The Unholy Grail: A Social Reading of Chraetien de Troyes's Conte Du Graal

The Unholy Grail: A Social Reading of Chraetien de Troyes's Conte Du Graal

The Unholy Grail: A Social Reading of Chraetien de Troyes's Conte Du Graal

The Unholy Grail: A Social Reading of Chraetien de Troyes's Conte Du Graal

Synopsis

The history of the Grail legend begins with a romance composed by Chretien de Troyes in the last decades of the twelfth century, Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal. Whereas Chretien's earlier romances explored the secular tensions generated by chivalric and courtly life, the Conte du Graal has appeared to most scholars to resolve such tensions by offering a spiritualized ideal of a new kind of chivalry governed by a universal vision of chivalry's redemptive mission in the world. Focusing on this earliest extant version of the Grail legend the author proposes instead a social interpretation of Chretien's romance as a story concerned with earthly violence and vendetta. She asserts that, rather than anticipating the mystical quest for the "Holy Grail" narrated in subsequent renditions of the legend, Chretien's Conte du Graal functions as a chronicle of aggressive pursuits at whose core is a long-standing dispute between two principal forces: King Arthur and the Grail lineage. The author shows how this history of rivalry is revealed through a double narrative that consists of the parallel adventures of Perceval, the heir presumptive of the Grail lineage, and of Gauvain, King Arthur's most powerful and honored champion. In Cazelles's view, the Conte du Graal forecasts a lethal encounter between its two protagonists and points to the presence of a cycle of conflicts and tensions that threatens to engulf the entire chivalric community, including King Arthur himself. The Unholy Grail assesses the importance of the Conte du Graal as both a crepuscular account of Arthur's "history" and as a final phase of traditional chivalric romance. It also suggests that the aggressiveness of knightly society asdepicted in the Conte du Graal reflects, via a displacement to the imaginary, the very predicament that the chivalric aristocracy - notably the noble sponsors of courtly literature - faced as a result of their declining status

Excerpt

Prominent among the factors that have ensured the popularity of the Grail legend from the Middle Ages until today is the universal character of a quest whose destination bespeaks the attainment of excellence and perfection. The quest for the "Holy Grail" owes its enduring currency to its significance as the emblem of man's relentless attempt to rise above the human condition. Its reinscriptions in fiction and cinema are recent confirmations of the wide appeal and lasting fascination the legend exerts.

Returning to the moment, around the years 1180-91, at which the legendary quest appeared on the literary scene, I explore its genesis in the earliest extant Grail romance: Chrétien de Troyes's Conte du Graal. At issue is whether this inaugural text coheres with the tradition, developed by Chrétien's literary heirs, according to which the goal of the quest is a transcendent, "Holy" Grail. Although Grail literature after Chrétien sustains an interpretation of the Conte du Graal endowing both the Grail and its quest with ideal value, one cannot assume that these sequels represent a gloss of the text faithful to Chrétien's intentions. Nor can the Grail, even in the generally idealized perspective developed after Chrétien, be seen as a monolithic emblem. Taking into account the variable character of the Grail throughout the medieval tradition, this book, which in no way claims to represent the final word on the Grail according to Chrétien, assesses the Conte du Graal in the light of the specific sociocultural moment inscribed and internalized in this earliest extant Grail romance. My goal is to use a "social" reading of Chrétien's work to provide an alternative explanation for a romance whose hallmark is and will remain its highly complex and enigmatic character.

Part of the enigma posed by Chrétien's romance lies in the multiple . . .

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