Monday, May 05, 2008

Young Perceval

One day when I was in my late teens, while wandering in my local library I found a copy of Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz's The Grail Legend, which had been published (in a translation by Andrea Dykes) by G.P. Putnams's Sons in 1970. I had no particular familiarity with or interest in Jungian psychology (and still don't), nor, as far as I can remember, did I have any previous exposure to the medieval romances of Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and the other Grail chroniclers. I don't think I had even heard yet of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the priceless travesty of Arthurianism that I would eventually heartily enjoy but which hadn't at the time been released. The words “holy grail” were just a cliché one heard; that there were actual literary works of merit concerned with the Grail was not something I had been taught in high school.

The Grail Legend was thick with psychoanalytic jargon and references to obscure works that were untranslated or buried in scholarly libraries, but I was quickly hooked. For the next couple of years I haunted libraries and bookstores in several cities looking for editions of Grail romances and secondary works, at times searching for volumes that I wasn't even sure existed. In those pre-digital days, and with no proper bibliography at hand, I searched through haystacks like Books in Print and The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, dealing with such frustrations as the fact that the names of the author of the oldest known Grail story, Perceval, le Conte du Graal, and the author of the German Parzival could each have been alphabetized in at least three different ways, assuming that there was consensus on how to spell their names at all, which there wasn't always (Chrétien is occasionally spelled Chrestien).

In truth there really wasn't much out there to find. Though Perceval was Chrétien's most famous work it wasn't even included (presumably because it was never finished) in the Everyman's Library edition of Arthurian Romances that collected his other poems, and I had to settle for the version in the Modern Library College Edition of Medieval Romances, edited by Roger Sherman Loomis and Laura Sherman Loomis, which I remember as lacking in notes and explanatory material. I read Jessie Weston's fascinating if unreliable From Ritual to Romance, which had influenced T. S. Eliot, found the existing paperback editions of Robert de Boron, the Mabinogion, and The Quest of the Holy Grail, and of course Wolfram's wonderfully entertaining Parzival, in the Vintage edition translated by Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage. (I never got around to Sir Thomas Malory, who seemed too much of a latecomer to be of interest.)

Most frustrating of all was the absence of any accessible translation — maybe of any translation at all — of the Continuations to Chrétien's romance composed by several hands in the years following his death. Today there is at least one edition of part of the Continuations, Nigel Bryant's Perceval: The Story of the Grail, (which I haven't seen), but at the time all I could turn up, on the shelves of a university library, was William Roach's multi-volume The Continuations of the Old French 'Perceval' of Chrétien de Troyes, which was expensive and in any case only included the original text, which I wasn't enough of a scholar to benefit from. Although they are generally considered by scholars to be inferior in both inspiration and craft to Chrétien's fragment, the Continuations, at least the portions summarized in the Jung and Von Franz volume, sounded particularly intriguing to me at the time. Here for instance, is The Grail Legend's paraphrase of a portion of the Gautier Continuation:
Instead of going directly to the Fisher King's castle, Perceval first visits another castle which he has seen not far from the river. He rides into the courtyard through the open gate. Two tall fir trees grow there, but no inhabitants are to be seen. He dismounts, ties up his horse, leans his shield against the wall and goes into the great hall. There he sees lance holders, a pack of hounds and, in the centre of the hall, a magnificent ivory couch. In front of it stands a chessboard, fashioned of gold and azure, the pieces, encrusted with precious stones, set out as if inviting a game. Perceval seats himself and makes a move, whereupon the figures on the opposing side begin to move of themselves and soon checkmate him. The chessmen then set themselves out again and the game starts once more, with the same result. Perceval is mated three times running. Furious, he sweeps up the pieces into a corner of his cloak and is about to throw them out of the window, into the water below, when suddenly a young woman rises from the depths and restrains him. She is wearing a red dress strewn with shining, twinkling stars, and is of an enchanting beauty. Emerging as far as the waist, she upbraids him for wanting to throw her chessmen into the water. He promises not to if she, in return, will grant him her company. She agrees and allows him to lift her in through the window. When she presses against him his heart behaves so strangely that he begins to sigh. When she asks what is troubling him, he kisses her and would have desired still more had she not told him that if he would win her love he must first hunt the white stag in the nearby park and bring her its head. Then she will give herself to him. He should take her small white hound, which the stag would certainly not be able to escape, but he must not lose it or forget his weapons.
And so on. There seemed to be an endless amount of this kind of material. Perceval and the other Grail hero, Gawain, wander through forests, from castle to castle, through a landscape that seemed to be half Unicorn Tapestries and half J. G. Ballard. As the continuators crank out thousands of lines (dwarfing the scale of Chrétien's own work) the innocent, straightforward charm of the original narrative has been left behind, and the Grail itself seems to have been reduced to just one wonder among many, but in compensation there are any number of uncanny marvels, an apparently inexhaustible outpouring of inventions derived from who knows where, folklore or Celtic religion or Christian hagiography or the fancy of the continuators. As good Jungians, of course, Jung and Von Franz tried to fit all of it — Chrétien's graceful educational romance, Wolfram's boisterous comic novel, the work of the continuators, and more — into a logically structured psychological framework. This was interesting if not entirely convincing, but in any case it was beside the point. It was the bounty of story, unaccountable, irreducible, inherently uncompletable, that I was drawn to. The fact that I could only read the Continuations themselves second-hand and in fragments only increased their fascination.

At one point I toyed with the idea of writing my own Grail story, of which I wrote a few fragments before abandoning the idea. (Though not entirely; many years later elements of Perceval's tale found their way into a novella which had begun its life in an entirely different vein.) In time, though, I moved on to other obsessions, and stored my Grail library away in boxes in the cellar.

Chrétien's Perceval, is, of course, the perfect tale for a young man making his way into the world, especially if that young man is also a bit of a naïf. Its hero, though of knightly pedigree, has grown up in the forest, cared for only by his mother. He takes the instructions she offers him at their parting so much to heart that he commits one gaffe after another. He kisses a woman who is promised to another and steals her ring, provoking the fury of her paramour; he commits multiple infractions against knightly protocol; and worst of all, he fails, through his silence, to pose the questions that would heal the wounded Fisher King and restore the Grail lands to their rightful glory.

The enigmas of the Grail itself, whence it came and who is served by it, have never seemed to me to be as interesting as Perceval's own progress, for mysteries once resolved soon lose their allure. The later Grail romances, in which the story of the Grail is integrated into an explanatory narrative stretching back to Joseph of Arimathea, seem to me far less appealing than such crude oddities as the Welsh Peredur, in which the Grail itself has been forgotten, to be replaced by a severed head.

We don't know why, at the end of his career, Chrétien left Perceval unfinished, although the most obvious explanation is that he died or became ill before it could be completed. To the modern mind, though, conditioned by Kafka's curious trail of suspended masterpieces, it is tempting (if improbable) to imagine that he left it unfinished because he didn't want to reach the story's end.

The young man, as he heads out into the forest, expects that when he arrives at the place where the trees thin out and a castle appears from out of the mist he will find there the answers that will provide him with the resolution to his quest. The older he gets and the more he wanders, the more he hopes that the castle will never appear, or that if it does it will prove to be not what he had been looking for after all.