The joy of love is too short, and the sorrow thereof, and what cometh thereof, dureth over long.
— Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
Medieval Romance is fraught with the supernatural, be it three-headed knights, sacred castles, or the Holy Grail, such characters, places, and items were intended to further impress upon the readers the pervasive presence of the Church. Although very early Romances have secular supernaturalness, these are more based on pagan oral tradition, rather than as allegories of religion. Unlike Chaucer’s “A Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, which featured Greco-Roman mythology as religious supernatural, later medieval Romances, Arthurian Romances in particular, are steeped in the religious context of Christianity. Arthur himself becomes King in many stories only through God’s divine intervention and appointment. Indeed, the thirteenth book of Thomas Malory’s famous Romance, Le Morte d’Arthur, is entirely devoted to the equally famous Christian artifact, the Sangreal (the Holy Grail). Though most of Le Morte d’Arthur has Christian themes, the most prominent usage is in said book, “The Noble Tale of the Sangreal.” There, sin and purity are explored, along with supernatural elements of omniscient hermits, prophetic dreams, and magical hair. Overall, the supernatural in Le Morte d’Arthur is based on religion, with only few instances of the secular paranormal.
The first major supernatural event is the appearance of the Sangreal itself, presented by the Holy Spirit: “Then there entered into the hall the Holy Grail covered with white samite, but there was none might see it, nor who bare it” (Malory, Book XIII, Chapter VII). Already, there are limitations on who is qualified to embark on the Quest for the Sangreal. Purity is equal to holiness, and the impure cannot even look at the Grail, let alone seek it. The one who would ultimately succeed in the Quest is foreshadowed in a scene prior to the Sangreal’s appearance. A mysterious sword in a stone is discovered floating in a river with the legend written upon it: “Never shall man take me hence, but only he by whose side I ought to hang, and he shall be the best knight of the world” (Malory, Book XIII, Chapter II). Both Gawaine and Percivale attempt to pull the sword out (luckily with no ill effects to their persons), but then Lancelot’s son, Galahad, appears — with a fabulous entrance: “all the doors and windows of the palace shut by themselves . . . [n]ot for then the hall was not greatly darked” (Malory, Book XIII, Chapter II) — and he pulls out the sword easily. Anyone familiar with Arthurian legend is aware of a similar scenario with Arthur as a boy, who pulled out a sword in a stone to prove his royal heritage. Arthur is also given Excalibur (or at least a very powerful, magical sword) by the Lady of the Lake (also clad in glittering samite), not only as a means to conquer dissenters in his new kingdom but also as proof of his right to rule as King. Surely then, Arthur should be the hero of the story and find the Sangreal, but unfortunately (or not, considering how dangerous the Quest ends up being), Arthur is tainted with sin, and his reign doomed to failure. Committing incest with his half-sister, albeit unknowingly, causes Arthur to lose his purity. Galahad, on the other hand, is chaste and unlike the other knights, has no inner demons, mental struggles, or even a twinging conscience that plagues him. That is not to say that complete sexual abstinence is the only method of being religiously pure; a few less-than-pure knights are actually allowed to see the Sangreal in all its glory. However, Galahad is the only one to be entrusted with the Grail itself, and it is implied that his chastity is veritably the reason for his worthiness: because he was not preoccupied with a wife/lover or indeed, the idea of sex at all (presumably), Galahad could focus on his Holy Quest and on God. More so than Arthur, Galahad is the Christ figure in Arthurian stories because he remains blameless, an epithet often attached to Jesus. Perhaps because he must remain virtuous (sexually speaking; Galahad does his fair share of slaughtering), Galahad travels alone, conquering enemies and performing rescues. Despite his many adventures, Galahad takes the lonely road of righteousness, never turning away from the Quest, not even seduced by a castle of young maidens. His commitment to his King and his God was unmatched by anyone else, but the other successful seekers for the Sangreal were holy as well. Sir Percivale, “as the tale telleth, he was one of the men of the world at that time which most believed in Our Lord Jesu Christ, for in those days there were but few folks that believed in God perfectly . . . ” (Malory, Book XIV, Chapter VI), and he actually rescues and befriends a lion wandering around in an English forest, the lion being a symbol of power and, in the context of the story, “the new law of holy church, that is to understand, faith, good hope, belief, and baptism” (Malory, Book XIV, Chapter VII) — or so Percivale is told in a prophetic dream, explained by an wandering priest. Launcelot also meets a strangely knowledgeable recluse, after a disastrous battle between a group of black knights and a group of white knights. Though Launcelot is regarded as the greatest knight of all time (aside from Galahad), he fights on the black side, “[b]ut always the white knights held them nigh about Sir Launcelot, for to tire him and wind him” (Malory, Book XV, Chapter V), and he is overcome. A female recluse tells him later that his battle was actually a representation of the entire Grail Quest: the black losers represented the sinful knights who would never be pure enough to find the Sangreal, and the white winners represented the chaste knights (Galahad, Bors, and Percivale) who would prevail in their Quest, hence the wearing of white, which “betokeneth virginity” (Malory, Book XV, Chapter VI). Launcelot then encounters a Black Knight, is again defeated, and returns home, not allowed to pursue the Sangreal any longer. Gawaine and Ector are also informed of their sinfulness — by omniscient hermits, no less — and only Bors is able to purify himself to join Galahad and Percivale. The remainder of the Sangreal story is somewhat disjointed, but ultimately, Galahad magically receives yet another sword, that of the Biblical King David. After a ceremony greatly reminiscent of Christian communion (or Catholic mass), a bleeding Jesus Christ reveals Himself to the Grail seekers and gives the cup to Galahad. Jesus also thoughtfully drips blood on a special spear. Galahad concludes that a bloody weapon is the perfect healing tool and cures the Maimed King. One thing leads to another, and Galahad, who was blessed by Christ with the gift of selecting the method of his death, decides better sooner than later and allows himself to be taken to Heaven by the randomly appearing Joseph of Aramathie:
And therewith he kneeled down tofore the table and made his prayers, and then suddenly his soul departed to Jesu Christ, and a great multitude of angels bare his soul up to heaven, that the two fellows might well behold it. Also the two fellows saw come from heaven an hand, but they saw not the body. And then it came right to the Vessel, and took it and the spear, and so bare it up to heaven. (Malory, Book XVII, Chapter XXII).
Much of the supernatural in Le Morte d’Arthur is symbolic, and not necessarily meant to be taken at their face value. Whether Malory only wished to preserve the various fragments of Arthurian legend, or actually was attacking the (Catholic) Church, remains unclear. In any case, Galahad’s astonishing adventures were the results of his chastity and overall righteousness, while the marvelous misadventures of the other knights were the repercussions of their earthly ways. Thus, the supernatural mainly concerned itself with fantastic events involving purity and sin, as well as the importance of dreams and those who interpret them.
- Malory, Thomas. “Le Morte d’Arthur — Summary of Malory’s Story.” Arthurian-Legend.com. Patrick Taylor Copyright, 2012. Web. 13 Mar 2012.
Drinking Game! – Take a shot every time you read a Monty Python reference! XD I seriously don’t know how I would’ve survived most of college without Python, I swear. Some of you unfamiliar with the tales of King Arthur may be surprised how faithful Monty Python and the Holy Grail actually is to the original legends. Not only were all the Pythons college-educated and dedicated to doing proper research for their writings, Terry Jones was and is a Arthurian historian. So there you are.