The Grail, the Stone, and the Mystics: A Jungian View of the Medieval Spiritual Mysteries
Robert B. Clarke
Hologram Books (2010)
Reviewed by Tyler Tichelaar for Reader Views (3/11)
As a long-time lover of the medieval world and its mysteries, I was very excited to read this book. I found much in it to ponder, and while I did not agree with all of it, I feel I understand both the medieval world and Jungian psychology a little bit more from having read it. Although the book is not divided into sections, it basically divides up into discussions of two or more chapters for each of the subjects in the title, more specifically: the Holy Grail, Alchemy, and Medieval Mystics.
Although I have spent many years studying the Arthurian legend, the Holy Grail has always been a confusing story to extricate meaning from, and Robert Clarke has done a great job of summarizing the numerous medieval grail texts and interpreting the spiritual meanings intended by them. I found his discussion of the Holy Grail the strongest part of this book.
I could make little sense out of the alchemy section, not because of Clarke’s failure to explain it but because of the complicated theories behind it. I spent considerable time, when I wrote my doctoral dissertation, studying the Rosicrucian mysteries and the concept behind the philosopher’s stone that would turn lead into gold, but the alchemy information here was almost all information unfamiliar to me, and I don’t know that despite Jung saying otherwise, I don’t still think, as Clarke mentions that many scholars have thought, that alchemy is all just foolishness. I guess it doesn’t matter since Clarke makes it clear that alchemy was a flawed and not really legitimate path to spiritual insight anyway, which is what I expected.
The information on the mystics was interesting to me. I have always been curious about medieval visionaries and a great fan of the saints, and especially St. Teresa of Avila, whom Clarke spends an entire chapter on. Anyone interested in mysticism will probably find new material to discover and ponder in these chapters.
While the book is interesting overall, I found some of Clarke’s underlying theories hard to take in. He continually points out that the Grail stories do not have to have Celtic sources that were distorted by Christianity, but that many symbols and archetypes can appear in both cultures simultaneously. I agree with that statement, but he then illustrates it by pointing out how he has had many dreams of symbols and archetypes that prove they exist in the human subconscious. More likely, I think he has those dreams from studying or knowing about the Grail stories, whether or not he was fully conscious of it. I have to admit his dreams are bizarre and far beyond anything I have dreamt; he continually relates his dreams to illustrate his point, and he dreams of pyramids, kings, stags, swords, and other medieval symbols and objects. I do, however, dream a lot about fish, which he interprets as having to do with the inner Christ, or a search for inner knowledge, so perhaps I should give him the benefit of the doubt and he simply is a more lucid dreamer than I am. He does shed light for me on many biblical stories, showing symbolism I had never noticed in them before despite multiple readings of the Bible. Clarke also argues that the Bible, like the Holy Grail, reflects an individuation process, which I found interesting and worth further thought.
I questioned some of Clarke’s other conclusions, but the book did make me want to pay closer attention to my dreams and watch for archetypes in them—whether that is because they exist from some shared ancient ancestral unconscious or because Clarke’s book and numerous other books on mythology and psychology I’ve read will now influence me, I don’t think I’ll ever know.
“The Grail, the Stone, and the Mystics” provides much to think about for people interested in psychology and medieval symbolism and mysteries. While Clarke sees the medieval period as more spiritual than our own, something I only partly agree with, it will be interesting reading for people already interested in these topics—I would not say it is a beginner’s book. It may also raise some eyebrows for how Clarke suggests we need to reeducate and update Christianity along the lines of new understandings in depth psychology, and that doing so will unify orthodox Christian teachings with Gnostic ones, thus healing the splits in the Church. I won’t disagree with him that such efforts need to be made, but I’m sure many will.