The Meaning of the Quest for the Holy Grail

This is a crisis moment in history. It is a time of highly destructive iconoclasm when it is demanded of Western civilisation that it denounce and demean itself before a clamour of pseudo-historical and crypto-mythological accounts of the past made up largely of wishful thinking and blatant opportunism. It is vital therefore to return to the truly ancient cultural wellsprings of the West, and to explore and re-assert their brilliant—and unsurpassed—intellectual, cultural and spiritual resources. This article is an attempt to do this, exploring the Grail archetype as an example of these multi-faceted riches. 

The Great Mystery The Holy Grail is one of the greatest mysteries in the entire history of Western civilisation. It seems to have emerged almost from nowhere in the twelfth century and to have then been everywhere, in literature and art, before fading, only to surge forth again in the modern era. And while the Grail appears as a prize beyond price, right from the start it has never been clear exactly what it is; what purpose it serves; from what shadowy realm it comes; what powers it possesses; and what exactly happens to those who seek to possess it … or are possessed by it! It seems to be multi-dimensional: concretely, it is conceived as a chalice, cup, dish or spear, but also as a precious stone, special person, or even a royal bloodline; more abstractly, it’s a symbol, a goal, a presence, a deep secret, or the ultimate objective of a great mystical quest whose completion bestows miraculous gifts on those who see the quest through to the end.

Iconic & Archetypal The Holy Grail has become iconic in our civilisation and is commonly taken to signify the very highest realms of human attainment. But attainment of what? Of just any difficult goals? Or of one great goal above all others? It also seems to be archetypal—to represent something embedded deeply in the collective consciousness of the West, both shaping and expressing our deepest longings and aspirations. Ultimately, it seems the tale of the Grail may be a story we tell ourselves about how our lives should be led. More specifically, it is about the power of the human imagination, the rich prizes it offers and the great—even all-consuming—demands it makes.

Introducing the Grail The Grail first appeared in recorded literary form as part of the Arthurian mythos, the immense collection of tales clustered around the figure of King Arthur and his court that emerged in the High Middle Ages. It was introduced into the mythos by the French poet and trouvère (troubadour) Chrétien de Troyes (c.1135–c.1185) in Perceval: The Story of the Grail (c.1180). Chrétien was a very influential figure in medieval literature who wrote several important Arthurian romances and introduced the important character of Lancelot. His patrons were Marie of France, Countess of Champagne, daughter of King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and then Philippe d’Alsace, Count of Flanders. It was for them and the Angevin courts that he wrote his tales, which reflected their interests and aspirations.

The First Grail Knight Chrétien’s prototypical Grail story concerns another new character in the mythos. This is Perceval, who becomes the first of the Grail Knights, those whose lives come to be defined by the Grail Quest. As the tale begins, we learn that Perceval was raised in innocence and seclusion in the Welsh forests by his mother. He was all she had, and she was desperately anxious to protect him from the fate that had overtaken his father and brothers, all of whom were knights who had died in combat. Above all, she wanted him never to see a knight or even know of their existence, and so she kept him ignorant of all such things. However, one day he encountered a group of knights travelling through the woods. He was entranced at their noble stature and the beauty of their armour, thinking they were angels. Discovering their identity and their chivalric calling, he immediately realised his own noble vocation and rode off to Camelot to seek his destiny.

Self-Centred & Awkward Perceval’s mother was left weeping in despair. It is clear that Perceval is very self-centred. He is also awkward and tactless. When he arrives in Camelot, seeking to be made a knight, he rides his horse directly into Arthur’s company, where the tail of his mount knocks the king’s hat off. Oblivious, he then compromises the cordiality of two ladies, who are then unjustly punished by their husbands. In neither case does Perceval realise that he should defend them according to the conventions of chivalry. Later, when Arthur grimly describes the insult and dishonour done to Guinevere and his court by the obnoxious Red Knight, Perceval is again oblivious; he is concerned only with being immediately made a knight, caring nothing for the king’s dilemma or the queen’s humiliation.

Talent However, Perceval trains conscientiously and displays an enormous natural talent. As he prepares to depart on his adventures, he is given some crucial advice: keep your own counsel and do not ask too many questions. Presently, he comes across Blanchefleur, a fair maiden besieged in her castle by a nobleman seeking to force himself upon her. He routs this unwanted suitor and his minions, and he and Blanchefleur duly fall in love and agree to marry. Later, Perceval amazes all of Camelot by killing the Red Knight who had been troubling King Arthur. Taking the knight’s distinctive vermilion armour, he sets out, looking for further adventures.

The Fisher King On his travels, Perceval meets an angler by a river. This is the Fisher King (Le Roi Pêcheur), who invites him to stay at his castle, where Perceval learns that his host suffers from an incurable wound. It transpires that the Fisher King belongs to a long line of protectors of the Holy Grail. However, he has suffered a wound to his groin and been rendered virtually immobile and impotent. He is therefore incapable of carrying out his responsibilities, or even of fathering a son to assume the task after him.

