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11 - How Galahad Regained his Virginity: Dead Women, Catholicism and the Grail in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2024

Kevin S. Whetter
Affiliation:
Acadia University, Nova Scotia
Megan G. Leitch
Affiliation:
Cardiff University
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Summary

Introduction

Galahad's virginity seems a self-evident part of literary history, stretching from Sir Thomas Malory's righteous Galahad to Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Galahad smugly declaring, ‘My strength is as the strength of ten/ Because my heart is pure’. Thus, when William Wordsworth presents a married Galahad in ‘The Egyptian Maid or The Romance of the Water-Lily’ (1835), critics have been at such a loss that they have been reluctant even to accept it as an Arthurian poem. Beverly Taylor and Elisabeth Brewer try to preserve a connection to the Arthurian tradition by suggesting that ‘the Egyptian Maid in effect personifies the Grail’, an argument that at once exalts and dehumanizes her and thus avoids the spectre of a sexual Grail knight. However, Wordsworth's treatment of Galahad makes sense in the context of a spate of nineteenth-century Arthurian poems that show how troubling medieval ideas of virginity had become. Religious components of the Arthurian legend were used in conversations about whether and how Catholicism could be fitted into English national identity.

In Malory's ‘Tale of the Sankgreal’, the privileging of virginity, especially in the context of the almost monastic values preached by the hermits during the Grail quest, gives both Galahad and Percivale's sister significant religious authority. After the Protestant Reformation, with its preference for marriage over virginity and its suspicion of monasticism, the social meanings of virginity shifted. Percivale's sister lost much of her religious authority, and female virginity became a perpetually threatened domestic virtue instead of a source of power. Many poets instead turned to Elaine of Astolat, Percivale's sister's inferior secular foil. Galahad's male virginity was more problematic, and responses ranged from admiration to suspicion that sexual abstinence also meant abstaining from social bonds and service to the British empire, to outright revisionism. The Grail also changed meaning from a symbol of transubstantiation to a vaguer symbol of spiritual desire, making virginity less obviously a prerequisite for achieving the quest. Poets turning to Galahad, Percivale's sister, and the Grail thus engaged issues from legal questions of Catholic emancipation to the more cultural and historical interests of the Oxford movement.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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