As part of a foreword to his notes on "The Waste Land," Eliot writes: “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge).” Eliot proceeds to claim that he is deeply indebted to Weston’s book, and that its subject matter informs much of his poem.
From Ritual to Romance is a scholarly work that studies in great detail the various legends of the Holy Grail. In it Weston uses such terms as “Fisher King” and “Waste Land,” and also delves into the importance of the Tarot pack –- which Eliot uses as a prop in the Madame Sosostris episode. Most important to Weston’s book is the Grail itself: the famed cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, and which was used to collect his blood after the crucifixion. Many stories involving the Grail exist. In one such tale, the man with the lance who pierces Jesus’s side on the cross is cured of blindness by the blood in the cup. Endowed with restorative powers by its association with Christ, the Grail becomes one of the great relics, sought after by kings and knights for centuries.
Weston focuses in particular on medieval accounts of the Grail legend, but links these tales to earlier traditions. For example, some of the Mystery cults during the Roman Empire -– hidden sects, each dedicated to a single God –- practiced baptismal rites by blood, reminiscent of the life-giving powers the blood in the Grail offers. Fertility, restoration, and rebirth are the key themes; they constitute the promise of the Grail, its capability to save an individual and even an entire land from calamity.
In the archetypal version of the story, a king falls ill or becomes impotent. As a result, his kingdom turns desolate. The ravaged lands, wasting away, need a remedy. So a brave knight heads off on a quest to obtain the Holy Grail, which will bring life and fruitfulness back to the kingdom. The knight must face numerous obstacles, and near the end of his journey passes through the Perilous Chapel, a nightmarish place that represents his biggest challenge yet. When he finally finds the Grail, it restores the king and his kingdom. Rejoicing follows.
Wagner and Verlaine have plucked at this tale, and Eliot borrows from their versions. For the most part, however, the poet invokes that original template which Weston seeks in her own work; he even casts himself as the Fisher King at several points, and describes the rains come to cleanse the wasteland at the poem’s end. Of course, how happy an ending Eliot offers is up to debate. There is little in the way of specific reference to the Grail itself in the poem. Eliot refers to those elements and figures that surround the holy chalice in the various tales –- the impotent king, the wasteland, the perilous chapel and cemetery, the rejoicing of the restored kingdom -– but rarely to the cup as an object. The Grail does not magically appear in the final stanzas, come to rescue us all; instead, Eliot suggests, it is up to mankind to construct our own salvation.