The Acts of Sir Galahad

By Ruth Anne Amsden (Rated G)

Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthurian legend “The Miracle of Sir Galahad” is a text that both sings with beauty and puzzles with the mysticism and story structure. The legend of the once and future King is woven together with many liturgical elements, Christian beliefs, and spiritual practices, but the narrative style is difficult for modern readers to follow. Malory took the rich traditions of Arthurian legend and made them his own, exploring themes that were relevant to the historical period in which he lived. The War of the Roses and the decline of the chivalric order profoundly influenced the themes he chose to treat in Morte D’Arthur. But I will argue that Malory drew upon a third source of inspiration for his Arthurian legend, and that is the book of the Acts of the Apostles, attributed to Luke, the beloved physician. By drawing upon Biblical writings for inspiration as well as legend, Malory created a work of Biblical fan fiction. I will begin with a brief look at the role that fan fiction plays in our culture, and then I will trace the many Biblical allusions found throughout the text. Finally, I will consider the cultural effect of the Biblical Arthurian legends.

Fan fiction, for all its many flaws and its cultural stigma, is part of participatory culture (see Henry Jenkins’ book, Textual Poachers, for an academic examination of the role of fan fiction in culture). In other words, fan fiction gives us a space to actively participate in the great stories we love, whether those be the great stories of the Bible and Shakespeare, or the more modern narratives of The Lord of the Rings or Star Trek. Story and narrative provide us a framework by which we can understand our own lives. When we read or create fan fiction, we can add our own perspectives and wish fulfillment to the stories, and perhaps, we can find something to aspire to. While there is certainly a stigma around fan fiction as a result of the explicit material for which it is famous, fanfiction is so much more than smut (or lemons, as we say). It is a way to give and to receive more of the stories we love, and to be a part of that world. And this is precisely what “The Miracle of Galahad” seeks to do: to provide a way for the medieval readers and writers to participate in and to aspire to the Acts of the Apostles.

    Before I begin to trace the Biblical influences in Malory’s work, I must first acknowledge that I am working with a modern translation of Malory’s Middle English, and the 1611 King James Bible. This translation of the Bible, of course, was made centuries after Malory’s text was written.

    David Damrosch and Kevin Dettmar, general editors, comment thus upon Malory’s writing style: “While he occasionally writes a complex, reflective sentence, Malory’s prose is typically composed of a simple, idiomatic narrative statements” (278). But the sentence structures, narrative patterns, and word choices are also a good imitation of those of the Acts of the Apostles.

    The Acts, the fifth book of the New Testament, is an account of the doings of the disciples of Christ after His Ascension. However, it is not a straightforward account of their day-to-day travels and activities; the narrative is interspersed with miracles they performed, with sermons that they preached, with visions and spiritual experiences they had, and with conversations they shared. “The Miracle of Galahad” unfolds in the same narrative patterns.

    By the time the Aurthurian legends were written, the original twelve Apostles of Christ, and St. Paul, were long dead. Certain word choices in the text indicate that Galahad may have been written as a person in the same tradition as St. Paul. Medieval culture no longer had living apostles to emulate, but they did have the knights and the courtly culture, and Galahad may have been written to make St. Paul’s life more accessible for a knight to aspire unto. The King refers to Galahad as “the servant of Jesus Christ” (281), a title often applied to the Apostles. Galahad was depicted as someone able to perform miracles of healing by the anointing and laying on of hands (284) just as the Apostles did. Galahad was depicted as a pure virgin who knew not a woman (281) in imitation of St. Paul who yearned in 1 Corinthians, “I wish that all men were [celibate] as I am.” Galahad was depicted as one who saw visions of the risen Christ (284), just as St. Paul described himself as “such a one caught up to the third heaven.” Galahad went on many voyages and had many perilous adventures, just as St. Paul did.

    But the most striking similarity to St. Paul was the story in which Christ revealed Himself to Galahad through the Holy Sacrament of Communion. St. Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 11 that he received a vision of the Lord of the night of the Last Supper, and the institution of the breaking of bread and sharing of wine. In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the holy elements are the very body and blood of our Lord. Christ said in the Gospel of John 6:53, “Except a man eat my flesh and drink my blood, he has no part in me.” This explains the physicality of Galahad’s vision during Holy Communion (284). The Protestant understanding of the elements as symbolic would not come about for several hundreds of years later.

