Wagner - The King Of The Grail
( Originally Published 1894 )
IT was the last evening of the year. In honor of the occasion the little girl was allowed to sit up rather later than usual—not till midnight, of course, so that she could see how different the whole world would look after the clock had struck, but long enough to make her feel that she was doing something very pleasant, because something that it was not good for her to do very often. Our friends down by the sea had sent us a strange Christmas present, but they knew what we wanted. It was a big box of driftwood, almost a wagon-load. We resolved that it should not be used except on great occasions, and of course New Year's eve was a great occasion. Here in the city we could not listen in the evening stillness and catch the low murmur of the restless water, but the fire burned with the same strange and lovely colors as if it had been kindled on the beach. To-night it was not likely that we should see any storms or any ghostly ships, yet the little girl knew well enough that there were wonderful things to be seen in that fire.
" What can you see in it ? " I asked her.
" I don't want to see things myself," she said. " I want you to see them. Just think ; this is the last time we can have any stories about the fire this year."
" But the new year will begin to-morrow," I said, " and it will be just as good as the old one, will it not?"
" Oh, yes, I suppose so," she said, " but this has been such a nice year that I don't like to have it go. But now tell me what is in the fire."
" There are so many strange things in it that I scarcely know how to begin to tell you about them. I am very much afraid that I shall not make you understand all that I see in the fire to-night, and I am the more afraid of it because I am not at all sure that I can quite understand it all myself. But first the reddest and brightest spot in the whole fire begins to grow redder and brighter and to take a new shape. It is the shape of a goblet. It is of clear crystal and its sharp angles and edges sparkle with many colors, but within it that strange, deep red glows and shines and grows brighter still, till it beats and throbs as if it were alive. And all around it, too, there is a circle of soft rays of light, like a halo.
" Perhaps you know what this is, but I am afraid you don't. Do you remember what I told you once about the Holy Grail ? This is the Holy Grail—the cup from which the Saviour drank at the Last Supper, and in which afterwards His blood was caught as He hung upon the cross. It is that blood in the cup which is still alive and glows and beats and throbs. This Holy Grail, as I told you before, is guarded by a band of knights in a beautiful temple, which nobody can find except those whom the Grail itself has chosen and allowed to come. I can see the temple now. It has a high, light, graceful dome, which rests on tall pillars of marble that is like snow. The whole temple may be of something like snow, too, for it melts away so that I cannot see it and comes again, then half of it is gone and then the other half, so that I scarcely know whether I see it at all. Perhaps it is the smoke of the fire that makes it seem so. But I can see that the dome is all covered with figures and traceries of gold, which bloom out bright like flowers when-ever the whole dome looks plainest, and then fade again. But when the smoke comes across the whole picture and darkens it for a moment, then the lines upon the dome show through it like fire, and they change and waver, and then the whole temple is gone again.
" You remember something about the Grail's knights. The Knight of the Swan was one of them. They live here in the temple, except when they are sent away on some journey, to help some one who is in trouble, to do some act of justice, to fight for the right, or to punish the wrong. And whether they stay here or go as far away as they can, they never need any food except what the Grail gives them. The Grail chooses them at first, feeds them after-wards, and gives them their commands, for sometimes, in that halo that shines around it, there appear letters and words to tell the knights what they should know. And once a year, on Good Friday, a white dove flies into the temple and rests upon the Holy Grail, to give it more of these powers for the coming year.
" I see now a strange-looking man with a dark face and deep, bright eyes which seem never to rest, but always to look and search for something that they never find. Yet now and then a cruel light comes into them and makes them blaze for an instant, and his hard lips smile a little, and then his face grows stern and gloomy again. He is a wicked magician. Once he wanted to join the Knights of the Grail. He could even be their king, he thought. But the Grail chose its own knights and it did not choose him. Then he swore that he would be avenged upon the Grail knights ; he would tempt them away from the temple, he would overthrow them, he would find a way to steal the Grail itself. It was for this that he learned his magic. He built an enchanted castle not far from the Temple of the Grail and filled it with every kind of pleasure that he could devise. Then he tried to entice good knights to come to his castle, and if any knight came, if any stayed in the en-chanted halls to eat or drink or dance or play, that knight was lost forever. He could go back to his old friends and his old life no more, and his use in the world was ended.