Wasteland The tragic condition of his kingdom reflects the King’s plight, and it has become infertile and a barren wasteland. All he can do is fish in the river near his castle, Corbenic, and wait for a mysterious Grail Knight, who alone can heal him. Although knights travel from many lands to help, only the chosen one can effect the cure, and it seems he has not yet arrived.

The Sinful King Although it is not stated, it appears that the Fisher King’s name is an important pun. In French the word for fisherman is pêcheur; while the word for sinner is pécheur. It seems that the King has committed a sexual sin, as indicated by the wound to the groin, and that his impotence and the sterility of his lands reflect his punishment.

Dinner Perceval, oblivious as usual, understands nothing of all this. Later, at dinner, he witnesses a strange procession through the castle: first, a young man passes carrying a bleeding lance, followed by two young attendants carrying candelabra; then a beautiful young lady appears, bearing an elaborately decorated grail, the brilliance of which easily outshines the light of the candelabra; finally, an older lady passes, carrying a silver carving platter. Perceval is bemused, but he recalls the advice to not talk too much and not ask questions. Consequently, he suppresses his curiosity and remains silent during this perplexing ritual.

Alone In the morning Perceval wakes up to find himself alone; searching through the castle he finds nothing but his horse saddled and the drawbridge lowered ready for his departure. He leaves, and the drawbridge is immediately raised and the castle closed to him. Bewildered, he goes on his way. Already, the audience for this tale has been given an important clue about the central message that it is meant to impart, but they (us), like Perceval, remain mystified.

A Hag Comes to Court Perceval returns to Arthur’s court, where he is received with great celebration. As Chrétien describes the scene: “all night they revelled, and the whole of the next day, until on the third day they saw a damsel approaching on a tawny mule, holding a whip in her right hand”. She is a grotesque and repulsive apparition: “there was never a creature so ugly even in the bowels of Hell”.

Failure The hag reveals what it was that Perceval witnessed at the mysterious castle dinner: it was the solemn Grail Procession, and the entire weird experience had been a test! Now she has but one message for Perceval: he failed! He hadn’t seized upon Dame Fortune when she had placed herself within reach: “You entered the castle of the Fisher King and saw the bleeding lance, but it was too much effort for you [to] ask why that drop of blood flowed from the tip of the white shaft! And you didn’t ask what rich man was served from the grail you saw.”

Fury Furiously, she tells Perceval that had he asked these simple questions he himself would have been revealed as the Grail Knight, and the wounded Fisher King would have been healed and his blighted realm restored. Instead, because of his failure, “ladies will lose their husbands, lands will be laid waste, and maidens will remain helpless as orphans; many a knight will die. All these troubles will occur because of you!” Perceval is devastated; little could he know that a great saga would now begin that would entrance Western Europe for centuries.

Vows The hag (who is really a loathly lady) then addresses King Arthur and his court, telling them of a grand tournament where great honour and riches can be won. At this news, many knights vow they will leave immediately to seek their fortune and glory. But Perceval is not one of them. Instead he vows to commence a quest to find the truth of the Grail, and that from now on nothing will distract or divert him. He sets out on his journey, leaving the story to focus on Sir Gawain and his many adventures. The next time we meet Perceval in this tale it is five years hence, and he is a wreck.

Easter Perceval had yielded to temptation and forgotten his vow to seek the truth of the Grail. Instead, he had pursued personal honour through “the most difficult, treacherous and unusual adventures”. He records many victories in combat, but the cost has been high, and he now barely knows what day it is, even when he encounters a solemn procession of knights and noble ladies dressed in sackcloth and ashes. It is in fact Good Friday and they reprimand him for travelling on that day, armed and dressed for combat. Deeply shamed, he seeks out a holy man to make his confession.

Explanation This hermit turns out to be his uncle, who explains why Perceval had failed the Grail test and suffered many hardships: it was because of his sin against his mother, who had died of grief when he left her to become a knight. He then reminds Perceval of the simple virtues and responsibilities of a good Christian, and whispers an esoteric prayer into the young knight’s ear. The full content of this is not revealed, but “in this prayer were many of the names for Our Lord, all the best and the holiest, which should never be uttered by the mouth of man except in peril of death”. Once again, the audience is given a clue: could this transmission of secret knowledge illuminate the ultimate nature of the Grail?

Redemption & Enthusiasm Thus equipped with this mysterious spiritual armour, the repentant Perceval takes Holy Communion on Easter Sunday, sure now of the path to redemption. Chrétien then turns again to the adventures of Sir Gawain, but indicates that he will tell us more about Perceval and his quest … but he never does. The tale of Perceval and his quest just peters out, leaving its continuation to others.

Mystery Why did this happen? Perhaps Chrétien died or possibly he didn’t know how to end his tale. Or perhaps he felt he’d made his point? Whatever the explanation, the story’s unfinished condition added not only to its mystery and appeal; it also invited many other writers to complete the tale, and these “Continuations” and sequels vastly elaborated the saga and the complex conception of the Grail. 

