by Jeremy R. Strong
The quest for the Sankgreal in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is very much Sir Galahad’s show. The quest begins with his arrival at court and ends with his ascending to heaven. Sir Launcelot plays a pivotal role in the tale of the grail, however, as he does in the whole of the Le Morte. The journey of Sir Launcelot to achieve the Sankgreal often parallels, intersects and compliments that of his son Galahad’s. Throughout the books of the grail quest however, Launcelot is shown repeatedly and repetitively to be unworthy of fully achieving the Sankgreal. Though, for a sinner, he does pretty damn good in being allowed to see the Sankgreal. I argue in this paper, that Launcelot is used in Malory’s Morte as the ultimate example of how misbelief can touch any man, no matter how great and that ultimately this can prevent ascension to the kingdom of God.
Launcelot is aware that his sin makes him unworthy to lay claim to the “fayre ryche swerde” (498) that comes down the river, mounted in “rede marbyll” (498). When the King comments that the sword ought to be Launcelot’s, the knight replies “Sir, hit ys nat my swerde. Also, I have no hadiness to sette my honde thereto, for hit longith nat to hang by my syde” (498). The fact that Launcelot personifies the sword could be coincidental, but me thinketh not. First, the sword is mounted in red marble, a detail that becomes important when we later see the Sankgreal, or holy vessel “coverde with rede samyte” (576). We might connect these and other objects in the tale that are marked by the colour red, such as the white shield with its cross of always fresh blood and the dripping spear. The colour red has well known connotations with religious devotion, martyrdom, and most tellingly, in relation to the Morte, to the feast of Pentecost. So Launcelot by personifying the sword and giving it agency in deciding whose side to hang by, comments directly on his own unworthiness to be honored by Christ.
Why Launcelot is unworthy is perhaps not as simple as his not being a virgin. When sir Gawayne speaks with the ermyte about his vision, the ermyte tells him that the “hondred and fyffty bullis” (541) are the knights of the round table and that “the three bulles whych were whyght” (542) represent Sirs Galahad, Percivale and Bors de Gaynes. The third white bull has a spot, “the thirde, that had a spotte, signifieth Sir Bors de Gaynes, which trespassed but onys in hys virginite – but sithen be kepyth hymselff so wel in chastite that all ys forgyffyn hym and hys myssededys” (542). So here we can see that transgression is not enough to keep one from the grace of God, that instead, something aside from merely taking pleasure in sexual union is at play. We might examine the word myssededys in this instance, both because it is used in the plural and also signifies by definition “an offense, a transgression, misdeed; sin, crime” (MED). If Sir Bors has committed multiple offenses, he has been forgiven. This could include not only his sexual union with the daughter of King Braundegorys (468), but the impure thoughts that led to it and replaced the rightful deed of worship. In that case, Sir Bors never repeating the sexual act is not enough to keep him in God’s grace, but also his thoughts and intentions being clean.
The argument that Sir Bors might not succumb to temptation only because he is not equally tempted becomes invalid in the midst of the quest for Sankgreal. After the priest explains his vision to him, Bors is tempted by “the fayryst lady that ever he saw, and more rycher beseyne than ever was Quene Gwenyver or any other astate” (550). He subsequently denies her, and she plummets to her death amongst “twelve jantilwomen” (551), continuing the religious repetition of the number twelve throughout the sections dealing with Sankgreal quest. Bors has therefore passed the test that Launcelot continually fails, and that is refusing the love of a woman of great beauty. In fact, Launcelot is only chaste on his grail quest because he is apart from Guinevere and indeed resumes his love affair with her immediately upon his return, as the book of Le Morte saith (588).
Launcelot wears a hair shirt during his grail quest, perhaps both to continually remind him of his sins and to keep him from thinking lustful thoughts of Guinevere. That such a device is only a band aid solution, is made abundantly clear by the events of the text. Galahad needs no such physical accoutrements or reminders of faith on his journey for the Sankgreal, because he is pure not only in body, but in mind as well. This is why he is able to embark on his quest without a shield. His faith is rewarded when he is provided with one that belonged to the son of Joseph of Arimathea (507). Launcelot spends much of his quest in a sort of purgatory, as his wearing the hair shirt continually reminds us, the “heyre pryked faste [syr Launcelots skynne] and greved hym sore” (535). This purgatory comes very near to literal towards the end of the quest, when Launcelot “felle to the erthe, and had no power to aryse, as he that had lost the power of hys body and hys hyrynge and syght” (577). This is a direct result of his daring to enter the room of the Sankgreal, assuming that his pure intentions at that moment are enough to allow him to do so. God answers, as Launcelot “felte a breeth that hym thought hit was entromedled with fyre, which smote hym so sore in the vysage that hym thought hit brente hys vysage” (577).
