Perceval is a central figure in medieval and modern accounts of the quest for the Holy Grail. Depending on the version, Perceval serves either as the sole Grail knight or as one of a select few worthy knights. As Perceval’s variable presence suggests, the Grail legend itself underwent many changes as it spread across Europe because in each version, the Grail and the Grail knight (or knights) reify the individual, social, and political hopes and fears of their respective societies. Perceval makes his debut in Chrétien de Troyes’ Conte du Graal [Story of the Grail] (c. 1190), in which he emerges from the sheltered obscurity of his mother’s upbringing, ignorant of knighthood, and transforms into the paragon of chivalric virtue in the Arthurian court after he goes to the court of the wounded Fisher King and witnesses the sacramental Grail procession. In addition to inspiring several translations — most notably the Old Norse Parcevals Saga and the Middle Dutch Parchevael, each unique in its own right — Chrétien’s unfinished Conte inspired several French texts known as the “Perceval Continuations.” It also served as the foundation for one of the greatest romances of the Middle Ages: Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (c. 1200–1210). Wolfram, like Chrétien, portrays Perceval as a naive rustic who must learn and prove his chivalric virtue by asking the question necessary to cure the Fisher King (whom Wolfram names Amfortas); however, he also endows Perceval with a greater destiny from the outset, predicting that he will establish a Grail dynasty to enact God’s...
Perceval is a central figure in medieval and modern accounts of the quest for the Holy Grail. Depending on the version, Perceval serves either as the sole Grail knight or as one of a select few worthy knights. As Perceval’s variable presence suggests, the Grail legend itself underwent many changes as it spread across Europe because in each version, the Grail and the Grail knight (or knights) reify the individual, social, and political hopes and fears of their respective societies. Perceval makes his debut in Chrétien de Troyes’ Conte du Graal [Story of the Grail] (c. 1190), in which he emerges from the sheltered obscurity of his mother’s upbringing, ignorant of knighthood, and transforms into the paragon of chivalric virtue in the Arthurian court after he goes to the court of the wounded Fisher King and witnesses the sacramental Grail procession. In addition to inspiring several translations — most notably the Old Norse Parcevals Saga and the Middle Dutch Parchevael, each unique in its own right — Chrétien’s unfinished Conte inspired several French texts known as the “Perceval Continuations.” It also served as the foundation for one of the greatest romances of the Middle Ages: Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (c. 1200–1210). Wolfram, like Chrétien, portrays Perceval as a naive rustic who must learn and prove his chivalric virtue by asking the question necessary to cure the Fisher King (whom Wolfram names Amfortas); however, he also endows Perceval with a greater destiny from the outset, predicting that he will establish a Grail dynasty to enact God’s will on earth. The nearly contemporaneous French Perlesvaus (c. 1200–1210) elaborates on the legend’s Christian symbolism, providing Perceval with a lineage that goes back to Joseph of Arimathea, the man who supposedly collected the crucified Christ’s blood in the chalice that became the Holy Grail.
Despite his centrality in Chrétien’s and Wolfram’s foundational works, Perceval loses his status as the sole Grail knight in the Vulgate (or Lancelot-Grail) Cycle’s Estoire del saint Graal [Quest of the Holy Grail] (c. 1200). Alongside Sir Galahad and Sir Bors, Perceval partakes in the Grail Mass, heals the Maimed King, and transports the vessel to Sarras. Yet, because both Perceval and Bors have sinned, the Grail’s full mysteries are revealed only to Galahad, whose almost supernatural perfection makes him an unmistakable Christ-figure. Sir Thomas Malory’s “Tale of the Sank Greal” in the Morte Darthur draws heavily on the Vulgate and maintains Galahad’s supremacy. Malory’s version has the greatest impact on later English Arthurian literature, and texts written after the fifteenth century typically relegate him to this secondary status. Consequently, the few medieval texts in which Perceval has nothing to do with the Holy Grail — namely, the Welsh Peredur (c. 1250) and the Middle English Sir Perceval of Galles (c. 1400) — only rarely reappear in later retellings.
The majority of nineteenth- and twentieth-century works dealing with the Grail quest draw on the versions told by Chrétien, Wolfram, the Vulgate-author, or Malory. For example, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859–1885) turns an elderly Perceval into the possibly prophetic, possibly unstable, narrator of “The Holy Grail,” a dramatic monologue which focuses on Galahad’s achievements on the quest. Around the same time, Richard Wagner composed his German opera Parsifal (1882) as a loose adaptation of Wolfram’s romance. Wagner’s opera then inspired a number of poetic tributes, including Paul Verlaine’s “Parsifal” (1899), and R. C. Trevelyan’s The Birth of Parsival (1905) and The New Parsifal: An Operatic Fable (1914).
Although Perceval rarely plays the kind of central role in modern versions that he played in medieval ones, the Grail legend continues to be a source of literary and cinematic inspiration to this day. Some modern works featuring his character include Jim Hunter’s Percival and the Presence of God (1978), Richard Monaco’s Parsival, or A Knight’s Tale (1977), Jean Markale’s Perceval le Gallois (1995), Éric Rohmer’s artistic film translation of Chrétien’s Conte in Perceval le Gallois (1978), and Terry Gilliam’s complex cinematic hodge-podge of Grail legends, The Fisher King (1990). Additionally, Perceval makes significant cameo appearances in other modern literary works, including Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985).
Perceval makes his first appearance in Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished Perceval or the Conte du Graal (c. 1181–1190). Perceval is a “simpleton-hero” (Eckhardt 205) who excels at knighthood despite his minimal understanding of what it means to be a knight, having been raised in complete ignorance of chivalric society by his mother, who feared knighthood would kill him, just as it killed her husband, his father. However, in order to fulfill his chivalric destiny, Perceval leaves his mother, who pleads emphatically for him to stay; he later learns that she died of grief. His first “knightly” deeds prove disastrous, as he assaults a maiden to take her ring, steals her and her lover’s food, and kills a knight to acquire his arms. Perceval meets Gornemant de Gorhaut, who knights the youth and instructs him in the martial and secular aspects of knighthood. Showing natural aptitude for battle, he meets with easy success on his first real adventure, rescuing the maiden Blancheflor. Having received no spiritual training from Gornemant, however, Perceval stumbles at the Fisher King’s castle, where he sees the grail and the lance that pierced Christ’s side, fails to recognize their significance, and is thus unable to ask the question that would have cured the Fisher King’s wound. Symbolizing his still-incomplete pursuit of chivalric perfection, the sword bestowed upon him by the Fisher King shatters with the very first blow. On his return to Caerleon, he encounters a wretched-looking maiden, whom he recognizes as the woman whose ring he stole. Her lover, the Haughty Knight of the Heath, suspecting that his lady was unfaithful with him, challenges Perceval to battle, but Perceval easily defeats him. After a digression on Gawain’s adventures, the narrative finds Perceval on Good Friday in a state of worldly success but moral lassitude, not having gone to mass in five years. Perceval seeks out a hermit, incidentally his uncle and the Fisher King’s brother, who explains the miraculous mystery of the grail and informs him that he failed because he abandoned his mother. In the midst of a second Gawain digression, Chrétien’s Perceval ends abruptly.
Chrétien’s 9,200-line fragment was expanded, and in one case brought to completion, in a series of four late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century texts, collectively known as the “Perceval Continuations.” The Continuations are significant literary works in themselves, but they are also crucial to our understanding of how the Perceval story was received in the Middle Ages, as most extant manuscripts contain Chrétien’s version as well as one or more Continuations (Bruckner, p. 3). The First Continuation (c. 1190–1200), a text now attributed to Pseudo-Wauchier, adds to Chrétien’s original anywhere from 9,500 to 19,600 lines (Grigsby, “Continuations” 99). Of the Continuations, the First shows the most complex literary development, surviving in three redactions — known as the Short, Mixed, and Long — all of which shift the narrative focus from Perceval to Gauvain. Indeed, Perceval appears only briefly at a tournament in which another knight, Caradoc, is declared superior. Because the First Continuation, especially in the Short Redaction, deviates so drastically from Chrétien’s original, it is sometimes referred to as the Gauvain-Continuation (99). Written shortly after the First, the Second Continuation (c. 1200), whose author is now accepted as Gauchier de Denaing, adds another 13,000 lines to Chrétien’s 9,200 and the First’s 9,500–19,600 (100). It is often referred to as the Perceval-Continuation because, unlike the First, Perceval is once again the protagonist. Although simplistic and trite, the Second Continuation is significant because Perceval returns to the Grail Castle and meets with partial success (100).
Both the Third and Fourth Continuations envision Perceval’s complete success in the Grail quest. Composed almost simultaneously in the early-thirteenth century (c. 1211–1244) but apparently without knowledge of each other, both pick up where the Second left off and bring the narrative to a conclusion (100). Because their order in manuscripts varies, most scholars refer to the Third and Fourth continuations by their authors’ names: Manessier and Gerbert de Montreuil (100). The Manessier Continuation begins at the Grail Castle where Perceval cures the Fisher King; he then embarks on another quest for family vengeance, reigns for seven years in the Fisher King’s stead, and finally retreats into the forest to live as a hermit priest (Bruckner 4; Grigsby, “Continuations” 100). The Gerbert Continuation imagines an imperfect Perceval who must redo many events from his original wanderings, culminating in a chaste marriage to Blancheflor, before he can return to the Grail Castle and successfully mend the broken sword (Bruckner 4; Grigsby, “Continuations” 100). Although the “canonical” continuation tradition ended in the early thirteenth century, the 1530 printed edition of Chrétien’s Perceval contains the original romance, the First, Second, and Manessier Continuations, as well as two additional texts — the Elucidation, which precedes Chrétien’s Prologue, and the Bliocadran, which follows Chrétien’s Prologue — whose addition brings coherence to the textual amalgamation by providing a complete chronology, an overview of events to come, and Perceval’s paternal genealogy (Bruckner 5–7).
