arthurian literature

Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur Book 13 – Grail 1

We had a busy start to the month here, and now it’s already half over. I haven’t had much time to write posts, so we are returning again to the Arthurian story, now entering its penultimate phase. I’m not super-fond of the Grail story as a story, but it does have a lot of interesting stuff, even if some of it plays oddly against all of the previous books.

We start with a throwback to the first part of the collection, the feast of Pentecost. All the knights have gathered per Arthur’s tradition, and a mysterious damsel arrives looking for Lancelot. He goes off with her to a nunnery, where a couple of his cousins are staying, and is introduced to Galahad, who is so beautiful that all of the nuns cry. Galahad gets knighted but doesn’t go back to Camelot with his relatives just yet; there’s some stage-setting to be done before he can make his entrance.

You may remember the Siege Perilous from the early books. There’s traditionally one empty seat there, waiting for the Grail Knight. This morning it has different lettering, which suggests the day is at hand and also fixes the date of the story in the year 445. Everyone is very excited, and even more excited when report is brought of a stone with a sword in it floating down the river — none other than the sword of Balin, whose dolorous stroke wounded Pelles, Galahad’s grandfather. The sword has been floating around waiting for Galahad’s arrival ever since Merlin stuck it in the rock.

The sword can only be drawn from the stone by “the best knight of the world.” Lancelot immediately calls “not it,” and prophesies that if anyone who isn’t the rightful owner tries to draw it, they will be wounded by it. Arthur gets testy and orders Gawaine to give it a try; he fails. Percival steps up and tries, just to keep Gawaine company (never mind that their families are embroiled in a deadly feud), with similar results. At dinner that night, the doors and windows all close by themselves, and an old man in white enters, accompanied by a swordless young knight in red: Galahad. The old man escorts him to the Siege Perilous and departs. The family resemblance is not lost on anyone, and the whole crowd concludes that a) this is Lancelot’s kid and b) he’s going to do the Grail thing. Arthur takes Galahad down to the river, where he draws the sword from the stone.

The parallels with Arthur’s origin story are hard to ignore. Galahad is sort of an inversion of Arthur; although the genre demands that he is a good fighter, rather than becoming embroiled in a war of secular authority, he’s destined for a different sort of victory. To underline that, another random damsel shows up looking for Lancelot, purely so she can (weeping) point out that only yesterday he was the best knight in the world, but not any more.

Sensing that many of the fellowship will not return from the adventure they’re about to undertake and anxious to put young Galahad through his paces, Arthur calls for one last tournament. Galahad naturally does very well, defeating all comers other than Lancelot himself and Percival. A bit of observer commentary notes that it’s only to be expected, since Lancelot is related to Jesus (admittedly a rather distant connection at this point, and they don’t spell out the details).

Further miracles occur at dinner that night: thunder, lightning, and the presence of the Holy Ghost announce the vision of the Grail itself. Impulsive Gawaine makes the first vow to seek the real item. Arthur is sad, knowing that he’ll never see many of his favorites again, even after Lancelot points out that it would be pretty great to die in this particular quest. The queen is also sad, obviously. Just in case anyone was thinking about it, an old knight stops by to warn the gathering that no women are allowed on this journey. Their rulers’ distress notwithstanding, after church the whole 150 of them depart to a neighboring castle, after which they go their separate ways in the quest. 

Galahad already has a cool sword, and now he acquires a shield that once belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. He dispels a fiend that was living in a tomb (he’s the original paladin), and knights his squire Melias, who wants to go with him on the quest. They come to a fork in the road, and although Galahad has a bad feeling about it, Melias takes the left-hand way. Melias is wounded near to death almost immediately. Galahad rescues him and takes him to an abbey (there are countless abbeys in this adventure), where he will have a long recovery. Galahad goes on alone and receives direction from A Voice to head for the Castle of Maidens, home of The Wicked Custom. Malory has not been squeamish about much up to this point, so it’s a little weird to see him being delicate about anything, but I guess gang rape was where he drew the line. Galahad fights the resident knights and frees the castle and environs from their evil sway. 

Gawaine, Gareth, and their cousin Uwaine are all in the neighborhood, and they end up dispatching seven evil knights (who represent the Seven Deadly Sins). The three split up after that, and Gawaine ends up at a hermitage. The hermit gives him an earful about his sinful ways, and wants to assign him penance. Gawaine points out that knightly life is already full of pain, so no thanks.

Galahad goes on alone from the wicked castle, in disguise now for some reason. He encounters his father and Percival, defeats them both and goes on, afraid of being recognized if he hangs around. Percival stops to visit another hermit, but Lancelot goes on by himself so he can have a religiously fraught experience:  He finds a chapel that appears deserted from the outside but is richly arrayed within. He can not enter it, and sleeps outside. He sees a sick knight visit the chapel; the Grail floats out on a silver table, and the knight is healed by its touch. The knight and his squire notice Lancelot, deduce that he’s under some terrible weight of sin, and steal his helmet, sword and horse. Lest the reader miss all of the cues in that sequence, Lancelot then gets a visit from one of the many Voices that show up in this story, which tells him to go away, this is a holy spot. Feeling guilty about his whole life to date, he walks on to yet another hermitage, hears Mass, confesses (this part goes on for a while), is warned to stay strictly away from the queen from now on (as if), and hears a sermon about the fig tree.

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