The Lancelot-Grail Story: Summary of the Branches

by Alison Stones


images reproduced by permission

The Estoire del Saint Graal relates the early history of the Holy Grail, copied out for us by the priest-narrator from a book given him by Christ.  In this story, the Grail is the vessel ('escuele', a bowl) used by Christ at the Last Supper, which Joseph of Arimathea takes from the Upper Room and uses to collect Christ's blood at the Entombment (and not at the Crucifixion, as so often shown in the illustrations).  Christ's death is avenged by Emperor Vespasian who casts off the high priest Caiphas in a boat.  Thereafter follow many adventures and wanderings, in which Joseph and his son Josephé, who becomes the first Christian bishop, achieve many conversions, notably that of King Evalach who takes the baptismal name of Mordrain.  With his brother-in-law Nascien (known as Seraphe until his conversion), Mordrain undergoes many trials in battle, at sea, and on islands, encountering enchanted boats manned in turn by Christ and the devil.  Among these boats is Solomon's ship, containing David's crown, Solomon's sword (later used by King Laban who is punished for using it), and three spindles made from wood cut from the tree grown from the apple-branch taken from Paradise by Eve, which miraculously changed colour: from green to white to red.  Solomon's ship and its contents reappear in branch 4, the Queste del saint Graal, where the its meaning and that of its contents is explained again.  Queen Sarracinte, Mordrain's wife, and Duchess Flegentine, Nascien's wife, launch searches for their husbands and for their son and nephew Celidoine, and many adventures are recounted, including (in Add.) the story of Hippocrates and the making of tombs for Mordrain's men who die in their search for him (one of these tombs, in Add. 10292, f. 55v, has the date 26 February 1316 carved on it; this is 1317 by our reckoning since 16 February 1316 fell before Easter when the new year began).  Bishop Josephé makes an ark to house the Grail, in the Grail Chapel; he is vested in priestly robes whose symbolic meanings are explained, and he celebrates a Grail mass in which Christ assists in distributing the sacrament to the faithful.  Only the pure may approach the Grail, and those who transgress are punished, even Josephé himself; but it is also an instrument of healing and nourishment.  The Grail is borne to England by Josephé's followers, and he transports the faithful across the sea on the hem of his alb.  More conversions, punishments, burnings, woundings and healings follow, involving lances, miraculous swords, and the Perilous Seat at the Grail Table (modelled on the Table of the Last Supper, and in turn the model for King Arthur's Round Table, made for Arthur's father King Uther Pendragon by Merlin), before the deaths of Joseph and Josephé and the transmission of the Grail to Alain le Gros, son of Bron.  In Branch 3, Lancelot, the Grail appears again on occasion, in anticipation of branch 4, the Queste del Saint Graal, where three of Arthur's knights will achieve the quest for it.  The Estoire ends with the death of King Lancelot, his severed head thrown into a fountain of boiling water, and his body laid in a tomb that bleeds and is guarded by lions.  In branch 3, the Lancelot, the head and body will be discovered by King Lancelot's grandson, Lancelot of the Lake, who will rescue the head and reunite it with the body, learning his own true identity thereby.


The Estoire branch of the Lancelot-Grail romance is based on a verse text composed c. 1200 by an author who names himself Robert de Boron.  Only one copy of Robert's verse version survives (Paris, BNF fr. 20047, early 13th c., unillustrated).  The author or authors of a prose version adapted Robert's verse text sometime in the first quarter of the 13th century, and it was again adapted, this time to fit at the beginning of the five-branch prose cycle and to anticipate elements of the story that would be taken up in subsequent branches, especially in the Queste del Saint Graal.  The terminus ante quem (date by which) for the composition of the prose Estoire is determined by its presence, in company with Merlin and the first part of Lancelot, in Rennes, BM 255, which is datable c. 1220 or early in the 1230s and was made in royal circles, most likely in Paris.  By then, three branches of the cycle had emerged and so Estoire must have been composed earlier, and the other two branches earlier still if they indeed precede Estoire in date of composition.



The story of Merlin the Enchanter and Prophet, adapted from Robert de Boron's verse Merlin, a sequel to his verse Estoire that survives incomplete in the same single copy (Paris, BNF fr. 20047).  Robert in turn drew upon earlier sources in Latin and Anglo-Norman French: Geoffrey of Monmouth's Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), composed in Latin c. 1130 and incorporated into his Historia regum britanniae c. 1138; and Wace's Roman de Brut, also composed in the 1130s, which contains the first mention of King Arthur's Round Table.  Both Geoffrey and Wace drew upon the Britannici sermonis liber vetustissimus, attributed to archdeacon Walter of Oxford. 


