The Waste Land Project: From Ritual to Romance

Nonfiction * Jessie L. Weston * The Grail * 1920

This is the second entry in what will be a very long project. You can read about my ridiculous intentions with the first post about Charles Dickens.


T.S. Eliot made no attempt to hide the fact that Weston’s book about the Grail Legend was of paramount importance to the structure and symbolism of The Waste Land. In the notes he included with the poem, he says right away: “Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest in the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.” Oh T.S., stop it with the false modesty already. Since Eliot obviously thinks this book is crucial to the overall understanding of The Waste Land, I obviously need to read it to understand the framework of the poem.

From Ritual to Romance is not a work of literature, so it is important to adjust your expectations accordingly. The book is a scholarly work addressing a very specific problem found in a very specific field of study. If you do not have a background in said field, you will almost certainly be lost. The field in question is the early European medieval period, and the literature, legends, and folklore of the time. This period encompasses a wide span of time, and while a good deal of material has survived, it is fragmented and convoluted. Most of what we have has been transcribed by clergymen, because most legends and folklore were oral in nature. These things were literally scrawled in the margins of The Bible by bored monks. Sometimes, if we were lucky, they wrote in the vernacular. Over time, scholars have collected these notes and have complied, for instance, more-or-less complete works such as Beowulf. Weston’s interest lies in a specific area within this time period, and has to do with the Grail Legend.

If you, like me, were first made aware of the Holy Grail via Indiana Jones, this will all be very confusing. Like many, many things, the story of the Grail was co-opted by Christians in their ongoing efforts to convert everyone and everything in the world. Before the Christians made the Grail a holy relic, it featured in other tales of the knight-errant variety. The stories all have similarities, but vary from instance to instance, often evolving as time goes by. Eventually the Grail becomes combined with Arthuriana, and becomes part of the Camelot legend. However, these stories are scattered and various and strange, and Weston’s project with From Ritual to Romance was to trace them back in order to find the true origin of the Grail.

Now here’s the thing about all of this. In order to get anything from this book, you need to have some background in the subject. You don’t actually need to be a medieval scholar, but you should probably know who Chrétien de Troyes is. As for myself, I took some classes as an undergraduate in medieval lit. That’s all well and good, but I also had a really excellent professor, so more of it stuck than would otherwise be the case. That said, I am strictly amateur hour when it comes to this stuff, so forgive me if you catch me making an error. However, despite my limitations, I remember enough to make sense of From Ritual to Romance. For a scholar, Weston has a readable style. It’s not, like, fun or easy, but it’s manageable, which is more than I can say for academic writing in general.

There is one other issue with From Ritual to Romance which I will address before getting into what all this Grail biz means for The Waste Land. From what I understand, thanks to the forward of the book itself, written by a cat called Robert Segal, who is presumably a medieval scholar, From Ritual to Romance is largely irrelevant to medieval studies. That’s not to say the book isn’t important, as it obviously is since here we are over 100 years later still talking about it. It’s just that the broader claims Weston make have since been dismissed as overly speculative. Weston, like any good scholar, is emphatic in her statements. She gets catty with other scholars, which is another time-honored tradition amongst academics. In this instance, because of the time frame involved, there’s no real way to prove the connections she’s making between ancient rituals and medieval romances about the Grail. Now let’s move on and see what these wild claims Weston makes actually are and how they relate to Eliot’s poem (which was published two years after Weston’s book).

ritual to romance2

Yo I got this bird. I will totally trade you for that relic what grants the everlasting life and whatnot. I’ll even throw in this bored green horse.


I suppose it would be helpful if I explained exactly what is meant by the “Grail legend.” That’s actually a problem, because as I alluded above, there is no singular story. There are hazy beginnings that date back to the mists of the first millennium A.D. These stories evolve and change and weave their way into the popular culture up to and beyond Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Now, if you recall that film, the Holy Grail was said to be the chalice into which the blood of Christ fell as he was tormented on the cross. The relic was then handed throughout the Church until it came under the care of an ancient protector, a knight of the Crusades granted eternal life by the Grail. When Indy and the Nazis bust in on this old dude, they are presented with a wide assortment of cups and chalices. The Nazi grabs a fancy looking thing and drinks deep, and of course turns to dust. He has chosen poorly. Indy, being the cool guy he is, knows what’s up. He takes the most mundane, modest cup he can find – like Jesus – and of course he chooses wisely. The crucial element to all this is the Grail’s ability to grant life. That’s the thread that goes back over a thousand years.

