Academic journal article Arthuriana

Milk or Blood?: Generation and Speech in Chrétien De Troyes' Perceval, Ou le Conte Du Graal

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Milk or Blood?: Generation and Speech in Chrétien De Troyes' Perceval, Ou le Conte Du Graal

Article excerpt

The first scenes of Chrétien de Troyes' twelfth-century Old French romance Perceval ou le Conte du graal (Perceval or the Story of the Grail) unfold in the Gaste Forest, the 'Waste Forest,' and yet this wasteland is depicted as fertile, and it is springtime: 'Ce fu au tans qu'arbre florissent / Foillent bochaische, pré verdisent' (ll. 67-68).1 The young hero sets off from his mother's manor on this spring morning to watch the ploughmen harrow the greening fields, lands belonging to and strongly identified with his mother: 'Et pansa que veoir iroit / Hercheors que sa mere avoit / Qui ses avaines li erchoient' (ll. 79-81). The trope of the waste forest, wasteland, and waste castle has long invited reflection on its role in Arthurian romance, particularly with respect to how the wasteland relates to gender and genealogy. Yet the contrast between the connotations of the designation 'Gaste Forest' and the actual descriptions of this space in Chrétien's romance invites a reconsideration of the notion of 'wasteland,' and thus of Perceval's genealogy. I propose to explore how, in the first part of the romance, Perceval's quest develops through the mutually necessary forces of maternity and paternity, which are drawn in images of blood, milk, and semen, particularly as these fluids symbolize and are symbolized by functions of language. In medieval medical theory, both milk and semen are created of blood,2 but blood is also the matter of lineage, the stuff of paternity, the guarantor of the patronym, and thereby linked with language and the power of speech. Blood and its derivatives are intimately related not only to language, but also to Chrétien's representation of the generation of the romance itself.

The shifting, wounded site of the father or fathers in Chrétien's romance is a central feature of the text and has been extensively studied. According to a psychoanalytic-and particularly a Lacanian-perspective, Perceval exhibits a stunted, delayed accession to language and the social order because of the absence of the literal and metaphorical father. Readings of the father are not exclusively psychoanalytic: Irit Kleiman has suggested that the father be understood as spatially and rhetorically ailleurs, 'elsewhere,' a term marking both the fissure separating the father from the Arthurian world and the uncertainty that Perceval will be able to restore the active, powerful father.3 Peggy McCracken understands blood as an essential element of the Grail story, contrasting the corruptive blood of the woman and mother with the sacrificial, potent blood of the romance's wounded men and fathers.4 Nearly all arguments regarding parental influence understand the text to privilege the place of the male and paternal, even when showing that this place is conditioned by the female and maternal. In order to establish the importance of the mother and maternal lineage in the text, my argument takes as its starting point medieval medical theory and Lacanian interpretations of paternity and language, thence moving beyond Lacan towards a dual-parent model of language.

I. MILK AND BLOOD, FERTILITY AND VIOLENCE, LISTENING AND SPEAKING

The representation of the Gaste Forest in Chretien's Perceval must be distinguished from other potential wastelands and waste castles in the romance, such as Beaurepaire, as well as from interpretations of the wasteland in subsequent versions of the Grail story.5 Unlike in certain later romances, the Gaste Forest of the Conte du graal does not suggest infertility, but rather wild fecundity; this is coupled and contrasted with controlled fertility, represented by the fields being plowed. The fecundity of the forest is accompanied by the potential for corruption, which, as scholars have argued, stems from the lack of a lord of the manor who would render society dominant over nature.6 The land's lack of a lord mirrors the hero's lack of a father; thus his quest is a dual one, comprising a search for paternal lineage and restoration of the father that parallels his quest for the grail and restoration of the wasteland and the Arthurian kingdom. …

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