Academic journal article Arthuriana

Escape from Paradox: Perceval's Upbringing in the Conte Du Graal

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Escape from Paradox: Perceval's Upbringing in the Conte Du Graal

Article excerpt

Perceval's mother's withdrawal from the community and her flawed education of her son suggest a spiritual crisis and doubt about God's presence in human life. (ES)

In the seclusion of the Waste Forest, a widowed mother raises her youngest son outside of the life of the Church. This woman, Perceval's mother, seeks safety away from Arthurian society, where she experienced injustice and violence. But after fleeing to the Welsh woods, she ceases to attend Mass, receive communion, or teach her son the truths of faith. She no longer sees herself as part of the Christian community.

Told in around 500 verses in the expansive romance of the Conte du Graal, this story narrates Perceval's upbringing without community or religious practice.1 For medieval Christians, the link between liturgy and life was so close that the woman's withdrawal from the Church has to be understood as signifying a profound crisis. It denotes a loss of faith in traditional knowledge and religious life. In abstaining from the sacraments and refusing communion with God and the Church, the mother separates herself and her son from the most important source of grace and hope for salvation. Although her escape is motivated by fear for the safety of her family, it involves a spiritually inept choice of human over divine protection. Her decision never to return to society also indicates doubt about the good of humanity and the possibility of reconciliation with others. Here I explore the spiritual experience of this character to demonstrate that a deep uncertainty about God's presence in the world underlies her solitary life in the Waste Forest. Her anxiety centers on a principal act of traditional Christian belief: the sacramental union of the human with God.

This concern about the union of humans and God, and of sign and thing, is intimately relevant to twelfth-century thought.2 It shaped much of the intellectual activity of the period that gave rise to Christian rationalism.3 In the background of Perceval's childhood in the Waste Forest we can recognize the devotional and semiotic crisis of the twelfth century that led to the breakdown of the patristic tradition. This crisis involved a loss of the old view of humans as participating in the life of God. Expressed in an elision of paradox, it deeply affected literature by transforming radically the conception of language and meaning. At this time of intense anxiety about knowledge of the divine, the Conte du Graal ultimately recalls the traditional belief in our ability to relate to God through the sacraments and to understand truth through symbols.

The stirring tale of misfortunes suffered by Perceval's family opens the Conte du Graal. It compels us to consider carefully the events that constitute the narrative. The romance chronicles this tragedy with attention to social reality not seen in Chrétien's earlier works.4 But it is unfair to conclude from this prominence of history, as does Brigitte Cazelles, that Chrétien's art is antisymbolic.5 Critics of the Conte have largely assumed an inherent opposition between Christian and historical meanings. I suggest that the personal story of Perceval's family neither contradicts nor competes with Christian meanings, but instead transmits and mediates them. The language of the romance presumes no dichotomy between the letter and the symbol.6 The merging of romance and religious narratives in the Conte du Graal can be accounted for by reading the story symbolically. The fate of Perceval's kin reveals the dire condition of Arthurian society after the death of Utherpendragon, but it also manifests and interprets a timeless problem: the human struggle with mortality.

Perceval's parents were exposed to a particularly devastating gust of violence. Their tragedy began when the father was wounded parmi les jambes (436) [through/between his legs] and mehaigna del cors (437) [became infi rm/ impotent]. The mother, who relates this story to her son after many years, does not explain exactly why or how this happened, but the man's great fortune was lost as a result of his injury. …

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