In one of the holy grail stories, we read about the tragedy which befell the pure-hearted Percival’s sister. After a group of soldiers discovered that she was a virgin, their garrison attempted to kidnap her, later explaining that the queen of their realm was afflicted by leprosy, a condition alleviated by maiden’s blood. Thus, as a matter of law, all virginal young women passing through that country were required to pay the gruesome tax of filling a cup with blood from their right arm.
Percival’s sister eventually decides to willingly donate her blood. Alas, she bleeds out and dies. Her body is set adrift—to travel by invisible means to the holy city of Sarras, eventual home of the Holy Grail itself, where she is buried.
The leper queen, for her part, reminds us of stories attributed to the 16th-17th century Hungarian noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory, about whom it is said that she was vampirically inclined and bathed in the blood of virgins in order to stay young.
The leprous queen is depleted, like Anfortas (the Fisher King). But unlike the Fisher King, her solution is to feed on youth rather than be restored by youth’s quest. Whereas Anfortas will wait for the Holy Grail, the wicked matron creates her own, unholy, grail, soused in virgin’s blood, like the blood of the saints mixed in Babylon’s cup in John’s Apocalypse.
The holy grail saga is full of references to elders and youths. The central quest of a younger knight to restore a wounded king, Anfortas, relates to the idea that the past (tradition) has been maimed somehow. I would argue the same dynamic occurs in Jacob’s relationship to Isaac, and in Joseph’s to Jacob: its non-pathological archetype is that of the Ancient of Days and Son of Man in Daniel’s vision.
But just as youth may heal the wounds of history and purify its inheritance, history can become parasitic–elders and authorities can turn out to be vampires.
A few crucial features of the story of the good sister’s demise deserve highlighting.
She frequently acts as a guide to her brother and other knights of the round table. The wisdom by which she is able to direct them, however, does not prevent her death. The knights, for their part, should have guarded Percival’s sister and arrested her fatal sacrifice. They were not protective enough, likely because they had come to see her as wiser than them. A man may find that, often, women provide crucial insight and orientation, while at the same time falling into what to him seem like obvious errors. Men and women are different, and have different strengths. A woman may guide a man, like the Sibyl guided Aeneas, but still have need of his protection. And often the protection he offers is of a sort to compensate for excesses in her nature as a woman.
One way in which a woman may often go astray, and which is highlighted by the story above, is through an excess (or misapplication) of compassion. Percival’s sister, moved to save the queen, fails to determine whether the subject of her kindness is genuinely hard-done or, rather, somehow allied to dark forces. She also does not properly weigh her own value against that of this queen, especially given that the scenario in question requires that she hurt herself.
Indeed, her compassion’s lack of proportion is shown clearly when she proves incapable of measuring out a small amount of blood, losing awareness and bleeding out entirely. Again, her propensity for offering herself and fainting should have been compensated by the knights’ vigilance. Her feminine nature is ensnared by a desire to help, but does not itself have the ability to put that desire in its proper place and remain lucid during the affair.
The image of bleeding-out is instructive. It is a symbol for the scattering of energies released from their proper, ordered course within the organism in order that another may feed on them.
The twilight of an immoral life and wasted promise tries to hold on to youth by preying on those it resents for having what it does not: time and the potential to live correctly. To the degree that a person fails to live well, she may find perverse delight in confirming that vice is universal. Misery loves company, and the embittered teacher may wish failure rather than good fortune on her students.
Ideologies are often just mental fixations to which a generation sacrificed itself, and which they now visit upon the next generation so as not to admit their mistake. Contemporary feminism in particular shows signs of this. Unhappy older women will not abide to admit their lifestyle, including the foregoing of family, was a mistake, and so they promote their error all the more vehemently. This is an instance of escalation of commitment.
But, ultimately, the episode is not only one of female empowerment through female ruin, but of male failure. Percival and the other knights should not have allowed his sister to bleed, however much the leprose queen might wail and her soldiers assail.
A knight should be on guard.