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Sir Galahad (//; Middle Welsh: Gwalchavad, sometimes referred to as Galeas // or Galath //), in Arthurian legend, is a knight of King Arthur's Round Table and one of the three achievers of the Holy Grail. He is the illegitimate son of Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic, and is renowned for his gallantry and purity. Emerging quite late in the medieval Arthurian tradition, Sir Galahad first appears in the Lancelot–Grail cycle, and his story is taken up in later works such as the Post-Vulgate Cycle and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
The circumstances surrounding the conception of the boy Galahad are explained by Sir Thomas Malory and derive from the Lancelot-Grail cycle. Lancelot mistakes Elaine for his mistress Guinevere. According to Malory, King Pelles has already received magical foreknowledge that Lancelot will give his daughter a child and that this little boy will grow to become the greatest knight in the world, the knight chosen by God to achieve the Holy Grail. King Pelles also knows that Lancelot will only lie with his one true love, Queen Guinevere. Destiny will have to be helped along a little, therefore; a conclusion which prompts Pelles to seek out "one of the greatest enchantresses of the time", Dame Brusen, who gives King Pelles a magic ring that will make Elaine take on the appearance of Queen Guinevere.
Sir Lancelot and Elaine sleep together, but on discovering the deception, Lancelot at first tries to kill Elaine for her complicity, but when he finds out that they have conceived a son together, he is immediately forgiving; however he does not marry Elaine or even wish to be with her any more and returns to King Arthur's court. The young Galahad is born and placed in the care of a great aunt, who is an abbess at a nunnery, to be raised there.
According to the thirteenth century Old French Prose Lancelot (part of the interconnected set of romances known as the Vulgate Cycle) "Galahad" was Lancelot's original name, but it was changed when he was a child. At his birth, therefore, Galahad is given his father's own original name. Merlin prophesies that Galahad will surpass his father in valour and be successful in his search for the Holy Grail. King Pelles, Galahad's maternal grandfather, is portrayed as a descendant of Bron, Joseph of Arimathea's brother-in-law, whose line was entrusted with the Grail by Joseph.
Upon reaching adulthood, Galahad is reunited with his father Sir Lancelot, who knights him. Sir Galahad is then brought to King Arthur's court at Camelot during Pentecost, where he is accompanied by a very old knight who immediately leads him over to the Round Table and unveils his seat at the Siege Perilous, an unused chair that has been kept vacant for the sole person who will accomplish the quest of the Holy Grail. For all others who have aspired to sit there, it has proved to be immediately fatal. Sir Galahad survives this test, witnessed by King Arthur who, upon realising the greatness of this new knight, leads him out to the river where a sword lies in a stone with an inscription reading “Never shall man take me hence but only he by whose side I ought to hang; and he shall be the best knight of the world.” (The embedding of a sword in a stone is also an element of the legends of Arthur's original sword, The sword in the stone.) Galahad accomplishes this test with ease, and King Arthur swiftly proclaims him to be the greatest knight ever. Sir Galahad is promptly invited to become a Knight of the Round Table, and soon afterwards, King Arthur's court witnesses an ethereal vision of the Holy Grail. The quest to seek out this holy object is begun at once.
All of the Knights of the Round Table set out to find the Grail. Galahad for the most part travels alone, smiting his enemies, rescuing Sir Percival from twenty knights and saving maidens in distress, until he is finally reunited with Sir Bors and Sir Perceval. These three knights then come across Sir Perceval’s sister who leads them to the grail ship. They cross the sea in this ship and when they arrive on a distant shore, Perceval’s sister is forced to die to save another. Sir Bors departs from the company in order to take her body back to her own country for a proper burial.
After many adventures, Sir Galahad and Sir Perceval find themselves at the court of King Pelles and Eliazar, his son. These men are very holy and they bring Galahad into a room where he is finally allowed to see the Holy Grail. Galahad is asked to take the vessel to the holy city of Sarras.
