la Haute Queste del Saint Graal
Each year the Knights of the Round Table gathered at Camelot for the feast of Pentecost, to relate their deeds and the marvels they had beheld. Each year, however, their company remained inclomplete, for the last place, the Siege Perilous, remained empty. According to custom, they had, each year, found their names were written in gold around the Round Table, but one year they found new words written above the Siege Perilous. These read:
Four hundred winters and four hundred and fifty accomplished after the passion of our Lord Jesu Christ ought this siege be fulfilled.
Lancelot stated that he had accounted for the time since the Crucifixion, and said that the siege ought to be fulfilled that very day. All the other knights agreed, and they covered the Siege Perilous with a silk cloth so that the words could not be seen until the rightful knight came to them. They did not have long to wait. As they seated themselves at their own respective place at the Table, an old man entered the hall at Camelot accompanied by a fresh-faced young knight who was unarmed, save for an empty scabbard at his waist.
As the entire company watched, the old man led the boy up to the Round Table, and then to the Siege Perilous beside Lancelot. Lifting the silk cloth off the siege, the gathered knights saw that the lettering had changed, and now read:
This is the siege of Galahad the haut prince.
Sitting the young knight on the Siege Perilous, the old man departed, leaving the boy as the centre of attention. Many marvelled that one so young should dare sit in the siege, but Lancelot recognised him as his son, and knew that all that had been prophesied had been fulfilled.
The following day Arthur led Galahad to a lake near Camelot where his knights had found a sword set in a stone. Here accounts vary, for some say the stone, complete with sword, was taken to Camelot, though others say it was left where found. This sword was inscribed with lettering that pronounced that only the best knight in all the world would pull it clear. Many thought that this surely meant Sir Lancelot, but he declined even to try, for he remembered his sin of loving his Queen. Sir Gawain and Sir Perceval both tried, and failed. Arthur, sure that Galahad was the rightful owner, bade him attempt, and he easily and cleanily lifted the sword from the stone. Placing it in his empty scabbard, Galahad found it a perfect fit.
At a great jousting tournament arranged so that Galahad might test his skills against the other knights, he acquitted himself superbly, managing to unhorse a good many of the Knights of the Round Table, save two whom he did not fight, Lancelot and Perceval. That evening the knights once again gathered in the hall of Camelot and scarcely had they sat down when there was a monstrous roar of thunder that shook the walls. Amidst this clamour, the hall was flooded with a brilliant light that was described as being ‘seven times’ clearer than daylight, and all the knights present felt themselves filled with the grace of the Holy Ghost. They all appeared fairer than they ever were before, and they were all struck dumb by the presence they felt.
Then a golden centre appeared to this light, and, when the knights became accustomed to the brilliance of this new light, they perceived a dish, covered in white samite cloth, so that they could not see the dish itself. This was the Holy Grail, and with it came all manner of meat and drink that the knights loved best. Slowly the Grail crossed over the length of the hall, and then vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. In the sudden emptiness of the hall the entire company burst into one voice.
Sir Gawain was the first to his feet, pledging that he would go out in quest for the Holy Grail, promising to labour ‘for a year and a day or longer if needs be’, not resting until he had seen the Grail more openly than it had been seen that night. Each of the other knights made similar promises, but Arthur remained silent. He remembered the prophecies and teachings of Merlin and knew that many of the knights would not return, and the Round Table would never again be complete.
The quest continued for many years, and all the knight who set out to seek this holiest of vessels had many wondrous adventures, but none more than Lancelot, who was to see the Grail at Castle Carbonek, or Galahad, whose destiny it was to fulfil the quest.
Lancelot rode hard for several days until he came to an old chapel where he thought he might rest. He tried to enter, but found he could reach only the altar, richly covered in silk and set with six great candles in a silver candlestick. He found no way into the chapel and at last, tired and dismayed, laid himself on his shield at a stony cross outside.
Later he was half wakened when two white palfreys (saddle horses) rode up to the cross, bearing a sick knight who moaned in pain for the Grail to come to heal him. Still half asleep, for it seemed that he could not fully awaken, Lancelot stirred and witnessed the candlestick from the altar float to the cross. It was followed by a silver table and the shining holy vessel of the Grail, though Lancelot could not see anyone bearing it aloft. He heard the sick knight sit up and welcome the Grail, and he saw him kneel on the ground to touch and kiss the vessel. Having done so, the knight rose up again, healed. The Grail remained at the cross for some time, with Lancelot looking upon it, then it glided back into the chapel. Yet Lancelot found he had no power to follow it, and drifted back off to sleep.
