Misguided Malory—How Sir Thomas Misunderstood the Grail

One of the most enduring elements of the Arthurian mythos is that of the Holy Grail, the mysterious vessel of election found at the court of the Fisher King. Cup or cauldron, dish or stone, it plays a significant role in the Arthur of Romance, even before Chretien de Troyes composed Perceval, or, the Story of the Grail; prior to that, it was an important part of Celtic myth, with prototypes found in various Welsh and Irish texts, which likely indirectly influenced Chretien’s writing. The influence of the Grail continued to the days of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, where the quest signifies the beginning of the end for Arthur’s kingdom. It is my contention that Malory misunderstood the meaning of the Grail—which is inevitable, as he was writing without using Perceval or any Celtic source, but instead reliedn the Lancelot-Grail or Vulgate Cycle, written by Cistercian monks in the early thirteenth century (Vinaver 141). This can be seen in the way that Malory differs from the old Celtic versions and Chrètien’s Perceval.

These differences are the following: the hero is of a completely different character, in name, personality, and meaning; the Maimed King plays a greatly diminished role lacking meaning; there is no mention of a Waste Land in Malory; the meaning of the lance is underplayed; the meaning of the Grail is misconstrued as a sacred relic; there is no asking of the question, on which the quest so hangs; there is no wife of the hero; and finally, not only the outcome but the meaning of the entire quest is radically different from the Celtic version and Malory’s. Without these elements in their proper places, Malory’s version is a sanctified mess, a misconstrued tale he borrowed from the moralizing of thirteenth-century Cistercian monks.

When I speak of a Celtic version of the Grail legend, I recognize that as of now, there does not exist a definitive Celtic text predating Chretien de TroyesPerceval (composed 1175-1190), which could stand as the ultimate source for his poem. Now, Chrètien claims that his tale comes from a book owned by his patron Philip of Alsace. As some of his other works are admittedly based on prior material (his lost poems he alludes to are based on Ovid (Staines xii), and attributes Lancelot to material furnished by Marie de Champagne (de Troyes 170), it is not unreasonable that Chrètien’s source is some lost British text Philip procured while in England in 1170 (Owen 103).i Quite possibly, this was a version of The Mabinogion that predates the text we have today. At any rate, what stands is that the tale of Perceval has Celtic precedents, and is not the invention of Chrètien. This is important to understand in order to discuss the meaning of the Grail as Celtic theology.

Following the pioneering works of R. S. Loomis and Jean Markale (among others), I contend that the legend of the Grail is essentially theology—a tale, not unlike the Biblical “Fall of Man,” which deals with the conditions of existence: innocence, loss, and redemption. The same idea—that these are tales of gods and thence beliefs about those gods--has been said about the “Four Branches of the Mabinogi” (Gantz 11) and the Irish cycles (Cross and Slover 1). Since ancient Rome, we have known that the Druids did not record their theology or holy myths, considering oral transmission more sacred (Caesar 6:14). It was not until the rise of monasticism in the British Isles that these myths were recorded, and it would not be surprising that by the eighth century the tales would have become confused, with some elements or meanings in one tale and not in another. For example, in “Cormac macAirt in the Land of Faery,” the hero achieves a cup of sovereignty (Cross and Slover 503-507); in “Branwen daughter of Llyr” it is a cauldron of rebirth (The Mabinogion 79); while in “The Spoils of Annwn” attributed to the poet Taliesin (fl. 6th century A.D.?), it is an Otherworld vessel guarded by nine maidens (Taliesin 20-21). Each has a part of the meaning, but not all of the meaning of the vessel and the quest. So when I speak of a Celtic version, I mean a reconstruction derived from texts which have been agreed upon by other scholars (such as the above mentioned) to be variations on a theme or series of themes, which are presented as the quest for the Grail.ii However, for the sake of a readable text, I will refer to the Celtic hero by the name given to him by Chrètien—Perceval.

The first issue at hand is that of the hero. In both Malory and most Celtic versions, he is a figure often identified with “the Fair Unknown.iii” That is, he is a figure from the outside of society, the unknown or forgotten son of a king or knight, a son either held captive in some otherworld and released in order to start the quest, or isolated in the woods for safety, raised by women (often his widowed mother) until the beginning of the quest. This can be applied to both Galahad and Perceval. Galahad was raised alone at Carbonic the Grail castle, in the company of his mother Elaine and the Fisher King (a paradox I will comment on later). Perceval is “the son of the widowed lady of the remote Desolate Forest” (de Troyes 340). However, the characters of Galahad and Perceval are quite different. Perceval is a fool, evidenced by the way he misinterprets his mother’s and Gornemant's instructions in good conduct. He doesn’t know enough to ask the question which will set the land right, and is often called a fool because of it (de Troyes 384).