After seeing the grail, Galahad makes request that he may die at the time of his choosing. So it is, while making his way back to Arthur’s court, Sir Galahad is visited by Joseph of Arimathea, and thus experiences such glorious rapture that he makes his request to die. After bidding Percival and Bors farewell, angels take Galahad to heaven; an ascension witnessed by Sir Bors and Perceval. While it is not explicit that The Holy Grail is never to be seen again on earth, it is stated (in Le Morte D'Arthur) that there has since then been no knight capable of obtaining the Sangraal.
The story of Sir Galahad and his quest for the Holy Grail is a relatively late addition to the Arthurian legend. Sir Galahad does not feature in any romance by Chrétien de Troyes, or in Robert de Boron's Perceval, or in any of the continuations of Chrétien's story of the mysterious castle of the Fisher King. Sir Galahad first appears in the early-thirteenth century Old French Vulgate Cycle. Perhaps it was because King Arthur and the established knights of his kingdom were not deemed to be fit enough for such a holy endeavour, that Sir Galahad was introduced to redeem King Arthur and his knights, and to show that there was one knight alone who was worthy to achieve the quest for the Holy Grail.
It is Sir Galahad who takes the initiative to begin the search for the Grail; the rest of the knights follow him. King Arthur is sorrowful that all the knights have embarked thus, for he discerns that many will never be seen again, dying in their quest. Arthur fears that it is the beginning of the end of the Round Table. This might be seen as a theological statement that concludes that earthly endeavors must take second place to the pursuit of the holy. Galahad, in some ways, mirrors Arthur, drawing a sword from a stone in the way that King Arthur did. In this manner, Sir Galahad is declared to be the chosen one.
In Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Galahad's incredible prowess and fortune in the quest for the Holy Grail are traced back to his piety. According to the legend, only pure knights may achieve the Grail. While in a specific sense, this "purity" refers to chastity, Galahad appears to have lived a generally sinless life and so as a result, he lives and thinks on a level entirely apart from the other knights around him. This quality is reflected in Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "Sir Galahad":
Galahad is able to conquer all of his enemies because he is pure. In the next verse of this poem, Tennyson continues to glorify Galahad for remaining pure at heart, by putting these words into his mouth:
Sir Galahad pursues a single-minded and lonely course, sacrificing much in his determination to aspire to a higher ideal:
Tennyson’s poem follows Galahad's journey to find the Holy Grail but ends while he is still riding, still seeking, still dreaming; as if to say that the quest for the Holy Grail is an ongoing task. Unlike many other portrayals of the legend of Sir Galahad, Tennyson has Sir Galahad speak in the first person, gives the reader his thoughts and feelings as he rides on his quest, rather than just the details of his battles, as in Malory.
Sir Galahad’s thoughts and aspirations have been explored as well by William Morris in his poem Sir Galahad, a Christmas Mystery, published in 1858. In this poem, written more than twenty years after Tennyson's Sir Galahad, Galahad is "fighting an internal battle between the ideal and the human", believing that he is like God and that he is able to be a "savior capable of imparting grace", following a dream in which he saves a dying knight with a kiss. Galahad isolates himself because he is a “self-centered figure". Morris’ poem places this emotional conflict at center stage, rather than concentrating upon Galahad’s prowess for defeating external enemies, and the cold and the frost of a Christmas period serve to reinforce his “chilly isolation". The poem opens on midwinter's night; Sir Galahad has been sitting for six hours in a chapel, staring at the floor. He muses to himself:
A poem by Thomas de Beverly published in 1925, the Birth of Sir Galahad, tells of the events leading up to the conception of Sir Galahad, his birth and a visit soon afterwards by Sir Bors, to see Elaine and the baby Galahad. Sir Bors sees a vision of the Holy Grail whilst in a chapel with the baby and his mother.
The poem begins with Sir Lancelot attending a banquet given by King Pellas, the father of Elaine. The king decides that he wants Sir Lancelot to lie with his daughter. De Beverly says that “High God was urging him to this”; he claims that God is behind the union of Lancelot and Elaine because He knows that from it Galahad will be born. Galahad will be:
King Arthur and Sir Lancelot can never achieve this honor because their lives have not remained pure. Of the three knights who are untainted by sin – Sir Perceval, Sir Bors, and Sir Galahad – Galahad is the only one predestined to achieve this honor of attaining the Holy Grail.
