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Llangollen's Holy Grail legend - new research

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Nick - Web Team Nick - Web Team | 10:03 UK time, Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Valle Crucis Abbey, by Tony GaynorA chance meeting at Llangollen's historic Valle Crucis Abbey has led to a new book about the Holy Grail legend associated with the atmospheric ruins.

Ian Pegler, who has a hobby doing archaeological dowsing, was at the site when he bumped into local author Scott Lloyd, co writer of the book The Keys to Avalon about the Grail and local Arthurian legends.

That meeting inspired Ian to read further works and conduct his own research, trawling through archives at the National Library of Wales as well as translating ancient Welsh poems and stories, before writing his own book, Valle Crucis and the Grail.

Here, Ian explains more about the abbey's links to the Grail legends, how dowsing helped his research, and he draws his own conculsions about the abbey and the legends.

What is the Holy Grail legend's connection with Llangollen?

The theory goes that the mythology from the Llangollen area influenced the medieval romances written on the continent. It is also believed that the term used for the Grail Castle in some of the later romances - Corbenic - derives from Castell Dinas Bran [Llangollen].

Castell Dinas Bran, by Paul Lewis

This is because Corbenic is just old French for crow, and Bran is Welsh for crow. There are, for example, similarities between the character of the Fisher King
in the romances and the British semi-mythological Bran, called Bendigeidfran in the Mabinogion.

Both possess a vessel of healing or renewal and both are wounded through the thighs. In the version by Robert de Boron the first Fisher King is actually called Bron and it is Bron, not Joseph of Arimathea, who brings the Grail to Britain.

Also, it is believed by some that a physical grail-like relic was kept at Valle Crucis abbey during the Middle Ages - perhaps a case of life imitating art?! Note that I say grail-like, not "The Grail".

Can you explain why you think the Holy Grail legend and its connection with Valle Crucis Abbey has come about?

During the Middle Ages there were many professional storytellers milling around in Europe and they had links with storytellers from over here. Many of them were Bretons, that is, they were descended from Britons who fled from Britain to that area of Northern France during the Dark Ages.

Arthur was a hero for them and he still is. The storytellers were sometimes called conteurs and they committed their material to memory. It was an oral tradition before it was written down.

It's possible that some sort of vessel was brought to Valle Crucis during the Crusades from the Middle East - a copy of the Koran was discovered there by the Reverend Owen so I think 'why not?'

The medieval bard Guto'r Glyn mentions the Grail in relation to Valle Crucis
in one of his poems so perhaps the monks believed that they were in possession of the real thing.

Do you believe the legends and their connections with Llangollen?

I believe that the myths and folklore surrounding the Llangollen area influenced the continental romances. The real question is how did this mythology arise?

It's said that there is a kernel of truth at the core of every legend - finding it is the hard part! A myth is a product of centuries of evolution; stories evolve a bit like Chinese whispers.

To get to the truth you have to try and trace it back to its roots, but how far back in time do you need to go? That's a good question!

In one of the continental romances, Joseph of Arimathea comes to north Wales. Not true literally perhaps but it's possible that these stories are derived from earlier ones that had a greater element of truth in them, because there has to be a reason why the same places keep cropping up in different versions of the tale.

I believe it's possible that there was an Arthur, but he was probably more of a warlord than a king. More Oliver Tobias than Nigel Terry you might say. Although I do think Excalibur is the best Arthurian movie ever.

What sparked your interest in Valle Crucis Abbey and the Grail legends?

I suppose this started back in 2000 when I was reading The Keys to Avalon by Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd. It mentioned that Valle Crucis abbey might be the site of a much older settlement and possibly an early church.

I've read a few "populist" Arthurian books over the years, all of which seem very scholarly and yet they all contradict each other to some degree. They all seem a bit partisan but I was at least impressed with the intention of the authors of Keys to find physical evidence in support of their theories. Ian

In 2001 I'd taken up dowsing as a hobby. It seemed a good idea to go to Valle Crucis to try dowsing for archaeology and so in 2003 I did. On one occasion I'd gone up with a couple of friends and we had this chance meeting with Scott Lloyd in the abbey shop and so we got talking.

Two years later, in 2005, I got the chance to compare the results of my dowsing with the geophysics that had been done earlier in 2001.

I wrote up my findings as articles for the journal of the British Society of Dowsers but I became side-tracked by the history and the mythology, it was just fascinating.

In the end it became more about the history and the story-telling than the dowsing. I ended up translating medieval Welsh poems, which I never originally intended to do.

What is dowsing, and did it help you at Valle Crucis Abbey?

What is dowsing? This is a difficult question to answer because if you ask 10 different dowsers you'll get 10 different answers! I, personally, believe that dowsing is a way of getting answers from one's own intuition.

The mystery is how our intuition seems to know more than we realise. Some people describe dowsing as a form of E.S.P. but others think that dowsers are somehow sensitive to "energies" from the objects they are searching for.

I used dowsing at Valle Crucis Abbey to try to discover the whereabouts of archaeological features (ancient buried wall-foundations, medieval drains etc.) by wandering around with a pair of L-shaped rods, seeing where they cross and marking the lines on a map.

One of the archaeologists to excavate at Valle Crucis in the early 1900s was the Reverend Owen, who claimed there was a Roman villa underneath the cloister area.

In the book Keys to Avalon (Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd, Element 2000) it was speculated that remains of the original church of Joseph of Arimathea or at least a very early Christian church might be located directly underneath these Roman remains.

Have your assumptions changed regarding the legends?

Yes indeed. I now believe that the story of the Grail has some definite pre-Christian influences but the story became adapted by Christians to suit their purposes.

It is very strongly associated with North Wales and cauldron stories such as the cauldron of Bran. I doubt very much whether Joseph of Arimathea came to this country, it seems to me to be part of the later evolution of the story.

What advice would you give to people interested in learning more about the legend?

I did a lot of my research at the National Library of Wales but I know that Scott Lloyd did much of his early research at the Arthurian Collection at Mold library which has a huge collection of all sorts of Arthurian books.

Chapter 2 of my own book gives an overview of various Arthurian Grail sources. For the real in-depth academic stuff, read the University of Wales' books such as Arthur of the Welsh and Arthur of the French.

Also, The Grail from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol by Roger Sherman Loomis for more on the connections to the Dinas Bran legend.

Pendragon, the second book by Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd, is also a very good read but it's more about Arthur than the Grail.

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