Back to top

Sir Galahad: A Call to the Heroic


Sir Galahad: A Call to the Heroic

"My strength is as the strength of ten
Because my heart is pure"


The Vow
"I made them lay their hands in mine and swear
To reverence the King, as if he were
Their conscience, and their conscience as their King,
To break the heathen and uphold the Christ,
To ride abroad redressing human wrongs,
To speak no slander, no, nor listen to it,
To honour his own words as if his God's,
To lead sweet lives in purest chastity,
To love one maiden only, cleave to her,
And worship her by years of noble deeds."

TENNYSON: "Idylls of the King"

This picture was presented by G.F. Watts to Eton College. The purpose of the gift was not to increase the wealth of the college by putting it in possession of a valuable work of art; it was that the picture might be a challenge to its youth. The authorities, realising this, appropriately placed it in the College Chapel, so that generation after generation of the youth of England might have before them the image of the stainless knight, and be inspired to follow him.
The moment Watts has chosen to depict Sir Galahad is that moment of vision, so nobly expressed by Tennyson in the "Idylls of the King," when the young knight beholds the Holy Grail, and makes his deathless choice. According to the old legend this "Holy Grail" was the sacred Cup used by our Lord in the Last Supper, which in some way passed into the hands of Joseph of Arimathæa, who, it was said, carried it with him to Calvary on the awful day of the Cross, and caught in it the last drops of blood which fell from the Saviour's side. This possession of the Redeemer's blood was found to have endued the Cup or Grail with miraculous spiritual potency, so that it became in the world a blessed channel of mystic and divine grace to all who looked upon it. But, alas!
                                    "The times
Grew to such an evil, that the holy cup
Was caught away to heaven, and disappeared."
Though snatched from earth because of man's unworthiness it was yet believed that to the pure in heart, and to those whose eyes had been purged by tears and prayer, a vision of the sacred chalice would still be vouchsafed. Nay, more, that some day, when sin had been driven from the world, and love had gained conquest of the human heart, the holy chalice would return. So-
                                    "when Arthur made
His table round, and all men's hearts became
Clean for a season, surely he had thought
That now the Holy Grail would come again."
      Fired with this enthusiasm, in the spirit of chivalric adventure mixed with spiritual longing, the Knights of the Round Table set out in the Holy Quest. But alas! they had not counted the cost, or realised aright the nature of their endeavour. The majority through inconstancy and lack of inner sincerity failed, their enthusiasms too quickly waned, and they returned disenchanted and disillusioned to Arthur's court. Many followed "wandering fires;" some saw only the trailing light which followed the Cup as it flashed upward, while Sir Launcelot, the bravest of the brave, because of his sinful love for Guinivere, and because he clung to his sin, saw the cup as holy wrath and fire, as swift and stern retribution. Only to Sir Galahad did the mystic chalice disclose itself in all its uplifting spiritual glory-to Sir Galahad the stainless knight, sans peur et sans reproche, who was "of purer eyes than to behold iniquity." In the strength of this vision, he says,
                                          "I rode,
Shattering all evil customs everywhere,
And passed thro' Pagan realms, and made them mine,
And clash'd thro' Pagan hordes, and bore them down,
And broke thro' all, and in the strength of this
Came Victor."
      The "Quest of the Holy Grail," we now can see symbolises the immortal striving after perfection, and in that quest Sir Galahad becomes the ideal type of youthful courage sustained by spiritual purity and consecration.
      This will help us now to understand the picture. The young knight, we see, has left behind him the splendours of court and hall, of jousts and tournaments. Far into the tangled forests he has ridden contending with its lurking dangers; he has cut his way through fierce entanglements, and turned from the bewitching and sensuous forms which, with their soft blandishments and languishing endearments, have sought to arrest his progress, and turn him from the quest. And now the supreme moment has come, the moment of revelation and self-consecration. Descending from his horse he has hung his casque at the saddle bow, for the stately avenues of the forest have suddenly become to him the pylons and pillars of a House not made with hands. A white cloud arrested in the sky forms an aureole around his head; he folds his hands in the attitude of devotion; his face, uplifted, is refined and purified from all base desire; his eyes gaze into that supra-sensual world from which the visions come. With subtle spiritual insight Watts makes even the horse appear conscious of the presence of things unseen. Though it cannot behold, nor fully comprehend the things that are spiritual, some dim instinct moves it to bow its head; it seems to worship too, the artist has endowed it with an emotion almost human. Nor is Nature herself unaffected. The atmosphere of the picture suggests an intense stillness-the stillness of a drawn suspense, when air and trees and clouds are held motionless, hardly daring to breathe, all spell-bound, as it were, by a sense of awe and impending glory. At this very moment, as Sir Galahad stands there with straining eyes and beating heart, the vision of the Holy Grail flashes before his startled gaze, and with the vision comes the call, the call to devote his life to God, to follow the blameless King; and with the call comes his answer, his instant response, his glad and willing self-surrender. Then Nature, the spell broken, the tension relaxed, breaks the fetters which bind it, and with its myriad voices, bursts into a gladsome song of praise and jubilation:-
"The clouds are broken in the sky,
   And through the mountain walls
A rolling organ harmony
   Swells up and shakes and falls.
Then move the trees, the copses nod,
   Wings flutter, voices hover clear;
O just and faithful knight of God,
   Ride on! the prize is near."
