The Holy Grail. Detail of a XV century manuscript illumination from a French prose romance of Lancelot. In the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Fr. 120, fol. 524

THE HOLY GRAIL

The romances of Arthur gave the Middle Ages not only stories of love and adventure but also an enduring religious theme, the quest of the Holy Grail. This story did not always belong to the cycle of Arthur, nor was it always Christian. It grew from two very different traditions--Celtic legends of a magic platter which gave food and drink to the brave, and the story, told in the New Testament and expanded in the apocryphal gospels, of the cup or dish which was used as the Last Supper. Early romancers differed widely as to what the Grail was, but in the thirteenth century it was generally accepted as a vessel used at the Last Supper. Joseph of Arimathea, tradition said, filled it with blood from the side of Christ at the Crucifixion and brought it to Britain when he came to Christianize that land. Mediaeval artists represented it as the chalice, familiar to them in the mass, although the word graal means a rather deep platter. In the miniature above, this golden chalice, veiled in filmy white, is supported by golden angels and sheds about it a Supernatural light, suggested by gold lines.

As times grew more evil, the sacred vessel was hidden from all but a few. Men's desire to find it is the theme of the romances of the quest. In these romances the hero's identity changed with the nature of the Grail he was to win. Perceval was the hero in the oldest remaining Grail romance, Chrétien de Troyes Perceval, or Conte del Graal, written about 1175--but Chrétien does not say what the Grail was. Perceval, too, was the hero of Wolfram von Eschenbach great German poem Parzival, written early in the thirteenth century, in which the Grail is a magic stone from heaven. Perceval was married and loved his wife deeply; in Wolfram's poem they lived happily at the Grail castle with their children and were not entirely separated from the world.

Such a hero as Perceval did not harmonize with the mediaeval monastic ideal of the guardian of a holy relic, who should completely renounce all worldly ties. So a new Grail knight, Galahad, was created for this purpose as Lancelot had been created to satisfy the ideal of courtly love. Galahad was the hero of the thirteenth- century French prose romance on which Malory based his Grail story in the Morte d'Arthur, establishing this hero as the Grail knight of English literature. The story of Perceval did not disappear, but though it was told in romances, few examples of it in art exist today.

The romancers made Galahad the son of Lancelot, who was comforted for his own failure to achieve the spiritual quest by the fact that it was won by his son. Galahad's mother, Dame Elaine, was descended from Joseph of Arimathea, and in her father's castle of Carbonek the Grail was sometimes to be seen. The child Galahad, according to some romances, was brought up by nuns, the Christian equivalent of the damsels who reared Lancelot beneath the Lake, and in the course of time he came to Arthur's court. At this point Malory takes up the story in detail.

At the court in Camelot great marvels had appeared. Letters "newly written of gold" over the Siege Perilous announced that this vacant place at the Round Table would soon be filled, and on the river there floated a great stone "of red marble, and therein stuck a fair rich sword." None of the knights could draw it, so they knew that some great event was near. Awaiting this, they covered the Siege Perilous with a silken cloth.

Then "all the doors and windows of the palace shut by themself" and there "came in a good old man, and an ancient, clothed all in white, and there was no knight knew from whence he came. And with him he brought a young knight, both on foot, in red arms, without sword or shield, save a scabbard hanging by his side. And these words he said: Peace be with you, fair lords. Then the old man said unto Arthur: Sir, I bring here a young knight, the which is of king's lineage, and of the kindred of Joseph of Aramathie, whereby the marvels of this court, and of strange realms, shall be fully accomplished. . . . And the old knight said unto the young knight: Sir, follow me. And anon he led him unto the Siege Perilous, where beside sat Sir Launcelot; and the good man lift up the cloth, and found there letters that said thus: This is the siege of Galahad." And when Galahad had sat down in that seat wherein no man had ever sat before without great misfortune, the knights said among themselves: "This is he by whom the Sangreal shall be

-64-

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About the Round Table
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 1
  • Introduction - The Growth of the Arthurian Legends 3
  • Castles Painted with Arthurian Scenes 10
  • King Arthur and His Court 18
  • Tristan and Iseult 40
  • Lancelot and Guenevere 52
  • The Holy Grail 64
  • Romancers and Chroniclers Mentioned in the Text 78
  • Books Suggested for Further Reading 79
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