PERCEVAL : THE GOLD GRAIL
BRIAN EDRIC COLLESS
The story of the Holy Grail begins with a medieval French romance (an epic poem), composed by Crestien (Chrétien) de Troyes, late in the twelfth century, and entitled Le Roman de Perceval (The Romance of Perceval) or Le Conte del Graal (The Tale of the Grail).
In the Waste Forest the Widow-Lady’s unnamed son has his first encounter with knights.
He decides to leave home and become a knight. His distraught mother gives him advice:
(1) Help women in need; accept a kiss, a ring, or a purse as a reward
(2) Seek the company of noble people, and ask their name
(3) Go to church and pray to God
As he departs he sees her fall down as if dead, but he does not turn back.
First adventure, damsel in a tent; extracts kisses and a ring from her, leaves her in distress!
He goes to King Arthur (Artus) and demands to be knighted.
He defeats the wicked Red Knight and takes his armour.
At the castle of the venerable Gornemant de Goort, he receives his spur, and learns chivalry:
(1) Show mercy to a defeated adversary if he pleads for it
(2) Be discreet and do not talk excessively
(3) Assist women in need, married or unmarried
(4) Go to church and pray for God’s mercy and protection
(5) Do not be an idiot quoting your mother; quote the man who gave you your spur
The hero thinks compassionately about his mother and heads homewards.
He is sidetracked by an adventure with a princess, Blancheflor of Beaurepaire castle. He vanquishes two of her enemies. He wants to marry her, but first he must see how his mother is.
He is lodged for a night in the castle of the Fisher-King. At a banquet he sees the grail and a bleeding white lance, but fails to ask the required questions about them.
He meets a weeping damsel and her slain lover. She asks him his name; he remembers it or makes it up as Perceval the Welshman (Galois). She scolds him for not asking the questions, which would have healed the king. She is his cousin, and she tells him his mother is dead.
He meets a disheveled woman; the one from the tent; reconciles her with her angry lover.
He sees on the snow 3 drops of blood from a wounded goose; reminds him of Blancheflor.
Gawain finds him, and takes him to King Arthur and Queen Guenevere, and he is now a knight of the Round Table.
At a celebration feast, the Hideous Damsel appears, condemns Perceval for his failure at the Grail castle, and predicts dire outcomes. He forswears the worldly chivalry of Gawain (tournaments and amours).
After five years, in which he has not worshipped God, Perceval encounters a party of knights and ladies walking barefoot and wearing hairshirts, on Good Friday.
Perceval resorts to a hermit to confess his sins. He learns that this hermit and the Fisher-King are brothers of his mother, hence his uncles. The Grail serves the Fisher-King’s father [in the room adjoining the hall of the castle]; his life is sustained by a single eucharistic wafer. The Grail is a holy thing. Perceval’s penance is imposed, and he receives holy communion.
Perceval is clearly in line to be the next Grail-King, but the poem is unfinished.
What is the Grail? A serving dish, ‘a platter, broad and somewhat deep’ (according to a contemporary definition of the Latin term gradalis). Crestien’s grail is made of gold, and shines brilliantly. It is accompanied by a silver carving platter, and also a bleeding spear. The Grail is carried back and forth for each course of the meal, so it provides the desired food and drink?
Where is the Grail? In the castle of the Fisher-King, an uncle of Perceval. It is in the same land as King Arthur’s realm, and thus in Britain. But the Grail is not available to the Round Table.
Whence is the Grail? Crestien gives no answer in the uncompleted poem.
Whose is the Grail? It serves the Fisher-King and his father (both unnamed) and sustains them. Presumably Perceval, the Welsh country-bumpkin, will attain wisdom and compassion, and become the guardian of the Grail.
PERCEVAL : THE GOLD GRAIL
The story of the Holy Grail begins with a medieval French romance (an epic poem), composed by Crestien (Chrétien) de Troyes, late in the twelfth century, and entitled Le Roman de Perceval (The Romance of Perceval) or Le Conte del Graal (The Tale of the Grail).
For the English-speaking peoples it goes back to the fifteenth century, when Sir Thomas Malory produced Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur, 1470). [An English book with a French title? Anglo-Norman influence?] In his collection of Arthurian stories he included The Quest of the Holy Grail (translated from French).
Crestien’s Perceval opens with a prologue of sixty-eight lines (out of 9,235), starting with a pious little saying (a sententia): “Whosoever sows little gathers little”. (Ki petit semme petit quelt or Qui petit seme petit quialt) [cueillir, ‘gather’]. Now that I have translated the words into English we have a ‘homophonic’ problem. Is it ‘sewing’ with thread or 'sowing' with seed?
Is it a woman ‘sewing’ at home and ‘gathering’, making a gathered skirt, gathering the material in folds, or puckering (her lips, sexily thinking of her knight?), drawing together part of a dress by running a thread through? If you don’t sew often you won’t have occasion to do much ‘gathering’. Makes sense. Or is it a man out in the field planting his seed in the furrows?
