Alchemy, the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Holy Grail

The philosopher’s stone and the holy grail are two of the most sought-after artefacts in myth and legend. Both promise great power – and both carry great risks to those who seek them. From the medieval stories of Thomas Malory and John Lydgate, through to the modern movies of Indiana Jones and Harry Potter, Curtis Runstedler takes us on a quest through literature and film in an attempt to track down the meaning of these elusive objects.

The Philosopher’s Stone and the Holy Grail are both legendary yet elusive objects in late medieval literature. This talk examines the nature of their roles in three medieval texts, including Chaucer’s The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, John Lydgate’s The Churl and the Bird, and Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. While the Stone and the Grail share affinities as metaphors in terms of their power and potential, they are not the same. There are, however, clear parallels between them. They share a similar metaphorical function, addressing human fallibility, moral blindness, and the desire to attain the impossible.

This podcast uses film to explore these key themes, namely Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), in which the Stone is not only a force of creation but also one of destruction, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), where the power of the Holy Grail can be either everlasting or corruptive. This duality is further explored in The Dark Crystal, where the Skeksis exist as a decaying, corrupt race as opposed to the enlightened and benevolent Gelflings. In further consideration of Malory’s Grail quest, there is Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1976), which parodies the failure to attain the Grail, and its implication for Arthur and his knights.

This podcast reassesses the role of the Philosopher’s Stone and the Holy Grail in medieval literature as well as its depictions in contemporary film. Moreover, it reconsiders the relationship between the occult, literature, and film. In examining the relationship between medieval and contemporary ideals, it encourages us to think about our own ideals, imperfections, and quests for the impossible.

Listen to other lectures from Late Summer Lectures 2016, on topics ranging from science fiction apocalypse, to the stories of Saint Cuthbert.

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