There are three that give testimony on earth concerning the Mystery of the Graal--Perceval, Bors and Galahad--and the greatest of these is Galahad. This notwithstanding,
as there are persons who, through a certain mental deviation, turn aside from the highways of Christendom and look for better paths, out of the beaten track, in the issues of obscure heresy, so it has happened that scholarship, without setting aside the great heroes of research, has discovered some vague predilection for the adventurous and courtly Sir Gawain. They have been led even to think that he was the first popular hero of the Great Quest. If the evidence can be held as sufficient--and it is tolerable in certain directions--I suppose that I should waste my time by saying that it does not signify, any more than the preference of Jewry for Barabbas rather than Christ could accredit the Jewish robber with a valid or possible title. In order to strengthen the view, scholarship has supposed certain speculative versions, now more lost than regrettable, which present Gawain more fully as the quest-hero than any document which is extant. In such event these versions were like the poem of Chrétien de Troyes, as it was judged by Wolfram--that is to say, they told the wrong story. At the same time there are several accessory considerations which call for mention. Gawain was exactly the kind of character who would be disposed to initiate and undertake all kinds of quests, high and low. That he was a popular Graal hero might mean that some of his chroniclers did not see exactly why his methods and mode of life should create a barrier. It must be admitted also that for many purposes of the Greater Mysteries it is possible that the merely continent man requires a more express preparation than one of the opposite tendency in certain cases. I think further that the old romancists had in their minds a distinction between the continuity of the sin in Lancelot and the sporadic misdemeanours of Gawain, as also between the essential gravity of the particular offence in the two contrasted instances. There is the fullest evidence of this in respect of Guinevere, when considered side by side with other heroines of the cycles. Moreover, the romances
reflected the unquestioned concensus of opinion at the period regarding the barren woman, and it seems clear that the unfailing fidelity with which plenary favours were granted by maidens in the matter of a covenant fulfilled, and the frankness which permitted such favours to rank as the term of reward, had its root in the sentiment that, except in houses of religion, the womb which bore no fruit was under a greater interdict than that which conceived without consecration by the sacred offices of the Church. This must be remembered when the literature suggests, as it will, that the chivalry of King Arthur's court translated in an inverted manner the institutes of heaven; that it was not very particular about marrying and giving in marriage; and that it seemed to have assumed to itself an indulgence, both general and particular, to follow the untinctured office of Nature without much consciousness of a stigma attaching thereto. Finally, it is. just to add that the later romances manifest a set purpose to depict Gawain in blacker colours exceedingly than the earlier texts warrant.
For the rest, and from the mystic standpoint, it seems pertinent to say that while there is no period at which it was customary on the part of the Church to impose celibacy as an ideal on those who lived in the world, and while from most of the higher standpoints the grace of chastity is less in its simple possession than in its impassioned recovery, we have to remember that the great masters do not marry because of the Divine Union. The connection in Chrétien between Gawain and the Graal Quest arises out of a challenge which he had accepted to clear himself of a charge of murder, as to which it was a matter of agreement that if he could find and bring back the Lance which bleeds he should be excused from returning to withstand the ordeal by battle. Out of this condition certain codices present the visit of Gawain to the Graal Castle very early in the version of Gautier. He beheld, firstly, a bier and, secondly, all the Hallows, asked the required question, and was told by the Royal Warden
that if he could resolder the Broken Sword he should know (a) why the beautiful maiden who carried the Sacred Vessel was dissolved in tears; (b) why a bier formed part of the pageant; and (c) whose body was laid thereon. These points are peculiar to Gautier and his connections. The experiment with the Sword proved, however, a failure; Gawain learned nothing; he fell asleep after hearing the discourse of the King, who explained what was wanting in him; and on awaking next morning he discovered himself in the open country, with his horse and his arms close by him. It is obvious that he had found the Lance, but he had not carried it away, and for this reason he set out to take up the challenge. King Arthur, however, intervened, and the matter was settled in peace.
The codices which embody this account give much more extended particulars of another visit which was paid by Gawain to the Castle; but it is obvious that they are exclusive mutually, and the alternative texts which omit the first visit, and determine in a different sense the question of the accusation and the ordeal, are for the quest of Gawain the logical and preferable texts. Second or first, on this occasion, nothing was further from the mind of the character in chief than to go on the Quest of the Graal, nor was he concerned with the covenant of any challenge. He assumed the responsibility of a knight who was slain by a hand invisible when riding under his safe conduct. The identity of this knight is never disclosed, but Gawain wore his armour and was carried by his steed, who had mysterious foreknowledge of the way, to a destination of which he himself could dream nothing. He arrived at his term in due course, but what took place was the reception of a masquerading neophyte, who was unintroduced, unwarranted and unqualified. In place of being he that was to come, they had still to look for another; but his harness for a moment deceived the company about him.
Chrétien knew nothing of a bier and a dead body, in that place where the sign of arch-natural life abode in perpetuity; those who took up the story in the footsteps of Gautier knew nothing also, and agreed to ignore his intimations of unexplained disaster. But Gautier or another, the bier was again seen at this visit of him who was unexpected, and a procession of canons and clerks recited thereover the Holy Office for the Dead, with a great ceremony of solemn voices intoning. The King also visited the bier and lamented over it. The pageant of the Graal was manifested, after the manner which I have described elsewhere, and Gawain saw it openly. At the conventional feast it was the Sacred Vessel which served so far as the food was concerned, but the sacramental communication was in one kind only, since the wine, as we have seen, was brought round by the butlers. Gawain, as in the previous case, asked all the necessary and saving questions, and was invited to solder the Sword, but he failed, as before, in this ordeal and learned only concerning its history. A stroke which was dealt therewith destroyed the realm of Logres and all the surrounding country. In the midst of this narrative Gawain fell asleep at the table, and was left to repose. When he awoke there was neither hall nor castle, neither King nor chivalry about him, but a fairly garnished land lying on the brink of the sea and restored by so much of the belated question as he had asked the King. The common folk blessed him, and the common folk accused him, because he had not finished his work or insured their full felicity.
Of such is the Quest of Gawain as it appears in the Conte del Graal, even as the pillars of a temple which was never finished. It intervenes between the first and second visit of Perceval to the High House of the Hallows, but on Perceval's own Quest it has no effect whatever, and the narrative of the one ignores that of the other. It is said in some old fable--which is not, I think, of the Graal,--that Arthur and Gawain at last reposed
in Fairyland. There are two classes of Knighthood--that which goes in and returns, and thereof is Ogier; that which enters but does not come back evermore, and thereof is Launfal. Now, Arthur returns in the fulness of the times that are to come, and, however these dreams may be, it is certain that the Peace of the King is not the peace of Gawain. In conclusion as to the Conte del Graal, after every allowance has been made for one statement in Chrétien, from which it follows that the father of the Fisher King was, as we have seen, sustained by a Sacred Host taken from the Holy Graal, the keynote of the whole cycle is that it has no sacramental connections such as we find elsewhere in the literature. On this account, if indeed on no other, the Conte del Graal has nothing to tell us which signifies in respect of our true affair, except by way of its echoes and reflections from sources which do concern us nearly, and are better and fuller witnesses. It has every title to possess in perpetuity the kind of Perceval which it has helped materially to create--in whom the Parsifal of Wolfram has little and the transfigured Knight of the High History has next to nothing at all.