Knights of the Round Table

I once went to pick up my older son when he was in kindergarten at P.S. 87 in Manhattan. There had been a fight in his class, so I was informed by a student teacher, and Bobby was involved.

“Who started it?” I asked.

The student teacher looked at me with sheer loathing. Men!

“I don’t think that matters,” she said coldly.

I smiled, wishing I had more Stoicism or more Zen.

“But of course it matters,” I said.

“Why? So we can lay blame?”

“That’s part of it. After all, there’s a big difference between aggression and self-defense. Or do you want them all to be little Gandhis?” Well, of course she did.

“Don’t you?” she asked incredulously.

“No. I want my sons to be a little Galahads.”

Galahad has the reputation of being a practically perfect person, and you wouldn’t wish that on anybody. Certainly his and his fellow knights’ passion to find the Holy Grail, which Galahad finally did find, was hell for poor King Arthur.

“Alas!” Thomas Bulfinch, author of The Age of Chivalry, has the king cry after Gawain has gotten the whole Round Table to swear to spend a year searching for the Grail, “you have nigh slain me with the vow and promise that ye have made, for ye have bereft me of the fairest fellowship that ever was seen together in any realm of the world; for when they shall depart hence, I am sure that all shall never meet more in this world.”

It is every bit as dramatic a moment as the king’s words suggest, for just as the dispirited Arthur slumps down in his throne, a hermit appears in the hall with a young man in tow, whom he introduces as Galahad, son of Lancelot, grandson of Pelles the Fisher King, and like Arthur himself a descendant of . . . Joseph of Arimathea. The boy sits right down in the Siege Perilous, which is all the proof anybody at that table needs to see that this is the pure-hearted man who will be the one to find the sacred cup. (To sit in this siège— French for “seat”—was death to anyone who was not destined to find the holy relic.) And in the next days’ tournament, Galahad proves he has prowess equal to his purity: he bests everyone except his father and Parsifal.

Then it’s one adventure after another, with fair maidens and devil horses, and many tourneys and parties for all, except for Galahad, of course. He is all holy business. Some pleasures of the flesh for the other knights are a good thing, since the great quest is to be fatal for half their company. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die. Certes, as they would have said. Depend on it.

—from The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry