Saturday, March 11, 2023

The Quest of the Holy Grail


Opening Passage:

On the eve of Pentecost when the companions of the Round Table were all assembled at Camelot, at the hour of none when the office was sung and the tables were being set up, a maiden of great beauty came riding into the hall. It was plain she had ridden hard for her horse was still lathered in sweat. She alighted and went straight to greet the king, who wished God's blessing on her.

'Sire,' she said, 'in God's name, tell me if Lancelot be here.' (p. 31)

Summary: The key word in The Quest of the Holy Grail is aventure. This gives us the English word 'adventure', but the term was much broader, to the extent that it is difficult to capture. It can mean a lucky chance, a stroke of fortune, a significant happening, an occasion for adventure, an eventful occasion, a work of divine providence. Inevitably, the quest for the Holy Grail is full of aventures; and it is noteworthy that the knights who fail in their quests have few aventures. Sir Gawain starts out with aventures, but starts finding that long stretches of his hunt involve nothing eventful; when he asks a holy man why this might be, the holy man replies that it is because he has insufficient faith, for only faith can recognize aventure. Perhaps it is because of this that in the context of the Grail quest, happenings that would in other tales seem only strange turn out to be charged with allegorical meanings.

We begin where many Arthurian tales begin, as the knights of the Round Table gather together at Pentecost. This Pentecost is especially significant, because this is the Pentecost when, for the first time, the Round Table will be complete. A sword in a stone in a river has been found, inscribed with the words that only the best knight in the world can draw it. Lancelot refuses to try; Gawain and Perceval try it and fail. But the young man Galahad comes to court and his name appears upon the Siege Perilous, the seat at which none but one can sit without dying; he pulls the sword out easily. Messengers come from the hermit Nascien to say that the long-awaited time of the hunt for the Grail has come, and shortly afterward, all the knights have a shared experience. A clap of thunder shakes the hall, which is suddenly filled with brilliant radiance as everyone is struck dumb, and the Holy Grail, veiled by a white samite cloth, appears and moves through the hall, although no one seems to be bearing it. As it passes, every knight's plate is filled with the knight's favorite food. Then it vanishes. With an entrance like that, of course, all of the knights are excited to learn more, and the quest for the Grail begins. After setting out together, they decide to split up, because they think it would be shameful to seek the Grail together in a band. And thus we find the fatal flaw of the Round Table, which only becomes clearer as the adventure continues and we follow one of its most exemplary knights, Sir Gawain: these are people who for the most part value the honorable more than the sacred.

All of the knights are on some kind of quest, but the story only follows a few. 

(1) Sir Gawain, who spends much of his time with Sir Hector of the Marsh (who is Lancelot's illegitimate half-brother). They will fail, not because they are not extraordinary knights, but because the Grail is not a reward for extraordinary knighthood. They are courteous, brave, noble after their fashion; but the Grail requires humility, and while it doesn't require forgoing honor, it does require holding even your honor to be as nothing compared to what you are seeking. Sir Hector's role seems to be to show an exemplary knight whose pride in honor guarantees he will never even get closed -- he will be turned away quite abruptly, in fact. I'm also struck by how willing he is to give up when a hermit suggests he will fail. Sir Gawain is much more promising; but he too always puts honor above devotion, and his quest is something of a disaster, since in the course of trying to do it, he manages to kill two great and honorable knights, King Baudemagus and Sir Owein the Bastard. Everyone is worse off for his quest, including Sir Gawain himself.

(2) Sir Lancelot of the Lake is the more interesting case, because he has what Sir Gawain and his half-brother do not: humility. Lancelot is a knight who is able to put things higher than his honor. Ironically, this is precisely why he is able to sin so grievously -- the reason the adultery between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere starts is that Lancelot is willing to treat his honor as nothing in comparison to her. He is capable of humility; but his entire life has been misdirected, and therefore he has several failures before he does the one and only thing that can open anything of the Grail to him: repent. His sins mean that he will not have full success; but he will be allowed before the end to have a vision of what he seeks. And, perhaps almost as important, he will have time to spend with his illegitimate son, Sir Galahad, who is everything that Sir Lancelot should have been but failed to be -- literally, because all of Sir Lancelot's talent is an artifact of the fact that his destiny was to be the knight who attained the Grail, a destiny which he ruined.

