Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

State Super Vias, et Videte, et Interrogate De Viis Antiquis Que Sit Bona, et Ambulate in Ea*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

State Super Vias, et Videte, et Interrogate De Viis Antiquis Que Sit Bona, et Ambulate in Ea*

Article excerpt

In Jeremiah 6:16, quoted by the Parson at the beginning of his tale, the good way the children of Israel are to take is not specificaUy described. Rather, it is opposed to apostasy and idolatry. In the Parson's Tale, however, this way is identified as penance, and the tale itself becomes an elaborate treatise on the sacrament of penance. Thus, the Parson's Tale provides orthodox closure to a pilgrimage that has often lost sight of its geographic and spiritual destinies, the shrine of St. Thomas in Canterbury and the Heavenly Jerusalem. There had been "muchel of wandrynge by the weye," of which not only the Wife of Bath but many another pilgrim was guilty (Chaucer, GP 1.467). The goal of the pUgrimage became shrouded. The pilgrims in Chaucer's CT lost their way much like Dante, who in Canto I of the Jnferno confessed to be lost in the dark wood.

"La diritta via era smarrita" [the right road was wholly lost and gone] could serve as the motto for an experience frequently encountered in medieval Uterature: the loss of direction (Dante, Canto 1.3). This feeUng characterizes many protagonists on secular as weU as spiritual quests or a combination thereof, who lose their way in either physical or spiritual landscapes. Both terrains are difficult to distinguish from one another in view of the symbolic or aUegorical significance of the natural markers that should enable the questers to make appropriate choices.

A case in point is the Queste del Saint Graal of the Vulgate Cycle (ca. 1225-1230), a true focus desperatus when it comes to choosing the right way. Spiritual disposition, grace, election, and sometimes fortune seem to account for choices that to the ordinary reader appear to be totally out of the questers' control, a situation that necessitates explanations by clerical figures of authority, almost always given retrospectively rather than prospectively. The road taken, although the right one judged by human logic, often turns out to be the road to perdition, whereas the road not taken, appearing to be the wrong one, sometimes turns out to be the road to salvation. Yet, how is the quester to know this? The opaqueness of the situation, exacerbated by the two discursive modes informing the Queste, that of Arthurian romance and that of a exegetical clerical tradition, raises a host of semiotic and epistemological questions that touch on the allegorical or non-allegorical nature of signs, human perception, free choice, and predestination. The paper will try to shed some light on these conditions and processes in the Queste del Saint Graal and occasionally in Malory's adaptation, The Tale of the Sankgreal, in the Morte Darthur, a work that will be referred to at critical moments of the subsequent discussion of the Queste.

There will be three areas of investigation: 1. The perimeters defining the Queste; 2. The element of choice and the prerequisites for making the right choice; 3. A case study of three knights, Melyant, Gawain, and Bors, confronted during their quest with having to make such a choice.

1. The perimeters defining the Queste

The perimeters set in the Queste, are, on the one hand, Arthur's mundane city of Camelot and Galahad's mystical city of Sarras, between which not only the elusive and enigmatic Grail but also the knightly individuals move, who have to make a choice of the paths before them. From the beginning of the quest, initiated by Gawain, there is a general movement from Arthur's court or the City of Man to the two places of the Grail (Corbenic and Sarras) and beyond them the Heavenly Jerusalem or the City of God, to express this trajectory in Augustinian terms (Frese 14). So, basically the road not taken is the one that will lead to these two destinations, Corbenic and Sarras, because of the 150 knights setting out in quest of the adventures of the Holy Grail only three are successful. The perimeters, Camelot and Corbenic/Sarras, roughly correspond to the concepts of terrestrial and celestial knighthood so dominant in the Queste, of which there is only an echo in Malory. …

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