The Key to the Grail Mystery

The grail has, overtime, developed into a large thematic emblem full of rich motifs and imagery. However, with what certainty can we define that mysterious object which seemingly lacks a clear, direct explanation? Surprisingly, amongst a large amount of literary excavation, the answer has been found in the most unknowing of spaces. The answer or key to unlock the grail mystery comes in three parts. First, there is an insult. Second, there is a revenge of bad conduct. Third, there is a restoration of harmony when the goblet is returned to court. In conclusion, legal and literary evidence will delve deeper into the nature of the insult and reinforce the link between the restoration of the goblet to the important function of law, knighthood and the attainment of honor by refuting injustice; within all rational thought lies the important element of God as the emblem of true justice.

King Arthur’s court is having a celebration and a great feast is held, as is usual at the most royal of courts. Yet, a great mystery occurs. A proud, arrogant knight enters the court. He commits the gravest of offenses in front of the King and all his retinue. “The knight grabbed the goblet from Gwenhwyfar’s hand and poured the drink that was in it over her face and breast, and gave Gwenhwyfar a great clout on the ear.” (Mab, 69) Gwenhwyfar, Arthur’s wife and Great Britain’s Queen, is thus insulted in three ways. Her protection is violated in the court, she is given a blow, and what she is holding in her hand, a goblet, is taken from her. It is a goblet filled with wine, and that wine is subsequently spilled all over her. The wine spilling on her garment isn’t the first time for her and this motif is symbolized as a reflection of her known infidelity. In the Arthurian Romance Caradoc there is a magical horn that holds a most special attribute: “No knight whose wife has deceived him or who has deceived his wife will be able to drink from this horn without spilling the wine on himself (Arthur, 80).” The adultery between Gwenhwyfar and Lancelot is the foundational sin that destroyed the Arthurian Empire and it is no surprise that the mystery knight’s insult hints to it.

The mystery knight proclaims a challenge for anyone who wishes to avenge the deed: “Anyone who wants to fight me for this goblet, and avenge this insult to Gwenhwyfar, let him follow me to the meadow and I’ll wait for him there.” (Mab, 70) The most literal quest and attainment of the goblet, the grail, is the avenging of the insult upon the court. The mystery knight leaves the court and there is grief among the party. The other knights greatly fear to go after him because “no one would commit such a crime as that unless he possessed strength and power or magic and enchantment so that no one could wreak vengeance on him.” (Mab, 70) The mystery knight is given an aura of magical strength for being able to successfully carry out his deed, especially from the knights of the court who fear him all the more.

Second, there is revenge for the indecency committed and subsequent miracles associated with the arrival of the good knight. It isn’t much long after that Peredur arrives at court. His arrival is on the basis that he wishes to “be ordained a knight”. (Mab, 70) The atmosphere of his arrival is strikingly compared to that of the arrival of Jesus Christ; he is moderately disheveled, in poor garments and riding a humble mount rather than a proud charger. Kay remarks: “Your horse and weapons are too untidy.” (Mab, 71) He is described as riding “a bony, dapple grey nag with its untidy, slovenly trappings.” (Mab, 71) The court people give him a hard time about this, and decidedly mock him. They “begin to make fun of him and throw sticks at him.” (Mab, 71) While he is shunned he is equally welcomed by those of little consequence. Peredur is prophesied as the flower of knighthood, the “Flos Militae” when a dwarf, who hasn’t spoken in a year, is divinely inspired to speak up at the time of the knight’s arrival. He welcomes the “chief of warriors” and the dwarf’s wife proclaims him as the “flower of all knights” who is the “flower of warriors and the candle of knights”. (Mab, 72) These important images demonstrate his consequently character. The flower of knights would be, reputably, one of good conduct. The candle of knights would be, most certainly, shining with the true light of justice. The candle is even represented as the light of the Holy Spirit and the coming of the Christ figure. There is no earthquake in the hall, no miraculous lights protruding through windows, but there is this subtle phrase – the candle of knights-that burns lively in hearts and minds; this flame is the very hope that he represents and emphasizes while upholding true ideals of justice, chivalry and courtesy. It is no surprise that he is the won who wins the prize of the grail.

Peredur is chastised by Kay and the dwarfs are equally insulted for welcoming him. Jokingly, he asserts that, If Peredur wishes to receive honor, he ought to go after the mystery knight who just insulted the court. This joke is not taken lightly by Peredur, who immediately follows the wicked knight in search of revenge on behalf of the Arthur. Peredur catches up with the knight and a battle ensues. Rather than a mighty joust and display of swordsmanship, the humble and earthly Peredur hurls a “sharp pointed dart”, which with he “hits him in the eye so that the dart comes out through the nape of his neck, and he falls stone dead to the ground.” (Mab, 72) In a scene comparable to David and Goliath with his trusty sling, the masterful knight who seemed to have magical powers is almost instantly thwarted and the insult avenged. Peredur tells Owain: “take the goblet from me to Gwenhwyfar, and tell Arthur that wherever I go I will be his man.” (Mab, 72) Thus ends the short, three page scene that contains all the richest evidence of the grail origination.

