My rating: 5 of 5 stars
After reading The Mystery of King Arthur, I was in the mood for more of the Matter of Britain, so I read this volume, one I’d received for Christmas from my brother Michael some years ago.
The Quest of the Holy Grail is excellent. Matarasso’s 20-page introduction is definitely worth the read — she gives enough information and context for one to enjoy the book, but it doesn’t feel weighed down or unbearable the way some introductions do. The key to understanding this text, as Matarasso observes, is that it is not simply a plain adventure (although there is a lot of that!). Instead, this is a spiritual text — but not properly allegorical. Rather, The Quest of the Holy Grail turns courtly love on his head, placing Christian perfection in its place.
Thus, Lancelot is taken from the heights and plunged to the depths where he must undergo penance for his full-on embrace of the worldly ideal of the knight and, especially, his full-on embrace of Queen Guenevere. Gawain, the second-greatest of Arthur’s knights, is ever on the outside in this quest, finding few adventures, and running afoul of everyone he meets — the sinner who says he’ll repent but then goes and accidentally kills a friend without remorse.
Besides the two sinners — one, a penitent, the other the kind who gets what he deserves — we have the three Grail Companions: Sir Galahad, Sir Perceval, and Sir Bors. The first two are virgins, the third a chaste penitent who once had relations with a woman but now lives in purity. If the Knights of the Round Table weren’t perpetually in their early 20s, I wonder if a faithful married man would have been able to find the Grail! Here, instead, we have the mediaeval ascetic ideal of virginity upheld as one of the greatest virtues a noble can have.
Galahad is, of course, the noblest and least sinful of the knights. He, Perceval, and Bors meet with various test and temptations, but — unlike Gawain, for example — fall into no sin. They are the model warriors; not only are they the best in a tournament, they rescue the weak and protect women; they resist sexual temptation; they live simply, eating only bread and water; they hear Mass and attend Vespers regularly; they heed the advice of the hermits, monks, and nuns they meet along the way.
Throughout the book the knights enact their own allegories, which is kind of weird but kind of fun. The meanings of the enacted allegories or allegorical dreams are unveiled to them by the various hermits and monks they meet. It seems most of England is populated by hermits and monks. Sometimes a castle. Nary a farmer in sight.
Finally, from various persons encountered by different knights as they quest, we learn throughout the book the story of the Grail and its guardians, from Joseph of Arimathea to King Pelles and Castle Corbenic.
The translation is written in a timeless English prose that, while it may feel archaic, moves with a speed and vivacity befitting the tale told herein. I highly recommend this book.