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British Legends: The Quest for the Holy Grail

In Arthurian romance the mystical, magical quest of the Sangreal is a popular story that has its roots in medieval times, though its seeds may be from much earlier.  It uses allegories to blend together pagan motifs, Christian tradition and political and social concerns of the day into a story of spiritual evolution for the main protagonists who must remain true to the quest.  The Sangreal is another name for the Holy Grail which eventually became conflated with the Holy Chalice.  There are several other versions of its name and in different stories it has appeared in different forms such as stone or wood, or as a cup or dish. The earliest of these romances was Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes who died before it was finished but was added to later by other poets.  Other authors also created versions of the story such as Le Roman du Graal, Joseph d’Arimathe, Merlin, and Perceval by Robert de Boron, the Vulgate Cycle, whose authorship is disputed and Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach.  Later, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte D’Arthur, blending together Arthurian and grail tradition, and it is from this that the greatly summarised version of the tale below draws the most.

Origin of the Sangreal

In this allegorical story set in the time of King Arthur, the Sangreal was the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the last supper, and the Sacred Spear was the one Longinus, the Roman soldier, used to pierce his side during his crucifixion.  Joseph of Arimathea brought them to Britain and his descendants, the Grail Kings of Castle Corbenic were granted guardianship on condition that each guardian lived a life of purity in deed and thought, dedicated to Jesus Christ.  For many ages, the Sangreal remained a visible, tangible object — alongside the Sacred Spear — that pilgrims came from far and wide to pray before.

Over time, one of its guardians allowed the moral standards that behoved his role to slip, and sought forbidden love. The Sacred Spear punished his weakness, inflicting a wound to his groin that could not be healed, leaving the king maimed and kept alive only by the power of the Sangreal; after this, the Sangreal and Sacred Spear were hidden from the people’s eyes.  In those days the fertility of the land was linked to that of the king, and his realm became a barren wasteland until the time came when he would be healed by the purest knight in the world.

Merlin’s Message

At Camelot, Merlin had not been seen for some time and, worried at his absence, King Arthur sent out knights to find him.  Sir Gawain went out searching, and while travelling through the forest of Brocéliande he heard the sound of someone groaning. Following the sound, he found a column of dense mist that he could not penetrate.  From the mist came the voice of Merlin who revealed that his mistress, Viviane — the Lady of the Lake — had imprisoned him there for all time.  He instructed Gawain to return to King Arthur and tell him of his plight. Yet, emphasizing that nothing could be done to save him, he gave an important message to relay:

“Tell Arthur a great event is now unfolding. The knight is born and ready to begin and accomplish this task for the good of the land and its people.  Now is the time of the quest of the Sangreal.”

Gawain quickly returned and delivered the message to King Arthur, who grieved for his old friend as he turned over the message in his mind.

Pentecost at Camelot

It was the custom of King Arthur to celebrate the feast of Pentecost with all his knights around the Round Table.  Each of the knights had their own seat at the Round Table with their name inscribed upon it, and there was one vacant seat known as the Siege Perilous. As the feast was about to begin a squire brought news that in a nearby river there was a red slab of marble that floated on the water.  King Arthur led his knights to the river to investigate. Fixed firmly within this slab, as if it had been driven in, was a sword upon which was inscribed the following words,

“Never shall I be drawn forth except by he who is the perfect knight and at his side, I will hang.”

Sir Gawain tried to draw the sword but failed, as did Sir Percival and many others, but none could free it.

The Round Table, by Evrard d'Espinques Source https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holy-grail-round-table-ms-fr-112-3-f5r-1470-detail.jpg

The Round Table, by Evrard d’Espinques Source

The Quest of the Sangreal

Having investigated, they returned to the Round Table to eat. While they were eating the windows and doors all suddenly slammed shut.  The candles flickered, went out and then came back on again, and stood before them appeared a very old holy man accompanied by Galahad, the son of Sir Lancelot.  The holy man led Galahad to the Siege Perilous and seated him there.  They watched in awe as the lettering on the seat changed magically to read, Galahad.   King Arthur led Sir Galahad to the floating slab of marble and he easily withdrew the sword to the wonder of all.

Arthur and his knights returned to their feasting and again, the candles suddenly dimmed and there was a peal of thunder.  A ray of light shone down and in the middle of the Round Table there appeared the glowing Sangreal veiled in white silk. Inspired by this miraculous event, Sir Gawain declared he would not rest, day or night, for one year and a day, until he saw the Sangreal fully unveiled.  Arthur remembered the message of Merlin and was full of disquiet.  He knew the others would follow his example and realized there was every chance some would die on that quest, or not return.  In the early days of summer, as one hundred and fifty knights rode from Camelot on the quest of the Sangreal, King Arthur wept, knowing the world had changed forever.

