Chapter 1 At the feast of Pentecost, a damsel comes from King Pelles to seek Launcelot. Launcelot rides with the damsel into a forest and valley where there is an abbey. All welcome Launcelot and lead him into a chamber, where he finds Bors de Ganis and Lionel. They embrace. Meanwhile 12 nuns bring in Galahad, saying that they’ve brought him up: now they ask Launcelot to make him a knight. Launcelot does so.
Launcelot is shown to be a prominent knight since he, along with King Arthur, is given the power to choose to knight men himself. The abbey scene is a family one, in which various relatives of Launcelot join in celebrating Galahad’s entrance into knighthood.
Chapter 2 Galahad refuses to accompany Launcelot to Arthur’s court, however, instead leaving with Bors de Ganis and Lionel. At court, new letters in gold are written in the seat of the Siege Perilous, saying it will be filled 454 winters after Christ’s death. It seems, Launcelot says, that this is the day. As Arthur prepares the feast, a squire comes and says he saw a sword sticking in a stone beneath a nearby river. They all go see it: letters on the stone read that only the best knight in the world can take it. Arthur tells Launcelot that it must be his, but Launcelot gravely says it’s not his. Thus the adventure of the Holy Grail begins.
Galahad seems to be acutely aware of his role in fulfilling the prophecy properly. The Siege Perilous, as we’re meant to recall, was created by Merlin to hold only that knight who would “achieve” (that is, find and perceive the spiritual mysteries of) the Sangreal. The sword in the stone recalls, of course, Arthur’s own miraculous ability and eventual crowning as king, though now another must take up the challenge.
Chapter 3 Gawaine attempts to take the sword from the stone but he cannot, nor can Percivale. They all return to the feast. Once all seats but the Siege Perilous are filled, all the palace doors and windows shut by themselves. An old man enters with a young knight in red: he has brought a knight of Joseph of Arimathea’s kin, who will accomplish marvels.
An old man, the usual index of wisdom and knowledge, shares that he has brought someone related to the caretaker of the Sangreal (through Elaine of Corbin’s side, as we recall), who thus is already expected to be holy and worthy—the miraculous aura of the scene at court confirms this.
Chapter 4 Arthur welcomes the two, and the old man leads the child to the Siege Perilous. Letters in gold on the seat now say that this is the place of Galahad. Galahad (the young knight in red) sits down, and asks the old man to depart and send his best wishes to his grandfather King Pelles. All the knights of the Round Table marvel, saying that this is who must achieve the Sangreal. They notice how much he looks like Launcelot, and Guenever says he must be the son of Launcelot and Elaine of Corbin. Arthur tells Galahad that he is welcome, and he brings him to the sword and stone.
Now we understand why Galahad had refused to return with Launcelot, Bors de Ganis, and Lionel to the court: his entrance is meant to be much more dramatic and meaningful. Here the knights, for once, seem to pick up on elements of shared identity, piecing together who Galahad must be from his resemblance to his father, Launcelot. This is probably painful for Guenever, but Malory doesn’t mention it.
Chapter 5 Arthur points to the sword by the river, saying that many knights have failed to take the sword from the stone. Galahad easily draws it out and puts it in his scabbard. The sword had belonged to Balin le Savage, who had given it to King Pelles as he was dying. Then a lady on a white horse comes, weeping, to tell Launcelot that from now on he will not be the best knight in the world, as will be proved by his inability to fulfill the Sangreal quest.
We may recall that Balin le Savage, as he and his brother lay dying after having killed each other in battle, had bequeathed this sword (which he kept against the damsel’s warning after winning it at court) to Pelles. Launcelot’s worldly power and might are now shown to be not enough to be called truly “worthy.”
Chapter 6 Arthur orders all his knights to have a great tournament. Galahad wins against every knight, except for Percivale and Launcelot.
Even as a young knight, Galahad’s exploits suggest greatness.
