Perceval: At This Point, I’m Afraid To Ask

Trigger warning: references to sexual assault and suicidal ideation

Welcome to the penultimate post in Year of the Quest! And what a year it has been. Having been sick through November and into December, this is coming to you very late and, I’m afraid, full of wrath.

Perceval, or Percival, is a knight of the Round Table first appears in Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval: The Story of the Grail. He is the original hero of the Grail quest, later replaced by the Saviour figure of Galahad. Perceval begins with a nameless boy (Perceval. Look, we all know it’s Perceval, I just can’t SAY so yet) who lives with his mother in such isolation that the first time he sees a knight, he believes he’s looking at a devil. Then he gets a bit closer, sees all that shiny armour and changes his mind – the knights must be angels, and their leader must be God himself. The boy hurls himself to the ground to pray as hard as he can.

The leader of the knights ends up having to explain he is not a deity, which was probably not a conversation he was expecting to have. He is seeking a group believed to have passed this way and quickly grows impatient with the boy’s eager questions. The other knights make some really rude asides about the Welsh, but their leader reins in his impatience and repeats himself patiently, answering the boy’s eager questions in between.Eventually the boy directs them to his mother’s field workers, sure they would have seen a large party passing through. The field workers are panicked. They are not afraid of the knights; they are afraid of the boy’s mother, who is dead set against her son becoming a knight and has deliberately kept him from all knowledge of them. She has also never given her son a name: he is known as son, brother and master, all words that describe a relationship as opposed to a person. This is interestingly reminiscent of Arianrhod from Welsh mythology, whose refusal to name her son is part of a curse upon him.

When the boy returns home, his mother tells him she nearly died of grief in his absence. This seems a really abnormal response to an adult, or close to adult, child’s day spent outside of the family home. The boy starts gushing about knights and his mother collapses completely. Then the whole story comes out. The boy’s father was a knight famed for his merit, and his mother came from a proud family of knights herself, but after the father was wounded in the thigh all his power and success trickled away. The boy’s mother bemoans the death of Uther Pendragon, claiming all sorts of injustices happened in his absence, including her husband’s decline into poverty. Their two elder sons went to two different courts: the first to the King of Escavalon and the second to King Ban of Gomeret. Both were killed shortly after being knighted. The father died, overcome by his grief, leaving behind a widow and toddler to get by as best they can.

It’s a very sad story that explains a lot about the co-dependence in this mother-son relationship, but the boy stopped listening a while ago. He announces his immediate intention to go to the king and have himself made a knight. He doesn’t really understand the whole process but that is NOT going to stop him. His mother tries to keep him from leaving but he is sword-struck and will not listen to her very fair point that he’s had no training and will make a fool of himself. She manages to corral his limited attention span for a few pieces of advice. If he ever encounters a lady in distress, he has to help her, but he must be careful not to annoy her. Even if she allows him a kiss, to ask for more will cost her and the boy should keep from such intrigues. “But if she has a ring on her finger or a purse on her girdle and, out of love or at your request, she should give you that,” the mother says, very pragmatically, “then I’ll be happy and content.” The boy should not take a companion without having that man’s name, the better to keep worthy company, and he should go to church to pray for his honour and success. She then has to explain what a church is, complete with anti-Semitism, because it would hardly do to allow her innocent son out into the world without a bit of bigotry to build upon.

She collapses again as he departs, ‘lying in a faint just as though she had dropped dead’. He glances back and sees this happen but doesn’t stop for a minute, choosing not to apply that ‘kindness to ladies’ rule to his own mother. This is not a great beginning.

It gets a lot worse from there. In the second day of travel, he comes upon a pavilion topped with a golden eagle and determines this must be a church, so he goes to worship, believing that God can and will rustle up some breakfast for him. When he enters the pavilion, however, he finds a beautiful girl asleep there. She wakes suddenly and is rightly alarmed by a strange man in her personal space. The boy lives up to those fears by announcing his intention to kiss her ‘because my mother told me to’. NO SHE DIDN’T. What she SAID was to be careful not to annoy any ladies he met, and guess what? Forcing kisses on unwilling women is a hell of a lot worse than annoying. The boy pins the girl to the bed and kisses her seven times in a row while she does all she can to get free. He also steals a fine ring off her finger by brute force.