As the numerous Continuations suggest, the story of Perceval and the Grail quest proved popular across Europe for centuries to come. An analogue to Chrétien’s Perceval appears in the Welsh Peredur, one of three Arthurian romances in the Mabinogion, which has been dated anywhere from 1050 to 1250 (Charles-Edwards 19–22). The earlier date would place Peredur prior to Chrétien’s Perceval and suggest that Chrétien based his work on Peredur, while the later date would suggest that the Peredur-author used French source texts (19). The two texts contain many parallels. For example, Peredur follows a similar path to knighthood: his still-grieving mother keeps him isolated from courtly customs, but his chance encounter with knights compels him to venture to King Arthur’s court. Along the way he steals a ring and a kiss from a maiden whose lover punishes her until Peredur makes amends. Once at court, he witnesses Cei (Kay) insult a maiden and a dwarf, whom he must avenge, and he learns of the uncouth knight who has stolen Arthur’s goblet, which he must retrieve to restore the king and queen’s honor. Additional parallels include his personal growth from a boy reliant on his mother’s advice to a man reliant on his own sense of justice, and his poignant recollection of his lover upon seeing drops of blood in the snow. Despite these similarities, the texts’ plots and protagonists deviate significantly. Whereas Perceval develops almost by accident from a simpleton-hero into a near-paragon of knighthood, Peredur is destined to become the great, “prophesied terminator of the scourge of the land,” although he, too, must undergo formative educational experiences along the way (Pennar 12–13). Peredur develops into a distinctly Celtic hero, more focused on helping others and his community than himself; rather than stealing food from a maiden, for instance, he makes sure food is distributed equally among him and five damsels even though he is their guest, and he defeats the Witches of Gloucester not as a solitary warrior but with the help of King Arthur and his men (18–22). The most important deviation, however, is that Peredur omits the Grail quest entirely.1 Lacking this motif, Peredur achieves success not through moral and spiritual enlightenment but by cunningly using magic to defeat Addanc, the Water Monster, and by proving his virility (and thus his right to rule) when faced with the Loathly Lady (16–17). Thus, while Chrétien presents Perceval’s inquisitiveness and impulsivity as comical ignorance and rusticity, the Peredur-author uses these traits to create a protagonist who is “unspoilt … and blithe,” a “natural, impulsive, [and] instinctive mover” (20).
Wolfram von Eschenbach composed his Middle High German romance Parzival in the early thirteenth century. Although nearly two-thirds of Parzival closely follows Chrétien’s Perceval, Wolfram only once names Chrétien as a source, and then only to discredit him. Instead, Wolfram claims his source auctor is the mysterious (and probably fabricated) “Meister Kyot,” a denizen of Provence and Toledo who discovered the true Grail-quest tale written “in heathen script” which he translated into French. Wolfram’s work is very different in style, tone, and narrative focus from Chrétien’s. For example, the Grail in Parzival is a stone (lapsit exillis) with the power to prolong youth, provide sustenance, and name the next member of the Grail dynasty, a quasi-utopian community chosen and directed by God in order to bring stability to an unstable world. Further, Wolfram is much more concerned with the social implications of knighthood than Chrétien, as Parzival’s personal growth demonstrates how the ideal knight is the spiritual backbone of his community. Like Perceval, Parzival must overcome his ignorance to learn that a knight’s physical strength is secondary to his spiritual fortitude. Parzival must resolve his quarrels with God before he can be considered worthy of a place in the Grail dynasty. Similarly, Wolfram, like Chrétien, contrasts the spiritual Parzival with the worldly Gawan (Gawain), who excels at all things courtly and chivalric but neglects his spiritual duties, as well as with Feirefiz, Parzival’s “virtuous pagan” half-brother and martial equal, who cannot join the Grail community until he converts to Christianity. The central focus of Parzival is not on “the spiritual alone” but on “the place of the spiritual within the chivalric world, as the guiding light of the truly chivalrous” (Barber xxiii).
French literature underwent significant shifts in the thirteenth century: verse gave way to prose, and authors focused more on religious and historical matters (Burns 497). These changes can be seen in Robert de Boron’s Arthurian trilogy (c. 1191–1215), which contains Joseph d’Arimathie, Merlin, and Perceval (commonly called the Didot-Perceval). Robert is the first to link the Grail with the vessel used at the Last Supper, to describe how Joseph of Arimathea used the Grail to collect Christ’s blood, and to link the Round Table to the Holy Trinity (O’Gormon 386). While in other versions Perceval appears innocently naïve of chivalric expectations, in the Didot-Perceval he merely seems haughty and ill-mannered, impetuously demanding from King Arthur a place at the Round Table (Grigsby, “Didot-Perceval” 116). Nevertheless, he matures into a great knight who eventually successfully cures the Fisher King; but as soon as he leaves Arthur’s court to reside permanently with the Fisher King, Gawain replaces him as the paragon of chivalric virtue. In keeping with his historical focus, Robert dwells less on knights as individual characters and, like Wolfram von Eschenbach, more on their social functions (116). Indeed, Perceval plays only a minor role in the overarching narrative, as the story turns back to Arthur’s monarchical successes as soon as the Grail is achieved; Perceval deals diplomatically with Roman ambassadors, demonstrates justice and courtesy by distributing lands amongst his lords, and proves morally superior to everyone he vanquishes in battle (116).
The author of the French prose Vulgate Cycle’s Estoire del saint Graal (c. 1215–1235) imposes a rigidly conservative notion of spiritual purity on the narrative and its characters. Consequently, the Vulgate-author creates a new Grail knight, Sir Galahad, who is presented as a kind of demigod, a symbol of Christ’s second coming, and the closest Perceval can come to spiritual glory is to become one of Galahad’s disciples. It is unclear why the author changes the narrative in this way, but his elevation of Galahad comes to dominate the Arthurian tradition, forever relegating Perceval to his subordinate role. No longer the protagonist, Perceval becomes a rather one-dimensional, static character who undergoes none of the self-actualization process that characterizes his counterparts in other versions.2 Instead, he exists throughout in his fully adult form, and the author offers only a truncated version of his backstory, including reference to his Welsh origins and his “mistreatment” of his mother (25). He fails repeatedly because his excessive concern for worldly values like knightly camaraderie prevents his cultivation of spiritual values like humility. For example, he tries to remove the Sword in the Stone in order to “keep Gawain company” even after Lancelot refuses Arthur’s command and after Gawain’s failure provokes Lancelot’s prophetic warning that Gawain will one day “give anything, even a castle, not to have touched it today” (4). He repeats this error on Solomon’s ship when he again tries to remove a sword that can only be removed by one who “will surpass in skill all those who have come before him and all who will follow afterward” (64). He doubts the inscription’s authority and determines only after his failure that “the inscription speaks the truth” (64).
Despite his timidity and sometimes prideful misperception of his abilities, Perceval is nevertheless one of only three knights worthy of participating in the Grail quest. Indeed, Perceval may come as close to chivalric and spiritual perfection as humanly possible, since the only character to surpass him is Galahad, whose virginity, miracles, and final ascension into heaven render him more saintly or Christ-like than human. Indeed, Galahad’s purity is actually problematic for the Arthurian tradition because “[his] successes simultaneously confer honor on the Round Table and demonstrate the weakness of his fellow knights, who often fail where Galahad succeeds” (McShane). Although Perceval does fail to achieve the Grail, he proves his virtue when he realizes that his place is not as the greatest knight, destined to “become the master and pastor of all the others” (Estoire 26–27), but as one of Galahad’s faithful followers, just like one of Christ’s apostles (85) — for to be a follower of Christ is the most any human can hope to achieve. Consequently, instead of wandering alone for five years and neglecting his spiritual duties as he does in Chrétien’s Perceval, Perceval follows Galahad for the same length of time before the two are reunited with Bors and all three submit to God’s will when they board the ship with the Grail (85–86). Following Galahad’s miraculous death, Perceval retreats to a hermitage where he lives for another year, and Bors eventually returns to Arthur’s court. Finally Perceval shows signs of maturation: whereas before he had valued worldly friendships above all else, he has now put his spiritual obligations first, waiting for death to reunite him with Galahad and his sister (87).
