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Quest and Questioning in Romance 255
so brief a time) bears a red cross on a white ground,10 the audience would need
no prompting to recognize Templar insignia; we are once again in the world
of ˜The Praise of the New Knighthood™. In company with St Bernard, the
author of the Queste clearly favours an infusion of the monastic virtues into
knightly lives needing spiritual discipline.
If the great sin of pride is constantly under correction, as it is here, sexual
laxity is unfailingly on the author™s mind. Virginity gets top billing, for exam-
ple, at the important moment when one of the omnipresent hermits explains
to Lancelot the virtues by which he might prosper in his quest for the Grail.11
After praising Lancelot for once knowing that ˜there was no prowess to com-
pare with being a virgin, shunning lust and keeping one™s body pure™, the her-
mit™s list of ideal knightly virtues continues with humility, long-suffering,
rectitude, and charity.12 Such a list might produce nods of sage agreement in a
cloister, but it stands at some distance from the virtues that contemporaries
regularly heard praised in a courtly hall, on a tournament ground, or within
the glow of a camp¬re. There, the talk would obviously be ¬rst of prowess and
honour, loyalty, and largesse. Some voices in these lay settings might speak of
love, but they would probably talk of ¬n amors, of frankly sensual love, as the
spur and reward of prowess; such views could scarcely please the clerics in gen-
eral, and certainly would offend the regulars.
Ecclesiastics in the early thirteenth century probably thought the scene
between Lancelot and the hermit embodied a stunning opportunity. Mere lay-
men, after all, are being offered the great bene¬ts of monastic Christianity as
equals.13 We can recall the surprise with which some clerics received the news
of this startling innovation in the previous century.14
Perhaps another concession is being offered as well. The Queste carefully
walks the line between acceptance and rejection of prowess as a key knightly
Matarasso, tr., Quest, 54; Burns, tr., Quest, ll; Pauphilet, ed., Queste, 28.

Matarasso argues forcefully that the hermit™s list of virtues cannot be read as a simple rank

ordering. Virginity would serve Lancelot as a chief reform, but humility is stressed generally in the
text; the great Cistercian virtue of charity comes at the end of the hermit™s list, though it can
scarcely be thought last in importance: see Redemption of Chivalry, 143“61. The insistence on vir-
ginity is, however, striking. Perceval nearly maims his own body after his brush with sexual temp-
tation; the Maimed King, upon recovering his potency, immediately joins the Cistercians.
Matarasso, Quest, 129, 277.
Matarasso, Quest, 141“2; Burns, Quest, 40“1; Pauphilet, Queste, 123“7.

See comment of Matarasso, Redemption of Chvalry, 240: ˜It may be objected that the ideal it

presented to its readers . . . was in fact unsuited to their needs, and incompatible with their duties.
But since no theology of the laity had as yet been elaborated, those who entered the pastoral ¬eld
must needs fall back on the traditional formulae which had proven their worth in the monastic
milieu where they had evolved.™ Matarasso praises the author of the Queste for giving his message
to laymen straight: ˜[H]e has not diluted this ideal, nor tried to temper the wind to the shorn
lamb.™ Baumgartner, L™Arbre et le pain, passim, emphasizes the role of this text as a praise of ideal
chivalry; see especially pp. 150“4.
Sources in Chapter 4, footnotes 23 and 24.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
virtue.15 With open arms it accepts tournament (still, in the early thirteenth
century, condemned by clergie); it more carefully accepts the heroic use of
arms in the right causes.
Even Galahad, the perfect spiritual knight, must show the greatest prowess.
Arthur worries that Galahad will never return to court once the quest for the
Grail begins and that he will thus never witness his prowess; he proclaims a
great tournament ˜in order to see something of Galahad™s exploits™. He and the
others are not disappointed:
Galahad, who had ridden out into the meadow with the rest, began to shiver lances
with a force and fury that astonished all the onlookers. He accomplished so much in so
short a space that there was not a man or woman present but marvelled at his exploits
and accounted him victor over all comers. And those who had never seen him before
opined that he had made a worthy beginning in the way of chivalry, and that if his feats
that day were proof, he would easily surpass all other knights in prowess.16

