Cormac McCarthy's the Road as Apocalyptic Grail Narrative

By Cooper, Lydia | Studies in the Novel, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Cormac McCarthy's the Road as Apocalyptic Grail Narrative


Cooper, Lydia, Studies in the Novel


I believe that we are arks of the covenant and our true nature is not rage or deceit or terror or logic or craft or even sorrow. It is longing.

--Cormac McCarthy, Whales and Men

The Holy Grail is a standard symbol in the English language for an object of search far-off, mysterious, out of reach.

--Dhira B. Mahoney, The Grail: A Casebook

Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), with its ashen, post-apocalyptic landscape, seems a striking departure from the realism of his earlier novels. Inspired in part by grim images of wanderers in "biohazard" suits or wearing masks and goggles "like ruined aviators" (The Road 51, 24), many critics identify the unnamed catastrophe that precipitates the novel as a nuclear holocaust (see e.g., Christman). McCarthy himself imagines the disaster to be a meteor strike, although he claims that "his money is on humans destroying each other before an environmental catastrophe sets in" (Kushner). Yet few critics have explored just how unusual the fantastic and futuristic landscape of The Road is. In an interview regarding the Coen brothers' film of his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, McCarthy claims that he prefers literary realism over more "magical" genres. "[I]t's hard enough to get people to believe what you're trying to tell them without making it impossible," he says. "You have to make it vaguely plausible" (Grossman 63). While The Road does bear McCarthy's typical attention to accuracy in all the minutiae of his descriptions, the excesses of carnage and apocalyptic horror in its pages may stretch the limits of credulity. In fact, one critic finds the world of the novel so sublimely damaged that it must have a "supernatural cause," and he therefore concludes that The Road is a retelling of the Book of Revelation (Grindley 12). The fantastic elements in the novel, however, are not supernatural allegory, but mythological motif. The novel's title in an early draft was The Grail, (1) a title illustrative of the narrative arc in which a dying father embarks on a quest to preserve his son, whom he imagines as a "chalice" (McCarthy, The Road 64), the symbolic vessel of divine healing in a realm blighted by some catastrophic disease. The motifs of the Waste Land, the dying Fisher King, and the potentially unattainable healing balm in the cup of Christ provide particularly apt metaphors through which The Road examines pervasive apocalyptic fears in order to explore if and how the human project may be preserved.

It may be useful first to establish common grail motifs before investigating their application in The Road. The principal early "Grail" texts fall into two general categories: chivalric romances about King Arthur's knights encountering the grail and histories of the grail from the time of Christ to its removal to Britain. The first category has been the most influential in terms of those stories' impact upon subsequent literature. This category includes Chretien de Troyes' Conte del Graal, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, and the Queste del Saint Graal (Loomis 1). (See Loomis 2-4 and Weston 12-15.) The first two of these texts in particular have as the quest hero the Arthurian knight Perceval, as well as the most common and consistent narrative tropes (Weston 15). In this storyline, Perceval is a young boy raised in the wilderness by his mother after his knight-father's death in battle. The wild, untrained boy one day sees some of Arthur's knights riding in the woods. Captivated by the sight, he follows them to Arthur's court, leaving his mother grief-stricken; she later dies of her grief. During his journey, Perceval finds two men fishing in a boat. One of the men is the Fisher King, who offers the boy hospitality for the night. At the Fisher King's castle, Perceval sees an older king dying of a grievous wound. Perceval fails to ask the "right question" (a question relating either to what ails the older man, who is usually the Fisher King's father, or whom the grail serves). …

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