Jeffrey John Dixon: Encyclopedia of the Holy Grail, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company 2023, VII + 328 S., ISBN 978-1-4766-8794-0, USD 39,95
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Many medievalist enthusiasts are completely enthralled by the Holy Grail, as the incessant stream of popular books on this topic indicates. Increasingly, hobby authors attempt to bring out 'significant' books on this topic, but they really only rehash what scholarship has produced already for decades, and market themselves as experts, and yet then often bumble through the complex world of medieval literature they know only a small percentage of. Any closer look at those popular books quickly reveals that that 'expertise' is hollow at best, and often deeply flawed. Since many of the relevant primary texts have been translated into English and other languages, it has become fairly easy to delve into the material and to surround oneself with the mantra of pseudo-scholarship. Since some publishers offer themselves as marketing outlets for such book-length studies, common readers respond with enthusiasm, which creates the perfect cycle from ignorance to ignorance.
The current encyclopedia comes with the hypertrophic claim of covering everything pertaining to the Holy Grail, which is impressively illustrated on the book cover with the image of a universal kind of chalice, as if anyone could specifically tell what the Grail really was, and this in any of the many different versions, and what it might have served for. All that matters is, of course, that the quasi-religious and especially mystical properties of the Grail are well accentuated, and the rest is simply salesmanship.
But Dixon, identified as an intrepid traveler after having studied literature at Sussex University (according to the back cover), intends to be comprehensive, and, well, encyclopedic, and so he offers straightfaced articles from Adonis to Yvain, providing general introductions and comments free from any troubles which real scholarship might cause him if challenged. The author is just that, an author who delights in retelling the various Grail and Arthurian stories as perfect truth, and not as literary fictions. That might have been a worthy goal, but it would have entailed extensive reading of the many different texts in many different languages. A real encyclopedia is normally written by a host of experts; the present result is a one-man show based on great efforts in writing, though there is little to show off in the end.
It is sometimes difficult to present our new students with good examples of absolute positivism, a theoretical approach long abandoned by scholarship, but Dixon gains the trophy as the new master of positivist writers. In "Yvain", for instance, the author provides a simple plot summary, never even mentioning Chrétien de Troyes or Hartmann von Aue, here completely disregarding late medieval versions in other languages or in adapted forms. Dixon adds a couple of notes, but those only expand on the commentary and ultimately prove to be irrelevant and unrelated.
The article on "Glastonbury" is simply delightful and could be picture framed. Completely unfaced by any possible critical readings and any scholarship, the author presents the myth of this location and reconfirms that King Arthur and his wife Guinevieve are buried there. The key component for Dixon is that Mary Magdalen and Joseph of Arimathea traveled to Glastonbury and founded the Holy Grail site upon which later a church was erected. To enhance the 'scholarly' quality of this entry, the author goes so far as to engage with some of the most absurd opinions previously voiced concerning the dating, as if those even mattered in the faintest. In short, Dixon is a firm believer in all the myths surrounding Glastonbury and never seems to have heard otherwise.
The article on the Grail bearer is a simplistic summary of the account in Chrétien's Perceval, and later a little of Wolfram von Eschenbach's tale. Dixon only repeats what the medieval text says (and this rather imprecisely), and neglects to comment critically. From here we can jump to "Feirefiz", where the basic facts are correct at first sight. Not so astonishingly, the author then reveals his ignorance, after all, not mentioning that this character's mother is black and that he himself is checkered. Through the abbreviated notes we are to understand that this refers to Wolfram's Parzival, which is identified as WP. Only an extensive search in the bibliography solves the riddle.
The entry on "Gawain" begins thus: "It is said that Sir Gawain, King Arthur's nephew, first hears about the Grail when he befriends the young Perceval at his uncle's court in Caerleon" (96). After much searching, we realize that this refers to Chrétien's account, which Dixon pedantically retraces without any efforts to examine critically the various different figures with this name. The author wants, I guess, to be a storyteller; and even in this he fails because he does not have the ability to introduce this character properly or to present an interesting case. Instead, the narrative falls flat in its sentimental, almost childish character: "Gawain is very sad and thoughtful after his failure" (100). At the end, there is an inexplicable reference to the Styrian poet Heinrich von dem Türlin, whom Dixon never introduces (no separate entry; there is a brief reference to the work under "The Crown" in Appendix II, but no lemma in the final index).
Any closer analysis of the various entries brings to light glaring mistakes and confusion. When Dixon talks about "Kundry" (150; it should be 'Cundrie'), he reveals, once again, his utter ignorance: "Having seduced the Grail King Amfortas and caused him to be wounded by the Lance that pierced the side of Christ, the sorceress Kundry attempts to make good her sin by bringing the king healing balsams; but to no avail. She mocks Parsifal when he first arrives at Montsalvat..." (150). Dixon might think of Richard Wagner's Parsifal, as the subsequent comments reveal. It is interesting to note that he also refers to two studies, one by Alfred Nutt (1888), and one by Caitlin and John Matthews (2008; entry only tractable via her husband's name), both of rather spurious scholarly quality).
I do not think that Dixon understands the meaning of scholarship. But, that also applies to the publisher that has brought out many similar titles, mostly of rather questionable quality. Unfortunately, it seems, really bad books tend to sell well appealing to the witless and ignoramuses. One final example to illustrate the catastrophic result of the author's effort would be the entry on "Tristan", which hardly makes any sense and only reveals again that Dixon does not even know what he is talking about. He has obviously not read that text and only draws from internet sources, I suspect.
Of course, there is some valuable information assembled here in a very superficial manner, good for those who have not the faintest idea, but the reader faces an incredible jumble of correct and false data. The book costs USD 39.95, money that should be spent on anything else but this publication.