Chapter 1 We move from Tristram to Launcelot and his son, Galahad. Around the time of Galahad’s birth a hermit comes to Arthur’s court and predicts that the knight who will occupy the empty Siege Perilous (one of the seats at the Round Table) will be born that year, and will win the Sangreal (Holy Grail).
The Sangreal is a chalice that, in Christian tradition, was used in Jesus Christ’s Last Supper and also to catch his blood as he died. In medieval times, it was thought to give access to many spiritual mysteries (and physical ones as well, like providing endless food), but only if one was holy enough.
After the feast Launcelot rides to the bridge of Corbin, where people gathered around a tower ask for help. They tell him there is a lady trapped in the tower being tortured with scalding water. Morgan le Fay and the Queen of Northgalis had trapped her, since she was the fairest lady of the land. Launcelot rescues her, and the people ask that he rescue them from a serpent in a tomb as well. Launcelot goes to the tomb, where gold letters are written saying that a leopard will come here, slay the serpent, and engender a lion that will surpass all other knights. Launcelot draws his sword and fights with the dragon before slaying it.
Launcelot once again proves himself to be a knight adept at judging where and when people need rescuing, and at defending ladies’ honor even while he remains loyal to Guenever. Morgan le Fay’s jealous and conniving nature, here, seems less to do with major political rivalries than with an envy of other women who may be considered more beautiful than she—another example of her questionable character.
Chapter 2 The king, King Pelles, cousin of Joseph of Arimathea, asks Launcelot his name, and brings him to the castle to praise him. A young, beautiful lady enters with a vessel of gold, and all kneel and pray. The king says that this is the richest thing in the world: the Sangreal, the object that will break the Round Table. The king knows that if Launcelot conceives a child with his daughter Elaine of Corbin, his country will be brought out of danger. But a lady, Brisen, comes to the king and tells him that Launcelot loves only Queen Guenever, so she will trick him. Brisen has a knight bring a ring that looks like one from Guenever. The messenger tells Launcelot that Guenever is in the Castle of Case. Brisen then sends Elaine to this castle, and Launcelot rides there and asks where the queen is. Launcelot is led into his chamber, and Brisen brings him wine until he is drunk and mad. He goes to bed and believes Guenever is in his arms. Elaine knows of the prophecy and is glad.
Joseph of Arimathea is a Biblical figure (the man who took Christ’s body down from the cross) who, according to myth, lived for centuries as the caretaker of the Sangreal. As a result of being related to him, King Pelles has the right to watch over the Sangreal at his court: in addition to revealing its mysteries to the person who is worthy enough, it also gives endless, delicious food and drink. It is important that the holy Sangreal is immediately presented as the “object that will break the Round Table”—the quest for it will splinter Arthur’s knights. Here, the process of tricking Launcelot is not only a matter of women’s witchcraft—King Pelles is also eager to trick Launcelot in order to get what he wants out of him—but it is the lady Brisen who thinks up, plots, and puts into action the plan.
Chapter 3 When Launcelot rises in the morning the enchantment is gone: he gets his sword and cries that Elaine of Corbin is a traitor. Elaine kneels and asks for mercy, for in her womb is now the child that will become the noblest knight in the world. Since she is young and beautiful, Launcelot forgives her, but he vows to find Brisen and kill her for witchcraft. After a time, Elaine gives birth to a child and calls him Galahad. Later, Sir Bromel la Pleche desires to marry Elaine, and finally she tells him she will only ever love Launcelot. Bromel vows to wait for Launcelot by the bridge to kill him.
Launcelot’s reaction to Elaine of Corbin’s excuses is telling. It seems that youth and beauty will excuse even the specifically feminine kind of sorcery and witchcraft—as well as royal blood, since Launcelot turns his wrath on Brisen instead, who is apparently also young and beautiful, but lacking the royal connections that will save her. Elaine has also won what she wanted (and also what was apparently fated), at the cost of loving Launcelot while he doesn’t love her back.
Chapter 4 Launcelot’s nephew Sir Bors de Ganis comes by the bridge of Corbin and jousts with Bromel, striking him off his horse. They fight on foot until Bromel, on the ground, cries for mercy. Bors orders him to go to Launcelot and yield to him. Bors continues to the castle and Elaine of Corbin and Pelles treat him well. Bors tells them that Launcelot has been imprisoned by Morgan le Fay. Bors notes how alike the baby Galahad looks to Launcelot. A damsel brings the Sangreal and tells Bors that the child will sit in the Siege Perilous and achieve the Sangreal, and exceed even his father’s skill.
