Chrétien de Troyes Writes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Chrétien de Troyes wrote the Arthurian romance Perceval, which set the stage for the creation of subsequent literary and other artistic works centered on myth, romance, fantasy, legend, and adventure.

Summary of Event

Not much is known about Chrétien de Troyes except for what is recorded in his works. He was evidently well-educated and must have been a cleric. Chrétien’s early works were produced under the patronage of Marie de Champagne, the wife of Henry II and the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII. His last work, which remained incomplete, was Perceval (English translation, 1844), produced under the patronage of Philip of Flanders, count of Alsace. [kw]Chrétien de Troyes Writes Perceval (c. 1180) [kw]Perceval, Chrétien de Troyes Writes (c. 1180) Chrétien de Troyes Perceval (Chrétien de Troyes) France;c. 1180: Chrétien de Troyes Writes Perceval[2070] Literature;c. 1180: Chrétien de Troyes Writes Perceval[2070] Chrétien de Troyes

The twelfth century was the era when French clerics began writing extensively in the vernacular rather than Latin, giving permanent form to the popular culture of the period. Chrétien approached this task self-consciously; the prologue to his first Arthurian romance, Erec et Enide (c. 1164; Erec and Enide, 1913), states his intention to improve on traditional storytelling by equipping his story with a better narrative structure. In doing so he laid new foundations for the newly emergent genre of romance Romance (genre) , which was to make the leap from verse to prose in its thirteenth century heyday.

The literary sophistication of Chrétien’s work increased in his later endeavors, which demonstrated a keen sense of irony and a regretfully ambivalent attitude to the chivalric code that supplied the justificatory ideology of feudalism. Perceval’s prologue—devoted, as convention demanded, to singing the praises of the work’s patron—elects to do so by commenting on the relationship between a poet and his audience, drawing on the parable of the sower in the gospels (see Matthew 13:3-22). Chrétien likens himself to the sower casting seed on fertile ground provided by his generous patron—but in the parable, the seed is nothing less than the word of God, and much of it falls on stony ground or among weeds, so the argument is both more ambitious and more anxious than it pretends.

Perceval is a poor widow’s son living in the Waste Forest (possibly in present-day Wales or Scotland), whose life is transformed following a meeting with a company of knights. They introduce him to the idea of chivalry, which his mother had concealed from him, along with his noble ancestry. Inspired by his dream, but having little understanding of the chivalric ideal, he sets off to find King Arthur and reclaim his proper place in the world. He finds Arthur’s court in a dire state, and the king deeply unhappy, but he presses forward with his ambition, not realizing that every step he takes reveals his foolishness and complete ignorance of the principles of knightly behavior.

Perceval obtains the rudiments of an education in chivalry from Gornemont de Goort, which enables him to acquit himself reasonably well in taking up the cause of the beautiful Blancheflor of Beaurepaire. However, when he is offered lordship over Beaurepaire, he recalls his churlish treatment of his mother and sets out to make amends. The narrative enters its most famous and interesting phase when he seems to enter a curious parallel world, where the wounded Fisher King invites him to a magical castle. There he is gifted with a sword and witnesses a strange procession bearing a bleeding lance and a grail; he yearns to ask what it all means, but he takes Gornemont’s advice far too literally and politely refuses to ask, thus creating a puzzle that has fascinated countless readers.

The remainder of the text is confusing. Although his mother is dead, Perceval begins redeeming some of his other past errors. He falls into a curious trance at the sight of three drops of blood on a field of snow but is roused by Gawain, who persuades him to return to Arthur’s court, where a “hideous damsel” arrives to reproach him for having left the Grail Castle, whose people are dying and whose surrounding lands have been laid to waste in consequence. The damsel offers Arthur’s knights a series of potentially redemptive quests, which are selected by various candidates, the search for the grail being left to Perceval. Instead of following Perceval, however, the text veers off to describe the markedly different and far less intriguing exploits of Gawain, a familiar figure in Arthurian legend, who had appeared as a model of chivalric virtue in Chrétien’s earlier romances.

