Summary and Analysis
Book 6: The Tale of the Holy Grail:
The Miracle of Galahad
Galahad comes to King Mordrayns (or Evelake), who has waited for him for four-hundred years. Mordrayns embraces him and dies. Galahad rides on and comes to the lake of fire, a symbol of lechery (traditionally an emblem of hell itself). He puts his hand in the water and it cools. Then in the country of Gore, Galahad visits a burning tomb. The fire ceases and the body that has lain burning in the tomb for three hundred and fifty-four years, in punishment for a sin against Joseph of Aramathy, is reburied at Galahad's command.
At last he finds Percival and Bors, and they all ride to Corbenic, the Castle of the Maimed King, Pellam. There they see marvels and Galahad heals Pellam. Now Galahad, Bors, and Percival are guided to their ship, where they find the Grail. Galahad prays and is granted the right to choose his time of death. At last they arrive at Sarras, where Percival's dead sister awaits them, as predicted. Galahad heals a cripple.
Immediately afterward, the three knights are thrown into prison by a Saracen; but prison is no discomfort — the Grail comes to them and spreads feasts. After a time the Saracen king falls sick, calls them out of prison to ask their forgiveness, and dies. The city, guided by a voice out of heaven, makes Galahad king. At the year's end, Galahad sees a vision of Christ among his angels and asks to be raised to Him. He dies and his two friends see his soul borne to heaven. Percival becomes a religious hermit; Bors eventually returns to Arthur's sadly diminished court.
In the Grail section, the underlying weakness and futility of Arthur's court, which up to now Malory has only suggested by ironic juxtapositions, is laid out openly: Merlin's Round Table is a figure for the world, in medieval Christian doctrine the source of three dangerous temptations — "lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life" (see 1 John 2:16), that is, sinful concupiscence, covetousness, and overweening pride. Whatever the original function of the lady in Arthur's world, she has become in the end not the genteel embodiment of social judgment, but the object of sexual lust; whatever the original function of knightly accouterments, titles, and lands, they have degenerated into things sinfully coveted; and chivalric heroism has in the same way degenerated into sinful pride.
Along with these central Christian tenets, a number of less central Christian virtues are introduced in the Grail section to comment on what is wrong with Arthur's world. It is a world which cannot distinguish clearly between appearance and reality, or, in Christian language, outer appearance and inner meaning — surface and allegory. It is a world which thrives on legalized murder, forgetting the law "Thou shalt not kill;" a world in which fathers war with sons (one of the leitimotivs in Isaiah). Or to put all this another way, it is the eye-for-an-eye world of the Old Law, which must be overthrown by the New Law of charity.
The lucidity and conviction of Malory's Grail section are no doubt in large measure reflections of the personal religious feeling of the writer; but they are also effects of brilliant technique. Nearly everything Malory has done before, nearly every symbol and convention he has established earlier, he repeats here in a new context — the context of spiritual quest. For instance the convention of the borrowed shield, established in "Launcelot du Lake" and developed in every conceivable way in later tales, gets its final twist in the Galahad story: Galahad jousts with no shield at all, protected by grace (like Launcelot among the lions, later in the Grail section), then gets his red cross shield from an agent of God.
The convention of the guiding damsel, with its overtones of love between the guided and the guide, reappears here in idealized form: Percival and his friends are guided by Percival's sister, whose saintly love has nothing to do with eros.
Experiences of Arthur's worldly court which helped to define his worldly code have echoes here and define a higher code. As Gawain mercilessly struck off the head of a lady who threw herself over her knight, Lionel strikes off the head of a holy man who throws himself over a knight to prevent a murder. As Pellanor sinned against the worldly code through the haste of his quest, Gawain sins against the higher code by haste: he cannot stop for counsel from a holy man. Parallels of this sort, though not necessarily schematic, are numerous.
The fundamental idea behind the Grail section is spelled out in the passage entitled "The Miracles." For all their loyalty to King Arthur, Launcelot and all worldly knights are guilty, finally, of "treason": the true king is Christ, and the true knightly code is not Arthur's, but God's — chastity (at best, virginity), charity and abstinence (as opposed to covetousness), and humility (as opposed to knightly pride).