In review, there are three important events that occur. First, there is the insult of the queen, in which she is insulted in three distinct ways. Second, there is the arrival of the good knight who is immediately inspired to avenge the insult. Third, when justice is won, there is the return of the goblet to the court. The compensation for the insult is thus two fold: the death of the villain who committed the offense and the return of the goblet. It is the “Flos Militae (Flower of Knighthood)” who avenges the insult, and in doing so, wins an abundance of fame and honor. He has effectively restored harmony and won the grail at his very first knightly encounter. The goblet is the prize and symbol of his victory over the criminal insult, and is the symbol of his victory over all evil.

The nature of Gwenhwyfar’s insult is reconstructed in the Welsh Triads under “The Three Violent (reckless, costly) Ravagings of the Island of Britain”. (TYP 54, pp. 152) One conspicuous character known as Medrawd commits the offense: “Medrawd came to Arthur’s court at Celliwig in Cornwall; he left neither food or drink and dragged Gwenhwyfar from her royal chair, and then he struck a blow upon her.” (TYP 54, pp. 152) Therein, we have the grave offense thoroughly documented. Interestingly, this Medrawd is the same one who dies with Arthur at the battle of Camlan. Although suggestive, there is a clear insult and closely followed a mighty quarrel between these two men. The flames of conflict only get brighter when Arthur revenges himself. Symbolically, there is Peredur who flawlessly and effortlessly exacts vengeance almost immediately for the insult. This is an idealistic representation. The triads offer a different explanation, possibly historical, for the second violent ravaging is when Arthur went to Medrawd’s court: “He left neither food or drink in the court nor in the Cantref.” (TYP 54, pp. 152) He not only avenges the deed by ravaging the court but he also ravages the land, brining much sorrow to the inhabitants, creating a wasteland in his wake. The destruction of land was often associated with quarrels and disputes among neighboring kings. The insult itself was the very dolorous blow that confounded a nation. The quarrel between Medrawd and Arthur, resulting in the violent battle of Camlan and the coming of the wasteland, is very closely correlated to the conflict between Bran and Matholwch in the second branch of the Mabignonian. The dolorous blow, the slap, that results in the dissolution and destruction of two mighty empires once joined in fellowship is the ultimate thematic emblem for the violation of laws through bad conduct.

If it is truly Medrawd, Cornish for Mordred, who is the chief insulter of the queen we have both the sins that bring destruction to the Arthurian empire symbolized in this single encounter. First, the wine spilled on Gwenhwyfar is symbolically a reflection of her infidelity to Arthur with Lancelot, as reinforced by the failure of the chastity test. Second, Mordred’s offense is the representation of his eventual betrayal of the entire court and the destruction of the empire; it is equally a representation of Arthur’s flagrant sin of adultery and incest in making Mordred, who is the spawn of evil. In this encounter the reader is provided with a window into the nature of sin which results in the destruction of the Arthurian empire. Aside from adultery, one common theme that corrupts the Arthurian world is disloyalty. The hope of the realm lies in Peredur, who restores the goblet and the honor of the court by killing the mystery knight.

The insult, in accordance with Welsh law, demonstrates further the nature of the infraction and leads us to the ultimate concordance and emendation of that offense. As previously mentioned, the insult of the wife was a common theme and cause for quarrel. In Welsh law the “sarhead” is defined in two ways. First, it is “to insult” and hold “disregard for another’s rights or personality”. (DDAL, 7) Second, it is a “compensation payable, according to the status of the victim.” (DDAL, 7) It is concluded that there are specific ways in which the queen could be offended: “There are three ways sarhead is done to the queen. One is to break her protection. A second is to strike her a blow. A third is to snatch something from her hand.” (DDAL, 8) These three violations are all represented, as clear as glass, in the scene between the mystery knight and Peredur. It is as if the unknown author of the Peredur story was hoping to be very clear about the seriousness of the insult. Adding to the weightiness of the insult, one of the king’s three sarhead’s is the misuse of his wife. Thus, the insult by the mystery knight is four fold and magnified. Furthermore, the nature of the conflict becomes one of great importance when we evaluate in light of the offense. The queen was offended in this act but also the king and the entire court was brought to shame by it. Externally there is the offense: a mystery knight violates custom. Internally there is the shame associated with the sin’s of those royal members, as represented by the violation in codified, symbolic representations. The slap, or concrete external violation, is merely representing the deeper violation of the law and its corruption.