What Crestien says is this:
“He who sows little reaps little, but he who wishes to reap plentifully casts his seed on ground that will increase his fruit a hundredfold”.
The good ground that Crestien is cultivating and in which he is sowing his seeds, meaning the words of his story, is a person, namely Count Philip of Flanders, his bountiful patron. Philip is as noble as Alexander, but he is worthier, because his generosity is in accordance with the Gospel pattern or paradigm, from the sermon on the mount (Matthew 6:3):
“Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth”.
[Let us be a mite antiquated, to maintain a medieval tone.]
As Crestien sees it, the left hand represents vainglory, while the right hand signifies love, caritas, charité, charity. Love is the nobler way, because “God is Love”. Crestien, good Christian that he was, may have faltered here; he seems to attribute the identifying of God and Charity to Saint Paul. But the statement “God is Love” is not found in the epistles of the apostle Paul, but in the First Letter of John (chapter 4, verse 8).
You are getting worried now; this looks as if it is turning into a Bible-study session, and you are thinking you have been enticed here on false pretences. Fear not, little flock (another quotation from the Bible), we shall come to the ripping yarns and the raging controversies ere long.
Paul of Tarsus did not explicitly say “God is Love”, but he did write a beautiful piece about Christian love (agapé), a noble steed (not to say war-horse) which is regularly trotted out at weddings (1 Corinthians 13). The main point in it is: “if I do not have love, I am nothing” (13:2). And the climax is: “Now abideth faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is love” (13:13). Moreover, Paul does declare (in 2 Corinthians 13:11) that the Christian God is “the God of love”, and so he enjoins them (verily a suitable word for the sacred conjoining he is proposing) to “salute one another with a holy kiss” (13:12).
Besides the danger of saliva-trafficking spreading a plague, one thing could lead to another, and we are back in the garden of Eden, where the problem was, perchance, not just the apple on the tree but the pear on the ground.
Other apostolic pronouncements about love and God turn up at wedding breakfasts. This is relevant because there are marriages in The Tale of the Grail. One example is the telegram sent to a bride, perhaps to allay her fears over the imagined terrors of consummation: “Perfect love casteth out fear”. This was from1 John 4:18, ten verses on from “God is Love” (4:8). To save money only the Bible reference was sent, not the words. Horror of horrors, a numeral 1 was omitted in transmission; not the 1 before the 8 (giving “God is Love”) but the 1 before John, and the best man opened a Bible and redd out 4:18 from the Gospel, not the Epistle: “thou hast had five husbands and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband”. These words would have fitted that point in the wedding ceremony, where the invitation is given for intervention by anyone who can show just cause why the couple should not be matrimonially conjunctified, or else ‘conjugally matrimonified’.
In that context, Jesus was addressing a Samaritan, the woman at the well. Please note very carefully, he was not talking to Mary Magdalene.
But what has that got to do with the Holy Grail? Well, there is a rumour going around at present, and may have been circulating for some two thousand years, that Mary of Magdala was the Grail, the sacred receptive vessel, the receptacle for something very holy and precious. This was a secret, which was allegedly kept in a particular family, who functioned as the keepers of the Grail.
May we hope that when we delve deep into the evidence for the identity of the Grail, we will find it is not about sex, but something wholesome, like . . . food. And drink.
This is an opportune moment to mention another Mary, Marie de Champagne (speaking of drink, things are really bubbling now, champagne in the evening, real pain in the morning). She was the previous patron of Crestien de Troyes; to her he dedicated his romance entitled Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart.
[the adventures of the Cart-Knight on the Knight-cart? And why his name Lancelot? In the movies I have seen he does lance a lot of knights.]
As a piece of gossip, Marie de Champagne was courted (in vain) by Crestien’s patron Philippe d’Alsace, Philip of Alsace and Flanders, an Alsatian, no less.
[and for once you can not correct me and make me say ‘German shepherd’]
Playing with words and sounds. I should be ashamed to say there is a plethora of paronomasia (punning) in our passage through the Perceval poetry and prose, and rhyming and alliteration, too. To prove it exists in the texts themselves, here is a quotation from the prologue to Crestien’s Tale of the Grail.
At the command of the Count (le Conte), Crestien had undertaken “to rhyme the best tale (conte) that has ever been told (contez) in royal court”, namely “The Tale of the Grail, whose book was given to him by the Count (quiens)” (64-67).
Crestien was playing on the conte words. To reproduce the same effect in English we might say: the Count wanted the account to be recounted. The end-rhymes are: conte twice (for count and tale), and roial with graal.
All this adds up to a typical prologue for a romance: the author has been named, as Crestien; it begins with a motto, here stating a theme of sowing seed and harvesting produce; he offers praise for the patron, count Philip of Flanders. But, by quoting the Christian Scriptures, Crestien has added a new dimension to his art: the exploration of spirituality, in which we would expect charity, ‘love divine, all loves excelling’, to play a significant part.
