Our literature roots in fables and myths as old as hominid consciousness. We’ve been telling this story for a long time. Modernity has erased most of our conscious connection to this long history but we yet cannot free ourselves from it. We dream, we wild, we write strange poems, still feeling the chill of awe as if we had stepped through darkness into a vast torchlit cavern painted with horses and boars.
In the last challenge, we looked at the hero’s journey, asking if those old steps might be the next work of modernity. We do so because the King is wounded or dead. There is a fish-sized wound in the groin. Healing is called for, but what collective physic might there be.
Let’s turn the next challenge toward something more personal and individual. Let’s talk poetry. We have wandered into a s wood seeking the truest nature of our hearts. (Why else write poems?) Along the way there have been many encounters and trials. We write about our origins, our families, our nights of abandon and education in the old texts We write about love and work, about music and landscape and death.
Eventually we come to this place in the middle of the woods not on any mortal map: An eerie ruined chapel surrounded by overgrowth. Or it’s a graveyard where ghosts lament unconsecrated ground. Hackles immediately raise on our flesh as there is the foreboding of immense mortal (perhaps immortal) peril.
Jesse Weston gives us this scene in From Ritual to Romance, a literate and mythical analysis of Grail legends from a century ago:
Such an adventure befalls Gawain on his way to the Grail Castle. He is overtaken by a terrible storm, and coming to a Chapel, standing at a crossways in the middle of a forest, enters for shelter. The altar is here, with no cloth or covering, nothing but a great golden candlestick with a tall taper burning within it. Behind the altar is a window, and as Gawain looks a Hand, black and hideous, comes through the window, and extinguishes the taper, while a voice makes lamentation loud and dire, beneath which the very building rocks. Gawain’s horse shies in terror, and the knight, making the sign of the Cross, rides out of the Chapel to find the storm abated, and the great wind was calm and clear.
Weston tells us “special stress is laid on this adventure, as being part of ‘the secret of the Grail,’ of which no man or woman may speak without grave danger. She went on to suggest that the tale was probably the survival of an ancient ritual in temple located somewhere in North Britain. (Some have pointed to Glastonbury, where the Perilous Throne is located; a black stone from Iona was placed under it, and it was said that it would cry out when only a true king sat down.)
Treasures hardest to attain are hidden in deep vaults, buried in the Earth, resting at the bottom of oceans or atop unsurpassable mountains: and the gates of wonder are guarded by penultimate peril, the seventh labor which no mere mortal has ever mastered. How deep the loam of bones of past heroes, former attempts to wrest crown from sleeping dragon. (It was written that a hundred knights had failed the Perilous Chapel before Gawain.)
And what a cry (or sigh) issues when our fumbling hands strike gold …
Getting through the perilous chapel is an essential harrow prior to wonder: there is not avoiding it or getting around it. We are told the Secret of the Grail is intimate with that chamber. The finished poem—the real one which parts the gates of wonder—must survive all its drafts.
For Joseph Campbell, the Grail romances marked a transition from medieval to modern consciousness, from the authority of the church to imperatives of the capitalist ego. Desire got us there. “Of all the modes of experience by which the individual might be carried away from the safety of well-trodden grounds to the danger of the unknown,” he writes in Creative Mythology, the mode of feeling, the erotic, was the first to awaken Gothic man from his childhood slumber in authority.”
Weston (and many other) consider the sources of the Grail romances to be pre-Christian, survivals of religions dating back to the Neolithic. They were certainly heretic; that they survived at all speaks much for the daring of these late medieval poets. That they were so embraced by the late Middle Ages says people were yearning for something more than the ossified practices of the Church.
We are at a moment when what sprang from that Grail Castle—a worldly, modern capitalist world—has become as old and sterile as the Church it once quested a way around. Remember, the Fisher King is wounded or dead and only acting as if mortally wounded; he was said to have been as old as Christ and lingered only for the physic of the one true Knight’s healing. (Gawain, the one perfect knight to attain the Grail, was a medicine man as well, the most learned in the ways of herb and physic.) Will this moment of pandemic – an enchantment as weird as what animates the Perilous Chapel—allow an old extractionist and gold-grabbing impulse to die and be properly buried?
Last week’s challenge looked at the hero’s quest out from modernity. If such a quest is still possible, then is there still a Perilous Chapel we must harrow through to get to the treasure?
This week’s challenge is about finding that Chapel and a way through it. Where have you found it, what perils did you endure, how is it linked to the Grail you seek? What is that poetry? And what initiation is required to transform modernity into Earthdom?
I can think of many ways into this challenge:
- What of peril and its boon? Was there a darkest episode in your story which was also most defining of renewed life?
- Are we in a perilous chapel of 21st Century flame burning ever further out of control?
- What happened to the men’s and women’s mysteries? Have they truly been lost, or is their grail just beneath the surface of our learned manias?
- If Trumpism is a Saturnalia—a feast of monied fools—then what is the festival which marks the vigor and promise of purged New Year? Is it a pandemic’s witchy stillness and brute transformations?
- Where are the crossroads of awe and awfulness in your work?
Anything else suggestive of that chapel and/or harrowing is welcome, too.
Some of you might know that my blog Oran’s Well takes its name from one such perilous chapel. That story:
Back in 563 AD when Saint Columba sailed from Ireland to the island of Iona (off the southwest coast of Scotland) to found his abbey of mission and learning, work on the abbey footers was disturbed each night by a vicious storm which tore down the days work. Columba decides to vigil by the site, and after midnight a half-woman, half fish comes up out of the sea and tells him that a primal being had been disturbed by the cutting of Iona’s sward. To appease this energy, a man must be buried alive and standing up in the chapel footers. St. Oran volunteers, steps down into a gaping hole and covered over. That night no storm arrives, and work on the abbey continues. Three days later, Columba wishes to look upon the face of his dead friend and brother and has his monks disinter Oran’s face.
Suddenly Oran’s eyes pop open and the mouth speaks terribly: Everything you say of heaven and earth and God and man is WRONG: In fact, the way you think it is isn’t the way it is at all!” Horrified, Columba bids his monks cover Oran posthaste, crying “Mud! Mud back over Oran’s mouth lest he blab no more!” The living dead monk was silenced and Iona abbey went on to become one of the jewels of the dark ages, copying manuscripts and carrying the message of the Church brought to pagan Scotland.
Perhaps oddly—and perhaps in recognition of the dire transit to truth—Columba made Oran the tutelary saint of the abbey’s graveyard, saying that no man could access the angels of Iona but through him.
Maybe that’s a lot to ponder, but all I write quests in the mantle of those words—for better or verse. Somehow it feels that work—a voyage to many themes and islands—is still earnestly in search of the secret to everlasting life.
I grow to suspect that magic island is the poem done well enough. I hate to keep going back to Rilke, but his poetry suffices a century after he died. He was old and failing, living in a patron’s house, Castel Muzot in Switzerland, struggling to finish his Elegies when he was swept up by “a hurricane of the spirit” and found more than enough words for the ache which overarched all his work. The Sonnets to Orpheus came at him so fast he said they were not so much written as transcribed.
I’ve always loved Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the 13th Sonnet from the Second Book:
Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.
Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song.
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days,
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.
Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin,
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration,
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.
To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb
creatures in the world’s full reserve, the unsayable sums,
joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.
Shall we quest then, and harrow the many faces and places of this Perilous Chapel?