In the intellectual tradition of the Western world, no theme is more ubiquitous, or enigmatic, than that of the Grail. Extant records of the Grail legend date only from the 12th century but the tales they tell go back at least to the time of King Arthur and Sir Gawain, his knight, and in some cases even further back to Joseph of Arimathea, a contemporary of Jesus.
Modern scholarship goes further yet and connects the Grail theme to pre-Christian fertility rites and perhaps even to the ancient Rig-Veda itself. At the other end of the historical spectrum, the Grail appears in contemporary culture in such unlikely places as Indiana Jones and The De Vinci Code. What is this ‘Grail’ over which so much ink and so much blood (at least literary blood) have been spilt? Amazingly, no one actually knows!
In some traditions, it is the cup (chalice) used by Jesus at the Last Supper. In others, it is a vessel Joseph of Arimathea used to catch Jesus’ dripping blood when he was dying on the cross.
Still other traditions find the Grail’s roots in magic. And in some more recent tellings, the Grail is not an object but rather the actual bloodline of Jesus. Nor should we ignore the possibility that the Grail is nothing at all, just the unspecified goal of every human quest, the folklore equivalent of Melville’s Moby Dick.
To make matters worse, there is no single, core story that underlies every telling of the Grail legend. The history of the legend is not so much a literary tree as it is a piece of woven cloth. Threads weave in and out, currents cross; the search for a single point of origin is hopelessly frustrated. At best, we can distill certain elements which appear regularly, but not unfailingly, in the various Grail stories.
Nor is it clear where Grail literature ends and other genres begin. What about Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream, what about Wagner’s Ring, what about the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine? In that 1968 film, there is no explicit reference to the Grail anywhere; and yet, the story contains a large number of those ‘Grail elements’ mentioned above.
Most basically, the story of the Grail is the story of a quest. The quest normally includes a physical adventure with great danger and daunting trials. But it may also include an intellectual adventure: What is the right question to ask, when should I ask it, and of whom?
The object of the quest is not always known to the Grail hero, at least not initially. There is important work to be done, it must be undertaken now and it will require great courage and insight; but the exact nature of that work is often shrouded in mystery.
As the stories unfold, many of them include an old, deceased or afflicted ruler (sometimes called the “Fisher King”) whose compromised vitality is somehow connected to the current or impending infirmity of the land, the “Waste Land”. It is the task of the Grail hero to restore the life, health or youth of this Fisher King by performing a physical, spiritual or intellectual feat. When performed successfully (or in some cases, when merely attempted), the land is restored to its former fertility.
It is this transformation of the land from waste to lush that has led some critics to connect the Grail legend to ancient fertility rites. It is the restoration of the king’s life, health or youth that has led other critics to connect the Grail legend with the resurrected Christ or with earlier “gods of life” such as Indra, Tammuz, Attis, Adonis and Osiris.
Among the generally recognized ‘Grail elements’, 9 are clearly present in Yellow Submarine:
- The Fisher King
- The Waste Land
- The Grail Hero
- The Quest
- The Hidden Castle
- The Island Kingdom
- The Resurrection of the King
- The Perilous Chapel
- The Restoration of the Land
This is not an exhaustive list of ‘Grail elements’. Many versions of the story include certain key objects (cup, dish, lance & sword) and a ‘solemn feast’. The solemn feast is clearly missing from Yellow Submarine and the ‘key objects’ can only be found if you’re willing to identify them with Sargent Pepper’s band instruments…a bit of a stretch. But no Grail story includes all of the proposed elements so the lack of a few elements does not disqualify Yellow Submarine, or any other tale, as a Grail legend.
The movie begins in a magical place called Pepperland. The Lord Mayor has grown old and infirm and he has been neglecting his official duties. He is in denial regarding the imminent threat to Pepperland; his attention is instead focused on his performance in a string quartet. As a consequence, Pepperland is unable to repel an attack by a race of ‘giants’ called “Blue Meanies”. The Meanies “bonk” all of the citizens of Pepperland into a state of suspended animation and they turn the color of the land from rainbow to grey. Pepperland becomes the ‘Waste Land’.
Only one citizen escapes. “Young Fred”, the Lord Mayor’s devoted compatriot (knight?) travels to Liverpool, England in a yellow submarine, the same submarine that brought folks to Pepperland 20 years earlier. He travels there in search of “help” and he finds it in the person of Ringo and the other Beatles.
