The Quest of the Holy Grail

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628

Galahad’s arrival at the court of King Arthur is one necessary event that enables Arthur’s knights to set off on their quest for the Holy Grail. An empty chair for this knight, the Perilous Seat, had always been reserved at the Round Table, which is suddenly marked for Galahad; a new visitor successfully sits there. Galahad also is able to successfully perform a task that no other knight had completed: to pull a sword from a stone. Only Gawain had dared to try, but he had failed. Arthur is convinced that this achievement indicates that Galahad is the one who was chosen to carry out the quest; Galahad agrees that it was meant to be and now lacks only a shield. According to the translation of the text by W. W. Comfort,

He stretched forth his hand and drew the sword from the stone as easily as if it had no hold there; then he took the scabbard and placed the sword in it. Then he girded it on him and said to the king: “Sire, now it is better placed than it was before. Now I lack nothing but a shield.” “Fair sire,” the king replied, “God will send you a shield from some source, as He has sent you a sword.”

Following Gawain’s lead, the knights all swear to undertake the quest and, Arthur is saddened to hear, not to return to Camelot until it is completed. Their wives want to go with them, but an elderly religious man comes forward to prevent it, saying he bears the word of Nascient the Hermit. He also requires the knights to attend confession before they embark, so they are “cleansed and purged of all villainy and mortal sins,” and reminds everyone at court of the true mission of the quest.

This Quest is not a quest for earthly things, but is to be the search for the deep secrets and confidences of Our Lord and for the great mysteries which the High Master will show openly to that fortunate knight whom he has elected among all the other knights of earth to be his servant. To him he will reveal the great marvel of the Holy Grail and will show him what mortal heart could not conceive nor the tongue of earthly man utter.

As the knights continue on the quest, they are tempted and tested many times. On one occasion while Lancelot is in disguise, the better to pursue the mission undetected by God’s enemies, he sees a beautiful candelabra inside a chapel. Along the road outside comes a knight carried on a litter who stops at a cross erected there. The man is clearly very ill and calls out for the Grail to ease his pain.

Ah! God, is there to be no end to my distress? Ah! God! When will the Holy Vessel come who will cause my agony to cease?

His plea is answered when two objects move toward the cross by some invisible force: the candelabra from the chapel and a table upon which is a vessel. Lancelot

saw drawing near upon a silver table the Holy Vessel which he had seen once before at the Fisher King’s, the very same which was called the Holy Grail.

The man is cured by seeing these objects and kissing the table. Lancelot, who is somehow paralyzed or semi-conscious as this occurs, lets the sacred items pass by him without showing any concern. This is taken as evidence of his lack of piety or being in a state of sin. The cured knight is given the sword, helmet, and horse belonging to Lancelot, who is left wandering in the woods until he reaches a hermitage where he is able to confess.

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