|My ancient but well-loved copy|
The Quest is part of the giant set of stories known as the prose Lancelot, or Lancelot-Grail cycle. It was written in Old French, and apparently--as far as anyone can figure out--the pieces were written by different people working together. The Quest claims to be by one Walter Map, an archdeacon, but almost certainly is not. It was probably written by a clerk--someone religiously trained but attached to a court. It's a spiritual fable, really; as full of adventures and jousting as any Arthurian tale, but with a completely different focus. The story of the Holy Grail takes the chivalric ideal and tears it to bits, showing it to be completely inadequate. Every custom of the chivalric tale is turned on its head.
In this ultimate quest, all the knights set off separately to search for the Holy Grail; as in any knightly venture, they trust to chance to send them adventure. We follow several characters: Gawain, Lancelot, Percival, Bors, and of course Galahad wander around and meet with strange events.
Well, not Gawain. This knight, the perfect example of earthly chivalry and prowess, cannot seem to meet with any adventure at all, and neither can any other knights he runs into. All that ever happens to him is to meet monks and hermits, all of whom tell him that he must confess and repent of his sins in order to truly join the Quest. Alas, Gawain always makes excuses for why he can't be shriven just now,* and hurries off to find the adventures that never come. He only ever manages to fight with other (unrecognized) knights and kill his own friends. In Gawain we find that perfect earthly knighthood is not good enough.
Lancelot has his problems too. He is so weighted down with sin--much more so than Gawain in fact--that he cannot join the Quest either. Lancelot does want to repent, and he spends much of his time learning to shed his old ways and embrace new ones. He is rewarded with marvelous visions and time with his son Galahad, and he is allowed to almost see the Grail. Sadly, despite his good intentions, we all know that he's going to go back to court and fall into his old ways, so there is a shadow over his adventures.
Percival is very amusing to read about. He is innocence personified, so much so that he falls for every obvious trap set for him, and is only rescued at the last second. Percival wanders alone and has many adventures, but he never does learn to be wary.
Bors is more of a thinker. He is careful, and he knows much more. He is also given an awful trial; he has to make a choice between conflicting duties and though he wins through, he also pays a terrible price.
Galahad is the only character who begins the story already prepared for the Grail. He wanders (much of which we do not see) and accomplishes much, but you do kind of get the feeling that he's waiting for everyone else to get ready to join him on the final piece of the Quest. Still, he's not utterly boring and he does have some moments of difficulty.
I think here is where we see the Arthurian landscape at its most characteristic. It's all wilderness, or castles, or hermits; there are no cities or ordinary people, only the characters who have some part to play. (Although there is one lady hermit who has a fully staffed manor house!)
The landscape may be characteristic, but little else is. Every knightly habit gets overthrown. In any other adventure, a knight who finds a shield or sword or sign with some warning on it would promptly take his chance and have some sort of victory, but here, knightly pride inevitably leads to trouble. Many behaviors that usually lead to glory fall flat in this story; only spiritual virtues will get these knights on the road to adventure. Many of the adventures are allegorical in nature, and the author takes that characteristic medieval delight in expounding the meanings of images, events, and visions.
One of the most fun things about the Grail quest is the wonderful and somewhat deranged history and genealogy scattered throughout the story. There is a magical ship, set off by King Solomon to wait for his last descendant to come and use it, with a fantastic sword and a doorway made of wood originally grown by Adam and Eve. We learn some of the 'history' behind the legends of the Maimed King and the Fisher King and the Waste Land (the author must have gone through fantastic contortions to get it in the shape he wanted). We learn Galahad's family history--he is a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea's brother-in-law Nascien--and there are all sorts of wonderful visions and explanations of all of it. Fantastic stuff. **
I haven't even told you yet about Percival's sister, who is sort of a female version of Galahad. She is mysterious; she travels with the three final companions in a sisterly fashion, makes prophecies, always knows what's going on (like Galahad), and eventually becomes a female type of Christ, giving up her life so that a sinful woman may literally wash in her blood and be saved along with all her people. The author also sets up knightly couples to match Biblical couples, and Percival's sister even purifies the concept of courtly love.
I just love this story. It is so weird and great. Just wonderful.
* I remember studying this in college, and an outspoken, confident classmate said she really liked Gawain here, since "he knows his limitations." I'm not sure what she thought was going on.
**Just as I was reading all this, an acquaintance posted on Facebook that he had found some genealogy for his family that showed he is a descendant of Lancelot's line. He had a list that was quite similar to the one here. I didn't quite have the heart to disillusion him.