Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia

Sir Galahad

Galaad, Galaas, Galaat, Galaç, Galade, Galas, Galasso, Galat, Galath, Galeas, Galeatto, Galeazzo, Galeotto, Gwalhwavad

A chaste boy-knight, son to Lancelot of the Lake and princess Elaine, who raised him with consultation with his father. He replaced Perceval as the Grail hero. As a knight, he embodied purity and virtue.

The writer of the Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal probably invented him because no existing Arthurian knight could fit the lofty description that the author assigned to the Grail Knight – the divine warrior.

It is widely accepted that the name came from Galaad or Gilead found in Genesis 31:48 – the heap of rocks marking the boundary between the lands of Laban and Jacob, signifying a kind of spiritual covenant. R.S. Loomis (Grail, 180) thought that the name may have been influenced by a variation of Gawaine, such as ‘Galaain’. His mother is variously called Elaine (of Carbonek), Amite and Perevida.

On a tomb near Carbonek was written a prophecy:

Here shall come a leopard of king's blood, and he ... shall engender a lion ... the which lion shall pass all other knight.

His arrival was prophesied from the time of Joseph of Arimathea. It was said that he would complete the Grail Quest and would end the other spiritual adventures in Britain. When Lancelot came to Carbonek, King Pellam, recognizing him as the leopard, and apparently aware that the lion of the prophecy would heal himself and his land, helped arrange for Lancelot to beget Galahad on Elaine. Lancelot’s own baptized name had been Galahad before it was changed by Viviane, and this is no doubt where Elaine got the name for her son. Sir Bors visited Carbonek while Galahad was a babe in arms, and remarked on his likeness to Lancelot.

Truly, said Elaine, wit ye well this child he gat on me. Then Sir Bors wept for joy, and he prayed to God it might prove as good a knight as his father was.

The episode caused a rift between Lancelot and Guenevere, and Lancelot therefore remained absent through most of Galahad’s childhood.

There is some confusion as to Galahad’s upbringing. According to the Vulgate, Galahad lived at Carbonek with his grandfather during the time Lancelot lived with Elaine at Joyous Isle and, when Lancelot departed, Galahad, wanting to remain near his father, traveled to the convent where Pellam’s sister was abbess and lived there until he was about eighteen. Another account claims he was placed as a child in a nunnery, the abbess there being his paternal great-aunt. Galahad represents a fusion of knighthood and theology; a warrior-monk whose only peer in Arthurian literature might be Saint Illtud.

When Lancelot leaves Joyous Isle, Malory has Elaine tell him that

... at this same feast of Pentecost shall ... Galahad be made knight, for he is fully now fifteen winter old.

A few chapters later, however, when an unnamed gentlewoman brings Lancelot to the convent to visit his son, the nuns present Galahad as

the child the which we have nourished.

It appears to me that Malory cut out three years Galahad spent at the convent, but failed to make his account fully consistent in so doing.

Sir Galahad is borught to the court of King Arthur. | Artist: Walter Crane

Lancelot’s visit to the convent came on the Eve of Pentecost. At this time Lancelot dubbed Galahad knight, but Galahad did not return at once to Arthur’s court with his father. Next day the sword which had once been Sir Balin’s floated down the river to Camelot. An inscription said that only the best knight could pull out the sword. After Gawaine and Percivale, at the King’s behest, had attempted without success to draw the sword “a good old man, and an ancient [Nascien?] brought Galahad to court” on foot, in red arms, without sword or shield, save a scabbard hanging by his side.

Galahad drew the sword. | Artist: Alfred W. Pollard

The old man led Galahad to the Siege Perilous, which was now found to bear his name, and at him in it. After dinner, Arthur took Galahad to the river, where the young knight drew the sword from the floating marble.

Now a gentlewoman rode to them to tell Lancelot he was no longer the greatest knight of the world and to predict the Grail Quest. Disturbed by the thought that he would never see all his knights together again after the Quest, and wanting to prove Galahad, Arthur held the last tournament before the Quest.

At this tourney Galahad

... defouled many good knights of the Table save twain, that was Sir Launcelot and Sir Percivale.

When Guenevere looked at Galahad’s face after the tourney, she said:

Soothly I dare well say that Sir Launcelot begat him, for never two men resembled more in likeness, therefore it tis no marvel though he be of great prowess ... he is of all parties come of the best knights of the world and of the highest lineage; for Sir Launcelot is come but of the eighth degree from our Lord Jesu Christ, and Sir Galahad is of the ninth degree from our Lord Jesu Christ.

