In Arthurian legend, Sir Galahad, purest of the Knights of the Round Table, is the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot. It is Lancelot's affair with Queen Guinevere, in turn, which ultimately results in the death of Arthur, King of Britain. But Lancelot, though he spends a season in the wilderness as a madman, ultimately finds redemption through the discovery of the Holy Grail, along with his son Galahad, his cousin Sir Bors, and the knight Sir Percival. Sir Percival is notable in this story as the knight who finds Lancelot in the midst of his madness and brings him back to Camelot at the behest of Guinevere, who had banished Lancelot for (ironically) unfaithfulness.
If that's a bit hard to follow, try reading Le Morte d'Arthur. Complicated or not, the above synopsis is essential to understanding Walker Percy's postmodern epic Lancelot. The story follows the misfortunes of Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, last scion of a New Orleans family whose hour of greatness came and went during his college football career. Now he lives in an insane asylum where he is visited often by his friend from youth, Percival, a Catholic priest to whom Lancelot relays the events leading up to his incarceration.
These events are both sordid and melodramatic, though in the telling of them Lancelot focuses on the pedestrian details, saying at one point that there are no longer any great deeds. A chain of violence is set off when Lancelot, a lawyer who spent the 1960s crusading for the rights of blacks, offhandedly discovers that his seven-year-old daughter from his second marriage is not actually his daughter. Seeds of suspicion are sown, and Lancelot gradually discovers that his wife has long been unfaithful to him, and that his teenage son and daughter from his first marriage are themselves sexually dissolute. Lancelot tells Percival how he committed arson and murder, exacting revenge.
But it doesn't take long for the reader to realize just how incapable Lancelot, the madman, is of exacting anything approaching righteous revenge. Lancelot is himself sexually dissolute, and has been his whole life in one way or another. He is preoccupied with sex, he is obsessed with sex, and even the love he had for his second wife, Margot, was not so much love as raging lust. Their whole relationship was based on physical attraction, whereas his relationship with his first wife, Lucy, was built on romanticism and fantasy.
Lancelot couches his narrative in terms of a grail quest, only his grail is unholy, and his quest is a steady downward path. The narrative he unravels to Percival is broken often by insane asides, by genuinely philosophical rambling, and by the recurring metaphor of his search for one true sin. Modern man, he says, believes that everything is holy, everything is beautiful, everything is good, and it is this attitude which has rendered God's existence untenable. In order to make belief in God viable again, Lancelot quests for a genuine bad deed, because if something truly evil exists then God must exist, too.
This is not an easy novel to read in many ways. Lancelot's ramblings are sometimes sexually graphic, even disgusting, and even when they aren't they can be hard to follow. But this is Percy's design: Lancelot is the perpetually conflicted modern man, an amoral creature who is disgusted by his own immorality, and yet who cannot bear to be separated from it, who falls back on nihilism wrapped in moral indignation to defend himself and his actions. Lancelot Lamar, created in God's image, hates the evil around him and that he perpetrates, but without God he has no recourse for escape.
Fortunately for him, there's Percival. Percival the priest says nothing in the novel until the final two pages, and then he speaks only in positive and negative monosyllables. If you don't know anything about the story of Sir Lancelot and Sir Percival you might have a hard time deciphering the last chapter, but with even the brief summary above you'll be able to realize how truly hopeful the final lines are. There is something Percival wants to tell Lancelot, and while we don't know what it is, we can guess. There is redemption for even Lancelot Lamar, chief of sinners, because there is morality, there is evil, and there is God.
A contemporary review of Lancelot published in the New York Times in 1977 found nothing redeeming in it. The reviewer found Lancelot's views disgusting (his defense of rape, his racism, his chauvinism), demonstrating that he is exactly the sort of liberal modern man Percy is lampooning and trying to save by telling this terrible, terrifying, beautiful story. Lancelot's views are disgusting. But the fact that there is still at least one man in his crumbling world that recognizes this and returns to Lancelot despite of it means there is hope even for the very worst of us. This novel is definitely not for everyone, but it is one of the most profound and creative defenses of human nobility and Christian redemption to come out of the last fifty years.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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