Chapter 7 Guenever asks Galahad to take off his helmet, and says this must be Launcelot’s son. They are distantly related to Jesus Christ, she says, so they must be the greatest men of the world. All return home to Camelot, where suddenly a sunbeam lights up all their faces, and they all look at each other, struck dumb. The Holy Grail then passes through the hall, and is immediately filled with delicious food and drink—but no one manages to see the Grail itself, as it is covered in white silk. Gawaine swears to go in quest of the Sangreal for a year and a day before returning. All others swear too, and Arthur realizes that many of his knights may die in this quest.
Joseph of Arimathea, in addition to being the caretaker of the Sangreal, was also a relation to Jesus Christ himself according to this particular myth—one that joined a traditional emphasis on royal kinship and lineage to the Christian religious tradition. The Sangreal appears briefly to the knights, but only as if to tempt them—the knights do not have true access to it yet. They can only gain such access by proving their worth in physically questing for the Grail.
Chapter 8 Arthur’s eyes fill with tears as he prepares to bid farewell to his knights, and the ladies of the court grieve as well. An old man warns the ladies not to follow their lovers, for only a knight clean of sin can see the mysteries of Christ. Guenever asks Galahad where he comes from, and praises his lineage. In the morning Arthur goes to Launcelot and asks if there’s a way for the quest to be undone so his knights remain. Launcelot says they can’t break their vows. A total of 150 knights have chosen the quest.
Arthur’s sorrow underlines just how serious of an affair it is to seek the Sangreal—as the old man says, in order to truly “achieve” it, that is, see the holy mysteries that it contains, one must be entirely sinless, and those who are not clean of sin may well risk death in the attempt. For Arthur, who knows how unlikely it is for many of his knights to achieve it, this is a devastating loss.
Launcelot follows Guenever into her chamber, where she says he’s betrayed her by leaving. Launcelot says he’ll return in glory as soon as he can. The knights depart, the streets thronged with weeping people. They ride to a castle, then each takes his own path.
While women are central to the story, of course, they are barred from certain crucial aspects of knightly life, like the honor of pursuing spiritual mysteries.
Chapter 9 On the 4th day, Galahad comes to a White Abbey and comes upon Bagdemagus and Uwaine. They say that within the abbey is a shield whose bearer must slay another in three days or be forever wounded. Bagdemagus wants to try, but Galahad says he has no shield. Bagdemagus tells him he’ll attempt first. He rides to a valley where a knight in white armor comes riding against him, strikes Bagdemagus down, and takes his shield. The knight tells a squire to take the shield to Galahad, who is its rightful owner.
Although all the knights have already technically seen the Sangreal when it passed through the court, their quest to “find” it involves pursuing any adventures that may appear, and seeking to prove themselves through these adventures. The knight rightfully restores the shield from Bagdemagus, whose pride blinded him.
Chapter 10 Galahad takes the shield and goes off alone, meeting the White Knight by the valley, who tells him that 32 years after the Passion of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea, who had taken Jesus down from the cross, had ridden to the city of Sarras to meet a king, Evelake, fighting against the Saracens. Joseph had revealed the Christian truth to Evelake, and through the Holy Spirit he had gained victory, along with the help of the shield now belonging to Galahad. The shield has the power to heal wounds.
The White Knight shares some of the history behind the Sangreal, here again involving Joseph of Arimathea, who (according to the Bible) was actually present at the death of Jesus. Other things associated with the Sangreal, like this shield, are similarly imbued with magical powers. It is a telling example of the values of this time period that Christian faith is generally associated with greater prowess in battle, rather than the usual “Christlike” values of meekness, love, and charity.
Chapter 11 Later, when Joseph of Arimathea lay dying, he asked Evelake to bring him his shield, and Joseph painted a cross of his own blood upon it. He said that none should bear this shield until Galahad. Now, the squire that had brought Galahad the shield asks to be made knight, and Galahad agrees. Suddenly they hear a great noise from a churchyard tomb.
Joseph is portrayed somewhat ambiguously, as a powerful knight but also with some of the same mystical powers that Merlin, has, like the ability to foresee the future. This is another example of Galahad’s fate in the Holy Grail quest.
Chapter 12 Galahad goes to the tomb and lifts it up, seeing a terrifying figure leap out. A voice says that there are too many angels around Galahad for him to be harmed. In the tomb is an armed body, and Galahad says that this must have been a false Christian, so they remove it from the tomb.
