Perceval: The Story of the Grail

Perceval: The Story of the Grail
(Conte du Graal)
   by Chrétien de Troyes
(ca. 1190)
   The French poet CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES’s longest (at 9,200 lines) and most puzzling ROMANCE is his last, the unfinished Perceval, or Le Conte du Graal (The story of the Grail). The poem contains a dedication to Count Philip of Flanders, who was Chrétien’s patron after the poet had left the service of the Countess MARIE DE CHAMPAGNE, for whom his other romances were probably written. Chrétien says that he is putting into verse the story of the Grail (see HOLY GRAIL), which he found in a book given him by the count. The truth of that assertion is unclear, but the story itself is a bildungsroman, following the young, naïve Perceval on a quest for his identity, out of adolescence and into maturity and adult responsibility. More important for most readers, Chrétien also introduces the Grail motif into the literary tradition of King ARTHUR.
   The romance of Perceval falls into three sections: the early, mostly comic, adventures of the woefully ignorant protagonist; the episodes surrounding Perceval’s experiences at the Grail castle and their aftermath; and the curious adventures of GAWAIN (Gauvain in Chrétien’s French). The poem begins when Perceval, raised in the wild forest by his overprotective mother, encounters five knights of Arthur’s court. Their shining coats of mail lead Perceval to think he has met God and his angels. When he learns the truth, his interest in the knights is insatiable, and he determines to go to Arthur’s court and be made a knight. His mother mourns, saying she had kept him from the world because his brothers, both knights, had been killed in combat. But Perceval insists on leaving, and his mother tries to give him some useful instruction: Help maidens in distress, she tells him; he may accept a kiss or ring from a maiden, but nothing else; he should not be long with a man without learning his name; and above all else, his mother says, he should visit churches to pray. As he rides away, he sees his mother fall to the ground, but is too eager to leave to go back and see what has happened to her. Perceval is not gone long before he finds a rich pavilion, which he mistakes for a church.When he enters and finds a maiden there, he kisses her seven times and takes a ring from her finger, comically misapplying his mother’s advice.When he gets to Arthur’s court at Carlisle, Perceval finds Arthur in distress over being insulted by a knight in red arms who has stolen his golden cup and threatened to take his lands. Perceval pursues the knight, kills him with a javelin throw, and dresses in his arms. He believes he is now a knight because he has the outward trappings, but must learn the ethical and social responsibilities of knightly status. He rides off in his new armor and meets a kindly lord named Gornemant, who welcomes Perceval to his castle and takes the time to instruct him in horsemanship and the use of knightly arms, dubs him a knight, and gives him more advice: Grant mercy to any knight who requests it, the lord tells him; don’t talk too much, so as not to appear foolish; support women or orphans who are in trouble; and finally, the lord repeats Perceval’s mother’s advice in telling him to go to church.
   Perceval next meets the beautiful Blancheflour, whom he discovers in distress because her knights have been captured and her castle besieged by the army of Clamadeu, who wants Blanchefleur for himself. The town will surrender the next day, and the lady will kill herself, unless Perceval can intervene. But Perceval succeeds in defeating first Clamadeu’s seneschal and then the lord himself. After several days with his new love, Perceval leaves her out of belated concern for his mother, whom he decides to visit.
   This brings Perceval to the Grail adventure, and with these episodes the tone of the romance changes from comic to more serious, as Perceval’s failures have more dire consequences. Perceval comes upon a nobleman fishing in a river, who invites the knight to his castle. When Perceval arrives, he finds the Fisher King already seated in his hall, and while they converse, a strange procession passes before them: First, a squire holding a lance trickling a drop of blood passes by, followed by two more squires holding candelabra. Next, a maiden walks by holding a golden, bejeweled Grail (a wide, deep dish), and she is followed by another young woman carrying a silver carving platter.While Perceval marvels at this, he says nothing, remembering Gornemant’s advice not to talk too much. An ivory table is placed before them, and Perceval and the king enjoy a rich feast, though before every new course the Grail procession passes before them again. The disabled king is carried to bed and Perceval sleeps in the castle hall, but when he awakes, the castle is deserted and he rides away in wonder.
   But this failure to ask the question is the turning point of the story. Perceval soon discovers that the Fisher King, maimed in battle by a spear thrust through his thighs, is king of the Waste Land, and that the king would have been healed and fertility returned to the land had Perceval asked about the Grail procession. Further,Perceval is told that, when he left his mother, he caused her death. The chastised Perceval rides on to Arthur’s court, where a loathly lady messenger arrives on a mule and shames Perceval before the court, cursing him for his silence during the Grail procession. Perceval leaves the court, vowing not to sleep two nights in the same place until he discovers who is served from the Grail. At this point Perceval’s story is interrupted abruptly by a long section following the adventures of Gawain, who leaves Arthur’s court at the same time to rescue a besieged damsel. A number of rather insignificant adventures surrounding Gawain follow; so irrelevant to the Perceval story are they that a number of scholars have suggested that the Gawain section was originally intended to be a separate romance, but that the incomplete condition of the Perceval manuscript upon Chrétien’s death caused the confusion. But most scholars see in Gawain’s adventures parallels to Perceval’s, and consider the Gawain section of the romance as a commentary and deliberate contrast with the first section. But Gawain’s adventures are interrupted by a 300-line interlude in which Perceval, after five years of searching unsuccessfully for answers, encounters a hermit on Good Friday who proves to be his own uncle. In the romance’s third “instruction” scene, the hermit tells Perceval that the Grail contained a Mass wafer, used to sustain the life of the Fisher King’s invalid father for 15 years. It is his own sin—his failure of charity in not returning to his mother when he saw her fall—that caused his failure at the Grail Castle. Now Perceval makes his first confession, to his uncle on Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday receives the Eucharist for the first time.
   The poem then returns to Gawain’s story. Gawain himself sets out to seek the bleeding lance (a part of the Grail procession not explained by the hermit), which somehow is connected with the fate of Arthur’s kingdom, but the romance leaves off before reaching a conclusion. It is assumed that Chrétien died before completing his poem. The rich suggestiveness of the text, however, inspired in the decades following Chrétien’s death four different continuations of the Perceval story, by authors trying to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion—bringing the length of the text to more than 45,000 lines. The origin of the Grail motif has been the most widely discussed aspect of Chrétien’s poem. Its origin has been suggested in ritualistic survivals of the cult of Adonis, in magic vessels of Celtic myth, in religious legends of Persia, or in Christian allegory. There is no scholarly consensus for any of these explanations, and it may be wisest to simply accept the Grail for what Chrétien makes of it: a plot device that underscores Perceval’s failures and need for growth, which is the focus of the romance.
   ■ Chrétien de Troyes. Li Contes del Graal. Edited by Rupert T. Pickens, translated by William W. Kibler. New York: Garland, 1990.
   ■ Holmes, Urban T. Chrétien de Troyes. New York: Twayne, 1970.
   ■ Kelly, Douglas, ed. The Romances of Chrétien de Troyes: A Symposium. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1985.
   ■ Lacy, Norris J. The Craft of Chrétien de Troyes. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1980.
   ■ Topsfield, L. T. Chrétien de Troyes: A Study of the Arthurian Romances. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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