Parsi-fal "Pure Fool"

This is the easiest description of Sir Perceval (also Percival or Percivale). He wasn't known for his brains to say the least.

Perceval spent most of his childhood in Wales, where his mother hoped to spare him from the bloodshed at Arthur's court. Her plan worked until the day Perceval ran into a group of knights riding through the nearby forest. He was immediately dazzled by their strength and weapons, and so he ran off to follow them on their way back to court.

Once he arrived he asked to be made a knight right then. Most of the court laughed at his this, but Arthur, who saw that he was a true innocent, explained that he would have to work his way toward knighthood. From there, Perceval became a court page, causing disasters wherever he went because of the dangerous combination of innocence, ignorance, and curiousity that resided in him. He could also be counted on to get into trouble, although never on purpose or with cruel intent.

Eventually he rose to the level of knight and set off into the world to find adventure. He came upon an old man in a boat who invited him back to his castle for the knight. There Perceval saw a wonderous procession leading towards a strange cup. He also noted that the land around the castle was in ruins and it's owner (the old man) was in a similar state. He thought it rude to ask questions, so he remained silent about the entire episode. Little did he know, this was the Fisher King, the guardian of the Holy Grail, laid to waste by the Dolorous Stroke. Had Perceval shown any interest in the situation (by asking a question) he would have restored the King to his former glory. But, alas, poor Perceval instead found himself on the cold ground of an empty, abandoned castle in the morning. He realized his mistake and then spent years wandering in search of the Grail Castle and the Fisher King.

Here the story diverges a bit. In the later, more widely known version, Perceval joins the company of Sir Galahad and Sir Bors, who are together known as the Three Elect. Together they find the Grail Castle and Galahad heals the Fisher King. When Galahad finally sees the Grail, he decides he has nothing left to live for and dies, having completed his mission (to find the Grail). Bors is sent back into the world to spread the news to the world and is named "The Messenger". Perceval is left to take the place of the Fisher King, guarding the Grail. In the earlier, original myths, Perceval eventually finds the castle on his own. He is the great hero (as opposed to Galahad), but instead of dying in the midst of its beauty, he is left to guard, as in the later myth.

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1. also Parzival, Perlesvaus, Percyvell, Parsifal, Perceval, Percivale, and possibly the early Welsh Peredur.

As the French Perceval has no real meaning (possibly "pierce the valley"--as to what that means, one can take it as either sexual, or an initiate into the mysteries), it is possible that the hero's original name was the Welsh Peredur--"Hard Spear"?

Perceval is the original hero of the Grail quest, and in later versions, where he is replaced by Galahad, he still is always a part of the elect few who achieve the Grail. He is always a naive figure, often raised in the woods by his widowed mother and is quite alone in the world. He is accidentally exposed to the real world when a group of knights come riding through his backyard, and he decides to go off and become a Knight of the Round Table. From here he has a series of adventures, falls in love, and ends up in the Waste Land at the mysterious court of his uncle, the Fisher King, wherein he sees the Grail and the Bleeding Spear. He foolishly says nothing about what he sees and leaves. He has some more adventures, and in some versions, is able to return and heal the king, restore the land, and become the new grail guardian.

Perceval is the Great Fool of myth and folklore.

2. The last Romance ever written by Chretien de Troyes, it is the first text to give the Grail quest in the form we now know it, and (I think) is the first use of the word "graal" or grail. He attributes his material to a book owned by Philip of Flanders, cousin to Henry II of England. Begun around 1174 and left unfininshed in 1191 (presumably by Chretien's death), it has been completed by several different continuations:

  • 2 anonymous prologues:
  • 4 direct continuations:
    • pseudo-Wauchier: "Gawain continuation"
    • Wauchier: "the Perceval continuation" both before 1200. Second continues the first
    • Manessier: ca.1214-27 continues the second
    • Gerbert de Montreuil: ca.1226-30 continues the second
  • Perlesvaus: anonymous continuation, ca 1220

Although, Alias Mother Jonez's write up is probably much more useful, here is something I wrote comparing Chretien de Troyes' "graal" story and Beowulf.

At first glance Perceval or the Story of the Grail (or Graal) appears to have a lot in common with Beowulf. In the case of theme and syntax they actually are quite similar. However, the religious history surrounding each of them differs almost completely.

Both Beowulf and Perceval are epic poems that have been handed down as an oral history. However Beowulf is a Pagan's tale, while Perceval is a Christian tale. Religion is cast out of Beowulf, whereas Perceval (up until a point in the story) is the model Christian knight; devout, humble, poor and full of other chivalrous virtues. The central story, with Perceval as the keeper of the Holy Grail, is wholly religious. However, after his experience with the Grail, Perceval finds that his actions have caused great chaos in his uncle's (who is king) land. He then makes a startling admission- that he no longer loves or serves God. Throughout the rest of the story Perceval is a man who is lost and needs religious counsel.

Now Perceval becomes a warrior like Beowulf, without a God and with the conscience of a warrior and nothing more. As Steven G. Nichols points out, "… Perceval's appearance mounted, in full armor on Good Friday, the day when Christians were supposed to throw off worldly garb and walk barefoot symbolizes for all to see the spiritual disarray of his soul."1

Another major difference between the two stories is that the author of Beowulf is unknown, whereas historians credit Chretien de Troyes with writing Perceval. Usually the author doesn't affect how a body of literature is received and comprehended. However it's necessary when determining historical significance.

Beowulf is more than likely fiction, for many reasons. One of the major reasons is that the author is unknown. This denotes the idea that the story was a common legend among Anglo-Saxons, and therefore is more than likely just joyful banter between people. However, in the case of Perceval, since we know (or think we know) who wrote it, it's easier to define how much truth lies in the story. Like Beowulf's dragon scene, Perceval has its unbelievable moments. However the author gives some more credence to the work as a whole.

Little is known of de Troyes. However, it has been established that he wrote Perceval during or around 1188 AD. This was a period of great religious turmoil, which included the fall of Christian Jerusalem. It has been hypothesized that due to the time period, the count of Champagne, his employer, told him the story to be recorded for posterity. The lineage of both the Count of Champagne and the Count of Flanders, to whom the poem is dedicated, gives the story some veracity. Both of these men belong to the "Grail family" or the descendents of Perceval. 2

It is important to point out that even today the actual history of Perceval is still in doubt. In most libraries Perceval still sits in the fiction section beside Beowulf. Due to the age of both texts, it's still largely left to the reader to dervive his own interpretation of the history of the stories, much like the content of stories themselves.

  1. Nichols, Stephen G. "Picture, Image, and Subjectivity in Medieval Culture." Modern Language Notes, vol. 108.4, September 1993
    Article Available Online at:
  2. Baigent, Michael, Leigh, Richard, and Lincoln, Henry. Holy Blood, Holy Grail. New York: Delacorte Press, 1982.

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