"Again I see a woman—a woman yet more strange than this man. You will think so when I tell you who she is. You remember the wife of the King, whose daughter danced before the King and pleased him so much that he promised her any gift she should ask ; how the Queen told her to ask for the head of the great prophet, who was in prison, and how the head was cut off and brought to her. This woman whom I see was that Queen. The old stories say that she saw the Saviour as He passed, bearing His cross upon His back, and that she laughed at Him. He only looked at her sorrowfully and spoke no word. But al-ways from that time she was forced to wander through the world, and laugh at everything that was true and good. Can you think of anything more horrible ? After a long, weary time she wished that she might die, but still through all lands she journeyed, laughing at everything she saw that was sweet and pure and holy. The wish to die grew and grew till it was her only longing. But she could not die. For hundreds of years she has lived unchanged. Some say that she can never die or grow old till the best knight of all the world shall come and pardon her great sins. Others say that she must live till one comes whom she cannot tempt away by her beauty from the path he follows.
"For she is very beautiful. It is not the beauty of a common woman that she has, but something far beyond it. She can be tender, sweet, gentle, enticing, and then in an instant proud, defiant, radiant. Perhaps the wicked magician has given her some of this wonderful beauty by his magic, for she is in his power and helps him to entrap knights into his castle, where they lose all hope of returning to the life of the world and of doing good in it. She does not wish to do this, but the magician compels her. So always she must tempt and entice at his command the knights who come near his castle, and always she must long for one to come whom she cannot tempt, for then she will be free. The knights of the Grail are not the men for whom she waits. To tempt them is only too easy. Even their King cannot resist her.
" I see the King of the Grail now. He holds a spear in his hand that is almost as great and wonderful a thing as the Grail itself. From the point of the spear flows a little stream of blood. It trickles down the shaft of the spear to the King's hand that holds it, but the blood does not stain the hand ; it flows over it and leaves it clean and white. It is the very spear with which the Roman soldier wounded the side of the Saviour, and ever since that time the blood has run from its point. But the King has wandered too far away from the Temple of the Grail and too near the magician's enchanted castle. The magician sees him and sends the woman to try to bring him within his power. Such wonderful beauty as hers the King has never seen before. For one instant in looking at her he forgets to guard the spear; he lets it go from his hand, the magician seizes it and strikes the King with it in the side. He is borne back to the temple with just such a wound as that other which this same spear made so many years ago. And the magician has the spear. As he holds it the blood flows from its point and trickles down the shaft, and as it flows over his hand it stains it a deep, ugly red. He carries the spear to his castle. He has stolen this, and now he will wait on and watch for a chance to steal the Grail.
" And the wound in the King's side will not heal. All that can be done with medicines and balsams and ointments is done, but they are of no use. Many years pass—yes, just while we are looking into the fire—and still the wound is the same, still it burns and stings, and still it bleeds again whenever the King uncovers the Grail so that it may feed the knights who are in the temple and help those who are far away. Some wounds, some sicknesses, the Grail itself can cure, but it cannot cure this, or it will not. Yet once, while the King knelt before it, he saw words that shone like fire in the halo around it, and they said : ` Wait for the simple Fool, taught by pity, for him I have chosen.' Perhaps you do not see quite what that means. Well, I don't think the King quite knows what it means either, but he knows that he has something to wait for, and that is better than knowing nothing at all about it. That was years ago, and still the wound burns and stings, and still it bleeds when the King uncovers the Grail.
" When we look into the fire we can go back through the years just as well as forward. So now, going back for a little while and far away from the Temple of the Grail, I see something very different from what we have seen before. I see a boy who lives with his mother in a forest. His father was a knight and was killed in battle. His mother feared that when he grew up he would want to be a knight too, and would be killed in the same way, so she brought him here to the forest and kept him away from the great world where men live and work and fight, and never let him know anything about knights or battles or tournaments or the courts of kings. She lets him learn to shoot with a bow as he grows up, and to hunt the beasts of the woods. He can hit any bird that flies with his arrows, and he runs so fast that he can catch the deer by the horns.
" Yet he does not know that men wear armor and fight with spears and swords, and he has never heard of an army or a battle. Perhaps he may be almost enough of a simple fool about these things to help the King of the Grail."
