29  The Quest



The Middle Ages was also the Age of Knights. At first, these knights fought exclusively in service to their lord or king, but eventually—at least in literature—they began to set out on adventurous quests. They wandered the lands to attain the love of a lady, to win honor for themselves, or to attain spiritual goals by going on a Crusade or searching for the Holy Grail. These ideals were beautifully worked out in the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The medieval writers depicted these knights in the process of self-discovery, each learning personal lessons from their own unique adventures. This helped shape the Western ideal that each man should chase his own unique destiny.



To become a knight required long training. A young knight-to-be would first serve in the stables and household of his parents or foster-parents as a page. At the age of fourteen, some pages became squires. A squire helped a knight with his armor, ran errands for him, and practiced fighting. Only a few squires eventually became knights. In fact, we know that late-medieval England had only 1500 knights in total. Around 1100 AD, a formal dubbing ceremony was introduced to initiate a squire into knighthood. The knight-to-be would kneel before his sponsor, who would lower a sword to his shoulders and say, “I dub you knight.” The sponsor would then strike the knight on his face to test his ability to withstand attack. The new knight was then offered a sword blessed by the Church, after which he was expected to perform feats of horsemanship and give coins to the spectators as an act of generosity. At the end of the ceremony, the knight would go on an adventure. We have records of knights vowing to pursue fortune, join tournaments and battles, or pursue a lady.

To restrain their aggression, knights were expected to follow a code of noble conduct called chivalry. The ethics associated with this code changed over time. In the 11th century, the code was similar to that of other warrior traditions. The knights were expected to have faith in God, be skillful in battle, be loyal to their lords, and exhibit honor and generosity.


The Crusades

An alternative was created in 1095 when the pope launched the First Crusade. Knights were now encouraged to go on a religious quest to recapture the Holy Land through holy war, which shifted the loyalty of knights from their lord to God and the Church. We see this reflected in the literature of the time, which focused on monk-knights going on spiritual quests. The Knights Templar exemplified this type of knight in real life.

Fig. 36 – Christ leading the Knight Templars into battle (14th century) (British Library)

Besides conquering the Holy Land, the First Crusade had the secondary goal of aiding the Byzantine emperor, who had asked for assistance against the Turks. The aid was a sign of goodwill, as the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople had excommunicated each other in 1054 AD in what came to be known as the Great Schism.

The First Crusade attracted an enormous number of volunteers, who were rewarded both financially and with the promise that their time in purgatory would be absolved. On top of this, those who died in battle would receive the status of martyr in the afterlife. Despite the high turnout, most participants of the First Crusade were commoners without military training, and as a result, they were easily defeated by the Turkish army. The Byzantine Empire had done nothing to prevent these inexperienced fighters from marching to their deaths, which caused great resentment in the West.

A second wave of the First Crusade was more organized, with more professional knights present. Thousands of men died on their way to Israel, but roughly 1200 knights did survive the journey and managed to capture Jerusalem in 1099 AD, where they massacred a large part of the population. Jerusalem would remain in Christian hands until it was recaptured in 1187 AD by the sultan Saladin (1137–1193). The Third Crusade managed to reverse most of Saladin’s conquests but failed to recapture Jerusalem. During the Fourth Crusade, the crusaders scandalously sacked Constantinople, pillaging churches and killing many citizens. The crusaders managed to rule Constantinople until 1261 when the Byzantines recaptured it.


Courtly love

A third alternative for knighthood appeared in the mid-12th century when some knights made their love for a lady their primary motivator. This type of knighthood was especially popular in literature, yet it seems to have been a rare occurrence in real life. As expected, the church warned against those who placed the love of women above the love of God.

