The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

“Le Senestre Chemin”: Aporia, Paradox, and the Ritual Act of the Search in Chretien de Troyes’ Conte du Graal

Mimi Zhou

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Towards the end of the 1100s, Chrétien de Troyes began, but left unfinished, his last work, Le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail). Within about the first 6000 of 9066 lines of this romance, we have the story of Perceval, a young man brought up in isolation from society by his mother. The story begins when Perceval first encounters a group of King Arthur’s knights, and, after a comic episode wherein he demonstrates his ignorance of society and social norms, sets off to become a knight himself. As we follow Perceval on his quests, however, we realize that he not only begins quite un-knightly but remains so throughout the rest of Chretien’s narrative in that he rarely completes these quests. This paper explores how these incompletions affect the poem’s structure, how they affect the interiority Perceval develops, and, ultimately, how they affect us as readers of the Story of the Grail.



Qui petit seime petit quiaut

Et qui auques recoillier viaut

En tel leu sa semence espande

Que fruit a cent doble li rande[1], [2]


Chrétien de Troyes’ Conte du Graal begins by referencing the Biblical parable of the sower, underscoring the importance of the earth in 12th century France. The majority of the population was dependent on crops produced by the ea­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­rth to sustain their lives. The annual act of sowing with which Chrétien begins describes an act grounded in relentless necessity, but one that brought together communities.

In this sense, the annual act of sowing the earth also constitutes the performance of a ritual. It seems appropriate then, that Chrétien begins by referencing this act because, in a sense, the Conte du Graal presents a story that leads up to a moment where Perceval, the young, naïve knight who is our protagonist, fails to perform another ritual act. There, in the Fisher King’s castle, Perceval watches as an inexplicably bleeding Lance and a beautiful Grail are carried before him. Curious though he is, Perceval does not ask the questions of why the Lance bleeds and whom the Grail serves—questions, we later discover, that would cure the lame Fisher King as well as his kingdom.

Throughout the remainder of the unfinished work we have, we watch as Perceval realizes the repercussions of his failure and as he resolves to find the Grail Castle solely to ask his questions. Indeed, even if it first appears that Perceval seeks the Grail, Philipe Ménard emphatically notes in “Problèmes et mystères du Conte du Graal” that all Perceval actually seeks is to inquire about the Lance and the Grail:

La critique moderne a-t-elle raison de faire du graal le centre sublime du roman, de lui attribuer une majuscule, de parler sans cesse du « château du Graal » ? …Plusieurs indices suggèrent que le graal ne joue pas un rôle fondamental dans l’œuvre : 1° Personne ne le cherche. Il n’y a pas une quête du graal, comme objet insigne et spécifique. Perceval ne cherche que le château du Roi Pêcheur pour savoir qui on sert avec le graal et pourquoi la lance saigne.[3], [4]

What becomes required of Perceval is therefore a speech act that constitutes a rite of passage, rather than the physical objects of the Lance and the Grail. And so, again, it becomes the ritual of asking questions that will ultimately restore peace and plenty to the Grail Kingdom. Asking questions, like the annual act of sowing seeds, will “rande” “fruit a cent doble” to the Fisher King’s community.

The idea of rituals, then, becomes crucial to our understanding of the Conte du Graal. To give a brief overview of the importance of rituals in human communities, Earle H. Waugh says the following in his introduction to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices:

Throughout life, rituals are used to express meaning. There are formal words used when greeting someone of an official rank, for example; gifts for people on special occasions; and the shaking of a hand when it is offered. It is possible for a person to ignore these practices, but there may be repercussions in doing so. By providing a grounding for life, rituals, rites, and ceremonies take on critical importance.[5]

Perhaps it seems a tad suspect to ground our discussion in such a broad definition, but as we continue our exploration of the Conte du Graal, we will further explore the centrality of ritual because it becomes precisely the “repercussions” of ignoring a ritual practice that drives forward Perceval’s adventure in various forms. Indeed, if rituals express some inherent meaning that does not always result in a tangible product (the shaking of a hand, to expand upon Waugh’s example, does not produce anything save for the amicability the gesture inherently implies), then meaning in the Conte du Graal comes from Perceval’s pursuit of asking the questions. And as we follow Perceval’s adventures, we search for him so that meaning in the Conte du Graal comes from the search it forces upon us.

Searching, then—Perceval’s search for the Grail Kingdom, for closure, and our search for Perceval—constitutes another ritual. In our experience of the Conte du Graal, it becomes the act of the search that gains importance. We will therefore first explore how the Conte du Graal branches from the canonical travel narrative in search of a new structure, how it then entangles us in the structural paradoxes it creates, and ultimately, how we achieve a fuller understanding of it in considering its complexities. Note, however, that I say “fuller understanding” and not “complete understanding” because the Conte du Graal remains a work that, like the earth to which the sower annually returns, requires of us a continuous return. It remains a work that set us upon a perpetual search for the seeds Chrétien planted within it.

I. Aporias, Entanglement, and Questions

Et la destre que senefie?