(3) Sir Bors (my perennial favorite among the Grail knights) is Sir Lancelot's cousin. He has an illegitimate son, due to a complicated situation in which he was younger, but he has been chaste since. He is a solid knight, but his real strength seems to be his capacity to endure; he is the knight who seems most actively willing to engage in ascetic practices, and he spends a portion of his quest enduring hardship after hardship. He is perceptive -- he is the first person to recognize that the still-anonymous Sir Galahad has to be Sir Lancelot's son, and he tends to draw the correct conclusions in the situations in which he finds himself. He is the only knight who shows any interest in theology, at one point getting into a friendly argument with a priest over the correct theological account of the role of the family in the spiritual life. Family actually seems to be a key theme in his story; he's related to more than half the major characters in the story, and his greatest trial occurs when he is forced into a situation in which he has to make a choice between saving his brother Sir Lionel from almost certain death and saving a maiden from being raped. Sir Bors (correctly) chooses to save the maiden, and then seeks out Sir Lionel in the hope of saving him. Sir Lionel managed narrowly to avoid death for other reasons, but he is furious at Sir Bors for treating the bond of brotherhood as if it were nothing. Sir Bors is willing to die at the hand of his brother, but Sir Lionel also killing both a hermit and Sir Calogrenant (a cousin to Sir Owein the Bastard, perhaps suggesting that we are getting a thematic link to Sir Gawain's killing of the latter) is the last straw, and the brothers come to blow, Sir Bors being spared having to kill his brother only by the intervention of heaven. His road is long and hard, but he will attain the Grail.

(4) Sir Perceval is one of the most talented knights of the Round Table, but he has an innocence that no other knight has. He is almost childlike at times. This is what will make it possible for him to succeed in his quest, but it is also his greatest spiritual danger, because innocence is not holiness. In direct contrast to the very prudent Bors, Sir Perceval has almost no prudence. It is perhaps notable that he is the Grail knight who most has to deal with the devil, who repeatedly outsmarts him and nearly derails his quest entirely by appearing as a damsel in distress, whom Sir Perceval aids with a complete lack of caution. But his devotion to Christ will eventually pull him through to attain the Grail.

(5) And we thus come to Sir Galahad, Lancelot's illegitimate son. Unlike Sir Bors, who seems to have had a fairly ordinary upbringing, and Sir Perceval, who was deliberately raised by his mother in a sheltered life away from court, Sir Galahad was raised in a family with a tradition of devotion to higher things -- through his mother he is related in direct descent from the brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea. Devotion to the Grail is part of his family heritage. But his success is not really due to that. He has all of his father's talent, but unlike his father he does not devote it to worldly things, and one of his notable features, which makes him unique among all the knights in the book, is that he deliberately tries not to kill people, no matter how bad they are. If they die, they can no longer repent. In the course of his quest he will at one point, with Bors and Perceval, have to kill in self-defense a bunch of knights who are involved in some truly horrible things, and he is still actively distressed at having had to kill them. Of all the knights, he will most fully attain the Grail; and he will die in doing so, unlike his father having fulfilled his destiny.

There are a number of secondary characters who play interesting roles in the story, as well; perhaps the most interesting is Percival's sister, who has a noble but tragic end, and who plays a very significant role in making it possible for the three Grail knights to achieve their quest.

The Quest of the Holy Grail is famous for its speeches -- there are speeches practically every other page, often going into great detail about the allegorical meaning or legendary background of everything that has just happened. One might think that a story with so much speechifying would have equally verbose storytelling, but the reverse is true. The narrative is all very tightly, very vividly written, so much so that it is clear that the contrast between the swiftly moving and colorfully concrete narrative and the more abstract and leisurely speeches is deliberate. I suspect that the author saw his story as a sort of spiritual manual for laymen, but he has with extraordinary skill set the discourse into a grippingly told story to keep the reader moving through. I was very impressed by the artistry of it.

Favorite Passage:

When Bors and Perceval saw that Galahad was dead they plumbed the very depths of grief. And had they not been men of the greatest godliness of life and character, they might have fallen into despair on account of the great love they had borne him. And the people of the country, too, mourned him with heavy hearts.

There where he died they dug his grave; and as soon as he had been buried Perceval left for a hermitage outside the city walls and took the religious habit. Bors kept him company, but never quitted his secular dress, for it was still his ambition to return to King Arthur's court. Perceval abode in the hermitage for a year and three days and then departed this life; and Bors had him buried in the spiritual palace where his sister and Galahad lay. (p. 284)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


The Quest of the Holy Grail, Pauline Matarasso, tr., Penguin (New York: 2005).