The strange adventures of Galahad have great religious and traditional relevance: he is considered holy and worthy enough to be able to remove a false Christian knight from his tomb.
In the morning the squire knight tells Galahad his name, Melias de Lile, and asks to accompany him in the Sangreal quest. The two ride to a crossroads, where a cross says that only good and worthy knights will successfully emerge if they take the right way, but if they take the left they’ll soon meet enemies. Melias says he’ll take the left to prove his strength, though Galahad warns that it would be better not to.
Melias de Lile, as a young and untested knight, seems a bit overly eager to pursue whatever risk and adventures he can. While Galahad warns him against this lack of caution, Galahad also knows that courage and sprightliness are necessary to a successful knight.
Chapter 13 Melias rides into a forest and then into a meadow, where he sees a lodge, and inside is a chair with a gold crown upon it. Melias takes the crown, but a knight follows him and demands it back. The knight charges at Melias and knocks him down, as if dead. Galahad comes along and finds Melias wounded. He fights against the knight, and Galahad strikes him down. Then another knight comes, and Galahad strikes off his arm. Galahad turns back to Melias and brings him to an abbey. An old monk comes and says he will heal Melias in 7 weeks.
Melias’s hubris as a young, untutored knight comes into clear relief here, as he wanders into a lodge and picks up what must be an incredibly valuable crown, obviously belonging to someone else. The book’s logic of battle allows such behavior only if one defends his honor in order to retain a stolen possession. Instead, it is Galahad who has to come to Melias’s rescue.
Chapter 14 The old man says that Melias was wounded on account of his sins: pride, covetousness, and theft. Galahad departs on his quest, and comes to a mountain where there is an old chapel. He kneels to pray, and a voice tells him to go to the Castle of Maidens and rid it of a wicked custom.
Within the context of the Holy Grail quest, the questionable behavior of knights that we’ve seen before takes on new, more tragic resonance, suggesting that sin can have eternal costs in addition to worldly ones, and that figures previously lionized because of their physical prowess are not necessarily forgiven their sins because of this.
Chapter 15 Galahad rides to the castle and rests by the river Severn. Seven maidens come and tell him not to pass the water. Then a squire comes and says that the knights in the castle will defy Galahad. Seven knights, all brothers, emerge to fight. Galahad breaks the neck of the first, and sets upon the others, chasing them into the castle. An old man gives Galahad the castle keys, and inside many people welcome him, saying that the knights have fled but will return at night to reenact their evil custom.
The voice that Galahad hears is a heavenly one, taking the place of the usual custom in which a knight pursues his own adventures and answers only to himself and to his king. while Galahad is also a knight of the Round Table, God is his only real master, and this fact sets him apart from many of the other knights also on this quest.
A priest comes to Galahad and tells him how the brothers had been lodged at this castle, which belongs to the Duke Liamour, and out of lust for his daughter had killed the Duke and his son and had taken the lady and treasure captive. Seven years before, the daughter had prophesied that a knight would overcome them. The brothers decided that no lady or knight who passed by their castle would escape alive, and killed many passers-by. The lady has now died, but they brothers have kept her younger sister. In the morning Galahad learns that Gawaine, Gareth, and Uwaine have slain the brothers.
A castle’s “custom” is the term often used to describe a way of life, often an evil one, by which certain people seek to justify their behavior by suggesting that it is simply how they do things—a tradition. Galahad has done his part in ridding the castle of its evil custom, though Gawaine, Gareth, and Uwaine have, unbeknownst to him, also played a part in this aspect of the quest (showing that they, while not as holy as Galahad, are also noble knights).
Chapter 16 Gawaine, meanwhile, has ridden to the abbey where Melias lies sick. Gawaine wants to find Galahad, but a monk says that Galahad is pure while Gawaine is sinful. Gareth comes riding in, and they embrace. They depart the next morning and find Uwaine, who joins them. Then they come across the seven brother knights who declare that they’ll destroy any knights of Arthur who love Galahad, since he is the one who has driven them from their castle. So the three knights fight and kill the seven.