Fig. 37 – Knights fighting in a tournament, while women look on from above. From the Codex Manesse (c. 1310) (University of Heidelberg)

The first mention of this type of chivalry is found in the 1130s in a work called History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1095–1155). We read:

Every knight in the country who was in any way famed for his bravery wore livery and arms showing his own distinctive color; ladies of fashion often displayed the same colors. They scorned to give their love to any man who had not proved himself three times in battle. In this way, the women became chaste and more virtuous and for their love the knights were ever more daring. Invigorated by the food and drink that they had consumed they went out to the meadows outside the city and divided into groups to play various games. The knights planned an imitation battle and competed together on horseback, while their women watched from the top of the city walls and aroused them to passionate excitement by their flirtatious behavior. [47]


King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

In literature, knighthood centered around the legend of King Arthur. His legend goes back to the end of the fifth century when the Celtic inhabitants of Britain—the Britons—had to defend themselves against the invading Angles and Saxons, two Germanic tribes from Northern Germany and Denmark who would eventually conquer most of England (“Land of the Angles”).

The British monk Gildas (c. 500–570) wrote of the emergence of a great Romano-British war leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus, who was responsible for a great victory against the Anglo-Saxons at the siege of Mount Badon. Ambrosius was described as a moderate man (vir modestus) who valued discretion and restraint, setting him apart from the stereotypical bold and fearless hero figures. The Welsh monk Nennius (ninth century) was the first to change the name of this hero to Arthur.

Given Arthur’s Celtic origin, the mythology surrounding his character became an interesting mix between Celtic and Christian motifs. An early product of this fusion is the Book of Kells, which was written in Ireland. Fig. 38 shows Christian symbols depicted with characteristic Celtic ornamentation. This combination was remarkable since Christianity and Celtic religion were diametrically opposed. Christianity revolves around a transcendent God “up there” in heaven, while the Celts regarded the natural world as sacred and filled with spirits. They considered every hill, tree, rock, and spring as divine. Celtic elements that ended up in Arthurian literature include wizards and druids, fairies and shape-shifters, magical castles and forests, and magical food-providing cauldrons.

Fig. 38 – A page from the Book of Kells (c. 800 AD). The letters χ and ρ are the first letters of “Christ” in Greek. (Trinity College Library, Ireland)

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain the story of Arthur got close to its final form. The work gives a pseudo-historical account of British history, placing Arthur at the end of a long line of British kings. With the help of the wizard Merlin, King Arthur defeated the Saxons and even conquered Northern Europe, ushering in a period of peace and prosperity. This period came to an end, however, when the Romans, led by Lucius Hiberius, demanded that Britain pay tribute to Rome. In response, Arthur went to war trying to protect his virtuous Christian empire against a corrupt Roman emperor. Arthur defeated Lucius, after which he planned to take on Rome itself. But while away from home, his nephew Mordred seduced and married his wife Guinevere and seized the throne. Arthur returned home and killed Mordred, but was mortally wounded. He was then carried off to the legendary Isle of Avalon to recover. It was believed he would return one day to restore his kingdom.

In the decades after Geoffrey’s monumental work, other Arthurian elements were added to the story. In 1155 AD, Wace (b. 1110) introduced the Round Table. Having no head, everyone who sat at this table, including Arthur himself, was believed to be of equal status. This again showed Arthur’s modest nature. Robert de Boron (b. 12th century) added the sword in the stone. The most famous description is from Thomas Malory (c. 1415–1471):

And when [...] the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus: Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England. [48]

When Sir Kay was unable to find a sword for battle, Arthur found the stone and pulled out the sword. When Kay discovered what had happened, he pretended to have pulled it out himself, hoping to become king of England. But when challenged to pull out the sword once more, he was not able to. Only Arthur could.


Chretien de Troyes and the individual quest

The Arthurian literature reached its maturity in the 12th century with the work of Chretien de Troyes (c. 1135–1185). Chretien named Arthur’s court Camelot, which mainly served as a home base from which the knights set out on their adventures and to which they returned to tell their stories. Surprisingly, King Arthur played only a minor role in his stories. He is mainly presented as a passive observer in his court. In various stories, he warned his knights not to take on quests that were too dangerous, sometimes to the point of tears, yet he generally did not stop them from going.