Dating to roughly the same time period as the Vulgate Cycle, the French prose Perlesvaus (c. 1200–1210) amplifies the historical and religious components of the Grail quest still further. While drawing heavily on Chrétien’s Conte — in some ways forming a “continuation” of its main plot — Perlesvaus differs dramatically in content, tone, and theme from nearly every other Grail romance. First, it alone portrays its hero as a skilled knight from the very start; Perlesvaus has been raised by both his mother and recently-deceased father, and he kills the Red Knight in combat before arriving at Arthur’s court (31). Second, it is “a romance … obsessed with blood, murder, decapitation, dead bodies, and their mutilation” (McCracken qtd. in A. Lupack 228). In one episode, for instance, Perlesvaus refrains from killing his enemy immediately so that he can instead drown him in a vat of his own knights’ blood (Perlesvaus 151–52). Third, the romance employs anti-Semitic and pro-Crusades rhetoric to an extent unrivaled by other Grail romances. For example, the author glorifies those knights willing to “d[ie] in battle in their great ardour to advance the New Law” (20), for the “Old Law” of the Jews was “overthrown” by Christ’s crucifixion (74). Additionally, the Questing Beast — depicted as a gentle, snow-white creature who gives birth to twelve monstrous whelps who tear to pieces their helpless mother — is allegorized as Christ, who was torn apart by “the Jews, who are wild, and henceforth will always be subject to the men of the of the New Law” (154, 166). The author takes a similarly violent approach to pagans in general when Perlesvaus converts the Turning Castle to Christianity by single-handedly slaying a dragon while surrounded by a kind of magical force-field of faith, and he leads the idolatrous worshipers of the Copper Tower to enchanted statues that bash in the brains of all who are false, leaving alive to be baptized only thirteen of its original 1,500 denizens (Perlesvaus 165). Perlesvaus can commit such violent acts and still be considered a virtuous knight worthy of undertaking the Grail quest because he kills for Christianity.
Due to its unique take on the legend, the Perlesvaus had a limited influence on later works, although certain episodes in the later English Arthurian tradition may stem from it. For example, it may have been the first Grail romance to foreground as a central plot element the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere which ultimately divides the Arthurian court in the later Vulgate Cycle and Malory’s Morte Darthur (A. Lupack 228). In addition, it contains the Perilous Chapel episode, in which the sorceress Hellewas attempts to behead Lancelot so that she can possess him forever; in Malory’s Morte, the sorceress attempts to ensnare all four potential Grail knights, but the episode is essentially the same. The similarity suggests either that Malory used the Perlesvaus as a source, or that he and the Perlesvaus-author shared a common source. Finally, the Perlesvaus may be the only completed text to portray Perceval both as the sole Grail knight and as actually failing in his quest, as he is blamed for the Fisher King’s languor. His mother, informing him of the Fisher King’s death, states:
“But I tell you, my fair and gentle son, that you must take a great deal of blame for his death, for you are the knight on whose account he first fell into languor; now for the first time I know that to be true. And if you had later returned and asked the question which you failed to ask the first time, then he would have been restored to health.” (149)
It would seem that curing the Fisher King was not the objective of Perceval’s quest after all. Weston raises an interesting question: if the Fisher King was not wounded prior to Perceval’s arrival and failure, and his land was thus barren only because of his illness, then how would Perceval’s success have manifested itself? (17) Neither Weston nor the romance offers any plausible answer to this dilemma.
Perceval’s story continued in England with the romance Sir Perceval of Galles (c. 1300–1350), and he became a lasting part of popular culture with Sir Thomas Malory’s “Tale of the Sank Greal,” the sixth book of his Morte Darthur (c. 1480). While Sir Perceval of Galles may derive from earlier French romances — it similarly incorporates formative events like Perceval’s isolated childhood and departure to King Arthur’s court, his encounter with the Tent Maiden, and his battle with the Red Knight — the author radically transforms the traditional narrative trajectory, characterization, and overall tone. Most significantly, the author omits the Holy Grail entirely, transforming Perceval from a Grail knight into a Crusader who dies while gleefully killing Saracens in the Holy Land. As a character, this Perceval is notably less developed: instead of undergoing rapid maturation once immersed in courtly society, he remains a rustic simpleton-hero whose modus operandi throughout is essentially “kill first, think later.” Such changes to plot and character produce a morally perplexing and politically charged romance, although its somber content contrasts sharply (even incongruously) with its generally lighthearted tone. This dissonance has led scholars to read the text either as a purely entertaining comedy or as a parody of chivalric values.
Both readings are at least partially correct. Arguing for its comedic value, Caroline D. Eckhardt speculates that the author adopts this tone in order to mitigate the “crueler aspects of [the] hero’s personality” and to produce “a brighter, if rougher comedy, without undertones of moral darkness” (206). Indeed, in a disturbingly nonchalant manner — which is nevertheless representative of the romance as a whole — the author describes how Perceval “made the Sarazenes hede-bones / Hoppe als dose hayle-stones / Aboutte one the gres” [made the Saracens’ heads bounce like hailstones on the grass] (lines 1190–92; translation mine). The moral failings that in other versions taint his character are here treated lightheartedly: they have no significant consequences, and Perceval has no moral culpability. For example, his mother does not die from grief upon his departure, and he thinks often of her during his quests, eventually returning home. Additionally, Perceval’s behavior towards the Tent Maiden lacks the usual undertones of sexual violence, as he kisses and obtains the ring as a token without waking the sleeping maiden (lines 465–76).3 However, the positive character traits identified by Eckhardt seem out of place alongside Perceval’s excessive enjoyment of battle and carnage, as when he prepares to incinerate the slain Red Knight and shouts boastfully to his victim: “‘Ly still therin now and roste! / I kepe nothynge of thi coste, / Ne noghte of thi spalde!” [Lie still in there and roast! I care nothing for your suffering, and not a lick for your strength!] (lines 794–96; translation mine). Comically gruesome scenes like this lead Mary Flowers Braswell to conclude that the author wrote the romance to parody the indiscriminate violence and corruptly lavish lifestyle so common to later medieval knights (3). Indeed, the romance’s direct engagement with contemporary sociopolitical issues, such as corruption and religious conflict, make it unlikely that the author intended to produce a purely comedic tale. Braswell’s reading is supported by manuscript evidence and historical context. Sir Perceval of Galles is found uniquely in the mid-fifteenth-century Thornton MS (Lincoln, Cathedral Library MS 91) alongside several other Crusades romances and the parodic Awntyrs off Arthur. It is also highly unlikely that an author writing in the early fourteenth century would conclude with a protagonist’s conquest of “many cités full stronge” (line 2282) unless he or she wanted readers to recall the days when Christian reclamation of the Holy Land seemed a tangible reality. Any real hope of Christian reclamation, however, had been dashed in 1291 when the English king Richard I (Cœur de Lion) was killed, his army defeated, and the one Christian stronghold in the Middle East lost. In a sense, then, it may be possible to read the Holy Land in Sir Perceval of Galles as an abstracted, allegorical representation of the Holy Grail.
Thomas Malory, writing during the Wars of the Roses (1455–1487) more than a century after the Perceval of Galles-author, uses his “Tale of the Sank Greal” to convey a different political message — the idea that there once was a functioning, ideal form of chivalric society, but the current state of affairs falls tragically short of true chivalry. Malory’s source is the Vulgate Cycle’s Estoire, and their narratives coincide almost exactly in terms of plot. However, Malory renders Perceval a more sympathetic character — a good but imperfect man engaged in the all-too-common human struggle to discern good and evil in a world full of uncertainty and deception. Malory’s Perceval endeavors to uphold chivalric ideals, but he discovers that these values are fundamentally at odds with religious values. For example, Malory’s Perceval tries to draw the sword from the stone “gladly for to beare sir Gawayne felyship” (858), not out of pride. Fellowship is the virtue that characterizes the Round Table at its height, and Perceval’s attempt to maintain fellowship at the start of the Grail quest foreshadows the increasing conflict between worldly and spiritual demands. Arthur himself opposes the quest because he knows that it will jeopardize the “fellowship” of the Round Table — and it does indeed precipitate the fall of the kingdom. Additionally, Malory’s Perceval realizes his role as one of Galahad’s metaphorical disciples much earlier in the quest, after he learns that the knight he and Lancelot fought was Galahad in disguise. This change means that readers are aware that Perceval is a true and worthy Grail knight throughout his quest, despite his failures to correctly interpret his dream-visions. The tale thus raises the question: if the devil can deceive even as great a knight as Perceval is, then how can any lesser individual be expected to discern good from evil? In fact, Perceval’s dream-visions are so full of contradictions that it seems almost unfair to expect Perceval to determine, for instance, that the virtuous path is represented by the young maiden with a lion, not the old hag with a serpent, because he is told opposite interpretations of what they “betokeneth” by two seemingly credible speakers (914–15). Perceval’s sexual temptation is also made more understandable because the disguised fiend appeals to the noble terms of the Pentecostal Oath, which require knights to aid women (917). It is only appropriate, then, that Perceval punishes his failure with a wound to the thigh, a clear symbol of the “virginité” he nearly lost (919). Malory’s message seems to be that no human being, even the benevolent Perceval, can discern the path of true virtue, since every worldly evil has the appearance of something good.