Sir Percivale’s reclusive aunt, the “Quene of the waste landis” prophecies in Merlin’s place, stating that Galahad will “passe hys fadir as much as the lyon passith the lybarde, both of strength and of hardines” (522). Here, “hardines” must mean something more than strength, and given the context of the Sankgreal quest I would argue that this word is used by Malory as “faith: requiring resolution or courage” (MED). In the context of the Sankgreal quest, Launcelot’s failure is in not being truly resolute in seeking Christ. His hair shirt serves only to remind readers that he is not pure of thought.
We are given access to how few men, including the nights of the round table, bear just tribute to Jesus Christ in their thoughts. Sir Percivale, in his journeys in the mountains, when he assists the lion against the serpent, is “one of the men of the worlde which most beleved in Oure Lorde Jesu Chryste, for in tho dayes there was but fewe folkes at that tyme that beleved perfitley” (526). I argue that Launcelot’s great sin is not his lust for Guinevere, but rather his doubt of Christ. Any other sin that touches him, including this lust, is the direct result of his lack of faith.
Launcelot’s knighthood is not questioned in terms of bodily prowess. It is the spiritual lack in him that prevents him from achieving the Sankgreal. This is directly stated in the text, by the recluse lady that accosts him as he passes under her window “as longe as ye were knyght of erthly knyghthode ye were the moste mervayloust man of the worlde” (537) she sayeth to him and then goes on to describe his incredible error in siding with the wrong knights at the tournament between king’s Eliazar and Augustus. When she finishes berating him, she says simply that he is “fyeble of good [byleve and] fayth” (537). Adding “myseaventure” (537) to the adjectives describing Launcelot and his exploits, the recluse then warns him that he risks a “falle into the depe pitte of helle, if thou kepe the nat the better” (537). Directly following this encounter, Launcelot is punished by the chance encounter with a mysterious black knight, in which that knight “smote Sir Launcelottis horse to the dethe” (538), then passing on without further incident. In the sudden slaughter of the horse we see the opposite of the gifts of arms granted to Galahad. God has punished the unbeliever.
If the quest for the Sankgreal establishes Launcelot as a religious miscreant, that is, one who is of incorrect or incomplete belief, and if Launcelot is aside from the three knights who achieve the Sankgreal, the best man the kingdom has to offer, this is important to the way in which the rest of the book is read. This is something that hasn’t been overlooked by scholars.
Kate Dosanjh discusses the fact that many scholars have identified the ending of Le Morte Darthur as tragic. She also points out that while Launcelot’s unconsciousness is generally regarded as “punishment” (64), in relation to this scene “scholars tend to gloss over the specific nature of the punishment and Launcelot’s exact sin” (64). Her interpretation of Launcelot’s encounter with the grail is that he has come so close to God, that the passage is “reminiscent of several biblical passages in which people in the Old and New Testaments meet with God, most notably, Moses’s experience on Mount Sinai” (64). Essentially, Dosanjh sees Launcelot’s punishment not as his coma, but instead as his being “forced to awaken and re-enter the world” (64). Though she does go on to describe Launcelot’s relapse into his former behavior with Guinevere, Dosanjh seems to herself gloss over Launcelot’s sins, particularly in relation to the quest for the Sankgreal.
Though Dosanjh has paid due attention to the possible subtleties of Launcelot’s encounter with the grail, she too glosses any great discussion of his sins. I have and still propose that Launcelot’s great sin is his lack of faith in Christ and not his succumbing to temptation. The worldy errors made by Launcelot are made because instead of believing in everlasting life, he seems to put his faith only in what he can see, hear and touch.
Sir Bors returns to court at the end of the Sankgreal and brings Launcelot an important message from his son: “Sir Galahad prayde you to remembir of thys unsyker worlde, as ye behyght hym whan ye were togydirs more than halffe a yere” (587). Here, the use of the word “unsyker” is likely to mean the opposite of “spiritually safe” (MED) and is a final warning to Launcelot that his faith must be directed to Christ and not the physical world. That this line hearkens the reader back to the final conversation of father and son on the boat, also serves to remind us of Launcelot’s demonstrating at that time his inability to pray directly to Christ himself. He had asked that Galahad “pray to the [hyghe] Fadir that He holde me stylle in Hys servyse” (575). Though Galahad is often easily paralleled to Christ by critics, I hold that here Launcelot is putting his faith in his son as an earthly being that will win him salvation, as opposed to opening his own heart to Christ. His lack of faith in Christ could even be exemplified in this scene by his lack of recognition of his sons spiritual accomplishments. He praises his son for “so hyghe adventures done, and so mervalous stronge” (575). This focus on physical strength demonstrates the weakness of Launcelot’s sense of scope.
