Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat.The short’s central premise is simple: Mrs. Whitaker, a lonely widow, happens upon the famous chalice while combing through thrift-store junk, buys it and plunks it on her mantelpiece, where it rests between a picture of her dead husband and “a small, soulful china basset hound.” It isn’t long, though, before Sir Galahad (or “Galaad,” as Gaiman prefers to spell it) turns up on a “Right High and Noble Quest,” which just happens to be procuring the Grail.
The doorbell rang.Much of the story’s humor and pathos -- and there’s plenty of both -- comes from the juxtaposition of the two characters’ aims. Galaad, tall and young, with white-blond hair, clad in armor with a brilliant sheen, astride his massive warhorse Grizzel, seeks the satisfaction of his knightly errand. He tries to win over Mrs. Whitaker through lavish gifts, wooing her with gold and the ancient sword Balmung and a bevy of mythical offerings. For her part, Mrs. Whitaker wants none of it. She’d like it if you helped her pick slugs out of her garden and enjoyed a glass of homemade lemonade with her and told her how nice that silver cup looks above the mantle. Because all the magical doodads can’t bring back to her the things she once treasured that are now lost.
Mrs. Whitaker answered the door. It was a young man with shoulder-length hair so fair it was almost white, wearing gleaming silver armor, with a white surcoat.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” said Mrs. Whitaker.
“I’m on a quest,” he said.
“That’s nice,” said Mrs. Whitaker, noncommittally.
“Can I come in?” he asked.
Mrs. Whitaker shook her head. “I’m sorry, I don’t think so,” she said.
“I’m on a quest for the Holy Grail,” the young man said. “Is it here?”
“Have you got any identification?” Mrs. Whitaker asked.
“And that’s all I have brought for you,” said Galaad. “They weren’t easy to get, either.”Gaiman chooses comedy over despair for the ending, and the tale’s better for it. Yet a sense of sadness lingers, and that’s how it should be. We rarely visit the house of mourning, and Mrs. Whitaker is a good guide for a culture which all-too-easily forgets that she even exists.
Mrs. Whitaker put the ruby fruit down on her kitchen table. She looked at the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Egg of the Phoenix, and the Apple of Life.
Then she walked into her parlor and looked at the mantelpiece: at the little china basset hound, and the Holy Grail, and the photograph of her late husband Henry, shirtless, smiling and eating an ice cream in black and white, almost forty years away.
You can read “Chivalry” in Smoke and Mirrors or M Is for Magic.