Listening to Fred’s tale of woe, the four Beatles agree to journey back to Pepperland with Fred in his yellow submarine. Like many Grail heroes, they have no idea what lies ahead of them or what they will do when, and if, they reach their destination. They only know that something needs to be done and they trust that they will receive guidance when they need it.
No doubt, the Beatles were expecting to face worldly dangers: “rough seas”, ill winds, armed adversaries. They can hardly have anticipated the ontological dangers lurking in their path. First, they travel through a region (or “sea”) where time flows at varying rates. Worse yet, it flows backwards as well as forwards. Our Grail heroes face twin risks: the risk of accelerated death…and the risk of never having been born!
From there, they enter a sea where the basic structure of space is called into question. Sometimes it’s 2 dimensional, sometimes 3, sometimes it’s a rectilinear grid, other times a Platonic solid. But even this does not prepare them for the “Sea of Monsters…the Monstrous Sea”. Here the Beatles are attacked by creatures who somehow combine organic features with mechanical ones. At one point, Ringo is set upon by an Indian war party and he later describes the experience as “arrowing”.
It certainly was, but not nearly as harrowing as being “sucked into oblivion…or even further” by a vacuum monster. This monster succeeds in swallowing the yellow sub…along with all the other monsters and, oh by the way, along with the fabric of space itself. In the end, the Vacuum Monster even swallows himself, tail first.
Somehow our band of heroes and their yellow sub survive, but now they find themselves alone in perfectly blank and empty universe, save for one proto-person who they refer to as “the nowhere man”. You might guess that such an empty universe would be the end of the road for our heroes…but not so. There are further trials ahead. Beyond nowhere land (beyond nothing there is something?) lies “The Foothills of the Headlands”, a land of conscious but disembodied thought…mind with no matter.
The movie likens this sea to a never ending hallucinogenic experience. Is this Paradise…or Hell masquerading as Paradise? Are the Beatles suggesting that being in this sea is worse than not being at all?
Yet their journey is still not over. Welcome to the Sea of Holes. In order to reach Pepperland, the Beatles have gone through terrible trails that brought them to an empty universe…and beyond. Now they must pass through negative space, a land of negative being. In the Sea of Holes, non-being is actually the subject, the figure, while being is the ground. It is our world turned inside out, ontologically speaking that is.
As you might imagine, the Sea of Holes is populated by…holes. But these are no ordinary holes. They are active, not passive holes. You can pick them up. If you step into one you disappear. If you put one on the side of a fish bowl, its contents will drain out. But it is this negative space that ultimately leads our heroes to Pepperland. But first, they must cross the Sea of Green, a kind of moat that surrounds Pepperland…because Pepperland is the ‘Island Kingdom’ of Grail legend.
To pass from Liverpool to Pepperland, you must first rid yourself of time and space and all the objects and events (attachments?) that fill them. Then you must travel through nothingness, no-being, to a land worse even than no-being. From there, you must pass through negative space, negative being, and only then can you arrive at your destination, Pepperland. And oh by the way, only one of the holes in the vast Sea of Holes functions as a portal to Pepperland. I think we can say without fear of contradiction that Pepperland qualifies as a ‘Hidden Castle’ of Grail legend.
Once in Pepperland, the Beatles successfully resurrect the Lord Mayor (with “a little snatch of a tune”). But the quest is still not complete. Before Pepperland can be restored to its former idyllic state, the Beatles must recover the musical instruments (‘key objects’?) brought to Pepperland 20 years earlier by Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And to do that, they must spend a terrifying night in a ‘Perilous Chapel’.
This they do, in a small, dark bandstand atop a hill, in the presence of the holy instruments themselves but surrounded on all sides by “a million billion Meanies”. Eventually, the night ends, the Beatles have survived the final trial and the quest is now complete. Armed with the Sergeant Pepper’s instruments, the Beatles make music and restore the land. In the end, even the defeated Meanies join in.
With 9 key Grail elements prominently displayed, there can be little doubt that Yellow Submarine is, among many other things, a retelling of the Grail legend. But this leaves us with the same question we had at the outset. What is the Grail itself?
One is tempted to say the ubiquitous and indestructible yellow sub; perhaps, Or is it Sergeant Pepper’s instruments. I suspect it’s something much more obvious: music itself. Music turns out to be the key to the Resurrection of the King (Lord Mayor) and the Restoration of the Land. For the Beatles at least, music is the Holy Grail…and why not? Would you expect anything other?