As we set out on our pilgrimage through The Tale of the Grail, notice that Crestien calls the object simply ‘the Grail’ (graal), not the Holy Grail, though once (line 6425) a hermit calls the Grail ‘a holy thing’ (tant sainte chose est li graals).
‘Twas a lovely springtime morning; trees were sprouting new leaves; meadows were sporting green grass; and our stripling hero had a spring in his step.
[all that spitting and spraying suggests there were spring showers in the air]
We are not told the name of the youth, and the poor silly fool does not know his name either. He is just “the widow-lady’s son”. They dwell in the Waste Forest (Gaste Forest), leading a sheltered life, away from combat and strife. The reason for this intentional isolation was that the boy’s mother had lost her husband through warfare, and she was anxious to protect her son from such a fate.
However, things are about to change drasticly; she cannot stifle the stirrings of adolescence, or steer his testosterone level. He has ridden off on his horse to check up on the plowmen sowing oats in his mother’s fields (there’s the sowing theme straight away), and he is feeling his own oats. He is playing with his war-toys (as boys are naturally wont to do), promiscuously casting his three wooden spears.
[Is he a budding Shakespeare? A spunky alliterater, anyway.]
Of a sudden, a racket and clatter disturbed the peace of the place. The lad thought it must be those demons his mother had warned him against. He would not make the sign of the cross to ward them off, as his mother had advised; he would stick one of his spears into the leader of those dirty devils, and that would frighten them all off.
[they don’t like it up ‘em]
But lo and behold, there came into view, not a horde of unclean spirits, but five valiant knights in shining armour, with their mail shirts gleaming, and their bright helmets, shields, and spears flashing in the sunlight, and sparkling with the colour purple, and blue, and green, and silver, and gold. The hapless youth was aghast, astonisht, and abasht; he asked their forgiveness for his sin of not recognizing that they were angels, and that their leader was God.
But straightway they put him to rights;
they told him that they were just knights (chevaliers).
(The whole poem is in rhyming couplets of eight syllables. This one, of my own making, bears no resemblance to the original in metre or in meaning.)
The leading knight had a simple question: “Have you seen five knights and three girls in this vicinity today?” But a comical scene now unfolds, lengthily, as the boy ignores the repeated query, and babbles his own questions about the armour and the weapons. Finally, he conducted the knights to the plowmen, who became stricken with fear, because the mother would be hopping mad: all those years she had tried to keep him from ever seeing a knight or hearing about them, and now he was being told how to become a knight, by going to Carlisle (Cardoeil), where the king was residing at that time.
Having established that the other party of knights had indeed passed that way, the leader asked the lad his name, thrice, only to receive the same sort of reply.
“I’m called ‘Fair Son’ (Biax fix).”
“Yes, but I’m sure you have another name.” “Yes, I’m called Fair Brother.”
“Come now, you must have a proper name.” “Yes, they call me Good Master.”
So, off went the knights, firm in their belief that he was yet another scatter-brained dim-witted Welshman to add to their stereotype-collection.
The excited boy hurried home to his worrying mother, who welcomed him joyfully, exclaiming “Fair Son”, a hundred times and more. Happily he told her of the wonderful creatures he had encountered, but when he pronounced the dread word knight, unhappily it was good night for her: she fainted (and she was not feinting, as some women are wont to do, and as other women won’t do). When she regained her senses she spoke in sorrow and in anger, confessing that she had constantly endeavoured to keep such knowledge from him. She herself had a noble chivalric lineage, as also his father, whose chivalry had been the death of him. He was treacherously wounded between the legs (nasty, usually means castration); he died a lingering death, in impotence and poverty. Moreover, the boy’s two brothers were killed in battle, and this grief finished their father off, and left the mother with her infant as her only comfort and pleasure in life.
Our anonymous protagonist paid no heed to her agony. Within three days he was ready to go to the king who made knights. He was saying goodbye to his mother, and wearing the coarse hemp shirt [keep away from naked flame] and the Welsh breeches she had sewn [there’s that word we’ve been waiting for].
By way of counsel, the distraught woman gave her son a distaff-discourse on how to behave out in the world.
(1) Assist ladies in need, and aid maidens in distress, for the sake of honour; if a woman grants you a kiss, do not take anything more, except a ring or a purse.
(2) If you accept hospitality, ask the names of your companions; and always seek out the company of prodomes (people who are worthy, loyal, and wise).
(3) Go to churches and pray. (eglises, mostiers [minsters, not cathedrals but monastery chapels])
“Mother, what’s a church?”
Here his mother had to catechize him: “A place where one worships God, who made heaven and earth, and put men and women there. . . . and where we sacrifice the body of Jesus Christ, to whom Jews did much shame. [What about the Romans?] . . . He saved us from the Devil.”
