The Quest of the Holy Grail

Introduction

   The text here translated is based on La Queste del Saint Graal (Paris: Champion, 1923), edited by M. Albert Pauphilet, the author of illuminating Ètudes sur la Queste del Saint Graal attribuée à Gautier Map (Paris: Champion, 1921). This volume of Ètudes constitutes a valuable interpretation of this document as a chapter in the history of medieval religious thought.
   The Queste is dated about 1220, a fact which renders its attribution to Gautier Map, who died before 1210, “fantastic.” As we shall see, it was plainly conceived by someone writing under the influence of the Cistercian Order, and it was intended to be a picture of the victorious Christian life as shown forth to medieval humanity by the White Friars. The individual author is unknown.
   The Queste forms part of a long series of French prose compositions collectively known as the Lancelot-Graal series, arranged in the following order: Estoire du Graal, Merlin, with its continuation, Lancelot, The Queste, and Mort Arthur. The material contained in this series of romances has been preserved in whole or in part in many manuscripts.
   The Queste, however, is to be distinguished from all the other romances with which it is associated in the manuscript compilations. By its subject it is of course connected superficially with the earlier biographical treatments of Lancelot, who was the central figure of the entire cycle. Further, Robert de Boron had already identified Perceval with the search for the Grail as a holy object of desire. In what, then, consists the apparent originality of the author of the Queste before us?
   There is no necessity of repeating here information which is easily accessible in the vast amount of critical writings relating to the Arthurian romances, their origin and development, or to the origin and nature of the mysterious vessel called the Holy Grail, which came to be the object of knightly search at King Arthur’s court. I am concerned here merely with the significance of the Holy Grail as revealed in the present text, and with the Christian qualities required in him who would succeed in the search for the precious vessel. The earliest authors who had presented the Grail as an object of search have failed to describe it with sufficient clearness to enable us to seize its outward appearance. Robert de Boron had described it as an actual cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, in which Joseph of Arimathæa later caught His blood after the Crucifixion and which, after being carefully preserved, was finally transported to Britain. But even so, there is something more mysterious back of it as a symbol, as well as of the bleeding lance with which Longinus pierced Christ’s side upon the Cross and which came to be so mystically associated with the Grail itself. Our author is not concerned in clearing away the cloud of mystery surrounding these precious relics. He pays little attention to the lance and gives nowhere any description of the Grail as a tangible object. He is interested in the Grail as a symbol, in its virtues as an object of search, and in its effect upon him who is privileged to behold it. To him the Grail symbolises God, and the search for it is the search for God, who reveals Himself only to the pure—those who are pure in heart as well as in deed. Evidently the common man of the world, sullied with sin and unrepentant, is not fit to see God or to enjoy His benefits. A break in the established literary tradition will be required before the ascetic life can be portrayed in the old Arthurian atmosphere. This break is precisely what constitutes the originality of the present treatment.
   Literary tradition had had its way with Gawain, Lancelot, Arthur, Guinevere, Bors, Hector des Mares, Perceval, and the rest of the great personages at court. This tradition had portrayed in these personages divers qualities dear to twelfth-century French chivalry, but it had not undertaken to represent any of this society as impeccably chaste, as pure, as “virgin.” Perceval was the purest of them all, but even his literary title was not clear enough in the eyes of our author to entitle him to serve as protagonist in this new spiritual Quest. As for the rest of the courtiers, they were all far from perfect: they were guilty of pride, cruelty and incontinence. Their past record, known of all, debarred them from any hope of success in this exacting competition. Yet they were favourites with the social class whom the Cistercian apologist wished to reach with his revival call. He wished to call this proud and luxurious public to a militant career of virtue and self-abnegation. How should he catch their attention and turn it to his own purpose? By taking the old favourites, by showing their delinquencies and their unworthy traits, and by creating beside them a new character to embody those virtues which alone could win in the Quest. So he created Galahad, son of Lancelot, who thus belongs in the old corrupt society, but who distinguished himself from all his relatives and associates by his possession of those qualities which the ascetic author had determined to extol.
   The whole setting of the Arthurian court, the Round Table and the knights, even their search for the Holy Grail—all this was taken over; the endless adventures which came to the knights-errant as they went up and down through the earth in their hopeless search are repeated with persistence but without enthusiasm. What our author is interested in is the revelation of a higher standard to these wayward worldlings. With all their pride and bravery in the field and joust, with all their chivalric trappings, he brings them to their knees before the White Friars, who mercilessly flay them for their sins of omission and commission and who instruct them in the true purpose of life as conceived in the cloistee—the search for God.
   These familiar adventures with lorn ladies, with eyrie castles, with awful tombs and sylvan shrines, with cruel or craven knights—are all invested with a new “significance.” They are interpreted by the lonely hermits and learned abbots as mere trials of that faith which must survive all trials along the way of life. These adventures which astound and baffle the knights are inexplicable to them until they are explained by godly men in their true perspective as tests of moral and spiritual strength. These Cistercian counsellors into whose hands the knights unfailingly fall in their moments of greatest confusion and chagrin are God’s ministers set to interpret the meaning of life. They will tolerate no excuses or palliation of guilt. They stand for the monastic doctrine undefiled, but a monastic doctrine applied to the man of the world. Faith, humility, mercy and chastity are the pillars of their teaching. Life is a continuous warfare against man’s lower nature. There can be no compromise with the Devil, who is ever ready with his wiles to drag men down to Hell.
   Here we have, then, exhibited in action the crusading spirit for which the Cistercians were famous. Militant Christianity was their ideal, in which the Christian hero should lay aside every weight and sin and fight straight on to the goal. Be not surprised if Galahad hearkens to no appeal of the world! He has been created and reared for a more arduous task than mere victory in a tourney or in a lady’s bower like his father Lancelot. His eye is kept single upon the great Quest; where others falter and lose heart, he knows no discouragement. His eye is clear, his sword is keen, his heart is pure. Galahad is always in training. He will reach his goal. He will see God, and then gladly die.
   Now we see the novelty of this composition: taking contemporary society as it loved to imagine itself in the brilliant but false colours of the Arthurian court, the author has introduced a new idealism—an idealism which has penetrated the entire mass of this romantic material and which has survived to our own day. Mere courtesy, formal deference to the rules of knighthood were not enough to purify society: these things savoured too much of the world and of corruption. What was needed to regenerate man was an insistent call to a higher Quest. It was more important to fight for the High Master than for Arthur, more imperative to save one’s own soul than to save a fair damsel in distress.
   This text, then, furnishes us with the biography of the perfect knight as seen by an important corporate body of Christians in the thirteenth Century—an Order which we are told had eighteen hundred houses about 1200. This Order presented the most energetic type known in the Middle Ages. Galahad may be plainly taken as an embodiment of their ideal: he is the Christ of 1200.
   How powerfully this portrayal of manly perfection has fastened itself upon the imagination of posterity is evidenced by the manner in which to-day Galahad has come to dominate the entire Arthurian cycle. He arrived late, but he arrived with power. Artistic representations of Arthur himself, of his beloved Lancelot, of his nephew Gawain, of Kay the seneschal, of the goodly Perceval, may be sought in vain. But who is there unfamiliar with the figure of the saintly Galahad? From among all the glittering assembly of the Table Round, he represents for us, as he represented for his companions in the Quest, all that is best in knighthood and all of its spirituality that has survived.