" I don't think he was a fool at all," said the little girl, " if his mother wouldn't let him hear anything about such things."
" I think," I answered, " that the letters around the Grail could not have meant quite what we mean by a fool. The Grail would not choose any such person, I am sure. They must have meant some one who was good and simple and had not learned the ways of the world. And then you know the letters said, ` taught by pity,' so I suppose he is to be a fool at all only till he is ' taught by pity.' Well, the mother might have known that she could not keep her boy in this ignorance forever, and so one day he meets three knights riding through the forest. He is filled with wonder and delight at their polished armor, their waving plumes, and their long spears, with their glittering points. He asks them who they are and what all these wonderful things are for. They tell him that they are knights, and everything else that he wants to know, and then he runs home to his mother and tells her that he wants to go away and see the world and be a knight too.
" She tries to tell him that knights are wicked men, but he will not believe it, and he begs her to let him go. She sees that she cannot keep him, that all her care has been lost, and at last she says that he may go. He has no armor, but perhaps he may get that some time. He takes his bow and his arrows and wanders away through the forest, and his mother looks after him till she can see no more through her tears.
" We are back near the Temple of the Grail now. I see a beautiful, deep forest. An old knight and two young squires are lying on a green bank and are just awaking at the sound of trumpets from the temple. They are scarcely awake when a strange creature is seen coming toward them. It is a woman upon a galloping horse. And the horse is strange enough too. Its mane is so long that it drags upon the ground, and then the wind catches it and blows it about till the horse looks like a hurrying black cloud, and its eyes show through the cloud like flashes of lightning. The woman's eyes sometimes are deep and full of fire, and sometimes they look dull and cold, almost dead. She is not beautiful. She has a dark face, burned as if she had travelled much under hot suns. Her long black hair is in disorder and flies all about her in the wind. Her dress is in disorder too, and it is fastened around the waist by a girdle of snake skin, with long ends that hang down to the ground. Everything about her looks wild and terrible. She is a woman whom you would not care to meet on a lonely road after dark and on a horse like this. Yet if you looked at her face more closely you would not find any-thing cruel in it, but you would find a great deal of sorrow and suffering.
" You can never guess who this woman is, so I must tell you. She is the very same who helps the wicked magician to entice knights into his castle. She looks very different now, to be sure, but it is a strange life that she leads altogether. It is only when she is asleep that the magician has power over her. When she is awake she tries to atone a little for her great sins by serving the Holy Grail. She rides all over the world and brings news of battles or messages from knights of the Grail who are in distant countries, or she stays here and finds work to do at home. But always, because of her curse, she laughs, even at the good that she herself tries to do. And at last the longing for rest comes upon her again till she cannot resist it. She sinks to sleep, and then the magician calls her. She is forced to obey him, he gives her back that wonderful beauty, and she helps him in his wicked work.
" Now she has been all the way to Arabia to find a balsam for the King's wound. She gives it to the old knight, in a little flask, and then throws herself upon the ground to rest. At the same time there comes a train of knights, bearing the King of the Grail in a litter toward the lake for his morning bath. He thanks the woman for bringing the balsam, but she only laughs at what she has done and at his thanks. It will do him no good, she says. Alas, he knows too well that it will do him none. Nobody can do him good but the simple Fool, taught by pity. And so they carry him on to his bath.
" The old knight stays behind. ` Why should we try all these things,' he thinks again, ` when none can help him but the simple Fool?' At this instant a swan flies up from the lake and then suddenly flutters and falls upon the ground. There is an arrow through its heart. Every-body who sees it cries out in horror, for it is one of the laws of this place that no animal shall be harmed. What man cruel enough to kill this beautiful, harmless swan can have found his way here, where none can come who is not chosen by the Grail ? In a moment some squires run in, bringing the murderer of the swan. He is scarcely a man at all, hardly more than a boy, and he carries a bow and arrow. It is the same boy whom we saw living in the woods with his mother. The old knight looks at him sorrow-fully. ' Did you kill this poor bird?' he asks.
"' Yes, to be sure,' says the young man, ' I can hit anything.'