Although Launcelot does not claim ownership over Elaine of Corbin, Bors seems to consider any of her attempted lovers as fair game to submit to Launcelot’s might. “Achieving” the Sangreal means something different than eating the food it gives or even going off in quest of it—it means being permitted to see the divine mysteries that the Sangreal hides, mysteries usually hidden to mere mortals.
Sir Bors tells King Pelles that many adventures seem to be found around this castle, and Pelles says they are only for glorious, God-fearing knights, so Bors goes to confession before seeking any adventures. That night Bors lies down on his bed, and then a knight enters and wounds him with a spear. Another knight enters and bids Bors to fight, though he is wounded.
In this, the most explicitly Christian (and fantastical) of the book’s sections, knightly prowess is closely linked to holiness and worthiness as a Christian. Bors seems to be tested through these strange nightly adventures.
Chapter 5 Sir Bors strikes down the knight, whose name is Pedivere. Bors orders him to go to Arthur’s court to yield himself as prisoner. Pedivere leaves and Bors lies down to rest, but soon a lion enters and knocks away Bors’s shield. Bors cuts off the lion’s head. Then he fights against a dragon, who finally spits dozens of small dragons out of his mouth, who tear the old one to pieces. Then an old man comes into the hall and sings an old song about how Joseph of Arimathea came into his land. The old man tells Bors to depart, for he has proven himself here and will have no more adventures. Bors sees a white dove with a gold censer in her mouth, and then a great storm seems to shake the castle. When it stops, Bors sees four children carrying four tapers, and an old man in the middle with a spear: the Spear of Vengeance.
This first challenge reveals itself as a typical one of jousting, but this is not so for the subsequent challenges, in which strange creatures attempt to overcome Bors while he sleeps. Old men in the book, of course, are often used as proxies for great wisdom and knowledge: it seems that Bors has performed well, but also that he must have the humility to know when to no longer seek the adventures that the castle holds. Other images, like that of the four children and man carrying the Spear of Vengeance, are more difficult to interpret.
Chapter 6 The old man tells Sir Bors to go to Launcelot and tell him of his adventure. The old man says that even though Launcelot has more prowess than anyone, because he has sinned, he will not be the greatest in spiritual things. Bors then sees four fair ladies enter a brightly lit chamber and kneel before a silver altar. But he hears a voice saying that Bors is not yet worthy enough to be here, so he returns to bed. In the morning Bors leaves and rides to Launcelot to tell him of his adventures. A rumor spreads about Launcelot’s child by Elaine de Corbin. This angers Guenever, but when Launcelot tells her how he was tricked, she forgives him. Then Arthur returns from France and prepares a great feast.
This is one of the first times, besides the prophecies about Galahad, when we are explicitly told that Launcelot’s worldwide prowess will have an expiration date—and this not necessarily because he will be bested in battle, but because he will prove to be not worthy enough of a knight. The book seems greatly ambivalent about his love affair with Guenever, both admiring his loyalty to her, and suggesting that this love will ultimately prove him unworthy of achieving the Sangreal.
Chapter 7 Elaine of Corbin gets permission from her father to ride with Brisen to the feast. Arthur and Guenever welcome her, as do all the knights but Launcelot, who is ashamed and refuses to speak to her. Elaine tells Brisen how hurt she is, and Brisen says she’ll trick him into sleeping with her again. Elaine and Guenever are outwardly cordial, but hate each other. The queen tells Launcelot she’ll send for him that night, since otherwise he’ll go to Elaine.
Elaine of Corbin, still lovesick over Launcelot, relies on Brisen’s wily ways to try to entrap Launcelot once again, perhaps thinking that her love for him will ultimately be enough to win him over. Guenever and Elaine compete just like knightly rivals, though in the inner, domestic sphere of courtly love.
Chapter 8 That night Brisen comes to Launcelot’s bed, disguised, and says Guenever is waiting. She brings him to Elaine of Corbin’s bed. Guenever’s lady finds Launcelot’s bed empty, and Guenever is enraged. Launcelot, as usual, talks in his sleep about Guenever, so loud that the queen hears him from her chamber. She coughs so loud that Launcelot awakens and realizes he’s not in the queen’s bed. He races into the hall, meeting Guenever, who orders him as a traitor out of her court. Launcelot swoons. When he awakens he leaps from a bay window into the garden, scratching himself on thorns. He races away. For two years no one will hear of him.
Brisen pretends to be a lady of Guenever, taking advantage of the cover of night and the difficulty of distinguishing between ladies’ maids (often considered more or less invisible to the knights) to gain what Elaine wants from Launcelot. Launcelot is clever and always on his guard outside the castle walls when he’s on an adventure, but he does not seem able to employ a similar sense of discernment in more domestic affairs.