The White Shield

Galahad left Camelot alone and travelled until he came to the White Abbey where he was shown a magical white shield bearing a red cross that had belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. He was warned that the shield was special and protected by a White Knight, and reserved for a knight who was pure of heart.  Galahad decided to take it and left, but he had not gone far when the White Knight appeared. Instead of attacking him, the knight congratulated him on his decision and revealed the history of the white shield.

The next morning Galahad continued on the quest, and, riding through a forest, came across Sir Percival and Sir Lancelot travelling together. However, because he now carried the white shield they did not recognize him, and jousted with him as was the knightly custom, until an old anchoress appeared saying,

“Galahad, without doubt, you are the best knight in the world!”

This accolade alarmed Galahad who spurred his horse into the forest.  Lancelot and Percival went after him but lost him.   The two knights decided to split up: Lancelot rode on and Percival returned to the recluse.

Sir Percival’s Quest

The anchoress told Percival she was the sister of his father,  King Pellinore, making her his aunt, and also told him the sad news that his mother was dead.  Percival in turn told her about the knight with the white shield.  The anchoress warned him that the knight was Galahad who was an important part of a miraculous event that was unfolding in the world.  Furthermore, she foretold that of all of the Knights of the Round Table only three would achieve the Sangreal, and of these, two would be virgins and the third chaste.  One, she continued,  would evolve past his father in the same way the lion is stronger than the leopard, and she advised Percival make for the castle of the Maimed King, who was also known as the Fisher King, of Corbenic.

Following her advice, Percival arrived at a monastery where a very elderly and venerable gentleman lay in a bed, suffering from many wounds. He was told this was King Evelake who had been a companion of Joseph of Arimathea.  God had granted him time to live until the most perfect knight arrived who would achieve the Sangreal.

The Lion and the Serpent

Percival continued the quest and travelling through a valley came upon a strange scene.  A massive serpent had hold of a lion cub by its neck and was dragging it along, when suddenly a huge lion appeared and fought the serpent.  Percival joined the attack, killing the serpent with his sword.  On the death of the serpent, the lion made a great show of appreciation, allowing him to stroke its head and shoulders, and that night it slept peacefully at his side.

While he slept he dreamed of a young woman who rode upon the back of a lion, and an old woman who rode upon the back of a serpent.  The young woman warned him of the approach of a great battle. The old woman demanded he give himself to her in compensation for the serpent that he had wrongly killed.  Percival refused, but the old woman vowed she would possess him if his faith ever failed.

The White Ship

The next morning, accompanied by the lion, Percival travelled on and arrived at the seashore.  At midday, a black ship arrived and onboard was a beautiful lady who asked him why he wandered in the wilderness.  He replied that his devotion to Christ made it safe for him to roam where he would. She said she had met Galahad earlier and if he promised to help her she would take him to him and commanded her servants to set up a pavilion and set food inside.  The lady asked Percival to join her and while they ate, seeing how beautiful the woman was, he offered himself to her. She told him only if he promised himself to her exclusively would she return his affections.  He agreed, but as he prepared to sleep with her he caught a glimpse of the crucifix on the handle of his sword and recalled that he had vowed to remain a virgin.  He made the sign of the cross and the tent suddenly dissolved into black smoke and was gone.  Looking around he saw the black ship sail away with the lady onboard who shouted, “Betrayer!”, and realized he had only just resisted temptation.

Over the horizon, a white ship appeared and onboard was an old man who invited him to join him.  Percival went onboard the ship and it sailed off over the sea.

How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival and His Sister Source https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_How_Sir_Galahad,_Sir_Bors_and_Sir_Percival_Were_Fed_with_the_Sanct_Grael.jpg

How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival and His Sister Source 

Sir Bors Quest

Before Sir Bors left Camelot he went to see a holy man for advice, who asked if he would like to confess his sins before beginning the quest of the Sangreal.  Bors took up the offer and also vowed from then on to remain chaste.  After this he began the quest and on his journey came across a dead tree where a great bird sat in its uppermost branches upon a nest with its starving young.  It pierced its own body with its beak and, as it bled to death, the baby birds drank up the blood, saving them from starvation.

As evening fell he met a young lady who was seeking a champion to fight a knight who was trying to steal her land.   Without hesitation, Bors agreed and spent the night in her tower where he slept on the floor.  While asleep, he dreamed he saw two birds.  One was as white as snow and the other as black as coal.

