Perceval, Or, the Story of the Grail

The last romance ever written by Chretien de Troyes, it is the first text to give the Grail quest in the form we now know it, and is the first use of the word "graal" or grail. He attributes his material to a book owned by Philip of Flanders, cousin to Henry II of England--whether this is true or not can't be determined. It is possible that Philip had access to a book on the grail; it's also said that Philip had relics connected to Joseph of Arimathea and the Lance of the Crucifixion; moreover, Philip was a crusader renowned for his piety. Whether or not he had some--likely British--book on the grail is unknown, but highly possible, and certainly the subject of the cup of Christ would have held his interest. Still, most of what we see in Chretien's poem is closer to Celtic mythology than any crusader's tale--the Fisher King and his Waste Land, the mystical cup, the bleeding lance, the naÔve orphan hero, all seem to come out of Celtic mythology. No surprise, really, as the courts of what is now France was crawling with Breton troubadours, ready to tell the tales of their Welsh and Irish cousins.

Begun around 1174 and left unfininshed in 1191 (presumably by Chretien's death), Perceval has been completed by several different continuations:

However, the original tale goes as follows: Perceval is raised alone in the woods by his mother, in order to keep him from being a knight. One day, he sees a group of knights and decides to follow them; in doing so, he breaks his mother's heart, killing her. He then goes to the court of King Arthur, where he sees Guenevere being outraged by a Red Knight who throws a drink on her and leaves. Perceval pursues the knight, killing him and tryign to take his armor. Another knight comes along and educates the simpleton in some virtues of chivalry--and in a series of adventures, we see Perceval get everything wrong. He saves the maiden Blanchefleur from an evil duke, and falls in love with the girl. He eventually comes to the court of his uncle, the Fisher King, and views the grail in a procession. However, his misunderstanding of chivalry keeps him from asking about the service, thus leaving the Fisher King lame. He then goes mad for five years, wandering the woods.

Meanwhile, we have several adventures about Gawain, running parallel to Perceval's adventures, before the text suddenly breaks off in the middle of a sentence.

What is interesting about Perceval, aside from the obvious elements as the mysterious Grail and its unfinished status, is the inclusion of Gawain as an alternate hero throughout the romance. He acts in contrast to the naÔve Perceval; his knowledge of courtly behavior and chivalric feats is unparalleled in the romance.

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Mary Jones © 2004