In another of his improving conversations with the hermit, the encounter
leading to his repentance, Lancelot agrees, in principle, to sexual abstinence,
but asserts the need to continue his life of arms. The hermit agrees. Lancelot
knows that, ideally, his adultery with the queen must end, but he holds fast to
prowess with the grip of a drowning man:
in all respects I am as you portrayed me. But since you told me that I have not gone so
far but I may yet turn back, if by vigilance I keep from mortal sin, I swear to God and
secondly to you that I will never return to the life I led so long, but will observe chastity
and keep my body as pure as I am able. But while I am ¬t and hale as I am now I could
not forswear chivalry and the life of arms.

To this remarkably open bargain the hermit agrees, ˜overjoyed to hear such
sentiments™. Through his brother, who is of course a knight, the hermit even
promises Lancelot ˜a horse and arms and all things needful™.17 Lancelot™s exer-
cise of his great God-given prowess has not been a major problem and is not a
necessary target for the hermit™s pointed criticism; sexual laxity is, the hermit
knows, the great sin in Lancelot™s life. A good hermit knows his sinner and
prudently focuses his advice.

Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 240: ˜ “If you can™t beat them, join them” is a pastoral

method that has always had its adherents.™
Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this setion are from Matarasso, tr., Quest, 42“3,

93“4, 71, 260“1, 266, 162, 200“5, 181“7, 192“4, 128“9, 121, 239“41; Burns, tr., Quest, 24, 16, 79, 81,
48, 60“1, 54“6, 57“8, 34“6, 33, 73; Pauphilet, ed., Queste, 14, 70“1, 45“6, 253, 259“60, 147, 189“93,
171“3, 184“5, 180“1, 104“10, 99“100, 231“3.
A promise of even heightened prowess seems to lie beneath the hermit™s assurance to

Lancelot, for he tells Lancelot that if he avoids sexual sin God will ˜empower you to accomplish
many things from which your sin debars you™. If his obvious reference is to greater success on the
Grail quest, the promise is couched in general terms.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 257
The Queste, of course, is no paean of praise to the quotidian practice of
prowess. To the contrary, the consequences of knightly worship of this demi-
god are shown unrelentingly. On a spiritual level the Queste sets the stage for
the dramatic downfall of the Round Table found in the Mort Artu, a later
romance in the same great cycle. The text insists time and again that the ulti-
mate reliance of the ideal knight must focus on God, not even on superhuman
prowess. Melias, just after receiving knighthood from Galahad himself, takes
the wrong road, illicitly grasps a crown, and learns that the Devil has pierced
him with the dart of pride, ˜for you thought that your prowess would see you
through, but your reason played you false™, as a wise monk tells him. The
monk says he suffered in order to learn ˜to trust . . . in your Saviour™s help
sooner than in your own right arm™.
Lancelot, always full of goodwill, but generally falling just short of the mark,
learns this lesson painfully in the Grail Castle. Ordered by God to enter the
castle, he characteristically prepares to ¬ght his way in, past ¬erce lions guard-
ing the gate. After a ¬‚aming hand falls from the sky to disarm him, he hears the
voice say: ˜Man of little faith and weak belief, why do you put greater trust in
your hand than in your Creator? What a wretch you are not to realize that He
in whose service you have placed yourself has more strength than your
armour.™ Even this warning is insuf¬cient. Allowed a distant view of the Grail
as the centre of a religious service glowing with light and resplendent with
angels, Lancelot fears the celebrant will drop the vessel; he enters the sacred
space forbidden him and is blinded and scorched by God™s wrath, left hover-
ing somewhere between living and dying for twenty-four days.
As he recovers, a similarly pointed, if less dramatic, rebuke is delivered to
Hector who arrives at the Grail Castle ˜in all his armour and mounted on a
great warhorse™ loudly and repeatedly to demand entry. The Grail King him-
self must call out to Hector from a window, giving him directly the hard mes-
sage he has failed to learn from his own experience on his quest:

Sir Knight, you shall not enter; no man so proudly mounted as yourself shall enter here
so long as the Holy Grail is within. Go back to your own country, for you are surely no
companion of the Quest, but rather one of those who have quit the service of Jesus
Christ to become the liegemen of the enemy.

