Sunday, February 26, 2023

Fortnightly Book, February 26

 The Queste del Saint Graal, also known as the Aventure del Seint Graal, is the next fortnightly book. The Queste is a part of what is usually known as the Lancelot-Grail or the Vulgate Cycle, a collection of partly self-standing and tonally very different works that nonetheless have clear interconnections with each other and together form a complete Arthurian story -- in this case, a story that begins with the background of the Holy Grail, then proceeds through the early years of King Arthur's reign, then continues with the Quest of the Holy Grail, and ends with the destruction of the Arthurian realm and the death of King Arthur. The Queste, of course, is concerned with the hunting of the Holy Grail itself. It is a famously peculiar work; it is easily the most explicitly religious and spiritual work in any of the French cycles of Arthurian legends, and is notoriously filled with extensive sermonizing on matters of theological doctrine and practice. It has sometimes been suggested that it was written by a Cistercian monk; this is very unlikely, but the work has a lot in common with Cistercian theology (although some of this may just be general commonality with ascetic and mystical literature in general), and some things suggest that the author was familiar enough with Cistercian practices that he probably spent some time in a Cistercian monastery. It is thus remarkable (and a sign of a way in which it is very unmonkish) that it is closely connected in the cycle with the tales of the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere. One of the things I find interesting about the whole cycle of Arthurian legend is that it takes very seriously what we would today call 'lay spirituality', and the Queste is the crowning example of this. Despite its many connections with monastic theology, it is a very un-monkish work. The hermits and recluses and occasional monks are all supporting cast weaving in and out of a story that is not about them; all of the main characters -- Gawain, Lancelot, Bors, Perceval, Galahad -- are knights, and we see them each face very lay and secular problems concerned with being a Christian knight, seeking union with Christ while struggling to uphold one's honor in a profession with a very worldly aspect. 

The Queste is also in some ways the most influential telling of the hunt for the Grail. It gives us the Grail story in what we generally think of as its canonical form, with its canonical characters and results -- Gawain a disappointing failure, Lancelot a hopeful not-quite-success, Bors and Perceval successes in their distinctive ways, and Galahad reaching the final consummation. This pulls together a number of very different approaches to the Grail legend, and does in a fairly satisfying way. The Queste, or at least a version of it, is also the direct influence on the version of the Grail story that we read in English in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. People have noted the curiosity of Malory, who has a tendency to increase the realism of the tales he is telling, choosing the most allegorical, dream-ridden, and miracle-infused version of the Grail legend as his template. He does cut out a lot of the sermonizing, of course, and abridges a great deal of the rest, but it's often thought a rather remarkable way for him to proceed at all. My suspicion is that he does this because the Queste provides one of the very best Lancelot stories in all of the vast territory of Arthurian legend. Lancelot is clearly one of Malory's favorite characters, and elsewhere he will often expand Lancelot's role at the expense of other major knights like Gawain, and the Queste, among other things, gives us in Lancelot a tale of a great knight with a very great (and ultimately very destructive) sin who is nonetheless not denied blessing by God. Regardless, the Queste has left an indelible mark on the Arthurian corpus.

I will be reading it in the Penguin Classics edition, The Quest of the Holy Grail, translated by Pauline Matarasso.