Here is the most basic story I know how to tell. There is a knight on a quest. Eventually, after much danger and many adventures, he comes across a land which has become a desert. This is the Waste Land. Here he finds a castle, or a chapel, or both. Within is usually a King, often referred to as the Fisher King. He’s all fucked up and sick and sad. Usually, the Waste Land and the Fisher King are connected. Heal the king, heal the land. Most of the time, there are symbols lying around, a Lance, a Sword, a Dish, and a Cup. The lance and sword are pretty clearly male symbols. The dish and the cup are the lady symbols. Depending on the story and the time it came from, they’re used differently, but the Cup is almost always the Grail, and it is almost always the key to life.

You’ll notice I’m using a lot of “usually” and “sometimes” and “almost” when talking about this, and yes that is a common frustration when talking about medieval literature. “The Dark Ages” is a misnomer, because humans got up to a lot of ingenious things in that time period, even in Europe. However, since the only people who were writing much down were of the Church, there is a clear bent and bias to most written records, especially in the earlier periods. Once you get up to the late 12th century literature wakes up a little bit, thanks to guys like Dante writing in the vernacular. However, earlier than that, and you’re working piecemeal. There’s many variations to all of these stories. The version of Beowulf we have now was probably vastly different from the story told around hunting fires, or in longhalls of the village, or wherever. Some monk heard enough of it from the town elder, and knew enough of the local language to be able to write it down. Yet oral tradition is just that. You can’t really pin it down, verbal stories change with every telling.

ritual to romance3

Ayy, I’m just gonna ride my horse up in here if that’s cool. What’s that you got there, some kind of phallic symbol? 

That’s what makes Weston’s conclusions questionable. Even if the forward hadn’t poisoned the well for me, it’s clear when reading her suggestions of correlation equating proof that nothing concrete is available. The entire point of From Ritual to Romance is in the title. Weston makes the proclamation that the Grail legends have a common starting point in prehistorical vegetation rites. As she explains herself, these ancient cults celebrated Spring with pre-Christian rituals in order to please the gods and ensure fertility in the coming Summer. Is there concrete proof of these rituals? Kind of not really. She points to Greek and Roman gods which concerned the regrowth of vegetation in the Spring and basically asks “well where did these come from?” Her answer is people worshipping ancient vegetation gods and attributing the changing seasons to the supernatural, when then turned into the idea of gods. The line is then drawn from there to the stories of Gawain and Perceval and eventually the story is absorbed by the Church because that’s what they do. The Fisher King is then reminiscent of ancient rites where the local tribal leader was held responsible for the fertility of the fields. It all sounds great.

Weston’s conclusions are all reasonable extensions of what little we actually know about the time, but in the end it’s all speculation and correlation. That’s fine, because the reason I’m even talking about all of this is so I can understand a poem written hundreds of years after Chrétien de Troyes was writing his courtly romances. Eliot isn’t worried about the validity of Weston’s academic thesis. He’s interested in the story of the Grail, of the legend, and of the parallels to ancient vegetation rites. Eliot is writing about The Waste Land.

Eliot begins the poem with a stark image which borrows heavily from the ideas Weston brings forth about the Grail and vegetation rites. Sing along if you know it:

“April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.”

Look, we are way too early in the proceedings to go about the process of elucidating the entire poem. Yet this first little bit is immensely helped by even a cursory understanding of Weston’s book. Humanity is old. This is something that Eliot understood more deeply than any of his contemporaries, who were mostly motivated by trying to be new. The Moderns were all about breaking form and pushing boundaries. Many artists did this by also breaking from traditions and casting aside what came before. Not so T.S. Eliot. Yes, he broke form and created something utterly new. Look at that “verse” up there! It’s all syncopated and weird, the structure is all over the place and changes as the poem goes. And yet that strong first image is taken form the ancient vegetation rites, long forgotten.

Eliot’s genius is to illustrate our very human traditions, mostly literary but in this case ritualistic, and pull them screaming into the maddening, overwhelming, warp-speed present. The poem begins with a stark, vaguely unpleasant image of dead land and dull roots and shifts suddenly back to winter, warm and almost pleasant, and then surprising us with summer before shifting into a pleasant conversation with coffee and sunshine. After this, the poem turns hard and shows us two different Waste Lands. At some point the Fisher King shows up. Eliot weaves these ancient elements into the modern “Unreal City,” or London 1922, to draw the parallel between the old concept of a Waste Land with the Modern version. Physical descriptions of a dead land juxtaposed with the wasteland of modern human existence.

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