Romance of the Grail: The
Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth by Joseph Campbell,
edited by Evans Lansing Smith, New World Library (2015), hardcover, 282 pages.
This book is
part of a series, The Campbell Collection,
published by New World Library. We reviewed a previous book in this series, Goddesses.
For Romance of the Grail we are
interviewing the editor, who is the Chair of Mythological Studies at the
Pacific Graduate Institute. This interview is a combination of one sent to us by the
publisher and our own questions. The latter are bolded.
How and when did you begin work in the
After getting my
Ph.D. I taught two years in Switzerland, another two in Annapolis, and then
started a long 20 year stretch at Midwestern State University in Texas. Towards
the end of that time, I began doing extra adjunct teaching in the Mythological
Studies Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Located on the grounds of Pacifica
is the Opus Archive & Library, which house the Joseph Campbell & Marija
Gimbutas Library. One day in
the library, surrounded by all of his books, I found a typescript of his
Master’s Thesis for Columbia [University], called “The Dolorous Stroke,” a
study of an important motif in the Grail Romances: the wound that creates the
Waste Land. It was not a theme that I had heard Campbell speak much of during
his many lectures, nor was it a theme I found much on in his published books.
And so was born, in 2005, the idea of publishing the thesis.
Tell me about the archives and the
process that lead to this book on the Grail?
My first job—and
it took many years—was simply to compile an annotated bibliography of
Campbell’s collection of books about the Middle Ages (which is one small part
of a very large library). I found many fascinating items in the underlinings
and marginalia of those books, which provided insight into the way Campbell
became the great scholar of world mythology that he was—going well beyond the
mythologies of the Middle Ages. And then there were the files of his lectures,
letters and research notes. It was my next task to sort through all of the
boxes devoted to the Middle Ages and the Grail mythologies, and catalogue them
in some way. My goodness what a treasure trove! I was deeply impressed by the
breadth of his interests, and, perhaps more importantly by its depth: an
extraordinary encyclopedic and detailed awareness of all aspects of the culture,
and their relevance to the Grail Romances.
What do you consider to be the value of the
You can see how
wrong so many of the critics of the post-Campbell, post-Northrop Frye,
post-Jungian generation were, in their accusations that Campbell was a
universalist with no concern for the specifics of a particular cultural
mythology. He seemed to know so much more than any of them do about the
anthropology, social, and political orders expressed in the myths, and their
psychological and spiritual roots. As I said, it was both the breadth and the
depth of his scholarship that so deeply impressed me in the years spent working
on his beautiful, simple wooden desk in the archives.
In the chapter on the
Wasteland mythology, could you explain the significance of the differences in
the interpretations of the Grail in Christian, Celtic, Hellenistic, Indian
mythologies, including the role of goddesses?
The chalice of
the Eucharist in Christianity is the vessel which contains the blood of Jesus,
sometimes seen as having been gathered from the wound inflicted by the spear of
Longinus during the Crucifixion. The consumption of the wine symbolic of the
blood of Christ during the communion ritual is said to confer immortal life
upon the communicant. These notions of the Grail has the container of the food
of immortality has its precedents Irish and Celtic myths in which, for example,
the initiates consume the inexhaustible meat of a wild boar, and in so doing
conquer death achieve regeneration. In Welsh mythologies, goddess Ceridwen
presides over another kind of grail—a cauldron in which an elixir is brewed up,
the imbibing of which confers the powers of poetic omniscience, prophecy, and
transformation. The importance of the divine feminine in this myth hearkens
back to such late Hellenistic artifacts as the Pietroasa Bowl, in the center of
which we find a maiden holding a cup, surrounded by mythological figures of an
initiation rite focusing on death and rebirth. Perhaps the ultimate archetype
of these variations on the mythologies of the grail would be the sacred vessels
of the Eleusinian mysteries of Ancient Greece, which revolve around the
dynamics of death and rebirth presided over by the goddesses Demeter and
For Campbell and
many others inspired by the writings of C.G. and Emma Jung, the Grail Romances
of the Middle Ages manifest the powerful reemergence of the divine feminine
principle, repressed by the patriarchal orientation of doctrinal Christianity.