ROMANTIC AND VICTORIAN
The popularity of Arthurian romance waned in the wake of Malory’s Morte Darthur (A. Lupack 250). Renaissance authors typically approached the Grail legend in terms of historical or political significance — possibly due to Protestant aversions to its distinctly Catholic emphasis on relics and superstition — while Enlightenment authors who did take up the subject typically transformed the legends into satirical or parodic works. However, authors in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fascinated by all things medieval, found in Arthurian legends a source of immense inspiration. Because these authors typically looked to Malory’s narrative, the majority of works about Perceval produced during this time cast him as a minor character, important only for his ability to function as a foil to Galahad. Uniquely for its time, J. H. Shorthouse’s novel Sir Percival: A Story of the Past and the Present (1886) focuses on Perceval alone. One character observes how Perceval suffered great injustice at Malory’s hands:
[He] was hardly treated in the ‘Morte d’Arthur’. In the French books he had a romance all to himself, and occupied the same position that Sir Galahad does in the English romance, but … when Sir Thomas Mallory [sic] undertook to translate these French romances into one book, he would not omit any one of them, and was therefore obliged to cut out all the deeds of poor Sir Percival, which were identical with those of Sir Galahad, and leave him in a very secondary position. (qtd. in A. Lupack 250)
The majority of Victorian authors, however, make no effort to redress this literary wrong — indeed, few even acknowledge versions other than Malory’s — and so Perceval receives short shrift from the majority of writers who take up his story and the quest for the Holy Grail.
One of the earliest Arthurian revival poems to omit Perceval almost entirely is William Wordsworth’s “The Egyptian Maid” (1835), which seems to challenge the medieval legends’ emphasis on chastity as the highest virtue when Galahad weds the Maiden. Arthur’s military assistance to the king of Egypt leads him to convert to Christianity and send his daughter to marry one of Arthur’s knights. After a shipwreck caused by one of Merlin’s temperamental fits, the Maiden falls into a death-like trance, and her seemingly lifeless body is delivered to the Arthurian court, where everyone has gathered for the wedding. In a test reminiscent of Malory’s “Healing of Sir Urry,” Merlin and Nina, the Lady of the Lake, require each knight to touch the maiden in hope that her husband-to-be might revive her. Percival, like the others, fails the test. Yet, even the narrator expresses surprise at Perceval’s failure because he appeared to be the “devoutest of all Champions”: indeed, he dared not approach the bier until he had “full thrice … crossed himself in meek composure” (stanza 46). It is Galahad who ultimately succeeds.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s collection of Arthurian-themed poems, The Idylls of the King, which had been published serially beginning in 1859 but was not completed until 1885, undoubtedly represents the most sophisticated and influential poetic exploration of Arthurian myth to emerge from the Victorian era. Although the Idylls usually follows Malory’s Morte, Tennyson struggles in “The Holy Grail” to reconcile the medieval Catholic faith in relics, miracles, and church hierarchy with his own Anglican religious beliefs (Bowles 574). His solution is to present the Grail as the collective hallucination of the Round Table knights, who pursue it under the questionable guidance of Percivale’s Sister, a nun driven by hysterical fanaticism to extended fasts and harsh ascetic practices. Further complicating the matter, the poem’s narrator, Percivale, is highly unreliable: not only was he one of the original, possibly hallucinating questers, but now he is recounting the quest as a senile octogenarian on his deathbed (stanzas 1–3). Although Percivale and Galahad are named together as the greatest knights (stanzas 28 and 29), Percivale is ultimately relegated to the status of Galahad’s spiritual subordinate because he lacks “true humility, / The highest virtue, mother of them all” (stanza 38). Tennyson also leaves the question of Percivale’s chastity up for debate. Early on his quest for the Holy Grail, he is lured to a castle where he reunites with his first love, who is now a widowed queen; she pursues him and, after they embrace and kiss, she “[gives] herself and all her wealth to [him]” (stanza 42). Nevertheless, Percivale, alongside Bors and Galahad, proves worthy of envisioning the Grail — for, as Arthur declares, they alone would witness the holy relic “if indeed there came a sign from heaven” (stanza 56). For Tennyson, then, it is not a knight’s sins that prevent the Grail from appearing; rather, it is the Grail’s nonexistence and the knight’s lack of faith in anything greater than this transient world.
Unlike Tennyson, other Victorian poets seem to have no reservations presenting the Grail as a legitimate and supernatural holy relic. For example, the anonymously authored poem “Arthur’s Knights: An Adventure from the Legend of the Sangrale” (1859) makes it clear that although the Grail only appears to “persons of unworldly spirits,” it was nevertheless seen by Galahad, Percevale, and Bors, who are in no way religious fanatics (“Introduction”). The poem privileges Percevale as a kind of prophet who accurately predicts the inevitable fall of Arthur’s kingdom as the result of Lancelot and Guinevere’s adulterous relationship (“Part Second”). Robert Stephen Hawker’s “Quest of the Sangraal” (1864) also accepts the Grail’s existence and occasionally adopts an anti-Semitic tone not unlike that of Perlesvaus. For instance, Hawker’s use of the term “yellow Jew” (stanza 9) to describe Herod during the vivid crucifixion scene encourages readers to interpret in a derogatory way the subsequent crusading rhetoric, which is often framed in terms of the Christian apocalypse, used to describe the Grail quest as revenge for Christ’s death (stanzas 4, 6–7, etc.). However, Hawker significantly alters the traditional account when he declares that the three Grail knights are Galahad, Perceval, and Tristan, not Bors (stanza 5). Galahad is still the superior knight who ultimately achieves the Grail, but Perceval and Tristan are not presented as sinful mortals. Indeed, Perceval is described as “that blameless man, that courteous knight,” and he is still permitted to dwell in “the happy South — the angels’ home” where he “might mount and mingle with the happy host / Of God’s white army in their native land” who “shall woo and soothe him, like the dove” (stanzas 26 and 31). In “The Quest of the Sancgreall” (1868), a poem heavily based on Hawker, Thomas Westwood’s three Grail knights all see the Holy Grail when they receive a vision of Christ who gives them the Eucharist and commands them to transport the Grail into Sarras, the Holy Land. Although Sarras is still under control of a Saracen king who tortures the Grail knights, the king dies within a year and the people elect Galahad as their new leader, ushering in an era of prelapsarian peace and prosperity. After Galahad ascends to heaven with the Grail, Bors returns to Camelot to help Lancelot, while Percevall remains in Sarras until his death.
Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal (1882) proved to be one of the most influential depictions of Perceval since the Middle Ages. Wagner draws (however loosely) on the tradition of Wolfram von Eschenbach in which Perceval is the only knight worthy of achieving the Grail and ruling over its divine dynasty on earth. As the prophesied “virgin fool” enlightened by compassion (literally, “pity knowing”), Parsifal will restore the presently desolate Grail kingdom to its proper glory by overcoming and absolving the sins of its former king, Titurel, and his son, Amfortas, the wounded Fisher King (I.ii). In this telling, sexual sins are the root of all evil, and Parsifal alone proves capable of resisting impure fleshly desires, embodied by the seductress, Kundry. Sexual sin caused the collapse of the Grail dynasty when Klingsor, one of the Grail knights, castrated himself in a desperate attempt to rid himself of impure thoughts. After being expelled from the kingdom for his actions, Klingsor gives himself over entirely to hedonistic desires, transforming his land into a paradisial “magic garden” through which he seeks the Grail dynasty’s downfall by seducing both Titurel and Amfortas. Wagner also equates carnal knowledge with knowledge of good and evil — an association that explains both Parsifal’s resistance to temptation and his growing susceptibility to it. Drawn by piety, he enters the Grail kingdom knowing only his mother’s name (Herzeleide) and how to craft a bow, but Kundry the seductress soon informs him of his father’s death before his birth and his mother’s death upon his departure. This knowledge presumably prevents Parsifal from understanding what he sees at the banquet of the Holy Grail later that evening (I.ii). Similarly, when Parsifal wanders into Klingsor’s pleasure garden, Kundry tries to seduce him by telling him more of his life’s story and promising him “knowledge” of pure love (which, for Wagner, exists only between mother and child) through her sexuality, but as soon as they kiss, he suffers the same excruciating pain in his side that Amfortas felt when in the presence of the Grail (II.ii). Parsifal immediately rejects her advances.
Parsifal can resist Kundry because, ignorant of many worldly experiences, he still knows what it means to feel true compassion — i.e., compassion in the literal, etymological sense of being able to suffer another’s pain with him or her, specifically the pain of Christ’s passion. Although Parsifal demonstrates an innate capacity for remorse and sympathy elsewhere in the text, as when he weeps for the swan he has shot and for his mother’s death, this scene of resistance epitomizes his enlightenment because he feels compassion for Amfortas and, implicitly, for Christ, since Amfortas’ wound represents the wound Christ received in his side from Longinus. Parsifal finally understands the meaning of the Holy Grail and cries out:
The spearwound see I, bleeding,
now bleedeth it in me! ….
The Saviour’s wailing there doth reach me,
the wailing, ah, the wailing
for the polluted [Sanctuary]:
‘Redeem me, rescue me
from the hands with sin attained!’ ….
And I — the fool, the dastard,
to heedless boyhood’s doings fled away! ….
How may I, sinner, pay my guilt?” (II.ii)
Even though Parsifal sees himself as a sinner, his display of compassion shows a virtue so powerful it endows him with Christ-like power: he halts mid-air the Holy Lance that Klingsor hurls at him as the sinful kingdom crumbles; he baptizes Kundry; and he returns to the Grail kingdom, wielding the lance. Although he is too late to save Titurel, arriving in the middle of his funeral rites, Parsifal does save the distraught and suicidal Amfortas, touching his side with the lance and allowing him to look once again upon the Holy Grail (III.i–ii). With this act, he restores the Grail kingdom to its rightful honor.