She wept and kist him tenderly. But he would not be dissuaded. As he rode away he looked back once and saw that his mother had fallen down unconscious, as if stone dead. But he galloped off. [Buuuuuuuw & Buw huw]
After only a day and a night he had his first adventure (635-780). He came upon a tent, which was so magnificent that it must be a church, he weened, archaicly; and so he entered it to give adoration to God, as his mother had instructed him to do. There he found a girl sleeping on a silken bed. She awakes with a fright, and she begs him to leave before her friend (ami) returns and sees him. But the innocent fool carried on regardless, and thinking to obey his mother’s injunctions he moved in for a kiss. In his strong arms he claspt her, albeit awkwardly; he lay on top of her, and though she struggled hard he had his way with her a score of times or more, stealing kiss after kiss from her (text-critical footnote: one version only allows him seven); and he found the taste of her lips sweeter than he had ever had from the mouths of his mother’s chamber-maids.
Then he noticed that she had an emerald finger-ring. Again in mistaken obedience to his mother’s teaching, he took the ring from the young woman’s resisting hand, and put it on his own. She was now indeed a damsel in distress! When her knight came back she would really be in deep water (like the ordeal-trial by water, for witches, a no-win situation); he had given her that ring.
After that, the lad (that term is taking on an unpleasant odour; he’s a bit of a lad; so, for a change, let’s use the same word as Crestien does, le valet, or the varlet) the varlet gobbled one of her three venison pies (pastez); and guzzled a goblet of her wine. The fact that he covers the leftovers with a cloth seems to show that this scene has been a profaning of the Mass. You’ll pay for this, she intimated to him. I’ll pay you back before I die, he said as he departed. Presently the man-friend returns, refuses to listen, goes into a jealous rage, accuses her of wilful infidelity. Her punishment will be: no feed for her horse, and no clothes for her body, until he has cut off the head of the despoiler. We shall meet this dysfunctional couple again, forsooth.
Not a good outcome for the young adventurer’s first enterprise: he had totally botched the articles in his mission statement, as drawn up by his mother. He moves on, blithely unaware of the havoc he has wreaked at home and abroad.
On arrival at King Arthur’s court, he rode right into the royal presence (900). King Artus (as he is yclept by Crestien) was sitting silent and sullen at the table, with his merry band of knights chattering away. When the bold varlet finally got his attention, the king told him about the Red Knight who had just made off with a golden cup, shamefully spilling the wine on the queen as he grabbed it, causing her to run off and lock herself in her room.
The venturesome varlet seizes his opportunity, demands to be a dubbed a knight, and this done, or so he supposes, he races off in pursuit of that villainous Scarlet Knight. Having caught him (1076) he challenged him, and for his pains he received a savage blow from him; in retaliation our hero (we are on his side now) hurled a sharpened stick, which pierced one of the eyes of the antihero; blood spurted out and and brains spilled out, and he fell back dead.
With the help of the squire Yonet, who had come to gawk, he appropriated the red armour, rather clumsily. He sent Yonet back to the king, bearing the precious golden cup. Listen very carefully, I will say this only once: this is not the Grail.
The young victor travelled on, looking for more exploits, and came to a distant castle (1320). There he was welcomed by a prodome, a distinguished nobleman in ermine robes, the type of person his mother had recommended to him. As his mother had taught him, he greeted the man, who gave him an impromptu lesson in knightly combat (1420-1530). Rather belatedly, perhaps, once again quoting his mother, he asked the name of his host. He was Gornemant de Goort (or Gornemans de Gorhaut), the Gurnemanz of Wagner’s Parsifal, but it is not said that this Gornemans was, like Gurnemanz, a knight of the Grail.
The following day, the young man (we still don’t know his name!) thinks about his mother, wondering whether she is alive or dead. This must be the first time he has thought about anyone other than himself. Is he beginning to achieve a midgen of maturity? Compassion seems to be stirring within him. Is he on the same track as Wagner’s Parsifal: through compassion [suffering with another person] the pure fool becomes knowing (durch Mitleid wissend der reine Tor)? Remember, however, that he has deliberately slain one opponent, and unwittingly made an innocent woman’s life a misery. And now he wants to see how his mother is: “She fainted from sadness, because I was leaving, I know it”. He can not linger any longer.
Speaking of long linggerie/lingerie (linen-ware), Gornemant gave him some new clothing, including a linen shirt and pants; also a coat made in India and sewn of silk; and red shoes (to match his armour). His reaction? What’s wrong with the good Welsh clothes my mother made me? Trust me, Gornemant says, and puts the fine fashionable apparel on him. After affixing a spur to the boy’s right foot (giving him his spurs, as we say), he kissed him (there’s that holy kiss again), and conferred on him the highest distinction God had ever created, namely the order of knighthood, otherwise known as chivalry, which is devoid of villainy (1635).
Gornemant dismisses him with his blessing and with some wise advice (1639).
(1) If you defeat an adversary in combat, and he cries out for mercy, spare him.