  Galahad’s desire to live no more in this wretched world echoes St. Paul’s yearnings in Philippians 1:23: “Having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better; but to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.” In the language in which he commended his spirit are echoes of St. Stephen’s dying words, which are in turn echoes of Christ’s on the cross. In the language chosen to describe Galahad’s passing are echoes of the prophet Elijah taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire whilst his mentee, Elisha, watched and wept (II Kings 2).  The line “if they had not been good men they might lightly have fallen into despair” echoes of St. Paul’s words “I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep [the sleep of death], that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:16). The imagery of Galahad asleep in the ship, (285), so advised to rest according to “the letters,” mirrors the stories of both Christ and St. Paul sleeping in the ship during great peril at sea. And finally, the descriptions of the visions of Christ, when “He gave them His blessing and vanished away,” are taken from the account of the evening our Lord spent with the two disciples walking to Emmaus, the conversation Christ had with them, and finally His vanishing away after revealing Himself to them in the breaking of bread (Luke 24).

    Another function of fan fiction is to continue to tell stories and to fill in the gaps in the original story, and Galahad does this well. We have touched on some of the parallels between the New Testament Gospels and the Acts. But liturgical traditions and church history were woven into the narrative alongside the Biblical imitations. We know from the Gospel of St. John that Joseph of Arimathea, along with Nicodemus, begged the body of Jesus and prepared it for burial, but Arthurian legend has it that Joseph was the keeper of the Holy Grail, and that his son, also named Joseph, was the first Christian bishop who carried the Grail and the faith to England (footnote, 281). This same Joseph was present at the passing of Galahad, offering him the last rites and words of comfort (287). We also see the grave of Simeon, who declared that he could depart in peace since he had seen the Christchild, and who prophesied the crucifixion of Christ to Mary, his mother: “A sword shall pierce thy soul” (Luke 2:35). Perhaps this is a foreshadowing of the literal sword that wounded Joseph of Arimathea, the sword whose repair was a vital part of the quest for the Holy Grail (footnote, 282).

    King Mordrain’s words to Galahad, “let me rest on thy breast,” might sound like m/m fan fiction. But it is important to take cultural differences into account. Not every culture is as chary of affection expressed between males as our culture. This scene can be understood as an echo of St. John, who leaned on Christ’s breast at the Last Supper. In those days, people would eat seated on the floor around a table, and close friends would lean their heads on their companions’ chests. It was an act of deep friendship and not necessarily sexual in nature.

  There is a recurring motif of fires being quenched that at first glance seems to contradict the Biblical imagery. In the Bible, the tongues of fire were representative of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and the burning bush that was not consumed was a symbol of God’s presence. But Galahad seems to have made quite a habit of quenching fires. Fire in the Bible is not only a symbol of God’s presence; it is a symbol of judgment. The text suggests that Galahad’s personal holiness is enough to subdue the judgment of God.

  Galahad had, however, also made quite an apostolic habit of healing the lame. In the city of Sarras, he encountered a man who had been lame and was healed by knights, just as the lame man who sat outside the Temple was healed by St. Peter.

    Of all of the elements of Biblical imitation and fanfiction in “The Miracle of Galahad,” the element of the love and devotion and tenderness that Galahad cherished for his fellow knights was most poignant. For such a brave, adventurous, long-suffering, and religious culture to have so much genuine caring and open affection for their own is profoundly moving. It could be that the love Christ modeled for His disciples and that the disciples expressed to one another profoundly influenced the medieval knights and writers of the Arthurian legends. Christ’s command, “that ye love one another, as I have loved you,”  was beautifully borne out in Galahad’s story.

Fan fiction, then, can bring together the lore of legend, the shining examples of Biblical characters and events, and current events, and weave the themes together into a piece of literature that can uplift and inspire. And perhaps this is the final purpose for Biblical fan fiction: to give us miracles and adventures and visions to aspire to, great men of faith to emulate, and examples of how to live out the love of Christ for His own, all in the context of the writer’s own culture.

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