You know why Malory hasn’t checked in on Sir Gawaine? Because he wasn’t doing anything interesting!
Since we last saw him in Book XIII, Gawaine had been riding around, looking for strange adventure in general and the Grail in particular, and he came up with bubkes. Back in Book XIII, Malory claimed that Gawaine (and his traveling companions, Aglovale and Griflet) gave up and quit after a week, but now he describes Gawaine gallivanting cross-country for months. He found no giants to slay, no evil knights to joust, and no maidens to rescue. Even Pitiless Bruce had vanished from the narrative. It’s all Grail, all the time, and since Gawaine didn’t measure up, he had nothing to do.
One day, months into his pointless trek, he happened across Sir Ector de Maris aka Sir Ector the Lesser aka Sir Launcelot’s Little Brother. After they exchanged pleasantries, Gawaine complained about his total lack of strange adventure.
“I know!” said Ector. “Every knight I bump into, and I’ve bumped into a bunch of Knights of the Round Table since we started on this Grail thing, every guy to a man complains about this strange adventure shortage.”
Gawaine groaned. “Everybody?”
“Every single knight except Sir Percivale, Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Launcelot. Those four are probably all off together, getting the Grail, making the rest of us look bad. Stupid preternaturally virtuous knights.”
“Hold on,” said Gawaine. “Hold on there. I’ll grant you that Sir Galahad appears to be practically the second coming, all holy up the wazoo, and that Sir Percivale also sat down in the Siege Perilous and survived. I’ll even concede that Sir Bors is a really awesome dude. Bors wins the Fewest Affairs in Camelot award every Pentecost. But Launcelot? Preternaturally virtuous? C’mon. He’s no more virtuous than I am! He’s just really, really good at jousting because he practiced real hard and was dedicated to the sport and became the best. I mean, maybe he’s on a mystic quest of atonement right now, who knows? I’m not saying, but I’m just saying.”
“We could go looking for them,” mused Gawaine. “If we stick close to Galahad we’re bound to pick up some contact holiness. But he’d probably just run away, on account of we’re too sinful to be good company for him. So we should be sneaky.”
Gawaine and Ector rode around together for another full week before Malory relents and allows something interesting to happen. Interesting may be a bit of a stretch. What happened was, they pulled into a disused chapel late one Saturday. As they stayed there overnight, they experience some crazy dreams.
Gawaine dreamed of a huge herd of bulls. Three of these bulls were awesome shiny and white (one of the three had a little black spot, but that was no account), the rest were your typical ugly sinful dirty bulls. All of the bulls decided to leave their field and seek better pasture. The bulls that were stand-ins for Galahad, Percivale, and Bors left and find the Grail (presented as impossibly wonderful grazing land). Only one of them came back, and all of the other bulls felt sorry for themselves.
Ector dreamed that he and Sir Launcelot were on a strange adventure together! As the horse they shared crossed the dreamscape, Ector asked Launcelot where they were going.
“Go we seek what we shall not find!” was Launcelot’s response.
This struck Ector as kind of a defeatist attitude, but then he was Sir Launcelot himself, like happens in dreams. Ector (as Launcelot) traveled on a donkey, wearing a hair shirt. He stopped to drink from a well, but the well dried up as he approached. Then he visited a rich man’s house where there was a wedding, but he was turned away, unwelcome at the wedding feast.
Gawaine and Ector awoke, and compared notes on their dreams and recent events. All but four knights were accounted for, Grail-quest-wise. Three bulls (one with a black spot) found better pasture. Sir Launcelot, wearing a hair shirt, was turned away from a feast.
“Truly this is a riddle we cannot solve!” cried Gawaine. “I give up! We should go ask a hermit!”
And then — get this — they had a marvellous vision! There in the disused chapel they suddenly saw a giant candle, hanging in the air, held by a disembodied hand with a red silk sleeve! And anon came down a voice which said “Knights of full evil faith and of poor belief, these two things have failed you; and therefore ye may not come to the adventures of the Sangreal.”
Then the candle vanished!
“Whoa,” said Gawaine. “Ector, did you hear that?”
“Anyway, like I was saying, we have no way of knowing how to progress on the Grail Quest or what our visions mean. We’ve got to find Nacien and get him to explain it to us.”
Ector hadn’t met Nacien, but Gawaine assured him the guy was loads of fun. So they rode onwards, getting directions to Nacien’s hovel from the first peasant they saw.