After yesterday's summary of what the typical theme is in Indo-European mythos, I will now, in what promises to be a multi-part discussion, dissect the King Arthur legend through the lens of that mythos. Specifically, since there are several versions of the legend, I have chosen to use John Boorman's "Excalibur" as a pithy summary. This is largely because Boorman uses wonderful symbolism, and it is my favorite film. In the interests of brevity, I will have to ignore Boorman's marvellous visual symbolism, which is a real shame. Go see the film now; I'll stay here and wait until you are done. I capitalise the word "land" to stress its importance, or because of my conceit, whatever.
There are two basic ideas that you must retain for this discussion:
First, the world is a macrocosmic representation of man, and its components are the equivalent of the constituent parts of a man. Secondly, that a proper king must be the embodiment of all three social classes, or be depicted as doing that through his posession of the symbols for all of the classes. The symbol for the common people varies, the warrior caste is usually represented by a sword, and the priest caste is typically represented by a (ornamental?) cup such as priests use to pour libations.
In the opening, we see the mighty Uther Pendragon ("pendragon" means the precedent to the dragon, but the Dragon is a further layer of Boorman's symbolism that I have to ignore here) doing battle with the forces of the Duke of Cornwall. Merlin promises him the sword Excalibur, but we see that Uther is ruled by his vices and proves to be an unworthy king. [This is true to themes in other Indo-European folklore] Uther, ambushed and at the point of dying intends to deny Excalibur to everyone else, believing himself to be the rightful king, and drives the sword deep into a large boulder. Since stones are the homologic alloform of bones, it could be said that he drove the sword into the bones (or marrow) of the world. Uther is the mightiest of warriors, but posession of the symbol of his class (Excalibur) and access to divine guidance, which is the priest caste embodied in Merlin the Magician, is not sufficient. He fails as a king, and the land descends into the strife that occurs when the classes are not united.
Along comes young Arthur, who easily plucks the sword from the stone when no warrior is capable of doing it. [Arthur, as a squire, is hardly a commoner, but a later exchange between Uriens and Arthur makes it very clear that squires are definitely a social strata that is subordinate to Knights.] Merlin appears and briefs him on the situation. An interesting sequence follows where apparently Arthur melds with the land.
"What does it mean to be King?"
"You will be the Land, and the Land will be you. As you thrive, the Land will blossom; if you fail the Land will perish."
Arthur goes on to become a successful King. There is peace, prosperity, and it seems they have driven away evil. This should imply that Arthur is successful at uniting the classes, although the common people do not appear to be represented. I believe that Boorman has substituted "the land" for the working class. This actually fits well with some known folklore.
[Afterthought: "uniting the classes" may not be the proper description. It may in fact be completely wrong as the classes continue to be stratified throughout the King's rule.]
[One example is a tale of three sons that attempt to usurp their father's throne - the only link between them and the three social classes are their names, which are rather obscure etymologically. The son who represents the lower class is named 'Lothar'. In celtic, it appears that that can mean ditch, trench, or canal, among other things. Bruce Lincoln opined that the commonality there is a low-lying water vessel; like a wash basin. That may be a bit of a stretch, but I'll accept that either a ditch or wash basin symbolizes the common people.]
Therefore, Boorman's King Arthur *is* the Land/commoners, posesses Excalibur (the symbol of the warrior caste) and has the guiding advise of Merlin (priest caste).
Internal divisions occur, strife originating from within the very Round Table destabilizes the kingdom. [Karl's note: I've just realised that the Round Table is yet another instance of symbolism - it indicates a wholesome state out of a cycle of strife and stability] In dual sequences involving Launcelot and Gwenevere, Merlin and Morgana, King Arthur loses the advise of Merlin and posession of Excalibur at the same time. The result, of course, is strife. Morgana's evil takes root in the world, and the land languishes. Arthur grows ill as the Land suffers, again because Arthur is the Land"
Launcelot: (anguished) "Excalibur! The king without a sword! The Land without a King!"
"We must find what was lost." Boorman's film never actually refers to the cup as "the Holy Grail". I believe the word 'grail' is used, but so is 'chalice'. [Morgana, on the other hand, offers questing knights a 'cup' of her own. Morgana will have to wait until a later installment.] What you and I now know is that what was lost is the essence of the priest caste. How shall the knights recover that? "Signs. Portents. Omens." All of which have traditionally been the domain of priests.
Here (to my personal joy) Boorman stays faithful to the Arthurian legend. In the legends as I read them long ago, Percieval, Bors, and one other knight found the Holy Grail. Bors and the other knight were taken into heaven, and Percieval returned the Grail to the King. Percieval was a wild boy who became a knight, and thus ..... oops, I was going to leave Boorman's general symbolism out of this, wasn't I? Well, it can't be avoided now. We see that it is only by Percieval shedding his armor (symbolic of innocence or nature or common people, your choice) that he can approach the Chalice, and provide Arthur with what was lost: the preistly advice of Merlin: "You and the Land are one!"
Once Arthur drinks from the Chalice, he is filled with inspiration and psychoanalyses the entire film since the point where strife started to take hold of the Round Table. [JOKE] Having recieved this infusion of priestly advice, Arthur knows what to do. He must posess Excalibur to be King and save the Land. He finds the sword in the keeping of Guenevere. Notice that it is only AFTER Arthur reclaims Excalibur that the land flourishes again. [huh, actually, I have forgotten, been too long since I have seen it, and its too cold right now - but I remember the land conspicously thriving after Arthur has Excalibur]
In another important sequence, Arthur awakens the spirit of Merlin when he is leaning against a stone circle. Again, stone is an alloform of bone.
Merlin's spirit vanquishes Morgana, but Merlin himself is otherwise out of the picture. Arthur intentional disperses the last of the symbols that is in his keeping. Mortally wounded, he commands that Excalibur be returned to the Lady of the Lake. "One day a King will come, and the sword will rise [again]". This is another common theme in folklore; a king falls, and there is strife between the classes until another (worthy) King comes along.
To summarize: A common (or lowly, in this case they are not the same thing) boy that is able to posess the essence of the three castes rises to become the rightful King. When he loses control of the classes or the symbols that are their essence, the King loses power and fails. A society in strife becomes wholesome under a proper King and returns to strife without him. A cycle that is implied in folklore as eternal until the destruction and re-creation of the world, which is also an eternal cycle.
And by now you may have guessed at the truth:
There was never any "Holy Grail".