Although Gawain’s exploits echo Perceval’s in some respects, they are relentlessly mundane; they are, however, arbitrarily interrupted by a sequence in which Perceval, five years after his departure—during which time he has had many adventures but has not found his way back to the Grail Castle—makes a confession to a hermit, who interprets the failure of his quest as the result of a sin whose nature he has failed to comprehend. Gawain’s story, like Perceval’, eventually breaks off, leaving such abundant scope for speculation as to what might have happened thereafter that the majority of surviving manuscripts include various “continuations” by an assortment of later writers, most of which are only tenuously connected to the original.

The evidence of appearances strongly suggests that Chrétien died before completing the poem Poetry;France constituting the first 4,815 lines of Perceval, which he would otherwise have brought to a conclusion befitting his commitment to good narrative structure. The adventures of Gawain—possibly by another writer—were presumably added to all the surviving manuscripts because of the interpolation featuring Perceval and the hermit, in exactly the same spirit that other “continuations” were also added to all but a few of the extant versions. The hermit episode—which clearly does not belong to the story it interrupts—is probably the first of countless attempts by later writers to figure out the significance of Perceval’s visionary adventure in the Grail Castle.

Perceval differs from Chrétien’s earlier works in its use of allegorical symbolism and also in affording considerable importance to prayer. This is unusual, in that one of the attractions of writing vernacular romance was that it allowed clerics some relaxation from the duties of piety and the archaic methods of religious allegory. Many later writers, including the author of the hermit episode, further increased the religious element in their interpretations of the grail episode, especially those who proposed that the grail was the cup that had collected Christ’s blood during the crucifixion (the bleeding lance thus becoming the one that pierced his side). There is no evidence for this in the text, and Chrétien seems to have been far more dubious about the ideologies, pretensions, and myths supporting the crusades than many of his contemporaries and successors.

Chrétien’s prologue claims that the story of Perceval is derived from a text supplied by his patron, but such acknowledgments were customary and no prior text survives that could have served as a model. Chrétien may well have invented the grail, although any scholar who believes that Arthurian mythology originated in Celtic folklore rather than being invented by such Norman chroniclers as Geoffrey of Monmouth have searched long and hard for evidence of a Welsh original for Perceval and a Celtic pagan grail. Versions of the story reproduced in the White Book of Rhydderch (c. 1300-1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1375-1425) are, however, more likely to be adaptations than separate versions of a common original.

Significance

Perceval’s seed fell on very fertile ground, giving form to a myth that was to become astonishingly popular and pervasive, echoing through all the literary genres descended from French Medieval romance, inspiring countless scholarly fantasies and lifestyle fantasies as well as literary works and other media. Perceval’s story was reproduced and elaborated in German by Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (c. 1220), which inspired many later works, including Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal (1882). More significantly, it was integrated into Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), which became the most important sourcebook of subsequent Arthurian romance and of twentieth century Anglo-American fantastic fiction.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Busby, Keith. Chrétien de Troyes: Perceval (Le conte du Graal). London: Grant and Cutler, 1993. A commentary concentrating on parallels between the adventures of Perceval and Gawain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cazelles, Brigitte. The Unholy Grail: A Social Reading of Chrétien de Troyes’s “Conte du Graal.” Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996. Interprets the story of Perceval as a veiled account of a historical crisis in feudal society, in which the “revised chivalry” symbolized by the grail is part of the problem rather than the answer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fowler, David C. Prowess and Charity in the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959. Interprets the intended meaning of the poem as an inner “conflict of ideals.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelly, Douglas. Chrétien de Troyes: An Analytic Bibliography. Rochester, N.Y.: Tamesis, 2002. This volume is an indispensable reference tool, and it includes an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loomis, Roger Sherman. Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien de Troyes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949. A detailed argument supporting the case that the substance of Arthurian mythology is Welsh in origin. Book V searches for Celtic foundations for Perceval.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Uitti, Karl D., and Michelle A. Freeman. Chrétien de Troyes Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1995. An overview of Chrétien’s literary work. Examines Perceval as a continuation of themes introduced in the earlier romances.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weston, Jessie L. From Ritual to Romance. London: Cambridge University Press, 1920. A scholarly fantasy applying the theories of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890) to Chrétien’s symbolism, important as the inspiration of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and other twentieth century literary works.

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