Perceval, the Story of the Grail
Perceval, the Story of the Grail (French: Perceval ou le Conte du Graal) is the unfinished fifth romance of Chrétien de Troyes, who lived from around 1130 to the early 1190s, and is dedicated to Chrétien's patron Philip, Count of Flanders. It was written in Old French during the 1180s or 1190s and likely left unfinished because of the death of either Philip in 1191, while crusading at Acre, or Chretien himself.
Chrétien claimed to be working from a source given to him by Philip. The poem, relates the adventures and growing pains of the young knight Perceval but the story breaks off. There follows an adventure of Gawain of similar length that also remains incomplete. There are some 9,000 lines in total, whereas Chrétien's other romances seldom exceed 7,000 lines.
Later authors added 54,000 more lines in what are known collectively as the Four Continuations. Perceval is the earliest recorded account of what was to become the Quest for the Holy Grail but describes only a golden grail (a serving dish) in the central scene and does not call it "holy" but treats a lance, appearing at the same time, as equally significant.
The poem opens with Perceval, whose mother has raised him apart from civilization in the forests of Wales. Since his father's death, he continually encounters knights and realizes he wants to be one. Despite his mother's objections, the boy heads to King Arthur's court, where a young girl predicts greatness for him. He is taunted by Sir Kay, but amazes everyone by killing a knight who had been troubling King Arthur and taking his vermilion armor. He then sets out for adventure. He trains under the experienced Gornemant, then falls in love with and rescues Gornemant's niece Blanchefleur. They agree to marry.
Returning home to visit his mother, he comes across the Fisher King fishing in a boat on a river, who invites him to stay at his castle. While there he witnesses a strange procession in which young men and women carry magnificent objects from one chamber to another. First comes a young man carrying a bleeding lance, then two boys carrying candelabra. Finally, a beautiful young girl emerges bearing an elaborately decorated graal, or "grail", passing before him at each course of the meal. Perceval, who had been trained by his guardian Gornemant not to talk too much, remains silent through all of this. He wakes up the next morning alone. He remembers that his mother fainted when he went off to become a knight, and goes to visit her. She has died, and then Arthur asks him to return to court. But before long, a loathly lady enters the court and admonishes Perceval for failing to ask his host the Fisher King 'whom the grail served', as the appropriate question would have healed the wounded King.
No more is heard of Perceval except in a short later passage, in which a hermit explains that the grail contains a single mass-wafer that miraculously sustains the Fisher King’s wounded father. The loathly lady announces other quests that the Knights of the Round Table proceed to take up and the remainder of the poem deals with Arthur's nephew and best knight Gawain, who has been challenged to a duel by a knight who claims Gawain had slain his lord. Gawain offers a contrast and complement to Perceval's naiveté as a courtly knight having to function in un-courtly settings. An important episode is Gawain's liberation of a castle whose inhabitants include his long-lost mother and grandmother as well as his sister Clarissant, whose existence was unknown to him. This tale also breaks off unfinished.
The continuations and prologues
The First Continuation added 9,500 to 19,600 lines (depending on the manuscripts) to the romance. It was once attributed to Wauchier de Denain, and is still sometimes called the Pseudo-Wauchier Continuation for that reason. It exists in a short, a mixed, and a long version; the short was the earliest and the most loosely linked to Chrétien's work, while the mixed is considered to be the latest, drawing on both earlier versions. Roger Sherman Loomis believed that the short version, which was added to an existing Perceval manuscript ten or twenty years later, represents a version of the story that was originally independent of Chrétien's.
The First Continuation picks up the narrative of Gawain's adventures where Chrétien left off: his mother and grandmother are reunited with Arthur and Gawain's sister Clarissant marries Guiromelant. In the long version, Gawain opposes the marriage and rides off in anger, reaching the Grail Castle. After further adventures he rejoins Arthur (and the long version rejoins the short) and helps him besiege a rebel's castle.
The First Continuation is notable for its cavalier approach to the narrative agenda set by Chrétien. In particular it includes a seemingly independent romance, which in the long version spans over 6000 lines: The Livre de Caradoc, starring Arthur's knight Caradoc, explains how the hero got his nickname "Briefbras", or "Short Arm". All versions of the First Continuation describe Gawain's visit to a Grail castle quite unlike Chrétien's, a vividly imagined scene that introduces the motif of a broken sword that can only be mended by the hero destined to heal the Fisher King and his lands. Gawain is not this hero and he fails. The final episode recounts the misadventures of Gawain's brother Guerrehet (Gaheris or Gareth) who is humiliated by a dwarf knight before avenging himself and a mysteriously murdered stranger. In the closing scene he returns to court asleep on a swan boat.
Shortly after the First Continuation was completed, another author added 13,000 lines to the total. This section was also attributed to Wauchier de Danain, and might actually represent his work. Making extensive use of motifs and themes drawn from Chrétien and the First Continuator, this continuation has Perceval returning to the Grail Castle and repairing the sword of Trebuchet, but a hairline fissure that remains in the blade symbolizes his still-flawed psyche – and the narrative's persisting potential for further development.
Gerbert's Continuation added 17,000 lines. The author, usually considered to be Gerbert de Montreuil, composed his version independently of Manessier, and probably around the same time. He tries to tie up loose ends left by Chrétien and the others, and the influence of Robert de Boron's work can be felt. Notably, Gerbert includes a complete Tristan episode into his narrative that exists nowhere else. Gerbert's Continuation seems not to have enjoyed great popularity; it survives in only two manuscripts, one of which is heavily damaged, as an interpolation between the Second and Manessier Continuations. It is likely Gerbert wrote an ending for the story, but it has been excised from both surviving copies to facilitate its position between the two other continuations.