The gate is indeed strait.
The deeds of Gawain make the point even more strongly and more nega-
tively, as he marks his sterile quest with the dead and dying bodies of his oppo-
nents. Failing to understand the spiritual nature of the quest, he always
remains locked within the tunnel vision of ˜chevalerie terrienne™, merely earthly
chivalry. ˜I have slain more than ten knights already, the worst of whom was
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
more than adequate™, he boasts to Hector when they meet at one point, but
then concludes in foggy puzzlement, ˜and still have met with no adventure™.18
In his wild quarrel with his brother Bors, Lionel shows again the distortion
of the meaning of quest caused by internecine violence. Enraged that Bors has
chosen to rescue a maiden when he was simultaneously in danger, Lionel rides
his warhorse into the kneeling Bors ˜and straight over his body, breaking it
under his horse™s hooves™. When a hermit tries to save Bors, Lionel splits the
good man™s skull with a single sword stroke. A similar blow dispatches
Calogrenant, a knight of the Round Table who comes upon the scene and tries
to intervene. Only a miraculous ¬reball and a voice from heaven prevent the
long-suffering Bors from ¬nally smiting his brother.
Yet shortly before this quarrel, even Bors, one of the three companions who
completes the Grail quest, ¬ghts what at ¬rst seems the fairly standard
romance battle, defending a lady against her sister™s champion. That con¬‚ict
won, he goes sturdily to work against the sister™s vassals:
Bors approached all those who held land from her and said that he would destroy them
unless they gave it up. Many became vassals of the younger sister, but those who chose
not to were killed, disinherited, or banished. Thus did Bors™ prowess restore the lady to
the lofty position that the king had granted her.

Of course Bors later learns from a Cistercian abbot that the lady he has
defended represents Holy Church, that her troublesome sister is the Old Law,
and that the king is Christ. His ¬ghting has indeed been in a good cause and,
more than tolerable, has been laudable. This is militia, not malitia.
He likewise passes the sexual test, steadfastly maintaining his chastity, even
when a beautiful and rich woman tells him how much she longs for him, even
when she and twelve high-born ladies threaten to jump off the castle walls if
he will not give the great lady his love. Of course they are all revealed as
demons once they do jump; the Devil has been testing Bors.
Perceval learns these lessons in more than one setting. He has a close call
with sexual temptation: slipping into bed with a demon in alluringly feminine
form, he is only saved when his glance falls on the red cross inscribed on his
sword pommel. The ˜lady™ and her silk tent disappear in a ¬‚ash and a puff of
smoke, leaving the tell-tale sulphurous stench of hell. A distraught Perceval
stabs himself through the left thigh in penance.
Alone on his island, surrounded by wild beasts, Perceval trusts in God™s
help, and the text again delivers an important message: ˜Thus did he depend
more heavily on divine aid than on his sword, for he saw clearly that without

Hector notes that he has met more than twenty Round Table companions, all complaining

of the lack of adventure.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 259
God™s help, earthly prowess and knighthood alone could not save him.™ Yet
there is always a role for prowess. When the miraculous ship comes to him
while he is alone on this island, its passenger, ˜a man robed like a priest in sur-
plice and alb and crowned with a band of white silk [which] . . . bore a text
which glori¬ed Our Lord™s most holy names™, proceeds to instruct him about
chivalric duty; he speaks speci¬cally about the courage and hard-hearted deter-
mination that must inform an ideal knight™s prowess:
[God] would try you to determine whether you are indeed his faithful servant and true
knight, even as the order of chivalry demands. For since you are come to such a high
estate, no earthly fear of peril should cause your heart to quail. For the heart of a knight
must be so hard and unrelenting towards his suzerain™s foe that nothing in the world
can soften it. And if he gives way to fear, he is not of the company of the knights and
veritable champions, who would sooner meet death in battle than fail to uphold the
quarrel of their lord.19