In the Lancelot-Grail romance, Merlin is a man begotten by the devil on an unsuspecting virgin who confesses, and thus endows her son Merlin with prophetic gifts but not with the evil powers of his father.  Merlin is instrumental in the rise to power of King Uther Pendragon and in the selection Arthur, Uther Pendragon's son by the unsuspecting Igerne, wife of the Duke of Tintagel, as King of Britain.  Arthur's claim to the throne is marked by his success in drawing a sword from an anvil, a motif that reappears, with variants, in Branch 4, the Queste when Galaad draws a sword from a stone and proves thereby his right to sit in the Perilous Seat at the Round Table.  The first part of the Merlin ends with Arthur's coronation as King of Britain.  Many adventures follow, in a section modern editors call Suite Vulgate du Merlin, not to be confused with another version called Suite de Merlin which falls outside the Lancelot-Grail romance version. 


Arthur triumphs in battle.  He commits incest with one of his half-sisters, engendering a son, Mordred, who will be one of the instruments of Arthur's eventual downfall (in Branch 5, Mort Artu).  Merlin leads him to the Lady of the Lake who presents him with another sword, Excalibur, whose scabbard will protect him.  Arthur demonstrates great prowess in battle against the Saxons and the Romans and in other peculiar combats with dragons, with the giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, and with the giant cat of Lausanne.  He marries Guinevere, daughter of King Leodegan, who had begotten another daughter, illegitimate, also called Guinevere.  The False Guinevere makes an appearance in the Lancelot branch and attempts to usurp the place of Queen Guinevere as Arthur's wife.  Arthur's exploits in the Merlin branch include Merlin's prophecies and the adventures he relates to his master, Blaise, who writes them down.



The story of Lancelot of the Lake, son of King Ban of Benoic and Queen Elaine, and grandson of King Lancelot (whose death is related at the end of Estoire).  Lancelot of the Lake is brought up at his father's death by the Lady of the Lake until he is ready to be made a knight and take his place at King Arthur's Round Table, falling in love with Queen Guinevere.  He is endowed, thanks to his love for Guinevere, with supreme prowess, becoming the best knight in the world, and saves Arthur's kingdom many times.  He must choose between his love for Guinevere and that of his best friend King Galehot, who is responsible for arranging the consummation of the affair with Guinevere but who wants Lancelot to take over his kingdom of Sorelois.  For Guinevere, Lancelot performs great feats like crossing the Sword Bridge, triumphing in tournament and battle, but he is also prepared to ride ignominiously in a cart for her sake; and he and Galehot defend her against the accusations of the False Guinevere and Arthur's unjust repudiation of her.  Lancelot suffers madness when he thinks he has been rejected by Guinevere.  He is imprisoned by Arthur's sister, Morgan, unbeknownst to the other knights, who engage in many adventures in their search for him.  Thinking Lancelot is dead, Galehot dies of grief.  Through deception, Lancelot sleeps with the Helizabel, the Grail maiden, daughter of King Pelles, the Grail King, and engenders Galaad, who will triumph in the Grail Quest and displace his father as the best knight in the world.  While he is Morgan's prisoner, Lancelot paints pictures of the affair with Guinevere; these will later (in the Mort Artu) be shown to King Arthur by Morgan, who only then will realize that the rumours he heard from his knights are true.  Interlaced with Lancelot's adventures are the deeds and exploits of many other knights: Gauvain, Yvain, Hector, Lionel, Boort and numerous other members of Arthur's Round Table. 


