What do I really want? I want to tell you a story - and here it is, a traditional tale, a 14th century story of deviltry and chivalry.
In The Year Of Our Lord 1378 I went to the Dominican Friary in Heidelberg to look up some scrolls, being a friar myself occupied with some evangelical musings. Those scriptures were interesting enough, but this story concerns a certain knight I met in a tavern after I had read the scrolls. And this knigth errant, this vagrant man-of-arms, this black-clad mercenary, he told me the most improbable story I’ve ever heard.
Over a jug of beer in a smoky, noisy tavern in a cellar by the city’s square, he told me that once he had met The Prince Of Darkness (accursed be his name!), who had asked him to fetch The Holy Grail for him. The Prince would then use it as a token of his good faith in order to get back to Heaven, to meet his Father and patch things up. Go home, to put it simple: to come home after aeons in Hell.
Of course I didn’t believe a word of this, but the knight’s story was fascinating, that I admit. He told me where it all took place: in a castle ruin out on a moor where he happened to have his quarters by the time, one overcast day. It was spring and rather warm weather; the fields were green and birds sang, oh yes they did; they do sing even under grey skies, whatever common knowledge says about them only singing when the sun shines.
But I digress. The knight had been lying there in his ruin, in a sort of tent made of burlap cloth. It was rather comfy he said; he had food and wine and some gold after an engagement against the Latvians. Then that prince had come around, an elegant man wearing a cloak and a beret, accompanied by a tubby sidekick with The Key To Hell in a chain around the neck.
After introductions Lucifer presented his case; to patch things up with The Lord and go home.
”Go home,” the knight had said to this prince. ”So you mean –”
”Yes,” the being said. ”I’m tired of all this evil stuff. It’s a waste of energy I would say, mental energy. I want to rest, I want peace of mind...”
The knight had accepted this for an explanation; that the man was Lucifer was by the way evident in itself, without him having a cloven foot or such. The knight just felt that the being spoke the truth, by looking into his once evil eyes. So he agreed to do the job, fetch the treasure – but for this he didn’t make a formal deal, oh no, he just told the prince that he would try his best to find the Grail. He was tempted by the adventure of it all, he didn’t need any reward; a simple ”thank you” after the delivery would be enough. And so he got off on his quest, not rushing it; he had time to do some soldiering in between, to fight in this and that battle and even to talk to Death, a frequent visitor to all battlefields. They were brothers he said, no strangers, having met several times in the past. According to the knight Death by the way doesn’t carry a scythe, he’s just a being with short, silvery-white hair and sad features. So that’s something to look out for when you’re about to leave this world: a man in short silvery hair...
The knight made war, and in between he made enqueries about the Grail – and eventually one night he found Montsalvat and the Grail Castle. It lay there on a hill grown with elms and maples, the structure itself silhouetted against the moon-lit sky. The knight rode up the hill, over the drawbridge and into the courtyard where he left his horse.
How practical that the drawbridge was down, wasn’t it? The door to the castle’s main building was open too, as it happened. Finally inside the knight went through vaults and deserted cabinets and along forlorn galleries, past ante-rooms and along corridors. Eventually he entered a chamber lit by candles and with lancet windows through which the moonlight fell, chasming the room in eery patterns.
In the chamber the knight saw a sick king lying in a bed, watched by a young man and a young woman. On a sideboard there stood an emerald with its interior glowing red: The Holy Grail, the blood of Christ transformed into a precious stone.
”Who might you be?” the young man asked.
”I am The Black Knight,” the knight said. ”I’m here to fetch The Holy Grail.”
”Indeed?” the young man said.
”Indeed I am,” the knight said. ”I’m gonna to give it to Lucifer so he can be redeemed. And then maybe all the world will be redeemed in the process, wouldn’t that be something?”
The man and the woman got up and opposed him loudly, but he just shoved them aside, approched the bed, drew his sword and ”crossed” it with the king’s (after some tribulations, he was forsooth very weak that king). Then he killed him. That was a good solution the knight had thought; thus the king died in combat and not from sickness, that despicable death for all warriors...
And then the knight took the Grail and went off, and simply got back to the place where he had first met Lucifer: the ruin on the moor. Now the sun shone in between ethereal clouds, in the distancce a lake rippled with the lustre of a thousand precious stones, and everything was green and the birds sang. Again.
Lucifer and his helper was waiting in the ruins. The knight for his part got off his horse and produced the treasure, and his employer accepted the gift on the spot:
”Thank you, Black Knight,” Lucifer had said.
”You’re welcome,” the knight said.
Was that it then? Did they just go separate ways, the job done with no reward but a simple ”thank you”, as agreed?
