Well, that was it. The central defining mythological symbol of Western civilization, the Holy Grail, as presented in English for the first time by a guy whose notes on French Grail romances are all out of order.
The story of the Grail is kind of nonsensical. First, you have Christ using it during the Last Supper and/or Joseph of Arimathea using it to catch the blood that fell from the spear-wound in Christ’s side during the Crucifixion. Malory is actually pretty vague as to the origin and nature of the Grail; it’s not unlike Merlin in that respect. Somehow Joseph gets the Grail and takes it to Sarras, where he converts Evelake to Christianity. At this point in time Joseph also has a special holy shield with a lot of Grail-related properties but Malory seems confident they’re two different magic items. After Evelake’s conversion, Joseph goes to pagan Britain, where a pagan king imprisons him. Lucky for him though, Evelake follows him to Britain and rescues him! The pagan king who imprisoned Joseph is never named, but he and Evelake both are cursed with some kind of immortality; they have to wait several hundred years for Galahad to show up and bless them so they can leave the mortal realm.
Joseph is a lifelong celibate, like Percivale and Galahad, but he has a convenient brother who has a whole line of descendants, including Nacien, the white monk who masterminds the Grail Quest, and (a few more generations down the line) Launcelot, Bors, and Galahad. Percivale just stumbles into the Quest; for everyone else it’s a family affair.
Somehow the Grail ends up in a room at Castle Corbin, where Balin gets a glimpse of it in Book II when he stabs Pellam with the dolorous stroke, which echoes Evelake’s maiming in a way that makes me wonder how badly Malory mangled his sources. It remains at Corbin for another fifteen Books, though it steps out a few times for miraculous visions and such. It heals Launcelot of his madness, and so on.
At last, the time has come for Galahad to quest for the Grail. This, despite Galahad growing up in Castle Corbin. By all accounts the inhabitants of Corbin, Pellam and his subjects, are fully aware that in the middle of their castle they’ve got a big Grail room with the Grail in it. Nevertheless it’s such a big deal that Merlin shows up to announce Galahad’s quest, even though Merlin doing anything is a flagrant continuity violation. Then Galahad gallivants around for several years, alongside Percivale and Bors; along the way, we meet Nacien and Mags! Mags dies. Eventually they reach Galahad’s childhood home where, no doy, there’s the Grail.
You’d think the quest would be over then, but no! Jesus shows up and congratulates them, and then it’s on to Sarras, where Galahad becomes king despite doing absolutely nothing to earn that. And he reigns for a full year, running out the clock, before finally he’s allowed to go to Heaven with the Grail. But apparently there can only be one Grail-winner, which means that Percivale and Bors are losers! They hang out in Sarras until Percivale dies, either of grief or of extreme religious self-mortification, and then Bors returns to Camelot. Quest over, the end.
Got to say I’m a little disappointed. The Quest for the Holy Grail is right up there with the Odyssey in terms of foundational mythopoetic fantasy texts; you’d think it’d be more readable. What lessons can we draw from Malory’s story?
First, if you aren’t Sir Galahad, appointed before your birth to achieve the Grail, then the Grail-Quest is a big waste of time. Since the Grail-Quest is a stand-in for all life’s striving and literally every goal worth achieving, not being Sir Galahad is a big mistake. Second, Sir Galahad succeeds despite being a smug poindexter who shows very little initiative and mostly lets destiny lead him around by the nose. Sir Percivale at least makes efforts on the Quest, and Sir Bors ends up a token voice of reason, as baffled as the reader, but they aren’t going to make it.
Neither are Sir Launcelot or Sir Gawaine. Nacien offers them both a chance for atonement and redemption, which Launcelot makes a play for, and seems to achieve, though in the first chapter of the next Book Malory throws all that character development out the window. Gawaine doesn’t even try, and he ends up in the same place as Launcelot and Bors, and better than Percivale, since Percivale dies of grief. Hard to call Percivale’s end a victory.
And on that down-note, we move on into the final phase of Le Morte D’Arthur, the fiery end of Camelot and the actual no-fooling death of Arthur.
Knights of the Round Table who have died: a list I surely won’t have to update as we go on from here!
Sir Balin, slain by Sir Balan in Book II.*
Sir Balan, slain by Sir Balin in Book II.*
Sir Accolon, slain by King Arthur as a result of Morgan’s plan failing in Book IV.*
King Pellinore, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine sometime after the start of Book IV.
Sir Chestaline, Sir Gawaine’s youthful ward, slain by Roman soldiers during Book V.*
Sir Marhaus, slain by Sir Tristram early in Book VIII.
Sir Lamorak, slain offscreen by Sir Gawaine and his brothers around the time of Book X.
Sir Uwaine, slain by Sir Gawaine in Book XVI.
Sir Colgrevance, slain by Sir Lionel in Book XVI.
Sir Galahad, ascended into heaven with the Grail in Book XVII.
Sir Percivale, died of grief after coming in second on the Grail-Quest, in book XVII.
Starred entries are knights who were not, technically, members of the Round Table, but who were more or less solid Camelot-allies.