A blog post at Neatorama is an article from the Annals of Imponderable Results discussing the (over)use of the term “holy grail” to describe an ultimate, usually unachievable goal in scientific research. As I started reading the article I immediately thought, “Hey! That’s my pet peeve!”
As a long-time student and enthusiast of the Arthurian Grail legends I’ve been irritated on innumerable occasions by newspaper and magazine articles using the term. I suspect that most of these writers haven’t the slightest clue what they’re writing about, and know nothing about the Holy Grail beyond what they learned by watching the Monty Python movie. Now, despite this being one of the greatest movies ever made, IMHO, what it teaches us about the Grail isn’t a very complete or accurate story. Yes, Arthur sent his kniggets, er … knights on a quest to find the Grail, but no, it wasn’t a beacon of distinctive shape shining above a castle filled with eight score young nubile women who spent their time dressing, undressing, making exciting underwear, followed by spanking, oral sex, etc.
No, the Grail isn’t about all that. And while it can be used as a symbol of the unattainable, let’s get some of the details right, shall we?
The story of the Grail was first told by Chrétien de Troyes, a 12th century French poet, who wrote his The Story of the Grail between 1180 and 1190. The theme was picked up and expanded by others, including Robert de Baron, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Thomas Malory. The idea of the Grail may have originated in Celtic mythology as a horn of plenty, but with de Troyes it became connected to Christian motifs of the crucifixion, with the Grain in various versions being either the cup of the Last Supper or as a vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood falling from Christ on the cross.
The quest of Arthur’s knights is found in various versions of the tale. Arthur and his court see a vision of the Grail, and Arthur instructs his knights to go find it. They all depart, go their separate ways, and have many adventures saving damsels in distress, etc. But the Grail may only be “achieved” or found by one who is worthy, or the most worthy. This turns out to be Galahad, usually, the virgin son of Lancelot.
But back to what irks me about “the Holy Grail” being used in such a cavalier manner by ill-informed writers — it’s that you don’t find the Grail; it finds you. The Grail can only be found in a serendipitous manner. Someone who is specifically seeking it will never find it; only the one destined to find it will be guided towards it, or be allowed to stumble upon it.
So, for all those scientists seeking the “Holy Grail of such-n-such”, I advise you to try the serendipitous approach. Don’t look for the Grail; look for something else, and if you’re worthy you’ll find it. And for all you writers who persist in using the term, turn off the movie, as excellent as it may be, and go read a book.