“Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat.”
With that so simple a statement, Neil Gaiman’s droll, fantastic short story Chivalry commenced. This is the tale of an ordinary old woman who purchased the legendary Holy Grail (the chalice where Jesus Christ was said to take a drink from in the Last Supper, and the same vessel in the Crucifixion that caught His blood when the centurion’s spear pierced His side) from a local thrift store. Sir Galaad (Galahad) appeared soon after she bought it, claiming that he was in a mission to find the Holy Grail. He bugged the old woman for some time, giving her “gifts” until she gave him what he wants.
The simple sequence of events, the unsurprised expressions of some of the characters upon meeting an extraordinary person, and the humorous style of Gaiman’s prose made this short story a comical literary gem. Astonishingly, there wasn’t any hint of the Gaimanesque darkness and twists that I was acquainted with. This didn’t make the story any less though. I enjoyed it immensely.
Throughout the story I kept on searching for hints about its timeline or the exact setting, but my efforts were in vain. It didn’t matter though because I was so amused by the whole thing. Mrs. Whitaker knew it was the Holy Grail, and the only thing she did with it is display it on a mantelpiece. When Sir Galaad appeared in front of her gate I expected her to at least gasp in surprise. She just asks for some sort of ID, and our mighty Knight shows her a permission signed by King Arthur himself.
The device that Gaiman used for this tale was juxtaposition—of the main characters’ goals and views, that is. Sir Galahad thinks he can finish his quest by offering the old lady extravagant gifts—the magical sword Balmung, a fruit that promises eternal life, the Philosopher’s Stone, and a Phoenix’s Egg—but Mrs. Whitaker prefers him to just help her in the garden and in room clean-up (all right, imagine our dear handsome Knight tipping a bag of slugs over a garden fence and moving dusty boxes around…and take note, he’s wearing his shining silver armor and surcoat. Seriously, the images!). In the end, the old lady gives him the chalice, accepting the Egg and Stone (not to use them by any means you may think, but just to replace the Grail’s position on the mantelpiece after it’s gone).
I don’t consider this a happy-ending-tale, no matter how much I cracked up over it. When you think about it, Mrs.Whitaker is just an ordinary widow who’s just waiting for her time to come. The story’s tone is light, but the undercurrent of sadness is there. She wants nothing more in life than to live normally until the end—what would she do with all those lavish things? Those couldn’t bring back what she’d lost in the past. This is made clear when Sir Galaad offered him the Fruit of eternal life. She chided him a little, saying that he shouldn’t offer old women with things like that. After the Sir Galaad’s gone, she’s back to her old routine and I know that the memory of meeting the Knight is embedded in her heart forever.
Chivalry is included in another short story collection by Gaiman entitled M is for Magic.