Whereas earlier medieval stories were usually focused on the collective solidarity between knights and their loyalty to their king, Chretien was concerned with the personal exploration of individual knights. His knights were knights-errant, or wandering knights, who often did not fight for king, country, or church, but instead went out into the wilderness on their own accord in search of adventure. Instead of following some authorized path or guru, they were directed from within and had their own unique experiences from which they learned their own unique lessons, allowing them to develop a unique identity. This idea would become a defining characteristic of Western culture. Perhaps the most explicit example of this ideal was picked up by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in a 13th-century legend called La Queste del Saint Graal. At the start of the story, the Holy Grail flew into Arthur’s court, after which the Knights of the Round Table decided to pursue it. Since they believed chasing the grail in a group would be shameful, they decided to each set out on their own. After attending Mass, they left the castle and by themselves “entered into the forest, at one point and another, there where they saw it to be thickest, all in those places where they found no way or path.” [49] [42]

Chretien’s first epic is called Erec and Enide, which tells of the great knight Erec, who entered a tournament in which he won the hand of Enide. Clouded by his love for her, Erec began to neglect his knightly duties, which damaged his reputation. When Erec overheard Enide complain about his passivity, he decided to take her on a series of adventures to prove himself. During this journey, he managed to find a balance between love and knightly duties and between marriage and adventure.

That this lesson was uniquely his can be seen when we compare Erec to Chretien’s other heroes. Whereas Erec was able to successfully combine love and honor, this was not possible for Lancelot. His illegitimate love for King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, placed love and honor at odds. While Lancelot had to keep his love a secret, Gawain, in contrast, was an unashamed ladies’ man. Chretien made no effort to resolve these differences, suggesting each of his knights was entitled to his own character.



Chretien’s most famous story is The Knight of the Cart, also known as Lancelot. The story describes the adventures of the great knight Lancelot and his secret adulterous affair with Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur. Surprisingly, Chretien presented the adulterous affair in a positive light, despite it being both heretical and treasonous. With marriage often arranged for political and economic reasons, it was a common assumption in the Middle Ages that love was generally only to be found outside of marriage. Chretien even described the couple as being ennobled by their love:

There is no doubt that he who obeys Love’s command is uplifted, and all should be forgiven him. He who dares not follow Love’s command errs greatly. [50]

The story starts when a knight named Meleagant, “fully armed for battle,” entered Arthur’s court. He told Arthur he had imprisoned knights, ladies, and maidens from his land and household. He offered to release them, but only if he could take the queen with him to the forest together with one of Arthur’s knights who then had to save her. When Meleagant mocked Arthur, claiming no one in his court could defeat him, the king reacted passively, not knowing what to do. Eventually Sir Kay—who was known for his boastful and often inadequate behavior—accepted the challenge and got approval from Arthur to take Guinevere to the forest. After Kay left the court with the queen, Gawain publicly critiqued Arthur’s decision:

It surprises me that you have done such a foolish thing. We should hurry after her.

On his way to the forest, Gawain found Kay’s horse covered in blood. A mysterious unnamed knight, later revealed to be Lancelot, also marched onto the scene. Lancelot had exhausted his horse to such an extent in his pursuit of the queen that it had dropped dead. Gawain offered him one of his horses, which Lancelot also rode to death. Now on foot, yet still in full armor, he hurried after a cart driven by a dwarf. Instead of jumping on board immediately, the unnamed knight hesitated for two steps since he knew that cart was usually used to transport criminals to the gallows or the stake. Riding it would cause onlookers to believe he was a criminal, ruining his reputation. While his rational mind told him not to get in, he allowed himself to be guided by love, for which “disgrace did not matter,” and jumped on board. The news of this shameful event spread quickly, making him known as “the knight of the cart.”