The white bird said, “If you would give me meat and be my servant, I would give you all of the treasures of the world, and shall make you as white and as fair as I.”

The black bird countered saying, “If you serve me and have me, my blackness will avail you more than the whiteness of the other.”

In the morning Bors defeated his adversary, making him promise to esteem and honour the lady and stop threatening her.  The defeated knight agreed, and Sir Bors, satisfied with the outcome, resumed his quest.  At the summer’s end, he arrived at the coast, where he found the white ship with Percival onboard. The two friends had a happy reunion then settled down to await the arrival of Sir Galahad.

The Sacrifice of Dindrane

With the arrival of the first brown leaves of autumn, Sir Galahad arrived at a hermitage where a lady named Dindrane invited him to accompany her on a great adventure. He agreed, and the two travelled to the sea where they found the white ship with Bors and Percival waiting.  They were all delighted to see each other and swapped tales to pass the time.  To the joy of Percival, Dindrane revealed herself to be his sister by their father King Pellinore. The ship sailed on and towards the end of autumn arrived at another coast.  Dindrane instructed them to disembark to seek out the Maimed King and cure him of his wound.

Travelling through a forest they came across a white hart leading four lions, which they followed.  Arriving at a chapel, the hart transformed into a man.  The lions also underwent a transformation, with one becoming a man, another remained a lion, while a third became an eagle and the fourth changed into an ox.

The following day the party came to a castle where they were challenged by the castle knights who demanded that Dindrane give a bowl of her own blood to the lady of the castle to satisfy their custom.  Her companions could not agree and fought to defend her.  Eventually, admitting defeat, the castle knights offered the party peace and lodging for the night at the castle. The party all agreed and accepted the offer.  Later that evening they asked their hosts about the grisly practice of bloodletting.  They were told that the lady of the castle suffered from a terrible disease whose only cure was the blood from a virgin who was the daughter of a king.   Hearing this, Dindrane feeling compassionate, offered her blood to the lady despite the danger to herself.

Her offer was accepted and the practice carried out the next morning, after which she lost consciousness.  On regaining consciousness, she knew she would die and asked her brother to place her body in the ship and set it free to the sea.  She foretold they would find her in Sarras, the holy city, and asked them to bury her there, foretelling that Galahad and then Percival would die soon after her.  Finally, she instructed the three knights to split up and go separate ways until at last they were reunited in the castle of the Maimed King.

Galahad and Bors left their grieving friend at his request to fulfill his sister’s wishes.  Lovingly he placed her in a ship and wrote a note describing her life and adventures and left it by her side knowing they would be reunited in Sarras.  After watching the ship disappear over the horizon he set out for Corbenic.

Lancelot and Galahad

After Sir Lancelot left Camelot on the quest he had many adventures.  Although he had glimpsed the Sangreal before the quest he had never managed to hold it and this desire burned deep within him.  At last, he came to the sea where he rested and fell asleep.   In a dream, he heard a voice telling him to board the first ship that came his way.  When he awoke he looked out over the sea and saw a ship approaching that was driven by neither sail nor oar. On boarding the strange ship he found it deserted but, experiencing a feeling of peace and serenity, he stayed.  Exploring, he came across a room where the body of Dindrane lay, and reading the note at her side he learned about her and her sacrifice.  The ship sailed on and Lancelot remained onboard thinking himself alone, but that night as he took the air on deck he was surprised to see a knight approaching him.  As he welcomed him he was delighted to see that it was his son, Sir Galahad.

Eventually, as winter approached, the ship passed close by the shore where an unknown knight called to Sir Galahad telling him it was time to resume the quest of the Sangreal.  After an emotional farewell, Galahad told his father they would never meet again and disembarked.

Lancelot Fails

Lancelot stayed on the ship spending much of the time praying for another sight of the elusive Sangreal.  Eventually, the ship arrived at a castle by the sea.  Lancelot heard a voice telling him to enter the castle, and following its instructions found a locked chamber.  Not knowing what else to do he prayed outside and eventually the door opened, revealing a room that was filled with the most glorious light.  The voice told him to flee, saying that he was not worthy to enter, but as he turned to go he caught a glimpse of angels and priests standing all around the Sangreal.  Stepping inside he was hit by a blast of fire that scorched him and left him blind and deaf.  He was laid in bed where he remained for twenty-four days, dreaming many wonderful dreams.   When he finally awoke he was told he was at the castle of Corbenic.  When he had fully recovered he chose to return to Camelot, realizing he was too unworthy to achieve the quest of the Sangreal, and his son had eclipsed him as the best knight in the world.

