Sir Galahad


Siân Echard, University of British Columbia


14th-century French casket with scenes from romance, including the life of Galahad. Image from the Walters Art Museum. Creative Commons license.

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As we discussed in class, the first Grail knight was Perceval, but Galahad eventually took centre stage. The image at the top of this page is from a medieval casket, but Galahad’s popularity outlasted the medieval period. He was a particularly significant character in the Arthurian revival, and this page offers you a glimpse of his appearances in 19th- and early 20th-century illustration and text. There is also some Canadian content, at the bottom of the page.

There are more images of Galahad and the Grail at the ArtMagick site, and at the Camelot Project site (on the latter site, follow the link to Main Menu, which will give you a list of Arthurian characters, symbols, and places).

I have made every effort to confirm that the images here are in the public domain; should you happen to know otherwise, please contact me and I will remove them immediately.

“Sir Galahad,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1834)

My good blade carves the casques of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.
The shattering trumpet shrilleth high,
The hard brands shiver on the steel,
The splinter’d spear-shafts crack and fly,
The horse and rider reel:
They reel, they roll in clanging lists,
And when the tide of combat stands,
Perfume and flowers fall in showers,
That lightly rain from ladies’ hands.


How sweet are looks that ladies bend
On whom their favours fall!
From them I battle till the end,
To save from shame and thrall:
But all my heart is drawn above,
My knees are bow’d in crypt and shrine:
I never felt the kiss of love,
Nor maiden’s hand in mine.
More bounteous aspects on me beam,
Me mightier transports move and thrill;
So keep I fair thro’ faith and prayer
A virgin heart in work and will.

On the left and above are illustrations by Edmund H. Garrett for Frances Nimmo Greene’s 1901 Legends of King Arthur and His Court. The girlish appearance of Galahad is common in illustrations from this period: compare Chapman below.

When down the stormy crescent goes,
A light before me swims,
Between dark stems the forest glows,
I hear a noise of hymns:
Then by some secret shrine I ride;
I hear a voice but none are there;
The stalls are void, the doors are wide,
The tapers burning fair.
Fair gleams the snowy altar-cloth,
The silver vessels sparkle clean,
The shrill bell rings, the censer swings,
And solemn chaunts resound between.

The painting on the right is Sir Galahad, painted in 1888 by British artist Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901).

Sometime on lonely mountain-meres
I find a magic bark;
I leap on board: no helmsman steers:
I float till all is dark.
A gentle sound, an awful light!
Three angels bear the holy Grail:
With folded feet, in stoles of white,
On sleeping wings they sail.
Ah, blessed vision! blood of God!
My spirit beats her mortal bars,
As down dark tides the glory slides,
And star-like mingles with the stars.

The illustration on the left is by William Ernest Chapman, for Mary Blackwell Sterling, The Story of Sir Gahalad (1908).

When on my goodly charger borne
Thro’ dreaming towns I go,
The cock crows ere the Christmas morn,
The streets are dumb with snow.
The tempest crackles on the leads,
And, ringing, springs from brand and mail;
But o’er the dark a glory spreads,
And gilds the driving hail.
I leave the plain, I climb the height;
No branchy thicket shelter yields;
But blessed forms in whistling storms
Fly o’er waste fens and windy fields.

The painting above is Sir Galahad, painted by British artist Arthur Hughes (1832-1915) c. 1865-1870; the back of the painting is inscribed with lines from Tennyson’s poem.

A maiden knight — to me is given
Such hope, I know not fear;
I yearn to breathe the airs of heaven
That often meet me here.
I muse on joy that will not cease,
Pure spaces clothed in living beams,
Pure lilies of eternal peace,
Whose odours haunt my dreams;
And, stricken by an angel's hand,
This mortal armour that I wear,
This weight and size, this heart and eyes,
Are touch’d, are turn’d to finest air.

The painting on the left is The Quest of the Holy Grail, c. 1855-1857, by British artist Elizabeth Siddall (1829-1862)

The clouds are broken in the sky,
And thro’ 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.”
So pass I hostel, hall, and grange;
By bridge and ford, by park and pale,
All-arm’d I ride, whate’er betide,
Until I find the holy Grail.


The painting on the right is "Sir Galahad," by the British artist George Frederick Watts (1817-1904)


Henry Albert Harper was a journalist and civil servant. He was born in Cookstown, Ontario, in 1873. He was a friend of William Lyon Mackenzie King, and eventually worked for King at the Labour Gazette.

On December 6, 1901, Harper jumped into the Ottawa River in a vain attempt to save the life of Bessie Blair, who had fallen through the ice. He and Blair both drowned. Harper and King were both fond of Tennyson’s Arthurian poetry, and one tradition has it that Harper quoted Galahad before he jumped into the river in his attempt to save Blair. King commissioned the sculpture of Galahad to commemorate his friend. It was the work of Ernest Keyser, and was unveiled on Parliament Hill in 1905.

Read the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on Harper. It is rather snide about what it calls Harper’s “priggish idealism,” but gives the basic details of his life. For a more sympathetic account of the history of the statue, see the Ottawa Citizen series Stories in Stone.



The photo, by D. Gordon E. Robertson, is made available through a Creative Commons license.

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