Continuations These various Continuations came to form part of the vast Arthurian mythos, the misty origins of which lie in folk memory, myth and fragmentary historical accounts, going back centuries, or even millennia. These elements were transformed at the hands of many authors, in Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia and beyond. Eventually, Sir Thomas Malory (1416–70) wrote Le Morte d’Arthur (published in 1485), an enormous book that was the first to synthesise the previous Arthurian materials into one comprehensive work.

The Spear of Destiny An important new element to the Grail story was introduced in the First Continuation. There we learn that the bleeding spear carried in the procession is in fact the Spear of Destiny (also known as the Spear of Longinus), the spear that pierced the side of Christ on the Cross. The Spear subsequently appears frequently through the mythos and assumes an iconic status second only to the Grail itself, with which it is sometimes conflated. However, unlike the Grail, the identity of this icon is clear, although its meaning remains undetermined.

Elaborations In addition to these Continuations, there were other Grail tales, including the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, of unknown authorship, which appeared between 1215 and 1235. This cycle included The History of the Holy Grail and The Quest for the Holy Grail. And there was also Parzival (c.1210), by the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach.

Impact of an Icon As these developments indicate, the Grail concept erupted into the Arthurian mythos in the twelfth century with tremendous force. It had powerful archetypal potential that Chrétien had left undeveloped. After all, even its exact nature and form had been left ambiguous—it seems it may have been a vessel, but was it a chalice, a serving bowl, or something else? And what did this vessel contain? And what exactly did it do?

Uncertainty Such uncertainty provided an enticing opportunity for subsequent writers. They recognised the potential of this mysterious, multi-dimensional entity, with its obscure identity; its intimations of sacredness; its implied powers; the esoteric procession and ritual that surrounded it; and the powerful, alluring quest to discover its truth and the boon this promised. Very quickly these subsequent writers produced a range of tales that greatly developed the concept.

Numinous & Ineffable As the concept was developed after Chrétien, the Grail became the object of a great mystical quest bestowing miraculous gifts on those who complete it. The Grail itself is numinous and uncanny, with qualities that lie beyond the capacity of thought to comprehend and language to describe. As Richard Cavendish explains in King Arthur and the Grail (1978): “The legends of the Grail have an enthralling atmosphere of mystery, of some tremendous secret that stays tantalizingly just outside the mind’s grasp, in the shadows beyond the edge of conscious awareness,” that is, in the collective unconsciousness of Western civilisation.

Parzival Such a deep and complex mystery provided an opportunity for resourceful authors, and the challenge was taken up in Parzival, a poem by an impoverished German knight, Wolfram von Eschenbach, writing in the early thirteenth century. He confirmed that he had written Parzival because Chrétien had not done full justice to the concept of the Grail. In particular, Wolfram was concerned to emphasise Perceval’s spiritual development and the role played in that by the Grail and the quest for it.

Parzival’s Grail Consequently, the initial plot of Wolfram’s Parzival generally follows that of Chrétien’s Perceval. Like his predecessor, Parzival sees the Grail for the first time in the castle of the Fisher King, where it is carried aloft by a beautiful and chaste young woman. Wolfram declines fully to identify or describe it when it first appears, saying only that it is “the perfection of Paradise” and that it “surpasses all earthly perfection”. His reticence reflects the fact that the Grail possesses an ineffability that is intrinsic to its very nature.

Cornucopia The Grail then becomes the centre of a lavish banquet at which everyone’s tastes and desires are satisfied by its mysterious powers. This reveals a feature henceforth common to most tales: the Grail serves as a cornucopia that meets all needs: “the fruit of blessedness [that possessed] such abundance of the sweetness of the world that its delights were very like what we are told of the Kingdom of Heaven”. 

The Celtic Otherworld This is a very important innovation that leads many scholars to think that the concept of the Grail had Celtic origins. Indeed, this notion of a cornucopia echoes the magic cauldron of Annwn found in the Book of Taliesin, the work of a renowned Celtic bard. In the words of the New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology:

In the Otherworld the Celtic vision of mortal perfection is idealized. The land was rich in food and the delights of nature. No unpleasantness existed, neither in nature nor in man. Music, feasting, love-making, and—proper to the ideal of a warrior-aristocracy—even fighting were unlimited and devoid of any sense of satiety. All were immortal and if wounds and death resulted from battle, on the following day the wounds were healed and the dead restored to life. And so it continued into eternity.

Annwn Annwn is therefore a supernatural realm of everlasting youth, health, beauty, abundance and delight, enjoyed by the Celtic deities and perhaps the honoured dead. It is an eternally elusive realm that seems to run parallel to our own world, into which it can intrude in a fantastical manner. Numinous, it manifests itself in such phenomena as luminous vistas, mysterious mists, sudden squalls or storms, weird people and animals, and other uncanny events. It can be reached by mortals, perhaps by a determined quest, or by invitation, or by chance. It can be entered through burial grounds or caves, dark forests, or perhaps via the watery depths, or across the Western Sea. (Annwn later became Avalon, while an “Isle of Glass”, also mentioned in the poem, became Glastonbury.)