When one considers the nature of the offense it is natural to consider the compensation for it. This was, indeed on the mind of the court before Peredur arrived and was a great source of sorrow and anguish. Galanas, another legal term, is distinguished as a “feud or enmity between kindreds” which could “arise over a dispute of land or from wrong done to a woman.” (DDAL, pp 346) It is equally a term used to describe the necessary compensation and is the very essence of resolution for the deed done. The compensation of this encounter is two fold. On the one hand, there is the slaying of the mystery knight by Peredur. Secondly, there is the return of the goblet to the court and to the queen. His return of the goblet signifies the tangible evidence of his deed, and it is a reliquary that becomes a symbol of his overcoming the violator of the law. The good knight, who is proclaimed the candle of all knights, thus wins honor and fame by destroying the villain who committed the four fold sarhead. When he returns the grail to the court, he is restoring what is rightfully hers that was once taken. Honor is restored in this way.

The returning of the goblet, while a clear restoration to harmony, scratches the surface of the issue, as is later discerned in the demise of the Arthurian empire, the handful of complexities, and the return of the Holy Grail to Sarras. The prize of the goblet is the overcoming of insult, violation of the law and treachery by the good knight Peredur. The insult done by the mystery knight is an important reflection of the corruption, dishonor and disloyalty in the court. The victory over the mystery knight is a glimpse of the conflict, a foreshadowing of future events and the glimmering light of hope at the foundation all things.

However, the ultimate failure of the secular law is demonstrated in the demise of the Arthurian empire. It is, in fact, the court that destroys the court from the inside out via deceits, jealousies, disloyalties and adulteries. The mystery knight who violates the court rules is a symbolic representation of the persuasive demon within who turns the nobles to adultery and disloyalty that results in their death. However, there is a solution. The solution is the light, the candle of all knights, the flame of justice: Peredur. Among the other two grail knights, they are, through their virtuosity, able to shine light on the world by good deeds and overcome the adventures before them. When the mortal law fails the hero can, with divine power, transcend all law and win victory. Peredur embodies that divine law was and is able to overcome the futility of the mortal law when. That is demonstrated when he obtains the prize of the goblet, and returns it to the court. The irony of the entire Grail Quest is that Peredur achieved the grail, or goblet, in his first encounter and before he is even properly knighted. What more could he possibly do than avenge the greatest sarhead? Indeed, in this brief conflict he puts down the greatest quarrel and wins the most honor. Knight’s won honor and prowess by honoring the law, abiding by the rules of courtesy, and protecting the innocent by force of arms. The true conflict of the knight was how to act. They were the pillars of righteousness and justice in a world with so much confusion, wicked customs and conflicting powers. The only way to truly act with truth and honor was by following the divine law, which transcends all mortal law. Addressing offenses with intuition and having God as a guide in a world of chance was the only remedy when surrounded by so much sorrow, bereft of order and inflamed by quarrels.

Therein is the most monumental question that the Grail Quest invites the reader to: how we can be the “candle of knights” and “the flower of knights” in today’s world? The prize of the grail is one not easily awarded, and is a pristine honor above all else. Each person, in discernment of their own Grail Quest, is challenged to transform their own lives to be the light that transcends the futility of laws and amounts to something greater, something beyond the world of fault and misconduct. It is only when we appropriately examine our own deeds that we begin to recognize the true light that shines in our heart. The grail is the ultimate prize that is awarded to those who overcome sin, temptation and infractions they have committed in their lives. It is the very prize for fighting injustice and freeing the oppressed. Whatever internal battle you are facing, or external law that is oppressing you, rejoice in the hope of the resurrection and in the fact that there is an answer in the hero and savior of the world: Jesus Christ.

The typified quarrel of the calumniated wife was not unfamiliar in other early sources. The resulting quarrels of north and south and brother against brother are recurring sources of tragedy and sorrow in a medieval world bereft of law. In the Mabinogion Branwen is avenged by Bran the Blessed, who subsequently wades through the sea’s to Ireland to avenge her who was given to Matholwch in good faith. Branwen’s insult is a slap given daily for three years. (Mab, pp 28) Recognizably, the insult of the wife was a major legal offense and had to do with the breaking of common courtesy and custom. Effnysien insults Matholwch by maiming his horses. (Mab, pp 22) These quarrels led to destruction and apocalyptic wars; the absence of good conduct and divine grace resulted in destruction. In the case of Branwen, the end result is that Efnysien, in his wrath, threw Branwen’s son, the symbol of kinship between two factions, into the flames of the fire. The very incineration of the covenant between the two peoples resulted in war. Effnysien then kills himself in the Cauldron of Rebirth, where the army is using the magic cauldron to resurrect dead troops. (Mab, pp 32) The reader begins to recognize that the institution of law, in the secular sense of the word, was sorely lacking to cure the madness of violence. Without God’s help, violence only compounds. Evidently, Effnysien’s maiming of Matholwch’s horses and the burning of Branwen’s son are chalked up as random acts of violence lacking any sense of reason. Indeed, repaying slap for slap, blood for blood, and reproach for reproach leaves the whole world dead. Effnysien’s own death in the cauldron kills the enemy irishmen with him. Similarly, there is the story of Samson who brings down the pillars on his own head and that of his enemies. One common thread is missing in these accounts: the code of courtesy, conduct of good will and the power of forgiveness. All of the futility of the law was illuminated by this decidedly important realization: The cure to quarrels and ultimate destruction was a law of mercy that positioned evil deeds as infractions that were amenable.

