Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Text of Sir Perceval of Galles

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Text of Sir Perceval of Galles

Article excerpt


The Middle English romance Sir Perceval of Galles (henceforth Perceval) was composed sometime in the fourteenth century,' and survives in a unique copy in the Thornton manuscript (Lincoln Cathedral, MS 91), copied by the Yorkshire gentleman Robert Thornton around the middle of the fifteenth century.2 Since the editio princeps of the romance by James Orchard HalliwellPhillips in 1844,3 it has received somewhat more attention than other romances in the tail-rhyme tradition, if only because it was once believed to be a key witness to an archetypal version of the Perceval legend that supposedly lay behind the earliest extant forms of the story, which are the Conte du Graal by Chretien de Troyes (c. i 18 i), Par#val by Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 12 oo), and Peredur (thirteenth century).' The fashion - especially prevalent around the turn of the twentieth century - for using romances as inert material for the reconstruction of hypothetical Ur-legends now appears decidedly outmoded,5 and as the vogue has passed away it has become increasingly obvious to scholars that Perceval is after all simply an unslavish adaptation of Chretien's Conte du Graal.6

While Perceval has come to be slightly better regarded in the process, the abandoned hypothesis that the romance incorporates archaic folklore elements can now no longer come to the rescue of editors and readers faced with apparently incoherent passages in the text. Earlier editors, most notably French and Hale, could still cherish such incoherencies as faint recollections of motifs that made good sense in the primitive legend (now lost) from which they supposedly derived,' but in modern editions they have lost that interest and have become simply vexing cases of textual confusion, forcing even the staunchest defenders of Perceval to concede that its style is at times clumsy. In the words of Perceval's most recent editor, Mary Flowers Braswell: `it is true that the grammatical constructions are sometimes loose and that the diction is occasionally labored' (p. z).

In my view, Sir Perceval is a relatively fluent tail-rhyme romance, especially considering the formidable formal challenges which the poet set himself,8 and I believe that a number of cases of `loose grammar' and `labored diction' are more apparent than real. To substantiate this claim I would like to examine in detail six textual cruces that may be susceptible to more elucidation than they have so far received. As will become clear, none of the solutions which I shall propose presupposes interference from a primitive Perceval legend or folk tale; on the contrary, they make sense of the text in a way that makes recourse to such presuppositions wholly unnecessary.


I begin with a passage describing the slaying of Perceval's father (also called Perceval in this romance) by the `Red Knight'. At a tournament held in celebration of our hero's birth, the Red Knight seizes the opportunity to take revenge for his earlier humiliating defeat at the hands of Perceval the elder:

The exclamation 'Wo worthe wykkyde armour!' is glossed by all editors as 'A curse on faulty armour'. The meaning is feeble in context (Perceval's armour has not appeared defective in his earlier jousts), and it requires taking 'wykkyde' in a sense remote from the primary meaning 'evil' that the adjective usually carries in this construction. Compare the idiom as the poet uses it later on in the romance, when a messenger curses Arthur's inertia: 'Wo worthe wikkede wone!' (line i o8 2) ('A curse on evil ways). French and Hale justify the passionate curse on `faulty armour' in a footnote that enlarges upon knights' emotional attachment to their armour: `The references to untrustworthy arms are numerous. When a sword proved trustworthy, the knight often gave it a name, and prized it greatly, for his very life might depend on its durability.' Since the poet of Perceval makes no reference to the father's armour (or sword) before or after this point, the relevance of the curse seems no clearer to me. …

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