(2) Be courteously discreet, not gossiping or talking too much, which is a sin.
(3) Provide assistance and advice to women, whether married or unmarried.
(4) Go to church and pray to the maker of all that he will bless and protect you.
(5) Oh, and do not keep saying that your mother told you to do this and that, or you will become a laughing-stock. Just tell them that the man who gave you your spur taught you (1698).
What Gornemant has done is to superimpose manly virtues on the rules the newly-made knight had learned from his mother. Thus, he reiterates assistance of women, and attendance at church; he adds showing mercy to defeated foes, and holding one’s tongue.
Our hero heads homewards, but he is diverted from his purpose by a new adventure. He comes to a castle named Belrepaire (or Beaurepaire), but it is in a bad state of repair (Malrepaire?); it is now the Waste Castle, because it has long been under siege, and is expected to capitulate the next day. (The besieging forces must have been taking a brief vacation when our beau chevalier, whatever his name is, comes by and gains admittance. He is conducted to the palace, and to its owner, a surpassingly beautiful golden-haired maiden named Blancheflor (blanche fleur, ‘white flower’). She takes him by the hand and leads him to a secret room, where she sits with him on a bed, while a host of knights look on, gossiping in whispers about them being a perfect couple.
The hero of the hour remembered the warning his noble teacher had given him, not to be a chatterbox, and he kept quiet (and rightly so, we are constantly being cautioned and told that we have the right to remain silent). So, the princess had to break the conventions and the silence. Courteously she asked him where he had just come from, and immediately they found they had something in common: she was Gornemant’s niece (1902).
A meagre supper is served (it’s the siege, you know, we are in dire straits). He goes to bed and falls asleep. His hostess can not go to sleep. Her mind is churning over her plight: tomorrow she will be taken by the vile Anguigueron, who desires her lands and her body. In desperation Blancheflor went to the young knight’s room, tremulous and tearful. Her weeping awoke him, and he drew her down into the bed. Being appraised of her woes he promised to be her champion, in accordance with the counsel of his mother and of her uncle. He then reverted to his mother’s instruction about kissing, this time consensually not merely sensually. Unlike the hapless damsel in the tent, Blancheflor was not displeased with his kissing, and so they lay together all night, mouth to mouth, practising what we might technically term ‘oscillation-osculation’ (osculate, to kiss with the mouth; oscillate, to move to and fro between two points). But, be aware that when he was being tucked into bed by the servants, earlier that night, it was affirmed that he knew nothing about the amatorial art (1941). (He had received no sex-education from his mother.) But he is learning compassion, and how to comfort a sorrowing maiden (Come to me my melancholy baby; but her melancholia is only temporary, not chronic).
In the following two days he cleaned up the two insolent rogues who would have done harm to his lover. In the intervening night she had occasion to turn the key of love in his heart again. Both of the vanquished knights pleaded for mercy, which was duly and chivalrously granted. Their heads were not severed, but severe was their punishment: to report to the headmaster after school and do several impositions. Off they went to King Arthur’s court to be reformed. The flourishing young knight now had three trophies for the king to record on the honour-roll.
The victorious chevalier spent considerable time with the delighted and delightful Blancheflor. However, thoughts of Mother, and Wales, haunted him. His belovèd would not let him go, but he swore a solemn oath that he would soon return and stay by her side, and defend her lands for ever. They are engaged. We have lift-off. This is true love.
He was given a festive farewell, and he rode on (we don’t know his horse’s name, either) till he came to an impassable river, where two men were sitting in an anchored boat. One of them was fishing with a line, and he offered the traveller lodgings for the night, directing him to a rock above the river, where he would espy the dwelling.
At first the young man sees nothing, and loses his temper, muttering and cursing about the fishermen telling lies [typical? anglers are inveterate liars?]. Suddenly, in the valley below, he perceived the top of a tower, and Crestien exultantly declares: “from there to Beirut there was nothing finer or better built”. Is this Eastern allusion to make us think of the Jerusalem Temple?(Holmes & Klenke)
Our anonymous hero entered the castle’s courtyard, where he was welcomed and given a costly scarlet mantle to wear into the great hall. There he saw a white-haired man dressed in black, half-reclining on a bed, and he recognized him as the selfsame fisherman, who now invited him to sit beside him. The host presented his guest with a magnificent sword, which was in turn a gift from a golden-haired girl, a niece of the lord of the castle.
Now we come to the mysteries of the Fisher-King’s castle (3190-3315). Two mysterious objects were brough into the hall. First, a white lance, carried by a servant; a drop of blood ran down from the iron point until it reached his hand. The young knight, ever mindful of his mentor’s admonitions, repressed the urge to ask his host about the meaning of this wondrous spectacle.
Next came a ‘grail’ (un graal), borne by a lovely maiden, preceded by a pair of handsome boys lighting its way with two candlesticks, and another girl carrying a silver carving platter (tailleor). The grail was of fine gold and ornamented with precious stones. The grail glowed with such intensity that it outshone the score of candles that accompanied it, like the moon and the stars when the sun appears in the sky.