In contrast we have Galahad. Unlike Perceval, who arrives at Arthur’s court a fool, Galahad appears self-assured; he knows what to do. He arrives after the appearance of a sword in a stone in the middle of a river outside the castle; he draws the sword, sits on the Siege Perilous, and sends a message to the Fisher King that he will soon be on his way. There is no question about Galahad’s suitability, and unlike other versions, the Fisher King’s wound is not the result of the hero’s actions. Galahad is blameless, unlike Perceval, who blunders about unsure of what he is doing or what he is looking for—an Everyman who receives guidance along the way, while Galahad is a superman—perfect, above all other knights and all human desire.

It’s worth discussing why this change in heroes would have taken place. Why replace the fool, a common folktale motif, with the figure of Galahad? Galahad is all-powerful, able to defeat his father Lancelot in a single stroke. Presented with the Maimed King, Grail, and Lance, he knows exactly how to heal the king, and does so immediately. He is a virgin, strict in his chastity, where as Perceval is quite different—confused, naïve, having a lover, and failing in his first visit to the Grail castle. So why change? Well, by the age of the Vulgate, Lancelot had become the most popular of Arthur’s knights, his tale of courtly love very much in vogue. It would actually make more sense if they had replaced Perceval with Lancelot. However, when the church got its hands on the story of the Grail, they couldn’t simply make Lancelot the hero because of his adultery—“it was quite impossible for Lancelot to conform to {the Cistercian} standards of aesthetic purity” (Morgan 15)—however, they could make his son the hero. As Matarasso states in her introduction to the Quest of the Holy Grail, “despite its Arthurian setting {it} is not a romance, it is a spiritual fable” (9). The definitely pagan roots of the tale were covered up by the Cistercian monks who were Malory’s source. Instead of a young man with a lover or wife who heals the land through the Maimed King, we have a virgin knight who is seeking religious enlightenment. The meaning of the quest has moved from the community to the individual—no longer is it about healing the land and the people who live on it, but about religious obligation and personal fulfillment. In creating a figure to parallel Christ (Morgan 40), they created an unlikable hero.

Now Galahad, being blameless, is thus free of the guilt that Perceval suffers from causing the wounding of the Fisher King. The Fisher King is the second element which has lost its meaning in Malory’s version. He is often the god of the sea (in Wales called Bran, in Ireland Manannan; both are sons of Ler/Lir or Llyr meaning “the sea”), which is a source of food for island nations (fish, otter, etc.), and hence associated with fertility. In some versions, the wounding of the Fisher King is the result of the hero’s foolishness. For instance, in the Didot Perceval manuscript, when Perceval sits on the Siege Perilous before he is ready, and so wounds King Broniv in Ireland (The Romance of Perceval in Prose 13-14). Other versions relate that it is the fault of the Fisher King, the result of a battle or an illicit sexual affairv.  For instance, the original King Bran of the Mabinogion, who is wounded in the “thighs” during a battle over his sister and a cauldron of rebirth—obvious female fertility symbols, and analogous to the idea of rampant or ill-used sexuality, a lack of moderation or prudence, leading to the wounding. It is a wounding that results in the decay of the land, as the king and the land are one in Celtic belief (Markale 30). The health of the land is dependant on the virility of the king, and it is the goal of the hero to heal the king and restore the Waste Land.

However, in Malory there is no Waste Land, and the Maimed King is a confusing figure, not necessarily always identified with the Grail Keeper. In Malory, “the Grail quest is not connected in any way with the healing of this Lame King” (Nutt 83). The point of the quest is directed to Galahad’s gaining of the Grail; the old Celtic emphasis on the land is no longer relevant to Malory’s audience, who would likely have been the aristocracy, the clergy, and possibly the emerging merchant class of England (Benson 18-21). Those still intimately tied to the land were illiterate peasants, who were more interested in the deeds of the pastoral outlaw Robin Hood, popular at the same time, but appealing to the lower classes’ frustration with the aristocracy, represented by King Arthur.