As he gets up, he remarks that kissing this girl is pleasanter than kissing his mother’s chambermaids as ‘there’s nothing bitter about your mouth!’ and at this point I’m not sure I want to read any more because this guy is just the worst. It’s clear that the women of his mother’s household are well rid of him.

He breakfasts on the lady’s food, urging her to eat with him even as she weeps. When he finally leaves, the lady’s lover returns from the woods. She tells him first about the boy stealing their food, which her lover dismisses as insignificant; then she tells him about the loss of the ring, and about the kisses that she rejected. He is intensely jealous and swears to punish her – FOR BEING SEXUALLY ASSAULTED, OH MY GOD, WHERE IS LANCELOT WHEN YOU NEED HIM – by refusing to care for her horse or allow her to change her clothes until the boy is dead.

The boy, meanwhile, is headed for Carlisle, to see King Arthur. The king and his army have recently defeated King Rion of the Isles and his friends have dispersed, leaving the king somewhat lonely. As the boy approaches the castle by the sea, he sees a knight wearing crimson armour ride out holding a golden cup, and the boy decides to ask for this armour specifically because why should he care if something already belongs to another person? Morals are for other people. He is so focused on his own feelings that he tells the knight of his plan and the knight urges him to go and ask ‘this good-for-nothing king’ to give up his lands or to send someone to defend them. He holds up the cup and claims to have stolen it from under the king’s very eyes.

The boy, as usual, isn’t really listening. He cheerfully passes into the great hall, where he demands to know which one of men there is the king. Arthur is lost in his own thoughts and doesn’t notice the boy at first, which may explain how his cup got stolen so easily; when he does notice the stranger in front of him, he greets the boy politely and explains the situation that is weighing on his mind. His queen was in the hall offering comfort to wounded knights when Arthur’s ‘worst’ enemy, the Red Knight from the Forest of Quinqueroi, spilled wine all over her and she was thrown into an almost suicidal rage at the insult. Arthur puts that temporarily aside to look after his guest, promising to make him a knight, which shows incredibly low standards. The boy is blunt and rude, demanding the red armour of the knight he saw.

Sir Kay, seated nearby as one of the wounded, doesn’t like his tone and encourages him to go and seize the Red Knight’s armour with sarcasm that soars over the boy’s head like a bird. The king agrees that the boy is foolish, but thinks maybe he can come good with training and doesn’t like to hear him mocked. A maiden who has not laughed in more than six years happens to overhear the boy and laughs then, saying that she is ‘convinced that in the whole world there will not be, nor has there been, nor will anyone hear of any knight better than you’. She also has low standards! A court fool has claimed that this girl wouldn’t laugh until she saw the knight above all other knights and is now in the position of unpopular prophet. Kay is so enraged that he knocks the poor girl over and kicks the fool into the fire. What is wrong with the men in this story? Arthur, DO SOMETHING.

The boy goes straight to the waiting Red Knight and commands him to take his armour off because King Arthur told him to. Arthur did notsay that, but that hardly matters, since the knight isn’t going to do it either way. He strikes the boy hard across the shoulders. The boy responds by throwing a javelin through his eye. He then tries to figure out how to take off all the armour. One of the knights in the hall, Sir Yvonet, had hurried out of the hall in his wake and witnessed the boy’s victory. He helps him with the armour. The boy gifts him his own horse, claiming the Red Knight’s mount instead, and tells Yvonet to pass a message to the maiden in Arthur’s hall. He promises that he’ll avenge Kay’s insult to her. Oh, right, nowhe cares what women want.

Yvonet duly conveys the message as he returns the cup to Arthur. The king is furious with Kay, blaming him for the loss of a good knight, since an untrained boy in full armour does not have a good life expectancy.

