Perceval, the Story of the Grail

Perceval, the Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes, is a work which had a great influence on the modern imagination and has grown into one of the world's most cherished symbols of idealism.

With Perceval, Chrétien de Troyes took some earlier legend as starting point. For literary purposes, he veils the meaning and form of the Grail in mystery. Unfortunately, he died before finishing his poem and revealing his secret.

His followers endowed the Grail with mystical qualities, and is doubtful that the practical, sometimes mundane Chrétien ever intended to do so. As such, the Grail becomes a wondrous stone of precious properties, imparting life and immortality, the vessel in which Christ's blood was received as he hung upon the cross, or the dish used by him at the Last Supper. By a gradual build up of symbolism and idealism it has remained in literature until the days of R. S. Hawker, Tennyson, and Wagner. Closely connected with it is the search for perfection, the desire for knowledge met with in Faust or the quest for the blue flower of German Romanticism.

Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, the Story of the Grail, is a poem of chivalry. The hero is a youth brought up in ignorance by a widowed mother, who intended to keep him away from the dangers of knighthood and men clad in armor. She even clothed him in linen and leather to make him look ridiculous and keep him home. One of the counsels given to him is to avoid asking too many questions.

But, one day, Perceval sees some of those noble knights in their shining armors, beautiful as angels. He is ambitious to follow and sets forth on his wanderings in spite of his mother.

Gradually, he gets experience and is consecrated a knight, being instructed in charity and piety. In the course of his adventures he learns what true love means, when he rescues a distressed damsel. He visits the Castle of the Fisher King, where pass before him in procession a wonderful sword, a lance dripping blood, a ten-branched candlestick, and the mysterious "Graal," borne by a maiden.

Perceval, whose name even to this point has not been revealed by Chrétien, remembers his mother's advice, and does not dare to ask the significance of this Grail. The consequences are unfortunate, for the question would have healed the sufferings of the Fisher King.

Chrétien's hero has many other adventures, but the narrative was unfinished by its author. The poem received different continuations and endings by Gaucher de Denain, Mennecier, and Gerbert, in which Gauvain (Gawain) continues as a prominent character.

It is in the later parts that the Grail begins to acquire a mystic character and becomes the dish in which Joseph of Arimathea received the blood of Christ. The growth of the mystic symbolism in the Perceval, the Story of the Grail and other works of the followers of Chrétien is obvious, superimposing the monastic ideal of chastity over the intentions of the practical, mundane poet.