Peredur’s embodying of christ is that hope of forgiveness to transcend the infractions and futility of dealing with them. The position of the Sovereign king as Arthur who draws the sword from the stone is wholly granted. The position of the ecclesiastical king, in relation to Arthur, is best shown by the coming of Peredur, and in later grail stories there is a magnification of that personality through Galahad. It is only through divine power that the quest’s of Logres are accomplished, not by any deeds of arms. The goblet, as the grail, is also called the vessel of plenty that provides food from the heavens. It is by the same Holy Spirit that bread rains down from the heavens on the hopeless and fearful jews who take flight from their persecutors. It is that same power which formulates manna from the sky, and draws water from the rock. These occurrences reinforce the power of miracles. It is in that power that one transcends the quarrels of man that bring about destruction. Those miracles are symbols and embodiments of ecclesiastical consulship. The divine law is able to create accord and stop the violence from the futility of the secular law. The Archbishop of Canterbury tried to instill peace between Arthur and Lancelot by excommunicating all of Great Britain.

In the life of St. Kentigern there is the remarkable story, short and sweet, of Queen Languoreth. She encounters a young lover and commits adultery with him. She gifts him a ring of gold as a token of love, a token that is seen by the king. That same ring was once a gift from the king and it is little wonder he becomes angry. The king, full of wrath, takes the young man hunting with him. During the trip he finds the lad sleeping on the river bank. The king, in his fury, only nearly lets the lad escape with his life. He decidedly throws the ring, that same love token, into the river Clud while he is sleeping. What comes next is the king’s judgement. He returns to court and challenges his wife, demanding she show the ring to him as proof of her faithfulness and fidelity, knowing full well she wouldn’t be able to conjure it. He violently yells out, “God do to me, and more also, if I judge thee not according to the law of adulterers, and condemn thee to a most disgraceful death.” (St. Kentigern, pp 100) In her desperation, she realizes that the king has taken the ring from her lover. Sure of death, she pleaded to God and implored St. Kentigern to help her. The wily Kentigern summoned a messenger and “ordered him to go with a hook to the bank of the river Clud aforesaid, to cast the hook into the stream, and to bring back to him straightway the first fish that was caught upon it…(he found) a large fish which is commonly called a salmon; and on his ordering it to be cut open and gutted in his presence, he found in it the ring in question.” (St. Kentigern, pp 101) In this way did St. Kentigern restore the ring and, when it was brought to the court, the king’s doubts were assuaged and the trail voided. That miracle, induced by divine power, saved the queen from death, and saved the kingdom from a violent and bitter quarrel. It was God’s mercy that saved the queen, even though she was guilty of the deed. Mercy is always attainable if it is sought from God. In the story from St. Kentigern, the miracle of the fish, which is the symbol of ecclesiastical consulship and instruction, provides the remedy to evil: “in the ring restored the flesh was redeemed from destruction.”

In the same way, Peredur restores the goblet to court, redeeming them of their own sins. It is a sorrowful end in the Arthurian tales and in the Mabinogion because mercy and forgiveness are not practiced by the nobility. That, in the most clear sense, is why the grail is taken away from Great Britain; the unfortunate demise of King Arthur is the failure to heed the call of christ and honor ecclesiastical instruction. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not listened to and even scorned by Arthur and Gawain, who are so blinded by pride and arrogance they desire nothing more than Lancelot’s head on a spike. Wickedness is defiled in the emergence of the new law, just like Peredur restores the goblet. The proposal of forgiveness and mercy rather than revenge and death is decisively reinforced in Kentigern’s sweet story of the salmon.


Jenkins, Dafydd. The Law of Hywel Dda. London: Gomer Press. 1986. Print.

Anonymous. Lives of S. Nina and S. Kentigern. Compiled in the Twelfth Century. Edited from the Best MSS. Edinburgh: Edmonton And Douglas. 1874. Print.

Ford, Patrick K. The Mabinogi, and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. Print.

Rachel Bromwich, editor and translator. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, Second Edition 1978. ISBN 0-7083-0690-X