1 Introduction

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3.4 The Grail Quest

The magic in the Morte is an ambiguous concept, dividing the practitioners between benevolent and malevolent, but also making them belong to both groups because of their varying ambitions and motivations. The origins of their powers are obscure and sometimes seemingly otherworldly, but their essence is usually embedded in the human world and they are concerned with the realities of human life.

In the quest for the ‘Sangrail’ the human and otherworldly magic are replaced by miracles, divine visions and fundamentally demonic occurrences. The chivalric adventure, so far concerned with proving the knightly prowess, is replaced by a test of far more abstract virtues, particularly of chastity. The landscape shifts into allegorical world beyond physical reality of the previous parts. “Within the actively Christian world of the Quest, knights become caught up in a constantly re-enacted struggle of good and evil,”156 as it is when Galahad fights with two knights that wounded Melias, that are said to signify “the two deadly sins.”157

The adventures are all deeply symbolic. The schism between good and evil, God and the devil is represented also as a conflict between Christianity and the pagan tradition. Percival encounters a lion and a snake fighting each other and decides to help the lion, the “emblem of New Testament,”158 because it is “of gentler nature than the serpent”159 and he kills the snake. As he rests afterwards he has a dream where two ladies approach him each riding on one of the beasts. The one riding on a lion warns him about upcoming fight and the one sitting on a snake scolds him for killing her ‘serpent’ and requires him to compensate his action and become her lover. Percival refuses and she leaves with a mysterious threat. When he wakes up he encounters a priest who explains the significance of Percival’s dream:

She which rode upon the lion betokeneth the new law of holy church, that is to understand, faith, good hope, belief, and baptism ... And she that rode on the serpent signifieth the old law, and that serpent betokeneth a [devil].160

This represents the clash between beneficent religion and treacherous old traditions full of temptation and devil’s work as it was perceived by the Church.

The presence of demons, angels and Christ himself is imminent and physical. There is no obscurity that surrounds the supernatural in the previous parts of the Morte. The clear difference between the characters of demons and angels replaces the obscure and unclear classification of the supernatural inhabitants of the pagan mythology. The ambiguous magicians and human enchantresses are replaced by the saints and demons which occupy the opposite sides of the power scales. “Within the landscape of the Grail, heaven and hell are near and materially manifest.”161 For example when Galahad opens a tomb and a demonic man-shaped creature comes out with “so foul a smoke” and talks to him openly: “Galahad, I see there environ about thee so many angels that my power may not dere thee.”162 Similarly, in one of Lancelot’s adventures “an hideous figure and horrible” is “conjured on that book” by a priest, exorcised and forced to tell a story of a dead man lying in the chapel. It later disappears with “a great tempest.”163

The familiar pattern of an enchantress offering a temptation which occurs many times elsewhere in the Morte, is here transformed into truly devilish snare that has a potential to bring an eternal damnation to the knight. The abiding by Christian ritual seems to be crucial during these encounters. Perceval is lured into a pavilion under the pretense of protection from the scalding hot temperatures and the temptress gives him an enchanted drink that makes him burn with love and lust towards her. But as he catches a glimpse of the hilt of his sword and makes a sign of a cross upon his forehead “the pavilion [turns] up-so-down, and then it [changes] unto a smoke, and black cloud ... .”164 Perceval as a remorseful Christian begs God for forgiveness and even cuts his leg with a sword as a penitential act. He is then told by a ‘good man’ that the temptress was “the master fiend of hell, the which hath power above all devils” and she is also connected to the woman riding the serpent that appeared in Perceval’s dream.165 The same ritual, the signing of the cross, saves Bors from similar encounter with fiendish temptresses.166 The illusion in both cases disappears in horrific scene.

The divine usually manifests itself in the narrative in a form of a voice that conveys a message from heaven. The dream visions are also a form of communication. They instruct and explain without the taboo of divination and false prophecy.

The narrative shows the clear distinction between the good and evil agents. In the authorized Christian understanding, “True agency was either covertly demonic or legitimately divine.”167 But even within this system exist characters and situations that require more than just one-sided explanation. As the reader learns from the text, the marvellous sword which has an outstanding history inextricably connected with the Biblical characters and events, and which is destined to be worn by Galahad, was made by King Solomon, a known practitioner of natural magic.168 So Galahad is connected by his lineage with natural magic which he steers into perfection by his healing abilities. Also the sword which is drawn by Galahad from a marble stone appearing in Camelot before his joining of the company of the Round Table,169 is the one that Merlin has put into the stone after Balin’s death.170 Here the line between the work of the magician is hardly distinguishable from the actions of the saint in its effect. The difference lies in the causal principle they invoke – the demon or the divine. The situations in the Morte do not correspond with ideal Christian system, where the miracles of the saints are “set against the work of magicians.”171 The incidents taking place in the Morte rather reflect the unclear classification of the supernatural within the common medieval population. The magical ritual does not differ from the religious in function but rather in the “rational assumptions.”172 Because for the lay medieval mind the relevant difference was made not between ‘religion’ and ‘magic’ but between ‘miracle’ and ‘magic’,173 the various instances of the supernatural occurring in the Morte can be viewed as different only in their intended result.

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