Don’t make things the way they used to!


A casual statement in a novel caught my attention: ‘They don’t make grails the way they used to!’ The allusion is to the 13th century moral tale of Camelot and Lancelot, the knight of King Arthur’s court, and his search for the grail. For centuries, it remained a symbol of hope for the future that inspired some to search for a physical cup and others to struggle toward a brighter future.

The rye comment points to a contemporary absence of ideals and collaborative movements toward a better future full of abundance, ‘They don’t make grails the way they used to!’

Perhaps our thimble-cups have just become too small to contain more than nourishment for tiny identity groups — or poison for others who are different. Or, perhaps current individualism makes allegiance difficult beyond this moment, the immediate future and self-interest. Certainly, grails that were previously valued and decorated as artistic and intellectual masterworks are discarded and scattered as shards on the ground behind us.

I suppose it is the burden of youth of each generation that their elderly tout a hoary past of their pleasant memories and grumble about the rapid decline in mores, conduct and aspirations, and the absence of values. Certainly, some complaints are uncalled for and counterproductive. Especially is that the case when things change and one generation replaces another so rapidly that we can hardly keep up — from our elders from the greatest generation, to the silent generation, baby boomers, generation X, generation Z, and generation alpha. Each group is bundled together and stereotyped, usually for blame, not praise.

The legendary Holy Grail overflowed with religion. Originally it was Jesus’ cup at the Last Supper. Then the legend was added that Joseph of Arimathea used the cup to catch Jesus’ blood at the crucifixion. Nothing was more sacred. Indeed, the Holy Grail symbolized the highest aspiration of a noble person. The search was a metaphor the noble life, exemplified by the knight Lancelot’s idealized service for Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur.

Alas, the legend was tarnished by the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. He was no longer worthy to search for the Holy Grail. Later, human conduct became so ignoble that the grail disappeared altogether. No knight or peasant was worthy of finding it.

Perhaps that is what has happened to us — no one is worthy of finding any grail, so grails have disappeared, along with old ideals and values. Those of us who are older have to confess some nostalgia for the old cups, both sacred and secular. If we could find some replicas, we might display them in prominent places to adore. Alas, all that seems to be left are the shards, broken pieces of sacred and secular grails scattered around.

Better than seeking exact replicas would be attempts to create useable cups to hold the hopes and aspirations of our homes, churches, community and nation. New grails will have to be put together little piece by piece and made sturdy in order to hold nourishment for a changing and diverse community. Everyone contributes whatever beauty and wisdom they possess. What is created won’t be the same as the old grails of our nostalgia, although we hope that some elements will be recognizable. Indeed, some old elements are worth preserving, and fragments glow in our half-light. If we are good at the craft, the refashioned grail might become valuable, and we might be born again to a living hope.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.


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