Edmund Wilson's story "Galahad", published in 1927, presents a humorous story about the attempted seduction of a virginal high school student by a debutante.
In John Erskine's novel Galahad: Enough of His Life to Explain His Reputation, Galahad’s main tutor for his knightly training is not his father Lancelot or King Arthur, but in fact Queen Guinevere. Erskine follows Malory’s text through Galahad’s childhood. Just as in Le Morte d'Arthur, Galahad grows up in the court of his mother Elaine and travels to King Arthur’s court to be reunited with his father and to become a knight. When Galahad arrives at the court, Guinevere is upset with Lancelot because he does not want to be her lover anymore and she takes an interest in the young knight, persuading him to go above and beyond regular knightly duties. At first Galahad seems content with just being an ordinary Knight of the Round Table, going out on quests and saving maidens in distress. Guinivere is the main contributor to Galahad’s destiny in this work. She says “you’ll waste your life if you don’t accomplish something new, something entirely your own". This is Galahad’s motivation to seek the Grail.
Matt Cohen satirises Galahad’s virtuous character in his short story Too Bad Galahad. Cohen describes Galahad as the “perfect knight” who does no harm. In part, “Galahad’s virtue is a compensation for Lancelot’s indiscretion". However, Cohen, instead of glorifying Galahad's virtuous character, makes it into a weakness. He writes that Galahad tried to “swear and kill and wench with the rest of the knights but he could never really get into it". Cohen's Galahad is not well liked by the other knights because he is so perfect and seems unapproachable. Cohen pokes fun at Galahad's “calling” by saying that his life would be wasted if he failed to remain pure and holy in order to be the bearer of the Holy Grail.
Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex portrays Galahad differently. In most works, Galahad is depicted as an emblem of perfection. Berger shows Galahad’s arrival to court in a more satirical light. Gawain comments that he cannot tell whether he is male or female. Berger shows that even though Galahad is in fact the greatest knight in the world, he does not appear to be. Appearance versus reality is a common theme throughout this novel. In most versions of the story of Sir Galahad, Galahad's death comes about after his greatest achievement, that of the Holy Grail. In Arthur Rex, however, Galahad is killed in a battle where he mistakes his own father Lancelot for a Saxon. Galahad is too weak and sleeps through most of the battle and, when he does wake up, he kills his father as well as being killed himself. Just like the Grail, perfection is unattainable; only glimpses of the Grail and of perfection can be seen.
The original conception of Sir Galahad, whose adult exploits are first recounted in the fourth book of the thirteenth century Old French Arthurian epic the Vulgate Cycle, may derive from the Cistercian Order. According to many interpreters,[who?] the philosophical inspiration of the celibate, otherworldly character of the monastic knight Galahad came from this monastic order set up by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The Cistercian-Bernardine concept of Catholic warrior-asceticism that so distinguishes the character of Sir Galahad also informs St. Bernard's projection of ideal chivalry in his work on the Knights Templar, De laude novae militiae. Significantly, in the narratives, Galahad is associated with a white shield with a vermilion cross, the very same emblem given to the Templars by Pope Eugene III.
Sir Galahad’s success in the high religious endeavour that was the search for the Holy Grail was predicted before his birth, not only by King Pelles but by Merlin: Merlin had told Uther Pendragon that there was one who would fill the place at the “table of Joseph”, but that he was not yet born. At first this knight was believed to be Perceval; however it is later discovered to be Galahad.
Galahad's conception is later glossed by Malory: "And so by enchantment [Elaine] won the love of Sir Lancelot, and certainly she loved him again passing well.” Galahad was conceived for the divine purpose of seeking the Holy Grail. But Galahad's conception happened through pure deceit; under a cloak of deception that was very similar, in fact, to that which led to the conception of Arthur and of Merlin himself. Despite this, Galahad is the knight who is chosen to find the Holy Grail. Galahad, in the Lancelot-Grail cycle and in Malory's retelling, is exalted above all the other knights; he is the one worthy enough to have the Holy Grail revealed to him and to be taken into heaven.
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