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The Healing Integrity of Love

BY Bradley Olson August 15, 2021

Parcival arrives at the Grail Castle, to be greeted by the Fisher King. From a 1330 manuscript of Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes. Artist unknown. Public Domain.

Our featured volume this month in the MythBlast Series is Joseph Campbell’s Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth. There is much to like about this lovely volume as it contains, to quote Zorba the Greek, “everything. The full catastrophe.” But for now, I’m mostly curious to look at the way suffering and healing is treated in the Arthurian Romances and, by extension, in mythology in general.  

The Arthurian Romances aren’t merely legends or literary works; taken as a whole, they form an entire chivalric age. This age seems increasingly distant or fanciful to contemporary readers, an epic period in which honor and nobility, truthfulness and fidelity, call forth a wondrous, enchanted world. It teems with extravagantly impossible challenges which are, in the end, made possible. Contradiction and confusion are baked into the Grail legends; they operate in this literature much in the same way consciousness itself operates, teaching the reader that what is omitted, what is left out or repressed, always returns to unsettle every settled interpretation, no matter how monolithic it may at first seem.

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Romance of the Grail.

Initial failure is a necessary feature of the grail quest, and that’s why the Grail hero is inevitably a callow, naïve, inexperienced youth; a beginner in over his head. The beginner’s mind is of the utmost importance because for a beginner there are a multitude of possibilities, while for an expert, there are few. Because beginners often fail, they must remain open to constant questioning, improvisation, and revision—qualities that are indispensable when dealing with phenomena that can never be fully known or adequately represented by human—all-too-human—beings. Professor Campbell puts it this way: 

“The goal of the Grail hero is to heal that wound, but he is to do so without knowing how he is to do so. He is to be a perfect innocent, not to know the rules of the quest, and he is to ask spontaneously, ‘What is the matter?’”

Romance of the Grail, 26

The quest begins in earnest only after the hero has failed in his first, unintentional visit to the Grail Castle and commits to returning to it once again in order to, as Jessie Weston puts it, fulfill “the conditions which shall qualify him to obtain a full knowledge of the marvels he has beheld.” (The Quest of the Holy Grail, 45) Epistemological narcissism, unreflected certainty, and dogma snuffs out innocence and provokes the Grail Castle to disappear even farther into the metaphysical mists. 

Fully immersed in the initiatory situation, the innocent quester is progressively introduced to suffering, his own and that of others. Suffering is among the most important symbols in the Grail Romances. Arthurian Romances and mythology in general are not very prescriptive when it comes to disease and physical suffering. Rather, myth largely focuses on learning to see through our physical suffering to the spiritual malaise that afflicts us. When the soul suffers, the body cries out.  

The Grail King suffers from a parmi les cuisses, and his suffering is directly related to the wasting away of all that he oversees. This phrase, parmi les cuisses (literally meaning among the thighs), is a euphemism for a wound to the genitals. This association has its roots in a belief, shared by many cultures in antiquity, that semen was produced in several places in the body, including the marrow of the thigh bone, and the thigh’s proximity to the testicles resulted in a close association between thighs and the male genitalia. It is, however, crucial to remember that there are always two orders or levels to consider when reading myth: the lower order deals with the more literal aspects of material existence, the creative principles of fertility and generation, choice and action, and physical birth and death. The higher order deals with the mysteries of spiritual renewal and revivification, and spiritual death and rebirth. A wound to the genitalia is, from this perspective, very different from the cringe-inducing image of a physical wound. 

For example, both Odysseus and Captain Ahab suffer from parmi les cuisses. Odysseus has a scar on his thigh where he was gored by a boar when he was a boy and in his later life, it revealed his identity. Odysseus’ scarred-over wound symbolically constellates the defenselessness, disarray, and destruction of his home and property by the bivouacked hungry suitors. The thigh scar presages his twenty-year disappearance, the lonely confinement of his wife, and the self-doubting son deprived of a father’s instruction. And Ahab didn’t merely lose his leg to Moby Dick; Ishmael tells us:

“For it had not been very long prior to the Pequod’s sailing from Nantucket, that he had been found one night lying prone upon the ground, and insensible; by some unknown, and seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable casualty, his ivory limb having been so violently displaced, that it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin.” 

