Friday, January 08, 2010

Grail Quest

Laura has encouraged me to post some excerpts from Joseph Campbell, so here goes:

During the early 70s I was deeply affected by Joseph Campbell’s massive four-volume opus, The Masks of God. My favorite was Volume Four, Creative Mythology. From the book I came to understand key elements of my own life. I came to understand that my own self-actualization process, which seemed, as often as not, to lurch sideways or backwards or to not move at all, was in fact a Grail Quest. Everything is mythological, we are all legendary, nothing is “ordinary” – how could it possibly be?

Reading Campbell can be challenging to those not used to his long sentences. But I love the concept-music he makes. At his best, he’s like Bach playing a fugue on the organ.

Here’s a choice nugget from Creative Mythology where he talks about the Grail Quest, and the possible consequences of living an individual life:


In the marvelous thirteenth-century legend called La Queste del Saint Graal, it is told that when the knights of the Round Table set forth, each on his own steed, in quest of the Holy Grail, they departed separately from the castle of King Arthur. “And now each one,” we are told, “went the way upon which he had decided, and they set out into the forest at one point and another, there where they saw it to be thickest” (la ou il la volent plus espresse); so that each, entering of his own volition, leaving behind the known good company and table of Arthur’s towered court, would experience the unknown pathless forest in his own heroic way.

Today the walls and towers of the culture-world that then were in the building are dissolving; and whereas heroes then could set forth of their own will from the known to the unknown, we today, willy-nilly, must enter the forest la ou nos la voions plus espresse: and, like it or not, the pathless way is the only way now before us.

But of course, on the other hand, for those who can still contrive to live within the fold of a traditional mythology of some kind, protection is still afforded against the dangers of an individual life; and for many the possibility of adhering in this way to established formulas is a birthright they rightly cherish, since it will contribute meaning and nobility to their unadventured lives, from birth to marriage and it duties and, with the gradual failure of powers, a peaceful passage of the last gate. For, as the psalmist sings, “Steadfast love surrounds him who trusts in the Lord” (Psalm 32:10); and to those for whom such protection seems a prospect worthy of all sacrifice, an orthodox mythology will afford both the patterns and the sentiments of a lifetime of good repute.

However, by those to whom such living would not be life, but anticipated death, the circumvallating mountains that to others appear to be of stone are recognized as of the mist of dream, and precisely between their God and Devil, heaven and hell, white and black, the man of heart walks through. Out beyond those walls, in the uncharted forest night, where the terrible wind of God blows directly on the questing undefended soul, tangled ways may lead to madness. They may also lead, however, as one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages tells, to “all those things that go to make heaven and earth.”