The Lancelot branch is very long.  Most modern editors have seen fit to divide it into four or more sub-sections, none of which are systematically used in the medieval manuscript tradition, and they are certainly not consistently named in the manuscripts.  Lancelot 1 begins En la marche de Gaulle and relates the infancy of Lancelot up to his taking his place at the Round Table, falling in love with Queen Guinevere, and exchanging the First Kiss with her; Lancelot 2 recounts the Journey of Lancelot and Galehot to Galehot's kingdom of Sorelois, the False Guinevere episode and the adventures of the knights in search of Lancelot who has been captured and imprisoned by Arthur's sister, Morgan.  Galehot, thinking Lancelot is dead, himself dies of grief at the end of this section, unbeknownst to Lancelot.  Lancelot 3, Charette, relates the sequence where Lancelot rides ignominiously in a cart for love of Guinevere, an action repeated later by his friends Gawain and Boort.  A long sequel, the Suite de la Charette, follows.  Lancelot 4, Agravain, opens with an adventure of Gawain's brother, Agravain, and ends with a sequence in which Lancelot, Gauvain, and Boort each experience the presence of the Grail at the Grail Castle, Corbenic, anticipating what will follow in Branch 4, Queste del saint Graal..  Many knightly adventures are related in between, including the story of the Demoiselle d'Escalot who falls in love with Lancelot and, later, dies of unrequited love, her body washed up at Arthur's court in its rudderless and sailless boat in the Mort Artu.  Lancelot achieves numerous adventures including raising the lid of a tomb and releasing a dragon which he slays.  This earns him the welcome of King Pelles, the Grail King, with whose daughter he is tricked into sleeping and engendering Galaad.  Further adventures of Lancelot follow, including the breaking of the spell of the Magic Carole, and winning against the magic chess-board.  Emprisoned again by Morgan, he paints his romance with Guinevere on the walls of his prison, as noted above.  He finds the head of his grandfather, King Lancelot (decapitated at the end of Estoire), and removes it from the boiling fountain, reattaching it to the body in the bleeding tomb guarded by lions.  He is tricked a second time into sleeping with King Pelles' daughter and goes mad when he discovers the deception.  The adventures of the other knights: Gauvain, Yvain, Lionel, Boort, Hector, are interlaced with those of Lancelot.


Queste del saint Graal

Written as an allegory, this branch opens with the knighting of Galaad, son of Lancelot and King Pelles' daughter, who will succeed his father as the best knight in the world and achieve the Grail Quest with Perceval and Boort. Galaad, like Arthur in the Merlin branch, demonstrates his worthiness by drawing a sword from a stone, and he is able to sit in the Perilous Seat at the Round Table, on which unworthy knights came to destruction, in the Estoire and the Lancelot, but which is reserved for him.  Lancelot is unable to succeed in the Quest for the Holy Grail because he is impure.  Many adventures follow, including a sequence relating the adventures of Perceval's sister, Perceval, Boort, and Galaad, in Solomon's enchanted ship with its miraculous spindles, those made of the three trees grown from the shoot taken by Eve from the Tree of Life in Paradise, as described in Estoire, and the bier, crown, and sword.  Their meaning is explained in a letter they find in a purse in the boat.  Perceval's sister replaces the tattered straps (estranges renges) of the scabbard with her golden hair.  She dies a martyr's death by sacrificing her own blood to cure a leper maiden, and her body, cast off in a rudderless and sailles boat, is found by Lancelot who reads the explanatory letter relating her fate.  After seeing the mysteries of the Grail, Galaad and Perceval die, the Grail returns to heaven, and Boort goes back to Arthur's court to relate what happened in the Queste.  The name of an author, Walter Map, is often mentioned at the end of the Queste.


Mort Artu

King Henry asks Walter Map to complete the story he began; and King Arthur's scribes write down the adventures of the Queste, related to Arthur by Boort.  Arthur's knights warn him that he has been betrayed by Lancelot, but Arthur will believe rumours about the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere only when he sees paintings of it that Lancelot painted on the walls of the castle of Arthur's sister Morgan, while she held him prisoner in the Lancelot branch of the story.  Treacherous knights accuse Guinevere of treason for unwittingly handing a poisoned apple to one of the knights and causing his death.  She is to be burnt at the stake, but is rescued by Lancelot.  Wars against the Saxons and Romans follow, in which Lancelot saves Arthur's kingdom.  In the end Arthur is betrayed by his illegitimate son Mordred (whose conception is related in the Merlin) and both mortally wound each other in battle, an event predicted by Arthur's nephew Gauvain.  Gauvain's life is spared by Lancelot who defeats him, but he dies when the same wounds are opened again during the battle against the Romans; Arthur laments Gauvain's death and his own misfortunes, in an encounter with Fortuna herself.  Arthur's sword Excalibur is given back to the Lake, and Arthur dies.  Lancelot and Guinevere also die, and Boort alone is left to rule what remains of Arthur's kingdom.