18 April 2018

Candles of the Grail, Candles of the Corpses

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery


Recently I've been reading Richard Barber's The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, and the other day I came across an intriguing passage. Barber is speaking of Wauchier's Second Continuation of Chrétien's Story of the Grail.  In doing so, he quotes from Wauchier (of which I have not yet seen a copy, but it will soon be in the mail):
Percival encounters the Grail without knowing it when he sees five lights like candles in the forest at the dead of night, 'so bright and clear that it seemed that the great, dense forest was lit up and blazing with their light on every side.' He learns the next day that this was a sign of the presence of the Grail....
(Barber, 32)
What caught my attention was the combination of Percival's quest to attain the Grail and the lights he sees in a wilderness. They find a mirror image parallel in the 'candles of corpses' Frodo, Sam, and Gollum see in the Dead Marshes on his quest to lose a treasure:

'What is to be my quest? Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one, and not return, as far as I can see.’ 
(FR 1.iii.66)
Presently it grew altogether dark: the air itself seemed black and heavy to breathe. When lights appeared Sam rubbed his eyes: he thought his head was going queer. He first saw one with the corner of his left eye, a wisp of pale sheen that faded away; but others appeared soon after: some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles; here and there they twisted like ghostly sheets unfurled by hidden hands. But neither of his companions spoke a word. 
(TT 4.ii.627)
In the one scene the candles light a nightmare of evil and a sorcerous illusion, in the other a blessed vision of darkness banished by the real presence of the Grail. Did Tolkien know this scene in Wauchier? It's not unreasonable to suppose that he did, but I have yet to find any proof. A curious parallel is all it may be, but worth noting nonetheless. 

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