The Raid On the surface, The Spoils of Annwn describes a massive raid, led by King Arthur, to invade this enchanted realm and steal the magic cauldron from which all the richness of the Otherworld flows. However, the battle is fierce, the cost is very high, and most of Arthur’s men die. Moreover:

even Arthur could not safely insult the hidden elder world. The princes of Annwn took vengeance for the theft of their treasure. Their eyes were keen, their reach long, their weapons many, their patience infinite. Resolute in revenge, they sent their servants into the mortal world to work their mischief in secret ways, carefully weaving the shadowy shroud that would engulf Arthur’s realm and reduce it to dust and ruin.

The Grail Quest Beneath the surface of this tale, however, there is an additional, esoteric message that illuminates what becomes the ultimate meaning of the Grail Quest. It seems the tale serves as a metaphor for the bardic vocation itself and for the challenges involved in poetic composition. The poem suggests that voyaging deeply into the depths and mysteries of the imagination and the unconscious involves a quest, frequently dangerous, into a psychic otherworld where creativity simmers and seethes. This recalls the original Cauldron of Inspiration, from which (at great cost) Taliesin received the enlightenment that gave him his bardic powers. Such a vessel “inspires poetic genius; it confers wisdom, it reveals to its worshippers the knowledge of the future, the mysteries of the world, and the entire treasury of human knowledge”. (Richard Barber, The Holy Grail, 2004)

The Burden of Knowledge This knowledge can be burdensome, and Taliesin makes clear throughout the poem that he bears a great weight as a bard, and he frequently calls upon God to protect him on his travels through the realms of imagination and fantasy. From this perspective, the poem prefigures the arduous and all-consuming journey into the nether-realms of the human soul and imagination that would characterise the Grail Quest and become central to the Arthurian mythos. Later, Taliesin is admitted to the Court of King Arthur as the Court Poet, the esteemed figure who will record and interpret the mythos.

A Jewel from Heaven Returning to Wolfram’s version of the tale, we find that he depicts the Grail not as a cauldron or any other sort of vessel, but rather as a mystic stone that arrived from above—indeed, it is nothing less than the Philosopher’s Stone, the magical device that can transform dross into gold, heal the sick, bring immortality, and even invoke the divine.

Spiritual Plight Aside from this radical departure, which lies outside the main trajectory of the Grail story, Wolfram’s principal emphasis is on Parzival’s spiritual plight. This, we learn, is of such a magnitude that Parzival himself hardly recognises the dire trouble he is in. Once again, a key moment is Parzival’s experience with the hermit, who reveals the sinful state into which Parzival has plunged and shows him the pathway out. The hermit’s name is Trevrizent, and it appears this is a corruption of the French treble escient, meaning “thrice-knowing” and is a reference to Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary author of the Hermetica, the foundational text of the ancient tradition of Western esotericism known as Hermeticism. Parzival spends fifteen days with Trevrizent, learning about this and the mystery of the Grail.

Spiritual Insight Another crucial encounter then provides Parzival with a crucial insight. Taking leave of Trevrizent, Parzival encounters a knight with whom he must do battle according to the code of honour. Immediately, he finds himself in dire trouble: no matter what moves he makes they are countered by his opponent—it is almost as if he is fighting in front of a mirror. Eventually, the swords of the pair come together in a tremendous clash and Parzival’s is shattered, rendering him defenceless and at the mercy of his shadowy foe. However, instead of his opponent pressing home his advantage he suggests a truce, during which he and Parzival talk. Suddenly they discover they have the same father—they are brothers! In a flash of insight, Parzival realises why he had not been able to prevail in the duel: “I was fighting against my own self!” Through his pride and endless search of glory, he had been caught up in a pointless struggle with himself that could have lasted forever, with no resolution.

The New Grail King Almost immediately upon achieving this insight, Parzival (left, from a 12th century manuscript) is informed he is the new Grail King, who must now guard the holy relic. The lesson Wolfram seems to be emphasising is that while great courage is required to do battle with one’s enemies, even greater courage is required to confront the struggles within one’s own heart and soul. In due course, Parzival is admitted to the Round Table and assumes the role of the Grail King.

Templars & Mysticism Two further points about Wolfram’s account need to be noted. First, he explains that the order of knights protecting the Grail are “Templars”, intimating a connection with the fearsome warrior monks, the Knights Templar, who had acquired a legendary aura that survives to this day. Second, Wolfram identifies the original author of the Grail story as a Jewish astronomer, named Flegetanis: “Flegetanis the heathen saw with his own eyes in the constellations things He was shy to talk about, Hidden mysteries that trembling revealed it: He said there was a thing called the Gral. Whose name he had read clearly in the constellations.” This manuscript (in Arabic) was discovered lying neglected in the corner of a library in Toledo in Spain and was translated by a scholar named Kyot from Provence (who may have been an historical character, a troubadour named Guiot de Provins). Provence, in southern France, was long associated with the Cathar heresy, Gnosticism, the Troubadours, and the Kabbalah, the great school of Jewish mysticism. In this fashion, Wolfram’s account suggests a link between the Grail, the Arthurian mythos, the Templars, and major mystical, esoteric and heretical religious movements of the Middle Ages. This notion of hidden knowledge passed down through history is a theme that persists through all of the literature in this complex field, as we will discover in the second half of our exploration of the Grail Quest.