Another critic that has identified the difficult position of Launcelot within the text is Kenneth J. Tiller, in his essay ‘So precyously coverde’: Malory’s Hermeneutic Quest of the Sankgreal”. Tiller’s insightful essay argues that Launcelot “appears to embody a mode of reading that incorporates both the spiritual and the secular” (88). Unlike Dosanjh’s claim that Launcelot’s twenty four days in a coma are his time in a sort of heaven, Tiller believes that this “trance-like state” (88) is “emblematic then, of his liminal status between literal and allegorical reading” (88).
Tiller’s general argument is that the entire quest for Sankgreal is Malory’s inviting “readers to undertake a hermeneutic quest into the ambiguously concealed meaning of the Grail quest” (84). In other words, as the grail is a puzzle to the knights on the quest, so too is “each segment” (84). Most compelling is Tiller’s assertion that Galahad himself “seems to become the path itself, and hence the hermeneutic system of the Grail quest” (86). His detailing of how the various knights are frustrated in trying to get close to Galahad is wealthy evidence for his claim.
Ultimately, I cannot fully agree with Tiller however, when he re-iterates Launcelot’s position as one who “moves in dual interpretations” (89) and is repositioned by the Morte Darthur as “ambivalent” (90). I find Launcelot’s position in the Sankgreal quest as a sinner fairly consistent, and all of his failed attempts in the quest ultimately failures of his spiritual nature and not his knightly prowess. When his knightly ability does fail him in the battle against the “whyght knyghtes” (536), Lancelot is “[waxed so faynt of–fyghtyng and travaillyng, and] was so wery of his grete dedis” (536). I argue that in this moment, Launcelot is not ambivalent at all, but tired of life and depressed because he hasn’t faith in anything beyond his physical ability. This also happens to be the scene in which Launcelot’s mescrauntz takes physical form, as he directs his fight against the white knights, who we discover are not sinners, but good knights.
In drawing this argument to a close, it is useful to return once again to book II and examine more closely the events surrounding the mysterious sword brought by “[a damoisel] the which was sente frome the grete Lady Lyle of Avilion” (40). This is of course, the same sword that Galahad will wield later in book XIII. Though Balyn has been imprisoned for slaying one of the kings cousins, he is able to wield the sword. The damesel claims that only a “clene knyght withoute vylony and of jantill strene of fadir syde and of modir syde” (41) can wield the sword. It is an interesting fact that “jantill” here could possibly refer to the mother and father being non-christian, or pagan instead of simply members of nobility. As we will later see Galahad draw the sword, this invites us to question Launcelot’s christianity in the same fashion.
It is also significant that when Merlin sets the sword in the block of granite, he “bade a knyght that stood before hym to handyll that swerde” (61) and then he laughed, saying that “there shall never man handyll thys swerde but the beste knyght of the worlde, and that shall be Sir Launcelot, othir ellis Galahad, hys sonne” (61). Merlin the prophet has seen one of the most stunning details of the text for us. That is the fact that Launcelot is fully capable of drawing the sword from the granite at the beginning of the quest for Sankgreal. He refuses, having no faith in himself, ultimately a reflection of his general misbelief in a Christ that “longith nat” (489) to be with him. And so the son treads where the father fears, into the grace of God.
Works Cited and Consulted
Dosanjh, Kate. “Rest in Peace: Launcelot’s Spiritual Journey in Le Morte Darthur.” Essential Teacher 4.3 (2007): 63-7.
Falcetta, Jennie-Rebecca. “The Enduring Sacred Strain: The Place of the Tale of the Sankgreal within Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur.” Christianity and Literature 47.1 (1997): 21-34.
Hodges, Kenneth. “Haunting Pieties: Malory’s use of Chivalric Christian Exempla After the Grail.” Arthuriana 17.2 (2007): 28-48.
Hynes-Berry, Mary. “Language and Meaning: Malory’s Translation of the Grail Story.” Neophilologus 60 (1976): 309-19.
Loomis, R. S. “The Irish Origin of the Grail Legend.” Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 8.4 (1933): 415-31.
Norris, Ralph. “The Tragedy of Balin: Malory’s use of the Balin Story in the Morte Darthur.” Arthuriana 9.3 (1999): 52-67.
Sklar, Elizabeth S. “Adventure and the Spiritual Semantics of Malory’s Tale of the Sankgreal.” Arthurian Interpretations 2.2 (1988): 34-46.
Tiller, Kenneth J. “‘so Precyously Coverde’: Malory’s Hermeneutic Quest of the Sankgreal.” Arthuriana 13.3 (2003): 83-97.
Weiss, Victoria L. “Grail Knight Or Boon Companion? the Inconsistent Sir Bors of Malory’s Morte Darthur.” Studies in Philology 94.4 (1997): 417-27.