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Perceval: The Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes

So far, my series about fantasy classics has been mainly about 20th century works, occasionally straying back as far as the 19th. This time, however, I’m going right back to the 12th century and the origin of one of the greatest stories of western culture: the quest for the Holy Grail.

The Holy GrailWe all know the Grail story, don’t we? A miraculous vision appears at King Arthur’s court: the gleaming, bejewelled golden chalice used at the Last Supper and known as the Holy Grail. All the Knights of the Round Table promptly swear an oath to quest until they find the Grail. They venture through magical and perilous lands, facing formidable enemies, beguiling maidens and Knights Who Say Ni, until the Grail is eventually found by an American archaeologist. Or possibly by a cryptographer. Or something like that, anyway.

However, the story as it started life in Chrétien’s unfinished verse romance is barely recognisable to the modern reader, though no less intriguing. Chrétien de Troyes was the foremost of the romance writers of the 12th century, and one of the great writers of mediaeval Europe, but almost nothing is known about him. His Lancelot was dedicated in the 1170s to Marie, Countess of Champagne, whose court was at Troyes, and it’s generally assumed that she was his patron, although he’s also associated with Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders.

Romance – which has little to do with modern usage of the word – was a new genre of literature in Chrétien’s time, replacing the older chansons de geste of earlier French literature, such as the Song of Roland. Whereas these were uncompromisingly heroic and told in a terse, formulaic style, the romances were tales of chivalric adventure and courtly love, creating an idealised image of knighthood that reality rarely, if ever, lived up to. Real mediaeval knights – like mediaeval life – tended to be nasty, brutish and short.

Subject matter for the romances ranged from classical tales to recent history; but the most characteristic examples took the British tales of Arthur and his companions, which were being discovered throughout western Europe, and gave them a sheen of chivalry. In the process, they created the Arthur of Camelot who found his fullest expression, three hundred years later, in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

Chrétien didn’t originate Arthurian romance, but he was its first master, telling his radical adaptations of British tales in a style that was, by turns, exuberant, exciting, pious and very funny. He wrote many works, not all of which have survived, but is best remembered for his Arthurian stories: Erec and Enide, Cligés, Lancelot, Yvain, and his final masterpiece, left unfinished: Perceval: The Story of the Grail.

The Legend of Sir Perceval by Frank Cadogan CowperChrétien tells – after a standard moralising prologue – how young Perceval, though a noble knight’s son, grows up in the wilderness with only his widowed mother for company, knowing so little of civilisation or of any other human company that he believes his name is dear son. Hearing of King Arthur’s knights, he determines to become one and sets out for court, but well-meaning if rather muddled advice from his mother leads him into a number of social blunders.

Despite receiving mockery and scorn at court, especially from Sir Kay, Perceval proves himself worthy of knighthood and set out seeking adventure. Despite continued social ineptitude, he liberates the castle of the beautiful damsel Blancheflor, winning her love. They are to be wed, but Perceval is determined to find his mother again and bring her to his new lands.

On his way, he comes to a castle ruled over by a maimed king, who not only offers hospitality to Perceval, but also gives him a wonderful sword. As they dine together, Perceval sees a strange sight:

While they were talking of this and that, out of a room came a youth holding a white lance grasped by the middle; and he passed by between the fire and those seated on the couch. And everyone present could see the white lance with its shining head; and from the tip of the lance-head oozed a drop of blood, a crimson drop that ran down right to the lad’s hand…Thereupon two other youths came, holding in their hands pure gold candlesticks inlaid with black enamel. The lads carrying the candelabras were extremely handsome. At least ten candles were burning in each candelabra.

A damsel, who came with the youths and was fair and attractive and beautifully adorned, held in both hands a grail [serving dish]. Once she had entered with this grail she held, so great a radiance appeared that the candles lost their brilliance just as the stars do at the rising of the sun or moon. After her came another maiden, holding a silver carving-dish. The grail, which proceeded ahead, was of pure refined gold. And this grail was set with many kinds of precious stones, the richest and most costly in sea or earth: those stones in the grail certainly surpassed all others. Exactly as the lance had done, they passed by in front of the couch, going from one room into another.*

Fisher King's FeastThis procession is repeated throughout the meal. Perceval longs to ask the meaning, and who is being served from the grail, but he’s been advised to beware of talking too much and so says nothing. When he wakes the next morning, however, Perceval finds the castle deserted. Assuming everyone’s gone hunting, he goes after them, but, the moment he’s outside the castle, the drawbridge is closed against him. He’s told by a maiden he meets that his host is called the Fisher King, and that the question he failed to ask would have healed the king, but his failure will lead to great misfortune.