Moby Dick, Chapter 106 

In Moby Dick, Ahab’s wound is tied to the scarcity of whale sightings, the frequent tide overs, the onboard mishaps, his own emotional and physical isolation from his young wife, their new child, his crew, and the emptiness of his own heart. Physical wounding in myth is a symbol of spiritual suffering.

Compassion is what heals such a wound—not diagnosis, prescriptions for medication, or surgery. The suffering is relieved by asking, in all innocence, a question, the answer to which cannot be known by the questioner: “Uncle, what ails thee?” This healing question is the therapeutic move, the healing application of compassion: You tell me what is wrong because I can’t know, and when you tell me, I will stand in that suffering with you until you discover that you can bear it. Joseph Campbell writes that it is through Parzival’s “integrity in love that he finally becomes the Grail King and heals Anfortas and the land.” (Romance of the Grail 50) What better way to describe compassion than integrity in love? 

Epistemic certainty defenestrates compassion and throws one out of, not only the mystery of life, but out of relationship as well, because both compassion and relationship require wonder, openness, curiosity, and humanity. If we are to “finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds” as well as heal ourselves, “Compassion alone is the key…,” (90) Campbell writes, and compassion alone unlocks the door to healing—and bliss.

Best regards, Bradley Olson, Ph.D. About Brad  Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.

Monthly Gift

Arthurian Romances 12th & 13th Centuries (Audio: Lecture III.2.4)

Our gift to you this month is audio lecture. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

In this talk, recorded in 1976 at the Theatre for the Open Eye, Joseph Campbell gives a fascinating, lively overview of the history of the development of the Arthurian Romances of the High Middle Ages. From the Arthur legend’s Roman roots, through Gawain and the Green Knight and the stories of the search for the Holy Grail, to Mallory’s great compendium Le Morte d’Arthur, Campbell leads us through the birth and evolution of one of Europe’s greatest literary and mythic traditions.

News & Updates

Right in the middle of summer’s ordinary time, the Catholic church has placed a holy day of obligation, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on August 15.  The faithful recollect with wonder that the mother of Christ was spared death altogether and bodily “assumpted” into heaven. You will not find her grave in the Holy Land.

Sunni and Shi’ite traditions diverge on ʿĀshūrāʾ [August 19], a day held sacred by each but for different reasons: Sunnis recall Noah’s safe landing; Shi’ites, the martyrdom of Husain.

Weekly Quote

You might say the secret problem of the quest is to heal the Grail King and to achieve his role, but without the wound—that is to say, to become the supporter of the spiritual principles, without the emasculating, literally sterilizing wound.

-- Joseph Campbell

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Campbell in Culture

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Romance of the Grail

Featured Work

Romance of the Grail

Throughout his life, Joseph Campbell was deeply engaged in the study of the Grail Quests and Arthurian legends of the European Middle Ages. In this new volume of the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell, editor Evans Lansing Smith collects Campbell’s writings and lectures on Arthurian legends, including his never-before-published master’s thesis on Arthurian myth, “A Study of the Dolorous Stroke.” Campbell’s writing captures the incredible stories of such figures as Merlin, Gawain, and Guinevere as well as the larger patterns and meanings revealed in these myths. Merlin’s death and Arthur receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, for example, are not just vibrant stories but also central to the mythologist’s thinking.

Book Club

“Welcome to the House, a great maze of Halls and Vestibules whose Tides and Seasons Piranesi has painstakingly mapped in order to live seamlessly within them. The introduction of chaos—that is, humanity—into the House forces Piranesi to examine all he has taken for granted in his understanding of Life. Piranesi invites the reader to confront the changeable nature of truth and the fluidity of reality—and ultimately decide to which world they belong.”

Gabrielle Basha
Communications Coordinator
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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