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Summary and Notes
The knights leave en masse to search for the Holy Grail. White tells the reader that if they really want the particulars, to read Malory's Le Morte d’Arthur.
The author chooses to relate information about the quest through third person accounts of returning knights. Over the course of the next two years, various knights trickle in, all discouraged, some half-mad and hallucinating.
One of the first to return is Gawaine, the oldest Orkney brother, who relates his story in heavy Gaelic dialect.
Gawaine’s chief note is a description of Galahad’s character. Galahad is disliked by all of the other knights because of his radical piety: he is a virgin, a vegetarian, and a teetotaler, can apparently predict the future, and believes himself imbued with mystical powers. Gawaine finds him arrogant and too pure, and gives a number of examples of this from their quest.
First, Galahad knighted a man named Sir Melias, which Gawaine and the others found incredibly conceited and forward thing for a lad of 18 to do. His “social intercourse” leaves much lacking; he doesn’t fraternize with the other knights but is condescending and reserved.
In addition, Gawaine tells the court, Galahad unhorsed Lancelot and made his father kneel before him and ask for his blessing. This will be a surprise for the reader, of course; it is the first time Lancelot has lost in a joust.
Gawaine continues with his tale. He found himself at the Castle of Maiden with Sir Gareth and a knight named Uwaine, where they killed a group of knights. Galahad snubs them after this event because he doesn’t approve of such wanton violence.
Gawaine soon after happens upon a hermit who tells him that it was wrong to kill other knights while on a spiritual quest, and he should ask for forgiveness. He insincerely makes a confession, and rides on. He notes that after this lie he went on without another adventure for many months, as though he was cursed.
After several months, Gawaine met up with Ector, Lancelot’s brother. The two camped in the woods and had the same ominous dream: a priest gives them each a candle and a bridle.
Soon after, the knight accidentally kills his cousin Uwaine, who had an unfamiliar shield that Gawaine didn’t recognize. The shield turns out to be Galahad’s, a relic he found. At this point, Gawaine regards himself as cursed, and seeks out the priest that he and Ector dreamt of. The priest tells the knights that on a holy quest, adventure and success is contingent on purity. In other words, their excessive violence prevents them from any progress in the search for the Holy Grail. The reader can infer then that only the pure can find the Grail, and that this will most likely be Galahad.
Gawaine finishes his tale by telling the court that he had to fight late in his quest anyhow - he killed King Bagdemagus - and was subsequently in bed for more than a month with injuries.
In this chapter, it becomes clear through Gawaine’s irritable account that this quest has more than a token spirituality to it. This grail that the knights are searching for is really imbued with something otherworldly, and success in the quest in dependent on one’s own piety.
Galahad is introduced as a surprisingly pious and unlikable young man, and an effective tension is built between the physical necessities of life on the road for a knight (sexual relations, fighting, drinking) and the need to be pure in order to “win” at this quest. This conflict, of course, mirrors Lancelot’s struggle since the beginning of Book Three between the body and the soul; the reader may well wonder what is in store for him.
It is worth recognizing the significance of his unhorsing by Galahad. Lancelot is no longer first knight: how tied in to his sin with Guenever is his defeat?