also Parzival, Perlesvaus, Percyvell, Parsifal, Percival, Percivale, and possibly the early Welsh Peredur.
As the French "Perceval" has no real meaning (possibly "pierce the valley"--as to what that means, one can take it as either sexual, or an initiate into the mysteries), it is possible that the hero's original name was the Welsh Peredur--"Hard Spear"?
The relationship between Perceval and Peredur is a difficult one to untangle, and is best discussed under the Peredur article.
Perceval is the original hero of the Grail quest, and in later versions, where he is replaced by Galahad, he still is always a part of the elect few who achieve the Grail. He is always a naive figure, often raised in the woods by his widowed mother and is quite alone in the world. He is accidentally exposed to the real world when a group of knights come riding through his backyard, and he decides to go off and become a Knight of the Round Table. From here he has a series of adventures, falls in love, and ends up in the Waste Land at the mysterious court of his uncle, the Fisher King, wherein he sees the Grail and the Bleeding Spear. He foolishly says nothing about what he sees and leaves. He has some more adventures, and in some versions, is able to return and heal the king, restore the land, and become the new grail guardian.
His naïveté is such that while it plays for a comic effect early in the poem (such as his not knowing what knights were, or his ridiculous behavior towards a young lady), it ultimately has tragic effects when he is silent before the Grail. Had Perceval spoken up (though the question is different in each text), he would have healed both the Waste Land and the Fisher King; instead, he keeps to an outmoded code which taught him to keep silent when he didn't know what was happening.
Perceval was replaced by Sir Galahad in the Vulgate Cycle as hero of the grail. The Cistercians who wrote this cycle likely found it easier to create an ideal figure of saintly knighthood, a paragon of wisdom and virtue, than to continue rewriting the tale of the Fool who finds the cup of Christ. Moreover, it seems that Lancelot was becoming a popular figure in romance, and while it would be blasphemous to have an adulterer be the Grail Knight, it would be much less so if it were Lancelot's son. Moreover, Perceval is anything but chaste, and thus he was pushed into the background by the Cistercians, staying there up through the age of Malory.
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Mary Jones © 2004