Moreover, whereas the Grail had previously been said to be in the Waste Land, the realm of the Fisher King, in Malory it is in Carbonic, a land easily reached (Lancelot and Gawain have both visited there in the past) and later transferred by Jesus to Sarras, which is identified with the Holy Land (Loomis 194). As the Grail is a real object to the Church (whether it still exists or not, Christianity does rest on the foundation that the Gospels are true documents, that the Last Supper did happen, and so the Grail does or did exist), and the possession of an incarnate god (i.e. Jesus Christ), then it is logical, given the climate of the Crusades (which influenced Malory’s version due to his borrowing from the Queste, written around 1220 (Scudder 266) to place the Grail in the Holy Land instead of an mysterious Otherworld, the realm of the gods, which is where it is placed in the Celtic versions. However, this Otherworld is damaged, and in need of the hero’s help. As discussed earlier, the king of the Otherworld—be it Avalon, Annwfn, or Emhain Abhlach—is greviously wounded, leaving the land unable to produce. What sustains the king is his feeding from Grail.

That said, there are four objects which are at the heart of the quest, all of which have lost their meaning in Malory’s quest: the Grail, the Lance, the Sword, and the Siege Perilous. Their origin may derive from the Four Treasures of the Tuatha de Dananns, the Irish Pantheon: the cauldron of the Dagda—“no one came away from it unsatisfied,” the lance of Lugh, the sword of Nuadavi, and the Lia Fail (Stone of Destiny), which would cry out when the true king would step upon it (Cross and Slover 12). In Welsh myth, they likely correspond the cauldron of Bran (the cauldron of rebirth), the Lance which wounded Bran, and the Gorsedd Arberth (a hill of destiny) in The Mabinogion (Gantz 31, 66)vii. In Malory, these become the Grail, “the holy dish wherein I Jesus ate the lamb on Sheer-Thursday” (Malory 2:346); the Lance that wounded King Pelles (320) and which is often identified with the Lance of Longinus, which struck Christ on the Cross (Malory 1:70-71); the Sword, a broken sword which is restored by Galahad (Malory 2:344); and the Siege Perilous, upon which only the chosen Grail winner can sit (225).

The Grail was then in origin a vessel of plenty and of rebirth, as well as a cup of sovereignty (that is, he who owns it is a just ruler), as well as a vessel which will only abide truth (Cross and Slover 506-507) and bravery (Taliesin 20). It symbolized the feminine aspects of the fertile land—a receptacle, a womb, a cauldron of rebirth (Markale, 27-28). More interesting is the Lance—as it wounded the Fisher Kingviii, and in this function would represent the masculine aspects of the fertile land, it would then represent, as stated earlier, the danger of not respecting the prominence of the female aspect; that is, the Fisher King’s wound is the result of wrong actions, whether the thoughtlessness of Perceval or the Fisher King’s own sins (for instance, one could argue that Bran’s easy giving of the cauldron as a gift in the first part of the Mabinogion comes back to haunt him in the battle in the second half; also the illicit affair of Amfortas in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival). The repairing of the broken Sword by the hero would then signify the first stage in the healing of the Fisher King, as the sword is another phallic symbol. Significantly, Galahad repairs the sword, but gives it to Bors, who, while celibate, is not a virgin; one could read this as yet another rejection of sexuality.

Regarding sexuality—this seems to be one of the most divergent elements between Malory and the Celtic quest. In Malory, sex is equated with sin; not only the adulterous affair of Lancelot and Guenever, or the incestuous conception of Mordred, but even in the less dangerous liaisons: Sir Gawain’s many paramours; the episode where Bors would rather let his brother Lionel die than leave a maiden to be ravished; Perceval’s somewhat changed character from ladies’ man to chaste knight, leading up to his symbolic castration, where he stabs himself in the “thigh” when tempted by a maiden (Malory 2:272) (I say somewhat changed, for it is obviously quite a struggle for him if he must resort to castration). Finally, it is only the ever-virgin Galahad who can achieve the Grail. This is quite unlike the Celtic version, wherein the hero almost always has a lover. Perceval has his Blanchefleur; Cormac his Ethne; Peredur and Lugh have any number of maidens, including Cuchulain’s mother; Pryderi has Cigfa, and so on. It is seen as part of the hero’s natural development to have a lover; Jean Markale believes this may involve sexual initiation (10, 26-27). Meditation on his lover figures in the quest, and in some cases, like Cormac’s, her disappearance figures in the quest. When the quest is basically one of restoring fertility, with the kingship of the hero being the outcome, he must have a consort, able to produce offspring. In Malory, though, this is not the case, since the quest has nothing to do with fertility, but with religious obligation.

