THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE HOLY GRAAL
Donald T. Williams, PhD
As it was handed down faithfully from father to son in the household of the King’s Poet mentioned herein, and thus preserved; which true account was made known unto Sir Thomas Mallory, Knight; but he most wickedly and blamefully did suppress the same for the inordinate love he bore to the French Book; and which is now written down by Donald the Scribe, as he heard it from the mouth of the last descendant of Taliessin the King’s Poet of Camelot;
and he asks that the reader
hereof may pray
for his soul’s
I have always been troubled by the standard versions of the Graal story in which Galahad achieves the Graal because he is pure and worthy. A more Pelagian (and hence heretical) plotline could hardly be imagined! Yet the Graal itself and the mystery of its quest are too redolent of meaning to be given up. So I wondered: Is it possible to come up with a version of the Graal story that would be consistent with what Protestants take to be the biblical soteriology of Sola Gratia (grace alone) and still be consonant with the general outlines of the Arthurian legend, without sacrificing the mystery or the meaning? You are now to have the opportunity to decide whether or not you think I succeeded.
The knight on the barbican buckled his baldric and strode
Down by the stairway steep ‘til he stood in the gate.
Far in the distance, the dust he had seen in the road
Grew imperceptibly solid. Simply to wait
Was his task as his eyes slowly focused a figure of fate.
A single horseman emerged at the head of the cloud,
But no sun shone like lightning from byrnie or plate:
No gallant knight was he to dazzle the crowd,
But he came to counsel the king, as he before had vowed.
No coat-armoure he wore, nor needed none;
Of simple woolen cloth he wove his weed,
And that with purfling nor vair. A cloak of dun
Sufficed to clothe him. What more might he need?
No caparison covered his sturdy steed,
Nor crupper, for no saddle would he wear.
His master held no reins, but told his beads;
His hood thrown back revealed his tonsured hair,
For shepherding Christ’s flock was all his earthly care.
He slid from his horse before the castle door,
And laughed, “What ho, sir Knight! We meet again.”
“And never a day too soon. Our need is sore
Last Logres fall through foul excess of sin.
The king fears the presumption of our men,
Who drop their duty to pursue the Graal
Through holt and health, through mountain, plain, and fen,
While robbers multiply and widows wail —
Yet how can aught so holy tell an evil tale?”
With such plain words the knight addressed his guest,
Who crossed himself in fear and thus replied:
“The fault lies not within that chalice blest,
But with the men who follow it through pride,
By which same fault our father Adam died.
For look you: holy also was the fruit,
And holy the command that he defied;
So in wrong arrogation was the root
Of harm that followed. Thus, that error I refute.”
“That is well said,” the knight replied, “and yet
It does not answer to our present need.”
He summoned a servant as he spoke to let
The parson’s horse into its stall to feed,
While through the courtyard he his friend did lead.
The sound of tabour, cithern, lute, and lyre
Came filtering through the air. “I see indeed,”
Replied the priest, “The question is a mire.
For who can tell the Called from those who just aspire?”
“That cannot I,” said Kay the Seneschal.
“The king sits brooding o’er the empty Table,
And bids you come unto him there with all
The speed that you can muster. If you’re able,
As soon as you have rested, we’ll” — “The fable
Of that great board has gone through all the lands,”
The preacher interrupted, “and that table
Is empty now?” “Nearly so it stands.
The quest of the Sangraal has sorely tied our hands.”
The parson slammed his hand against his fist
So sharply that it made the courtyard ring.
His eyes grew stern, and through clenched teeth he hissed,
“I will not rest, nor wash, nor eat a thing,
Nor do aught else until I’ve seen the king.”
The knight turned up a stately marble stair,
Then through a colonnaded porch to bring
His guest to where the cinnamon-scented air
Wafted through the chamber Arthur found most fair.
It was the fairest room in Camelot,
If not indeed in all of Christendom:
Perfectly round and windowless, yet not
One hint of darkness there could ever come,
For Merlin’s magic chased away the glum
Tartarian shades. Two spherical, crystal jars
Ever silently circled ‘round the room,
Glowing with the light from two most knightly stars;
One with white of Venus, one with red of Mars.
In any spot their lights by turn would blend,
Or one have dominance while the other waned.
So traveled they, and never found an end —
An endless circle all their course contained.
And so their pleasing influence they rained
Upon the arras rich which hung the wall,
Whereon was woven by hands both skilled and trained
The seasons blending, winter unto fall,
And wondrous deeds of knights who sat in that great hall.
There was the king himself when, as a squire,
He’d pulled the sword clean whistling from the stone
And stood amazed as multitudes cried, “Sire!”
Then some years later when his strength had grown
And knights begun to gather ‘round his throne,
He was portrayed on top of Badon Hill
The day the Saxon might was overthrown
And bright Excalibur had drunk his fill
Of heathen blood, which for the peace he there did spill.
