The Holy Grail: Behind the Most Famous King Arthur Quest

August 22, 2019 Updated: September 24, 2019

The Holy Grail. What is it? Today, you can call something the Holy Grail of fill-in-the-blank. You can fill in any field here, and the Holy Grail of it means something that is very hard to find but is highly valuable in that field. Red diamonds are the rarest and may be called the Holy Grail of jewels or diamonds. The “Carolina Reaper” is now considered the hottest pepper in the world. It is relatively difficult to grow and hard to find, so we might call it the Holy Grail of peppers.

But what is the Holy Grail itself? Based on legend, it is the cup that Jesus Christ drank from during the famous Last Supper, the night before the day he was arrested and killed. It is the same Last Supper that was made into a painting by Leonardo da Vinci and has become one of the most cherished paintings in the world.

According to the legend, this same cup was used to catch the blood of Jesus while he was hanging on the cross the next day. After Jesus’s death, Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to England, where it was lost.

Not counting recent Holy Grail-related books and movies, such as those featuring Indiana Jones or the writings of Dan Brown, the Holy Grail really gained its place in the popular imagination through the half-mythical King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, who are believed to have lived about 1,500 years ago. They were renowned for their bravery, their chivalry, and their many great adventures.

The quest for the Holy Grail has become their greatest and most well-known quest. But why?

“The Knights of the Round Table Summoned to the Quest by the Strange Damsel,” number 1 of the Holy Grail tapestries, overall design and figures by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, woven by Morris & Co. 1891-94 for Stanmore Hall. This version woven by Morris & Co. for George McCulloch 1898-99 varies slightly from the original woven for Stanmore Hall. Wool and silk on cotton warp. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. (Public Domain)

The Legend

The legend begins with King Arthur and his knights sitting together at the Round Table in Camelot when they suddenly hear a crash of thunder, according to Sir Thomas Malory’sLe Morte d’Arthur.”

Then they see an incredibly bright light that leaves everyone speechless, for it is so bright that they can see each other as they have never seen each other before. A wonderful fragrance also fills the hall, and an image of the Grail appears as if covered in a silky, white cloth, which they can’t touch.

After it disappears, Sir Gawain initiates the quest to obtain the Holy Grail. King Arthur opposes the quest, knowing it will bring much suffering to his knights. He says to Gawain, “For when they depart from here I am sure they all shall never meet again in this world, for many shall die in the quest.”

However, perilous quests are what knights undertake by their nature, so King Arthur is helpless in stopping them from going.

Before the knights leave, a mysterious old knight clothed like a monk shows up and says, “I warn you plainly, he that is not clean of his sins shall not see the mysteries of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Here, it becomes clear that the quest for the Holy Grail is not an ordinary sort of quest to prove one’s fighting abilities or fight for the king’s honor. Rather, it is a spiritual quest meant for cultivating oneself.

The Knights of the Round Table go separate ways in search of the Grail. One of the first adventures that some of the knights have is to defeat seven evil knights who have a castle full of women whom they have captured and keep imprisoned. Sir Gawain says that these seven knights represent the “seven deadly sins,” which are, in the Christian tradition, anger, laziness, overeating, greed, lust, arrogance, and jealousy.

In searching for the Grail, the knights must resist such sins and look inside themselves for impurities. As often as they engage in fights, they pray to God, confess their sins, and promise to do better.

Knights Battle Within

On the quest, the knight known as the greatest warrior, Sir Lancelot, encounters the Holy Grail in a half-awake and half-dream state. He tries to lift it but cannot. His failure, he realizes, is because his heart is not pure. Afterward, Lancelot confesses to a hermit that he has had inappropriate thoughts about King Arthur’s queen, Guinevere.

He confesses, “All my great deeds in battle that I have done, I did for the most part for the queen’s sake, and for her sake would go into battle whether it was right or wrong, and never did I battle only for God’s sake.” He earnestly promises to mend his ways.

