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Chrétien De Troyes

Perceval, the Story of the Grail

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1181

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Summary and Study Guide


Perceval, or the Story of the Grail is an unfinished epic poem from the late 12th century by Chrétien de Troyes, one of the most famous troubadours in medieval France. It is a significant member of the early corpus of Arthurian tales. Perceval follows the adventures of its titular character from his humble beginnings as a rustic, ignorant youth to an adventuring knight attached to King Arthur’s court. It also traces the adventures of another knight, Gawain, and deals with elements that would become common features of the Arthurian legends, such as the meaning of chivalry and the quest for the Holy Grail. The epic remains unfinished, suggesting that it might have been cut short by Chrétien’s death in 1191 or by an earlier period of infirmity. Several other writers attempted to finish the narrative of Perceval after Chrétien’s death, and the book quickly became a celebrated piece of medieval European literature, ultimately serving as the inspiration for works ranging from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 12th-century Parzival to Richard Wagner’s 19th-century opera Parsifal.

This study guide uses the 1983 verse translation by Ruth Harwood Cline, published by the University of Georgia Press. Quotations are cited with reference to the poem’s line numbers rather than Cline’s pagination, so the reader can use this study guide along with any standard edition of the text.

Content Warning: The text of Perceval includes a brief passage of violent antisemitic rhetoric in Lines 6292-6296.

Plot Summary

Perceval is loosely divided into two halves, the first of which follows the adventures of the title character, Perceval, and the second narrating the quests of Sir Gawain, another Arthurian knight. The two leading characters provide different perspectives on knighthood, offering a view of an inexperienced young knight who bumbles into mistakes but perseveres through them, and that of an experienced and accomplished knight who nonetheless also falls into many dangers that he must overcome. Many elements in Gawain’s stories parallel the structure of Perceval’s earlier adventures, thus highlighting both the similarities and contrasts between the two knights.

The story begins with Perceval abandoning his mother to go to King Arthur’s court, hoping to become a knight. King Arthur recognizes the young man’s potential, but other officials in his court taunt Perceval for his ignorance and rustic manners. Perceval proves his prowess in battle quickly, overcoming the Red Knight who threatened King Arthur and taking the red armor for himself. Perceval then undertakes a series of quests, first undergoing training under the tutelage of a nobleman, Gornemant of Gohort. He then proceeds to another castle, where he meets his love interest, Blancheflor, and saves her realm from the depredations of a nobleman named Clamadeu. He sends his captured prisoners back to King Arthur’s court, along with a promise to return there himself and set right his dispute with Sir Kay, the man who had taunted him.

Perceval next finds himself at a mysterious castle with an otherworldly air, wherein an injured lord, the Fisher King, serves as the guardian to two sacred relics: a bleeding lance and a grail, both of which likely represent elements from the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Perceval observes these objects being carried back and forth into another room while he is having dinner, but makes no inquiry about them. This is later revealed to be a terrible mistake because the Fisher King’s infirmity could have been resolved by a knight who asked the “healing question”—namely, the meaning of the grail and whom it was being taken to serve. Had Perceval asked the question, the Fisher King would have been healed, and untold blessings conveyed on his realm.

Perceval returns to King Arthur’s court, where he defeats Sir Kay in combat and is welcomed into the king’s company. This marks a transition in the story, which shifts from Perceval’s adventures to Gawain’s. Gawain is the nephew of King Arthur and one of his leading knights, but a messenger arrives to tell him that he is being charged with treason by the royal house of Escavalon for his involvement in the prior king’s death. Gawain sets out to address this charge, and along the way he encounters a series of castles that roughly parallel the structure of Perceval’s earlier adventures.

Gawain first comes across the castle and realm of Sir Tiebaut, where he must ride in support of the nobleman’s family and the ideals of chivalry, successfully defending them against an upstart challenger. He then comes to another castle where he, like Perceval at Blancheflor’s castle, finds both a love interest and a situation that threatens his safety, though in Gawain’s case the castle is revealed to be Escavalon itself. Due to the complicating circumstances of having been welcomed as a guest into Escavalon before his identity was known, he is given a one-year reprieve to continue his quests.

Sandwiched in the middle of Gawain’s exploits is a brief return to Perceval, who appears in a single scene that resolves some of the lingering questions about the Fisher King and the grail. Perceval, who in his ignorance has forgotten his own faith, encounters travelers that explain to him the message of the Christian gospel and direct him to make confession to a holy hermit nearby. Speaking with the hermit, Perceval discovers that he is an uncle—his mother’s own brother—and the hermit explains to him the root of his sufferings. Perceval’s abandonment of his mother was the sin that caused much of the subsequent trouble, including his failure to ask the healing question at the Fisher King’s castle. The hermit tells Perceval the answer to that question: The grail was conveying a consecrated communion wafer to the Fisher King’s father, who is also connected to Perceval’s family. All of these revelations lead Perceval to a moment of sincere repentance, and he commits himself to abide by the rule of penance which the hermit lays out for him.

Meanwhile, Gawain enters a new territory, where he meets a caustic young woman who taunts him and dares him to undertake reckless and dangerous tasks, but his unswerving devotion to chivalry leads him to obey each such directive. Eventually, they come to a mysterious castle where the long-lost relatives of Gawain’s and Arthur’s extended family reside, including Gawain’s grandmother (Arthur’s mother, Ygerne), his mother, and his sister. Gawain meets a new challenger just beyond the castle grounds, the Guiromelant, who wants to fight Gawain to avenge the deaths of his father and brother. The story comes to an abrupt and unfinished end with Gawain sending an invitation to King Arthur’s court to come and witness his duel against the Guiromelant, which would also presumably bring Arthur back into contact with his long-lost mother.

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