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Perceval, the Story of the Grail (French: Perceval, le Conte du Graal) is the unfinished fifth romance of Chrétien de Troyes. Probably written between 1181 and 1191, it is dedicated to Chrétien's patron Philip, Count of Flanders.[1] It is said by some scholars that during the time Chretien was writing Perceval, there was a political crisis taking place between the aristocracy, which included his patron, Phillipe de Flandre, and the monarchy, which may have influenced Chretien’s work.[2]

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, and breaks off after only 9,000 lines. Later authors added 54,000 more lines in what are known collectively as the Four Continuations.[3] Perceval is the earliest recorded account of the Quest for the Holy Grail.[4]

Scenes from Perceval.

Contents

Plot summary

The poem opens with Perceval, whose mother has raised him apart from civilization in the forests of Wales since his father's death, encountering knights and realizing 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 rescues and falls in love with the young princess Blanchefleur, and trains under the experienced Gornemant.

Eventually he comes across the Fisher King, 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, passing before him at each course of the meal. First comes a young man carrying a bleeding lance, then two boys carrying candelabras. Finally, a beautiful young girl emerges bearing an elaborately decorated graal, or "grail". The Grail contains a single Mass wafer, which miraculously sustains the Fisher King’s wounded father. Perceval, who had been warned against talking too much, remains silent through all of this, and wakes up the next morning alone. He returns to Arthur's court.

Before long, a loathly lady of the standard Celtic type enters the court and admonishes Perceval for failing to ask his host about the Grail, as the appropriate question would have healed the wounded king. The lady announces other quests that the Knights of the Round Table proceed to take up.

The next section 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, and his adventures showcase a courtly knight having to function in un-courtly settings. One of the section's most interesting episodes 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. After this point, Perceval is mentioned only briefly until the completed section nears its end. He meets a hermit, his uncle, who instructs him in the ways of the spirit and teaches him about the Grail. After Perceval has received his uncle's wisdom, the narrative returns to Gawain, but breaks off shortly after.

The Continuations

Over the following 50 years, four different poets took up the challenge left by Chrétien and continued the adventures of Perceval and Gawain.[3][5]

First Continuation

The First Continuation added 9,500 to 19,600 lines (depending on the manuscripts) to the romance.[3] It was once attributed to Wauchier de Danain, 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 tradition of the Grail that was originally independent of Chrétien's.[6]

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 siege 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".[7] All versions of the First Continuation describe Gawain's visit to a Grail castle quite unlike Chrétien's, a vividly imagined scene which introduces the motif of a broken sword, which can only be mended by the hero destined to heal the Fisher King and his lands. Gawain is not this hero, and 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.

Second Continuation

Shortly after the First Continuation was completed, another author added 13,000 lines to the total.[3] 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

Gerbert's Continuation added 17,000 lines.[3] 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

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.[3] 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[8] and Calogrenant's death as told in the Queste del Saint Graal section of the Lancelot-Grail cycle.[9] 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.

Perceval's influence

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 Holy Grail, and all versions of the Grail's story derive directly or indirectly from it. The grail in Perceval has the power to heal the Fisher King, so it may be seen as a mystical or holy object to his readers.[10]Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, one of the greatest works of medieval Germany, is based directly on Chrétien's poem.[11] 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. [12]Another is the Welsh Peredur, son of Efrawg, one of the Three Welsh Romances associated with the Mabinogion, though in this case the connection to the French work is unclear.[13][14] 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.

Bernard Malamud has been said to have used the tale of Perceval as a basis for his novel The Natural.

Notes

  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Pickens, Rupert T. "Le Conte du Graal." The Romances of Chretien de Troyes: A Symposium Ed. Douglas Kelly. Kentucky: French Forum, 1985 (232-286)
  3. ^ a b c d e f 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.
  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.
  5. ^ English translations of the Continuations can be found in Bryant, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, 1996.
  6. ^ Loomis, Roger Sherman (1991). The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, ch. VI. Princeton. ISBN 0-691-02075-2. [1]
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Owen, Arthurian Romances.
  9. ^ The scene in question appears in Lacy, Lancelot-Grail, Volume 4, p. 61.
  10. ^ 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)
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Groos, Arthur. Romancing the Grail: Genre, Science, and Quest in Wolfram's "Parzival." New York: Cornell University, 1995.
  13. ^ Roberts, Brynly F. (1991). "Peredur". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 357–358. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
  14. ^ Gantz, The Mabinogion.

References

  • 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. [2]
  • 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. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
  • Wolfram von Eschenbach; Hatto, A. T. (translator) (1980). Parzival. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044361-4

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