. . . . [T]he action of In Country occurs in the geography of a "waste land," together with the symbols, motifs, and narrative structures of the grail legend that communicate that geography. (Booth, David. “Sam's Quest, Emmett's Wound: Grail Motifs in Bobbie Ann Mason's Portrait of America After Vietnam”)
The grail legend has been a routine resource for modern literature ever since Jessie Weston's rich and influential 1920 book, From Ritual to Romance, linked the many versions of the legend with what she called "an ancient Ritual" seeking "the secret of Life, physical and spiritual" (203). T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land--one of the greatest poems written in the 21st century--was inspired partly by Weston's book.
Weston/Nature Cults/The Fisher King Myth
According to Weston, the grail legend, in the ensemble of its elements, expresses a recurrent pattern of beliefs and ritual actions associated with Nature cults throughout history. Weston found that pattern in diverse cultures and claimed a kind of family resemblance between, for example, ritual passages in the Rig-Veda, Syro-Phoenician nature cults, Greek nature cults, and the grail legend in its many forms in Germanic, Scandinavian, and English literatures. In particular, the account of the Fisher King, a figure which recurs in a number of fertility myths, is significant. His land is under a curse and laid waste. The Fisher King is impotent, by illness, maiming (a wound to the groin), or old age; and his people are likewise infertile. The curse can only be lifted by the arrival of a stranger who must put or answer certain ritual questions.
The Legend of the Holy Grail
Weston notes that in Medieval times the Fisher King myth was combined with the legend of the Grail. The Grail was the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper and in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood from the wound made in Christ's side at the crucifixion, and brought it to Glastonbury in the West of England. The Grail was therefore regarded as a supremely holy Christian relic. It was lost, and the search for the Grail became a powerful narrative image for man's search for spiritual truth, an image used by many medieval writers. The searcher for the Grail is a questing knight, who can heal the King, the land, and save himself by asking the proper question; his quest takes him to the Chapel Perilous where he must sleep on an altar-bier and be killed and reborn; and then he must journey further to a Castle of the Holy Grail, where the Knight is shown many marvelous things, including a lance and a cup (the Lance which pierced Christ's side), a head on a silver platter, and a grail that offers whatever food the questing Knight desires. When the Knight asks the proper questions, the plight of the land and the people is eased.
Weston traces the cup and the lance to drawings on tarot cards that were used in ancient Egypt to forecast the rising waters of the Nile, and thus the renewal of fertility in the land. She further suggests that the lance is symbolic of the male sexual organ, and the cup of the female organ.
T. S. Eliot's Use of the Myths in The Waste Land
Inspired partly by Weston's book, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land compared English culture and society after WWI to the droughtstricken land of the grail legends. However, the "waste" is not that of war's devastation and bloodshed, but the emotional and spiritual sterility of Western man, the "waste" of our civilization. The central theme of the poem is concerned with the breakdown of civilization, the resulting death-in-life which is the consequence of that breakdown, and the difficulties of cultural regeneration from this death-in-life. Thus the poem is ultimately about the salvation of the Waste Land, not as a certainty, but as a possibility: of emotional, spiritual, intellectual vitality to be regained. Thus, the England of Eliot's poem awaits some healing diagnosis by a questing hero.