Perceval, the Story of the Grail

Scenes from Perceval.

Perceval, the story of the Grail (French: Perceval, le Conte du Graal) is the unfinished fifth romance of Chrétien de Troyes. Probably written between 1135 and 1190, it is dedicated to Chrétien's patron Philip, Count of Flanders.[1] It is said by some scholars that during the time Chrétien was writing Perceval, there was a political crisis taking place between the aristocracy, which included his patron, Philip of Flanders, and the monarchy, which may have influenced Chrétien’s work.[2]

Chrétien claimed to be working from a source given to him by Philip. The poem relates the adventures and growing pains of the young knight Perceval but the story breaks off. There follows an adventure of Gawain of similar length that also remains incomplete. There are some 9,000 lines in total, whereas Chrétien's other romances seldom exceed 7,000 lines.

Later authors added 54,000 more lines in what are known collectively as the Four Continuations.[3] Perceval is the earliest recorded account of what was to become the Quest for the Holy Grail[4] but describes only a golden grail (a serving dish) in the central scene and does not call it "holy" but treats a lance, appearing at the same time, as equally significant.

Plot summary

Roman de Perceval, 1932

The poem opens with Perceval, whose mother has raised him apart from civilization in the forests of Wales. Since his father's death, he continually encounters knights and realizes he wants to be one. Despite his mother's objections, the boy heads to King Arthur's court, where a young girl predicts greatness for him. He is taunted by Sir Kay, but amazes everyone by killing a knight who had been troubling King Arthur and taking his vermilion armor. He then sets out for adventure. He trains under the experienced Gornemant, then falls in love with and rescues Gornemant's niece Blanchefleur. They agree to marry.

Returning home to visit his mother, he comes across the Fisher King, who invites him to stay at his castle. While there he witnesses a strange procession in which young men and women carry magnificent objects from one chamber to another. First comes a young man carrying a bleeding lance, then two boys carrying candelabra. Finally, a beautiful young girl emerges bearing an elaborately decorated graal, or "grail", passing before him at each course of the meal. Perceval, who had been warned against talking too much, remains silent through all of this and wakes up the next morning alone. He finds his mother is dead, then Arthur asks him to return to court. But before long, a loathly lady enters the court and admonishes Perceval for failing to ask his host whom the grail served and why the lance bled, as the appropriate question would have healed the wounded king.

No more is heard of Perceval except a short later passage in which a hermit explains that the grail contains a single mass-wafer that miraculously sustains the Fisher King’s wounded father. The loathly lady announces other quests that the Knights of the Round Table proceed to take up and the remainder of the poem deals with Arthur's nephew and best knight Gawain, who has been challenged to a duel by a knight who claims Gawain had slain his lord. Gawain offers a contrast and complement to Perceval's naiveté as a courtly knight having to function in un-courtly settings. An important episode is Gawain's liberation of a castle whose inhabitants include his long-lost mother and grandmother as well as his sister Clarissant, whose existence was unknown to him. This tale also breaks off unfinished.

The Continuations and Prologues

Over the following 50 years four different poets took up the challenge left by Chrétien and continued the adventures of Perceval and Gawain.[3][5]

First Continuation

The First Continuation added 9,500 to 19,600 lines (depending on the manuscripts) to the romance.[3] It was once attributed to Wauchier de Denain, and is still sometimes called the Pseudo-Wauchier Continuation for that reason. It exists in a short, a mixed, and a long version; the short was the earliest and the most loosely linked to Chrétien's work, while the mixed is considered to be the latest, drawing on both earlier versions. Roger Sherman Loomis believed that the short version, which was added to an existing Perceval manuscript ten or twenty years later, represents a version of the story that was originally independent of Chrétien's.[6]

The First Continuation picks up the narrative of Gawain's adventures where Chrétien left off: his mother and grandmother are reunited with Arthur and Gawain's sister Clarissant marries Guiromelant. In the long version, Gawain opposes the marriage and rides off in anger, reaching the Grail Castle. After further adventures he rejoins Arthur (and the long version rejoins the short) and helps him besiege a rebel's castle.

The First Continuation is notable for its cavalier approach to the narrative agenda set by Chrétien. In particular it includes a seemingly independent romance, which in the long version spans over 6000 lines: The Livre de Caradoc, starring Arthur's knight Caradoc, explains how the hero got his nickname "Briefbras", or "Short Arm".[7] All versions of the First Continuation describe Gawain's visit to a Grail castle quite unlike Chrétien's, a vividly imagined scene that introduces the motif of a broken sword that can only be mended by the hero destined to heal the Fisher King and his lands. Gawain is not this hero and he fails. The final episode recounts the misadventures of Gawain's brother Guerrehet (Gaheris or Gareth) who is humiliated by a dwarf knight before avenging himself and a mysteriously murdered stranger. In the closing scene he returns to court asleep on a swan boat.

