1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Perceval

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PERCEVAL, or Percyvelle (Ger. Parzival, Fr. Perlesvaus, Welsh, Peredur), the hero of a comparatively small, but highly important, group of romances, forming part of the Arthurian cycle. Originally, the story of Perceval was of the character of a folk-tale, and that one of remarkable importance and world-wide diffusion. He is represented as the son of a widow, “la dame veuve,” his father having been slain in tourney, battle or by treachery, either immediately before, or shortly after his birth. The mother, fearful lest her son should share his father's fate, flies to the woods, either alone with one attendant, or with a small body of faithful retainers, and there brings up her son in ignorance of his name, his parentage and all knightly accomplishments. The youth grows up strong, swift-footed and of great personal beauty, but, naturally enough, of very limited intelligence. This last is one of the most characteristic traits of the Perceval story, connecting it alike with the Irish Lay of the Great Fool, and the Teutonic Dummling tales. He spends his days chasing the beasts of the forest, running them down by sheer speed, or killing them with darts (javelots) or bow and arrows, the only weapons he knows.

One day, however, he meets a party of knights in armour; he first adores the leader as God, and then takes them to be some new and wondrous kind of animal, asking the most naive questions as to their armour and equipment. Being told that they are knights he determines that he too will be one, and returns to his mother announcing his intention of at once setting forth into the world to seek for knighthood. Dressed as a peasant (or a fool), he departs (his mother, in some versions, dying of grief), and comes to the king's court. Of course in the romance it is the court of Arthur; probably in the original tale it was simply “the king.” Here his uncouth behaviour and great personal beauty attract general attention, and he is alike mocked by Kay, and his future distinction mysteriously foretold. He slays a foe of Arthur's, the Red Knight, who has insulted the king, and challenged the knights of the court, who, for some mysterious reason, are unable to respond to the challenge. Dressing himself in the armour of the slain knight, which he has great difficulty in handling and eventually puts on over his peasant's garb, he sets out on a series of adventures which differ greatly in the various versions, but the outcome of which is that he becomes a skilful and valiant knight and regains the heritage of his father.

This, the Perceval story proper, has been recognized by scholars as a variant of a widespread folk-tale theme, designated by J. C. von Hahn as the Aryan Expulsion and Return formula, which counts among its representatives such heroes as Perseus, Cyrus, Romulus and Remus, Siegfried, and, as Alfred Nutt has pointed out, Arthur himself. This particular variant appears to be of British-Celtic origin, and the most faithful representative of the original tale is now very generally held to be the English Syr Percyvelle of Galles, a poem preserved in the Thornton manuscript. Here the hero is nephew to Arthur on the mother's side, and his father, of the same name as himself, is a valiant knight of the court. A noticeable feature of the story is the uncertainty as to the hero's parentage; the mother is always a lady of rank, a queen in her own right, or sister of kings (as a rule of the Grail kings); but the father's rank varies, he is never a king, more often merely a valiant knight, and in no instance does he appear to be of equal rank with his wife. This distinguishes the story from that of Lancelot, with which some modern scholars have been inclined to identify it; for Lancelot's parentage is never in doubt, he is fis du roi.

The connexion of the story with Arthur and his court brought about a speedy and more important development, the precise steps of which are not yet clear: Perceval became the hero of the Grail quest, in this ousting Gawain, to whom the adventure originally belonged, and the Perceval became merged in the Grail tradition. Of the Perceval-Grail romances the oldest from the point of view of manuscript preservation is the Perceval or Conte del Graal of Chrétien de Troyes. Two manuscripts, indeed, the British Museum and Mons texts, preserve a fragment relating the birth and infancy of the hero, which appears to represent the source at the root alike of Chrétien and of the German Parzival, but it is only a fragment, and so far no more of the poem has been discovered. Chrétien left his poem unfinished, and we do not know how he intended to complete the adventures of his hero; but those writers who undertook the task, Wauchier de Denain, Gerbert de Montreuil and Manessier, carried it out with such variety of detail, and such a bewildering indifference to Chrétien's version, that it seems practically certain that there must have been, previous to Chrétien's work, more than one poem dealing with the same theme. The German poet, Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose Parzival in parts closely agrees with the Perceval and who was long held to be a mere translator of Chrétien, differs widely in the setting of his story. He gives an introduction, in which the adventures of the father, here a prince of Anjou, are related, a conclusion, in which the Swan-Knight, Lohengrin, is made Parzival’s son, he represents the inhabitants of the Grail castle as Templars (Templeisen), and makes the Grail itself a stone. Finally, he reproaches Chrétien with having told the story amiss, whereas Kiot, the Provengal, whose version Wolfram was following, had told it aright from beginning to end. It is certain that Gerbert knew, and used, a Perceval which, if not Kiot’s poem, must have been closely akin to it; as he too makes the Swan-Knight a descendant of the Grail hero. The probability seems to be that the earliest Perceval-Grail romance was composed at Fescamp, and was coincident with the transformation, under the influence of the Saint-Sang legend, of the originally Pagan talisman known as the Grail into a Christian relic, and that this romance was more or less at the root of all subsequent versions.

