The Story of the Grail (Perceval) by Chrétien de Troyes
Don’t be intimidated by the fact that The Story of the Grail was originally a 12th century French poem. Let us focus on how there are many prosaic (and English) translations of the tale, making it very accessible. Don’t ignore that it is just one of many other Arthurian legends that can be enjoyed. And yes, they are very much about glory, codes of honour and pretty maidens.
What makes The Story of the Grail different then? For a start, it follows the parallel adventures of two knights – Perceval and Gawain; one a naïve country boy, and the other is a seasoned fighter. Perceval is still at the stage of hanging on his mother’s every word, and Gawain is apparently an expert in all he does.
Excited yet? Here’s the twist. It is not the story of the grail as you know it. Indeed, the grail isn’t really a grail. It’s a serving dish. It may or may not have been used by Jesus (probably not). Oh, and here’s the real shocker – King Arthur doesn’t go on a quest in order to own the grail.
The synopsis tells us:
“Taking the legends surrounding King Arthur and weaving in new psychological elements of personal desire and courtly behaviour, Chrétien de Troyes fashioned a new form of medieval romance… the haunting Story of the Grail chronicles the legendary quest. Rich in symbolism, these evocative tales combine closely observed detail with fantastic adventure to create a compelling world that profoundly influenced Malory, and are the basis of the Arthurian legends we know today.”
Frankly, that blurb is less of a summary and more of a glowing review. Let’s deal with it realistically then.
Unfortunately, it is an uphill struggle if you want to try to take The Story of the Grail at all seriously. It is obvious that Chrétien was aiming for humour in many parts, and therefore he loses all the power of his descriptions of knights being valiant – I was receiving visual images of Don Quixote. He additionally loses the force behind his praise of the Christian religion (especially when his protagonist somehow mistakes a tent for a church).
On top of that, Perceval is the most annoying main character that you may ever have the misfortune to meet. He is disrespectful, arrogant and, worst of all, when he sees his mother fall in a faint,he does not stop to see if she is hurt or worse (which she is, since she dies). He just rides off.
Every other character seemingly loves him though. They all excuse his rude behaviour by saying that he is uneducated and therefore simple, though he can somehow be called noble and worthy despite that. He sexually assaults a woman and then steals her ring. That is fine though, since he eventually bests her lover in combat. He doesn’t even know his own name. Even so, he is a master fighter, after scarcely any training. He is, essentially, the luckiest man in the world, and apparently the most admired. He is what fanfiction geeks call a ‘Mary Sue’.
Speaking of fanfiction (the stories that fans write, based on their favourite books, TV shows, games etc.) The Story of the Grail reads like a bad one. Its descriptions are superficial at best. All the plot situations are entirely too convenient and coincidental. Anyone who isn’t either Perceval or Gawain is merely a functional stock character. As a fairy tale, The Story of the Grail is great; as a book, it is awful. Unfortunately, it cannot even match up to fairy tale standards, because it lacks a fairy tale ending.
Actually, it lacks an ending.
The text cuts off in the middle of a…
The Story of the Grail reads very much like a brothers Grimm fairy tale, fantasy magic and absurd logic included. I enjoyed reading it, because it was relaxing and easy. I rarely get to read simplistic books at university. 12th century French literature is an excellent excuse to read what is pretty close to a children’s book.
It was downright refreshing to see a different image of King Arthur than we usually get. Chrétien probably never intended us to spot the way that King Arthur’s role is entirely reduced to exclaiming over how much he admires Perceval, or sitting and weeping for Gawain, because he misses him. Aww. That little sweetie.
I must also comment on the mastery of translation happening in the book. My favourite line is: “Not at all, young man. You’re such a dolt!” Or perhaps the word ‘dolt’ was a 12th century French invention, which would be wonderful.
This story is, generally speaking, hilarious. Seriously LOL, LMAO, ROFL and all variations of the text speak I usually avoid like the plague. It has a unique interpretation, by today’s standards, of wisdom. For example, “After crossing the river the squire found the right path that led to Orcanie, for anyone who knows how to ask directions can travel anywhere in the world.”
The Story of the Grail does pretty well in more conventional comedy too. You ultimately get to enjoy such wondrous mental images as: a maiden and a knight defending a tower by throwing chess pieces at a lynch mob, a fully armoured knight who is lying down on a bed only to be attacked by arrows, and last but certainly not least, a red knight becoming all the more red due to the javelin through his face. Such excellent situations. I’ve never laughed so hard. Alright, the last situation was not technically comedy, but…
The perception of right and wrong is delightfully skewed. It is wrong for anyone to interrupt Perceval’s reverie while he is contemplating three drops of goose blood on snow. Perceval obviously vanquishes these silly, silly people. It is clearly wrong that Perceval fails to ask who is being served from an elaborate serving dish. This dooms a benign king to eternal suffering, apparently. However, it is perfectly alright to steal a squire’s horse just because he is ugly. No problem.
“This edition [Penguin Classics] includes notes, a glossary of medieval terms [which I wished I had thought to look at more], and an introduction by William Kibler examining authorship and the sources of the romances. Erec and Enide is translated by Carleston W. Carroll, while the other four works are translated by William Kibler.”
Therefore, Arthurian Romances contains five stories, including The Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes. Unlike the tale I chose to read, the other four are completed. These stories take 494 pages, of which 113 pages are devoted to The Story of the Grail. All this means that if you take it upon yourself to have a few fairly intensive days of reading, reading one story per day, you would be done in less than a week.
This time, my review of this book’s Best bits sounds an awful lot like its Worst bits. This is what happens when you thoroughly love a tale, despite yourself. I was very reluctant to like a story that has such irritating characters, but I could not help myself. For a legend repeated through many years, it has a ring of originality. For a story that lacks an ending, it almost makes up for it in its episodic adventures. I would recommend The Story of the Grail to anyone who enjoys fairy tales, particularly those of the brothers Grimm. It isn’t a long read, but it is a good one.