" The old knight talks with him kindly and tells him how wrong it is to kill harmless things. His mother never taught him that. She only tried to keep him from knowing any-thing about knights. The old man makes him see how cruel he has been, and at last the boy throws away his arrows and breaks his bow. Now the knight asks him who he is, whence he comes, and who was his father, but he can answer nothing. Indeed, he knows little enough of these things, for his mother never told him. His mother and the life that he led with her in the forest are all that he can remember to tell the old knight. Even of his mother and of his old life the strange woman who lies upon the grass can tell more than he, for she has seen him and his mother often, though they did not see her, and she laughs at the poor woman who thought she could keep her son from ever knowing anything of arms and battles. She tells him, too, that his mother is dead ; she saw her die as she passed, because he had left her. The boy is moved at last, frightened, bewildered. He never knew anybody but his mother; she was his only friend ; she taught him all he ever learned ; and she is dead be-cause of him. What shall he do now ?
" The King and his train come back again from the lake and pass on toward the temple. The woman feels the terrible weariness coming upon her again. She struggles against it, but it is of no use. She sinks upon the ground behind the low bushes and sleeps. The magician can have her now if he wants her, and surely he will want her.
"The old knight has been watching the boy. `Can it be,' he thinks, ` that this is the Fool, taught by pity, for whom we were to wait?' That he is a fool the old man thinks is clear enough, but how could he kill the swan? He cannot have been taught very much by pity. But perhaps the time for that has not come yet, and surely he could not get here at all if the Grail had not chosen him in some way. Perhaps if he sees the King, so pale and sick with his wound, and knows how he has suffered with it these many years, he may be moved to pity and may learn some needful things. So the old knight leads him gently away toward the Temple of the Grail.
" They walk through the forest and among the rocks, and as they go there comes to them a sound of chimes. It grows clearer as they go on, till they reach the temple, and then it is over their heads. They are in a grand, beautiful hall that is something like a church, but not quite. There are tall pillars and arches, and high above everything is the dome, so high that, as one looks up into it, its loftiest curves seem dim and misty and the eye loses itself in trying to see how high it is. Yet all the light of the great hall streams down from there, and down from there too comes the sound of the bells.
" The knights of the Grail are coming into the hall and sitting at two tables, long and curved, so that they make a great circle just under the dome. On the tables before them are cups, but nothing else. As the knights come they sing in chorus, and voices up in the dome and others still higher answer their song, while from the height far above them all still rings the soft voice of the chimes. And now the King of the Grail is borne in upon his couch and is brought to the highest place in the hall. Before him something is carried covered with purple cloth. It is the Holy Grail itself, and the time has come when it must be uncovered, that it may feed and strengthen its knights.
" But the King fears. It is when the Grail is uncovered and when it does so much good to all the others, that his wound always bleeds again and the pain of it is most terrible. Perhaps you think he is not very brave to delay what he knows he must do, but only think of that dreadful wound that can never be cured but by the one who is so long in coming ; yes, think of the slow, weary years that he has waited for the simple Fool, and you will not wonder that it is a terrible thing to him to uncover the Grail again. But the voices up in the dome still sing the promise: ` Wait for the simple Fool, taught by pity, for him I have chosen.' The knights gently bid their King do his duty. He makes a sign to the boys who have brought the Grail. They uncover it and place it in his hand. Everything else in the hall grows dim, while one clear ray of light falls from the dome straight upon the Grail, and the red blood that is in it shines through the crystal of the goblet as if it were a light itself.
" A feeling of peace and gladness comes upon all, even upon the King. But now the Grail grows dimmer. The boys cover it again and the old light comes slowly back into the hall. All the cups on the tables are filled with wine, and beside each one is a piece of bread. It is thus that the Holy Grail feeds its knights. But the King does not eat, and suddenly he grows paler and presses his hand to his side.
His wound is bleeding again and his squires quickly carry him away. The knights leave the hall too. The old knight is still watching the boy. If he is the Fool that was promised, if he is to be taught by pity, surely he must pity the poor King and he will ask something about him, why he suffers so, or what is his wound. But the old knight waits and the boy says nothing. ` Do you know what you have seen?' the knight asks. The boy only shakes his head. Then he has not been moved at all ; he does not pity. ` Begone,' says the knight, ` you are good for nothing,' and he sends him away and is alone. And still from the dome, far up and out of sight, comes the chiming of the bells. If the old man could hear it right, surely it would say to him again : ` Wait for the simple Fool, taught by pity, for him I have chosen.'
