The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King

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The Holy Grail Symbol Icon
The Holy Grail is a dish, plate or cup said to have been used by Jesus at the Last Supper and is an important symbol in the Arthurian myth. The Holy Grail represents the unattainable perfection that Arthur's knights must strive towards. In Book III, The Ill-Made Knight, Arthur sends his knights out on a quest for The Holy Grail in the hope that the search may teach them morality and justice, and direct their violence and power towards a spiritual end. Ultimately, however, this fails: out of the three knights who eventually find the Grail, only one returns. The other two knights—Sir Percival and Sir Galahad—become too perfect for life itself and are unable to use their achieved perfection for justice in the realm. Thus, the Holy Grail represents not only spiritual perfection, but also the human perfection Arthur believes is fundamental to humanity. Arthur's quest for a just England is based on his assumption that man is ultimately good; but this assumption turns out to be false as a perfect man cannot exist (just as Sir Galahad and Percival die when they reach perfection) and hence is permanently unattainable for Arthur, just as the Holy Grail forever remains elusive.

The Holy Grail Quotes in The Once and Future King

The The Once and Future King quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Holy Grail. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Ace Books edition of The Once and Future King published in 1987.
Book 2, Chapter 14 Quotes

Although nine tenths of the story seems to be about knights jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort, the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end. It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost.

Related Symbols: The Questing Beast and Quests, The Holy Grail
Page Number: 312
Explanation and Analysis:

After the narrator informs the reader that Morgause will give birth to Mordred, a boy who is conceived from a brother and sister having sexual intercourse, he shows the flawed pedigree which reveals King Arthur's relations with Morgause. Only after providing this illustration does the narrator directly state that his story stems from Malory's famous "The Death of Arthur"; both of these narratives center around this inappropriate sexual encounter. (Although it's worth noting that White seems to conflate Malory's characters of Morgan le Fay and Queen Margawse into one wholly evil character, Morgause.) The stories may seem to be diversified by other, chivalric elements -- "knights jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort" -- they are most completely about sin, the force which will destroy these social conventions that make up the framework for King Arthur's court.This story is more than its particular historical setting; it is a fundamental, human tragedy, a literary form with strong roots back to Ancient Greek drama.

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Book 3, Chapter 36 Quotes

Half the knights had been killed—the best half. What Arthur had feared from the start of the Grail Quest had come to pass. If you achieve perfection, you die. There had been nothing left for Galahad to ask of God, except death. The best knights had gone to perfection, leaving the worst to hold their sieges.

Related Characters: King Arthur or Wart, Sir Galahad
Related Symbols: The Questing Beast and Quests, The Holy Grail
Page Number: 477
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator categorizes different parts of Arthur's reign into four main feelings, or "tones": the "companionship of youth," when knights and the Round Table were young, the "chivalric rivalry," which blossomed after the threats to the kingdom had been eradicated, the "enthusiasm of the Grail," and now the bleakest yet -- the "knowledge of the world" phase, one of intrigue and gossip and "the fruits of achievement." With the context of this timeline established, the narrator suggests that the current moment is a critical time, in which half of the "best knights" have been killed. Again, the narrator associates destiny with death; once you live out your destined perfection, "you die," according to the narrator's blunt appraisal, which seems to stem from Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" itself.

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The Holy Grail Symbol Timeline in The Once and Future King

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Holy Grail appears in The Once and Future King. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 3, Chapter 27
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
...skeptical, but Lancelot's eyes burn with excitement. He suggests they start a quest for the Holy Grail and direct the energy and spirit of the knights towards a religious and spiritual end. (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 30
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
...many trials, he finally came across a holy boat intended to take people to the Holy Grail. (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 31
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...Two hours later, Uncle Dap presents himself to the King and informs him that the Holy Grail has been found by Galahad, Percival, and Bors who are with it now, carrying it... (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 33
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
...arrived at a forestland where a white knight was waiting to take Galahad to the Holy Grail. Lancelot knew he would not be taken too, but asked Galahad to pray for him.... (full context)
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Quest and The Holy Grail Theme Icon
...Bors and Percival, and knights from other lands; and on a silver table was the Holy Grail. (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 36
Chivalry, Satire & Medieval Life Theme Icon
Might vs. Right Theme Icon
...changed. The best half of the knights have been killed in the quest for the Holy Grail. What Arthur had feared has occurred: if you achieve perfection, you die. Now, the court... (full context)