Perceval, Bors, and Galahad put this advice into practice in a telling scene at
Castle Carcelois late in the romance. Attacked by hostile knights from this cas-
tle who demand that they yield, the three companions exclaim that they would
not think of surrender. They attack and kill some of their challengers and fol-
low those who sought survival by ¬‚ight right into the castle hall. There, the
three heroes ˜set about cutting them down like so many dumb beasts™.
Their success, however, leads to expressed feelings of guilt as they survey the
bloody detritus of their victory. Bors tries to palliate their sense of guilt by sug-
gesting that they had acted as agents of divine vengeance against men who
deserved to die. Galahad will have none of it, at least until he can be sure they
truly acted by God™s will. The words are scarcely out of his mouth when a
white-robed priest, bearing Christ™s body in a chalice, comes upon the scene.
Though at ¬rst ˜unnerved by the sight of such a carnage™, the holy man soon
recovers and provides the explanation Galahad required, and in the most
glowing terms:
Believe me, Sir, never did knights labour to better purpose; if you lived until the end of
time I do not think you could perform a work of mercy to compare with this. I know
for certain it was Our Lord who sent you here to do this work, for nowhere in the
world were men who hated Him as much as the three brothers who were masters of
this castle. In their great wickedness they had so suborned the inmates of this place that
they were grown worse than in¬dels and did nothing but what affronted God and Holy

The lord in question here is clearly God, yet the language is very earthly and knightly, and

the emphasis is on serving in arms.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
These men, the companions learn, had raped and killed their sister, impris-
oned their father, murdered clerics, and razed chapels. God himself had visited
the imprisoned father, the priest tells them, bringing the news that three of his
servants would appear and take revenge for the shame caused by the evil sons.
Despite their commendable concerns, the three successful companions on the
quest have thus corrected violence hateful in the sight of God and of his
Church with sword strokes blessed by highest heaven.
As an allegory, a spiritual fable, the Queste is not, of course, primarily con-
cerned with prowess; but it is addressing and drawing on a way of life that was
itself primarily concerned with prowess, in a world that was much troubled by
violence. Teaching and encouraging the spiritual life, never a light task,
becomes so much more daunting when the principal ¬gures in the story live
by the use of edged weapons. The quests of the Grail companions thus deliver
signi¬cant messages on questions that have concerned us throughout this
Of all the knights engaged on the quest, only these three companions, Bors,
Perceval, and Galahad, ¬nally come to see God and to be united mystically
with him by means of the Grail. All three are model practitioners of controlled
and righteous prowess; two are virgins, the third at least chaste; all humbly
learn the foundations of their religion from hermits and heavenly messengers
who interpret their adventures for them, symbol by symbol. Bors alone, hav-
ing experienced this Pentecostal apotheosis of chivalry, can actually return to
the world, to the Arthurian court.
However much the Queste edges clerical ideals closer to the grasp of knights,
it is, ¬nally, not very accommodating, not very sanguine about the yield of the
harvest. The offer of quasi-monastic chivalry may have been generous from the
vantage point of the monks; but it was surely leagues beyond the grasp or,
probably even the desire of most knights in the world. Perhaps we would not
be wrong to imagine them reading or listening with more attention and appre-
ciation as great sword strokes ¬‚ash and as God reveals himself directly to his
good warriors than when one of the hermits delivers a homily on the merits of
Whoever wrote the Queste may well have understood the likelihood that
knights absorbed the text through just such a ¬lter. Certainly, the author him-
self strays from strict clerical views as he advances ideas of decided importance.
He presents a non-Petrine notion of the origins and succession of the clergy,
for one thing; he accepts knightly participation in tournaments, for another.
Moreover, he is unstinting in his praise for prowess of the right sort, exercised
by the right sort. Clearly, reform required the carrot as well as the stick; clearly,
even an allegory such as this attempts to build a bridge between clergie and
Quest and Questioning in Romance 261
chevalerie. But the bridge is dauntingly high, all but obscured in idealistic
mists, and its pathway is barely wide enough to accommodate a mounted