While many modern authors continued the medieval French and English traditions by representing Perceval initially as a silly, ignorant, comedic fool, others picked up on Wagner’s moral messages and chose to see Perceval as a symbol of pre- and postlapsarian knowledge. For example, the French poet Paul Verlaine wrote “Parsifal” (1886), a sonnet inspired by Wagner’s opera, which itself inspired several imitations. In keeping with Verlaine’s source, Parsifal is utterly helpless against “the Maidens” and his own “inclination / Towards the Flesh — that which tempts the virgin boy / Into loving their rising bosoms and sweet chatter” (lines 1–4, trans. mine). Yet his innocence prevails, and he is able to escape from “the beautiful Woman” carrying “a heavy trophy in his boyish arms, / … the lance which pierced the supreme Side!” (lines 8–9). With this holy relic, Parsifal “has healed the king” and become “king, / and priest of the most holy, indispensable Treasure / … / The pure chalice where shines the royal Blood” (lines 10–13). John Gray’s “Parsifal Imitated from the French of Paul Verlaine” (1893) maintains Verlaine’s structure and plot so closely that it could be considered a translation. Despite their similarities, however, subtle changes to diction and syntax make his poem more moralistic and religious in tone. Gray increases the sexuality of the “flower-maidens” and describes “the Woman Beautiful” in terms reminiscent of Milton’s Eve: she casts “coy / Back glances,” seduces him with her “subtle grace,” and enchants him with “the music of her babbling tongue” (lines 1–6). Gray also disambiguates the sextet’s imagery so that Parsifal becomes a literal “high priest” performing mass: the object of worship is “the glorious Sign,” no longer “renowned and symbolic,” and the “sang Réel” is now “the mysterious Wine,” the pre-transubstantiated form of the Eucharist (lines 12–13). Although Cuthbert Wright claims his “Parsifal” (1920) is a translation, he changes more of Verlaine’s original poem than does Gray. Most significantly, Wright never indicates that Parsifal conquers female sexuality — only that he is “the virgin vanquisher of death and shame” — and he emphasizes the difficulty of Parsifal’s conquest:
Weary and pale as death from that great fray
Which rolled the seas of battle far and wide,
He stands without his tent ere fall of day.
And leans upon that Lance which pierced the side,
The virgin vanquisher of death and shame,
Clean from their blood who ere the dark have died. (lines 1–6)
Wright’s focus on physical and spiritual suffering implicitly aligns Parsifal with Christ, that other “vanquisher of death” who suffered actual death before the Harrowing of Hell that redeemed the virtuous heathens. Additionally, Wright inserts himself into the last lines of the poem to suggest that Parsifal symbolizes God’s grace, chasing away all of Wright’s petty, worldly cares even though he can “barely touch” Parsifal’s “scarred boys’ hands intense with purity” (lines 14–15). The poem’s terza rima (not sonnet) structure recalls Dante’s Divine Comedy, perhaps alluding to Parsifal’s symbolic function as redeemer.
Authors in the early twentieth century tended to approach Perceval and the Grail legend in one of three ways: (1) transforming the myth into a metaphor for lost innocence or faith and its potential restoration; (2) telling Perceval’s story in a relatively straightforward manner, with little concern for its moral or spiritual underpinnings; or (3) using Perceval’s story to convey a sociopolitical message. Wright’s poem combines the first two approaches, providing first an account of Perceval’s deeds and then a symbolic interpretation of what those deeds may mean for him, the poet. Arthur Symons’s “Parsifal” (1899) offers few concrete allusions to either Perceval or the Grail legend and instead treats its protagonist as the personification of naïve innocence and its tragic departure. The “pale,” “re-awakening” gust that “scattered those flushed petals in an hour” represents the knowledge of good and evil that overwhelms Parsifal when the “sad enchantress” tempts him to sexual sin (lines 1–5). With such knowledge, innocence and beauty are lost to him forever: “... dead / Is all the garden of the world’s delight, / And every rose of joy has drooped its head, / And for sweet shame is dead; / Sweet joy being shameful in the pure fool’s sight” (lines 6–10). David Vaughan Thomas’s “Parsifal Heard in Wales” (1920) takes an even more metaphorical approach to the legend. Thomas imagines that anyone caught up in worldly pursuits and cut off from natural beauty must suffer like the wounded Fisher King: “O healing land, where noise and strivings cease! / A momentary respite here is found / For some Amfortas bleeding from his wound, / And on each rising knoll the Grail’s own peace” (lines 9–12). Similar to Wright, Thomas equates Parsifal to every soul’s spiritual yearning, revived by the sublime: “Pealing within my soul again I hear / The holy chant of blameless knights draw near” (lines 13–14).
Around the same time as Verlaine and others were composing minor poems in direct response to Wagner’s opera, the English poet and translator R. C. Trevelyan began to construct more substantial poetic works which used Wagner’s narrative as the foundation on which Trevelyan could build his own uniquely multifaceted characterizations and sub-plots. The Birth of Parsival (1905), for example, focuses exclusively on the circumstances of its protagonist’s birth, not on his well-known knightly achievements. The Birth of Parsival may, perhaps, be seen as Trevelyan’s attempt to “continue” the Wagnerian legend by providing a contextualizing frame narrative or “backstory” similar in scope to those found in the Bliocadran and the Elucidation. Similarly, in Herzeloida, the Mother of Parcival, Laments the Death of Her Husband Gahmuret (1912), Trevelyan claims to paraphrase the scene from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s romance in which Herzeleide gives birth to her son. Trevelyan’s The New Parsival: An Operatic Fable (1914) constructs a comedic, self-referential frame around Parsival’s fictional existence, beginning with a two-man committee reviewing a peculiar play entitled The New Parsival: An Operatic Fable that, to their surprise, is “the merest literary twaddle.” Deviating significantly from his predecessors — except, perhaps, for Tennyson — Trevelyan presents the Grail as simultaneously and paradoxically both myth and reality. Comparing the Grail to the Phoenix, Klingsor declares that because “truth is man-made, manufacturable at need,” the Grail will be real if people believe strongly enough that it exists.
Later novels take Trevelyan’s skepticism of Perceval and the Grail even further when they they use the legend to represent destructive ideologies manufactured to preserve an unjust status quo. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) is a stream-of-consciousness novel that consists almost entirely of disjointed dialogue between its six main “speaking” characters: Bernard, Neville, Susan, Rhoda, Louis, and Jinny. Although Percival himself never speaks, he is constantly spoken about, and he becomes an “absent presence” (Li 77) that continues to unite the six friends’ increasingly disparate lives. Percival represents his society’s masculine, imperialist ideal, with his propensity for sports, leadership, and devotion to expanding the British empire. According to Louis, Percival resembles, even in his youth, the mythologized, Teutonic hero of a “‘remote … pagan universe’” (Woolf 24), possessed of the “‘magnificence … of some mediaeval commander … for he will certainly attempt some forlorn enterprise and die in battle’” (25). Bernard offers an eloquent homage at the friends’ farewell meeting, describing Percival thus:
“He is conventional; he is a hero. The little boys trooped after him across the playing-fields. They blew their noses as he blew his nose, but unsuccessfully, for he is Percival. Now, when he is about to leave us, to go to India, all these trifles come together. He is a hero. Oh, yes, that is not to be denied, and when he takes his seat by Susan, whom he loves, the occasion is crowned. We who yelped like jackals biting at each other’s heels now assume the sober and confident air of soldiers in the presence of their captain. We who have been separated by our youth … sitting together now we love each other and believe in our own endurance. … We are drawn into this communion by some deep, some common emotion. Shall we call it, conveniently, ‘love’? Shall we say ‘love of Percival’ because Percival is going to India? No, that is too small, too particular a name.” (88–91)
Both Louis and Bernard draw attention to Percival’s militaristic nature and pursuits, clearly his identifying feature, while Bernard’s association of Percival with kingship (“‘crowned’”), religious ceremony (“‘communion’”), and charitas (“‘love of Percival [a God]’”) also draws out Percival’s deep connections to his medieval namesakes.4
While Woolf may have been most familiar with Wagner’s Parsifal (Hite 229n24), and she was certainly intending to connect him with the Grail tradition, she also seems to draw on the Middle English romance Sir Perceval of Galles. This is perhaps because Sir Perceval of Galles parodies the traditional knight-hero, and Woolf associates medieval chivalric society with the type of homosocial bonding that leads down the dangerous road to patriarchy, barbarism, and fascism (Ellis 47, 51–52). Most significantly, Percival’s work in India becomes a kind of crusade, as British imperialism and Christianity coalesce into a single ideological imperative. Bernard describes Percival’s mission:
“… behold, Percival advances; Percival rides a flea-bitten mare, and wears a sun-helmet. By applying the standard of the West, by using the violent language that is natural to him, the bullock-cart is righted in less than five minutes. The Oriental problem is solved. He rides on; the multitude cluster round him, regarding him as if he were — what indeed he is — a God.” (Woolf 98)
Rhoda then describes the psychological impact of Percival’s endeavors on insular British subjects:
“… the outermost parts of the earth — pale shadows on the utmost horizon, India for instance, rise into our purview. The world that had been shrivelled, rounds itself; remote provinces are fetched up out of the darkness; we see muddy roads, twisted jungle, swarms of men, and the vulture that feeds on some bloated carcass as within our scope, part of our proud and splendid province, since Percival, riding alone on a flea-bitten mare, advances down a solitary path, has his camp pitched among desolate trees, and sits alone, looking at the enormous mountains.” (99)
The seemingly minor detail that Percival rides a mare on these exploits recalls Sir Perceval of Galles’s journey to Camelot on a pregnant mare (line 326). Importantly, however, Woolf’s Percival and Sir Perceval’s deaths are set in stark contrast with one another. The narrator of Sir Perceval of Galles states that Perceval dies nobly in “the Holy Londe” after he has “wanne many cités full strong” for Christendom (lines 2280–84). The romance thus solidifies a shared Christian identity among its audience members. While we might assume that Woolf’s noble Percival likewise dies heroically on the battlefield, struggling to win more “cités full strong” for the British empire, Woolf instead uses his death to cast doubt on the imperialist ideology that led to his demise. We learn, for instance, that Percival is not in India winning “cités full strong,” as India, Britain’s “proud and splendid province” (99), turns out to be a dusty, backwards territory — hardly something worth dying for. Moreover, we learn that his death was tragically commonplace, even ignoble: “‘He is dead. … He fell. His horse tripped. He was thrown’” (109); “‘He was thrown, riding in a race’” (180). Finally, in stark contrast to the heroes of medieval crusade romances, Percival becomes the locus around which any sense of collective identity dissolves. Louis, for instance, frames Percival’s death as a collective, national loss, connecting his death in India to the failed British imperialist ventures in Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere (123). Yet, although Louis seems to accept the notion that he, like every British subject, has a stake in “‘our united exertions’” to bring “‘lavatories and gymnasiums’” and civilization to the “‘remotest parts of the globe,’” it becomes clear that these ideas are hollow propaganda: at best, they offer ordinary citizens the chance to see larger meaning in their lonesome, repetitive lives; at worst, they excuse the consumerist drive to amass exotic goods “‘which other merchants will envy’” (122–23). Woolf thus transforms Percival from a proud symbol of Christian conquest into an embodiment of imperialistic folly.