Hence the central presence of the Grail maiden in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival coincides with the Mariolatry
of Medieval Christianity, in which the symbolism of the Virgin Mary becomes
central to the great cathedrals of the period—such as Chartres, Notre Dame de
Paris, and later Einsiedeln, with its famous Black Virgin, just around the
corner from Jung’s Bollingen Tower, and the end of Lake Zürich.
How did you select the materials
presented in the book?
approaching Bob Walter, President of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, and its
Board members, with the idea of publishing the M.A. Thesis, I was asked to
provide a broader context for “The Dolorous Stroke,” situating it in relation
to Campbell’s lifelong interest in the Grail Romances, on which I had heard him
speak so beautifully on so many occasions in so many different places:
Brittany, the forests of Broceliande, the Nile, New York at the Open Eye, San
Francisco at the Jung Institute, and here at what would become Pacifica
Graduate Institute. So with the help of Bob, David Kudler, and Safron Rossi, I
combed carefully through audio recordings, lecture notes, and outtakes from the
files, to find the best versions of the stories, and the most illuminating
commentaries on them, that would elucidate his unique approach.
What theme distinguishes your approach to
Campbell left New York in the 1920s, after completing “The Dolorous Stroke,” he
inevitably brought along with him the ideas of his mentor, Roger Sherman
Loomis, whose basic assumption was that the Grail Romances emerged from the
pre-Christian, pre-Roman mythologies of the Celtic worlds of Northern Europe,
in Brittany, Wales, and Ireland. By the time Campbell got to Munich, after a
year in Paris, that notion was exploded. The whole thrust of the German
scholarship on the poetry of the Middle Ages had shifted eastwards. It was much
more engaged with studies on the influence of Persian, Arabic, and Indian
mythologies on the Grail Romances than on the Celtic world of Northern Europe.
So by the time Campbell got back to New York, and before his epic journey
across the continent to Big Sur, he had been reborn, so to speak, as the great
comparative scholar of world mythology that he became, richly informed by the
great spiritual reservoirs of the Near and Far East.
In his 1927 master’s
thesis, “the Dolorous Stroke,” published for the first time in this book,
Campbell appears to criticize anthropomorphizing, calling it “a tendency
characteristic of ignorant peoples” and goes on to describe the process in
which, “the feminine earth notion takes definite form, finally, of a goddess,
and the masculine virtualizing principle takes shape in a vigorous god.” Did he
continue to be critical of such beliefs in his later works?
Thesis was written at the time when the writings of Sir James George Frazer
were exerting their hypnotic appeal on the literary modernism of the 20s
(Eliot’s The Waste Land, the novels of D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Thomas
Mann, and many others). Frazer’s writings directly impacted conceptions of the
Grail mythologies through Jesse Weston’s From
Ritual to Romance, which approaches the redemption of the wasteland via the
sexual union with the goddess that brings rebirth and renewal—rituals
associated with the dying and resurrection gods the Roman legionnaires brought
northward. At the same time, Jane Ellen Harrison was focusing on the central
importance of the divine feminine and the myths of death over which she
presided in books like the Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion—a book which
Campbell drew from extensively and celebrated in his lectures. So I wouldn’t
say that he was critical of the myth of the earth goddess and sky god in the
way you suggest in your question.
What other themes in the
book do you feel would be of interest to people involved in Goddess
spirituality and/or feminist critiques of religion?
interested in Campbell’s passionate celebration of the powers of the great
goddess, and the writings of such exemplary figures as Weston, Harrison, and,
later, Marija Gimbutas, should read the recent volume of the Collected Works of
Joseph Campbell, expertly edited by Safron Rossi, called Goddesses: Mysteries of the Divine Feminine. Also, I remember a
particularly stunning week of lectures Campbell gave at the Casa Maria in
Montecito in April of 1983, during the course of which—at nearly 80 years
old—he spoke all day long, then into the evening, three days running, delivery
a moving and encyclopedic exposition of the powers of the divine feminine,
which inspired so many people involved in the emerging Goddess spiritualities
of the period. These and other lectures can be found among the audio-tapes
available on the website of the Joseph Campbell Foundation.