From Jill Mann, "Malory and the Grail Legend" (Companion to Malory, ed. Archibald and Edwards, pp. 203-20)


But why, one might ask, should such a penetration of the mystery of the

Eucharist be the goal and climax of knightly endeavour? The conventional

answer to this question is that the author of the French Queste was offering

 a challenge and a corrective to the secular ethos of chivalry which was

celebrated in the verse and prose romances of his time. The knights in the

 Queste are frequently lectured by hermits on the distinction between the

 'earthly chivalry' ('chevalerie terriane') in which they have been engaged

 hitherto, and the 'heavenly chivalry' ('chevalerie celestiel') which is

demanded in the quest of the Grail. Critics of Malory have likewise seen

 his Sankgreal as the point at which the worldly values of the Round Table

 are judged by religious standards and found  wanting; Lancelot's adultery

is there revealed as the flaw which robs him of his pre-eminence, and which

 will lead eventually to the collapse of the whole Arthurian world in the Morte.

Text Box: Galahad fed from the Grail  (La queste del Saint Graal; Yale, Beinecke Library MS 229)           Such interpretations of both the Queste and Malory are in the main

following the lead of Albert Pauphilet, who in a widely influential book

argued that the French Queste is deeply permeated by Cistercian spirituality;

for him, it represents a monastic attempt to appropriate the idiom of chivalric

romance for religious ends .... Forty years ago, Jean Frappier presented a powerful case for reversing Pauphilet's view of the relation between chivalry and religion: that is, instead of representing an attempt to appropriate chivalry for religious ends, the Grail romances use religion as a means of exalting the dignity of the knightly class ... The Queste in particular promulgates, in Emmanuele Baumgartner's words, "a class gospel." (207-08)



The French Queste is a symbolic narrative composed of a whole repertoire of images of wounding and healing, separation and union -- images which reach a climactic expression in the final visions of the Grail, as we shall see. Malory's Sankgreal reproduces this symbolic narrative, but makes its patterns even clearer, not only by significant change at certain moments, but also by drastically reducing the religious interpretations of the narrative which in the Queste are regularly delivered by hermits and other religious. These religious commentaries not only blur the narrative line, but also tend to reduce its symbols to a set of cryptograms, whose imagistic power is discarded as they are decoded into moral instruction. In minimizing the role of these religious expositions, Malory makes the world of the Sankgreal consistent with that of the rest of his work: a world of pervasive enigma, in which explanation or understanding comes, if at all, fitfully and too late to have any bearing on action - a world in which the knight must engage in adventure without any clear notion of the consequences or character of his involvement. And here as elsewhere, adventure is heuristic: it reveals a knight's preexisting worth rather than offering an opportunity to acquire it. Galahad's superiority is not a result of his trying harder, or of his resisting temptations more successfully; on the contrary, it is manifested in the fact that he is simply not tempted, as Perceval and Bors are. His preeminence consists in his wholeness, which is his from the beginning, and which the events of the narrative are designed to express. (209-10)



The narrative imagery of wholeness and separation is woven into complicated and paradoxical patterns, as this sequence of adventures shows. Wholeness never brings unalloyed fulfilment; it always entails a corresponding separation, the rupture of another kind of unity, which imbues it with a sense of nostalgia or yearning. Malory inherits much of this complex narrative imagery from the Queste, although, as we have seen, he is also capable of extending and refining it. But his most imaginative development of the Grail narrative is in his conception of the role of Lancelot and his relation to Galahad. It is here that the Sankgreal achieves an emotional power which goes far beyond anything in the French source.

          If Galahad embodies inner wholeness, Lancelot embodies an inner fragmentation. As Galahad's wholeness is expressed in his virginity, Lancelot's fragmentation resides in his relationship with Guinevere. The split at the centre of Lancelot's being can be seen in the comments made to Gawain by the hermit Nacien.

' ... as synfull as ever sir Launcelot hath byn, sith that he wente into the queste of the Sankgreal he slew never man nother nought shall, tylle that he com to Camelot agayne; for he hath takyn upon hym to forsake synn. And ne were that he ys nat stable, but by hys thoughte he ys lyckly to turne agayne, he sholde be nexte to encheve hit sauff sir Galahad, hys sonne; but God knowith hys thought and hys unstablenesse. And yett shall he dye ryght an holy man, and no doute he hath no felow of none erthly synfull man

lyvyng.' (563/16-24; XVI. 5)

These words have no parallel in the French Queste, and they have often been attributed to Malory's partisan attachment to Lancelot, and consequent reluctance to admit that in the Grail Quest his hero becomes a failure. The function of Nacien's speech is not to salvage Lancelot's reputation, but to show Lancelot as riven by a fundamental contradiction. The impression that Nacien's words give is not of qualification, of demotion to second-best, but of paradox; what is taken away with one hand is immediately restored with the other, in a way that makes it impossible to arrive at a single unified view. The two occasions when Lancelot himself is lectured by a hermit show the same disorienting oscillation between praise and blame, producing the same sense of contradiction and paradox as fundamental to his being. (216-17)