No, because there was a Grand Finale to this story, something truly amazing which then came to pass. The Dark Prince you see got a peaceful look in his eyes, yea, his whole countenance became as peaceful as that of a Heaven’s Angel. And from above astral music was heard, and a light beam protruded from a crack in the clouds – and on that beam Prince Lucifer was transported to Heaven...
And that was The Black Knight’s story.
So what to say about all it then? I’ve already told you it’s far-fetched, a cock-and-bull-story, a tall-tale. The knight however told it with deadpan sincerity. And of course it had some ring of truth to it, some intrinsical authencity. But there were some odd parts in it too, so there at the tavern I had to ask the knight some questions:
”Now if Lucifer went to Heaven, why don’t we notice any change in our lives down here? Why is it the same troubles and tribulations, day in day out? Didn’t we get redeemed as you hinted to the man at the Grail Castle?”
”I hinted that,” the knight said, ”true. But it didn’t come to pass, and that is because we have our free will. We simply stick to this earthly existence as human beings. We could make a heaven on earth if we only wanted it, wanted it with all our hearts.”
”Oh,” I said. ”But how can you know all this? Are you a Knight Templar or some other christian warrior?”
”No,” the knight said, ”I’m The Black Knight.” And forsooth he was dressed in black, as I have already intimated; I could clearly see him wearing a black tunic as we sat there on the tavern. But then again I was in black myself, as a Dominican Brother: all dressed up in a black cowl...
”I heard it from a wise man after the event,” the knight went on, explaining how he could know about that aforementioned esoteric fact, how the earth wasn’t liberated and redeemed along with that prince. ”He was a hermit, a goodly learned man, and he gave me this interpretation,” the knight added.
I nodded and said:
”True, you are The Black Knight. But why did the Devil then give a black knight the mission to find the Grail? It seems a bit odd, with all due respect. Shouldn’t there be some white-clad crusader or somesuch?”
”I asked the Devil the same thing,” the knight said. ”But he for one underlined the need for a no-nonsense, go-for-it-type of knight. A man that got the job done. And that I did...”
And that was it. An improblable story. I still didn’t believe it, or only half believed it. I asked the man:
”And you, what was in it for you? You didn’t work for a fee, didn’t want a reward...?”
”Oh no,” he said. ”I only got another adventure up my sleeve, to deal out in good company...”
I drank my beer and nodded. Then a thought struck me:
”But the Devil went to Heaven you say – so then there’s no Devil anymore?”
”Wrong,” the knight said. ”He had an adjutant, a little helper, a sidekick as I said – and with the job vacant he took it; The Key To Hell he already had. He took the job, he did; he could smell there were some evil thoughts of Lucifer’s still around, so he just picked these up and got on with the job... He even asked me if I wanted to be the new devilish sidekick, but I declined. I was and still am a warrior, a man-at-arms.”
”I see. And that suits you fine?”
”In a way. But what I truly want is to die in combat, and that I haven’t succeded in yet...”
”So you still do battle?”
”Aye. And I meet Death from time to time...”
”Indeed we are. I know him like a brother. I’ve seen him walking on the fields harvesting souls for the astral journey, and I always say to him: ’Take me with you! I want to go too!’ But all he ever says to me is: ’It isn’t time for you yet.’”
”Poor you,” I said. ”But isn’t it pertinent for and old knight to settle down? I mean, to gather some riches and buy a house or whatever, get a wife...”
”The thought has crossed my mind,” the knight said. ”Maybe it is time to settle down. However this combative life is habit-forming, it gets to you like a drug... But maybe I have to learn to live with the fact that I’ll never die in combat.”
”That is the hardest lesson,” I said. ”To fight is easy, to live is hard.”
”Indeed? Well maybe it is.”
”Why don’t you use that free will the hermit told you about – use your own free will. Try to be happy without having to kill someone first. Choose life before death. As my French brethren say: Il faut essayer de vivre. You will have to try to live. That’s all. It’s simple.”
The knight for his part nodded, seemed lost in thought. Yea, verily: a thought was planted in his mind, the thought about using his free will, and that was better than nothing.
And on this note our session ended; we had been sitting there for over an hour. There wasn’t time for any more preaching on my part, urging the knight to confess his sins and take the vows and become a crusader and all that, as is my duty when I meet men-of-arms. We simply left the tavern and went out in the city square, surrounded by its houses with stepped gables. Standing under the grey sky we bid each other farewell, went separate ways and never saw each other again; the knight went off to some brothelhouse or battlefield or to some better ways, what would I know, and as for myself I returned to Münich and my cell at the Dominican Friary there.
I have already aired my doubts about the Black Knight’s story. But it is also, as I have hinted, a good story, so now I write it down on pergament, tie a silken ribbon around it, seal it with lac and store it in the Cloister Library.
Münich, in The Year Of Our Lord 1402, (signed) Friar Constantius.