Perceval of Galles

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Perceval of Galles


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Found only in Lincoln Cathedral MS 91, this romance "was composed between 1300 and 1340 in the Northern dialect, though with an admixture of Midland Forms" (Manual of Writings of Middle English, Vol. 1, 70).

For a full-text version, see Mary Flowers Braswell's online edition from the Middle English Texts Series: Perceval of Galles


Summary:

The romance begins with the wedding of Perceval's parents (Perceval and Acheflour, Arthur's sister). Perceval Sr. inherits a large sum of land through his wife, and they live happily for a time. Shortly after the young Perceval's birth, his father is killed by the Red Knight. Though Perceval had wanted his son to train in arms, Acheflour fears that her son will share his father's fate and retreats to the woods to raise Perceval away from knightly culture and warfare. As a result, young Perceval grows up ignorant of all civilized customs and can only understand the world around him in the most literal of terms. Upon learning of God, for instance, he immediately goes out to seek him; and upon encountering three knights (Ywain, Gawain, and Kay) while on this quest, he demands to know which of them is God. They correct him and announce that they come from King Arthur's court. Wanting to emulate them, Perceval decides to steal a large horse so that he too might have a mount; but, once again, he perceives the world too literally and steals a pregnant mare because she was the largest horse in the field. He rides home to bid farewell to his mother (who gives him a ring as a way for them to recognize each other) and departs for Arthur's court. On the way, he happens upon a hall and helps himself and his horse to half of the kitchen's contents (he considers himself courteous because his mother always told him to take things in moderation). He then explores the interior, finds a sleeping lady, exchanges rings with her, and rides away to Arthur's court.

Upon arriving, he barges in to the great hall (much like the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or other marvelous characters in the Arthurian tradition), and is referred to in this scene as a "fool of the field"—a native child brought up without any notion of acceptable civilized behavior. Arthur recognizes him as his sister's son, and weeps. He tells Perceval of his origins, how his father was killed, and that only he can avenge his father's death by killing the Red Knight. Shortly afterwards, the Red Knight enters, drinks from a cup, and departs with it. Perceval vows to challenge and kill the Red Knight and return the cup to Arthur. The King agrees to make him a knight if he does so, but before Arthur can even retrieve a suit of armor for Perceval, he leaves on his new quest. He reaches the Red Knight, a fight ensues, and Perceval kills the Red Knight, taking his armor and replacing his pregnant mare with the knight's steed.

Perceval sends the cup back to Arthur's court with Gawain, who has arrived in time to help Perceval with the Red Knight's armor. Continuing on his way, he encounters a witch who happens to be the Red Knight's mother. He unceremoniously throws her into the fire with her son's corpse, and, perceiving this as a noble act, he states his eagerness to continue such exploits.

Some time later, Perceval encounters an old man and his nine sons who are overjoyed to learn of the Red Knight's death. While at this family's hall, a messenger arrives from Maydenlande and who is on his way to Arthur's court—he tells Perceval and his hosts that a sultan has laid siege to the Lady Lufamour's castle because he desires both her and her lands. Perceval and three of his host's sons go to help Lufamour and are followed shortly after by Arthur, Gawain, Ywain, and Kay. Upon arrival, Perceval rushes into the center of the Sultan's camp, slaughters saracens with abandon, and, once most of them are dead, decides to rest against the castle wall. Lufamour's chamberlain brings Perceval into the castle, where he states that he will fight for Lufamour's hand and defeat the sultan. Rushing back out into battle, Perceval confuses Arthur for the Sultan. Arthur and his knights, in turn, think that Perceval is a Saracen, and Gawain is chosen to fight him. Gawain and Perceval eventually recognize each other and the five knights go into Lufamour's castle. Perceval is knighted by Arthur and goes on to defeat and behead the sultan in battle.

Lufamour and Perceval are wedded shortly after, and through this marriage Perceval becomes a king with substantive land holdings. After a year, his thoughts turn to his mother and he goes in search of her. On his journey he comes upon a woman tied to a tree—the same woman with whom he had exchanged rings earlier in the narrative. He learns that her lover, the Black Knight, had found her wearing another man's ring, assumed that she was faithless, and tied her to a tree as punishment. Perceval frees her and eventually defeats the Black Knight in battle. The knight eventually believes Perceval's story and says that he gave Perceval's ring to the giant brother of the Sultan. Perceval confronts and eventually fights and dismembers the giant, reclaiming his mother's ring. The porter of the giant's castle reveals that the giant had tried to woo a lady with that ring and that she had gone mad. Perceval realizes that this woman must be his mother and goes off in search of her, vowing never to wear arms again until he finds her. Clad in goatskins, he journeys into the woods where he finds her and brings her back to the giant's castle. Once she recovers, he brings her back to Maydenlande.

The romance ends by stating that Perceval would go on to win many battles in the Holy Land, and eventually dies there in battle.


Analysis

Often typed as "crude" or "unsophisticated" romance, Perceval of Galles is the earliest English version of the Perceval narrative. The most striking difference between it an continental versions lies in the complete absence of the famous grail quest. Instead, the emphasis in the romance lies on Perceval's development from a "fool of the field" to a chivalrous knight, and his many exploits and adventures along the way.

In terms of crusading themes and typologies, the romance is of interest primarily because it reveals that Perceval's final societal "destination" is not the position of secular ruler but to that of a crusader . Crusading, by implication of the text, is a status higher (at the very least more virtuous) than the role of a mere ruler. In this way it might be linked thematically to Sir Isumbras or Sir Degrevant, romances which both place an emphasis on crusading over mere secular obligations.

There are, however, subtler allusions to crusading earlier in the narrative as well. Lufamour is introduced in the text as a woman besieged by a Sultan, who wants her for both her land and her body. And it is Perceval, not the sultan, who acquires both. Lufamour's kingdom, moreover, is called Maidenland, suggesting perhaps that the virtue of the women within the kingdom and the protection of the land itself are coterminous. This melding of corporeal and terrestrial bodies has considerable scriptural legitimacy, with Jerusalem consistently referred to as a woman in need of either protection or redemption. This theme was reclaimed and re-imagined during the middles ages as a means of inspiring crusading (Norako, 183n.64). It remains doubtful that the romance was deliberately playing upon a Jerusalem-as-woman typology, and yet the fact that a sultan and his Saracen army invade feminized, and presumably Christian, territory evokes anxieties similarly stirred by conflations of notable holy sites with fragile female bodies.
Bibliography

Manuscript

Lincoln Cathedral MS 91 (Thornton, c. 1440) fols. 161r-176r.


Editions

Braswell, Mary Flowers, ed. Sir Perceval of Galles and Ywain and Gawain. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995.

French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale, eds. Middle English Metrical Romances. Vol. 2. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1930. Rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

Mills, Maldwyn, ed. Ywain and Gawain, Sir Perceval of Galles, The Anturs of Arther. London: J. M. Dent, 1992.

Bibliography

Norako, Leila K. "Sir Isumbras and the Fantasy of Crusade." The Chaucer Review 48 (October 2013): 166-89.

"Sir Perceval of Galles." A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500. Vol. 1. Ed. J. Burke Severs. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967. Pp. 70-72.