The Quest for the Holy Grail

The Knights of the Round Table and the Quest for the Holy Grail

Drawing executed for 'The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Percival', one of a series of six tapestries made by Morris & Co, illustrating the story of the Grail quest in Sir Thomas Malory's

Print Collector / Contributor Getty Images 

The Holy Grail is, according to some versions, the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper. The same cup was supposedly used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect Christ's blood during the crucifixion. The story of the quest for the Holy Grail refers to the search by the Knights of the Round Table.

There are several versions of the same story; the most famous was written in the 1400s by Sir Thomas Malory, titled Morte D'Arthur (Death of Arthur). In Malory's version, the Grail is finally found by Sir Galahad—the most accomplished of King Arthur's knights. While Galahad is extraordinarily gifted as a fighter, it is his chastity and piety that qualify him as the only knight worthy of the sacred Grail.

Key Takeaways: Quest for the Holy Grail

  • The Holy Grail is usually thought of as the cup that Christ drank from during the Last Supper and which Joseph of Arimathea used to collect Christ's blood during the crucifixion.
  • The story of the Quest for the Holy Grail comes from the Morte d'Arthur, a tale of the Knights of the Round Table written by Sir Thomas Malory during the 1400s.
  • In the Morte D'Arthur, 150 knights set out to find the Grail but only three knights—Sir Bors, Sir Percival, and Sir Galahad—actually find the Grail. Galahad alone was pure enough to see it in all its glory.

The History of the Holy Grail ('Vulgate Cycle')

The first version of the story of a quest for the Grail was written by a group of monks during the 13th century as part of a large set of prose works known as the Vulgate Cycle or Lancelot-Grail. The Vulgate Cycle includes a section called Estoire del Saint Graal (History of the Holy Grail).

The History of the Holy Grail introduces the Grail and tells the story of knights of the round table who go on a quest to find the holy cup. Unlike earlier Grail stories in which Parzival (also called Percival) finds the Grail, this story introduces Galahad, the pure and pious knight who finally finds the Grail.

'Morte D'Arthur'

The best-known version of the quest for the Holy Grail was written by Sir Thomas Malory in 1485 as part of the Morte D'arthur. The Grail story is the 6th of eight books in Malory's work; it is titled The Noble Tale of the Sangreal.

The story begins with Merlin, the sorcerer, creating an empty seat at the Round Table called the Seige Perilous. This seat is to be held for the person who would, one day, succeed in the quest for the Holy Grail. The seat remains empty until Lancelot discovers a young man, Galahad, who has been raised by nuns and is, supposedly, the descendant of Joseph of Arimathea. Galahad is also, in fact, the child of Lancelot and Elaine (Arthur's half-sister). Lancelot knights the young man on the spot and brings him back to Camelot.

Entering the castle, the knights and Arthur see that the sign above the Seige Perilous now reads "This is the Siege [seat] of the noble prince, Sir Galahad." After dinner, a servant brings word that a strange stone has appeared floating on the lake, covered with jewels; a sword has been thrust through the stone. A sign reads "None shall draw me hence, but only he by whose side I must hang, and he shall be the best knight in all the world." All of the greatest knights of the round table attempt to draw the sword, but only Galahad can draw it. A beautiful woman rides up and tells the knights and King Arthur that the Grail will appear to them that night.

Indeed, that very night, the Holy Grail appears to the knights of the round table. Although it is hidden by a cloth, it fills the air with sweet smells and makes every man look stronger and younger than he is. The Grail then disappears. Gawain swears that he will go on a quest to find the true Grail and bring it back to Camelot; he is joined by 150 of his colleagues.

The story goes on to follow the adventures of several of the knights.

Sir Percival, a good and courageous knight, is on the trail of the Grail, but nearly falls victim to the seductions of a young, beautiful, and evil woman. Avoiding her trap, he journeys onward to the sea. There, a ship appears and he climbs aboard.

Sir Bors, after abandoning his brother Sir Lionel to save a damsel in distress, is summoned by a glowing light and disembodied voice to climb aboard a boat draped in white. There he meets up with Sir Percival and they set sail.

Sir Lancelot is led by a disembodied voice to the castle where the Grail is kept—but he is told the Grail is not his to take. He ignores this and attempts to take the Grail, but is thrown back by a great light. Finally, he is sent back to Camelot, empty-handed.

Sir Galahad is granted the gift of a magical red-cross shield and defeats many enemies. He is then led by a fair damsel to the seashore where the boat bearing Sir Percival and Sir Bors appears. He climbs aboard, and the three of them set sail together. They journey to the castle of King Pelles who welcomes them; while dining they have a vision of the Grail and are told to journey to the city of Sarras, where Joseph of Arimathea once lived.

After a long journey, the three knights arrive in Sarras but are cast into the dungeon for a year—after which time the tyrant of Sarras dies and they are released. Following the advice of a disembodied voice, the new rulers make Galahad king. Galahad rules for two years until a monk claiming to actually be Joseph of Arimathea shows all the three knights the Grail itself, uncovered. While Bors and Percival are blinded by the light surrounding the Grail, Galahad, seeing the vision of heaven, dies and returns to God. Percival gives up his knighthood and becomes a monk; Bors alone returns to Camelot to tell his tale.

Later Versions of the Quest

The Morte D'Arthur is not the only version of the story of the quest, and the details vary in different tellings. Some of the most famous 19th-century versions include Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "Sir Galahad" and Idylls of the King, as well as William Morris's poem "Sir Galahad, a Christmas Mystery."

In the 20th century, one of the best-known versions of the Grail story is Monty Python and the Holy Grail—a comedy that nevertheless follows the original story closely. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is another movie that follows the Grail story. Among the most controversial retellings is Dan Brown's book The DaVinci Code, which builds on the idea that the Knights Templar might have stolen the Grail during the crusades, but which finally incorporates the questionable idea that the Grail was not an object at all but referred instead to the child of Jesus in Mary Magdalen's womb.

The quest for the Holy Grail is, in fact, still in progress. Over 200 cups have been found which have some kind of claim to the title of Holy Grail, and many seekers pore over ancient and medieval literature to find clues as to where the Grail could be hidden.

Sources

  • Barber, Richard. “History - British History in Depth: The Legend of the Holy Grail Gallery.” BBC, BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/hg_gallery_04.shtml.
  • “Library: The Real History of the Holy Grail.” Library: The Real History of the Holy Grail | Catholic Culture, www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6511.
  • Malory, Thomas, and Joseph Glaser. Le Morte D'Arthur. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2015.
  • Orton, David Cooper. “The Quest for the Holy Grail.” The British Library - The British Library, The British Library, 13 June 2006, www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/mythical/grail.html.