And there was Gawain, wandering in the cold
Whenas he kept his tryst with the Green Knight.
Three times his host went hunting. Thrice, all told,
The guest was baited in a harder fight
To keep his courtesy and yet do right.
But though he played right well, he could not win,
But fell, and had to bide the cruel bite
Of Bercilak’s broad axe. It nicked his skin,
Which otherwise through faith unbroken might have been,
And all because he would not bluntly turn
Aside the proffer sweet of fin amoure
From his fair host’s good wife, who feigned to burn
With lust to see if Gawain would abhor
Adultery or Venus’ courtly lore.
For courtesy forbade him to refuse
Whate’er his lady asked, and Christ, who bore
His sins, would not allow him so to lose
His chastity. The knight was caught, and could not chose
Between the two fidelities, nor know
What course to take, and so he did accept
The magic, life-preserving garter; so,
Halfway between the two extremes he stepped,
Revealing not his winnings; thus he kept
Not faith entirely with either lord.
Full sorely for that cowardice he wept
And bitterly repented, and implored
Forgiveness, and for sin his very life abhorred.
He gathered the green girdle ‘round his side
In token of his trespass, and took leave
Of Bercilak, nor longer would abide,
But homeward took his way. His heart would heave
At each thought of his failure. No reprieve
Seemed possible. He stood before the board
Of Arthur, and did there this doom receive:
Each knight would wear the girdle with his sword
In token that Sir Gawain was to grace restored.
And there was Lancelot the time he went
To rescue Guinnevere from Maleagant’s hand,
And in her service was not discontent
To ride in the disgraceful cart, to stand
The coward’s part two days in tourney, and
To cross the sword-bridge on his hands and knees;
For all which he received her reprimand
Because for two short steps his heart did freeze
Before he climbed into the cart, the queen to please.
Full many a tyrant’s neck was pictured there
Beneath the foot of one of Arthur’s knights,
And many a castle, town, or damsel fair
Which had been rescued from its woeful plights
By those brave warriors in their valiant fights.
There also many a baleful dragon’s doom
Was chronicled beneath the glowing lights
Which ever silently circled ‘round the room,
Shining on knighthood pictured in its fairest bloom.
And in the center sat the Table Round,
About which stood one hundred twenty seats.
A greater wonder nowhere could be found,
Nor ever center of such knightly feats,
For here the heart of Arthur’s kingdom beats.
Yet now it beats but weakly. Can the hard
End be upon us, deepest of defeats?
Modred and Taliessin the bard
Alone remain of all that with the king have warred,
And Kay the Seneschal, and now the priest.
”Hail, Sire!” said the latter as he bowed,
“Lo, I, who of your servants am the least,
Have heard your call and come as I have vowed.”
The king’s voice sounded weary, but still proud:
“Well met, Sir Priest! Arise and hither come,
And tell us if Providence may have allowed
Some means this deep morass of mire to plumb,
And save the fairest fellowship in Christendom.”
The parson noticed that Taliessin
Looked up with courteous eyes to hear his speech,
But Modred scowled and turned away. A friend,
He took note, and a foe, then, one of each,
Both sat beside the king in easy reach.
But now he must give thought to what he’ll say.
The king had need of wisdom, and to teach
An answer would be hard. No knightly play,
But the Sangraal itself had lured the knights away.
So, “Good my Lord,” the cleric then began,
“I would hear more about this grievous woe.
Why did you not these expeditions ban,
Nor e’er permit them from your doors to go?”
The king replied, “I do not fully know.
I would not hold them here against their wills,
And though it may be folly, I was slow
To clean forbid them. One heart maybe thrills
To a true call of God which leads it o’er the hills,
And this to hinder would be grievous sin.”
Modred then looked up disdainfully.
“So you see what a cleft stick we are in.
Such reasoning is nonsense, plain to see.
I would have locked them up and kept the key.”
“And done us no more good that way at all,”
The bard said, and the king said, “I agree.
The greater part should not have left this hall,
But I am merely man, and cannot sift God’s call.”
“Sir Galahad the Good is gone away,”
The king continued then, “to seek the Graal.
Tristram the Trusty left but yesterday
With Bedivere the Bold, a bootless bale.
Courteous Gawain’s laughing grace doth fail
The court when we have most need mirth to take.
Percival, Bors — I won’t complete the tale,
But more than all the knights who me forsake,
I grieve the loss of fair Sir Lancelot du Lake.”
“And so do I,” the parson shook his head.
“But although I am priest to God most high
And sometime chaplain to this kingdom’s dread
And sovereign king, there is no way that I
Can solve this riddle, for I will not lie.
I too am but a man, and cannot see
Beyond what Scripture teaches. My
Advice, such as it is, can only be
To trust in God, for with the king’s words I agree.”
And Modred scowled, but Arthur’s face was flint.