"The Temple of the Grail is gone now. We are in the castle of the wicked magician. He has been thinking too of the young man—the boy—the Fool, who was at the Temple of the Grail, and he knows more about him than the poor old knight. He knows that if he is ever to steal the Holy Grail, as he so long has hoped to do, he must get this Fool into his power, of all people in the world. He has a magic mirror in which he can see him. He sees that he has left the Temple of the Grail and is coming nearer his own castle.
" Now he needs the help of the woman, the woman who is sleeping and cannot resist him. He lights a magic fire„ right there where you see that blue flame in our own fire, he speaks magic words, and the woman rises out of the very blue flame itself, and stands before him. But how different she is from that woman we saw among the Grail knights ! She had no beauty then. Now it is radiant, burning, blinding. All that might make the beauty of a hundred women—the pride, the tenderness, the stateliness, the modesty, the fierceness, the gentleness, the rounded form, the glowing color, the waves of hair, the deep eyes, now flashing and fiery, and now soft and dewy—are hers. The magician smiles as he sees her. With her to help him, what can he not do ? He tells her whom she is to entice into his power. She will not do it, she says. He reminds her that if she cannot entice the Fool she will herself be saved from all her wanderings and her weary life. He need not remind her of anything. She can-not resist him any more than she could resist the sleep that came upon her. What he commands she must do.
" Still the magician sees the boy approaching. He calls to the knights of the castle to defend it against him. They run out in a crowd to meet the Fool. He snatches weapons from the foremost of them and fights them all at once.
Some he wounds and all he drives before him, for the knights that are in the magician's power quickly grow to be cowards. Not all of them together can keep him back.
"And now I see the garden of the castle. It is full of big, gay-colored, gorgeous flowers. They trail along the ground, they cluster upon the terraces, they climb upon the walls of the castle and of the garden, and they clutch at the ramparts and twine and twist about them. I suppose I must say that they are beautiful flowers, but they are not of the sort that I like. Anybody can see that there is magic about them. The earth and the water, the air and the sunshine, never would make such flowers. It might not be easy to say why, but just a single look at them is enough to make one feel sure that they are all poisonous. On the wall of the garden, with a sword in his hand, stands the Fool, looking down into it and wondering at the flowers. There were none in the least like these in the forest where he lived with his mother, and none about the Temple of the Grail.
"But what is this more wonderful sight still that he sees? Are the flowers alive, and are they running about and playing together? It is a crowd of girls, with queer, bright colored gowns that make them look for all the world like the huge flowers of the garden. They have just run out of the castle and they are all in confusion, and are crying and complaining because the knights, who were their play-fellows, have been beaten and wounded. Who is he that has done it? Where is he? If they could find him they would tear him all to little bits, you would think. And then they do find him. There he stands on the wall, looking down at them and wondering. And when he says that he will play with them instead of the knights, they forget all about everybody but him in a moment, and instead of quarrelling with him or trying to punish him for wounding their knights, they only quarrel with one an-other, because every one of them wants him all for herself.
" He has come down from the wall and they all gather around him, chattering and struggling for him. He does not seem to care half so much for them as they do for him, and when he sees that they will do nothing but quarrel about him he turns to go away again, but a voice calls him and tells him to stay. He turns again and stops, and all the living flowers run away, chattering and laughing at him. The voice that called him was the woman's. He is bewildered when he sees her. He has never seen such beauty before, any more than you or I ever have. For an instant he thinks that she is another of the strange flowers of this strange garden. Yet her beauty does not seem to move him very much. Perhaps that is because he is a Fool.
" But she speaks to him not at all as the other living flowers did. At first she makes him remember the old years when he was with his mother, how she cared for him in everything, and how she tried to keep him from knowing those things which she dreaded that he should learn. Then she tells him again how she died when he had left her. This, she thinks, with what she is to say next, may move him, and in-deed it does, but not as she meant that it should. The great sorrow for his mother comes upon him again, and stronger than when he heard first that she was dead. He weeps now and throws himself upon the ground, and nothing can comfort him.