When, some hours later, Lancelot properly awoke, he recalled all that he had seen and heard, but it seemed as if a dream. As he pondered on his recollections, a voice spoke to him and told him to remove himself from that holy place, for he was unworthy of being there. Lancelot was greatly troubled by these words, but knew the reason behind them, for, on a holy quest, his earthly sins, his lust for his queen, had made him unworthy. He was even more troubled when he found that the knight, whom he had witnessed being so miraculously cured, had taken his horse, helm (helmet) and sword.
Removing himself from the chapel, his heart leaden with sorrow, Lancelot went to a hermitage, where the hermit heard his confession and absolved him of his sins. With the hermit’s blessing, Lancelot renewed his quest and, after many months, came to the water of Mortaise (Marcoisa), where he laid down to sleep. In his sleep Lancelot received a vision that told him to enter the first ship he came to. Arising, he went to the strand, where he found a ship that had neither sail nor oar and he entered. Upon doing so, he was overwhelmed by a great peace and joy. He remained with the ship for more than a month.
Growing somewhat weary of the small ship, Lancelot was seated on the shore one day when he heard the thundering of a horse’s hoofs and saw a fair knight ride up and dismount. Taking his saddle and bridle with him, this knight went straight to the ship. Curious about this self-assured young knight, Lancelot followed and made himself known. The young knight was none other than Galahad, Lancelot’s own son. The two embraced and told each other of their various adventures.
Upon leaving Camelot, Galahad had ridden into strange lands unknown to him. Many adventures had befallen him, but he was always successful in his endeavours and gained much in knightly experience. He had defeated many knights in fair combat, had given support to the defenders in a great siege and, with their comrades Bors and Perceval, had been set adrift on a boat, which had beached them in the marshes of Scotland, there to be challenged and do battle with many knights.
Lancelot revelled in hearing of these adventures and felt proud of his son. For a full six months, father and son voyaged together in that boat and encountered many perilous adventures, but they never came near to the Holy Grail. Finally Galahad left his father to seek the Grail, as he was ordained.
Sorry to see his son depart, Lancelot placed his trust in the boat, and, after a month at sea, it beached at midnight beside a fine castle. A door opened out towards the sea and a voice bade Lancelot enter. Arming himself for the adventure he knew lay ahead, Lancelot approached the gate. As he did, he saw two lions on guard and immediately drew his sword in readiness. As he did so, it was struck from his hand by some unseen force, and a voice chided his evil faith that he put more trust in his weapons than his Maker.
Without further challenge, Lancelot entered the castle, but once inside he could find no door that would open. Behind one door he heard sweet and reverent singing and he knew full well that the Grail was within. Dropping to his knees, he prayed to God that he should be shown at least some part of the Grail. Looking up from his prayers, he watched as the chamber door swung slowly open. A green light shone out from the room, a light that was the cleanest and purest Lancelot had even seen. Within the light coming coming from that room was a silver table, the Holy Grail covered in red samite cloth and all the ornaments of the altar, along with a priest who seemed to celebrate mass. Lancelot could no longer bear to remain outside the room and, taking a deep breath, he strode into the room.
Reaching out to touch the holy vessel, Lancelot was thrown to the ground by a scorching wind. Unable to move, he felt hands all around him that carried him out of the room, leaving him in the passageway. The following morning the people of the castle found Lancelot’s inert body and carried him to a bedchamber, where he lay without stirring. On the twenty-fifth day, he woke and, realising that he had achieved as much of the Grail quest as he was to be allowed, gave thanks to the Lord.
Elsewhere, Galahad, since leaving his father, had had many adventures, before meeting up with Bors and Perceval again. The three knights rode togheter until they came to the Castle Carbonek, which they entered, to be received courteously by King Pelles, who knew that the quest for the Holy Grail would now be achieved.
King Pelles, his son Eliazar and the three knights sat down to dine, but before they could eat a voice came to them, saying:
There are two among you that are not in the quest for the Holy Grail, and therefore you both should depart.
Pelles and his son stood up and, with a single glance at Galahad, they slipped away. Scarce had they gone when a man and four angels appeared before the knights. The angels set the man down before a table of silver, and on that table the Holy Grail appeared. The man, who was dressed in the robes of a bishop, started to celebrate mass. He kissed Galahad and directed Galahad to kiss his fellow knights, which he did. The man then disappeared.
Looking up, the three knights saw a man come out of the Grail, a man with open wounds that bled freely, as did those of Jesus Christ. He offered the Holy Grail to Galahad, who knelt and received his Saviour, who told him that he must depart with Bors and Perceval the following morning and put to sea in a boat they would find ready and waiting for them.