Only, this boy has the luck of the protagonist. He comes across a nobleman named Gornemant of Gohort and tells him the story of how he became a knight. Gornemant sees an opportunity, much as Arthur did, to play the role of Trusted Mentor and is quicker to take it. Consider this the movie montage where the mediocre male protagonist levels up to unparalleled expertise. Gornemant teaches the boy how to handle his horse, his weapons and a variety of social situations, with gems of wisdom such as have mercy on defeated foes, help those in distress, and don’t talk too much – especially don’t admit that you only do things because your mother said so.

Once trained, the boy decides to return home and see how his mother is doing. Took him long enough. He rides through an inhospitable landscape and comes to a fortress by the sea, accessible only by a narrow bridge and a locked gate. He is reluctantly admitted and sees the fortress is largely abandoned. The few people there look half-starved. When he walks into the great hall, he is met by two old men and one very beautiful young woman, who as it turns out is Gornemant’s niece. Bearing in mind his mentor’s advice, the boy watches his tongue and barely speaks, and as his hostess is equally quiet, things get awkward. The ice breaker comes when she arrives at his bedside during the night and cries over him in half-naked torment until he wakes up.

The cause for her grief, he is told, is that the fortress has been under attack from the knight Engygeron for so long that most of its knights have been killed or captured, and the young woman, whose name is Blancheflor, plans to kill herself before the fortress falls. The boy comforts her clumsily and they lie together through the night, mouth to mouth. You know, as you do. In the morning, he offers to fight her enemy if she will be his love.

Engygeron is odious as expected, claiming the fortress as if it is already his. The boy reacts with violent, victorious rage but when Engygeron, defeated, begs for his life, the boy remembers Gornemant’s lessons and pauses. He wants to put the decision in his lover’s hands but that’s as good as killing the knight himself. Then he thinks of sending Engygeron to Gornemant but the knight points out that is the same as killing him too. Sucks to make so many enemies! So the boy ends up sending him to Arthur’s court, to the girl whom Kay struck, to tell her that he doesn’t plan on dying until he has made Kay pay.

So that’s that, except that Engygeron was merely a seneschal and his master, Clamadeu, still wants that fortress. He hears of the boy’s victory but believes that the starving knights will fold easily during a siege. He sends twenty men ahead with the rest of his army coming behind. The boy goes out to fight alone and takes on all twenty men at once in a staggering victory. When the army arrives soon after, the knights of the fortress close the gate, sealing themselves off. Clamadeu gives it three days until they surrender. What he’s forgotten is that the fortress is right beside the sea, which means a merchant ship can and does arrive with enough provisions to draw this siege out indefinitely. With Plan A a definite failure, Clamadeu challenges the boy to single combat. Everyone tries to talk the boy out of it, which goes about as well as you might expect.

It is a long and ugly fight but by the end, the boy is sending another vanquished knight to Arthur’s court to keep up his long-distance harassment of Kay. All Clamadeu’s prisoners are released and the man himself goes to Arthur’s court at Dinasdaron in Wales. Clamadeu is kept on at Arthur’s court, which does not really seem like justice at all after destroying so many people’s lives. It’s very clear that this is not a story about justice, though!

The boy, meanwhile, having saved the fortress and won the heart of Blancheflor, sets off again to find his mother. Instead he comes to a wild river and a boat anchored in it where two men are fishing. They direct him to a fissure in a rock, which leads into a valley. The boy sees a tower in the wilderness and approaches it. Inside the tower a greying man lies upon a couch, unable to stand. He is a courteous host, to an almost uncomfortable point. A young man brings a sword into the hall and half-draws it to show the fine steel; the lord of the tower gifts the sword to our unnamed knight, describing it as destined for him. As the two of them continue talking, a youth bearing a white lance walks through the hall. A drop of blood falls from the tip of the lance. The boy would like to know what that’s about, but remembers Gornemant’s advice and does not ask any questions, even when two more youths walk through the hall, each carrying a golden candlestick inlaid with black enamel, lit and glowing. A beautiful girl walks with them, carrying a golden grail. Behind her is a girl holding a silver carving dish. This procession passes without any comment from the boy.

