Indiana Jones and the Wise Choice

At the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jones and his rival Walter Donovan1 make it past three riddle-based traps….

By the way, who the heck maintains all these traps? I’d love to see one of these sorts of adventure stories where the hero manages to get past the traps because each and every one of them is broken. The springs have rusted, dirt and dust have gummed up the works, mice and rats have chewed up all the ropes… Oh, and the piles of bodies give away the presence of all the traps…

Where was I? Oh yes. They find themselves in a room filled with dozens of cups and chalices, and a very old knight who is acting as a last-ditch guard on the hidden Grail.

The final challenge? Choose the True Grail from among the false ones.

Donovan, who got their first, has his assistant Dr. Elsa Schneider make the choice. She picks out an ornate golden one which she assures him is “first century Aramaic”. Donovan takes it, fills it from the font that is conveniently there, takes a drink, and turns to dust.

Indiana arrives in time to see all this, and gets to go next. In a hurry to use the healing powers of the Grail to save his dying father, he looks for a “carpenter’s cup”2, and picks a simple wooden cup. It turns out to be the True Grail. “You have chosen wisely”, says the knight.

Indiana rushes out with the Grail, heals his father, but no one gets to keep the Grail as the temple collapses around them when Schneider tries to escape with it. She and the Grail wind up being buried in the ruins.

Here’s my problem with this whole scene.

While it’s pretty certain that the original Grail, the cup used at the Last Supper, was a simple wooden one3, it’s not likely that it would have stayed unadorned over the centuries. The Church had a habit of decorating important items or storing them in ornate reliquaries. Chances are the Grail would have wound up looking something like this:

Behold! Arthur, this is the Holy Grail.

The other thing is that putting just one plain cup amongst a few dozen elaborate golden chalices isn’t that great a way of hiding it. It would stick out like a sore thumb. Pretty much anyone who made it that far should have little trouble picking it out. “Hey, this one isn’t like any of the others. I’ll bet it’s the True Grail!” And if you put a couple of plain cups in the mix, you still have the problem of being able to decide just which one of them was the real deal.

Here’s what I think happened.

We know from the Grail legends that it did indeed have a lot of healing powers. Cures the sick, makes crops grow, and all that good stuff. The thing was, you had to acquire it honestly. If you stole it or cheated your way to becoming its owner, it would have the opposite effect. Your crops would fail, you’d suffer from an unspecified illness, nothing would go your way. The key factor is in how you came to possess the Grail.

Donovan wanted the Grail for his own vanity. He wanted its powers for himself – and he didn’t even have the balls to make the choice himself. Indiana, however, wanted the Grail to save his father. Not for his own personal glory. That’s why it worked for him.

I feel that “choosing wisely” here had nothing whatsoever to do with the cup you picked4. The whole display was just to dazzle the greedy. The choice was rather your reasons for wanting the Grail. Choose to get the Grail for a good reason, and its powers would ensure you got it.

1. Played by Julian Glover, one of those fine actors who seems to be in everything. In his case, he’s been in Doctor Who (“The Crusades”, “City of Death”), The Empire Strikes Back, a James Bond movie (For Your Eyes Only), provided a voice in a Harry Potter movie (Chamber of Secrets), and has been seen in Game of Thrones. That’s probably all of the biggest TV and film franchises around. If he could just manage to get into Star Trek somehow…

2. The word describing Jesus’ profession translates better as “handyman”. Think of finding a Yelp listing for “Joseph & Son, General Contractors, Nazareth…”

3. Actually, the cup probably didn’t belong to Jesus in the first place. The Last Supper was something of a clandestine meeting in a secret location.

“With that he sent forth two of his disciples and said to them: “Go into the city, and a man carrying an earthenware vessel of water will encounter you. Follow him, and wherever he goes inside say to the householder, ‘The Teacher says: “Where is the guest room for me where I may eat the passover with my disciples?”’ And he will show you a large upper room, furnished in preparation; and there prepare for us.” So the disciples went out, and they entered the city and found it just as he said to them; and they prepared for the passover.” – Mark 14: 13-16

The homeowner would have probably provided dishes as well as food and drink, so there’s no telling what the cup would have looked like or been made of.

Of course, they could have done takeout, in which case the Grail might have looked like this:


4. Perhaps the Grail wasn’t actually among the cups in the display. If it were actually somehow in the font that provided the water, then that might work…

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