Joseph of Arimathea So, what was the Grail? As we have seen, Chrétien de Troyes had intimated that it was a vessel, perhaps a serving dish, while Wolfram claimed it was a mystic stone. Now however, the subsequently dominant conception of the Grail begins to emerge. In Joseph d’Arimathie (c.1200) Robert de Boron follows Chrétien’s basic plot but explains that the Grail was the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Joseph of Arimathea, a rich Jewish follower of Jesus, had retrieved it and then used it to catch Christ’s blood at the Crucifixion. Jesus had then appeared to Joseph, imparted some secret knowledge to him, and instructed him to assume guardianship over the Grail. Joseph did so, and the responsibility passed down through his family. Eventually, his descendants migrated to the Western Isles (that is, Roman Britain), along with the Grail and knowledge of the secret knowledge that Jesus had revealed to Joseph years before.

Glastonbury Robert was writing shortly after 1191, when the monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed they had discovered the tomb of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, working according to directions provided by King Henry II. Conveniently, his story explained how one of Joseph’s followers, Peter, had travelled from the Holy Land to “the vales of Avaron” (sic), a millennium earlier. On arrival, he’d preached the Christian message and prepared the way for the coming of the Grail guardians. “Avaron” was obviously Avalon, which was believed to be Glastonbury.

Perlesvaus Soon after, the author of another story, Perlesvaus: The High History of the Holy Grail, came forward; he claimed he had discovered his tale in a book from the Abbey library. In this fashion, Arthur, Guinevere, the Holy Grail and Glastonbury were all tied tightly together in a quasi-historical account of British history—an account that is still influential. Indeed, there is a tradition at Glastonbury that the Grail lies hidden at the bottom of the Chalice Well.

Deep History Why did Robert de Boron identify the Grail with the sacred chalice? It seems he did it to broaden and further entrench the “deep history” of the British people by giving it a paramount spiritual dimension. Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095–1155) had written The History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136) to provide the British with a history that linked them closely across the centuries with Ancient Greece and Rome. His major claims were that Britain had been founded by Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas, the Trojan hero who was the legendary founder of Rome; and that King Arthur had marched on Rome, vanquished a Roman army, and became emperor, before returning home for his final battle with Mordred.

Secular and Spiritual Authority The fall of Rome meant there had been a transfer of secular power from classical Rome to medieval England, which now has custodianship of the imperial authority that has been passed down since ancient times—emperor to emperor, and then king to king. What Robert was attempting to do was replicate this secular transfer of authority at the spiritual level, charting this via the movement of the Grail from the Holy Land to Glastonbury. In this fashion, the Grail was associated with a royal bloodline that endowed King Arthur and his royal successors with supreme secular and spiritual authority. (This linkage of the Grail with a royal bloodline has persisted, and found expression most recently in such best-sellers as Michael Baigent’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, 1982, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, 2003.)

John of Glastonbury This account was later supported by John of Glastonbury (mid-fourteenth century). According to him, Joseph of Arimathea did come to Britain with the Grail. He also claimed that King Arthur was descended from Joseph, and listed the genealogy down through Arthur’s mother, Igraine. The name Arthur was then given to a series of royal princes, right down to Arthur, Prince of Wales, whose untimely death elevated his brother to the English throne as Henry VIII. These genealogical claims were generally accepted and, at the height of the English Reformation, Queen Elizabeth I cited Joseph’s missionary work in England as proof that the Celtic Church pre-dated the Roman Church in Britain, and therefore had an ancient right to independence from Rome. In this fashion, the Grail is made integral to the royal bloodline and the Church of England.

Denouement Finally, Robert follows on from where Chrétien’s story had tailed off after Perceval left the holy man. We now learn that Perceval went on to encounter the all-knowing sorcerer, Merlin, who directs him back to the Grail Castle. There he once again witnesses the Grail Procession but this time he asks the necessary questions. Immediately, he looks up to see that the Fisher King has been cured and, shortly afterwards, departs this world for Heaven. However, before doing so he relays to Perceval the secret words spoken by Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea after the Crucifixion—but once again this secret is not shared with the reader, but left mysterious, a vital clue to the ultimate nature of the Holy Grail, as we will see.

Enter Galahad At this point in the development of the saga of the Holy Grail, there is a shift in the principal protagonists: Perceval/Parzival is replaced as the ultimate Grail hero by Galahad, although Perceval remains as one of only two knights who survive to accompany Galahad to complete the Quest. It seems that Perceval’s demotion was required because the true Grail hero had to be virginal, chaste and sinless, whereas Perceval had yielded to temptation and had a son by Blanchefleur.

