“Rather seek for yourself and your fellows the healing vessel, the servitor mundi, which you urgently need. For your state is perilous; you are all in imminent danger of destroying all that centuries have built up.”
— C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 283.
Once upon a time, there was a man who illegally became king. Because he knew his own illegitimacy and the precarious position it left him in, he had a great tower built. Notwithstanding its apparent impregnability, the walls of the tower kept on collapsing. The king summoned a unique expert to diagnose the problem. This mysterious diagnostician revealed that there was a serious problem underground. The tower was built over two dragons, one red, one white, who, feeling oppressed by the edifice, would move around, shake the foundations of the tower whereupon the walls would collapse. The dragons were dug up from underground, engaged in their festering conflict and the white one killed the red.
So begins the backstory to the Grail quest as told by Robert de Boron. The king is Vertigiers; the country is Briton; the expert diagnostician is Merlin. Merlin explains that the red dragon symbolizes King Vertigiers and the white dragon symbolizes the rightful heirs, Pendragon and Uther. The heirs and the king join in battle and the king is defeated. Merlin, because of his knowledge of the archaic past and his ethical pledge to the good, tells the new and rightful king to build a table, at which will sit a knight who will have found the Grail. Eventually we come to a fisher king, whose illness will not heal, whose country is a waste, who awaits something and someone new that will draw life and renewal from the Grail.
Carl Jung, as indicated in the above quote, felt that the Grail myth was central to the problems of our time. It was Jung’s own mythic world, containing a great secret which, though still unknown, might confer a redemptive meaning on our own wasteland. Is not the backstory of the two dragons our own situation, where opposites are vying in the underground of the collective unconscious, shaking the foundations of our structures and institutions, state and church? Evidence of collapse is all around us. When opposing forces are unconscious, the people may know nothing but nevertheless feel themselves to be undermined.
In many ways, the point of the Grail legend is to bring into consciousness the situation of dissociation that exists generally in the culture in order to move towards reconciliation of opposites and conscious relatedness. For, the red and white of the dragons, in the imagery of alchemy, are the colors of the bridegroom and bride called into relationship, a coniunctio. That is the hope implied in the Merlin backstory, but we know that is not how it goes, at least initially. There is inevitable conflict and the ruling principle of the culture and the psyche, symbolized by the king, must be overthrown. The words of Hamlet are enacted:
Laertes: The King, the King’s to blame.
Hamlet: The point envenom’d too?
Then venom to thy work.
In Hamlet, the dying King is in denial—“I am but hurt”—and the overthrowing movement of Hamlet cries out in dragon-like rage, “Here, thou incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane, Drink off this potion! Is thy union here?” In death and destruction?
The Grail myth points the way to a different outcome, a life-giving and creative union, where the opposites don’t end up in a nuclear fission, but are reconciled, with the result being that the country, from top to bottom, is restored to health. The Grail quest is the search for this hidden wholeness.
Mark Napack, M.A., S.T.L., M.S., first studied the Grail legend as a student of comparative literature at Columbia University. From there, he went on to study Jung, psychology and the history of religion at Fordham, Loyola and Catholic Universities, from which he received various graduate degrees. A long-time teacher and presenter, Mark has a special concern for areas of psychology and spirituality and an ongoing involvement with the Collected Works of Jung and Jungian classics. He has presented at international conferences and published in scholarly publications. Mark Napack, LCPC is also a Jungian informed psychotherapist in North Bethesda, MD.