Second Continuation

Shortly after the First Continuation was completed, another author added 13,000 lines to the total.[3] This section was also attributed to Wauchier de Danain, and might actually represent his work. Making extensive use of motifs and themes drawn from Chrétien and the First Continuator, this continuation has Perceval returning to the Grail Castle and repairing the sword of Trebuchet, but a hairline fissure that remains in the blade symbolizes his still-flawed psyche – and the narrative's persisting potential for further development.

Gerbert's Continuation

Gerbert's Continuation added 17,000 lines.[3] The author, usually considered to be Gerbert de Montreuil, composed his version independently of Manessier, and probably around the same time. He tries to tie up loose ends left by Chrétien and the others, and the influence of Robert de Boron's work can be felt. Notably, Gerbert includes a complete Tristan episode into his narrative that exists nowhere else. Gerbert's Continuation seems not to have enjoyed great popularity; it survives in only two manuscripts, one of which is heavily damaged, as an interpolation between the Second and Manessier Continuations. It is likely Gerbert wrote an ending for the story, but it has been excised from both surviving copies to facilitate its position between the two other continuations.

Manessier's Continuation

Manessier's Continuation (also called the Third Continuation, because that is its place in the manuscripts that do not include Gerbert) added 10,000 lines and, at last, an ending.[3] Manessier wrapped up many of the loose ends from the previous authors, and includes several episodes from other works, including the "Joie de la Cour" adventure from Chrétien's Erec and Enide[8] and Calogrenant's death as told in the Queste del Saint Graal section of the Lancelot-Grail cycle.[9] The tale ends with the Fisher King's death and Perceval's ascension to his throne. After seven peaceful years, Perceval goes off to live as a hermit in the woods, where he dies shortly after. Manessier supposes he took the Grail, the Lance, and the silver plate with him to Heaven.


The Elucidation is an anonymous Old French poem of the early 13th century, which was written to serve as a prologue to Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, le Conte du Graal.[1] The poem counts 484 lines and cites one Master Blihis as a source for its contents.


Another prologue to Perceval consisted of 800 verses preserved in two thirteenth-century manuscripts. In the poem, Perceval's father (who is left unnamed in Chretien's original) is called Bliocadran.


Main article: Perlesvaus

Perceval's influence

Though Chrétien did not complete his romance, it had an enormous impact on the literary world of the Middle Ages. Perceval introduced an enthusiastic Europe to the grail and all versions of the story, including those that made the grail "Holy", probably derive directly or indirectly from it. The grail in Perceval has the power to heal the Fisher King so it may have been seen as a mystical or holy object by readers.[10] Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, one of the greatest works of medieval Germany, is based largely on Chrétien's poem.[11] When comparing Wolfram's Parzival to Chretien's Perceval some scholars not only suggest that the structure is different, but that Chretien focuses on knighthood with religious implications while Wolfram primarily focuses on knighthood.[12] Another is the Welsh Peredur, son of Efrawg, one of the Three Welsh Romances associated with the Mabinogion, though in this case the connection to the French work is unclear.[13][14] French filmmaker Éric Rohmer directed an eccentric adaptation titled Perceval le Gallois in 1978. T. S. Eliot cited the story of Percival, particularly the scene depicting his encounter with the Fisher King, as one of the primary symbolic backdrops in his poem The Waste Land.


  1. Lacy, Norris J. (1991). "Chrétien de Troyes". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 88–91. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
  2. Pickens, Rupert T. "Le Conte du Graal." The Romances of Chretien de Troyes: A Symposium Ed. Douglas Kelly. Kentucky: French Forum, 1985 (232-286)
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Grigsby, John L. (1991). "Continuations of Perceval". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 99–100. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
  4. O'Gorman, Richard (1991). "Grail". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 212–213. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
  5. English translations of the Continuations can be found in Bryant, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, 1996.
  6. Loomis, Roger Sherman (1991). The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, ch. VI. Princeton. ISBN 0-691-02075-2.
  7. Arthur, Ross Gilbert (translator) (1996). Caradoc. In Three Arthurian Romances: Poems from Medieval France: Caradoc, the Knight With the Sword, the Perilous Graveyard. New York: Everyman's Library. ISBN 0-460-87577-9.
  8. Owen, Arthurian Romances.
  9. The scene in question appears in Lacy, Lancelot-Grail, Volume 4, p. 61.
  10. Ramm, Ben. A Discourse for the Holy Grail in Old French Romance Ed. Sarah Kay. New York: D.S. Brewer, 2007 (pp. 4-7 and 110-121)
  11. Wolfram claims his source is not Chrétien but an otherwise unknown Provençal poet named Kyot; this is not accepted by the majority of scholars. See Hatto, A. T. (1980). "Introduction to a Second Reading." In Wolfram von Eschenbach; Hatto, A. T. (translator), Parzival. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044361-4.
  12. Groos, Arthur. Romancing the Grail: Genre, Science, and Quest in Wolfram's "Parzival." New York: Cornell University, 1995.
  13. Roberts, Brynly F. (1991). "Peredur". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 357–358. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
  14. Gantz, The Mabinogion.


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