Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Grail Quest in Malory: Bad Stitching

Having blazed through 3/4 of Malory in a couple of days (yes, I skimmed here and there) I got back to the question of the Grail Quest. The story bothers me, which is why I'm happy to dismiss the entire episode from my own version. The tone of the tales shifts drastically, and the prevailing mode is scolding didacticism.

The early books are notable for the absence of religion as a significant force. It's certainly a part of the environment -- the knights hear masses, observe holidays, get married, and take refuge in the occasional chapel -- but motivations are never described as religious. Holy objects and people play no role in their quests. Occasionally characters are praised for being "meek" or religiously dutiful, but far more often they get accolades for beating everyone else up. They're in it for glory, women, revenge, or fun, which makes perfect sense for echoes of a pre-Christian ethos.

When Galahad shows up in Le Morte d'Arthur, the party is over.

His arrival at the court so closely retraces Arthur’s accession as to suggest a deliberate echo. He is conceived under magical deception, and arrives as an unknown and untried youth. While I can see a reason for keeping young Arthur out of the public eye, Galahad's being raised in secrecy makes no real sense. There are no more warring barons; his father and everyone else at Arthur's court are pleased to make his acquaintance and duly impressed by all of the omens. Even Gwenivir, who you might think would be a little miffed at her straying lover, magic or no, is content to remark only on how much Galahad looks like his father. (Timelines! Even if one adopts the most generous possible definition of early manhood, that's a lot of years to have passed.)

The magic that saturated the early stories is replaced by religious symbology. Galahad pulls a sword from a stone, but this time it is described as a miracle, Merlin being long gone (later on he gets another, even more miraculous sword, with a sheath made from the actual Tree of Life). Galahad’s awesome is explained by him being a ninth-degree relative of Jesus, rather than being the rightful king. He is fated to heal the Dolorous Stroke delivered by Balin and fills the empty Siege Perilous, capping off untied threads from old adventures. The visitation that starts off the adventure is from the Holy Ghost, not a strange beast or mysterious damosel.

This newly revisioned realm cannot coexist with the previous, less godly version. There are heavy premonitions of doom, that many of the knights will die in their quest. In order for the quest to be accomplished, the Round Table cannot remain.

Off everyone goes on the adventure. Galahad's perfection is stressed so far that it sometimes seems unfair to everyone else. The rules have changed, and no one told them. Gawaine helps to kill seven wicked knights. That's good, right? Nope! Bad knight, no cookie. Galahad doesn't kill people willy-nilly. Galahad is also a virgin, as we are reminded on many pointed occasions. Galahad defeats both Lancelot and Percivale in one of those random anonymous combats, and the symbolism is not subtle; the old guard is no longer useful.

There is a chapter of what I can only call ret-conning regarding the Round Table. Malory starts with the version in which the table is a gift from Gwenivir's father, although the names on the seats are magic. In this flashback, it was made by Merlin, and he utters a prophecy about the three who would achieve the Grail.

Every few pages the knights find a hermit, a holy recluse, a monastery, or a mysterious chapel. Everybody has omen-filled dreams, which have to be laboriously explained by holy bystanders. Percivale and Bors both have adventures that ends with being tempted by a woman. Percivale maintains his virtue by stabbing himself in the leg, but he still gets killed later on. Magic has always been dangerous in these stories, but it has never been explicitly ascribed to Satan. Women have been dangerous because they would either kill you themselves or get you into a duel, not because they were literally fiendish harlots.

The cast of characters in the Grail quest is fairly small, and it gets smaller as it goes. Gawaine kills Bagdemagus, and in some versions, many other knights. Bors and a deeply chastened Lancelot go home. Percivale gets killed. Galahad too dies, of course--blissful and unstained, having achieved his quest and after receiving communion from the hand of Joseph of Arimathea himself. Having been used as a sufficiently blunt object lesson, he had nowhere to go from there but down.

It's hard not read a lot of this as a writer punishing the characters for their previous incarnations, when you go from "for in all tournaments and jousts and deeds of arms, both for life and death, he passed all other knights" to "for of a sinner earthly thou hast no peer as in knighthood." Clearly there has been a change in priorities.

And yet? A few chapters later, we're back in Camelot, and the queen is accused of murder. The plot is all vengeance and fighting. Lancelot is back to "the most man of worship in the world" and the only Galahad that gets mentioned is a different one (and about whom I am quite curious, as he is identified as "the haut prince," but prince of what is never specified).

The Grail quest is a completely different type of story from the others around it, and it's very badly stitched in here. Of course, Malory's isn't the only version of it, and Galahad himself appears to have been a late invention.

I'm going to gleefully ignore the entire episode. 

1 comment:

Brian Rogers said...

Clearly Galahad is being played by the DM's girlfriend.