Thomas Bulfinch > The Age of Fable > Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry > XIX. The Sangreal, or Holy Graal
Thomas Bulfinch (1796–1867).  Age of Fable: Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry.  1913.

King Arthur and His Knights
XIX.  The Sangreal, or Holy Graal
THE SANGREAL was the cup from which our Saviour drank at his last supper. He was supposed to have given it to Joseph of Arimathea, who carried it to Europe, together with the spear with which the soldier pierced the Saviour’s side. From generation to generation, one of the descendants of Joseph of Arimathea had been devoted to the guardianship of these precious relics; but on the sole condition of leading a life of purity in thought, word, and deed. For a long time the Sangreal was visible to all pilgrims, and its presence conferred blessings upon the land in which it was preserved. But at length one of those holy men to whom its guardianship had descended so far forgot the obligation of his sacred office as to look with unhallowed eye upon a young female pilgrim whose robe was accidentally loosened as she knelt before him. The sacred lance instantly punished his frailty, spontaneously falling upon him, and inflicting a deep wound. The marvellous wound could by no means be healed, and the guardian of the Sangreal was ever after called “Le Roi Pescheur,”—The Sinner King. The Sangreal withdrew its visible presence from the crowds who came to worship, and an iron age succeeded to the happiness which its presence had diffused among the tribes of Britain.
                “But then the times
Grew to such evil that the Holy cup
Was caught away to heaven and disappear’d.”
The Holy Grail.
  We have told in the history of Merlin how that great prophet and enchanter sent a message to King Arthur by Sir Gawain, directing him to undertake the recovery of the Sangreal, informing him at the same time that the knight who should accomplish that sacred quest was already born, and of a suitable age to enter upon it. Sir Gawain delivered his message, and the king was anxiously revolving in his mind how best to achieve the enterprise, when, at the vigil of Pentecost, all the fellowship of the Round Table being met together at Camelot, as they sat at meat, suddenly there was heard a clap of thunder, and then a bright light burst forth, and every knight, as he looked on his fellow, saw him, in seeming, fairer than ever before. All the hall was filled with sweet odors, and every knight had such meat and drink as he best loved. Then there entered into the hall the Holy Graal, covered with white samite, so that none could see it, and it passed through the hall suddenly, and disappeared. During this time no one spoke a word, but when they had recovered breath to speak King Arthur said, “Certainly we ought greatly to thank the Lord for what he hath showed us this day.” Then Sir Gawain rose up, and made a vow that for twelve months and a day he would seek the Sangreal, and not return till he had seen it, if so he might speed. When they of the Round Table heard Sir Gawain say so, they arose, the most part of them, and vowed the same. When King Arthur heard this, he was greatly displeased, for he knew well that they might not gainsay their vows. “Alas!” said he to Sir Gawain, “you have nigh slain me with the vow and promise that ye have made, for ye have bereft me of the fairest fellowship that ever were seen together in any realm of the world; for when they shall depart hence, I am sure that all shall never meet more in this world.”   2

