Thursday, September 11, 2008


A page from Perceval; or, The Story of the Grail, in which the title character embarks on a quest to find the Grail. In this scene knights carry a silver case containing the Holy Grail to France.

In France one of the major writers of romances was Chrétian de Troyes, who wrote primarily from about 1165 to 1180. Largely during these years, he wrote five major romances, all drawing on the Matter of Britain. Erec tells the story of a wife who shows her love for her husband by disobeying his commands. Cligès is a love story about an unhappy wife who fakes her own death and comes back to life to enjoy happiness with her lover. Lancelot was the name of one of King Arthur’s knights, who is a slave to love and to his mistress, Arthur’s wife, Guinevere. Yvain tells of a widow’s marriage to the man who killed her husband. Finally, and perhaps the most important of Chrétian de Troyes’s works, was Perceval; or, The Story of the Grail. In Perceval; or, The Story of the Grail the title character embarks on an adventurous quest to find the Holy Grail. This story became the basis for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a well-known fourteenth-century English poem. Much of this material became more familiar to English readers in the fifteenth century and after through Sir Thomas Malory’s famous Le morte d’Arthur, or The Death of Arthur, which tells the entire story of Arthur’s life and death. It is from Malory that most English readers are familiar with Arthur and Guinevere; the adulterous relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot; Merlin the magician; the Knights of the Round Table; and Arthur’s famous sword, Excalibur.

The Holy Grail and the search for it have always been a source of fascination. To many, possession of the Grail would be a source of great mystical power. Writers and historians have had different views of what the Grail even was or what it represented. One suggestion, advanced in a long poem by German writer Wolfram von Eschenbach, called Parzival, was that it was a stone from heaven that provided spiritual rebirth. Wolfram, who wrote his epic between 1200 and 1210, claimed that one of the major sources for his poem was a Crusader named Philip, who was the duke of Flanders and had been in Palestine in 1177.

To some, though, the Grail is not even a physical object. Since the Grail held wine that Christ had transformed into his blood at the Last Supper (a ritual that forms a major part of the Catholic Mass), there are theories that the “Grail” is actually Christ’s bloodline, or blood descendants. Some historians believe that the Knights Templars, the order of warrior- monks that played a major role in the Crusades, excavated beneath the site of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and there discovered the “Grail.” But what they discovered was that the Grail referred to royal bloodlines and that earlier French kings were the descendants of Christ. Possession of this knowledge, at least according to legend, was the source of the order’s immense power, and it was because of this power that the Templars were destroyed by Pope Clement V in the early fourteenth century. Some of these theories are unlikely, but they grow out of traditions of mysticism that many Christians and Jews believed in during the Middle Ages.

The Story of the Grail – Chrétien’s Perceval

Chrétien wrote that Count Philip of Flanders, whom he admired more than Alexander, gave him the book for his poem called The Story of the Grail. Young Perceval is brought up in a Welsh forest by his mother away from chivalry because her two older sons were killed in tournaments. One day Perceval sees five knights and is so impressed that he tells his mother he is going to become a knight. She advises him to kiss a maiden but forbids him to go farther though he may wear her ring; she also advises him to keep company with gentlemen and to pray in churches. As Perceval leaves, his mother falls prostrate; but he does not turn back. He kisses the first maiden he sees and takes her ring. Perceval rides his horse into the court of King Arthur and asks to be made a knight, saying he wants the armor of the red knight who insulted Arthur and Guinevere. Encountering that knight, Perceval demands the armor and then in a duel kills him with his javelin. At his castle the knight Gornemant de Goort teaches Perceval how to fight and behave, warning him about talking too much.

Perceval decides to visit his mother but first rescues Gornemant's starving niece Blancheflor from the cruel knight Clamadeu, sparing his life after defeating him. He makes Clamadeu free his prisoners and sends him to Arthur's court. Perceval sleeps with Blancheflor and promises to return. He meets the crippled Fisher King, sees the grail being carried in a procession, and learns from his cousin that his mother died of grief because he left her. Perceval meets the damsel he first kissed, who has been punished by her knight. Perceval admits he kissed her and took the ring but denies he did more. They fight, and the knight admits defeat; Perceval makes him take care of the damsel and go to Arthur's court. Perceval, in between contemplating his lady's complexion in bloody snow, knocks down Sagremor and breaks the arm of Kay in duels. By courtesy Gawain gets Perceval to come to Arthur's camp. At court an ugly woman blames Perceval for not asking about the grail before the Fisher King and says that kingdom will suffer. While Perceval is off searching for the grail, Gawain defends maidens in distress. Gawain swears to seek the bleeding lance.

Meanwhile Perceval forgets to enter a church for five years, though during that time he sends sixty knights as prisoners to Arthur's court. A hermit gets Perceval to repent and promise to help maidens, widows, and orphans. Gawain believes that maidens are protected in Arthur's kingdom, and he has several adventures defending damsels and discovering his relatives. Though The Story of the Grail is Chrétien's longest poem, he left it unfinished.

The mystery of the grail was such that four other French poets wrote continuations, each longer than Chrétien's poem, that were attached to most manuscripts. The First Continuation extended the adventures of Gawain. In the Second Continuation Perceval resumes his quest for the grail but is again distracted by chivalrous combat; this version also ends unfinished as the Fisher King is about to explain the significance of the grail. Manessier's Third Continuation then tells how Joseph of Arimathea used the grail to catch the blood of crucified Jesus, and the bleeding spear was that of Longinus. Perceval sets out to avenge the Fisher King's injury and fights the devil in the form of a detached black arm. Perceval overcomes another demon who has taken the form of his beloved Blancheflor. He slays the traitor Partinial and learns that the Fisher King is his mother's brother. Perceval returns to Arthur's court where he proves himself the most excellent knight. He restores the land and retires to a hermitage, sustained by the grail, which accompanies his soul to heaven and is never seen on earth again. The Fourth Continuation by Gerbert de Montreuil replaces or in some manuscripts precedes that of Manessier; it emphasizes chastity and virginity by having Perceval and Blancheflor take a vow of celibacy on their wedding day.

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