An excellent meal is laid out and the boy eats from the silver dish. The grail is passed before him once more but he does not ask who drinks from it. The lord of the tower goes to his own rooms to sleep and the boy goes to bed himself. When he wakes he is entirely alone. All doors are locked. Thinking that the youths he saw during the meal might have gone out to hunt in the woods, he rides to the drawbridge and it begins to close while he is still on it; he owes his life to the speed and strength of his horse, which leaps to safety. The boy is, of course, very angry, but nobody answers his outrage.

He rides off and finds a weeping girl not far from the castle. She is holding her dead lover but when the boy tries to ask her what happened, she is completely distracted from her grief. She wants to know where the boy lodged, to look so fresh and well-fed in this wild place, when he describes his host, she makes a series of acrobatic leaps to correct conclusions. The boy was guest to the Fisher King. As the title implies, the lord of the tower is in fact a king, struck through both thighs with a javelin and left with an injury that curtails the usual royal activities. He can still sit in a boat, however, and this beloved pastime has given him the nickname of Fisher King. The girl holds an impromptu inquisition, demanding every detail of the night so she can tell the boy how badly he screwed up. She asks who he is.

And for the first time, he has an answer. He tells her that he is Perceval the Welshman. Where did that name come from? I don’t know! He doesn’t know!

The girl tells him he’s WRONG, he is Perceval the WRETCHED, because if he had only questioned the peculiar ritual of the Grail it would have healed the Fisher King. She hurls another bomb: his mother has died of grief, as she did threaten she would. The girl knows these things because she is Perceval’s cousin, raised in his mother’s household.

Perceval experiences a moment of sorrow, followed by a pragmatic rethink of his travel plans. He invites his cousin to ditch her dead lover to come with him and get vengeance. She refuses to go anywhere until her love has been buried. She also warns Perceval that the sword given to him by the Fisher King will shatter when he needs it most and can only be repaired with great difficulty if taken to the smith Trebuchet.

Perceval does not stick around to help his cousin. He ditches her and rides on. Soon he sees a badly mistreated horse on the verge of starvation and a girl who has met with equal cruelty, her skin lacerated and barely covered by clothes that are falling apart. She prays aloud for deliverance from the man who inflicts this suffering upon her. When Perceval greets her, she warns him that the Haughty Knight of the Heath will surely attack him if he sees Perceval talking to her. Sure enough, the Haughty Knight rides up to deliver a practiced monologue. He tells the story of how he left his lover alone in a tent, where a Welsh boy came and kissed her – and the Haughty Knight is convinced they did more than kiss. He has nothing to say that does not reek to high heaven of victim blaming. He concludes by saying that he refused to allow proper care to the girl or her horse until he had killed the man who slept with her.

Perceval recognises his own role in this story and gives his side of things, exonerating the girl, NOT that she needs exonerating. The two men fight, Perceval wins, the other knight begs for mercy and Perceval orders him to have mercy on the poor girl first. The knight has the GALL to claim that hurting the girl hurt him too. Perceval then tells him to take the girl to rest and heal, then travel with her to Arthur’s court, where he is to confess all his sins to the king and queen, as well as all her ladies. The knight is also given a message for the maiden Kay struck, that Perceval still intends to avenge her.

The pair duly travel to Arthur and the knight tells his story to the court. And you know what? After hearing about how this girl was tortured at the altar of her lover’s rabid jealousy, the knight is freed and the king drops the subject entirely, turning to Gawain to talk about Perceval’s skills. Arthur is so fired up to find Perceval that he packs up court to go look for him in person.

They promptly run directly into one another. Perceval, out seeking adventure, happens to see three drops of blood on snow and is transfixed by the resemblance to his lover’s…face…? While he moons over this imaginary comparison, Sir Sagremor the Impetuous rides out to order him into the presence of the king. This does not go well for Sagremor. Kay stands watching with the king and when he mocks Sagremor’s failure, the king drily sends him out to try his luck. This does not go well for Kay either. His arm is broken and his collarbone is dislocated, and so the maiden and fool are avenged.

Gawain defends Perceval, saying that Sagremor and Kay should not have disturbed his deep thoughts. Kay responds viciously, claiming that Gawain could leave off his armour and go out in silk, and still bring back the stranger knight. Well, Gawain does not go unarmed, but he approaches with significantly more charm, greeting Perceval politely. Perceval has heard of Gawain and immediately asks to be besties. Gawain dresses him in his own clothes and brings him before the king, who makes a fuss over him. Perceval also manages to charm the queen, and greets the maiden Kay struck as if they are old friends, which to be fair, multiple prisoners later, I guess they are.

