In Lord Tennyson's "The Holy Grail," King Arthur seems to contradict himself by both praising and reprimanding his knights for seeking the Holy Grail vision after they return from their quest.

[...] And spake I not too truly, O my knights?
Was I too dark a prophet when I said
To those who went upon the Holy Quest,
That most of them would follow wandering fires,
Lost in the quagmire? — lost to me and gone,
And left me gazing at a barren board,
And a lean Order — scarce returned a tithe —
And out of those to whom the vision came
My greatest hardly will believe he saw;
Another hath beheld it afar off,
And leaving human wrongs to right themselves,
Cares but to pass into the silent life.
And one hath had the vision face to face,
And now his chair desires him here in vain,
However they may crown him otherwhere.

"And some among you held, that if the King
Had seen the sight he would have sworn the vow:
Not easily, seeing that the King must guard
That which he rules, and is but as the hind
To whom a space of land is given to plow.
Who may not wander from the allotted field
Before his work be done; but, being done,
Let visions of the night or of the day
Come, as they will; and many a time they come,
Until this earth he walks on seems not earth,
This light that strikes his eyeball is not light,
This air that smites his forehead is not air
But vision — yea, his very hand and foot —
In moments when he feels he cannot die,
And knows himself no vision to himself,
Nor the high God a vision, nor that One
Who rose again: ye have seen what ye have seen."

At the start of this passage, the King applauds those who had succeeded. Soon afterwards, the King's words become self-gratifying and condescending. He boasts about his fulfilled prediction that the quest would mainly be a waste of time. However, this apparently hypocritical attitude may simply indicate his belief that the holy power only sheds light on a chosen few. The rest of the knights should not have pretended they were capable of receiving the vision. They only ended up "falling wandering fires" and becoming "lost in the quagmire" — in other words, they were actually putting off responsibility when claiming to partake in a holy quest.

A potential inconsistency again presents itself when King Arthur points out that it is unclear what good happened anyway to "those to whom the vision came." This seems odd, as he "blessed" the successful knights just moments before. However, looking back to the wording of his praise — "but if indeed there came a sign from heaven" — one notes that "if" renders his statement doubtful. Perhaps King Arthur questions the existence of the grail vision, and his speech is sarcastic. Or, fearful of appearing sacrilegious, maybe the king's speech is an attempt to disguise his disbelief. After all, he did not take the vow. As an excuse, King Arthur claims he would never foolish enough to pretend he were capable of receiving a holy vision when he knew he could not. For additional support, he describes his selfless responsibility to his kingdom which prevented him from participating in the quest. The king's last lines make his statements about the vision even more ambiguous. He declares that holy visions are all well and fine, yet they should only be sought when one's duties have been completed. "Ye have seen what ye have seen," he concludes — no one will argue that you did not receive your vision, yet whatever that vision may be, it falls second in importance to one's responsibilities.

Questions

1. Does King Arthur succeed in defending his decision not to partake in the vow while refraining from appearing blasphemous?

2. Why is King Arthur's position unclear — does Tennyson want to avoid making a bold statement for or against religion?

3. Sir Percivale initially fails to mention his encounter with the wealthy princess. For this reason, can one trust him to honestly present King Arthur's speech? Can Percivale's lack of accuracy account for the King's inconsistent attitude?

4. "So spake the King: I knew not all he meant" is Percivale's final line. How does this phrase play on the purpose (or lack of purpose) of both the quest and of the poem?

5. King Arthur suggests that many knights used the quest as an excuse to neglect duty and expresses a need to prioritize duty before seeking visions. Does one always have to choose between reason and religion? How might this relate to giving political power to nonreligious figures?


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Last modified 4 February 2009