That evening the Holy Grail, veiled in white samite, appeared in Arthur’s hall to feed the knights at supper, and Gawaine was first to vow to quest for a clear look at the vessel. Later the Queen questioned Galahad about his father and place of birth. He told her readily of his country, but would neither affirm nor deny his relationship to Lancelot. When Guenevere assured him he need not be ashamed of his father, whom he so much resembled,

... then Sir Galahad was a little ashamed and said: Madam, sith ye know in certain, wherefore do ye ask it me? for he that is my father shall be known openly and all betimes.

In a notable alternative to the tradition story of Galahad as a virgin, Wordsworth says that he resurrected and married the Egyptian Maid, a beautiful visitor to Arthur’s court who had been wounded by Merlin.

Galahad is often portrayed with a shield featuring a white cross on a red background. This shield represents Galahad’s piety, righteousness, and his divine calling.

The Grail Quest

He was given a white shield, made by Evelake, with a red cross which Joseph of Arimathea had drawn in blood. In some of the most prominent adventure, he ended the wicked customs of the Castle of Maidens, freed the castle Carcelois, destroyed the Castle of Treachery, helped repel King Mark of Cornwall’s siege of Camelot, freed Moses (a former follower of Joseph of Arimathea) from the Abbey of the Burning Tomb, and performed several healings. As several hermits and sages predicted, he surpasses his father in both knightly prowess (defeating, among others, Lancelot, Gawaine, Bors, Perceval, and Palamedes) and spiritually (he remained a sinless virgin all his life). He befriended a number of Knights of the Round Table, including Tristan and Palamedes. He spent six months on a barge with his father.

Embarking on the Quest, Galahad rode for four days, apparently alone, without adventure before coming to the Abbey of the Adventurous Shield, where he met Ywaine and Bagdemagus. Galahad agreed to let Bagdemagus try to take the Adventurous Shield first. The White Knight who waited outside struck down Bagdemagus. Then, when Galahad came with the shield, the knight saluted him courteously and told him the shield’s history. Bagdemagus’ former squire Melias de Lile, who had begged to accompany Galahad, now begged to be made knight, and Galahad obliged. The two returned briefly to the abbey and Galahad cleared the churchyard of an unquiet soul, who cried, when Galahad blessed it,

Galahad, I see there environ about thee so many angels that my power may not dere [harm] thee.

Melias and Galahad left again and parted at the crossroads, but Melias soon got into trouble and Galahad had to rescue him.

Leaving the wounded Melias with an old monk, Galahad went on to Abblasoure and thence to Chapel Desolate, where a voice directed him to destroy the wicked customs at the Castle of Maidens. Galahad went at once and drove out the seven wicked brothers, who swore to avenge themselves by killing all of Arthur’s knights they would overcome – which was none, since the first three they met were Gawaine, Gareth, and Ywaine, who soon exterminated them all. For this deed Gawaine later was rebuked by a hermit who said,

Sir Galahad himself alone beat them all seven the day to-fore, but his living is such he shall slay no man lightly.

Meanwhile, meeting Lancelot and Percivale by chance, Galahad unhorsed both, but then fled, “adread to be known”, when a nearly recluse began praising him. Galahad’s next recorded adventure came as he passed a rather bloody tournament and entered on the side that was being literally slaughtered. Gawaine and Ector de Maris got into the melee, and Galahad wounded Gawaine with the stroke which had been predicted as punishment for an unworthy attempt to draw Balin’s sword.

From here Galahad rode to Ulfin’s hermitage, where Percivale’s sister came to lead him to a ship in which Bors and Percivale, who were destined to become the other two successful Grail knights, tested and purified by their own adventures, where waiting. Sailing in this vessel, the four came to King Solomon’s Ship, where Galahad drew King David of Israel’s Sword (Sword with the Strange Hangings) from its scabbard (King David’s Sword and Scabbard) and was girded with it by Amide.

Returning to their own ship, the party came ashore at Carteloise Castle, where they slew the murderous and incestuous brothers who had thrown their own father, Earl Hernox, in prison and raped and murdered their sister. Hernox counted himself blessed to die in Galahad’s arms, counseling the young knight to go to the Maimed King as soon as possible. Leaving Carteloise, Galahad and his companions followed the mystical white hart and four lions through the forest to a chapel where they experienced a Eucharastic vision during Mass.

Next the knights came to the Castle of the Leprous Lady, defending Amide till she agreed to give blood willingly, which caused her death. After putting her body into a ship and setting it adrift, the three knights separated for a time. Lancelot found the ship with Amide’s body and embarked in it. After about a month, Galahad joined him; they journeyed together in the ship for half a year, serving God and sometimes going ashore for strange adventures on beast-infested islands. Finally “a knight armed all in white” appeared on shore, leading a white horse, and summoned Galahad to his own further adventures. Lancelot had already been at Carbonek and gone away again by the time Galahad arrived there, so that father and son never saw each other again. Galahad went first to the Abbey of King Mordrains, where he healed and saw released from mortal coil that long-lived sufferer.