The lance and the grail passed by the king’s bed and into a neighbouring room, presumably to serve someone else; but again the young man overcame his curiosity and held his tongue. But here Crestien inserts a warning, that not speaking can cause as much damage as talking overmuch.
A glorious meal is served to host and guest. (And no one else? There was seating-room for 400 men [3097f].) They drank wine from golden cups (none of which was the Grail). The first course was roasted venison, carved on the silver platter. [Not a lamb? No fish at the Fisherman’s table?!] With every course the grail was carried back and forth, and he did not know why. He told himself he would wait till morning, and then ask his questions. After dinner they spent the rest of the evening in conversation, and finally they enjoyed fruit, fresh and dried, and special drinks.
And so to bed. He slept until the sun was well up. No one responded to his calls for assistance, so he dressed himself, mounted his horse, and crossed the drawbridge. Unnervingly, it began to close just before they reached the end of it. Yet there was no one to answer his questions: why the lance dripped blood? why they carried the grail in procession? and “Whom does the Grail serve?”.
Disconsolate, he rode on through the forest and came upon a sorrowing damsel. [Another opportunity for a boy-scout-good-deed? Can he get it right this time? But old ladies don’t always want or need to be helped across a road.] This woman was sitting beneath an oak tree, nursing in her arms a dead knight, headless withal, freshly killed that very morning, by a dastardly chevalier. [dastard originally meant a damfool, a dullard, more applicable to Perceval].
She was able to enlighten Perceval about his experiences the night before. The Fisher was a maimed king, wounded in battle by a spear between the legs (just like his own father, notice, but the king is not his father in disguise). This makes it too painful for him to ride a horse and go hunting; fishing is his only sport. The lady upbraided Perceval for not inquiring about the bleeding lance and the grail.
Then she asked him what his name was! This will test him. What is he going to say? “Fair Son” and “Fair Brother” have passed their use-by date. “The Red Knight”, a soubriquet he had made his own? Crestien says this: “Not knowing his own name, he guessed (devine) and said that Perceval the Welshman (Perchevax li Galois) was his name”. No, she retorted, your name is now Perceval the Wretched (chaitis), the Miserable (maleurous), the Unfortunate (mal aventurous). If only he had asked those questions he could have healed the good king; but now miseries will befall himself and many others, as punishment for the terrible sin he had previously committed: against his mother, who died sorrowing over him. She was there when his mother (still nameless) passed away, and she attended the burial ceremony. And, surprise surprise, she was in fact Perceval’s cousin.
This epic-romance is like a Dickens novel, with more twists than Oliver Twist. Everybody keeps finding that they are related to everybody else. Perceval will discover more relatives before he is finished, among the characters he and we have already met. Here is an example from the other half of the book (which we will bypass), in which the adventures of Gauvain/Gawain are recounted: in a beautiful castle this knight meets a number of women who are unknown to him, and yet the white-haired queen is Arthur’s mother, and Gawain’s grandmother; the other queen is his own long-lost mother; and the princess is his sister! It’s sad how families can drift apart, and members lose touch.
Back to Perceval. That seems to be his name now, either discovered by a fantastic feat of memory or invented in a panic. Perceval could mean the one who pierces the veil or the vale. Think on this. Vale could mean valley, or furrow (Perceval the ‘furrow-piercer’?) More on this matter anon.
Perceval was keen to pursue and punish the blackgauard who had so foully slain his kinswoman’s belovèd. His cousin bade him leave her to grieve and bury her dead, but she warned him that the sword he had acquired would eventually fail him.
Perceval’s next encounter (3692-3995) is with a dishevelled woman, her clothing so torn as to be hardly able to cover her nakedness.
[Perceval is here the veil-piercer? Stop being silly.]
She has a scrawny palfrey [poolfriy, small horse for women], on his last legs; obviously he has been denied his oats. Remember a threat to starve a horse, made by a jealous lover? It’s the damsel from the tent. (Amazingly, she is not related to him.) He only had enough time to apologize profusely and comfort her before her disgruntled lover galloped up and challenged Perceval. He, the Haughty Knight by nickname, who had so ill-used his innocent lover, is treated to a humble confession by Perceval. He was the one who stole her kisses and her/his ring, and drank his wine, and gobbled one-and-a-half of his meat pies. All this only makes the angry knight more determined to cut off the head of the one who had wronged him (as he says, he had saved those pies for himself).
The jousting begins. Both lances are shattered, both riders are unhorsed. Now for the obligatory sword-fight scene. Perceval’s blade prevails (wondrous to tell, it remains intact, so maybe next time it will be smashed, as foretold).
Perceval shows his accustomed mercy, reconciles the lovers, and dispatches them to Arthur’s court with another message from the Red Knight, as he still styles himself.