The Death of King Arthur
In one sense our second example is well named, for The Death of King Arthur
(La Mort le roi Artu), written about 1230“5 as the ¬nal part of the original
Lancelot“Grail or Vulgate cycle, tells the tragic and compelling story of the
collapse of the Arthurian world and the death of the king.21 The romance
could with equal justice, however, be called ˜The Ascent of Lancelot™, for this
is precisely what a central theme of quest in the story reveals.22 In the process
of narrating Lancelot™s transformation, it offers another route to ideal knight-
hood. Though closely related to the text we have just examined from the same
cycle, it differs from the Queste in important ways.
Above all, the lively spirituality of The Death of King Arthur is almost totally
free from ecclesiastical dogma, from standard religious forms and practices
(even confession and communion), and from the sermonizing voices which
tirelessly explain meaning and prescribe knightly behaviour in the Queste. Even
the extra-Christian force of Fortune plays a powerful role. Jean Frappier cap-
tures the character of religion in The Death of King Arthur concisely:
The great originality of the author of the Mort Artu lies in locating the conquest of the
Grail within a man™s soul. The Grail is interior, and the adventures that lead to it are
psychological adventures. The personal experience of evil, not the sermon of a hermit,
turns Lancelot toward holiness.23

The bridge referred to here is not that which Frappier suggested between earthly and mysti-

cal chivalry, which Bogdanow condemns as a misunderstanding of the entire theology of the
Queste. Rather, it is an attempt to show knights the true, mystical nature of chivalry as the road to
salvation. Bogdanow believes that the text is fully negative about the majority of knights, as was
St Bernard himself: see Bogdanow, ˜An Interpretation™.
21 Unless otherwise stated, quotations in this section are from Frappier, ed., La Mort, 13“19,

140, 151, 152, 185“6, 203, 2, 13, 140, 169, 118; Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 33“7, 135, 144, 145, 171,
185, 24, 33, 135, 158, 117; Lacy, tr., Death of Arthur, 94“6, 127, 130, 139, 143, 91, 94, 127, 135, 121. A
useful bibliography of modern scholarship on this romance is provided in Baumgartner, La Mort,
16“24, a volume which reprints important segments of this scholarship. See also Dufournet, ed.,
La Mort, which prints twelve essays by French scholars, and also includes a bibliography.
This is the interpretation of Frappier, La Mort, and of Cable™s introduction to his translation,

