Gawain's Visit to the Grail Castle

In many of the Grail romances, the hero who visits the Grail castle is called Perceval, Parzival or something similar. In other romances, the hero is called Gawain; and in some, both Gawain and Perceval separately visit the Grail castle. In the Prose Lancelot, from which the following extract has been taken, there are five visits to the Grail castle, successively by Gawain (see below), Lancelot (who gets to know the Grail King's daughter quite well), Bors (twice) and finally by Lancelot again, who is cured of his insanity by the Grail. In this version of the Grail castle, there is no procession with a bleeding lance, only the Grail maiden bearing the mysterious vessel. J.L. Weston drew attention to the curious fact that the hall is filled with perfume only in versions where Gawain is the Quester; in this example there are many censers burning incense.

open quotes ... Sir Gawain beheld and saw a white dove, which bore in its beak a censer of the richest gold. As it soon as it came there, the hall was filled with the sweetest odours that heart of man could conceive, or tongue of man tell. All that were there became mute and spoke never a word more but kneeled down as soon as they beheld the dove. It entered a chamber and at once the folk in the hall ran and set the tables and the cloths on the dais; and they sat them down, the one and the other, and never a man of them spoke a word. Sir Gawain marvelled greatly at this adventure but he sat him down with the others, and beheld and saw how they were all in prayers and orisons. Then there came forth from the chamber where the dove had entered a damsel, the fairest he had beheld any day of his life. Her hair was cunningly plaited and bound,and her face was fair to look upon. She was beautiful with all the beauty that pertaineth unto a woman, none fairer was ever seen on earth. She came forth from the chamber bearing in her hands the richest vessel that might be seen by the eye of mortal man. It was made in the semblence of a chalice and she held it on high above her head, so that all those who were there saw it and bowed. Sir Gawain looked on the vessel and esteemed it highly in his heart, yet knew not of what it was wrought; for it was not of wood nor of any manner of metal; nor was it in any wise of stone, nor of horn, nor of bone, and therefore was he sore abashed. Then he looked on the maiden and marvelled more at her beauty than at the wonder of the vessel, for he had never seen a damsel with whom she might be compared; and he mused so fixedly upon her that he had no thought for aught beside. But as the damsel passed before the knights, the holy vessel in her hand, all kneeled before it; and forthwith were the tables replenished with the choicest meats in the world, and the hall filled with the sweetest odours. When the damsel had passed the dais once, she returned into the chamber whence she came, and Sir Gawain followed her with his eyes as long as he might; and when he saw her no more, he looked on the table before him and saw naught that he might eat, for it was void and bare; yet there was none other but had great plenty, yea, a surfeit of viands, before him. When he saw this he was sore abashed, and knew not what he might say or do, since he deemed well that he had in some point transgressed, and for that transgression was his meat lacking to him. So he withheld him from asking until the tables were taken away. But then all gat them forth from the palace, so that Sir Gawain wist not what had become of them and knew naught but that he was left alone; and when he himself would have gone forth into the courtyard below, he might no longer do so, for all the doors were fast shut. When he saw this, he leaned him against one of the windows of the hall and fell into deep thought. Then there came forth from the chamber a dwarf, bearing a rod in his hand, and when he saw Sir Gawain, he cried upon him: 'What is this evil knight, for by ill chance are ye leaning at our windows? Flee ye from hence, here may ye not remain, for in you is much vileness. Go, get ye to rest in one of these chambers that none behold you there!' close quotes

Gawain on the Perilous Bed, on an ivory mirror-case, Paris, 14th century. Attribution: I, Sailko. Right: Gawain on the Perilous Bed, on an ivory mirror-case, Paris, 14th century. Attribution: I, Sailko.

Gawain is not able to escape the castle before he has suffered several trials and adventures, for it seems that this Grail castle is also the Castle of Wonders, with all of the usual trick furniture, hidden weapons, fiery dragons, lamenting maidens and the whole apparatus usually found in Chastel Merveilleus. He is injured in the shoulder by a lance that comes out of nowhere; despite the loss of much blood he resolves to stay in the castle. After fighting a large and heavily armed knight, Gawain falls unconscious, only to be woken by celestial music.

open quotes Then Sir Gawain saw come forth from the chamber the damsel who the evening before had borne the holy vessel before the table. Before her came two tapers and two censers. When she came even to the middle of the hall, she set the holy vessel before her on a table of silver. Sir Gawain beheld all around censers to the number of ten, which ceased not to give forth perfume. All the voices began to sing together more sweetly than the heart of man might think or mouth speak. All said with one voice, 'Blessed be the Father of Heaven'. When the song had endured a long time, the damsel took the holy vessel and bore it into the chamber whence she had come, and then were the voices silent as if they had departed hence, and all the windows of the hall opened and closed again, and the hall grew dark so that Sir Gawain saw naught but of this he was well aware that he felt hale and whole as if naught ailed him, nor might he fell aught of the wound in his shoulder, for it was right well healed... close quotes

Then Gawain is surrounded by many people, who drag him from the hall and tie him to a cart. He falls asleep. In the morning he is paraded through the streets and pelted with dung and old shoes, before he is driven out of the town.

These translations from the Prose Lancelot are by Jessie L. Weston; Sir Gawain at the Grail Castle, Arthurian Romances vol.6, Nutt, London, 1903.