Fig. 39 – Lancelot in the cart followed by Gawain and squires in Lancelot du Lac (MS M.806) (c. 1310) (Morgan Library)

In a town, Lancelot learned of two routes to Meleagant’s castle. One path required him to pass the Sword Bridge, a “sharp and gleaming sword as long as two lances,” while the other path included the Underwater Bridge, which was partly underwater. The unnamed knight took the first path, while Gawain chose the second.

On his way to the Sword Bridge, Lancelot had to overcome many challenges. He was challenged by various rude and overconfident knights, whom he defeated with ease. He also had to resist the temptations of beautiful maidens but managed to stay faithful to Guinevere. When crossing the bridge, he wounded his hand, knees, and feet. Once on the other side, he was challenged by Meleagant to a fight. At first, Meleagant had the upper hand, as Lancelot was suffering from his wounds. But then a maiden pointed Guinevere to the fight and asked her if she knew the knight fighting for her. She said, “The knight is called Lancelot of the Lake.” The maiden then yelled out his name and shouted, “Turn around and see whose attention is fixed on you!” When he saw Guinevere watching, the fight turned in his favor.

Lancelot’s strength and courage grew because love aided him.

Fig. 40 – Lancelot on the sword bridge and Meleagant’s castle (early 14th century) (Morgan Library)

When Meleagant was about to lose, he was restrained by his barons. He then insisted on resuming the fight the following year at Arthur’s court. He did allow Lancelot to visit Guinevere. When he met the queen in her cell, she was cold and distant toward him, claiming she was “not interested in seeing him.” She even decided to stay in the castle to wait for Gawain to save her. This confused Lancelot. Why did she respond this way after everything he had done for her? Was she also ashamed by his ride in the cart? He could find no fault in it:

Anyone who would hold [riding the cart] against me never truly knew Love.

He wanted to ask her why she was upset, but he was not confident enough to do so. Instead, he left in confusion.

Soon rumors spread that Lancelot had been killed by locals trying to help Meleagant. When Guinevere heard this, she saw the error of her ways:

“His death pains me. […] He came into this land on my account, and therefore I should be sorrowful.” [She] sinned against the one she knew had always been hers, and who would still be, were he alive.

Out of guilt, Guinevere stopped eating, which severely weakened her body. As a result, a rumor now spread about her death. When Lancelot heard about this, he tied a noose around his neck and attempted to take his life by letting his horse drag him forward. Luckily, his men found him just in time and told him Guinevere was still alive. When he came to visit her, the queen was “most eager for the arrival of her joy, her lover,” and she apologized for her earlier behavior. Lancelot was now also confident enough to ask what had happened. She told him she was not angry because he stepped into the cart, but because of his short hesitation to do so. A knight, she claimed, should be willing to suffer any humiliation to save his beloved without any doubts. In that short moment, he had considered his own honor before her welfare.

Wanting to see her in private, Lancelot returned to the castle at night and separated the bars of her cell to get in. In doing so, he accidentally cut his hand, bleeding on her bed, which he did not notice because of the darkness of the night. They slept together, and on his departure, he compared her bed to an altar, clearly a heretical idea:

On parting, Lancelot bowed low before the bedchamber, as if he were before an altar. Then in great anguish, he left.

When Meleagant discovered the blood, he accused the queen of having slept with the wounded Kay. Since this was untrue, Guinevere could deny the claim without lying.

Fig. 41 – Lancelot sleeping with Guinevere in Meleagant’s castle (early 14th century) (Morgan Library)

After the year had passed, Meleagant showed up for his fight, taking Guinevere with him. When Lancelot approached her, Guinevere came close to revealing their love:

She was so near him that she could scarcely restrain her body (and nearly didn’t!) from following her heart to him. […] If Reason had not subdued these foolish thoughts and this love-madness, everyone present would have understood her feeling.

When the fight started, Lancelot quickly cut off Meleagant’s head.