Thereafter, Perceval does not set out to go to King Arthur. However, the king and the queen and all the knights of the Round Table decide to come out in search of this fabulous champion of ladies, this masterly righter of wrongs. By chance, they set up a camp in close proximity to where he happens to be.
t snows during the night, and in the morning, as he is riding along, he spots three drops of blood on the snow (from a wounded goose, which had managed to fly away, nonetheless).
The red and white pattern reminds him of his dearly loved Blancheflor’s complexion. He becomes rapt in blissful contemplation of his sweetheart in his mind’s eye, oblivious to the world.
Two of Arthur’s knights, one after the other, ride out to escort him to the king. Each one in turn attacks him for not responding to their call, but he dreamily knocks them to the ground. The irascible Kay (who has already insulted him at their first meeting, when the lad first went to Arthur demanding to be dubbed) is carried off to a surgeon to attend to his dislocated and broken bones. Then Gawain sallies forth and speaks politely to Perceval , and befriends him. After Perceval’s armour is removed, he appears once again before the king, and this time he introduces himself as Perceval the Welshman (le Galois).
On the third day of the ensuing celebration, the young hag known as the Hideous Damsel arrives on her mule, to act the part of the proverbial death’s head at the feast. She hoes into Perceval, condemning him for neglecting to ask the questions that would have healed the Fisher-King and his waste-land. Perceval’s failure will have ghastly consequences, she warns. Thereupon, Perceval vows that he will not sleep for two nights in one place until he has solved the mystery of the grail and the bleeding lance.
Now the narrative becomes focussed on Gawain’s adventures (4715-6180), with his famous sword Escalibor.
My sword is keen, my heart is pure, and so is Wood’s Great Peppermint Cure. That was ‘In days of old, when knights were bold, and nights were cold, and knights caught colds.
Gawain is sent in search of the bleeding lance; it is predicted that it will one day destroy Logres, Arthur’s kingdom. We may speculate that he will get too involved in chivalry (tournaments and love-affairs, jousts and amours) to succeed in his quest, whereas Perceval, who has renounced such worldly pursuits, will achieve his spiritual goal.
When the narrator returns to Perceval (6217-6516) five years have passed, in which time he has never been to church to worship God and the Cross. It is Good Friday, he is in a wilderness, and he meets a party of five knights and ten ladies. They are walking unshod and wearing hairshirts, or rough wool clothing, and doing penance for their sins. They are astonished to find him in his armour and on his horse. Doesn’t he believe in Jesus Christ and his New Law? Doesn’t he know that this is the very day of his death, and it is sinful to bear arms on it? They then give him instruction in the creed (6267-6301).
There are important comparisons and contrasts to be made here, between the two encounters he has made with a party of knights. Both were in the springtime: the first was secular spring with worldly knights showing off their finery; the second was spiritual spring, Easter, the time of fruitful death and life-giving resurrection.
Perceval resorts to a hermit to confess his sins. Perceval’s penance is imposed, and he receives holy communion on Easter Day. The profane ‘Mass’ he attended five years earlier was in a tent that he took to be a church. (Remember how he covered the left-overs of the meat-pies with a cloth?) This time it is a proper church service, in a little chapel, with a priest (provoire = prestre), a choir boy (clerçon, acolyte, altar boy), and a saintly kinsman (the hermit). Perceval is making progress on the path of spirtuality and wisdom.
He now learns that this hermit and the Fisher-King are brothers of his mother, hence his uncles. The Grail serves the Fisher-King’s father; he was glimpsed reclining in the room adjoining the hall of the castle; his life is sustained by a single eucharistic wafer. The Grail is a holy thing, the hermit says. So this should give us licence to speak of ‘the Holy Grail’ in Crestien’s account.
Perceval is clearly in line to be the next Grail-King, but we don’t know the outcome of his quest; the poem is unfinished. It stops short in mid-stream, at line 9235. At line 6519 Crestien had said that he would speak a good deal about Gawain before he mentioned Perceval again. In fact, Perceval’s name does not appear again (except in the continuations that have been composed by other writers: see Perlesvaus).
What is the meaning and significance of the name Perceval?
We remember that it was first used by Perceval himself, when his cousin, for some reason, posed the question to him: what is your name? But did he dredge it up from his memory, or did he invent it on the spot? It is not clear where he got it from. And what does it mean? There are several possible answers that are swimming around in my brain. Here is a synthesis of ideas my own mind has thrown up, and some suggestions made by others.
Taking ‘perce’ as ‘pierce’ (Old French percer, from Romanic *pertusiare, originally Latin pertundere (pertusus, ‘pierced’) ‘thrust through’ or ‘bore through’; percer and ‘pierce’ mean ‘put a hole in’, and also ‘penetrate’ . So, what is the ‘val’ that is pierced or penetrated? The ‘val’ could be a valley (French val or vallée, English ‘vale’ or ‘valley’). Recall that the fisher in the boat told Perceval that his home was in a valley (en un val, 3032), and though the lad initially had difficulty making out the building, he eventually saw it, and went into the valley to reach the castle. I do not know if any one else has offered this simple solution. It seems significant that the name Perceval is only used after the visit to the Fisher-King, when the young man penetrated the vale/valley and found the Grail-Castle. This, then, would be the literal level of meaning for the name Perceval.