      Let us turn now from this main theme of the picture to a detail which is full of spiritual suggestion, and which is evidently part of the artist's purpose. The knight as Watts depicts him, we notice, is slim and even frail. He seems ill-fitted for the task to which he has consecrated his life, namely to contend with the relentless and implacable forces of evil at work in the world. An artist of duller vision than Watts would doubtless have thought it necessary to give the young warrior a frame less fragile, and more suggestive of robust physical energy. But what Watts means that fragile figure to indicate is that the mighty things of life are not the physical but spiritual. Even in war it is the "élan vital" that counts. "Fervour," said Napoleon, "counts against numbers on the field of battle as three to one." But there is something which, when the human heart possesses it, more than trebles that ratio. It is the pure heart, flaming with a lofty ideal, and conscious of the righteousness of its cause. Nothing in this world can compare with the impetuous valour of men thus possessed.
"My strength is as the strength of ten,
      Because my heart is pure,"
cries Sir Galahad with radiant joy, and right at the entrenched forces of evil he hurls himself, fearing God and knowing no other fear. And at the flash of his sword the legions of darkness roll back, for no cohorts, however consolidated, can stand against the impetuous rush of those whose hearts are set on fire by God, who have seen the Vision, and whose spears are levelled against iniquity. So the Sir Galahad whom Watts with such spiritual insight depicts is youthful and frail, he stands there, no type of massive physical force, but the possessor of a fire within which burns up all fear of wounds or pain or death, and which girds the weakest arm with the might of the irresistible.
      It should not be difficult for us now to understand the purpose of the great artist, whose sole aim in art was to impress us with spiritual realities, in presenting this picture to Eton College. For there are gathered many of the youth of our great Empire who in coming generations are to guide its destinies. In these early and formative days young eyes look out upon life with wistful questionings, and young hearts receive their lasting spiritual impressions. It is then that the great decisions are made, and it is upon the nature of those decisions that the future character and stability of our Empire depend.
      Nor can we fail to appreciate the purpose of the authorities when on receiving the picture they determined to place it on the Chapel walls.
      They placed it there in the sanctuary of God in the earnest expectation that with hearts chastened and uplifted by the solemn chants and litanies, many might be led to make the great decision: that resting their young eyes upon the peerless knight, and remembering all that he was and did, they too might make the deathless choice, and say:-"I also shall follow the Quest! I too shall serve the blameless King."
      And oh! how great a moment this is, how full of splendour and hope! It is not too much surely to believe, as Watts suggests, that the thrill of it is communicated in some dim way to Nature herself, or that the very heart-beat of God's universe is quickened by the joy of it. "When we see a young life openly dedicating itself to God we rejoice in the courage, the hope, and the inspiration of the beginning. The young soldier comes like a flame to the darkened world, and a hope to the hopeless years."
"Girt with the fragile armour of youth,
   Child, you must ride into endless wars,
With the sword of protest, the buckler of truth,
   And a banner of love to sweep the stars."
      We see, then, the purpose Watts had in painting this picture; he sought by it to awaken the heroic in the hearts of the youth of our great Empire, he put before them an ideal of honour and chivalry which if followed would keep their hearts unsullied by the base things of the world, and which would lift them into companionship with Christ and all high manhood. This was its meaning to the young men of yesterday, but to the young men of to-day it contains a message far more urgent, and of intensest poignancy. The picture was painted by Watts, let it be remembered, in the piping days of peace when lowered ideals and the love of material things threatened to corrupt the national life, and to enfeeble its youth. Suddenly there has been heard throughout our far-flung Empire the call "TO ARMS!" The drums have been beating in the streets, the beacons have been flaring on the hills, and through the mountain passes and the glens men have been rushing bearing the fiery cross, and passing it from hand to hand. This is the hour which tests a nation to its depths, and above all which tests the character of its youth. In the tumult of this agitation multitudes of young men, flushed by the intoxication of war, and swept away by its glamour, have heard the tocsin and obeyed. But what of the Galahads? Something more than glory in the field is required to flame their hearts. Is this a war which appeals to them? Is it for a righteous cause? Can they hear in the loud call "To Arms!" the inner call also of the Spirit? Or is it only the savage lust for battle to which men must respond? Can they draw the sword, and at the same time call upon the name of God? It is a terrible thing to unite with the awful horrors of war the blessed name of the Prince of Peace, and yet there are causes in which for righteousness' sake, and for the sake of all that is holy, to draw the sword is the bitter but only resort. Is this one of these? Who can doubt it? Who can doubt that there is that in the call which should make every true knight buckle on his armour, and unsheath his sword, and fight to the death? For the fight is not for national existence alone, but for the cause of God, for righteousness as between nations, and for humanity. Who does not hear, to-day, the moan of the defenceless, the wail of homeless children, the cry of the innocent for protection against a brutal army that has reeled back to barbarism and the beast? Who does not see in vision cities and homesteads laid desolate by a ruthless host which knows no law but force, and which has flung every civilizing instinct aside in its lust for power and conquest? And who, hearing these things, and seeing these things, can stand inert, unimpassioned, uncommitted? Who that is a man could bear to think that when the fight is over men would point the finger of scorn at him and say:-"In this righteous cause thou didst prove thyself a coward and a recreant knight?" Oh! not the Galahads at least. Not the youths who listen to the voice within, and who are of the pure in heart. To them the call comes as a challenge to all that is most sacred in life. With hearts that are undismayed, and with faces aglow they enter the field; their strength is as the strength of ten; for they fight not for love of conquest, but for love of God, for the eternal rights of man, and for the precious things of peace.
"Oh! 'tis great to be out when the fight is strong,
To be where the heaviest troops belong,
And to fight for man and God.

