The Celtic Literature Collective
Didot Perceval

The prose romance of Perceval, or Didot Perceval as it has more often been named, was probably written between 1190 and 1215. It has survived to modern times in two manuscripts with quite dissimilar texts, the manuscripts being known respectively as the Paris, Didot, or D manuscript and the Modena or E manuscript. The word Didot has nothing to do with the romance itself but is simply a borrowing from the name of a former owner of the D manuscript, Firmin-Didot. Although the D text has some very interesting variations from the E version, I have chosen to translate the latter here because it is both smoother in diction and more unified and readable in plot. The question of which is more true to the lost original from which they both stem is impossible to solve except, perhaps, in the case of individual episodes. To the reader who is interested in exploring the manifold facets of this problem, I recommend the very detailed introduction of William Roach to his authoritative edition of both texts, The Didot Perceval according to the Manuscripts of Modena and Paris (Philadelphia, 1941). Besides the Roach edition, which presents corresponding parts of the texts on the same page. the two versions have each appeared separately once before: the D text edited by Eugene Hucher, "Perceval, ou la Quête du Saint Graal," Le Saint-Graal ou le Joseph d'Arimathie, Vol. I (Le Mans and Paris, 1875-78), and the E manuscript edited by Jessie Weston, Legend of Sir Perceval, Vol. II (London, 1906-9).

Arthurian scholars are united in pointing out that the prose Perceval is not one but two works: a fairly long Grail quest by the knight Perceval and a very short Mort Artu which forms the third section of this translation (pp. 70 f.). The first part of the translation, or Prologue as I have entitled it, is considered by most authorities of today to be the conclusion of the prose Merlin rather than the beginning of the Perceval. I have included it here because it was presented as a part of the Thrceval in the first publication of the F version edited by Miss Weston and because I believe that the general reader, for whom this translation is intended, will find the remainder of the work more understandable by virtue of the introduction this section provides.

In both manuscripts in which the prose Perceval or Didot Perceval is found, it is preceded by a prose version of the poem Joseph d'Arimathie by Robert de Boron and by a prose Merlin which is an obvious sequel to the Joseph. The Merlin is probably also a rehandling of a poem by Robert de Boron all of which has been lost except for its first 502 lines which follow immediately after the Joseph d'Arimathie poem in the only manuscript of this work which has survived. The prose Perceval is as obviously a continuation of the Merlin as the Merlin is of the Joseph. As we have said, it is not completely certain where one ends and the other begins. In addition to the fact that the Merlin and the Perceval merge into each other without a definite division between them, the Perceval is also linked to both preceding works by similarities of diction which provide some evidence that a single author (presumably Robert de Boron) may have composed not only the poem of Joseph and the nonextant original Merlin poem but an original Perceval and Mort Artu poem as well. Accordingly, the two surviving texts of the prose Perceval would be more or less mutilated versions of a single prose rehandling of this lost original poem. This point of view, which sees the prose or Didot Perceval as a rehandling of a lost poem by Robert de Boron, has been accepted and presented very convincingly by two renowned Arthurian scholars, Professor William Roach in the introduction to his edition of the Didot Perceval and the late Doctor E. Brugger in 'tDer sog. Didot-Perceval," Zeitschrzft flirfranzösische Sprache und Literatur, 53 (1930), pp. 389-459.

On the other hand, the prose Perceval may be the work of a continuator of the two compositions of Robert de Boron-the Joseph and the lost original Merlin poem-some unknown author who set out to complete the de Boron cycle with a prose Perceval and a brief Mort Artu. If the Perceval was written by a continuator it becomes easier to explain certain indebtednesses of this work to Chrétien de Troyes' poem Le Roman de Perceval and to the Second Continuation of this poem called the Wauchier Continuation. Although Robert de Boron, considered now to have been a native of Burgundy and to have written sometime between 1190 and 1215, could have been the borrower of these materials since Chrétien's poem was completed by 1190 and its first two continuations probably by 1200, neverthe - less the borrowings in the prose Perceval intrude such inconsistencies between this work and de Boron's Joseph and Merlin that it seems unlikely that the same author who wrote these could be responsible for the borrowed sections of the Perceval. Brugger and Roach have answered this problem by considering these sections to be the interpolations of a rehandler of the presumed Robert de Boron Perceval poem. However, as Pierre le Gentil says in his essay "The Work of Robert de Boron and the Didot Perceval, "Arthuricm Literature in the Middle Ages, edited by R. S. Loomis (Oxford, 1959), p. 260: "Under such conditions . . . the archetype dwindles to such an extent that it is hard to see what sequel it could have provided for the Siege Perilous test, and in what form it could have presented the final success of the hero. Inevitably the question arises: is it certain that the archetype existed?" As yet there is no positive answer to the problem. Our work may have been written by an unknown continuator of Robert de Boron's Merlin, or by de Boron plus one or more rehandlers who changed the poetry to prose while borrowing liberally from Chrétien's Perceval and its Second Continuation.

If the authorship of the prose Perceval cannot be resolved, the date of its composition is even more difficult to determine precisely. Roach, believing it to be the rehandling of de Boron's poem, would date the de Boron original composition between 1190 and 1212, and the prose romance would in his opinion not be much later than the original poetic version. Professor J. D. Bruce in Evolution of Arthurian Romance from the Beginnings down to the Year 1300 (Gottingen, 1923), Vol. II, pp. 112-13, approved of a date of approximately 1230 for the work in its present form. He did not believe in an original de Boron Perceval poem and assumed, probably incorrectly, that the prose romance was later than the immense prose Vulgate Cycle and indebted to it. On the whole, considering the discussion of the question by Roach (Didot Perceval, pp. 125-30), the earlier dating seems the more reasonable. Again I must recommend the study of the introduction of the Roach edition to anyone desiring further information not only about this problem but about all other aspects of the prose Perceval.

Besides my broad division of the translation into the three parts-"Prologue," "Adventures of Perceval, "and "Mort Artu"-I have divided the last two of these into sections which conform with the breakdown by episodes made by Brugger and used by Roach in his Introduction except that particularly short episodes have not been made separate sections: Episodes B and C are included in "The Feast at Pentecost"; Episodes J, K, L, and M in "The Castle of the Fisher King"; Episodes P and Q in "The Return to the Fisher King"; and Episodes T and U in "Mordret's Treason." My paragraphing has in general followed that in the editions of Roach and of Weston. However, in many instances I have divided paragraphs when it seemed that their length was so great that it would be an encumbrance to the modern reader. Punctuation has been a problem because of the extreme looseness of the style. Wherever the punctuation appearing in the Roach edition did not conflict too pointedly with contemporary English usage, I have tried to retain it because I felt that it usually suited the sense of a close translation and that it was therefore a desirable stylistic factor. In general, I have used the forms of the proper nouns which appear in the introduction of Professor Roach's edition of the text.

I am very grateful to Professor Robert Linker of the University of North Carolina for his careful reading of the translation and the numerous corrections he suggested. I would also like to acknowledge my debt to Professors Allen Benham, David Fowler, and Myron White of the University of Washington.

Dell Skeels

SOURCE: Didot Perceval, or, The Romance of Perceval in Prose. ed. and trans. Dell Skeels. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.

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