From Ritual to Romance – Review

Jessie L. Weston. From Ritual to Romance. Ed. Robert Kiesling. Project Gutenberg. 1919; May 2003. E-book. [N.B., references are Kindle positions, not pages]

I downloaded From Ritual to Romance because I thought it might help me appreciate T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land more. It did a little. It is an interesting book, though I am not sure that there is enough evidence to make a convincing case for the author’s overall thesis. However, the book does help us understand Eliot’s poems better and there are fascinating quotations from various myths. The last chapter probably has the most to offer to today’s researcher.

The basic thesis of From Ritual to Romance is this: What began as nature rituals to promote growth of crops in ancient cultures would become the foundation of the Holy Grail legends. The title sums it up.

Stories of men or gods brought back from death or grave illnesses if certain conditions are met can be found in many cultures. These include the Tammuz and Adonis cults of Babylon and Greece and include many rituals extending from India to Africa and, of course, Europe.

With the dead hero or disabled king comes weeping maidens and devastation to the land—what Weston calls the Waste Land. The rejuvenation of the hero or king or restoration of the rightful ruler is the only thing that can bring healing to the land and peace to its mournful population—and, of course, bring abundant crops.

In a number of these legends, according to Weston, the king who is dead or disabled is associated with the water, often a fisherman, hence the name Fisher King—a term used by Eliot in The Waste Land. A “Messianic fish meal” was adopted by Western Christians in the Middle Ages and became combined with older rituals. The Grail, then, which had been a sacred or magical vessel of some kind, becomes the Communion chalice.

One potential difficulty with the thesis is that while the author finds many parallels or similarities, does that mean that they are necessarily related? If they are, where did the “mystery cult” originate? Can someone come up with a “family tree” of sorts? The author ends up using an argumentum ad futuram—she says that the connections will become clear: “…the missing links will be in our hand, and we shall be able to weld once more the golden chain which connects Ancient Ritual with Medieval Romance.” (2053)

Towards the end, the author makes a few more concrete connections. She sees a connection with the Knights Templar—the actual historical Crusaders and kin who were persecuted out of existence in the 1300s—and the provenance of some of the Arthurian stories in England. Ian Wilson in his study The Shroud of Turin presents documentation that indicates the Knights were in possession of the Cloth of Edessa which had been stolen during the 1204 sack of Constantinople. That cloth, of course, has blood stains on it and would be associated with the blood of Jesus. Thirty-odd years ago when I was employed by the Shroud of Turin Research Project I recall a couple of the researchers talking of a connection with the Grail legend, but as far as I know, they never developed it.

While Weston sees the “addition” of the “lance and cup” to the vegetation myths as a late Christian addition to the story, more recent reports state that there are faint images of “instruments of crucifixion” on the Shroud including a spear that have faded over time (see, for example, Whanger and Whanger, The Shroud of Turin). There may be a more direct connection to the English or Norman Templars.

In the last chapter Weston makes a fairly persuasive case pointing to a twelfth century Welsh nobleman Bledri ap Cadivar (Latin Bledhericus) who, according to near contemporaries like Chretien de Troyes, first told the Arthur legends as we know them to the Norman invaders of England and Wales who recorded and adapted them.

Weston said she was hoping to “set forth elements that may prove of real value in study of the evolution of religious belief.” (111) To her it appears that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection was merely another variation of the Aryan vegetation myth. Eliot, though, was heading in a different direction.

Yes, his Waste Land was the decadent Western culture. He presents it mostly through narratives of people like Mme. Sosostris and the young man carbuncular. Ezra Pound was more blunt when he called the West “an old bitch gone in the teeth.” Pound saw a solution in a return to the old “Aryan” natural religion—as did Adolf Hitler, whom Pound supported.

Eliot, as noted elsewhere in this blog, saw a need for reviving the Fisher King to revive the Waste Land. He begs for mercy in Sanskrit but also asks who the third man walking to Emmaus is. A few years after The Waste Land, Eliot forsook his Unitarian roots and joined the Church of England. Like C. S. Lewis, who was even more enamored of Medieval Romance, at around the same time came to the conclusion that “it really happened once.” People long for life after death; Jesus demonstrated that it is real.

On another note, Weston at one point quotes a Medieval Romance of Owain Miles which tells that after that knight’s vision:

And right amidst that beam of light
He came up. Owain, God’s own knight,
By this knew every man
That he in Paradise had been,
And Purgatory’s pains had seen,
And was a holy man. (2164)

Those lines resemble the closing lines of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”:

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Can we prove a connection? Maybe someday…(smile)

2 thoughts on “From Ritual to Romance – Review”

  1. It did not take long to find the source of that rhyme about Owain. It is from the Medieval Scottish Auchinleck Manuscript that in 1740 came into possession of the father of James Boswell. However, the earliest publication date I could find was 1837, three years after Coleridge died. Unless he had somehow seen a copy or transcript of the MS, it is unlikely that it influenced him directly. For the entire poem see http://auchinleck.nls.uk/mss/patrick.html. The lines translated above are 1159-1163 on that page in the original Middle English.

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