Academic journal article Arthuriana

An Archaic Tale-Type Determinant of Chrétien's Fisher King and Grail

Academic journal article Arthuriana

An Archaic Tale-Type Determinant of Chrétien's Fisher King and Grail

Article excerpt

Perceval mistranslates a Welsh name meaning 'pierced-knee': connotations are physical impairment, infertility, and generational dissociation. The Fisher King episode has analogues in Welsh and Irish tales of an elderly king wounded by a domestic object in a maritime setting. A graal or fish platter would be a natural accompaniment. (WS)

The voluminous scholarly literature on Chrétien de Troyes, his Perceval, and its (by now) central symbol, the grail, make Glenys Witchard Goetinck's contribution to The Grail: A Casebook (2000) a welcome and ready orientation to the history of a seemingly intractable problem of literary history. Under the title 'The Quest for Origins,' she reviews a century and a half of critical study and the many solutions proposed to the baffling question of the source of this vessel-obviously fraught with signification-which would only grow in richness and complexity in the continuations and adaptations of Chrétien's work.1 If we consider, as representative of this scholarship, one of the more original lines of inquiry-the possible adoption of the grail from medieval Jewish Cabbalistic tradition-we note a focus on meaning rather than on form in that the prototype of the grail is seen as bearing explicit cultural significance before its adaptation by Chrétien in Le conte du graal.2 In the present study, in contrast, the grail in its immediate narrative context is examined as a consequence of the poet's choice of a theme-specific form- more exactly, a traditional Celtic royal death-tale recounting the fate of an elderly king who is wounded in the leg by a domestic implement in a maritime setting. To complement this attention to impairment and the lower body, we shall see that the name 'Perceval' originated in the misapprehension of a traditional Welsh name meaning 'pierced knee,' a fact that has significant implications for our understanding of the origins of Perceval story and its development across time and literary traditions.

In addition to the matter of the origin of the grail, Perceval offers a considerable number of problematic features-anomalies is too strong a word for a work that is sui generis-some of which now follow in review:

. The romance is judged an incomplete work, given the number of continuations by later poets.3

. Perceval has a very limited sense of personal identity.

. Perceval's father and his host at the castle, where the grail is first seen, have all suffered similar wounds: their thighs pierced by javelins in combat.

. Why is aristocratic hunting successful when the Fisher King's domain is otherwise described as waste?

. Neither of the fateful questions that go unasked is concerned with the signification of the grail: who is served from it? why does the lance drip blood?

. Aside from its brief description when it is carried by a young woman before the Fisher King and his guest into the adjoining room, the grail, here called only un graal, is not attributed real or symbolic importance until Perceval's uncle, the hermit, later speaks of it.

. Why is the Fisher King apparently in need of healing only in the secular world?

. Who is the laide demoisele and of whom an emissary?

. After the scene in what is now called the Grail Castle and Perceval's return to Arthur's court, the focus shifts abruptly to Gawain in a late development of an almost independent narrative line.

. Only with reference to the subsequent, expanded, and central role of the grail in Arthurian literature does the author's naming of his story in his prologue as 'li contes del graal' (v. 66) seem commensurate with the overall history of Perceval.4

Three topics, at some distance from both the Fisher King and the grail, that have proven particularly rewarding in recent scholarship are: 1) food, its procurement and consumption; 2) the familial nature of the roman, with, at a minimum, seven or eight members of a family mentioned, most of them active in the narrative; and 3) Perceval and the arts of communication, as the latter affect emotional and spiritual maturation. …

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