The following day the three knights set out and, after three days, they came to a ship, on board which they found a table of silver and the Holy Grail covered in red samite. They fell to their knees and prayed. The ship put out to sea and took them to the pagan city of Sarras. There they disembarked, taking the table of silver with them. They remained in that city for twelve months (some accounts make this year follow a period of imprisonment during which the Holy Grail sustained them). On that day, at the year’s end, a man in the likeness of a bishop came to them, carrying the Holy Grail. They celebrated mass, and the man revealed himself to the knights as Josephe, son of Joseph of Arimathea, and Galahad realised that his time on earth was near an end.
Galahad knelt before the table that held the Holy Grail and prayed. As he did so, his soul departed his body, and Galahad, having achieved his destiny, passed away. The watching Bors and Perceval beheld a host of angels take Galahad’s soul to heaven, while a great hand came down and took the vessel and bore that up to heaven as well. That was the last that any earthly man saw of the Holy Grail.
The basis of the quest appears to come from Celtic traditions, and, although the story given here forms possibly the best-known version of the tale, there are innumerable variations. The word Grail is derived from the Old French graal, meaning a type of dish. The Grail is first mentioned in the works of Chrétien de Troyes, in which Perceval is the hero, and the Grail itself is simply referred to as a ‘grail’, a common noun. It was not until later that it became ‘the Grail’.
At first Perceval fails to achieve the Grail, thanks to his not asking the Grail Question – What is the Grail? Whom does it serve? – thereby restoring the Maimed King to health and the land to fertility. Even though in its final form the Grail has become the Chalice Cup of the Last Supper, its origins are not so simple to determine. Connection has been sought between the Grail of Arthurian legend and the Chalice supposedly brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, but the magical qualities of the Grail stories suggest a much older, Otherworld connection.
Arthur’s expedition to the Otherworld to obtain a magical cauldron, as recorded in the Preiddeu Annwfn, seems to reflect the ability of the Grail to provide unending sustenance. This story has a direct parallel in the Mabinogion story of Culhwch and Olwen. Both have aspects that directly relate to the Grail quest as we know it today, so either or both may have been used as the originals; thus the magical cauldron of Celtic tradition becomes transformed into the symbolic cup of the Eucharist. The romanticised events surrounding the quest itself are, however, without doubt purely the inventions of the various authors who have related the tale.
The Fisher Kings, not mentioned as such in the above rendition of the Grail story, were said to be the descendants of Joseph of Arimathea who guarded the Grail in Castle Carbonek. Also associated with the Grail was a bleeding lance, usually identified with the Lance of Longinus, said to be that with which Jesus’ side was pierced by the centurion. In the instances where this connection is made, the Grail is also mentioned as having been used to catch Christ’s blood as it flowed from this wound. It seems that this alone is the earlier use for the Grail, the association with the Last Supper coming later.
In the early version of the Grail myth by Chrétien, the mysterious and wondrous vessel is housed in the Grail Castle, where it is guarded by the Grail Keeper. This guard, the wounded Fisher King, has been maimed ‘through his thighs’ and feeds only from a magical dish – the Grail. As a result of the injury, caused by the Dolorous Stroke, the land around the castle has become infertile and will revive only if the King himself is healed. This, however, can happen only if there is a knight brave enough to face all the perils on the dangerous journey through the ‘land of wailing women’ to the Grail Castle, and then be wise enough to ask the Grail Question. This will then break the enchantment under which the King and his land are held.
This curious tale is generally agreed to have derived from an ancient fertility myth, and it is interesting that the Christian symbol of a fish (Christ) appears to have been the origin of the Fisher King. The ‘land of wailing women’ is obviously a reference to the Otherworld, so again associations with the Celtic Otherworld of Annwfn are not hard to make.
Even though Galahad is usually portrayed as being the sole knight to achieve the Grail, other sources beg to differ. The Continuations, Wolfram and Perlesvaus name the successful knight as Perceval. The Diu Crône names Gawain and Sir Thomas Malory names Galahad, Bors and Perceval as having all been successful. The Queste del Sainte Graal and its derivatives name Galahad, and it is this work that is alone in saying that the Grail was, after Galahad had completed his quest, carried up to heaven by a hand.
The Grail episode remains one of the most fascinating and enigmatic of all the Arthurian legends, and has found almost universal appeal, its underlying theme of seeking mystical union with God being appropriate to many religious beliefs, not solely Christianity.