Academic journal article Arthuriana

Cognitive Dysfunction in Dínus Saga Drambláta and le Roman De Perceval

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Cognitive Dysfunction in Dínus Saga Drambláta and le Roman De Perceval

Article excerpt

Chrétien's Roman de Perceval and the Old Icelandic romance of Dínus saga drambláta share a seam of cognitive dysfunction. This paper considers these otherwise disparate works as tales of quest, hindered by imperfect comprehension, in the context of medieval thought about human development, education, and the proper domain of knowledge. (GB)

On the face of it, the only narrative attributes common to Chrétien de Troyes' Roman de Perceval (ca. 1185) and the fourteenth-century Icelandic prose romance of Dínus saga drambláta [The Saga of Dínus the Proud] are quests, in the course of which the hero receives guidance from a hermit figure. Perceval journeys in search of an ideal of knighthood; Dínus, prince of Egypt, to conquer Philotemia, daughter of King Maximilianus of Bláland [Black Land]. Common to both works, however, is a seam of cognitive dysfunction, which leads to the misinterpretation of signs and symbols at critical turns of the narrative. From that perspective, both the Roman de Perceval and Dínus saga drambláta relate tales of quest, hindered by imperfect comprehension, which sit squarely in the context of medieval thought about human development, education, and the proper domain of knowledge. As a narrative actively concerned with the process of understanding itself, Le Roman de Perceval is, as Robert Sturges has put it, 'to some extent, about the different ways in which it is possible to interpret the world,'1 but the chronic cognitive deficiencies of its hero make the world resistant to apprehension.2 The narrative focus of Dínus saga drambláta, on the other hand, is the manipulation of signs and symbols in order to destabilize the power of cognition and render the world unknowable.

With comically fallacious deduction in the Roman de Perceval, for example, the youthful hero interprets the noise of armor striking against the branches of trees in the forest, where he and his mother live in self-imposed exile from chivalric society, as the sound of devils, and the mounted figures in shining armor whom he subsequently encounters as angels because his mother has told him that angels are the most beautiful of creatures except for God himself.3 By the same token, Perceval takes the effect of sunlight upon a gilded eagle atop a knightly pavilion as a sign that the tent is a church (ll. 644-60). Quoting, but failing to grasp the meaning of his mother's parting advice that he may accept a ring or alms purse from a maiden if she gives it for love or for asking, and only after she has granted him a kiss (ll. 547-56), he makes a travesty of those instructions by seizing multiple kisses, a ring, and most of the contents of her pantry from the first damsel upon whom he sets eyes (ll. 708-50). The prodhon Gornemans de Gorhaut counsels him not to be too talkative (l. 1649). Recalling that advice at precisely the wrong moment (ll. 3292-97), Perceval fails to ask the questions that the narrator indicates he should have asked about the bleeding lance, grail, and the man who is served from it in the mysterious ritual he witnesses at the castle of the Fisher King. It takes five years of godless aventure before a hermit whom he meets on a Good Friday gives him a measure of explanation about the extraordinary things that he has seen there: the man served from the Grail is the father of the Fisher King, and the Grail King and the hermit himself are Perceval's maternal uncles (ll. 6413-19).

Although Perceval's failure to comprehend what he sees has most recently been read as a case study in autism,4 medieval theories of learning provide a workable frame of reference in which to read it. Perceval's cognitive difficulties have, for example, recently been measured by Leah Tether against models of childhood and the early stages of cognition advanced by Aristotle and Saint Augustine. In that postulated context, Perceval's inability to comprehend objects beyond immediate levels of sensory perception, such as noise and color, arguably constitutes a case of arrested development recognizable to medieval audiences, whereby cognition is limited to a process of seeing and hearing without understanding and judgment, and creation is (mis)interpreted entirely in material terms. …

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