Paternity Issues The life and deeds of Galahad are recounted by Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur. Galahad had first appeared in the post-Chrétien tales, but his shadowy paternity—involving Lancelot and his new lover, along with Guinevere—are described in emotional detail by Malory. According to him, it all began with the plight of Elaine of Corbenic (the land of the Grail Castle and the Fisher King). Elaine is a young lady of such beauty that she was placed under a curse by the jealous and vindictive sorceress Morgan le Fay, condemning Elaine to live forever in a bath of boiling water! Lancelot rescues Elaine, where countless other knights had failed, and she immediately falls in love with him.

Conspiracy Meanwhile, it transpires that King Pelles, Elaine’s father, is a descendant of Bron, the brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea, to whose line Joseph had entrusted guardianship of the Holy Grail. King Pelles knows of a prophecy that Lancelot will father a blessed son who will become the noblest knight in the world and finally accomplish the Grail Quest. He and his daughter then contrive to ensure that Elaine will be the mother of this child and fulfil the prophecy. The problem, of course, is that Lancelot is in love with Queen Guinevere and will resist Elaine’s carnal overtures.

Enchantress In order to seduce Lancelot, Elaine engages the enchantress Dame Brisen. She gives Lancelot what appears to be Guinevere’s ring as a message of invitation and, later in the evening, she also gives him some wine. The net effect of this procedure is to make Lancelot believe the lady now inviting him to bed is Guinevere:

and anon he was so besotted and mad with desire that he would make no delay … and know you well that Sir Lancelot was glad, and so was Lady Elaine that she had gotten Sir Lancelot in her arms. For well she knew that that same night should be begotten upon her Galahad, who would prove the best knight of the world … and they lay together until the morn.

The Morning After When the morning came and Lancelot awoke, the spell of enchantment had passed and the truth and gravity of his situation crashed down upon him and a very dramatic scene ensued. Lancelot was furious:

“Thou traitoress, what art thou that I have lain with this past night? Thou shall die here at my hands!” Then the fair lady Elaine skipped out of bed all naked, knelt before Sir Lancelot, and pleaded: “Fair courteous knight, I require of you have mercy upon me, for I have in my womb him by thee who is prophesied to be the noblest knight in the world … Gentle knight; grant me your good will!” And so Lancelot took his leave mildly and in due time Elaine was delivered of a fair child, and they christened him Galahad.

The baby was placed in the care of a great-aunt, who was the abbess at a nunnery, and he was raised there amongst loving women of God in an atmosphere of fervent Christian piety.

The Story Divides At this point the story divides: on one hand, Galahad has been conceived and born according to an ancient prophecy; he now has a tale of his own that will be our focus. On the other hand, Lancelot must now deal with the consequences of the trap into which he was enticed, and this tale can only be hinted at here: Queen Guinevere was naturally livid to hear of Lancelot’s coupling with Elaine and its outcome. However, after Lancelot explained about the enchantment, the Queen forgave him. Nevertheless, Guinevere and Elaine have a fiery confrontation when they meet at a great dinner. This is followed by Lancelot being tricked once again by sorcery into Elaine’s bed, after which he goes mad and runs off naked into the woods to wander there for many years before he is finally found and brought back to Camelot.

A Pentecost Sign Years have passed. Galahad now re-enters the story, and the Grail Quest begins to take its definitive shape. Pentecost was approaching, it was after Mass, and King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot and all the knights were preparing to enjoy a great feast. However, convention dictated that they must first witness a miraculous event before they could begin. Suddenly, they noticed that letters of gold had appeared on the Siege Perilous, the seat kept vacant at the Round Table for the knight who would one day appear and succeed in the quest for the Holy Grail. As its name indicated, it was a very dangerous place to sit for the unworthy, for the earth opened up and swallowed them! So what did these glowing golden letters mean?

A Messenger Suddenly, a young noblewoman rides up and asks Lancelot to accompany her on an important matter. Presently, they arrive at a nunnery, where Lancelot is greeted by the abbess and introduced to a young man of fine and noble bearing, accompanied by twelve nuns, all weeping inconsolably. It is the youth’s desire, they tell Lancelot, that he be made a knight, an honour that Lancelot was happy to confer the next morning before he set off back to Camelot. The newly knighted Galahad—for such was he—hung back for the time being, and so Lancelot returned home alone.

Floating Stone At Camelot, news had been brought that a stone with a sword embedded in it was floating in the river nearby. The court hurried to view this wonder, and saw upon the sword a message declaring it belonged to “he that shall be the best knight in the world”. Lancelot denied that this was meant for him, and warned that anyone unworthy who attempted to draw the sword from the stone might suffer a wound from which he would never recover. Nevertheless, at Arthur’s orders, Sir Gawain and Sir Perceval both made the attempt, without success. It was decided that this strange phenomenon was miraculous enough for them to enjoy their feast and so they went in to dine.