Obviously Kay is not keen on Perceval, but he’s a great hit with the rest of the court – probably at least in part because Kay dislikes him so much. During their celebrations, a woman approaches on a mule. She is described as having skin blacker than iron, which totally feels racist in context, alongside eyes small as a rat’s and teeth yellow as egg-yolk. She has come to scold Perceval because he did not ask the necessary questions of the Fisher King. This king now will not be healed, and cannot rule effectively, and this will have knock on effects through his lands so that many suffer.

Perceval has a laundry list of character flaws and I am fully on board with random women coming into his life to tell him off, but communication is a two way street and magical ritual is not an excuse to skip out on that.

The woman with yellow teeth proceeds to lay challenges before the court, directing them to a castle where they can test their skill at the joust and a siege where a lady is in need of help. Gawain immediately proclaims his intent to help the lady; Sir Gifflet means to test himself at the castle. Perceval declares that he will not rest in the same lodging two nights in a row until he has answers to the riddles of the grail. Many other knights decide to join him in this quest.

It is the beginning of the end, but nobody knows that yet.

As fifty knights attempt to arm up and leave at once, a knight named Guigambresil storms onstage, accusing Gawain of killing his lord without an appropriate challenge, an act Guigambresil describes as treasonous. Gawain’s brother Agravain, known as the Arrogant, immediately leaps to his defence, offering to fight this battle for him. Gawain insists on proving his innocence himself, by which he obviously means fighting it with brute force and whoever wins will be declared right. Guigambresil says he will prove Gawain guilty of treason in front of the King of Escavalon before the end of forty days. He also feels the need to make sure everyone is aware of the King of Escavalon’s unbelievable good looks. I am certain Gawain does not care about this, but thanks anyway, I guess.

Gawain sets off in Guigambresil’s wake. He encounters a party of knights who are headed toward a tournament, the two side being Meliant of Liz and Tibaut of Tintagel. Gawain is puzzled, since Meliant was brought up in Tibaut’s household, but Meliant is trying to win the affections of the elder of Tibaut’s daughters, a somewhat exacting young lady who ordered him to win this tournament if he wants her love. Tibaut is concerned about Meliant’s intentions and has locked himself in the fortress, second guessing if he even wants his people to participate. Tintagel happens to be on Gawain’s own route so he stops to watch the tournament, though he does not fight himself, not wishing to risk capture or injury with a more important combat looming in his near future.

The elder of Tibaut’s daughters is excited to see her lover’s success on the field. Her little sister notes that she can see a better knight, referring to Gawain, and gets slapped across the face for having the wrong opinion. The ladies watching the tournament decided amongst themselves that Gawain can’t really be a knight at all, only pretending to be given unearned honour, which offends the listening Gawain very much.

The culture that created the need for Gawain to prove his innocence through strength of arms, courtesy of a totally inadequate judicial system and poor relationships between neighbouring states, is also responsible for Tibaut’s daughter and her vengeful desire for Tibaut to seize Gawain, on no other grounds than he wasn’t fighting in the tournament and she personally considers this to be dodgy. She gets support, too! The indecisive Tibaut goes to Gawain’s lodgings but on meeting indignant resistance from Gawain’s host, Sir Garin, drops his daughter’s idea like a hot coal and makes friends with Gawain instead. While they are talking, Tibaut’s younger daughter appears and attaches herself to Gawain’s leg. It’s unclear how old she is; probably preteen? She asks Gawain to give her justice. Tibaut tells Gawain to ignore her, dismissing her complaint entirely; Gawain, however, insists on hearing her out. When she tells him about how her sister hit her in the face and asks him to fight for her in the tournament, he puts aside his own plans and agrees to take on her cause. This is one of the most delightful scenes I have ever read in any Arthurian legend. Did you notice how this story has now become the Gawain Show? It’s a relief, isn’t it?

