspects of the legends; Dante Gabriel Rosetti to the erotic; and William Morris to the idealism and the concepts of brotherhood and fellowship.

In a chapter titled “From Anglo-Catholic icon to war hero,” Poulson shows one way in which the Grail legend was rendered acceptable to Protestants–by secularizing it. Galahad became a generic ideal of chaste young manhood, shorn of specific religious associations. This fit in nicely with a growing use of military metaphors in “Muscular Christianity”– these were the days, after all, of Newman’s “Soldiers of Christ” and the founding of the Salvation Army. From the Boer War to World War I, images of Galahad were hugely popular in memorials to dead young men.

At almost the same time, another tributary of Grail imagery emphasized the mystical aspects. These were also the days of the brand-new discipline of anthropology, the scholarly study of folklore, and the rise of interest in spiritualism and the occult. Such scholarship led to an interest in the more mythopoeic aspects of Arthuriana. Imagery of Grail angels were popular (if not particularly “canonical”) at the same time as those secularized Galahads.

Although a chapter is specifically devoted to “The women of the Idylls,” (primarily Guinevere, Elaine, and Enid) the issue of the female element of the mythos appears frequently throughout Poulson’s book, and numerous connections are made to the political and social context in which they were portrayed. Just as Galahad became a patriotic icon, women characters were used in various ways to support, or occasionally challenge, prevailing notions of womanhood. Poulson links the popularity of Grail angels as images of “female perfection and spiritual authority” to the importance of women in the Spiritualist movement. On the other hand, we have the Lady of Shallott, of whom Poulson says, “…the number of pictures of lovely floating corpses is remarkable.” This fits in with the “necrophiliac aesthetic” of the Victorians (particularly Rosetti and Poe). More politically significant is the popularity of images of the repentant Guinevere, prostrate at the feet of Arthur; and of Elaine, the faithful and essentially middle-class daughter quietly expiring from unrequited love. In the story of Enid and Geraint, whose source was actually the Mabinogion rather than Malory, Geraint treats his wife Enid so badly that even some Victorian males found it disturbing. By and large, however, these images of obedient and subservient womanhood were popular during a time of unprecedented legal and political reforms in the status of women, from the Divorce Act of 1857 to the granting of (limited) suffrage in 1918. In a time of changes no doubt greatly disturbing to the average Victorian male, these images of imaginary women who knew their proper place must have served as emotional life rafts.

Space doesn’t permit a more detailed account, but there is also a chapter on “Tristram and Isoud” and another that discusses he influence of Max Muller’s theories of solar mythology, scientific discoveries, and millenarial movements to portrayals of the death of Arthur. There are endnotes after each chapter, plus an extensive bibliography and an index. Although the price for the hardback is steep, a paperback version is available for about thirty dollars. This finalist for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award should be strongly considered by anyone with a particular interest in Arthuriana, either visual or textual.

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