The Grail Quest

Chretien’s Perceval became the blueprint for the spiritual quest. The story begins with a boy named Perceval, who grew up with his mother. The boy’s father was of royal descent but had lost his wealth and was cast into exile. When two of his sons died in battle, he died from grief. Wanting to protect the only son she had left, the boy’s mother did everything she could to shield him from the same fate by hiding him in the forest and teaching him nothing about knighthood.

But one day, the boy encountered five knights who were passing through the forest. Seeing their shiny helmets, lances, and shields, the boy believed he had seen God. He flung himself to the ground and recited the prayers that his mother had taught him. They explained to him they were knights, knighted by King Arthur. Impressed by this, the boy hurried back home to tell his mother that he, too, wanted to become a knight. His mother tried to persuade him not to go, but the boy had made up his mind. She then decided to deliberately dress him in a fool’s garb made of coarse material, hoping he would quickly experience embarrassment and return home.


Fig. 42 – Perceval kneeling before the knights, thinking they are gods, from the Berner Parzival (1467) (Burgerbibliothek, Swiss)

Fig. 43 – Perceval in his fool’s garb defeating the Red Knight, from the same text.

His garb turned out not to be his only disadvantage. Perceval also was unaware of the etiquette of society, causing him to make many mistakes along his journey. For instance, he kissed a married woman and stole her ring, misinterpreting his mother’s advice about marriage.

On his way to Arthur’s court, he saw a knight in red armor carrying a golden cup, which he had stolen from Arthur. Once inside the castle, the naive Perceval demanded to be knighted in the red armor he had seen outside. Sir Kay sarcastically told him to challenge the knight and take his armor. Taking his joke seriously, the boy marched outside and, after a short joust, threw a javelin through the red knight’s eye and brain.

Continuing his journey in his new armor, he stumbled upon the castle of a man named Gornemant, who taught him how to conduct himself as a knight. Gornemant advised him to grant mercy in battle when a knight was no longer able to defend himself and “not to be too talkative.” These tips, he believed, would help Perceval avoid his many blunders. A little later, Perceval stumbled upon the castle of Gornemant’s niece Blancheflor, whose land was under attack and was greatly impoverished. Perceval defeated her enemy, and the two fell in love. Promising to return, he continued his journey.

He then took off into the wilderness:

He rode on, lance at the ready, as fully armed as on the day he came. He continued on his way without meeting a living soul, neither man nor woman, who could direct him on his travels. [50]

Then, in the middle of nowhere, he caught sight of a boat drifting with two men in it. “The man in front was fishing with a line, baiting his hook with a little fish.” Perceval asked for a place to stay and was given directions to their castle. At first, he couldn’t find the place:

He looked all around him and saw only sky and earth and said: “What have I come for? Deceit and trickery! May God bring shame today on him who sent me here. [...] Then he caught sight of the top of a tower. It was square in construction, of dark stone, with two turrets flanking it.

A drawbridge lowered, and inside he found a nobleman with graying hair seated upon a bed before a large fire. The man told him he couldn’t rise to greet him because of his wounds. Then a squire came in with a sword, which the king offered to Perceval. Another squire then entered, carrying a bleeding white lance, followed by two squires with a candelabra. This is what happened next:

A maiden accompanying the two young men was carrying a grail, with her two hands; she was beautiful, noble, and richly attired. After she had entered the hall carrying the grail the room was so brightly illuminated that the candles lost their brilliance like stars and the moon when the sun rises. […] The grail [...] was of fine pure gold. Set in the grail were precious stones of many kinds.

In Chretien’s version of the story, the grail is described as a serving dish with holy content that illuminated the room. In later versions, the grail would turn from a dish into a cup and the grail itself would become holy and not just its content.

Perceval observed the marvel but refrained from asking how it came about, remembering Gornemant’s advice to be reserved in his speech. We read:

The young knight watched them pass by but did not dare to ask who was served from the grail. […] The grail passed by completely uncovered before him. But he did not learn who was served from it, though he wanted to know; he said to himself that he would be sure to ask one of the court squires before he left there.