The most significant change, though, regarding the difference between Malory and the Celtic version is the outcome of the quest. In the Celtic version, the hero heals the land and is make king. This healing is generally accomplished by asking a question. The question may vary depending on the version of the quest; some ask “Whom does the Grail serve?” while others ask, “What ails you, uncle?” and still others ask, “What is the meaning of this service?” (i.e., the Grail procession). Regardless of the question, the fact remains that the hero must ask something—he must admit his ignorance both to others and to himself in order to heal the king. This takes not only compassion—caring about what is wrong with the king—but humility. This concept is absent in Malory’s text. Galahad sees the Maimed King, anoints him with the Bleeding Lance, healing the king, and moves on to Sarras. No question, no humility, no uncertainty regarding what to do.

The result of the healing is either letting the Fisher King finally die and having Perceval take his place, or healing of the Fisher King and restoration of the land in that manner, with the implication that the hero will then become king at a later date. The world is set right, the hero is finally recognized as being more than a simple widow’s son, and prosperity reigns. Perceval accepts his responsibility for past sins, learns to think about others, and brings the land into a golden age.

However, the outcome is quite different in Malory; it is much darker. The tone is set early on by Arthur’s unwillingness to see his knights go out on quest. This unwillingness “hints at that clash between the pursuit of earthly and heavenly good… loyalty to the beloved woman may be at odds with loyalty to the overlord” (Scudder 276), and this will bring that divided loyalty out into the open. Moreover, the Grail is moved to Sarras by Jesus Christ, who says, “Them of this land {Logres, that is, Britain}, they be turned to evil living; therefore I shall disherit sic them of the honour sic which I have done them” (Malory 2:346). As Scudder says, “The object of the whole plan for which the Table Round exists has been to bring Logres under the new Law. …till the very men trusted with its fulfillment have proved themselves the instrument of its failure… The Christianizing of England has made sterner claims than Arthur’s chivalry can meet” (302). The quest is in fact a failure, when compared to the life-giving results of the Celtic quest. For after this, the enchantments are broken, Lancelot and Guenevere are found out, Mordred seizes the throne, Arthur is killed in the final battle at Camlann, and Excalibur is returned to the Lady of the Lake, never to be seen again. The last few knights return to the Holy Land (Sarras) to fight the Turks (an interpolation of the Crusades), and are killed. The land is left in waste, overrun by the Saxons.

Why does Malory do this? What could be his reasoning? I hold that Le Morte d’Arthur is essentially a fifteenth century work of nostalgia, written by a rather Quixotic figure, mourning for the end of chivalry. Malory is said to have taken part in the War of the Roses (Scudder 178); by this time, firearms had joined the battlefield, and the knight—he who rides on horseback—was quickly becoming extinct. In watching the old world crumble and replaced by a new (the Plantagenet line was collapsing; Columbus would sail for India in only twelve years; both Copernicus and the Reformation was close at hand), it seems he went to the glorious days of King Arthur for solace, not unlike the Man of La Mancha, only to realize that it is a world most certainly passed; the only way to end the book is to show how it dissolved, how it fell under its own corrupt weight.

This may be how history decided the Pax Arthuriana—ended (if it ever existed) by the Saxon invasions and internal strife. However, this is not the true message of the Grail. The Grail Quest is one of healing, one of restoration. When Perceval begins, he is in the Desolate Forestthe Waste Land—but doesn’t know it yet. He must enter the world, sin, experience, become a man, and even fail in the quest, before he can return to the Waste Land and heal the Fisher King. The Fool who exists at the margins of society must make his way in the world; it is his status as a fool, his absolute naïveté about proper conduct, which makes him perfect for the quest: his foolishness leads him to try anything, including sin; yet through sin comes experience, and through experience comes compassion, so that when he returns to the home of the Fisher King, he is mature enough to ask the question which will heal the king. Gawain couldn’t do it; he may have sinned, but he was no fool. Lancelot couldn’t do it; he sinned also, but hadn’t the willpower to change his ways. Galahad cannot feel compassion, and cannot sin; he is only concerned with his quest, and that quest leads to disaster. Only a fool like Perceval could plunge head forward into the adventure and come out the true hero.