In a short flashback, it turns out that Gawaine, Gareth, and Uwaine slew the brothers in the context of trying to find Galahad. Throughout this quest, the other knights will face continual admonishment by monks, old men, and other characters in the forests and fields who remind them that Galahad is the worthiest of them, and that their past sins have rendered them unworthy of the Sangreal.
Each one then departs alone. Gawaine rides to a hermitage, where Gawaine confides to the hermit that a monk had called him wicked. The hermit agrees that Gawaine has lived in sin, and since Galahad has not lived in sin he will achieve the Sangreal. The hermit tells Gawaine he must do penance, but Gawaine says knights often suffer: he doesn’t need to suffer more.
Earlier in the book, there seemed to be some ambivalence about whether or not it was justifiable for knights to sleep with the damsels they “won.” Now, however, it is clearly forbidden, as per the official Christian doctrine.
Chapter 17 Meanwhile Galahad departs from the Castle of Maidens and, disguised, meets Percivale and Launcelot. Galahad strikes them both down. A woman nearby marvels, saying this knight is the best in the world. Launcelot and Percivale realize who it is, and ride after him, but cannot reach him. Launcelot continues to a wild forest and then to a crossroads, where there is an old chapel with an altar covered in silk inside, and a silver candlestick. But Launcelot can find no way to enter, so he unhappily rests outside.
This is the first time that Galahad meets with his own father to fight, and we see just how powerful he has become—few knights have succeeded in striking down Launcelot. As Launcelot departs, he fails both to catch up with his son and enter the alluring chapel—it certainly seems that his once mighty power is beginning to ebb.
Chapter 18 Half asleep, Launcelot sees two horses bearing a sick knight, who asks when he might be blessed by the Lord’s holy vessel. Then Launcelot sees the candlestick move towards the knight, though he cannot see who holds it, and the vessel of the Sangreal is brought as well. The knight touches the vessel and is healed. But Launcelot, since he is sinful, cannot move and seize the vessel. The knight, seeing Launcelot, remarks that he must have some sin that he never confessed, and he leaves with his squire.
Launcelot seems to be in some ways enchanted: he is described as “half-asleep,” preventing him from fully seeing and understanding the scene before him. Launcelot’s past and his insistence on sleeping with Guenever—sinful both because it is out of wedlock and because it is adultery—is beginning to count against his prowess.
Chapter 19 Launcelot wonders if he dreamed this. Then he hears a voice telling him to leave this place, since he is harder than the stone and bitterer than the tree. His helmet, sword, and horse are no longer where he left them, and Launcelot cries that his sin and worldly desires have brought him great dishonor. He vows to only be holy and pure from now on.
Launcelot recognizes, after a brief moment of confusion and immobility, that only he is responsible for his own sin and dishonor. He had embraced honor in terms of knightly conduct on the battlefield, but now understands that this extends to other spheres.
Launcelot continues to a hill where there is a hermitage, and enters for mass. The hermit asks who he is, and he says he is of the Round Table, but he is a wretch. The hermit says Launcelot should thank God for having given him beauty and strength, and that he should love and dread God from now on.
Launcelot pauses in the midst of his quest in order to fulfill his promise to himself to become a better, holier man—a process that first involves embracing the humility of one’s own weakness.
Chapter 20 Launcelot, weeping, tells the hermit all about how his glory was accomplished for a woman whom he loved too much. He asks for the hermit’s counsel, and the hermit agrees as long as Launcelot promises never to sin with the woman again. Launcelot agrees, and the hermit says on Palm Sunday, Jesus Christ found no one who would host him, and he came across a fig tree with no fruit. When the Holy Grail was brought before you, the hermit says to Launcelot, God found no fruit in you: this is why you were told that you were bitterer than the tree. Launcelot repents greatly.
Guenever had chuckled at Dinadan’s opinions regarding the strangeness of loving someone too much, but now it appears that his sense of moderation, though perhaps less interesting to readers, probably gives a greater chance of happiness and holiness. The hermit’s explanation of Launcelot’s vision is quite evocative of Jesus’s parables of the New Testament, and is similarly meant to impart a moral lesson.