Image result for perceval ou le conte du graal

Fig. 44 – Perceval witnesses the mysterious grail procession (1330) (Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

After the procession, he was offered a great meal and a place to sleep. When he awoke, the castle was mysteriously empty. He looked everywhere, but no one could be found. He then decided to look for them outside “to see whether any of them would explain to him why the lance bled and tell him where the grail was carried.” As he crossed the drawbridge, it lifted by itself, barely allowing him to reach the other side. When he jelled out who had raised the bridge, no one answered.

Riding off into the forest, far from civilization, he accidentally bumped into a mysterious maiden, whom he later discovered to be his first cousin. She was lamenting beneath an oak tree, holding in her arms her dead lover who had died in battle. She was surprised to see anyone in this desolate area:

They say that one could ride for twenty-five leagues in the direction from which you’re coming without finding a good, honest, and proper lodging place. Yet your horse’s belly is so full and his coat so shining that he couldn’t appear more satisfied or his coat smoother had he been washed and combed and given a bed of hay and oats. And it appears to me that you yourself have had a comfortable and restful night.

In a later version of the story called Parzival by the German writer Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1179–1220), the maiden, here called Sigune, tells him:


Then she asked whence he had come, and he told her of the castle. “It is a mile or so from here,” he said. “Do not lie to me,” she answered. “For thirty miles round about, no hand has touched here either tree or stone, save for a single rich castle that many seek but none has found. For he who seeks will not find it.” [42]

When the maiden discovered Perceval had found the magical Grail Castle, she told him about the Fisher King:

He was wounded and maimed in the course of a battle so that he can no longer manage on his own, for he was struck by a javelin through both thighs and is still in so much pain that he cannot ride a horse. Whenever he wants to relax or go out to enjoy himself, he has himself put in a boat and goes fishing with a hook.

In Wolfram’s version, we are told that the Fisher King is called Anfortas (meaning “weakness”). We read that the king suffered because he had broken the rules. As a young knight, he had gone questing not for God, but for the love of a lady, using the battle cry “Amor.” As punishment, he had been pierced by a poisoned spear through his testicles. Then, through God’s help, he had been brought to the grail, which kept him alive.

The maiden then told Perceval two pieces of bad news. Firstly, his mother had died of grief from his departure. Secondly, he had made a grave mistake by failing to ask the king about the lance and the grail. If he had done so, he would have lifted a curse that was plaguing both the king and his land:

Perceval the wretched! Ah, unlucky Perceval, how unfortunate you were when you failed to ask all this, because you would have brought great aid to the good king who is maimed. He would have totally regained the use of his limbs and ruled his lands and much good would have come of it! [50]

Because of his negligence, the maiden cursed his name, but Perceval could not understand what he had done wrong. Gornemant’s advice to restrain his speech had been useful for the world of man, the world of the Round Table, but it was not sufficient for the deeper spiritual world of Sigune and the Grail Castle.

Not knowing what to do next, Perceval headed back to Arthur’s court. Not long after, an ugly, deformed damsel entered on a mule. She, too, cursed Perceval in the hardest terms and told him about the consequences of his mistake:

And do you know the consequence of the king not ruling and not being healed of his wounds? Ladies will lose their husbands, lands will be laid waste, and maidens will remain helpless as orphans; many a knight will die. All these troubles will occur because of you.

This motif came from Celtic mythology, where it was believed that the health of the king was directly connected to the health of his land. As the king had sinned, he had cursed the land, turning it into a barren wasteland.

