The Genealogy of Galahad and the New Age of the World in the Old French Prose 'Queste del Saint Graal.'

By Hill, Thomas D. | Philological Quarterly, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

The Genealogy of Galahad and the New Age of the World in the Old French Prose 'Queste del Saint Graal.'


Hill, Thomas D., Philological Quarterly


In the Old French prose romance La Queste del Saint Graal, much is revealed both to the protagonists and the reader in visions.(1) And while the meaning of these visions often seems relatively straightforward, it is characteristic of this romance that the author often provides an authorized interpretation of a given vision spoken by some nameless hermit whose sanctity and integrity is beyond question. It might seem a work of supererogation to interpret a vision whose meaning has already been expounded by a character who is in effect a spokesman for the author, but in this paper I wish to explicate such a vision since the historical self-understanding of this author is expressed in an idiom which is rather alien to most modern readers - numerically structured genealogy.

One of the themes of La Queste del Saint Graal is the moral recovery of Lancelot, how Lancelot gradually comes to be aware of the gravity of his situation and accepts and adopts an ascetic mode of life. The first step in the process is Lancelot's vision of the Grail and conversion at the chapel. At this point he renounces his adulterous love for the queen and accepts the religious imperatives of conversion and ascesis. His quest continues, however, and after he leaves the first hermit he journeys for two days in the forest until he eventually finds another hermit to feed and instruct him. On the first night in the forest Lancelot has a vision of seven kings and two knights, and the next night his vision is elucidated by the hermit who lodges him for that evening. The hermit's elucidation of Lancelot's vision runs to approximately four printed pages of Pauphilet's edition of La Queste del Sainte Graal; the substance of what the hermit has to say is, however, simple enough. Lancelot and Galahad are in the direct line of the first Grail king of Britain, Celydoines; Galahad is the most glorious of all and all the kings and knights in the line of the Grail king have been deeply religious - with the sad exception of Lancelot.(2)

To modern readers these paragraphs may seem excessive and elaborate in their detailed account of the lineage of Lancelot and Galahad and the moral virtues of their ancestors. Certainly the details which are elaborated here do not seem to have any immediate bearing on the narrative of La Queste del Saint Graal or on the rest of the Vulgate cycle. Galahad is crowned, but not over a city which he inherited from his progenitors, and Lancelot never rules as a king for any extended period. There are, however, two questions which have not, as far as I am aware, been addressed. The first is why the author (or his source if he was following a source for this portion of his romance) chose to depict the list of generations from Celydoines to Galahad as sequence of nine generations. This is not a particularly realistic sequence if we accept the convention that a normal generation is approximately thirty years and the usual dating of Arthur and his court at circa 500 AD. A second question is what symbolic significance (if any) we are supposed to attach to the fact that Galahad is the final name in this list. Both questions can, I believe, best be answered by comparing the genealogy of Galahad with the Biblical genealogies of the first ages of the world, the genealogy of Noe from Adam and the genealogy of Abraham from Sem, Noe's son. It is perhaps simplest and most straightforward to present these genealogies in tabular form since the formal and numerical similarities of these genealogies(3) can be most readily apprehended in such a format. (I am following the genealogical listing of Genesis 5:1-31 and 11:10-27 and citing the Vulgate Latin version of these Hebrew names.)

Adam Sem Celydoines

1 Seth Arfaxad Narpus

2 Enos Sale Nasciens

3 Cainan Eber Elyan le Gros

4 Malalehel Faleg Ysaies

5 Iared Reu Jonaans

6 Enoch Sarug Lancelot

7 Mathusalam Nahur Bans

8 Lamech Thare Lancelot

9 Noe Abr(ah)am Galaad

The numerical pattern of the Biblical genealogies was noticed and commented upon by patristic exegetes, who even found further Biblical examples of this patterning.

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