An Entrance But then, as soon as they were seated, the doors and windows of the great hall suddenly shut of their own accord, while the hall remained bathed in light. Then an aged knight entered, accompanied by the young man who was now Sir Galahad, nobly dressed but with an empty scabbard at his side. “Sire,” the old man said, “I bring to you this young knight. He is of royal blood, both through his father and through his mother, and he is descended from Joseph of Arimathea, and he shall accomplish the greatest undertaking of your realm.” Galahad was then escorted to the Siege Perilous where a new golden inscription had appeared confirming the esteemed seat was for him alone. “Surely this must be the knight who will win the Holy Grail,” the company declared. Even Guinevere was impressed and welcomed Galahad (who was, or course, the son of Elaine and Lancelot). They all then returned to the river where Galahad easily drew the sword from the stone and placed it in the empty scabbard at his side.

An Announcement At that moment, another young noblewoman rode up and told King Arthur that on that very evening he and all his company would be vouchsafed a vision of the Holy Grail. She then departed, leaving the company awestruck at what awaited them.

The Grail Feast That night, Arthur and all his knights attended evensong and then took their seats at the Round Table in the Great Hall.

Suddenly, they were disturbed by peals of thunder that shook the great castle around them. Then they were struck dumb and bathed in light seven times brighter than any they had known before. The spirit of the Holy Ghost descended upon them, and each one was beautified as the Holy Grail entered the hall. It was covered with white samite and none could fully discern it or the maid who bore it. And every knight there smelt the fragrance of rare spices, and before each knight there appeared miraculously the food and drink he most desired. And then, as the enchantment lifted and they realized they might speak once more, the Grail was gone.

The Vow King Arthur offered up a prayer of thanksgiving, but then Sir Gawain stepped forward, to solemnly vow that he would set out immediately in search of the Grail and not return until he had beheld it in its full clarity. Many other knights stepped forward and made similar vows; they too would depart first thing in the morning on this, the final Quest for the Holy Grail.

The Price Paid King Arthur was overwhelmed with sadness: “Alas, what has happened to us? Shall not our fellowship of the Round Table be irredeemably broken? A fellowship I have loved better than my own life, and one that is surely unique for its peerless knights, many of whom will now ride away in search of the Holy Grail, never to return!” The great king wept as he spoke. And soon the ladies of the court were weeping too, as their lovers were among the knights who were now to depart on this forbidding quest and perhaps be lost to them forever. But, amid the gloom, Lancelot spoke forth: “My liege, my ladies, in the end death must claim us all; and how more gloriously could we all die than on such a quest?” Gallant words, but nothing could lift the sadness that lay like a shroud over the once happy court.

Departure & Futility Only the knights themselves were jubilant; all 150 of the Order of the Round Table rode out the next day, passing through the streets of the village as the people wept at their heroes’ departure. Little did the gallant knights know that their quest would be futile; they thought they were embarking on another great chivalric adventure—they didn’t realise the Grail Quest was a spiritual mission for which, despite all their gallantry, they were sorely ill-equipped.

Exclusive It was to be only Galahad who would succeed fully in the Grail Quest, witnessed by Perceval and Bors. All the others fell in battle or wandered lost, because the Quest was not for those delivered by life into sin. Only Lancelot stood outside this judgment. Although he had been critically weakened by his sinful liaison with Guinevere over twenty-four years (!), he was judged not spiritually irredeemable, and for this reason he was vouchsafed a veiled view of the Grail, and would “die a right and holy man”, having spent his final years in a monastery meditating on life.

King of Jerusalem Galahad and his two com­rades enjoyed a different fate, seeing the Quest through to the end. They learnt that the Grail and the Holy Lance must leave Britain because the people there had become worldly and sinful, and were no longer worthy of the divine presence of these supremely sacred relics. The noble knights then journeyed with the Grail (shrouded by red samite), along with the Lance, to “Sarras” (Jerusalem) in the Holy Land. There, Galahad performed miracles, and in time was made king.

The Final Ritual A year to the day later, the comrades journeyed to the holy place where the Grail was now kept, and there they witnessed a bishop celebrating Mass. Presently, he called Galahad forward: “Advance, servant of our Lord, and you will see what you have most wished to see!” The bishop then gave Galahad communion and revealed his own identity as an adept standing at the end of a millennia-long line of esoteric transmission: “I am Joseph, son of Joseph of Arimathea, and the Lord chose me to bear you fellowship because you resemble me in two things: you have witnessed the marvel of the Holy Grail, and you are chaste and pure.” Indeed, Galahad was “the lily of purity, the true rose, the flower of strength … for the fire of the Holy Ghost burns in you so brightly”. It was this purity that made Galahad alone the true Grail Knight.

Farewells Galahad turned and embraced Sir Perceval and Sir Bors for the final time: “My lords, I pray you greet my father Sir Lancelot for me, and say my farewells.” He then spoke with great solemnity: “And pray bid him remember how ephemeral is this earth.” He then prostrated himself before the altar.