In response to the accusations, Perceval swore an oath to continue questing no matter the hardships “until he had learned who was served from the grail and had found the bleeding lance and been told the true reasons why it bled.” Over the next five years, he wandered around the land, performing deeds of chivalry and going on unusual adventures. After years without success, he “no longer remembered God.” When meeting a holy hermit, he was told that he had sinned by letting his mother die of grief and that on account of this sin, he did not ask about the lance or the grail. He was then told that both the hermit and Fisher King were Perceval’s uncles on his mother’s side. The hermit also revealed that the grail kept the father of the Fisher King alive, whom Wolfram called Titurel. Chretien tells about this mysterious figure:

And do not imagine he is served pike or lamprey or salmon. A single host that is brought to him in that grail sustains and brings comfort to that holy man—such is the holiness of the grail! And he is so holy that his life is sustained by nothing more than the host that comes in the grail. He has lived for twelve years like this, without ever leaving the room into which you saw the grail enter.

Unfortunately, Chretien’s story then breaks off mid-sentence. A later version by Robert de Boron (13th century) continues the story. In Robert’s version, Perceval confessed his sins to the hermit, and then

he encountered Merlin, who—deeming him ready—directed him back to the Grail Castle. Witnessing the procession once more, Perceval now asked the question, after which the Fisher King departed from the world and left Perceval behind as the Keeper of the Grail.

Robert also added new Christian elements to the story by equating the grail with the Holy Grail, which he identified with the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper and the cup used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Christ’s blood when he was on the cross. According to Robert, Joseph had brought the Grail to England. The bleeding lance became associated with the lance used by the Roman guard to poke Jesus’s side to see if he had died.

In Wolfram’s version, written in the first quarter of the 13th century, the grail became a stone with the magical power to keep its owner alive and it also provided food and drinks to the castle’s staff (a Celtic motif). According to Wolfram, this stone was brought down from heaven by angels. In his version, after meeting the hermit in the forest and confessing his sins, Parzival encountered and fought an unknown knight. When Parzival broke his sword, his adversary granted him mercy. He then learned that the knight was his half-brother on his father’s side, Feirifiz, whose mother was a black Moorish queen. Back at Arthur’s court, the ugly damsel appeared before the two brothers, now wearing the Grail emblem on her garment. She knelt before Parzival and told him he had been called to become Grail King. Taking his Muslim brother as his companion, he entered the Grail Castle. At first, Feirifiz could not see the Grail, but he could after he was baptized. Parzival then asked the question that freed Anfortas from his suffering (“Uncle, what ails thee? [Oeheim, waz wirret dier?]”), after which he became Grail King and was joined by his wife and sons.

La Queste del Saint Graal (c. 1225) is a completely different version of the story. Here we see an even stronger shift toward the religious, with extra emphasis on the spiritual teachings of hermits and without the damsels in distress. In this version, both Lancelot and Gawain fail, while the ideal Christian knight Sir Galahad succeeds. Galahad encountered the grail in the Middle East and was able to see the “marvel of all marvels therein.” Afterward, both Galahad and the grail ascended to heaven.


Don Quixote

During the Late Renaissance, the time of knightly adventures came to an end. As interest in reason and science grew, the magical world of the Middle Ages became impossible to sustain. A work that best captures this paradigm shift is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616). Don Quixote was a traditional medieval knight, riding errant on his horse with his companion Sancho. His aim, in line with chivalric values, was to benefit the public and increase his honor. The problem, however, was that Don Quixote was living in the Late Renaissance.

At some point in the story, Don Quixote encountered a line of some thirty or forty windmills. With his mind still confused by medieval magic, he believed them to be giants. We read:

“Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty, we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.” “What giants?” asked Sancho Panza. “The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.” “Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.” “Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventures.” [42]

Ignoring Sancho’s warnings, Don Quixote charged at the giants, running his lance into the sail. The mechanical motion of the mill then hurled both Don Quixote and his horse into the air and splintered his lance. Afterward, Don Quixote concluded:

I am sure it was that necromancer Freston who transformed these giants into mills, to deprive me of the honor of this victory. [42]

Don Quixote’s superstitions were inevitably crushed by the hard truth of empirical reality. The age of magic was over.