Next Galahad entered the Forest of the Boiling Well, where he stopped the water from boiling, and came to the burning tomb of Simeon, an ancestor of his, who was enduring a king of purgatory for a sin against Joseph of Arimathea. After releasing Simeon’s soul, Galahad met Bors and Percivale again, and they came at last to Carbonek, where Galahad mended the broken sword, which the other two had failed to do, wherewith Joseph of Arimathea appeared and celebrated Mass. Jesus appeared to the questers and told Galahad he would see the Grail more openly in Sarras.

The three British knights met nine other knights of various countries and all experienced the climatic Mysteries of the Grail, celebrated by Joseph of Arimathea. Instructed by Joseph, Galahad healed the Maimed King by anointing him with blood from Longinus’ Spear. Then Galahad, Bors, and Percivale embarked in a ship with the Sangreal (which miraculously preceded them aboard). They were carried to Sarras, where they found and buried Amide’s body.

The Pagan king of Sarras, Estorause, threw them into prison for a time where they were fed by the Grail, but freed them when on his deathbed, begging for and receiving their forgiveness. A voice now directed the city council to make Galahad their king. He reigned there for one year, at the end of which Joseph of Arimathea were saying Mass and Galahad beheld the Grail and requested that he should now die and this he was allowed to do. He were borne up by a great company of angels along with the Grail and the Spear, into Heaven. (According to the Vulgate, Galahad had been given the grace to die at an hour of his own choosing.)


P.A. Karr have recapped Galahad’s whole earthly career according to Malory partly to show the sequence of the various miracles which only Galahad could accomplish and partly because, of all the knights whose reputations have suffered with the changing times, Galahad’s has perhaps suffered the most. Gawaine’s reputation probably comes in second, but his was on the decline much earlier, and our century seems able to understand more easily the frivolous ladykiller Gawaine has become than it can understand Galahad’s high ideals and purity.

Therefore, in modern versions, Galahad tends to become a prissy, a hypocrite, a fool, somebody else’s half-witted pawn, or all of these together. Tennyson’s Sir Galahad – “My good blade carves the casques of men…” – has hardly helped matters, of course, nor has John Erskine’s “Galahad”, though the latter gives a more sympathetic picture than might have expected. Fraser’s Harry Flashman even believes that Galahad was lustier in bed than his father Lancelot ever was.

Malory’s Galahad, however, far from going around quipping about the purity of his heart, gave Bagdemagus first chance at the Adventerous Shield. Later, aboard King Solomon’s Ship, he allowed Bors and Percivale the first attempts to draw King David’s Sword and said, on their failure,

I would draw this sword out of the sheath, but the offending is so great that I shall not set my hand thereto,

and had to be reassured by Amide. If this was not humility, it was at least courtesy toward his companions. Galahad’s reluctance to slay any man lightly also contrasts favorably with the almost casual killings so many other knights, including his own father Lancelot, committed in battles or comedies of errors. On the one occasion when the battle rage that regularly seized Lancelot descended on Galahad and his companions, at Carteloise Castle, it was Bors, not Galahad, who rationalized the slaughter.

Then when they beheld the great multitude of people that they had slain, they held themself great sinners. Certes, said Bors, I ween an God had loved them that we should not have had power to have slain them thus. But they have done so much against Our Lord that he would not suffer them to reign no longer. Say ye not so, said Galahad, for if they misdid against God, the vengeance is not ours, but to Him which hath power thereof.

Galahad does not seem to have been reassured that he and his friends had served as Heaven’s tools until a local priest seconded Bors’ opinion. Galahad’s wishing to accompany his father from Carbonek and their sojourn together in the ship also points to a better father-son relationship than in sometimes supposed. Nor did I find any evidence to support Harry Flashman’s belief about Galahad’s sexlife, any reason to suppose that his regard for Amide, though deep, was not platonic, nor any reason to imagine that Galahad’s purity made less a man of him. It may also be remarked, in this age of cult leaders, that Galahad seems not to have abused his power as king of Sarras, nor to have clung to it. Indeed, remebering the legend that he had been granted to name the time of his own death, one may speculate that perhaps he chose to leave such power before it could corrupt him.

Galahad may quite possibly have been the creation of the author of the Queste, as it is there he first appears, but he may be taken from a Welsh character, Gwalhafed, mentioned in Culhwch. The historical Saint Illtyd has also been suggested as his prototype.

Descent of Sir Galahad

Nascien d’Orberique
Ban of Benwick
Lancelot of the Lake

Vulgate Lancelot | 1215-1230
Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1215-1230
Vulgate Estoire del Saint Graal | 1220-1235
Post-Vulgate Mort Artu | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325–1350
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
”The Egyptian Maid” | William Wordsworth, 1828
Idylls of the King | Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1859-1886