Gawain goes into battle the next day carrying the little girl’s sleeve as a token, and takes out Meliant with practically no effort. He sends the child Meliant’s horse, and she gleefully recounts to her angry older sister how she saw Meliant flat on his back ‘flailing his legs in the air’. I can see why Gawain was so charmed by her. The other ladies have to intervene to prevent the quarrel turning into a physical fight. When Gawain leaves the field, the little girl rushes to thank him and Gawain promises to come to her if she ever needs him.

Gawain’s next adventure occurs when he attempts to pursue a white hind and his horse loses a shoe. Master, horse and companion, this being Yvonet, travel until they reach a castle. A handsome young man invites Gawain to stay with him, and he has a handsome sister who is very happy to entertain Gawain while her brother is absent. By entertain I mean make out with. Who can blame her? I’ll tell you who: everyone, because the town is full of people who HATE Gawain. Remember that king Gawain killed? This girl is his daughter, and this is his town. When they are caught kissing, the girl faints away, then comes to with a fully formed plan. They are going to close down the castle for a siege and Gawain is going to defend it single-handed. I can see what he likes about this girl too. She has all necessary armour and weaponry save for a shield, so he takes up a chessboard to use instead. We find out here that Gawain is carrying Excalibur, traditionally Arthur’s sword, and there is ZERO explanation as to why that might be. It does improve his chances of surviving this situation.

And he needs all the tricks he can get, because a mob is gathering outside. The girl yells down at them that Gawain is her brother’s guest and they should all be ashamed of themselves. She is exactlyGawain’s type. When the mob hacks down the door anyway, she flings the very heavy chess pieces at them and her rage is impressive enough to force some of the crowd to retreat. While the rest of them are milling impotently outside, Guigambresil rides up and orders the attackers to back down. They refuse to obey him, so he fetches the young man – who as it turns out, is the very attractive king he talked about before – and the mob disperses in his presence. It turns out it’s fine to go around killing people if you tell them why you’re doing it first, but allowing your angry peasants to murder them while they are guests in your home is a big social faux pas. The king did not mean for this to happen and feels bad that it did. He seems much more chill about his father’s death than Guigambresil, as does his sister.

The combat between Gawain and Guigambresil is delayed for one year. Gawain is instructed to find and bring a lance that bleeds and can never be wiped clean, and in so doing clear his name. Nobody believes he can do it. Even Gawain does not appear confident, which is not like him.

With that reference to the ritual of the Grail, we return to Perceval, who has not set foot in a church for five years but has kept busy sending a steady stream of prisoners back to Arthur. Eventually he encounters a procession of ladies in hair shirts who are atoning for their misdeeds and in this unexpected way, learns that it is Good Friday. One of the knights accompanying the ladies gives Perceval a crash course on Christian spirituality, with a vicious extra kick of anti-Semitism. Much struck, Perceval goes to a nearby holy man, fearing that he has offended God. He blurts out the story of the Fisher King. The holy man, it turns out, is Perceval’s uncle and the Fisher King’s brother. He declares that Perceval’s leaving home caused his mother’s death and she has apparently personally interceded with God to keep Perceval safe thus far, which honestly would explain a lot. The Fisher King is son to an extremely religious king who lives upon a single wafer brought to him within the Grail, and has survived in this way for twelve years. The holy man prescribes Perceval a heavy diet of church services to improve the condition of his soul and Perceval begins with two days spent in the holy man’s hermitage.

We now go back to Gawain. He comes across a girl weeping beneath an oak tree, with a badly wounded knight lying before her. The knight warns Gawain to go no further because they are on the border of Galloway and anyone who crosses that border does not return. Gawain feels it would be cowardly to do anything but ride straight into danger. He promises to watch out for the girl when he comes back this way, assuming he does come back.

He reaches a city by the sea called Orqueneseles, rides straight into the castle there and finds a beautiful lady in a courtyard. She accuses Gawain of coming to carry her off, which he admits he was thinking about – for goodness SAKE, Gawain – and she tells him that if he fetches her palfrey, she will go with him willingly. Another alarming crowd awaits him when he goes for the palfrey, crying out that the maiden is very bad news, that she has had many men beheaded, and that Gawain should turn back. He doesn’t.

