On the Quest for the Holy Grail the questers encounter several wise hermits from the Cistercian Order, commonly known in the text as White Monks, who provide insights into the meaning of the Quest for the Holy Grail; these illuminations provide insight on what it means to be more virtuous and how to attain the grail in the ever-illusive quest for inner meaning. Lancelot, who was the greatest of all earthly knights, is heavily admonished on the quest by the white monks because of his treacherous mortal sin, which was his adultery with Queen Guinevere who is King Arthur’s wife. This inconsiderable act is most disloyal to both his earthly king and liege lord, whom he is a vassal of, and reflects more deeply on the state of his soul before God, which is afflicted by mortal sin. One hermit relinquishes intricate details and insights into the virtues of knighthood in their utmost perfection, and it is made clear that those virtues were embodied by Lancelot as an early knight before the time of his mortal sin. It is in later years that the sin manifests as lustful desires and leads to treachery. It is briefly pointed out that it is his pride, after the conquering of the Dolores Guard, that leads him into a violent cycle of mortal sin which inhibits him from accomplishing the Holy Grail and ultimately destroys the Arthurian kingdom when that sin is revealed.
In the earliest adventures of Lancelot, before this mortal sin, he is acclaimed and praised for holding the four essential virtues of perfect knighthood. The first of which is natural virginity. The knight who protects his maidenhood is truly united as a soldier of God and free from vice. At the center of all virtue, this is equated as most vital to maintaining honor, prowess and all good works. In addition to the central attainment of chastity and maidenhood there are other virtues that are embodied by the early Lancelot. He maintains a consistent state of humility. The hermit who counsels Lancelot states that he once “walked softly with his head lowered” and “dared not look at the divine image for fear that God might be angry with him.” (Burns) Lancelot even emulated patience and the hermits says that “nothing can defeat the enemy as effectively as patience.” (Burns) He had a sense of justice by which he administered with a deep sense of equality. Rather than showing partiality to a lover or family member he did what was right, in accordance with the law, even if that meant condemnation of his closest kin. The white monk identifies true justice as one who “gives nothing for the sake of love and takes nothing for the sake of hate” and that he would “never spare a friend or relative.” (Burns) The fourth and exceedingly important virtue that he upheld and possessed was that of charity. Indeed, the hermit reflects: “if you had held all the world’s riches in your hands, you would not have hesitated to give them away for love of your creator.” (Burns) That embodiment of the virtue of charity carries on in life to wash away a multitude of sins, as one man put it.
The embodiment of these virtues in the early Lancelot, a flower of knighthood and perfection, acts as a mirror to him in his later life. The object of chivalry discerns the true goal posts that one is held to and the realized objectives one is actually going towards; the white monks admonish him and show that all knights ought to be held to the true ideal of perfection to avoid sin and destruction. The hermit alerts his memory and recalls to mind the importance of good action, as contextualized in his virtuous past. Yet, the Lancelot that embarks on the grail quest is very far from his younger self. He has fallen from God’s good graces and is wallowing in the mire of mortal sin. The hermit admonishes Lancelot, telling him “the road of lust is a path that wastes body and soul to an unimaginable degree.” (Burns) The hermit awakens within Lancelot a consciousness and awareness that he previously had lost through blindness and ignorance. He resolves to continue on a greater path, more in line with what God asks of him. It is of great importance that the hermit admonishes Lancelot in that he “banished humility and summoned pride”. In doing this he becomes a servant of the Devil, rather than a servant and soldier of Jesus Christ. True knighthood required an oath of loyalty and protection to the Holy Church and God above all things. This call of the clarion to action is expressly stated by the hermit. The virtues embodied by the earlier Lancelot, as juxtaposed by his later self, provide a mirror into chivalry and help him better understand where he had gone wrong and sinned mortally. The hermit tells one of the quester’s that he is “…an old tree without flower or fruit. At least consider letting Our Lord have the pith and the bark, since the devil has taken the flower and the fruit.” (Burns) The call to action is to devote oneself more wholly to God, even if one has failed to do so in the past. The fruit of good works opposes the image of the barren fig tree, a parable the white monk exemplifies.