AT that time there entered the hall a good old man, and with him he brought a young knight, and these words he said: “Peace be with you, fair lords.” Then the old man said unto King Arthur, “Sir, I bring you here a young knight that is of kings’ lineage, and of the kindred of Joseph of Arimathea, being the son of Dame Elaine, the daughter of King Pelles, king of the foreign country.” Now the name of the young knight was Sir Galahad, and he was the son of Sir Launcelot du Lac; but he had dwelt with his mother, at the court of King Pelles, his grandfather, till now he was old enough to bear arms, and his mother had sent him in the charge of a holy hermit to King Arthur’s court. Then Sir Launcelot beheld his son, and had great joy of him. And Sir Bohort told his fellows, “Upon my life, this young knight shall come to great worship.” The noise was great in all the court, so that it came to the queen. And she said, “I would fain see him, for he must needs be a noble knight, for so is his father.” And the queen and her ladies all said that he resembled much unto his father; and he was seemly and demure as a dove, with all manner of good features, that in the whole world men might not find his match. And King Arthur said, “God make him a good man, for beauty faileth him not, as any that liveth.”
  Then the hermit led the young knight to the Siege Perilous; and he lifted up the cloth, and found there letters that said, “This is the seat of Sir Galahad, the good knight;” and he made him sit in that seat. And all the knights of the Round Table marvelled greatly at Sir Galahad, seeing him sit securely in that seat, and said, “This is he by whom the Sangreal shall be achieved, for there never sat one before in that seat without being mischieved.”   4
  On the next day the king said, “Now, at this quest of the Sangreal shall all ye of the Round Table depart, and never shall I see you again altogether; therefore I will that ye all repair to the meadow of Camelot, for to just and tourney yet once more before ye depart.” But all the meaning of the king was to see Sir Galahad proved. So then were they all assembled in the meadow. Then Sir Galahad, by request of the king and queen, put on his harness and his helm, but shield would he take none for any prayer of the king. And the queen was in a tower, with all her ladies, to behold that tournament. Then Sir Galahad rode into the midst of the meadow; and there he began to break spears marvellously, so that all men had wonder of him, for he surmounted all knights that encountered with him, except two, Sir Launcelot and Sir Perceval.
        “So many knights, that all the people cried,
And almost burst the barriers in their heat,
Shouting ‘Sir Galahad and Sir Perceval!’”
  • Sir Galahad.
  • Then the king, at the queen’s request, made him to alight, and presented him to the queen; and she said, “Never two men resembled one another more than he and Sir Launcelot, and therefore it is no marvel that he is like him in prowess.”
      Then the king and the queen went to the minster, and the knights followed them. And after the service was done they put on their helms and departed, and there was great sorrow. They rode through the streets of Camelot, and there was weeping of the rich and poor; and the king turned away, and might not speak for weeping. And so they departed, and every knight took the way that him best liked.   6
      Sir Galahad rode forth without shield, and rode four days, and found no adventure. And on the fourth day he came to a white abbey; and there he was received with great reverence, and led to a chamber. He met there two knights, King Bagdemagus and Sir Uwaine, and they made of him great solace. “Sirs,” said Sir Galahad, “what adventure brought you hither?” “Sir,” said they, “it is told us that within this place is a shield, which no man may bear unless he be worthy; and if one unworthy should attempt to bear it, it shall surely do him a mischief. Then King Bagdemagus said, “I fear not to bear it, and that shall ye see to-morrow.”   7
      So on the morrow they arose, and heard mass; then King Bagdemagus asked where the adventurous shield was. Anon a monk led him behind an altar, where the shield hung, as white as snow; but in the midst there was a red cross. Then King Bagdemagus took the shield, and bare it out of the minster; and he said to Sir Galahad, “If it please you, abide here till ye know how I shall speed.”   8
      Then King Bagdemagus and his squire rode forth; and when they had ridden a mile or two, they saw a goodly knight come towards them, in white armor, horse and all; and he came as fast as his horse might run, with his spear in the rest; and King Bagdemagus directed his spear against him, and broke it upon the white knight, but the other struck him so hard that he broke the mails, and thrust him through the right shoulder, for the shield covered him not, and so he bare him from his horse. Then the white knight turned his horse and rode away.   9
      Then the squire went to King Bagdemagus, and asked him whether he were sore wounded or not. “I am sore wounded,” said he, “and full hardly shall I escape death.” Then the squire set him on his horse, and brought him to an abbey; and there he was taken down softly, and unarmed, and laid in a bed, and his wound was looked to, for he lay there long, and hardly escaped with his life. And the squire brought the shield back to the abbey.  10
      The next day Sir Galahad took the shield, and within a while he came to the hermitage, where he met the white knight, and each saluted the other courteously. “Sir,” said Sir Galahad, “can you tell me the marvel of the shield?” “Sir,” said the white knight, “that shield belonged of old to the gentle knight, Joseph of Arimathea; and when he came to die he said, ‘Never shall man bear this shield about his neck but he shall repent it, unto the time that Sir Galahad the good knight bear it, the last of my lineage, the which shall do many marvellous deeds.’” And then the white knight vanished away.  11

    AFTER Sir Gawain departed, he rode many days, both toward and forward, and at last he came to the abbey where Sir Galahad took the white shield. And they told Sir Gawain of the marvellous adventure that Sir Galahad had done. “Truly,” said Sir Gawain, “I am not happy that I took not the way that he went, for, if I may meet with him, I will not part from him lightly, that I may partake with him all the marvellous adventures which he shall achieve.” “Sir,” said one of the monks, “he will not be of your fellowship.” “Why?” said Sir Gawain. “Sir,” said he, “because ye be sinful, and he is blissful.” Then said the monk, “Sir Gawain, thou must do penance for thy sins.” “Sir, what penance shall I do?” “Such as I will show,” said the good man. “Nay,” said Sir Gawain, “I will do no penance, for we knights adventurous often suffer great woe and pain.” “Well,” said the good man; and he held his peace. And Sir Gawain departed.
      Now it happened, not long after this, that Sir Gawain and Sir Hector rode together, and they came to a castle where was a great tournament. And Sir Gawain and Sir Hector joined themselves to the party that seemed the weaker, and they drove before them the other party. Then suddenly came into the lists a knight, bearing a white shield with a red cross, and by adventure he came by Sir Gawain, and he smote him so hard that he clave his helm and wounded his head, so that Sir Gawain fell to the earth. When Sir Hector saw that, he knew that the knight with the white shield was Sir Galahad, and he thought it no wisdom to abide him, and also for natural love, that he was his uncle. Then Sir Galahad retired privily, so that none knew where he had gone. And Sir Hector raised up Sir Gawain, and said, “Sir, me seemeth your quest is done.” “It is done,” said Sir Gawain; “I shall seek no further.” Then Gawain was borne into the castle, and unarmed, and laid in a rich bed, and a leech found to search his wound. And Sir Gawain and Sir Hector abode together, for Sir Hector would not away till Sir Gawain were whole.  13


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