The girl orders him to neither speak of her nor touch her, but swears to follow him until something dreadful befalls him. She seems quite sure it will. She even criticises Gawain’s hands when he hands her her cloak, telling him he is not clean enough to touch her. Gawain goes quiet. He leads Bad News back to the girl he left under the oak tree, and with his own excellent medical knowledge, heals the wounded knight. The wounded man asks for the use of a horse and they both look up to see a red-haired squire with a villainously twisty moustache approaching on a very sad-looking horse. The squire wishes Gawain only misfortune when approached and Gawain impetuously slaps him. The squire angrily tells him he will lose that arm.

Gawain helps the girl up on her own palfrey, and while he’s busy with that, the wounded knight leaps onto Gawain’s own horse, prancing about maniacally. Gawain laughs at him in bewilderment. The knight, in response, says he would like to rip Gawain’s heart out of his chest. With a little prompting, Gawain recognise him as Greoras, who raped a young woman in King Arthur’s lands. Gawain punished him by forcing him to eat with the dogs for a month, hands tied behind him. Greoras gets his own back now by stealing the horse and riding off after his lover. I am now really worried about her safety. Bad News laughs maliciously at Gawain’s predicament.

He is forced to ride the squire’s horse and listen to the maiden’s constant stream of insults, though he does retort that no lady over the age of ten should talk like that. They ride together to a deep river, across which stands a heavily fortified castle on a cliff. This castle is residence to a great many ladies. Bad News climbs into a boat and goads Gawain to follow; but then he turns around and sees a knight approaching on HIS horse. He fights the knight and retrieves his property. In doing so, he loses Bad News, who vanishes. Promptly a ferryman appears, claiming that Gawain’s horse is rightfully his. This assertion is backed by the entire fortress of watching ladies. Gawain trades him the fallen knight instead.

The ferryman plays host to them both, and is a good host too. He tells Gawain that the castle belongs to a queen, her daughter and granddaughter, and that the place is protected by powerful magic. It is a place where squires come to learn, and disinherited ladies come to live in safety, and orphan girls are adopted. Everyone is waiting for a knight to come and return the ladies their lands, find husbands for the ladies, knight the squires and put an end to the wars that make orphans. The ferryman thinks this is never going to happen. Gawain is determined to visit the queen.

Inside the great hall, they meet a man with a prosthetic silver-plated leg bound with gold and set with stones. He is busy whittling a stick of ash and does not speak as the visitors pass. They carry on through luxuriously decorated rooms, the most impressive of which contains an ornate bed. Gawain decides to lie down on it, against the ferryman’s firm advice. Immediately arrows fly from all directions. No sooner has Gawain struggled upright, shocked an injured, than a lion leaps into the room. Sadly he kills it – unlike his cousin, he’s not up for befriending wild animals. This act earns him the praise of the entire fortress. He is hailed as the one everyone has waited for. They kneel to him and bring a robe from the queen, who is concerned that Gawain will grow chilly after his extertion. Gawain is quite content to be the centre of all this praise until the ferryman points out that now he will not be allowed to leave. Then Gawain is visibly Very Not Happy.

The queen herself comes to meet him and explain he is now basically her heir. She is charmingly gossipy, asking many questions about the sons of King Lot and King Urien, and how Arthur himself is doing, and how Guinevere is as well. Gawain is full of affection and praise for all of them. Talking to the queen puts Gawain in a much better mood. He also likes her granddaughter Clarissant, who is very attentive to him. The next morning, the queen comes to see him again and finds him at a window, observing Bad News below. With interesting savagery, the queen says she would be quite happy to see that girl go to hell. Gawain wants to see her anyway. He goes out and fights the knight she was talking to, winning easily and dumping his captive on the ferryman.

This knight was the maiden’s lover. She claims that for love of her he crossed the river at a deep ford and challenges Gawain to do the same, clearly hoping to drown him, but his horse Gringalet is the real hero and gets him safely across. On the other side of the river he finds a knight called Guiromelant. This knight claims to have been Bad News’ sweetheart too, by virtue of having killed her firstlover and pressing his attentions on her instead. Astonishingly, she did not warm to him and picked the knight Gawain just defeated.