The insight’s provided by the white monks illuminate the truth not only for this knight as a quester but to our contemporary sojourner on the quest for truth. These virtues are not antiquated but even more essential in the modern age. How to we bare fruit through good works in todays age? That, as we learn from the Holy Grail Quest, is attainable through the core virtues that are exemplified by the good Christian knight. The image of the shield of virtue, as seen in the following images, further clarifies the virtues and the oppositional vices. When one of these virtues is lacking, we are placed out of balance with our own spiritual self, and a vice replaces the former virtue, and a bad work a good work. The shield is a protection against the devil, but when we take on the oppositional vices we become a servant to the evil one (see full graph and image below).
Central to spiritual sanctity is the virtue and embodiment of chastity. It is the heart of true union with God and the spiritual self. Let chastity be the boss of the shield one carries to protect himself, for it is at the heart of the union. If one is united by the sacrament of marriage, than complete loyalty to the bond of marriage is sufficient in place of chastity. Spiritual union with God and self is the ultimate connection, and for those who are not virgins then can always regain themselves by the road of abstinence. In fact, abstinence, in a general sense, has proven to be the ultimate discipline and form of penance towards reestablishing connection with God. In the quest it is said: “The bit represents abstinence, for just as one leads his horse by the bridle wherever he wants it to go, abstinence is so firmly lodged in the Christian’s heart that he cannot fall into mortal sin or follow his own will.” (Burns) On the Quest for the Holy Grail, Lancelot and the other questers are given hair shirts to mortify their flesh as a form of penance for their lustful sins. Additionally, they often choose to sleep on the stony floor rather than in a bed to humble themselves and renounce the comforts of the world, which had decidedly led them astray in the first place. When Lancelot takes lodging at one hermitage, the scene is described in this way: “the earth was hard, the hair shirt coarse and prickly next to his skin.” (Burns) Additionally, Sir Bors de Gaunes, who achieves the Holy Grail, vows to eat and drink only bread and water, abstaining from all meat and drink for the entirety of the quest so that he can form a truer union with God. These, along with other forms of abstinence, are integral elements to connecting with God, the ultimate source and center of all things.
“ The Lorde hath clothed him in his clothynge, which ys full of knottes- that ys the hayre that he werith dayly.” (Malory)
The other four points of the shield, along the perimeter, are justice, patience, humility and charity. The hermit recalls that all “soldiers of christ carry this shield, the shield of patience and humility.” (Burns) If one of these virtues is lacking, the shield brakes and does not hold against the blows from the devil. This shield is expressly contrasted to the shield of evil, which is borne by those who serve the devil.
Charity and justice are aligned and shown to be good works. They are well represented by Sir Bors de Gaunes on the Grail Quest. He defeats Priadan the Black, who attacks King Amant’s daughter, after the death of Amant, who is defenseless. Priadan and her sister lay waste to the land, take her castles and starve the people. Bors is angered by this wicked knight and “settles this dispute in accordance with my (her) true rights” and does it to “advance the cause of justice and to defeat violence.” (Burns) At the moment of despair it is just when Sir Bors arrives. They “found a knight to fight for you and defend your right to hold the land.” (Burns) Since the land was properly bestowed upon the younger sister it is in accordance with justice and charity that Bors deliver her from her oppressor in single combat, which he does. In absence of law the knight of Jesus Christ protects the land from those who commit inequity. Moreover, on the topic of charity it is said, “…whoever has charity within him burns hot with the love of our heavenly lord.” (Burns) Charity is represented as doing an act that is for another and in relation to the love of Christ. In acts of charity one is transforming from an earthly creature to a heavenly one. The hermit on the Quest states: “Just as earthly food was changed into heavenly sustenance, it is fitting that the worldly be changed into heavenly creatures.” (Burns) Food is central to the theme of spiritual nourishment, for just as there is earthly food there is also heavenly food. They are combined together in the blessed sacrament. The Holy Grail, most expressly, is that heavenly food that nourishes, it is the very spring and source of all life. This transformation of the mind and body happens as the quester begins his journey towards true union with God.