"The woman tries to console him now. She tells him that if he will but stay he may have all the pleasures of the magician's castle, and she will love him, she, the most beautiful woman in the whole world. But he does not heed her, the Fool—he is thinking of other things. He remembers the King and his wound. So much he remembers that he almost feels the wound in himself. And as the woman bends above him there comes another thought. Nobody has ever told him, yet somehow now he knows, that it was she who tempted the King when he got that wound, just as she tries to tempt him now. I think that it is his own great sorrow that has made him know something of what another's sorrow must be, and when he has remembered the King and has felt the wound himself, all this has helped him to see and to know much more. Perhaps this is the way that he is ` taught by pity.'
" The woman cannot move him more, cannot tempt him, but now the magician himself stands on the wall of the castle with the spear in his hand. The blood still flows from the point and trickles down the shaft to his hand and stains it that deep, ugly red. He poises the spear a moment and then hurls it at the Fool. But it will not strike him. It stops above his head and hangs in the air. The Fool lifts his hand and grasps the spear. The blood from its point runs down the shaft and over his hand, and leaves it clean and white. He only shakes the spear in his hand, and the castle and the garden tremble and fall, as the fire here falls together, and they are gone.
" Once more we are near the Temple of the Grail. The place is at the edge of woods which reach away in one direction, while in the other are fields and meadows. It is spring, and the green of the trees is fresh and light, and the fields are covered with flowers. They are not like the flowers of that magic garden. Their bright little cups hold cool drops of dew, and the air is full of their perfume. The old knight is here. He has heard a sound like a groan from the little thicket of low bushes and brambles at the border of the wood. He searches, and brings out a woman—the same woman. She is still asleep, but in a moment she slowly awakes. She is no longer beautiful. She is out of the magician's power now, even if he is not buried under his ruined castle. She is ready to serve the Grail.
" The Grail ! Alas! nobody serves the Grail now. The poor King, since that last time when the Fool saw him uncover the Grail, will touch it no more. He fears too much the pain of his wound. It cannot feed or help its knights now, and they cannot go any more to carry help into far-off lands. But to-day the King has promised that he will uncover it for one last time, for this is Good Friday, when the dove comes to renew the power of the Grail.
" While the old knight and the woman stand here, another comes toward them. He is a knight in black armor, with his helmet closed, and carrying a spear. ' Do you not know,' the old knight asks him, ' what holy day this is, and that none now should come here bearing arms ?' The black knight only shakes his head. He sets his spear in the ground and kneels before it, taking off his helmet and gazing up at the point, from which the blood flows. The old knight looks at him and at the spear in wonder. Then he sees the blood, and by that he knows what spear it is. He looks again at the knight, with his helmet off, and now he knows him too. He is filled with a joy that he has not known these many years. Yes, the sorrows of the King and of the knights of the Grail are over now. This is indeed ` the simple Fool, taught by pity,' this is he whom the Grail has chosen.
" And now there comes the soft sound of the chimes to tell them that it is time for them to go to the temple to see the Grail uncovered. The old knight leads the way and the others follow. Through the woods and along the rocky pathways they walk, the sound of the bells grows plainer, and so they come to the temple. The hall is filled with the knights of the Grail. The King is borne in as he was be-fore, and is brought to the highest place. The Holy Grail is carried before him with its purple cover. They all look at the King and wait for him. For a moment he wavers, then he springs from his couch—no, no, he will not uncover the Grail again ; let him die rather ; let them kill him, and then the Grail shall feed them and bless them, and shall torture him no more.
" They all draw back from him in dread at his look and his words—all but one. For the Fool goes straight to him and touches the wound with the spear. Instantly the wound is healed. 'You shall uncover the Grail no more,' he says, ` for I am chosen to be its King instead of you.' He makes a sign to the boys who have brought it, and they uncover it and place it in his hand. He holds it above his head and again the red blood in it glows and throbs. Down from the dome flies a white dove and rests above it. Before it, and before him who holds it, kneel the old King, no longer king now, the old knight, and the woman, for her too this new King has saved, for he has come, the best knight of the world and one whom she could not tempt. The simple Fool is the King of the Grail. The sound of the singing voices comes down from the dome, and from far above them come still the voices of the bells. Surely to any who could know how to hear it their chiming must say again: Taught by pity—him I have chosen.' "