Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Quest for the Holy Grail

One of the main purposes of a multi-year reading list is to assure getting to those things “that I need to read Someday.” My plan is a way of making sure Someday comes. April showers brought with them a couple of long books that had been waiting for Someday a long time indeed.

The first “biography” of King Arthur appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth, ca. 1136. Not much of the familiar legend is there: Geoffrey puts Arthur in his list of regum Brittaniæ, but he concentrates in this section of his chronicle on a long prophecy by Merlin. A fellow named Wace added the Round Table to the picture around 1155. Between 1170 and 1190, Chrétien de Troyes added the Grail (which he called simply a “holy object”), Camelot, and Lancelot. Robert de Boron made the Grail a vessel of the Last Supper and put it in the hands of Joseph of Arimathea. In the early thirteenth century, the lengthy Lancelot-Grail cycle, a collection of stories in the French language by multiple writers, first puts everything together. In April, I read the Lancelot-Grail Reader, a collection (and translation) of the main stories from this collection.

I’ve been on my own quest the last few years: to read the Arthurian sources written before Malory and try to find some missing information. The biggest question in my mind is this: What is the purpose of the Grail Quest? The Grail appears above the Round Table one Pentecost, and Arthur and all the knights accept the apparition as an invitation to a quest. So how do they know the event announces a quest? All vow to “achieve” the quest. What does that mean? How do they intend to do it? What is their goal? It can’t be that they simply want to see the actual Grail: several knights have been to the castle of Corbenic and seen it before this time, so the fellowship of knights doesn’t need a vision to know what to see and where to go. We have to assume that God has brought this quest; what is his purpose? To get Galahad to Corbenic so that he can heal the Fisher King? Apparently the knights don’t understand this since every last one of them wants to try. Talk about your riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas! (Poor Arthur. He knows that the Grail is the best and most holy object in the world, yet he also knows that the unavoidable quest means the end of the Round Table. Don’t let it be forgot that there was once a spot . . . .)

Sadly, the Lancelot-Grail Cycle doesn’t explain any of this conundrum. At some point in history – possibly in the history of French religious thought in the thirteenth century or possibly even in what little of actual history makes its way into the Arthurian legend – a connection existed that made sense to people. If the Holy Grail appeared to me and filled my plate with food, I would be amazed and grateful and frightened and suspicious and a hundred other things, but I don’t think it would ever spontaneously occur to me that the phenomenon was an invitation to get up from my table and look for the original of the shadow I’d just seen. So my quest continues.

Almost a thousand years and a full thousand figurative miles separate the medieval tales of King Arthur and the science-fiction tales of Isaac Asimov. But both represent quests. The Complete Robot collects all of Asimov’s stories about robots (rather obvious, no?) and sets the reader off on a journey into a future that Asimov spins out over more than a dozen novels in three interwoven series. The robot collection has few weak members and no duds. My favorite involves a computer programmed to search (Asimov’s prescient view of) the internet for the programmer’s perfect woman. The crafty machine, though, made to think like its maker after all, naturally sees the woman it locates as perfect for itself, gets its programmer fired, and then waits for the arrival of its new mistress. Oh, the stroke of her fingers on my keyboard!

Here we find a third quest: the Quest for the Future. And I have as many questions about this quest as I do about the Grail. What is the future that Asimov, readers, tech gurus, and computer users are seeking? It now seems that Asimov was exactly right in predicting that it has something to do with computers and robots. But who will use them and to what end? And what are we to think of the ultimate potential of computers and robots? Will they be beneficent aids to a world of progressing happiness? Will they simply take away (and help tyrants take away) our freedom to pursue happiness? Or is the digital future like the Grail: something so good it will break society apart forever?

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