Manessier's Continuation (also called the Third Continuation, because that is its place in the manuscripts that do not include Gerbert) added 10,000 lines and, at last, an ending. Manessier wrapped up many of the loose ends from the previous authors, and includes several episodes from other works, including the "Joie de la Cour" adventure from Chrétien's Erec and Enide and Calogrenant's death as told in the Queste del Saint Graal section of the Lancelot-Grail cycle. The tale ends with the Fisher King's death and Perceval's ascension to his throne. After seven peaceful years, Perceval goes off to live as a hermit in the woods, where he dies shortly after. Manessier supposes he took the Grail, the Lance, and the silver plate with him to Heaven.
The Elucidation is an anonymous Old French poem of the early 13th century, which was written to serve as a prologue to Chrétien's Perceval. The poem counts 484 lines and cites one Master Blihis as a source for its contents.
Another prologue to Perceval consisted of 800 verses preserved in two 13-century manuscripts. In the poem, Perceval's father (who is left unnamed in Chretien's original) is called Bliocadran.
Perlesvaus, also called Li Hauz Livres du Graal (The High History of the Holy Grail), is an Old French Arthurian romance dating to the first decade of the 13th century. It purports to be a continuation of Perceval, the Story of the Grail, but it has been called the least canonical Arthurian tale because of its striking differences from other versions. It survives in three manuscripts, two fragments, and two 16th-century printings.
Though Chrétien did not complete his romance, it had an enormous impact on the literary world of the Middle Ages. Perceval introduced an enthusiastic Europe to the grail and all versions of the story, including those that made the grail "Holy", probably derive directly or indirectly from it. The grail in Perceval has the power to heal the Fisher King so it may have been seen as a mystical or holy object by readers.
Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, one of the greatest works of medieval Germany, is based largely on Chrétien's poem. When comparing Wolfram's Parzival to Chretien's Perceval some scholars not only suggest that the structure is different, but that Chretien focuses on knighthood with religious implications while Wolfram primarily focuses on knighthood.
French filmmaker Éric Rohmer directed an eccentric adaptation titled Perceval le Gallois in 1978. T. S. Eliot cited the story of Percival, particularly the scene depicting his encounter with the Fisher King, as one of the primary symbolic backdrops in his poem The Waste Land.
It is said by some scholars that during the time Chrétien was writing Perceval, there was a political crisis taking place between the monarchy and the aristocracy, which included his patron, Philip of Flanders, which may have influenced Chrétien’s work.
- Lacy, Norris J. (1991). "Chrétien de Troyes". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 88–91. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- Grigsby, John L. (1991). "Continuations of Perceval". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 99–100. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- O'Gorman, Richard (1991). "Grail". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 212–213. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- English translations of the Continuations can be found in Bryant, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, 1996.
- Loomis, Roger Sherman (1991). The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, ch. VI. Princeton. ISBN 0-691-02075-2. [permanent dead link]
- Arthur, Ross Gilbert (translator) (1996). Caradoc. In Three Arthurian Romances: Poems from Medieval France: Caradoc, the Knight With the Sword, the Perilous Graveyard. New York: Everyman's Library. ISBN 0-460-87577-9.
- Owen, Arthurian Romances.
- The scene in question appears in Lacy, Lancelot-Grail, Volume 4, p. 61.
- Busby, Keith (1991). "Perlesvaus". In Norris J. Lacy (Ed.), The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 358–359. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- The Arthurian Handbook, pp. 80–81
- Ramm, Ben. A Discourse for the Holy Grail in Old French Romance Ed. Sarah Kay. New York: D.S. Brewer, 2007 (pp. 4-7 and 110-121)
- Wolfram claims his source is not Chrétien but an otherwise unknown Provençal poet named Kyot; this is not accepted by the majority of scholars. See Hatto, A. T. (1980). "Introduction to a Second Reading." In Wolfram von Eschenbach; Hatto, A. T. (translator), Parzival. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044361-4.
- Groos, Arthur. Romancing the Grail: Genre, Science, and Quest in Wolfram's "Parzival." New York: Cornell University, 1995.
- Roberts, Brynly F. (1991). "Peredur". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 357–358. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- Gantz, The Mabinogion.
- Pickens, Rupert T. "Le Conte du Graal." The Romances of Chretien de Troyes: A Symposium Ed. Douglas Kelly. Kentucky: French Forum, 1985 (232-286)
- Arthur, Ross Gilbert (translator) (1996). Three Arthurian Romances: Poems from Medieval France: Caradoc, the Knight With the Sword, the Perilous Graveyard. New York: Everyman's Library. ISBN 0-460-87577-9.
- Chrétien de Troyes; Bryant, Nigel (translator) (1996). Perceval, the Story of the Grail. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-224-8. 
- Chrétien de Troyes; Owen, D. D. R. (translator) (1988). Arthurian Romances. New York: Everyman's Library. ISBN 0-460-87389-X.
- Gantz, Jeffrey (translator) (1987). The Mabinogion. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044322-3.
- Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.) (April 1, 1995). Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, Volume 4 of 5. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8153-0748-9.
- Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.) (1991). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia.
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