The Death of King Evelake

After Galahad had left his father he came to the abbey where King Evelake lay. The King called him close and requested an embrace.  As he embraced him the king died, and Galahad carried him outside for burial.  Soon after, Galahad discovered something marvellous had happened to him, and resuming his journey performed all manner of miracles along the way.

After five days he travelled through a withered forest, devoid of leaf and grass, and came across Sir Percival.  After a pleasant reunion they travelled on together in search of the Maimed King.  Along the way they met Bors who had roamed the high mountains and wild places alone on the quest.

Finally, they arrived at the Castle of Corbenic, and were invited to stay for supper.  As they were sat at the table the Maimed King was carried into the room. He spoke to Galahad saying he had been looking forward to this moment for many years, hoping it would bring his cure.  Flanked by angels, Joseph of Arimathea came into the room and began to say mass.

From the Sangreal the figure of Jesus appeared and presented the holy vessel to Sir Galahad, asking that it be taken to the city of Sarras. He asked that he heal the Maimed King and after giving his blessing vanished.  Galahad rose and touched the blood covered point of the spear and anointed the invalid with the blood, healing him.

The Sangreal in Sarras

The next day the knights left Corbenic, travelling through a forest of buds and unfurling leaves towards the seashore.  There, they found the white ship waiting.  They discovered the Sangreal onboard upon a silver table.  The ship sailed on and eventually arrived at the port of Sarras.  On disembarking, Galahad saw a crippled man begging and asked him to help him carry the table bearing the Sangreal to the city gates.  The cripple agreed, and on doing so, was cured, and news of this miracle spread like wildfire through the city.   The three knights went in search of the ship bearing Dindrane and gave her a fitting burial.

The ruler of Sarras, King Estorause, was a tyrant.  When he heard that three knights had arrived at the city gates bearing the Sangreal he had them thrown in prison, but allowed the Sangreal to stay with them.  Every day the knights knelt before the holy vessel and prayed and were filled with grace and serenity. It happened that King Estorause fell ill and as he lay dying he repented his treatment of them and begged their forgiveness.  Estorause had no heir, so the citizens decided to make Galahad their king because he had cured the crippled man.

One morning Galahad found Joseph of Arimathea kneeling in prayer before the Sangreal.  Joseph rose and told him that the time had come for him to enter Heaven.  Galahad called his two companions to him and bidding them farewell asked them to take the news of his achieving the Sangreal to his father. Then he knelt and prayed before the holy vessel and as he prayed, his soul — along with the Sangreal — rose to Heaven.   Percival and Bors buried his body alongside Dindrane and leaving the city stayed together in a hermitage.  Percival died as his sister predicted, and Bors buried him between her and Galahad.

Return to Camelot

At Pentecost, Sir Bors arrived back in Camelot with the news of the achievement of the Sangreal and was welcomed with great joy by King Arthur and his court.   Bors spoke to Lancelot telling all that had happened to his son, Galahad, and how he had achieved the Sangreal.  Arthur insisted the court scribes write down the entire story from Bors to preserve it for future generations.

The Sangreal Today

The Quest of the Sangreal has been expressed in many ways over the centuries including the works of art seen here and in many works of poetry, literature, and in films, television and other modern forms of entertainment.  Modern films include; Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Excalibur (1985), Monty Python’s Spamalot (2004) a musical comedy for the stage, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and The Fisher King (1991).  Dan Brown used the theme in his novel, The Da Vinci Code (2003), and it has been examined in many non-fiction works.

The quest was not really to find a material object but to complete a series of tests and lessons to achieve a state of spiritual perfection, and perhaps that is why its popularity remains as undiminished now as it was in earlier times.

To read all the articles in this series, visit the British Legends Series page or select from the list below:

Recommended Books from #FolkloreThursday

  

References and Further Reading

Le Morte D’Arthur, Volume II (of II), by Thomas Malory

PDF]The Queste of the Holy Grail

Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch

The Quest for the Holy Grail – The Blavatsky Trust

Sir Galahad the Perfect Knight – Under the influence!

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I am currently working on a Lost Worlds project which looks at mythical and legendary lands around the world and will be published in due course and contribute to Enchanted Conversation Magazine. I have two web sites dedicated to myths, legends and folklore. These are Under the influence!, including myths, legends, folklore and tales from around the world, and Folkrealm Studies, website dedicated to the study of mythology, legend and folklore. Follow me on Twitter here.