Back to top

The Elucidation: Introduction

The anonymous text known as the Elucidation is a brief (484-line) prologue to Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval. Composed after Chrétien's romance (during the early thirteenth century, though it cannot be dated more accurately than that), it is extant in a single French manuscript (Mons 331/206, formerly 4568). It is preserved as well in the Prose Perceval published in 1530, and Philipp Colin and Claus Wisse translated it into German in the fourteenth-century Nüwe Parzefal ("New Parzefal"). The Mons manuscript also preserves the Bliocadran prologue (concerning Perceval's father), Chrétien's Perceval, and three of the Continuations of Perceval.

The Elucidation, attributed in line 12 to a "Master Blihis," is an extremely problematic and difficult text, containing numerous corrupt lines and questionable readings, as well as whole passages that defy logic. The scribe, perhaps working from a copy that was illegible at many points, appears to have misconstrued his source in some cases and simply exercised his imagination in others. Similarly, modern editors or translators must in a number of instances supplement their knowledge of Old French and of medieval Arthurian tradition with creative solutions to textual cruxes.

Readers who know Chrétien's uncompleted Grail romance will also find the Elucidation perplexing because it offers information not included in Perceval, and some passages simply contradict Chrétien's romance. Albert Wilder Thompson, who edited the Elucidation in 1931, suggests that it is composed of five distinct parts, and even a simple listing of these divisions will illustrate how far removed the text is from Chrétien. The first part (1-28) is a brief introduction recommending secrecy; it insists that the story should not be told prematurely, a caution that is twice repeated later. It also refers to "seven guards," with discussion of them deferred until later. The second division of the text (29-98) recounts in some seventy lines the story of the Maidens of (or in) the Wells. (The Old French puis has sometimes been interpreted as "hills," but more often and more persuasively as "wells.") These maidens served food and drink to all passersby until King Amangon deflowered the women and stole their gold cups; this act, in ways that are not explained, precipitated the wasting of the land and long made it impossible for anyone to locate the Fisher King's castle.

Only now, in the third section of the poem (99-224), do Arthur and his knights appear. Praised highly as courageous and accomplished knights, they wish to avenge the wrong done to the maidens and thereby restore the land to its original state. Unable to locate the wells, they find instead other maidens, protected by knights eager for battle. Gauvain is the first to overcome one of the enemy, defeating Blihos Bliheris and sending him to Arthur's court. Once there, Blihos explains that the maidens are descendants of the maidens of the wells. Arthur and his knights set out in quest of the Fisher King's castle.

In the section identified by Thompson as Part 4 (a divided section: 225-338; 383-484), we finally encounter the Grail. We learn that Gauvain and Perceval both found the Fisher King's court, which is the Grail Castle. Gauvain is mentioned first, and his eventual success is predicted, but then the author or redactor sets aside that story in order to speak of Perceval's prior discovery of the court. (Perceval is described as a young and inexperienced knight who manages to distinguish himself and eventually become worthy and successful.) Unlike Chrétien's romance, the Elucidation has Perceval ask the Grail question, here stated as "de coi li Greaus servoit?" ["what is the purpose of the Grail?" (248-249]. The young man also inquires about the identity of a corpse and about the broken sword on the body; his offense or sin — though it is not explicitly characterized as such — is his failure to ask why the lance bleeds. We learn further that the Grail procession occurs three times a day, followed each time by a feast, with food provided by the Grail, which, as in a good many later works (but not Chrétien, of course), moves under its own power.

In the fifth part of the Elucidation (339-382, inserted into the fourth section), the author, remarking that the court was found seven times in all, announces that seven guards will relate seven branches of the story. The first narrative to be mentioned is that of the Lance of Longinus, but some of the others are vague or puzzling allusions. One, for example, concerns "Huden" (360); this has been taken, for want of a better explanation, as Husdent, the name of a dog in the Tristan legend. However, there is no other connection between the Tristan story and the Elucidation, and the name remains enigmatic. (Thompson speculates [p. 108] that the copyist, finding an illegible word or unknown name in his source, substituted for it the only similar name that was familiar to him.) Another branch of the story, we are told, will speak of Lancelot and of the way he lost his strength. Certain of the others are simply enigmatic or obscure allusions; examples are the Story of the Great Sorrows and the Adventure of the Shield.

As is obvious from the preceding details, readers familiar with Chrétien's Grail romance will find much of the Elucidation puzzling or worse. Here the Fisher King is a magician or shape-shifter capable of assuming one hundred identities (220-222). Neither the Maidens of the Wells nor the seven guards are to be found in Chrétien. Furthermore, as noted, we are told in the Elucidation that Perceval does indeed ask the Grail question (though its form differs from that given in Chrétien's account) but that he fails to ask about the bleeding lance. And there is the corpse, unidentified, with the broken sword upon it. We are later told that the Grail moves by its own power and that it produces the finest foods for those whom it serves. There are a great many other details, large and small, that we will not find in Chrétien, and whereas some of them are additions to his narrative, others are details that directly contradict his account.

Certain of these narrative puzzles will be explained if we read past Chrétien: one or more of the Continuations will in some cases "elucidate" the Elucidation, developing narrative material as the prologue has led us to expect. However, that is not always true by any means, and the Elucidation sometimes makes statements or promises that are borne out nowhere in Chrétien or in the appended Continuations. In theory, some of these confusing situations might be allusions to a version of the Grail story that has not been preserved, but many of them are obviously the result of manuscript corruption, scribal incompetence, or both. Some lines and passages simply do not make sense, and any rendering of those passages into English or another language will tax both the translator's philological competence and his literary judgment, and even so, the translation of this text, as noted, necessarily remains something of a creative process.

Despite the textual difficulties, the inconsistencies, and the illogical developments in the Elucidation, it is obviously a work that, along with the Bliocadran, ought to be available and known. It is one additional, if strikingly eccentric, step in the rich elaboration of the full Perceval, Gauvain, and Grail traditions in medieval France. We are fortunate to be able to offer here a fine translation by William W. Kibler.

Go to the translation of The Elucidation.
Additional Information:
Copyright 2007 Norris J. Lacy and used here with his permission.