Not all modern novelists take Woolf’s rather cynical perspective, however. Jim Hunter’s novella Percival and the Presence of God (1978), though set in the Middle Ages, explores Percival’s timeless relevance by equating the Grail with existential meaning. Hunter relies on Chrétien’s Conte and Wolfram’s Parzival for plot, the Welsh Peredur for setting, and Eliot’s The Wasteland for symbolism. Notably, Hunter reconstrues Percival’s maturation from “simpleton hero” to heroic Grail knight as an increasing awareness of life’s indiscriminate brutality and brevity. Bypassing his sheltered childhood, Hunter’s novella begins many years after Percival has left his mother, when he slays the “codeless” knights trying to rape the lady Whiteflower and her ladies-in-waiting (19). We learn about his early life with his mother and tutor Mansel, based on Wolfram’s Master Kyot, only through episodic flashbacks. Unlike Chrétien’s Blancheflor, Whiteflower is a (presumed) widow who seduces Percival and makes him her courtly lord/lover. A vision of the suffering “fisher-lord” Henged and the Grail procession eventually compels Percival to seek the mythical King Arthur.5 After several months, he meets Henged, who invites him to recuperate at his castle (96–103). Although he notices that Henged is pained by an old wound in his groin, he refrains from asking because he was taught to “‘contain [his] eagerness, within a due patience. … wait; accept; keep silence’” (107). The feast becomes a macabre spectacle as Henged transforms into a living corpse before their eyes. Thrice the Grail appears before him, and thrice he fails to act. When he returns the next morning to find the castle deserted, Percival understands “too late” that one cannot “let God’s experience present itself in its own time” (118–19). He resumes his quest for Arthur, but he is devastated to find that Camelot has been razed; the knights who died defending it lie skeletonized, their riches plundered (140–43). Dazed and disillusioned, Percival falls through the chapel’s rotting floor and becomes perilously trapped under a beam that may symbolize the fatal weight of “meaninglessness” when one doubts God’s presence (143–44). Saved by a beneficent family, Percival finally resumes his self-sacrificial quest — this time to relieve Henged’s suffering — and accepts that his penance is to tell his story to everyone who shows him hospitality along the way.
In his decision to continue his quest, Hunter’s Percival affirms the idea that we must live as though providential meaning exists even when we cannot discern it. In an interview with Raymond Thompson, Hunter compared his novella to the works of Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, which explore how a “Christian consciousness” still influences a mostly secular, agnostic West. Similarly, Percival concludes that “either things are truly arbitrary, an utter haphazardness of God, or their direction is likely to be too difficult for us to understand, so that they appear arbitrary though they are not so” (164). While the adolescent Percival clings to “the code” Mansel taught him to guard against the animalistic violence and existential despair that consume others (19), the mature Percival accepts that we must continuously “interpret” our experience to give our endeavors meaning (164). In this way, both Hunter and Woolf use Percival to attenuate the power of ideological conviction. For Woolf, Percival embodies a destructive, unthinking adherence to an ideological quest and reveals its flaws through his death. For Hunter, however, Percival models a way “to live with the appearance of arbitrariness” when he finds freedom in dedicating his life to relieving Henged’s suffering (164–65).
In her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), Jeanette Winterson similarly uses the figure of Sir Percival to reveal the perils of absolutist worldviews.6 Oranges recounts Jeanette’s struggle to find her place in a fundamentalist religious community that would force her to choose between loving God and loving other women — a false dichotomy she ultimately rejects. Winterson cleverly integrates into the main narrative a number of fantasy episodes which elucidate tensions between Jeanette’s complex lived experience and the reductive stories she has learned as part of her socialization into a heteronormative, patriarchal society (Reisman 12–13). Loosely based on Chrétien’s Conte and Malory’s Morte, Percival’s story occurs in four short episodes spanning the last two chapters of Oranges. It begins in medias res when he, the “darling” of Arthur’s court, sets off in search of the Holy Grail (135). When the Round Table knights experienced a collective vision of the Grail, they all vowed “not to rest until they had obtained a full view of it” (166). Percival departs last because he secretly knows he will find “perfect heroism” and “perfect peace” through domestic labor, not chivalric deeds (166). His journey is plagued by nostalgic dreams of courtly luxury, his “dead or dying” friends, and a grieving Arthur (135). At the Grail Castle, Percival stays silent before his host rather than admit he believes his journey to be “fruitless” and “misguided” (173). That night, he dreams he is a spider dangling from a tree when a swooping raven severs his silk and frees him to “scuttl[e] away” (174). Percival’s story ends with this magical realist dream-vision, more ambiguous than ever.
It becomes clearer, however, when this narrative “thread” is tied together with that of an earlier fantasy episode in which a prideful prince writes a three-part book called The Holy Mystery of Perfection. The first part starts innocently enough with a “philosophy of perfection” — embodied in the “Holy Grail, the unblemished life” — while the second part superficially confronts the potential “impossibility of perfection” (62). The third part then doubles down on the original message, encouraging readers to pursue a “single-minded” genocidal impulse “to produce a world full of perfect beings … a heaven on earth … a perfect race” (62). Winterson later elaborates on this slippery slope, observing:
People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe. […] Knowing what to believe has its advantages. It built an empire and kept people where they belonged, in the bright realm of the wallet. … Very often history is a means of denying the past. Denying the past is to refuse to recognize its integrity. To fit it, force it, function it, to suck out the spiritual until it looks the way you think it should. We are all historians in our small way. And in some ghastly way Pol Pot was more honest than the rest of us have been. Pol Pot decided to dispense with the past altogether. To dispense with the sham of treating the past with objective respect. (93–94)
For Winterson, as for Woolf and Hunter, the decision to deny reality — to continue to believe in false dichotomies, failing ideologies, etc. — is an atrocity akin to those committed in the name of ideology. By accepting this concept, Jeanette literally and figuratively “rewrites” the Grail legend. The romance-like “entrelacement” structure of her and Percival’s narratives emphasizes the similarities and differences of their “quest” for self-actualization. Although she, too, appears to “scuttle away” when faced with the choice between submitting to Pauline silence and leaving the church altogether, Jeanette, unlike Percival, never denies her identity, desires, or history. Instead, she revises her narrative according to observed reality. In this way, Jeanette achieves a kind of “perfect heroism” through self-acceptance — a feat all the more impressive given the extreme rejection she experienced.7 Significantly, Winterson’s construction of a female Grail hero effectively deconstructs the stereotypical gender binaries on which the formative stories in her life were mistakenly based.
In contrast to the way British novelists align Perceval with absolutist ideologies and imperialism, American authors tend to portray him as a positive example of rugged individualism. This ideological impetus drives many twentieth-century American versions of the myth. It is especially strong in youth-oriented texts. For example, as the protagonist of Augusta Stevenson’s play Sir Percival, the Boy Knight from the Forest (1910), Percival is remarkably uninhibited by his isolated, feminine upbringing, proudly declaring his intentions to go off and become a knight the moment he learns what knights are: “I am strong: I should protect the weak. I am young: I should protect the old. I am needed in the world outside. I must go, for ‘t is my duty” (I.i). Percival immediately demonstrates his masculine prowess when he smites the Red Knight and earns the highest praises from all, including Galahad, who declares, “I can scarce believe mine eyes! Such courage I have never seen!” (I.ii).
