Idylls of the King By Alfred, Lord Tennyson Summary and Analysis The Holy Grail

Summary

After a full life as a knight, Sir Percivale retires to an abbey near Camelot and becomes a monk. Shortly afterward, he dies. Ambrosius, one of the other monks, had become his friend, and during the last days of his life, Percivale told his companion about the vision of the Holy Grail that had changed his life and finally caused him to leave the Round Table for a life of austerity and prayer.

The tale is as follows:

Following the death of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea had wandered through the world until he came to Glastonbury, where he settled and built the first Christian Church in England. With him, he had brought the Grail, the very cup which Christ had used at his last supper. The cup had remained as a holy relic at the church, and often the mere touching of it had healed the sick. Finally the evil of the times became so great that the cup had disappeared from earth and returned to heaven.

Percivale had a sister, a very holy and devout maiden, who was a nun. The corruption and sin were beginning to appear at Arthur's court greatly disturbed her, and she often fasted and prayed for salvation. Her confessor had told her the story of the Grail and explained that when men were pure again it would return to earth. When the Round Table was founded, it was expected that the Grail would reappear, but sin soon began to decay even that institution. Despite all their hopes, the faithful continued to be disappointed. The nun continued to pray and fast, trusting that she would be blessed with a personal vision of the Grail. One day she called Percivale to her and told him that this vision had indeed come to pass.

Percivale spread this news among his fellow knights, all of whom became excited by this new prospect for salvation. Many of them, including himself and Galahad, who was renowned as the purest of men, began to keep strict religious vigils. Then one day a miracle took place. There was a vacant chair at the Round Table, made by Merlin before he had disappeared, known as the "Siege Perilous." An inscription on it warned that "there no man could sit but he should lose himself." Galahad read this and said, "If I lose myself, I save myself!" and sat in the chair.

here was a sudden crash of thunder and a beam of bright light; the Grail appeared before the assembled knights and, veiled in a cloud, moved slowly past them. Everyone saw their companions as if in the midst of divine glory, and all were inspired by the experience. The knights were silent until Percivale said:

"I sware a vow . . . that I,
Because I had not seen the Grail, would ride
A twelvemonth and a day in quest of it,
Until I found and saw it, as the nun
My sister saw it."

The same oath was taken by Galahad, Bors, Lancelot, Gawain, and most of the other knights.

Now on this day, the king, along with a number of his knights, had been on a campaign against a band of robbers and so had not been present when all this occurred. Now they returned to Camelot and entered the hall, bloody and dirty from their battle. They found the place in a tumult of confusion and rapidly learned what had happened. The king was distressed at the news:

"Woe is me, my knights," he cried,"
Had I been here, ye had not sworn the vow. "

He questioned man after man and discovered that none except Galahad had actually seen the Grail. Furthermore, Galahad had also heard a voice calling upon him to follow.

"Ah, Galahad, Galahad," said the King, "for such
As thou art is the vision, not for these. . . ."

Arthur continued to explain that Galahad and the nun were both holy, chaste individuals and were worthy of the vision. For the others to attempt to attain that of which they were not worthy was foolhardy and presumptuous. As knights they were required to adhere to their vows, but in their absence, he feared, much evil would be allowed to spread unchecked through the realm, and much of their work would be undone. Many of them, he said, would never return, and the Round Table, and all it stood for, would be destroyed.

The next day, a great tournament was held, for Arthur wanted to see all his knights assembled together for one last time. Afterward, those who had taken the vow set out on their quests. As they rode through the gates of Camelot, the people wept or watched sadly. The king was barely able to speak, and Guinevere cried out: "This madness has come on us for our sins."

When he left the city, Percivale continued, he felt morally uplifted and confident. Thereafter, though, he learned that Arthur's forebodings had been justified, for he wandered aimlessly through the countryside and a deep depression came over him. The memory of his past evil thoughts and deeds cried out: "This quest is not for thee."

As Percivale searched, he was beset by doubts and by many temptations. Nothing satisfied the deep craving within his soul, however, and he had a continual feeling of frustration and aimlessness. During his wandering, he slowly learned that the things he valued most were illusions, and, not knowing what to do, he became more melancholy.

Finally Percivale met a simple hermit, to whom he told his story. The holy man responded:

"Oh son, thou hast not true humility,
The highest virtue, mother of them all. . . .Thou hast not lost thyself to save thyself
As Galahad."

At that moment, Galahad himself appeared in the little chapel. He was dressed in silver armor and had a mystical quality about him.

The three men prayed together. During their devotions, Percivale saw nothing, but Galahad had another vision of the Grail. It was bloody red and was in the midst of flames. This vision had been with him since he left Camelot. In that time he had roamed through the world, smashing the pagan hordes and ending their evil customs. Now, he knew, his time was at hand and he would be received into the heavenly city. He invited Percivale to accompany him part of the way, for then he too would be able to see the vision. Overwhelmed by the force of Galahad's faith, Percivale agreed.

The two knights climbed to the top of a nearby high hill, then walked to the edge of the sea. Percivale watched as Galahad entered a boat and drifted away. He saw, over the chaste knight's head, the Grail itself, glowing in the air. He had also a vision of the spiritual city into which Galahad entered. Then everything vanished. Percivale knew that he had at last seen the Grail and that it would never again return to earth. He was satisfied, and the next day he went back to Camelot.

On his way, Percivale met Sir Bors and learned of this knight's brief vision of the Grail. Bors also told him of the madness that had afflicted Lancelot as a result of the conflict between his desire to see the vision and his guilt for his sins.

At Camelot, Percivale and Bors discovered a scene of tragic desolation and ruin. Only a tiny fraction of his knights still remained with Arthur, for many had died or disappeared. The survivors were haggard and worn. The king himself was very morose. Gawain and the others had finally admitted that they were not worthy of the vision, but the harm done by their quest was irreparable. Even Lancelot had returned and reported that after many adventures he had seen a vision in which the Grail had appeared, but not with sufficient clarity for him to make it out. He upbraided himself severely for his unworthiness.

Arthur and the knights discussed the events that had taken place, and the king solemnly said:

". . . if indeed there came a sign from heaven,
Blessed are Bors, Lancelot, and Percivale,
For these have seen according to their sight. . . .And spake I not truly, O my knights?
Was I too dark a prophet when I said
To those who went upon the Holy Quest,
That most of them would follow wandering fires,
Lost in the quagmire? — lost to me and gone. . . .And some among you held that if the King
Had seen the sight he would have sworn the vow.
Not easily, seeing that the King must guard
That which he rules . . .(And) may not wander . . .Before his work be done . . .And knows himself no vision to himself,
Nor the high God a vision, nor that One
Who rose again. Ye have seen what ye have seen."

And ending his tale, Percivale said:

"So spake the King; I knew not all he meant."

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