“Yet nonetheless, tomorrow I will preach
In chapel and dispense the sacrament,
And try by prayer if that I can reach
Through God the hearts of these good knights, and teach
Some of them better where their duty lies.
The Holy Ghost is far the better leach,
And he can change the heart, to his surprise,
Of any erring knight, to Tarshish though he flies.”
“So be it,” said the king, “and let us keep
Our vigil in the oratory there
This night, and neither eat nor drink nor sleep,
But on the altar offer all our care
Up with the parson’s sermon and his prayer.”
“This were well done,” the priest said, “and let all
The people of the court who will repair
Unto the chapel when the sun’s red ball
Doth wane, and we as one will on the Father call.”
The first bright stars were gathering in the sky
As Arthur and his courtiers took their way
Towards the king’s stone church that stood nearby
To keep their vigil and to watch and pray.
But some there were whose hearts led them astray:
For Modred’s darkened mind could only take
Thought of how the king he might betray,
And Guinnevere, who thought her heart would break,
Prayed not, but only sighed for Lancelot du Lake.
All through the silent night they silent stayed,
E’en Kay, whose knees grew stiff, for he was old.
And some in truth, all in appearance, prayed
And stirred not, though the air grew damp and cold.
And so, while Arthur’s errant servants bold
Followed wandering phantoms through the land,
And dreamed of grasping what they could not hold,
And slept but could not rest, some of the band
In Camelot found peace they did not understand.
Then prayers grew visible as ghostly breath
And night was at its darkest, cold and still,
When, unexpectedly as sudden death,
There came a sound of chanting that did thrill
The blood with woeful horror and made chill
The spirit as the air had done the flesh.
And all did shake with fear, for every will
Was laid bare, and then probed again afresh
By an unearthly light which secrets out could thresh.
For it shone from the altar purest white,
But where it touched a man it was blood red;
And there stood one in priestly garments dight
Who held a cup and freshly broken bread.
“I Joseph am of Arimathie,” he said,
“And henceforth will no more on earth be seen
Of men. Come hither, children, and be fed,
For you have need of strength. The times are lean,
And none of you is healthy, nor is any clean.”
“All those who seek the Sangraal will return
Well chastened and repentant of their sin.
But coals of fire smolder here, and burn,
That will destroy your kingdom from within
Unless to true repentance you can win.
Beware, Oh King! ‘Tis not in your own heart,
But lies as near to you as doth your skin.
Beware! Your right hand bears a venomed dart
With which your left a death-blow may to you impart!”
“Yet since there are those here who have kept troth
With both their earthly and their heavenly king,
Nor flitted after fires like a moth,
But counted their true calling as the thing
That most pleased God, these tidings I do bring:
You are the last of living men to see
The Holy Graal of which the sages sing.
And so, now do not fear, but come to me,
And let us sup with Him who died upon the Tree.”
The fear of some then melted into joy,
And they arose and took the sacrament.
But some there were whose hearts felt sore annoyed
At Joseph’s words, and they could not repent,
But gnawed themselves in rage or lust, and went
From blackness into blackness, and were drawn
Yet deeper into sin, nor would relent.
And then a rooster crowed, and it was dawn,
And when they all looked up, the Holy Graal was gone.
They stumbled forth into the morning light
And for a moment, found no voice for speech,
Until the king said, “We have seen this night
A sight for which we never thought to reach!
Yet what can Joseph e’er have meant to teach
With his words of right and left? I cannot bring
Myself the honor of any here t’ impeach.”
But Guinnevere would not look upon the king,
And Modred said, “I swear I did not see a thing!”
They parted then and took their separate ways,
And wandered long that morning, deep in thought.
But when the sun had burned away the haze,
Sir Kay grew lonely and for the chaplain sought,
And found him with the bard. The three said naught,
But each from other solace there did take,
‘Til the priest sighed, “Ah what joy and pain we’ve bought!
This one prayer for the kingdom I will make:
Let one knight not return — Sir Lancelot du Lake!”
TALIESSIN PONDERETH THE PAST
It was not the heathen pirates that annoyed us.
Our own propensity to play the fool,
Our inability to resist, destroyed us,
Caught in a self-willed trap of dire misrule.
Then Arthur came and took the stone-kept sword
And wielded it with such nobility
The flower of knighthood took him as their lord,
And with their help he taught us chivalry.
We couldn’t keep the lesson, and it closed,
That door through which we briefly glimpsed the Good.
So Pelles bleeds through lack of a question posed,
The realm through lack of an answer understood.
A greater King must bring the time when we
May learn in bowing truly to be free!
“The True History of the Holy Graal” is part of Tales of Taliessin, a full Arthurian cycle that is published in Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, 2nd ed. (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2020). It is used here by permission.
Donald T. Williams, “The True History of the Holy Grail,” An Unexpected Journal: King Arthur Legendarium 6, no. 2. (Summer 2023), 41-52.