The Grail Unveiled The ultimate moment had arrived: finally the Grail was unveiled and Galahad gazed upon it. There, revealed to him, were “those things that the heart of man cannot conceive nor tongue relate”. Awestruck, Galahad began to tremble uncontrollably at the unearthly vision unfolding before him. “Blessed Jesus!” he exclaimed, “I thank you for granting me my greatest desire!” In that instant he was “translated from the earthly plane to the celestial, to the joy of the glorious martyrs and the beloved of our Lord”.

Ascent Galahad had glimpsed the supreme vision of heaven and could no longer abide the world of men and their follies. And so he offered up this prayer: “And now, if it pleases you, Lord, I pray, may I leave this world?” And in that moment the soul of Galahad was borne majestically to heaven by a host of rejoicing angels. Then a heavenly hand appeared and took up the Holy Grail and the Spear of Destiny and bore them also to heaven, and “no man on earth has seen them since”.

Epilogue: The Sworn Book What is this saga all about? One thing is certain: it concerns an incredibly arduous quest that possesses the participants and ultimately becomes all-consuming. But what is the goal? Perhaps there isn’t just one answer; but one suggestion stands out in the context of the spiritual, cultural and political tumult of the age in which the legend of the Grail Quest emerged and evolved. By the time it reached an advanced stage of development, the conception of the Grail had assimilated mysterious teachings, such as those contained in The Sworn Book of Honorius (c. thirteenth century), a medieval grimoire (book of arcane lore) purportedly written by one Honorius of Thebes. This supposedly records the secret knowledge of a convocation of mystical adepts, metaphysicians and magicians. As such, it addresses many esoteric topics, including the 100 names of God, how one’s soul might be delivered from purgatory, and what awaits the blessed in Heaven.

The Beatific Vision In particular, it details the rituals via which a devout seeker might achieve the ultimate mystical goal—the rapturous passing from this life into the realm of bliss and the Beatific Vision of God. These rituals involve rigorous spiritual discipline and asceticism, but at their core is the invocation of the Holy Names of God.

The Holy Names These Names were transmitted through history by learned adepts and revealed only to worthy initiates. At key moments in the Quest for the Grail we have seen such a transmission described; carefully disclosed to the hero but hidden from the audiences who are hearing or reading the tale, and culminating in Galahad’s ascension.

Condemnation Such teachings and practices apparently formed part of an esoteric form of Christianity that was known only to a select few, and that threatened to subvert the exoteric version addressed to the masses. Alert to the dangers, Church authorities suppressed awareness of these procedures and eventually, around 1400, condemned the idea “that by certain magical arts we can come to a vision of the Divine Essence”.

Shadowy Likeness Consequently, in order to preserve awareness of this secret lore, simulacra (“shadowy likenesses”) of its nature and procedures were devised by adepts and authors. These were then communicated in the form of the Grail romances. Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Robert de Boron and others felt they had forbidden knowledge to impart. They concluded that “this knowledge could [most] safely be presented as a romance which only initiates would understand, and which would be read [merely] as a chivalric story … by those outside the charmed circle,” unaware of its true, deeper meaning. (Barber, The Holy Grail)

Ultimate Mystery Ultimately, this then is the meaning of the Grail Quest: hidden within the endless saga of the Holy Grail, amidst all the adventures, the sacrifices, the struggles, the passions, the hopes, the heroism, the failures, the betrayals, the pageantry, the trials and the triumphs, recounted by scribes over many centuries, but accessible only to a few initiates, is an esoteric account of the mysterious, arduous, endlessly striving pathway towards the highest possible form of divine knowledge. What that knowledge might be must remain a mystery to those whose interest in the Quest remains at the level of scholarship, but ultimately that is not the point: it is not the Grail, whatever its riches might be, but the Quest that matters!

Mervyn Bendle’s seven-part series on the discoveries, contents and implications of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library appeared in Quadrant’s March, April, May, June, September, November and December issues

2 thoughts on “The Meaning of the Quest for the Holy Grail


    “…. it is not the Grail, whatever its riches might be, but the Quest that matters!”
    There’s no scriptural references to the so called holy grail. The concept of the holy grail is the stuff of legend and myth which this article shows well. Indiana Jones condensed these myths somewhat, but the ‘divine’ healing of his dad’s grievous wound was really down to 3% hydrogen peroxide solution which caused all that ‘miraculous’ fizzing. Photoshop probably did the disappearing of the ugly gash.
    Anyone on the ‘Quest’ is in for a never ending search. For true Christians their hope is not in some vessel that might have held Christ’s blood or might have been used by Him at the Last Supper; their hope and assurance are in Jesus Christ’s sinless life, His atonement on the cross, His resurrection from the dead, and His promise of eternal life to all who believe in Him.

    • Brian Boru says:

      Yes John.
      “I will not cease from Mental Fight,
      Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
      Till we have built Jerusalem,
      In Englands green & pleasant Land.”

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