Chapter 9 Elaine of Corbin sees all of this, and rebukes Guenever for driving Launcelot mad, and for betraying her own husband, whereas she (Elaine) has no one else to love. Guenever orders Elaine to leave her court. She departs and, on the way, tells Bors de Ganis, who has accompanied her, what happened. Bors says the two women have destroyed Launcelot. Elaine protests that it was Guenever’s fault. Bors orders Elaine to tell him if she ever sees Launcelot, and rides to Guenever, who weeps, though Bors berates her for losing their best knight.
Elaine of Corbin is not wrong in rebuking Queen Guenever, although we as readers are supposed to sympathize more with the queen—at the very least her tragic flaw is romantic and fascinating for readers. Bors de Ganis, for his part, seems rather fed up with the women’s quarrels. Like most of the knights, he values knightly prowess and allegiance above love or emotional issues.
Chapter 10 Guenever falls, fainting, and when she awakes she asks Bors de Ganis, Ector de Maris, and Lionel to find Launcelot, since she believes he’s gone mad. They ride all over the land for months, but never find him. They meet a knight, Melion de Tartare, who is on his way to Arthur’s court, and ask him to tell them of their failure. Gawaine, Uwaine, Sagramore le Desirous, Aglovale, and Percivale all ask Arthur to go out searching as well.
We may recall that Tristram, in a similar situation to Launcelot, went mad himself after being driven from Mark’s court, and wandered in the forest until finally regaining his senses and returning. It is not clear whether the same fate is to be suffered by Launcelot, or if he is actively resisting capture by other knights.
Meanwhile Launcelot suffers hunger, cold, and thirst. Aglovale and Percivale stop at their mother’s home, who weeps in joy to see them, since she has also been grieving her other son Lamorak’s death. But they say they cannot stay: they must seek out noble deeds.
This brief domestic scene reminds us that, to join the Round Table, one has to give up a number of other ties, even family ties, in exchange for a new fellowship.
Chapter 11 The knights’ mother sends a squire after them, asking them to return home to comfort their mother. On the way the squire happens upon the castle belonging to a man whose brother was killed by Aglovale. The lord orders his men to kill the squire. The next day Aglovale and Percivale come upon him and learn how he was killed. Aglovale vows to avenge his death and goes to meet the lord. They fight, and Aglovale strikes the lord down and kills him. They depart and bury the squire.
Aglovale and Percivale may not have agreed to remain at home with their mother, but they show their loyalty to her by defending the squire whom she sent. Aglovale and Percivale are shown to honor this squire’s life both by avenging his death and by burying him, which is highly importance religiously in this society.
Chapter 12 The knights then arrive at the castle Cardican. Percivale departs secretly in the middle of the night and rides until he finds a knight bound to a stone bridge. He says he is Persides of the Round Table: in that castle is a lady who, when he refused to be her lover, set her men upon him and bound him. Percivale cuts through the chain and frees Persides. A knight runs out of the castle, and Percivale strikes the knight down. With Persides he goes to the castle and commands the lady to free Persides’ servants. Presides brings Percivale to his own castle. In the morning Percivale tells Persides to go to Arthur’s court and tell him how he rescued him. He also tells him to remind Kay and Mordred how they mocked Percivale when he was made knight: Percivale won’t return to court until he’s achieved great glory.
Percivale has been fighting together with Aglovale, but at this point, Percivale seems to want to seek adventures on his own and win greater glory on his own account, without sharing it with his brother. He begins to do so by freeing Persides and working to destroy the knights of the castle. Although Persides is a friend and ally, not a conquered enemy, Percivale still finds it necessary to send him to Arthur’s court, where Persides will be able to bring news of Percivale’s prowess before Arthur and make up for the other knights’ mocking tones towards him.
Chapter 13 At court, Persides shares Percivale’s news. Meanwhile, Percivale comes across another knight. They fight for hours. Finally Percivale asks the other’s name: it’s Sir Ector de Maris, Launcelot’s brother. Percivale says he’s on a quest to find Launcelot. Ector asks Percivale to bring him to a monastery since he is wounded, but Percivale is equally wounded.
Once again, knights of the Round Table seem to possess little ability of discernment, not even able to identify each other in battle—it would seem that it was a waste for them to wound each other, although battles like this do serve to train knights for greater enemies.
Chapter 14 Percivale kneels and prays to Jesus. Then the knights see the vessel of the Sangreal approach, borne by a maiden (Ector de Maris cannot see her: only virgins can). At once the two are healed. They remount, amazed, and discuss their adventures.
Another magical element of the Sangreal is its healing powers, which seem only able to be accessed based on a miracle of God and humble chivalric qualities. Percivale’s virginity will make him one of the few to be found worthy of the Sangreal.