Percivale went down into this implausible valley, where he watched a lion fight a serpent. Naturally Percivale rooted for the lion; when he saw an opening he pulled out his sword and slashed at the serpent and helped the lion kill it! Then Percivale and the lion were best friends. The lion even introduced Percivale to its adorable lion cub, which Percivale played with for a while.
But eventually the lion and cub departed, leaving Percivale all alone in this valley on this tiny island. He prayed for a while, which caused the lion to reappear, and then he fell asleep in lion’s arms, and had a marvelous holy dream. Which I guess means that everything up to this point actually happened? The dream did not start with the woman waking him up and offering him a ride on her demon-horse, according to Malory. It didn’t start until this point.
In Percivale’s dream, he lounged on the grass with two ladies. One lady sat on his lion friend, and the other sat on a giant serpent which may or may not have been the same giant serpent Percivale helped his lion friend slay. One of the ladies was young and the other was old, but Percivale couldn’t keep track of which was which, because it was a dream and dreams are like that.
Then Malory changes his mind about that, and lets us know that the younger lady was the one on the lion. This younger lady cleared her throat and made an announcement. “Sir Percivale, my lord saluteth thee, and sendeth thee word that thou array thee and make thee ready for tomorn thou must fight with the strongest champion of the world. And if thou be overcome that shall not be quit for losing any of thy members, but thou shalt be shamed for ever to the world’s end.“
“Your boss says hi, and that I have to fight a guy tomorrow, and that if I lose I won’t get any of limbs sliced off, I’ll just be ashamed of myself,” Percivale recited back to her.
The younger lady nodded. “Yeah, that’s the message.”
“Cool. Who’s your boss?”
“The greatest lord of all the world, duh.”
Wait, you may well ask, is that the Devil, known as “king of this world,” or Jesus Christ, “king of the next world?” This was an important question! But she teleported away without clarifying.
“Whoa, that was pretty crazy.” Percivale turned to the other lady that rode upon the serpent, who had started clearing her throat, too.
“Sir Percivale, I complain me of you that ye have done unto me, and have not offended you.”
“What? I didn’t do anything, ma’am!”
“Did too! I shall tell you why. I have nourished in this place a great while a serpent, which served me a great while, and yesterday ye slew him as he gat his prey. Say me for what cause ye slew him, for the lion was not yours.”
“Well, okay, ma’am, I admit that I was coming into the lion-serpent fight as a neutral party, but c’mon. When you see a lion and a serpent, you’re just naturally going to take the side of the lion! That’s common sense! Also I didn’t know the serpent belonged to anybody. I thought the scene was just me and the lion and the serpent, with no ladies present or affected, ma’am. I mean, what do you want from me, now that the serpent is dead? All due respect, ma’am, we can’t unring that bell.”
She had an alternative in mind, in fact. “Since you killed my serpent, you should kneel down and swear to become my slave!”
“Oh. No.” Percivale was not into that. “No, thank you though. I won’t be doing that.”
The woman shrugged. “You’ve been nothing but my slave ever since before you were baptized. Therefore when in the future I find you sleeping I will steal you away, as though you were my husband.”
But she, too, teleported away, her cryptic nonsense uttered. Percivale was left alone, in his dream.
Then, when he awoke, he discovered that the tide came in and washed him out to sea! He treaded water, passing feeble, for an indeterminate time until he spotted a boat. Actually, Malory gets cagey as regards whether Percivale has truly woken up, or whether this is more of his dream, so we should bear that in mind. When the dream began and when it ended (if it ever really ends) are not clear.
What a boat Percivale saw! It was covered within and without with white samite. I hardly need to remind you that samite is heavy silk, often featuring golden or silver thread. Percivale climbed aboard this ship and found its captain, an old man clothed in a surplice, in likeness of a priest.
“So, Nacien, right?” I ask Malory.
“It doesn’t matter what his name is, he’s not a knight!” snaps Malory.
“It’s just, you described a guy in the last book, Nacien, who seems to fulfill this exact same narrative role…”
“I didn’t say that was Nacien, I said Nacien sent him! All right, fine. Nacien. Whatever!”
Good enough for me. “Nacien!” said Percivale. “Hi there.”
“Percivale, ye be welcome. God keep you,” responded Nacien. “It’s a silly question, since clearly I already know you to be Sir Percivale, but tell me, whose court are you a knight of, and of what order of knights are you a member?”
“Well, okay. As you just said, I’m Sir Percivale, of Camelot and King Arthur’s Court. I’m a knight of the Table Round. I’m questing for the Grail, and… am I getting any closer to it? I’ve kind of lost track. Sometime between helping a lion kill a giant snake and finding a miraculous ship made of glowing white silk… there was this demon horse… well, here am I in great distress, and never like to escape out of this wilderness.”
“Oh, don’t worry, boy,” said Nacien. “If you’re a good knight, and true to your oaths, and you don’t sleep with other men’s wives, and you don’t carry on a decades-long affair with your king’s wife, and so forth… basically, if your heart is pure, then you must have faith. Faith that Jesus is on your side, faith that every step you take brings you closer to the Grail. Didn’t anyone warn you things were going to get weird and mystic?”
“Mmmmaybe,” admitted Percivale. “So, what are you? A hallucination? An angel? Are you Merlin in disguise, Merlin the White, Merlin as he should have been, Merlin who was Olorin in the West that is forgotten?”
“I am of a strange country,” Nacien said simply. “I’m here to help you, that’s all.”
Percivale cleared his throat. “So, uh, do you have any food or water?”
“Huh. How are you at dream interpretation?” And Percivale told Nacien all about the (first part of the) dream, the lion and the serpent and the ladies and so on.
NACIEN’S INTERPRETATION OF PERCIVALE’S VISION, IN TABULAR FORM
The young woman riding the lion represents… the new law of holy church, that is to understand, faith, good hope, belief, and baptism.
The lion itself represents… the resurrection and the passion of Our Lord Jesu Christ.
The old woman riding the serpent represents… Pre-Christian law and morality, eye for an eye, kill a maiden whenever you feel like it, that sort of thing.
The giant serpent represents… a giant serpent of some kind. Maybe the fiendish demon-horse that Percivale rode?
The old woman’s anger at Percivale’s killing the serpent represents… nothing at all (Nacien says this affirmatively). Screw her and her anger.
The young woman’s speech about Percivale fighting a guy represents… a warning that Percivale will soon fight the most champion of the world.
The old woman’s demand that Percivale become her servant represents… a fiendish desire for Percivale to renounce the knighthood, abandon his quest, and quit the whole not-being-a-sinner thing.