Guiromelant reveals that the queen of the castle is none other than Ygerne (Igraine), Arthur’s mother, Gawain’s grandmother. Her daughter is Gawain’s own mother. They were not actually dead, as seems to have been widely accepted, they just noped off and left their kids to sort out their own problems for once. Guiromelant claims to love Gawain’s previously unknown little sister Clarissant and is confident of her love in return, but wants to kill Gawain because Gawain’s father killed his and Gawain killed his cousin too. Look, personally I like Gawain a lot, but he makes so many enemies. When he reveals his identity, Guiromelant challenges Gawain to a duel in seven days time. Gawain accepts and makes the leap back across the river, being the daredevil showoff that he is.

Bad News reacts very differently to him now. She asks for his forgiveness and explains that she looks down upon knights so much because of Guiromelant. He killed her sweetheart then wasted everyone’s time trying to win her over until she escaped him by allying herself with the knight Gawain met. The maiden has been feral with grief, lashing out in some half-formed suicidal impulse. Gawain gently urges her to come to the castle with him and she does. She is greeted with every courtesy, as this is Gawain’s wish, then vanishes from the narrative. I hope she gets some therapy and channels all that violent energy into something more constructive.

Gawain’s next order of business is to sit his sister down and relate his conversation with Guiromelant. Is it a surprise that the bitter knight was seriously overstating their relationship – they have never even been on the same side of the river and basically he pressured Clarissant until she agreed to be his sweetheart. She certainly does not share his hate for Gawain, another man she does not believe she has ever actually met. The queen and her daughter watch the pair conversing, speculating happily that Gawain would make a good husband to their beloved Clarissant, without realising what the actual relationship is.

Gawain sends a squire to Arthur’s court in Orkney, which is about two days of travel away. He arranges for the combat to take place in front of the king and in front of Igraine as well. The squire duly goes to court, where Arthur is in a state of great distress, having had no word from his nephew.

Here Chrétien’s account ends. It is perhaps fitting that the story of the Grail, that quest so many knights failed to achieve, is itself an unfinished manuscript. This is not quite the end, however. Other authors added to Chrétien’s work. I am going to summarise these as succinctly as possible. In the First Continuation, the big family reunion takes place but Clarrisant marries Guiromelant for whatever unfathomable reason and Gawain, understandably irritated, stomps back to his quest. This is also a wash – he ends up at the Grail castle, where we encounter a sword that can only be repaired by the knight who heals the Fisher King, and Gawain is not that knight. There’s also a whole side story about a knight called Caradoc which frankly I have neither the time nor energy for, and one of Gawain’s brothers – Gareth, or more likely Gaheris – who avenges himself on a dwarf knight and sails back to court in a swan boat.

In the Second Continuation, Perceval finally makes his way back to the Fisher King and mends the sword, though it retains a slight crack. This is to indicate while he may be good, he is not good enough. In the Third Continuation, the Fisher King dies and Perceval inherits his throne. He handles this for seven years then throws it all in to be a hermit in the forest. He dies soon after. In the Fourth continuation, Tristan shows up for some reason, because we didn’t have enough top billing names in this story already!

Percevalis a strange story. For one thing, it bounces between protagonists, setting Perceval up as a hero then dropping him like a hot coal to chase after Gawain. The story is of course incomplete so it is difficult to guess at the full narrative structure, but Gawain’s sections do feel more dynamic. For another, the entire set up of the story is inherently judgemental and Perceval suffers narrative consequences for neglecting his religion but gets away with sexually assaulting and robbing a woman who is then tortured by her savagely jealous lover, and both men get away with the barest slap on the wrist, which is just deeply disturbing. The contrast between Perceval and Gawain in this area is NOT flattering to Perceval. And there are too many grudges! I cannot keep track of why everybody wants to kill Gawain! Their names are practically identical anyway.

But you know what? Perceval gives us a castle ruled by Igraine and Morgause, who are having an AWESOME retirement away from their impossible family, and that is good for the soul.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s