A similar ideological contrast to British adaptations is evident in Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural (1952). Here, Perceval’s tale serves as “the controlling metaphor” for the story of Roy Hobbs, an up-and-coming minor league baseball player whose innate talent should propel him straight to major-league greatness (A. Lupack 260). As with Perceval and the Fisher King, however, Roy repeatedly falters as a “hero” (Malamud 32) when asked to resist sexual temptation and show compassion. He is first seduced by a would-be assassin, Harriet Bird, who inflicts a serious wound in his groin that puts his career on hold for fifteen years because Roy fails to see “some more glorious meaning” in his athletic career, “something over and above earthly things” (33–34). Finally, Roy recovers enough to join the New York Knights. Establishing further onomastic and symbolic parallels to medieval legend, the Knights’ manager, Pop Fisher, has an incurable wound on his hands, and the team’s stadium is a decrepit, drought-ridden “wasteland.” Roy fails again when he prefers the “sterile” sexual allure of Memo Paris, who symbolizes a “false Grail,” over the “redeeming fecundity” of Iris Lemon, the “true Grail” (B. Lupack 83). The novel, like the legend, ends with Roy’s moral failure: he agrees to throw the final game in exchange for enough money to potentially marry Memo, denying Pop Fisher and the Knights any hope of redemptive healing. Although he possesses the “natural” ability to become a star, a typically American idea of heroism, Roy’s state of “natural” ignorance proves to be his downfall.8
Richard Monaco similarly shows the negative consequences of innocence when surrounded by societal corruption and violence in his novel Parsival, or A Knight’s Tale (1977), the first book in a Grail pentalogy that also includes The Grail War (1979), The Final Quest (1980), Blood and Dreams: Lost Years (1985), and The Quest for Avalon (2012). Though based loosely on Chrétien’s Conte, Wolfram’s Parzival, and Wagner’s Parsifal, Monaco creates a uniquely violent narrative, surpassing even Perlesvaus in terms of carnage: the knight-in-shining-armor mythos so popular in the fantasy genre cannot withstand the Monaco’s countless scenes of knights committing gratuitous acts of “murder, rape, destruction, and even cannibalism” (A. Lupack 272). The novel begins when Parsival is still an innocent youth, raised by his overprotective mother in her isolated forest kingdom. He sets off to find King Arthur after seeing knights whom he mistook for angels, but it soon becomes clear that they are anything but. Travelling with Gawain and Galahad, Parsival participates in the various violent exploits expected of knights, though he never feels fulfilled by them. Along the way he meets a fisherman, who takes him to the Grail Castle, where he characteristically fails to ask the meaning of the chalice and lance. Here, however, Monaco’s Parsival begins to deviate from its medieval sources. Parsival is caught having sex in a church by a priest, and the woman’s parents convince him to marry her, then promptly resume his quest to become suitably honorable. Additionally, the narrative begins to shift between the experiences of Parsival, who continues his various adventures, and those of his mother’s servants (Broaditch, Alienor, and Waleis), who are imprisoned and tortured by the evil magician Clinschor while they search for Parsival. Parsival’s quest becomes a kind of Manichean struggle between Clinschor and Merlinus, the good magician at Arthur’s court. Neither attains the grail, but Parsival does have an epiphany when he finally returns home to his wife Layla and their son Lohengrin: “it came to him like breath. […] like the breath of everything […] he felt an inexplicable tender pity, a general pity that named nothing in particular, that included himself too… He felt as though he was starting […] from the beginning, the root, the center, the heart beginning of themselves” (334–35). With Layla’s blessing, he resumes his quest, really “a sort of pilgrimage,” for the Grail (338).
FILM AND TELEVISION
In contrast to the novels, modern media adaptations of Perceval and the Holy Grail legend generally take a literal approach to characters and themes.9 Éric Rohmer’s film Perceval le Gallois (1978) adapts the Perceval legend in the experimental and existential style of French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) cinema. At once remarkably traditional and startlingly innovative, Perceval le Gallois is essentially a translation of Chrétien’s Conte into Modern French, with the story narrated throughout by its disembodied author and the characters themselves. The actors become the equivalent of a moving illuminated manuscript: they exist in a garishly stylized theatrical set reminiscent of medieval art, and their movements and dialogue are dictated by the narration. Rohmer deviates from his source text only at the very end, when he allows Perceval (Fabrice Luchini) to complete his quest by witnessing a Passion play.
The British producers of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) take a far less reverent approach in their reworking of medieval Arthurian romance. Apparently finding Galahad’s story too boring to mesh with the rest of their material, they merge Galahad and Perceval’s plotline to include a variation of the sexual temptation scene that is so central to Perceval’s story. In their version, Galahad (Michael Palin) is led by a Grail-shaped beacon to Castle Anthrax, a convent of sexy nurse-nuns who offer to heal his wound, located in his groin, presumably through sexual intercourse. The setting of Castle Anthrax is likely drawn from the Estoire’s Castle of the Maidens, in which fifty women are held captive by seven wicked knights, whom Galahad defeats to liberate the women and end the castle’s wicked customs (17–18). The plot itself, however, recalls Perceval’s temptation in the Estoire (36) and Malory (918), when he pledges himself to the demon disguised as a beautiful woman, who nearly succeeds in seducing him. In the film, Galahad is completely captivated by the women and only remembers his vow of chastity at the last minute, when he observes his cross-shaped sword and the cross on his shield, but he almost immediately forgets it again when he stumbles into the women’s bathing room. Moreover, instead of putting an end to Castle Anthrax’s customs, Lancelot (John Cleese) must drag Galahad out of the castle against his will, so strong is his desire for the maidens.
In 1984, Barry Levinson directed The Natural, a film adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel of the same name. Starring Robert Redford, the film is recognizably derived from its literary source, and yet the overall tone is drastically changed: plot and characters are simplified, symbolism is made (literally) black and white, and a happily-ever-after ending is artificially added. As Barbara Tepa Lupack observes, Levinson “reduced most of the novel’s Arthurian elements and transformed Malamud’s incisive examination of the mythology of the American hero into a celebration of an idealized and idealistic America” (85–86). Appealing to popular American ideals, then, Levinson’s film turns Roy Hobbs into “a new mythic hero for a new era” (95).
The Fisher King (1991), written by Richard LaGravenese and directed by Terry Gilliam, co-director of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, offers a radically new, remarkably arbitrary interpretation of the Grail story that focuses on themes of guilt, compassion, and redemption. The “sin” that sets the film’s plot in motion comes when crass radio-talkshow host Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) mocks a distraught incel caller named Edwin, who follows Jack’s flippant advice to get rid of “yuppie inbreeders” and shoots up a popular bar before killing himself.10 Jack’s guilt drives him to poverty, alcoholism, and attempted suicide. He is saved by Parry (Robin Williams), a homeless man who taught medieval studies before Edwin murdered his wife, triggering a mental breakdown. Though no longer catatonic, Parry still suffers debilitating hallucinations of the monstrous Red Knight (Chris Howell), who “attacks” when Parry relives his trauma. Parry tells Jack how the young Fisher King burns himself trying to seize the Grail engulfed in mystical flames, and the wound festers as he ages, turning his kingdom into a wasteland (à la body politic symbolism) until a hapless fool’s compassion summons the Grail. The film’s retelling of the Grail legend maps neatly onto the film insofar as Parry is Perceval, the spiritually insightful “fool,” and Jack is the Fisher King, the emotionally wounded man. According to Parry’s vision, the Holy Grail is a trophy displayed in a castle-like townhome owned by millionaire Langdon Carmichael (Mel Bourne). The film deviates significantly from medieval sources because Parry, unlike Perceval, is blameless for his suffering. In this way, Jack takes on what would traditionally be Perceval’s quest for forgiveness. The opening scene in which Jack repeats “Forgive me” becomes prophetic, and he spends the majority of the film trying to help Parry find happiness and mental stability by setting him up on a date with Lydia, a socially awkward woman whom Parry admires from afar. When Parry and Lydia start dating, Jack believes himself redeemed, returning to his old life of wealth and promiscuity and forgetting about those who cared for his wounded self. When he learns that Parry has relapsed because the Red Knight attacked him for trying to kiss Lydia, Jack determines to heal Parry — and, of course, assuage his own guilt — by stealing the Grail. In his Perceval-like quest, Jack happens to find Carmichael unconscious from an overdose of pills and shows redemptive compassion when he deliberately trips the security alarm so that police can resuscitate him. He brings Parry the Grail and finds that Lydia has been caring for him the whole time. The film ends on an almost oppressively upbeat note with everyone in the mental hospital singing Sinatra’s hit “How About You.”
A stop-motion film by Laura Lewis-Barr retells Percival's story in the modern world. Lewis-Barr's films rework fairy tales and mythic stories. In Percy Grows Up, she retells the story of Percival in a modern setting. Despite its radically different form and setting, the film echoes the medieval tales of Percival's quest for the Grail.