Works Cited

Benson, Larry D. Malory’s Morte Darthur. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Caesar, Gaius Julius. The Gallic Wars. Ancient History and Archaeology. 1997. Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/caesar/CAEGAL06. HTM

Cross, Tom P., and Slover, Clark Harris. Ancient Irish Tales. 1936. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 1996.

de Troyes, Chrètien. The Complete Romances of Chrètien de Troyes. Trans. David Stains. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

The Romance of Perceval in Prose: a Translation of the E Manuscript of the Didot Perceval. trans. Dell Skeels. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.

Gantz, Jeffrey. trans. The Mabinogion. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. The Grail: from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. 1963. Princton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

The Mabinogion. Trans. Jeffrey Gantz. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

Malory, Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. 1485. Trans. A. W. Pollard. Ed. John C. Wilson. New York: University Books, 1961.

Markale, Jean. The Grail: the Celtic Origins of the Sacred Icon. 1982. Trans. Jon Graham. Rochester. VT: Inner Traditions, 1999.

Matarasso, P. M. trans. The Quest of the Holy Grail. New York: Penguin Books, 1969.

Morgan, Sister Mary Louis, O.S.U., A.M. Galahad in English Literature. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 1932

Newstead, Helaine. Bran the Blessed in Arthurian Romance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.

Nutt, Alfred T. Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1965.

Owen, D. D. R. The Evolution of the Grail Legend. London: University Court of the University of St. Andrew, 1968.

Scudder, Vida D. Le Morte Darthur of Sir Thomas Malory: a Study of the Book and Its Sources. New York: Haskel House. 1965.

Staines, David. trans. The Complete Romances of Chrètien de Troyes. by Chrètien de Troyes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Taliesin. “The Spoils of Annwn.” trans. John K. Bollard. “Arthur in the Welsh Tradition.” article in The Romance of Arthur: an Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation. ed. James J. Wilhelm. New York: Garland Publishing Inc. 1994.

Vinaver, Eugene. Malory. 1929. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1970.

End Notes

i. Both Philip of Alsace and Marie of Champagne were related to Henry II of England; Marie was Henry’s step-daughter by Eleanor d’Aquitaine, and Philip was his cousin. So while both were strictly continental, they had ties to the British Isles; likely this was another form as transmission on top of the Breton courtiers. Moreover, it could explain Wolfram von Eschenbach’s insistence on Perceval’s relation to the Anjou line in Parzival.

ii. Among these texts, I include (with the help of other scholars such as Alfred Nutt and R.S. Loomis) “The Second Battle of Mag Tured”; “The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn MacCumhill”; “The Four Branches of the Mabinogi”; “the Phantom Frenzy”; “Cormac’s Adventures in the Land of Faery”; “Peredur”; and “The Lad with the Goatskin.”

iii In the romance “Le Bel Inconnu,” (1195-1190) the Fair Unknown is later revealed to be Guinglain, Gawain’s son. As Lancelot replaced Gawain, is it possible that Galahad replaced Guinglain?

iv. Helaine Newstead’s book Bran the Blessed in Arthurian Romance has already made a sound case for the identification of the god Bran from The Mabinogion with King Bron of Robert de Boron’s text; for example, both are wanderers, associated with the sea, a magic vessel, and being wounded in Ireland (Newstead 45).

v. It is possible that the emphasis on a sexual sin—though not the sexual incapacity—is a later Christian interpolation. The Celts were more lax about sexuality, evidenced by many Irish texts, which are full of sexual liaisons. Markale states that even in Perceval, one can see that the tale carries the theme of sexual initiation in Blanchefleur’s character (Markale 10).

vi. In “The Second Battle of Mag Tured,” King Nuada is wounded, his arm cut off; Lugh comes to replace him as king, and fend off the Fomorians, forces of darkness in Irish myth. Later, Nuada is given a real arm of flesh, and can regain his throne. Again, the king cannot be wounded in order for the people to survive. The sword, as a symbol of power being restored, is perhaps an echo of this story. In this same tale is a well which can restore the dead.

vii. I have yet to see an analogy to the sword in The Mabinogion.

viii. Malory gets confusing here; in one place he says that King Pelles was wounded by the broken Sword (2:344); he also confuses the names quite often, at times calling him King Pellam, other times King Pelles (there is also a Sir Pelleas, who early on Malory says will achieve the Grail with the others, but makes no appearance between books four and eighteen.

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