“The Failure of Sir Launcelot to Enter the Chapel of the Holy Grail,” number 3 of the Holy Grail tapestries, overall design and figures by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, woven by Morris & Co. 1891-94 for Stanmore Hall. Wool and silk on cotton warp. (Public Domain)

Sir Percival, wandering on his own, is rescued from starvation by a beautiful damsel who, though rich, has been disowned and needs his protection. He becomes madly in love with her, but just before he is about to satisfy his desires with her, he catches sight of a holy symbol attached to his sword and remembers his vows of chivalry. He immediately regains himself, and the damsel and tent where she lay evaporate into black smoke. The story goes on to reveal that the damsel was in fact a demon from hell.

After this terrible shock, Sir Percival says, “Since my flesh has been my master, I shall punish it,” and he cuts into his thigh, drawing blood. He then says, “O good Lord, take this in payment for what I have done against thee. … How close was I to losing what I would never have gotten back again, my virginity.”

The third major knight in the quest for the Holy Grail is Sir Galahad, the son of Sir Lancelot. Unlike his father, Sir Galahad is known for his purity and holiness and can even miraculously heal people who are sick.

When the knights reach the Fisher King (also known as the Maimed King since he is crippled), who keeps the Holy Grail, the Fisher King’s son presents them with the ancient broken sword of Joseph of Arimathea. The knights realize that they must put it together, but are unable to do so until they finally give it to Sir Galahad. He is able to put the pieces together, and they suddenly fuse together. The sword then levitates into the air. As the story goes: “The sword arose great and marvelous, and was full of heat so strong that many men hid in fear.”

The voice of Jesus Christ is then heard, telling them that they must go to a mythical place near the Holy Land (where Jesus lived and taught), called Sarras, to return the Holy Grail to where it had come from.

Gaining Enlightenment

It is worth noting here that the knights have no thought that they should keep the Holy Grail for themselves or take it back to King Arthur. The relationship with a higher, divine power is very clear. The knights know they are merely human beings who must obey.

Sir Galahad is also commanded to heal the crippled Fisher King with a magical spear, which he does.

After some adventures in going to the home of the Holy Grail in Sarras, the three knights make it. At this time, Sir Galahad, having completed his quest and preserved his purity, is taken up to heaven along with the Holy Grail.

The Attainment_Galahad_grail
“The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval, number 6 of the Holy Grail tapestries, overall design and figures by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, woven by Morris & Co. 1891-94 for Stanmore Hall. This version woven by Morris & Co. for Lawrence Hodson of Compton Hall 1895-96. Wool and silk on cotton warp. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. (Public Domain)

The text says: “A great multitude of angels bare his soul up to heaven, as his two fellow knights saw it. Also, the two knights saw come from heaven a hand, but they did not see the body. And then it came right to the Holy Grail, and took it and the spear, and took them up to heaven.”

We might say that Sir Galahad completed his spiritual cultivation or achieved enlightenment. In reading the story, there is an abundance of lessons for those who seek to take up spiritual cultivation, or seek to better understand it.

First, one must know the basics of what is right and wrong, here captured by the dangerous seven deadly sins manifested as the seven evil knights first defeated.

Second, one must have the right intention for wanting to cultivate oneself. One cannot be like Sir Lancelot, who was doing great deeds for the queen’s sake and not for God’s sake. Of course, one must act for the right purpose, for a higher spiritual purpose, and ultimately for one’s own cultivation and final enlightenment.

Third, one cannot be deluded by the false illusions of the ordinary world, like Sir Percival was deluded by the beautiful, rich lady. Such illusions are very enticing but are demons out to destroy you if they take you off of your spiritual quest.

Fourth, we see that Sir Galahad is already well on his way to enlightenment, for his purity and realm of mind allowed him to have the ability to heal people, to put the sword of Joseph back together, and finally to ascend to heaven.

Last, the story teaches that human beings are not meant to possess the Holy Grail; rather, it is something divine that is above them. Thus, the Holy Grail is finally returned to where it came from and where it should be. This theme of returning to one’s origin is similar to the theme found in the Taoist tradition, in which the ultimate goal is to return to the original true self.

This inner meaning of spiritual cultivation and seeking enlightenment is truly what is behind the story of the Holy Grail and its popularity and, to a great extent, King Arthur’s popularity. It is what is truly meaningful and why people around the world can only look at it in awe, leading to the endless tales, stories, movies, books, and so on, which are renewed in every age.

All quotes adapted from Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur.”

Evan Mantyk is an English teacher in New York and president of the Society of Classical Poets.