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Brave Sir Robin meets Percivale–Tennyson’s “The Holy Grail”

People my age and younger can scarcely see a reference to the Holy Grail without imagining cocoanut-laden swallows and Knights Who Say ‘Nee.’ Perhaps the Monty Python crew has ruined the grail legend for the foreseeable future. We need to recall, however, that when Tennyson wrote his take on the legend, John Cleese was not even a gleam in his grandfather’s eye yet.

The Idylls of the King, have been rightly identified as Tennyson’s attempt to co-opt the Arthurian legends for the use of age of Victoria, in much the same way that Shakespeare made the Wars of the Roses serve the purposes of the Tudors or Virgil shaped the story of Aeneas to meet the needs of Augustus Caesar. However, these poems cannot be dismissed as solely propaganda pieces. While varying from the tradition, as all who had written in the tradition before had also varied, Tennyson embraces the great bulk of the Arthurian story.

When in graduate school, I read this poem and recalled my professor attempting to dismiss the appeal of the grail quest as Tennyson related it. I recall him invoking the key lines as Percivale watches Galahad disappear into the distance as he single-mindedly pursues the elusive grail. He tells of a forbidding stretch of water

Not to be crost, save that some ancient king
Had built a way, where, link’d with many a bridge,
A thousand piers ran into the great Sea.
And Galahad fled along them bridge by bridge,
And every bridge as quickly as he crost
Sprang into fire and vanish’d, tho’ I yearn’d
To follow. (lines 501-07)

The image is striking and quite final. Galahad needn’t burn his bridges behind him, as they burn themselves. The image of the grail moves ahead of him, eventually disappearing in a distance, unreachable city. Does Galahad ever catch up with the grail? Neither Tennyson nor his proxy, Percivale, seems to know. How could they?

That long-ago professor felt that Tennyson described something far too costly for both the frustrated quester, Percivale, and the apparently successful one, Galahad. Yet, if the quest proved too costly, why does Percivale say that he “yearn’d to follow”?

The price of following Christ is steep. The New Testament continually emphasizes this uneasy truth. Luke 14:26 tells the would-be follower that he must be prepared to hate his family for Christ’s sake. In Luke 9:23-26, we read

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

Arthur correctly identifies the grail quest as a costly one, even before the knights depart. Yet he does not forbid his knights to engage on it, even as he realizes that some of them will not return to him.

Should we see Galahad as a tragic figure? Despite what my professor suggested, we should not. Tennyson does not present Percivale, his primary narrator, as a disillusioned man, broken by the quest. Percivale does not regret taking the quest. His regret lies in failing at it, in having watched Galahad race across bridges that burned behind him. Whether Galahad ever reached the grail or not is immaterial to Percivale. What matters is that he drew closer to it than any of the other knights. And Percivale, having pursued the quest with all his powers, should not be viewed as a tragic figure either.

As much fun as it is to watch Monty Python’s version of the grail quest, I’m left believing that that group missed something that Tennyson understood.

Posted in English Literature, Victorian.

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