Death of King Arthur. Cf the comment of Chênerie: ˜[C]e roman, qui semble raconter avec la mort
du roi, la ¬n d™un monde id©al, d©veloppe en r©alit© un v©ritable pan©gyrique du h©ros
chevaleresque et courtois que fut Lancelot, un modèle de la chevalerie terrienne, après l™impossible
r©alisation de la chevalerie celestiele, ¬gur©e dans le mythe du Graal et la disparition de Galaad™:
˜Preudome™, 82.
Frappier, La Mort, 235 (my translation).
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Here is knightly lay piety in pure form. Even if the author was, as seems likely,
a cleric with a good Latinate education, it seems equally likely that he was one
of that number of clerics who lived in the world and was comfortable with the
details and with the ethos of the tournament and the battle¬eld. His guiding
ideas are thoroughly Christian (and Cistercian): he stresses the need for the
great virtue of caritas in humans and the saving presence of divine grace in
their lives. These ideas show themselves powerfully, if obliquely, in this text;
however, they never take on explicitly ecclesiastical formulation or issue from
ecclesiastical authority.24
The spiritual height to which Lancelot will rise is emphasized by the level to
which he has slipped at the start of the tale. He cannot stay away from the
queen for even a month, though he had promised a life of celibacy to his her-
mit-confessor in the Queste; he has even become fairly open about it. About
the vainglorious joy of tournaments there could be no question; while in full
repentance, he had even (as we have seen) frankly told the hermit that he could
scarcely give up the life of arms. In The Death of King Arthur he ¬ghts”splen-
didly, of course”in the opening tournament held at Winchester.
The issues are, once again, sex and violence, and the consequences of
Lancelot™s adultery and his ¬ghting quickly set in motion the events that lead
to chivalric Götterd¤mmerung. At the same time, Lancelot™s experience of
anguished suffering, and the outpouring of God™s grace for him, begin his
spiritual transformation. It comes in the upheaval following the open discov-
ery of his relationship with Queen Guinevere, and his dramatic rescue which
saves her from death by burning. The result is war, with Lancelot versus King
Arthur, goaded on by Gawain, whose three brothers Lancelot has killed in the
dramatic rescue.
As the war goes on, Lancelot banishes pride; he makes kings of Bors and
Lionel, giving up his own earthly dominion in clear witness of the transfor-
mation at work in him. He soon shows the change even more clearly in his
subordination of his own vast prowess.
Seeing Arthur™s avenging army encamped against him around the walls of
Joyeuse Garde, Lancelot feels only great sadness and great love:
When Lancelot saw how the castle was besieged by King Arthur, the man he had most
loved in the world and whom he now knew to be his mortal enemy, he was so saddened
that he did not know what to do, not because he feared for himself but because he loved
the king.

See the discussion of Frappier, ed., La Mort, 21“4, for questions of authorship, pp. 219“58 for

a thorough discussion of religious ideas.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 263
After his secret efforts to establish peace have come to naught and the battle
in the ¬eld has begun in earnest, Lancelot proves his love in the eyes of all.
Arthur shows wondrous prowess (especially wondrous for a man aged 92),
and inspires all his men. When he attacks Lancelot in person, Lancelot only
raises his shield to save his own life and will strike not one blow. Hector, how-
ever, reacts in the standard knightly fashion and swiftly gives Arthur a blow on
the helm that leaves him not knowing whether it is day or night. Thus he
thinks he has set up Lancelot for the grand stroke: ˜My lord, cut off his head,
and our war will be over.™ Instead, Lancelot rescues the fallen Arthur and
securely remounts him in the saddle, before quitting the ¬eld.
He makes an even greater sacri¬ce shortly thereafter: he subordinates his
own mortal love by agreeing to return Queen Guinevere. Though his com-
panions mistakenly ask what fear of Arthur has led to his action, Lancelot is
actually placing her honour before his own desires; he fears, in fact, that he
may die because of missing her so much. The same concern for her honour
apparently leads him to lie to Arthur by denying that any adultery ever took
Ever unforgiving, Gawain convinces Arthur that the war must be prose-
cuted to the end, to the downfall and death of Lancelot. Gawain demands a
single combat. Having already spared Arthur, Lancelot now likewise spares his
true arch-enemy Gawain, after defeating him decisively.25 As he explains to
Hector, ˜I should not kill him for all the world, because I think he is too noble.
Moreover, he is the man, out of all those in the world that have meant any-
thing to me, that I have most loved, and still do, excepting only the king.™ At
this time Gawain himself is still hoping that God will be so ˜courteous™ as to
allow him ¬nally to kill Lancelot and at last taste sweet revenge.26
But Lancelot meets Arthur to talk peace again. In fact, he convinces a very
reluctant Bors and Lionel to dismount in show of respect for the man they
continue to denounce as their mortal foe. The generous peace plan Lancelot
proposes, however, is rejected by Gawain, who ignores Arthur™s tearful

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