“Whan she (charity) ys bridled in Crysten mannes herte, she holdith hym so short that he fallith nat in dedly synne.” (Malory)
Humility is demonstrated in the image of Jesus, the King of Kings, entering Jerusalem upon an ass (Matthew 21.5). In the vision of Sir Hector, a knight on the quest, Lancelot is unhorsed from his steed and put on an ass, demonstrating his transformation from earthly pride to humility. He descends from his thrown and lowers himself to do penance for his sins. Malory tells the reader “God wolde nat ryde uppon no styede nother uppon no palferey, an asse betokeneth mekenes.” (Malory) The true knight humbles himself before God before all else. Earthly pride and honors are merely vainglory and vanity in the eyes of God. Lancelot, after receiving admonishment from the white monk, goes off in search of adventure. He arrives in a meadow before a castle on the hill and discovers a tournament taking place. He rushes off to combat and helps the knight’s who are in black arms, but finds himself taken captive by the knights in white arms. The significance of this battle is detailed in two parts. The first part has to do with the clothes of the knights and the side that Lancelot chose to fight on. The hermit states: “Worldly knights, whose eyes and hearts were filled with earthly things, donned black coverings like those clothed in dark and horrible sin.” (Burns) The clothing of the white knights, those who took him captive, demonstrate the victory of the celestial knight’s over the worldly, and Lancelot’s relapse into worldly desire. “The celestial knights took up white coverings for chastity without blackness or stain.” (Burns) Lancelot is very disgruntled at losing to the knights in white raiment, and the reason is because it is a dishonor to lose in battle. Yet, he is shown an important lesson from the White Monk who interprets this happenstance for him. He learns that, by joining the sinners, his fate is sealed to damnation. Also, that his pride was really a source of vanity. The truth in all things is that vanity and pride lead directly to the path of sin. “As soon as you remembered the vainglory of this world and the extreme pride you used to take in your exploits, you began to grieve that you had not yet conquered anything.” (Burn) Lancelot learns that the debasement of his pride was the beginning of his path to spiritual joy and happiness beyond worldly accomplishments. Also, he discovers that his lust and adultery with the queen was directly connected with his exploits in arms, for he was desiring accomplishments to inflate his vainglory and vane love with the queen.
At the heart of true union with God there is the Holy Grail. More specifically, the Holy Grail is the grace of the Holy Spirit, it is the very spring and source of all life. From that spring derives the water sweeter than any, just like the words of the Gospel and it is a spring because “the more it provides, the more abundant it becomes”. (Burns) The spring nourishes with the heavenly food and reminds the recipient that all things rely upon God: “He has given them the food of the Holy Grail, which feeds the soul and sustains the body. This is the sweet food that fed and nourished the people of Israel in the desert for such a long time.” (Burns) It is clearly stated by the white monks that heavenly nourishment can only be attained by the penitent who confess before God with a contrite heart.
“That spring can never be emptied, no matter how much one might take from it, for it is the Holy Grail, the grace of the Holy Spirit. The spring is like the gentle rain and the sweet words of the Gospel, where the truly repentant heart finds such great tenderness that the more he tastes it the more he wants it. That is the grace of the Holy Grail: the more it provides, the more abundant it becomes, without ever running dry. For this reason, it should rightly be called a spring.” (Burns)
Sinner’s come to it but cannot see it, because they are blinded by sin. Others a stricken with maladies, unable to speak or hear after coming across it. Lancelot, in his vision, reaches the spring but, when he kneels down to drink from it, it vanishes from him. Furthermore, he is stricken with blindness and paralysis. “He will lose his sight in the presence of the Holy Vessel, since he defiled his eyes by looking at earthly filth. And he will lose his bodily strength, since he has used it so long to serve the devil.” (Burns) It is certain that this spring is a source of healing for those suffering from spiritual, mental and physical maladies. The road to discovering that healing power is trudged by the fellowship of virtuous knight’s most exemplified by Perceval, Galahad and Bors. They go aboard the magic ship, blown across the seas as God will’s as they tell one another their adventures and embrace one another as true fellows of the spirit. Therefore, the Holy Grail quest is about true union with God, and the pathway to illuminating that relationship is best exemplified through the virtues of Christian Knighthood and the Shield of Jesus Christ.
Burns, Jane. Lancelot-Grail The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation Volume 6: The Quest for the Holy Grail. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010. Print.