"Oh! it seams the face, and it dries the brain,
It strains the arm till one's friend is pain,
           In the fight for man and God.
But it's great to be out where the fight is strong."

      Before you, then, the gallant soldiers of the king, who have responded to the call of your country, we hold up this picture of the young knight consecrating himself to God as the ideal to be followed. To be a Sir Galahad, remember, means first to slay the enemy within. It means in the camp, and amid a thousand new temptations, to wear the white flower of a blameless life. It means to win the trust and respect of your comrades by that greatest of all tests of valour-by showing that you are not ashamed openly to confess Him whom you love and whom you serve. Let your sword be to you the symbol of the cross, which form it has, and remember though it be strong to smite, its purpose is to save.
      Greatly as your country needs you on the field to-day not less will it need you on that blessed morrow when peace shall be proclaimed, and when our beloved land shall turn to heal the cruel wounds which have drained her life. In that day when we shall be called to rebuild the waste places, and to repair the former desolations, we shall look to you who have proved yourselves as God's men to come to our aid. These months of war, alas, have shown us how far as a nation we have wandered, how deep seated has been our apostasy, how cruel are the wrongs we have left unredressed, and the injustices which we have left unheeded. Much will have been shaken, and with hearts purged by sorrow and loss we shall be called to build up a better England, to lay the foundations of a nobler Empire, and of a world-wide and enduring peace. To this great purpose you will be called. Think not, then, to lay aside the sword; a more cruel and implacable enemy has yet to be vanquished. Return with this fiery purpose in your heart, and with these noble words of Blake's burning in your brain:-

"Bring me my bow of burning gold!
   Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold:
       Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
   Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
   In England's green and pleasant land."