Returning to literal (though not traditional) adaptations of the legend, the BBC television series Merlin (2008–2012) depicts the Grail quest in its episode “The Eye of the Phoenix,” but Perceval is conspicuously absent from the narrative; the quest is instead undertaken by then-prince Arthur (Bradley James), his undercover-magician sidekick Merlin, and the not-yet- knighted Gawaine. Indeed, even though he is mentioned in passing earlier in the series, Perceval (Tom Hopper) does not play a significant role until the final season, when he helps restore Camelot after the invasion by Morgana (Katie McGrath) and Morgause (Emilia Fox) in the episode “Arthur’s Bane.” While Perceval is portrayed as an uncouth rustic, as per literary tradition, Merlin emphasizes the fact that he is not of noble birth, which explains why it is so remarkable that Arthur does eventually knight him (along with the other self-made commoner, Sir Gwaine [Eoin Macken]).
The two “Fisher King” episodes of the TV series Criminal Minds (2005–present) take a similarly non-traditional, literal approach to the Grail legend. In these episodes, a schizophrenic hostage-taker believes that his abducted daughter is the Holy Grail and the FBI agents are the Knights of the Round Table. Notably, he insists that the youngest agent, Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler), is Sir Perceval — a delusion that seems apt given Reid’s youth, social awkwardness, and compassion for those struggling with mental illness.
Perceval’s prominence in Arthurian literature has decreased steadily since he first appeared in twelfth- and thirteenth-century medieval romances as the sole Grail knight in Chrétien’s Conte, Wolfram’s Parzival, and the anonymous Perlesvaus. In these versions, the basic story remains the same: Perceval, a naive and foolish youth, is invited as a guest into the castle of the wounded Fisher King, whereupon he sees the Holy Grail but fails to ask its significance and/or the cause of the king’s pain because he was instructed not to ask too many questions. His decline in popularity began as early as the thirteenth century, when the Vulgate Cycle’s Estoire made him but one of three Grail knights, second in rank to Galahad and equal to Bors. He is likewise subordinated in Malory’s Morte.
Post-medieval retellings in which Perceval is the sole Grail knight — including Wagner’s Parsifal, Hunter’s Parcival and the Presence of God, Monaco’s Parsival, or A Knight’s Tale, and Gilliam’s The Fisher King — tend to emphasize the medieval themes of lost innocence, speaking and silence, and compassion. Authors in this vein who look to Wagner’s opera instead of medieval sources, such as Trevelyan and Verlaine, tend to emphasize Perceval’s susceptibility to sexual temptation even more than those who, like Monaco, look back to Wolfram’s romance. Versions that draw on the Vulgate’s Estoire or Malory’s Morte tend to depict Perceval as an ardently faithful but ultimately fallible devotee to the Grail’s Christian symbolism. This depiction is seen most clearly in Tennyson’s Idylls. Twentieth-century authors, however, tend to strip Perceval of his overtly religious symbolism: he becomes either a generic metaphor for lost certitude, or an explicit exemplum against ideological absolutism. In the poems of Symons, Thomas, and Trevelyan, therefore, Perceval serves as a metaphor for the loss (and potential restoration) of innocence, faith, or truth. The metaphor is taken further in Woolf’s The Waves and Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, where his affiliation with imperialism and absolutism brings about his demise, and in Hunter’s Percival and the Presence of God, where he survives by rejecting any singular interpretation of the world.
Non-literary retellings of Perceval’s story — save Éric Rohmer’s Perceval, which is fairly faithful to Chrétien’s Conte — tend to play fast and loose with tradition. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for example, gives to Galahad the sexual temptation and failure to achieve the Grail that had been Perceval’s defining plotline since the twelfth century, while The Fisher King distributes Perceval’s plot and characteristics between its protagonists. In The Natural, Merlin, and Criminal Minds, Perceval serves as a kind of stock character reference for a remarkably talented individual whose youth and naivete hinder him on his literal or metaphorical quest.
 This claim is sometimes disputed, particularly among earlier (pre-World War II) scholars, such as Jessie Weston, who regards the Peredur’s Castle of Wonders as analogous to the Fisher King’s wasteland realm, since the Castle of Wonder’s future of either prosperity or ruin likewise depends on the success or failure of Peredur (18). More recently, Glenys Goetinck has contended that the Continental and Welsh Grail legends are deeply intertwined: “The Grail in its original form was the vessel offered to the hero by Sovereignty; it was itself a symbol of sovereignty. The quest for the Grail was originally the hero’s quest for sovereignty and, in the later romances, the hero’s quest for his kingdom, for the vessel which symbolized that kingdom, and his efforts to perfect himself in order to be worthy of it, became his quest for the vessel which symbolized all that was most holy, and his efforts to be worthy of the kingdom of Heaven” (275).
 Admittedly, Perceval receives about the same amount of psychological complexity as any of the other knights in the Grail story. The Vulgate-authors seems much more concerned with Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair, and all the moral and emotional uncertainty it brings — hence the work’s more recent title, the Lancelot-Grail Cycle.
 This is not to say that Perceval does not violate the maiden in a symbolic and sexual manner, only that the author does not seem to regard his actions as a pseudo-rape.
 Percival clearly functions as a Judeo-Christian religious symbol. The friends first encounter Percival after their “orderly processional into chapel” at Christmastime (23). Louis immediately bestows religious significance on Percival, saying that he would make a good “churchwarden” because he leaves a “wake of light” in which the other students congregate, following him like a flock of “faithful servants” (24–25). At the farewell meeting, Bernard goes so far as to say that “the multitude … regard him as if he were — what indeed he is — a God” (98). Rhoda, perhaps in an allusion to Wolfram’s lapsit exillis, says that Percival “is like a stone fallen into a pond round which minnows swarm. Like minnows, we … all shot round him when he came. Like minnows, conscious of the presence of a great stone, we undulate and eddy contentedly … in some rapture of benignity” (99).
 In his effort to show courtly life’s inanity, Hunter unfortunately turns to misogynistic stereotypes. For example, the women at Whiteflower’s castle are all grotesquely fat and old: one woman makes “gargoyle grimaces of suffering” with her “moustached” face, while another has not “a witch’s face” but “a whore’s face perhaps, well outside the code, but human enough” (44–45). Percival even feels “pity” — that vital emotion traditionally reserved for Christ and the Fisher King — for a young maiden who is daily surrounded by the “older women’s grossenss” (48–49). Whiteflower and Percival’s mother are better developed, but their characters are not free from misogynistic stereotypes. For example, Whiteflower is accused of “sorcery” when she acts on her sexual desires (17). Hunter admits that he “unashamedly wrote … a very adolescent male text” and made no effort to balance out the book’s “quite strong erotic elements” with any “very substantial” female characters (Thompson, “Hunter”). Thus, inasmuch as women perform the domestic and sexual activities which tempt Percival not to seek Arthur or the Grail, Hunter implies not only that women do not have destinies of their own, but also that they function mainly as obstacles to men’s achieving theirs.
 Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit blurs the line between memoir and novel. My discussion refers to the author as “Winterson” and the narrator-protagonist as “Jeanette.”
 While Percival voluntarily leaves behind his loved ones, Jeanette is violently rejected by those who once nurtured and protected her. When Jeanette and her beloved Melanie are denounced before the entire congregation, only one person stands up for her, and only in secret (104–05). Pastor Finch then performs an exorcism against her will, locking her in a room with no food or light for thirty-six hours, until Jeanette repents just to make the abuse stop (107–10). Finally, connecting Jeanette’s experience with Percival’s story, her mother does not hesitate to make her daughter homeless because “‘the Devil looks after his own’” (136). This last experience is tragically ironic when juxtaposed with Percival’s memory of Arthur’s “sorrowing face” (166) — to say nothing of the (omitted) scene in which Perceval abandons his grief-stricken mother who just wants to keep baby healthy and clean right here under her wing.
 Barbara Lupack notes the title’s pun on the pre-modern and modern definition of “natural” (81). For the pre-modern sense, see Oxford English Dictionary, “natural” (n.1), def. 7: “a person having a low learning ability or intellectual capacity; a person born with impaired intelligence,” especially as shorthand for “natural fool” (n.); for the modern sense, see Oxford English Dictionary, “natural” (adj. or adv.), def. 1, 8a, and 8b. For more on the theme of innocence, natural ability, and heroism, see the discussion below of the film adaptation, The Natural (1984).
 For a complete Perceval filmography, see IMDb, “Sir Perceval (Character).”
 The term “incel” (short for “involuntary celibate”) refers to men in online subgroups who think not only that they have a right to sex but also that they can punish women and so-called “normies” who deny it to them (Janik). Although the term first emerged online in the mid-1990s, a few years after The Fisher King was released, it may nevertheless be applied because a major theme in film is the return of status to supposedly marginalized, heterosexual, white male characters — to the extent that the film has been grouped with other “affirmative action fables” that emerged alongside the “men’s movement” in the early ‘90s in response to second- and third-wave feminism (Dowell 47). I have chosen to use the anachronistic term incel to describe Edwin because his fictional attack is remarkably similar to a shooting in Toronto in April 2018 by a self-identified incel who killed ten “normies” and wounded fifteen others (Janik).
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