Then we might think of ‘penetrating the veil’, a covering cloth (as in ‘Saint Veronica’s veil’), or a curtain (as in ‘the veil of the Temple’, curtaining off the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in the Jerusalem Temple, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept; this ‘ark’ represented the throne and footstool of Yahweh the God of Israel, with the guardian kerubim on either side of it [kerubim: winged sphinxes, not ‘cherubs’] ). This kind of ‘veil-penetrating’ works well in English, with ‘veil’ (covering) and ‘vale’ (valley) as homophones (words with the same sounds but different meanings); but in French it is ‘val’ versus ‘voile’ or ‘veile’ (Latin velum, plural vela). (In the Queste [see Galahad], the Grail has a samite covering, and has to be unveiled. Samite: rich silk cloth, with gold thread.)
Recall the idea of Urban Holmes and Sister Amelia Klenke, that when Crestien declares, with regard to the Fisher-King’s castle: “from there to Beirut there was nothing finer or better built”, his Eastern allusion was to make us think of the Jerusalem Temple in connection with the grail-castle? They make a number of connecting contrasts between Old Testament and New Testament (remember the penitent knights mentioning the New Law of Jesus Christ); between Synagoga and Ecclesia (on the map of Crestien’s town Troyes, which they provide I notice a synagogue, a Rue du Temple, and references to Jews; and churches; the name Madeleine (Magdalene) appearing twice).
The castle of the grail represents the Old Testament temple. The maimed king is Jacob Israel, the archetypal Israelite (injured in his wrestling-match with an angel, remember). The closed room is like the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle-tent and later the Temple; its occupant represents Melkisedeq, the ancient priest-king of Jerusalem who administered bread and wine to Abraham; alongside the Ark of the Covenan there was a container of manna, the food provided by God to the Hebrews in their desert-wanderings, and the rod of Aaron, the symbol of the High Priest’s power. The equivalent of the rod is the spear, and the vessel of manna corresponds to the grail. In the main room of the Temple there was a table with loaves of bread on it. In the hall of the grail-castle the food is placed not on plates or dishes but on gastels, flat pieces of bread (unlike its descendant gâteau, ‘cake’, and in English a rich cake with cream).
All these coincidences add up to a very interesting collection of allegorical types and antitypes.
But Perceval has not yet penetrated the veil of the temple.
Can we find a paronomastic connection (that is, a pun) between Perceval and
‘perceive’ (percevoir, Latin percipere, ‘take in through the senses’)? In this interpretation, Perceval is the perceptive percipient person. He begins as a simpleton, but through experience he attains perspicacity and insight, and becomes a seer who can look deep into the mysteries. He will perhaps be a counterpart to Jesus Christ and transform the grail-castle into a spiritual temple. The veil of the Temple, as on the day of the crucifixion, was torn from the top to the bottom, giving open access to the Holy of Holies. According to the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ leads his followers into that place, into the presence of God.
What is the Grail?
A serving dish, ‘a platter, broad and somewhat deep’ (according to a contemporary definition of the Latin term gradalis, by Helinand). Crestien’s grail is made of gold, and shines brilliantly. It is accompanied by a silver carving-platter, and also a bleeding spear. The Grail is carried back and forth for each course of the meal, so it provides the desired food and drink? (Such a magical object was owned by the giant hero or god named Bran, in Celtic folklore: a platter on which whatever food one wished for was instantly obtained.)
Where is the Grail?
In the castle of the Fisher-King, an uncle of Perceval. It is in the same region as King Arthur’s realm, and thus (I presume) in Britain. But the Grail is not available to the knights of the Round Table.
Whence is the Grail?
Crestien gives no answer in the uncompleted poem, as far as I can see, but I may have overlooked something.
Whose is the Grail?
It serves the Fisher-King and his father (both unnamed) and sustains them. Presumably Perceval, the Welsh country-bumpkin, will attain wisdom and compassion, and become the guardian of the Grail.
We are left in the dark about so many things, because the poem is unfinished. What were the names of all the members of the grail-family (as we may call it): Perceval’s father and mother, the Fisher-king and his father?
In his opera Parsifal, Richard Wagner calls them Gamuret and Herzeleide, Amfortas and Titurel. Where did he get these names from?
Let’s hope that we will attain some clarity on such matters from Wolfram von Eschenbach, when we study his epic poem on the same subject, Parzival.
Chrétien de Troyes, Le Roman de Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal, ed. William Roach (Paris 1959)
Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval, The Story of the Grail, translated by Burton Raffel (New Haven 1999)