Stumbling on the Grail
As many of you are full aware, I am pursuing my PhD at Georgia State University. My area of study is English Literature, but I am specifically focusing on asexual characters in literature prior to the Kinsey Studies of the 1950’s and 60’s. I’ve already done two profiles on Athena and Jughead, but I think I have truly found a character here that embodies what I have been looking for. Sir Galahad from Arthurian legend. Many of you are probably most familiar with Galahad from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As I am sure you can guess, there is a wealth of source material regarding Galahad from the Middle English period. Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur immediately comes to mind.
During one of my courses this semester, I was introduced to Lee Edelman’s polemic work of Queer Theory, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Not only was I immediately overwhelmed by Edelman’s argument, but it also opened a whole new venue of scholarship to me. That is when I stumbled upon Megan Arkenberg’s journal article, “A Mayde, and Last of Youre Blood’: Galahad’s Asexuality and its significance in Le Morte Darthur.” Arkenberg made and exceptional case for Galahad’s inclusion in a cannon of asexual characters.
I am familiar with Malory’s literature. When I was an undergrad, we were required to select one of three authors (Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton), and I chose Chaucer. The course consisted of a more in-depth analysis of Chaucer’s work as well as some of his contemporaries, of which Malory was one. But I had never really considered Galahad much in my studies. After reading Arkenberg’s essay, though, I don’t think I have much choice in the matter.
Arkenberg develops her argument much in the same way I do. She starts by setting up the historical context and theory. By doing so, she lets the reader know that there was no terminology for asexuality in Malory’s legend. So using some subtle deconstruction that would make Derrida proud, she indicates that Galahad’s concept of chastity, a commonly held vow among Arthurian knights, differs greatly from his compatriots.
With that in mind, she begins to expand her argument by creating a language primer. Letting the reader know that certain language at the time had certain connotations. For example, she takes the word chastity and examines what that meant at the time. She emphasizes how chastity was not simply a vow to avoid sexual activity. Based on the philosophy of Jerome, which was the predominant thinking on the subject at the time, there can be no true test of faith if the temptation is not present. So if a character who has no sexual attraction makes a vow of chastity it is not truly a vow of chastity he is making. Arkenberg illustrates this by comparing the way Galahad’s chastity subverts the chastity of the other Knights of the Round Table.
The other knights that took a vow of chastity still seek to live on beyond their death, a term in theory known as futurity. These knights, without the means to reproduce heirs, still seek reproduction through knightly deeds. Galahad, on the other hand, does not seek fame or glory. In fact, Galahad seeks what will ultimately be his death, the end of his family’s lineage going back to Joseph of Arimathea, and ending the existence of the Knights of the Round Table. Rather than pursuing futurity, Galahad pursues termination, not because he desires termination necessarily, but because that is his natural inclination. All this, Arkenberg argues, is evidence of Galahad’s asexuality.
There is more to Arkenberg’s article, and if you have a moment I suggest looking it up and reading it if you have access to it. But it also opens the door to further research. I’m quite eager to explore it further.