Summary and Analysis Book 6: The Tale of the Holy Grail: Sir Gawain


Sir Gawain rides for a long time without any adventures. He meets Sir Ector and learns that most of the knights have been having similar bad luck; there is no word of Galahad, Launcelot, Percival, or Bors. Ector and Gawain come to an abandoned chapel, where they fall asleep. Gawain has a vision of a fair meadow, a hayrack, two white bulls and one white except for a black spot, and many black bulls which leave the meadow and grow lean. The three white bulls are tied by ropes. Sir Ector dreams that he and Launcelot leap from a chair onto two horses; Launcelot falls from his horse and then, clothed in a knotted coat and riding on an ass, stops at a well to drink from it, but the water sinks away from him. Ector rides on and comes to a rich man's house where there is a wedding, but he is turned away.

Then, awakening, Ector and Gawain see a hand holding a bridle and bearing a candle into the chapel. A voice calls them knights full of "evil faith and poor belief" and tells them "these two things" have failed them. They go to find a hermit who can interpret these signs and on the way encounter a knight who offers battle. Gawain fights and accidentally kills the man — a fellow Round Table knight, Sir Ywain. Ector and Gawain bury him, then go on to the hermit.

The hermit explains that the meadow of Gawain's dream represents the Round Table and also the virtues humility and patience, which are always green and vital. The black bulls represent proud and sinful knights; they grow lean — that is, their group is decimated — for lack of humility and patience. The white bulls are sinless knights whose humility is represented by the ropes. The sinful knights slay each other "and they that shall ascape shall be so megir that hit shall be marvayle to se them." As for the two pure white bulls — Galahad and Percival and the spotted white bull — Bors — two of these will vanish and one will return.

In Ector's dream, the chair signifies the royal line from which both Ector and Launcelot are born; Launcelot's fall means that he has humbled himself; the knotted coat is his humiliation of the flesh; the ass represents his humility; the sinking well refers to God's grace, now withdrawn from him. He shall suffer twenty-four days at the hands of the Devil, one for each year of sin, then return to Camelot.

The hand with the bridle, seen by both Gawain and Ector, signifies the Holy Ghost where charity abides, and abstinence; the candle represents the way of Christ. Ector and Gawain, lacking charity, abstinence, and truth, will not achieve the Grail Quest. The cause of Gawain's lack of adventures is his character as murderer. The holy man says he would like to counsel Gawain, but Gawain has no time for that yet, he says, and hurries away to catch up with Sir Ector.