Returning to Arthur’s court, Perceval undertakes a quest to discover the secret of the grail and the lance and thereby heal the Fisher King. Nevertheless, most of the remaining part of the story tells of Gawain undertaking a separate quest, returning only briefly to Perceval and the subject of the grail. Several poets attempted to complete Chrétien’s work, but it’s not clear what his original purpose might have been: whether Perceval’s quest and Gawain’s would ultimately have come together or whether, as in the later story, other knights would have been shown questing.

This picture of the quest for the Grail is radically different from the one that gradually evolved through the middle ages, until it appeared in full in Malory’s version. This isn’t the Holy Grail, or the Sangraal, merely “a grail”. It certainly isn’t the cup of the Last Supper, or the cup in which Christ’s blood was caught: it isn’t even a cup, since graal was Old French for a deep, wide dish, a fact conveniently ignored by most of the modern writers formulating theories or creating stories about this artefact (honourable exceptions include the historian Michael Wood and the writers of Stargate SG1).

The Holy Grail by Dante Gabriel RossettiBesides this, there’s no suggestion that the Grail itself is a miraculous object, merely that it was one of the centrepieces of a mystical experience along with the spear, which was retained in the later legend but reduced in importance. As D.D.R. Owen points out in the notes to his translation, Even the radiance does not necessarily come from the vessel but could be associated with the damsel bearing it. And Perceval’s quest isn’t to find the Grail, but to discover its significance, a distinction restored to a certain extent in the film Excalibur, though there the wounded king is Arthur himself.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that the episode isn’t redolent of Christian symbolism. The later identification of the lance as the spear that pierced Christ is a fairly short leap, while the Grail, though not a cup, may be associated with the Host of Holy Communion. Still, Chrétien seems to have intended them as symbols, not as the things themselves.

Understandably, most of the modern interest in Perceval is in the Grail episode, but the remainder of the story is well worth reading. Modern readers might be surprised at how much straight-faced comedy it contains. Perceval’s inept attempts to understand how to behave in society are very funny in places, but my favourite episode of the whole piece, apart from the Grail scene itself, comes when Gawain arrives at a castle in the middle of a tournament.

The lord of the castle has two daughters: the ages are never given, but I imagine them as around fifteen and twelve. The elder talks obsessively about how fine a knight her betrothed is, while her sister constantly needles her on the subject, with the invariable result: That made her furious, and she rose to strike her; but the ladies pulled her back, holding her and keeping from hitting her, to her great sorrow. In other words, the younger girl knows exactly how to wind her sister up, and the older one falls for it every time.

Gawain JoustingThe “little girl” then develops a crush on Gawain and begs him to be her knight. Although the girl’s father urges him to take no notice of what she says, Gawain treats her with that just-too-exaggerated seriousness an adult might use to a child in such a case. After winning the tournament wearing her favour, he takes his leave, assuring her that he’s her knight forever.

Many later versions were written of Chrétien’s tale of Perceval, most notably Parsifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach, before his role in the Grail legend was usurped by the rather boring Galahad, but where did the story come from? Mediaeval authors rarely invented stories from scratch, and were actually thought less of if they did so. Chrétien (writing of himself in third person) claims that the story was found in the book the count gave him.

One possible source can be seen in the Welsh story, Peredur, son of Efrawg, included in The Mabinogion, though not one of the Four Branches. This story, as we have it, comes from a 14th century manuscript, but it’s not clear whether it was a later version of Chrétien’s story or of an older Welsh story that was also his ultimate source. No mention of the Grail is made in Peredur, but in an analogous scene, Peredur sees a severed head brought in at a feast, but fails to ask its meaning. My personal feeling (based solely on artistic instinct, I should stress) is that the Grail had become too inextricably linked with Perceval by the 14th century to be omitted, and the severed head is more likely to be the older version. But who knows?

Perceval: The Story of the Grail is absolutely essential reading for anyone intending to write about the Grail legend, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a fine work which, though needing a good translation and some understanding of mediaeval storytelling styles, can still both excite and amuse the modern reader.

*Quotes from Chrétien are from the translation by D.D.R. Owen, published by The Everyman Library in Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes.

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