The Story of the Grail
Chrétien de Troyes
(Yale, 1999) [c.1190]
Translated from the Old French by Burton Raffel
Perceval was the fifth and last of Chrétien’s great Arthurian romances. Like Lancelot it was left unfinished at his death, which is a great pity, for it was undoubtedly his most ambitious work. Even the truncated version we have, which shows no signs of nearing completion, is, at over 9200 lines, about 30% longer than his other poems. It is a work which, despite moments of endearing humour, sustains a more solemn and mysterious tone than was typical in his earlier works.
The incomplete poem is structurally awkward. The story initially follows Perceval but switches, at roughly the half-way mark, to follow the adventures of Gawain. For several thousand lines the story jumps back and forth between the two knights, but the last third of the (truncated) poem is devoted entirely to Gawain, the titular knight having been apparently forgotten. Presumably Chrétien would have brought the two storylines together at some point, providing a more satisfying artistic unity to the work. It is true that there are certain parallels between the adventures of Perceval and Gawain which do something to bridge the gap between the two parts, but I imagine that Chrétien had planned something more obvious to tie things up nicely. Once again, it is a pity that he did not live to see the project through.
The first part of the poem charts Perceval’s course from a naive, rural simpleton to a great knight of Arthur’s circle. His father, who had been killed in combat and whom Perceval never knew, was a renowned knight, and Perceval’s mother, in sorrow over her husband’s death, kept vigilant guard over her son to prevent his knowing anything about knights and combat. Eventually, of course, her efforts failed, and Perceval took to knighthood like a fish to water. Among the most humorous scenes in all of Chrétien’s poems are those in which Perceval, with the simplicity of a child, questions a knight about his fascinating vocation. He learns quickly, and his prowess soon earns him entry to Arthur’s court.
From there, a great number of adventures follow. Central to them is, of course, Perceval’s encounter with the grail, which serves as a kind of axis around which the poem turns. The grail is not the Holy Grail of legend, but rather, here, close to the source of the tradition, it is a kind of serving dish (“a plate wide and somewhat deep,” says a source contemporary with Chretien). Perceval sees it while a dinner guest at a great castle. His host, the Grail King, has suffered for years from mysterious wounds, and has been sustained only by daily consumption of the Host. Seated at dinner with the King, Perceval beholds a strange parade, but bites his tongue for fear of saying something inappropriate. The scene is worth citing in full:
They sat in a hall lit
As brightly as candles can make
An indoor room. And as
They chatted of this and that,
A servant entered the hall,
Carrying — his hand at its center —
A white lance. He came out
Of a room, then walked between
The fire and those seated
On the bed, and everyone saw
The white wood, and the white
Spearhead, and the drop of blood
That rolled slowly down
From the iron point until
It reached the servant’s hand.
The boy saw that wondrous
Sight, the night he arrived there,
But kept himself from asking
What it might mean, for he’d never
Forgotten — as his master at arms
Had warned him, over and over —
He was not to talk too much.
To question his host or his servants
Might well be vulgar or rude,
And so he held his tongue.
And then two other servants
Entered, carrying golden
With enamel. They were wonderfully handsome
Boys, and the candleholders
They each clasped in their hands
Bore at least ten
Burning candles. A girl
Entered with them, holding
A grail-dish in both her hands —
A beautiful girl, elegant,
Extremely well dressed. And as
She walked into the hall,
Holding this grail, it glowed
With so great a light that the candles
Suddenly seemed to grow dim,
Like the moon and stars when the sun
Appears in the sky. Then another
Girl followed the first one,
Bearing a silver platter.
The grail that led the procession
Was made of the purest gold,
Studded with jewels of every
Kind, the richest and most costly
Found on land or sea.
No one could doubt that here
Were the loveliest jewels on earth.
Just as they’d done before,
When carrying the lance, the servants
Passed in front of the knight,
Then went to another room.
And the boy watched them, not daring
To ask why or to whom
This grail was meant to be served,
For his heart was always aware
Of his wise old master’s warnings.
But I fear his silence may hurt him,
For I’ve often heard it said
That talking too little can do
As much damage as talking too much.
And so it was in this case, for Perceval later learns that had he satisfied his curiosity and asked about the lance, the grail, and the silver platter, the King would have been healed of his wounds. Worse, because he did not ask, the King will never be cured. At this, Perceval devotes himself to discovering the meaning of the mysteries he witnessed.
Naturally, this is all hard to understand. A bleeding lance? A connection to the crucifixion suggests itself, but if the grail has not yet been related to Christ, should we expect any such relations here? (Maybe. There is actually more Christian theology in this poem than is typical of Chrétien’s other works, but in this case we have no particular reason to suppose that the lance is the one that pierced Christ’s side. Chrétien never does get around to explaining the mystery, so we are left with our speculations.)
This story of the grail stands, as I said, quite close to the source. Chrétien remarks in the opening section of the poem that the story came from “a book the count gave me”, so, unless we are dealing with a playful authorial modesty, the story was not original with him. Some scholars apparently believe that the origins of the myth lie in Celtic lore.
That said, Chrétien’s version of the story was immensely influential. Four different conclusions to the poem were composed by other hands following his death, ranging in length from about 9000 additional lines to over 19000 additional lines. Shortly after Chrétien died, a Burgundian knight named Robert de Boron wrote a poem in which he identified the grail with the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, and his grail, the Holy Grail, was incorporated into a vast number of later works.
This completes my undistinguished overview of all five of Chrétien de Troyes’ surviving romances. I believe that the set will come up if one clicks here.