Besides the poems, we have also two prose Perceval romances, the relative position of which has not yet been satisfactorily determined. The first is found in two manuscripts only, the so-called “Didot” (from its original possessor M. Firmin-Didot), now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; the other, and much superior text, in the Biblioteca Estense, Modena. In both cases the romance follows the prose rendering of Borron’s Joseph of Aramathea and Merlin, and precedes a Mort Artus, thus forming part of a complete cycle. The text shows a curious mingling of sources; the real primitive Perceval story, the Enfances, is omitted, he grows up in his father’s house and goes to court at his wish. Later, however, stories which certainly derive from an early non-Grail tradition are introduced, and there are references which imply a knowledge of the prose Lancelot and of Chrétien’s poem. The romance is probably a somewhat late, and not very skilful, compilation. The other prose romance, the Perlesvaus, is decidedly superior in literary form, but here too we have a mingling of old and new elements. The Enfances story is omitted, and there are parallels with the German Parzival, with Wauchier de Denain and with Gerbert, while much is peculiar to the Perlesvaus itself. It is not improbable that it represents a free and individual working over of the original Fescamp version, and that in its later shape it was intended to form, and did at one time form, the Quest section of the cyclic redaction of the Arthurian prose romances, being dislodged from this position by the Galahad Quête. It is a curious fact that the printed editions always give it in conjunction with this latter and that the two have also been preserved together in a Welsh manuscript translation. We also possess in one of the so-called Mabinogi a Welsh version of the tale, Peredur, son of Evrawc. This appears to be a free rendering of the adventures found in Chrétien combined with incidents drawn from Welsh tradition. This was a one time claimed as the original source of all the Perceval romances, but this theory cannot be maintained in face of the fact that the writer gives in one place what is practically a literal translation of Chrétien’s text in a passage which there is strong reason to believe was borrowed by Chrétien from an earlier poem. In order of time the Peredur probably ranks latest in the series of Perceval romances, which, however, does not detract from its interest as a possible representative of genuine Welsh traditions, unknown to other writers.

The value and interest of the Perceval romances stand very high, not alone for their intrinsic merit, though that is considerable—Chrétien’s Perceval, though not his best poem, is a favourable specimen of his work, and von Eschenbach’s Parzival, though less elegant in style, is by far the most humanly interesting, and at the same time, most deeply spiritual, of the Grail romances—but also for the interest of the subject matter. The Perceval story is an admirable folk-tale, the Grail problem is the most fascinating problem of medieval literature; the two combined form a romance of quite unique charm and interest. This has been practically proved by the extraordinary success which has attended Richard Wagner’s dramatic re-telling of the legend in his Parsifal. The immediate source of this version is the poem of Wolfram von Eschenbach, though the Grail, of course, is represented in the form of the Christian relic, not as the jewel talisman of the Parzival, but the psychological reading of the hero’s character, the distinctive note of von Eschenbach’s version, has been adapted by Wagner with marvellous skill, and his picture of the hero’s mental and spiritual development, from extreme simplicity to the wisdom born of perfect charity, is most striking and impressive.

Bibliography.—These are early printed editions of the Perceval (1530) and of the Perlesvaus (1516 and 1523). The Perceval was edited from the Mons text by Potvin (6 vols., 1866–1871); Syr Percyvelle of Galles, in The Thornton Romances, by Halliwell (1844) for the Camden Society. Parzival exists in numerous editions; critical texts have been edited by Lachmann (1891), Martin (1903) and Leitzmann (1902–1903). For the general reader the most useful text is that of Bartsch in Deutsche Classiker des Mittelalters, as it includes notes and a glossary. Modern German versions are by Simrock (very close to the original) and Hertz (freer, but with excellent notes and appendices); Eng. trans. by J. L. Weston (1894). The “Didot” Perceval was published by Hucher in vol. 1. of Le Saint Graal (1875–1878); an edition of the Modena text has also been prepared. Perlesvaus was published by Potvin in vol 1. of his edition of Chrétien’s poem. The Welsh text, with translation, has been edited by Canon Williams. A fine translation by Dr Sebastian Evans is published in “The Temple Classics,” under the title of The High History of the Holy Grail. Peredur will be found in Alfred Nutt’s edition of the Mabinogion (1902). For the critical treatment of the subject see The Legend of Sir Perceval (Grimm Library, vol. xvii); Perlesvaus by Nitze (1902); Legends of the Wagner Drama by J. L. Weston. (J. L. W.)