Charité, qui de sa boene oevre

Pas ne se vante ançois se coevre

Si qu’il ne la set se cil non

Qui Dex et charitez a non[6], [7]

Chrétien’s Charity

Charity, Chrétien tells us, dominates the work we have. And yet, for all that we are told this work comes from a source of charity, what we have does not seem very charitable. The Conte du Graal lacks ending, lacks fulfilled quests, and is perhaps more defined by what it lacks than anything it might charitably contain. Thus, if it indeed contains charity—and again, Chrétien tells us it does—perhaps charity becomes redefined in the Conte du Graal.

We will begin by thinking about its structural comparison to the Odyssey, that canonical travel narrative, to further highlight the Conte du Graal’s lack of structure before we move on to explore the structure it does contain—and what might be charitable within it.

Ancient Epics and Ring Composition

Readers of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis will remember his opening analyses on Odysseus’ scar. Auerbach notes that the narration of this episode opens with Eurycleia, Odysseus’ faithful nurse, discovering the scar on his thigh while washing his feet in an ancient act of hospitality offered to strangers. The narration then moves into Odysseus’ past to recount how he obtained the scar before it moves back to Eurycleia and Odysseus in the present to finish recounting their interactions in that scene. Though he never comments directly on the structure of this narration,[8] Auerbach implicitly acknowledges its ring composition, a technique that dominates ancient Greek and Latin epics.

Quite simply, ring composition entails a chiasmic structuring of events in a narration. It can be found in episodes like the one above and all throughout the Odyssey. In his study of ring composition in this ancient epic, John L. Myres divides the poem into five sections and maps out the ring compositions in each of them.[9] Astonishingly, he finds ring composition not only within episodes, but also both on narrower and broader levels: Both speeches within episodes and episodes surrounding episodes can be delineated into a chiasmic structure. To return to the incident of Odysseus’ scar, framing it are Odysseus’ interactions with Penelope. We can thus break down the overall structure of Book Nineteen as follows: Penelope speaks to Odysseus about washing his feet, Eurycleia begins washing them and discovers the scar, the narration delves into the story behind the scar, Eurycleia and Odysseus interact over it, and then Odysseus speaks to Penelope—which at once ends this chiasmic structure and begins another one.

The significance of ring composition as a literary structure lies manifold; the following are only two that pertain to our discussion: Firstly, in mapping out events in such a way, one can see patterns and echoes that a story employs in its language at different points in the composition to achieve a certain effect.[10] Secondly, ring composition emphasizes the event at each group of episodes’ center—in our example of Book Nineteen, the center is the story of the scar’s origin, those fateful events from Odysseus’ past that now come to trigger Eurycleia’s recognition of Odysseus as her returned master.[11]

Ring Composition in the Conte du Graal

Critical discourse on the structure of Chrétien’s Conte du Graal has also noted the chiasmic structure of the itinerary of Perceval’s adventures in relation to Gauvain’s. Charles Méla, in his preface to his presentation of Chrétien’s story, notes that: « Perceval quitte une mère, parce que le drame du père préside à sa destinée. Gauvain repart, incriminé du meurtre d’un père en Avalon, pour s’enchainer aux séductions des Mères. Tel est le chiasme du Conte du Graal. »[12], [13] While this is true and certainly hints at the Conte du Graal’s structural complexity, closer examinations of it reveal that it does not quite work out. Antoinette Saly also comments upon this chiasmic structure of itineraries but acknowledges that some subterfuge on the critic’s part is needed upon closer examination (In fact, she implicitly points out some subterfuge on Méla’s part in his statement):

Tantôt un personnage peut se dédoubler par dissociation de ses aspects ou de ses fonctions, tantôt deux personnages de la première série peuvent fusionner dans la seconde.

Dans le premier cas, par exemple, au Roi Pêcheur guide hospitalier de Perceval correspond le nautonier qui hébergera Gauvain et le mènera au Lit de la Merveille ; au Roi Pêcheur riche et mehaigné correspond le riche eschacier, le mutilé à la jambe d’argent, dont on laisse entendre à Gauvain qu’il peut se montrer redoutable, tandis que le Roi Pêcheur, seigneur du château de l’Autre Monde, a fait place, nous l’avons vu, à la reine aux blanches tresses.

Maintenant un exemple du second cas : si l’épisode de Beaurepaire débouche sur le rappel de la revanche promise à la pucelle qui a ri et se rattache par ce lien à la cour d’Arthur, la démarche de la pucelle aux petites manches auprès de Gauvain fait pendant à celle de Blanchefleur auprès de Perceval. La pucelle aux petites manches procède à la fois de la pucelle qui a ri et de Blanchefleur en tant que pucelle déconseille.[14], [15]


Rather than attempting to force the Conte du Graal into a chiasmic structure, it appears more appropriate to me to accept that the Conte du Graal lacks any set, defined, structure. It is not just that Perceval’s and Gauvain’s separate itineraries do not quite line up as Saly acknowledges, but that neither one completes the quests he undertakes—which perhaps reflects how the Conte du Graal itself famously lacks an ending. Another way of thinking about this is that this particular work by Chrétien remains quite unlike Homer’s Odyssey. As Auerbach succinctly says of the epic poem, everything within it becomes “brought to light in perfect fullness; so that a continuous rhythmic procession of phenomena passes by, and never is there a form left fragmentary or half-illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths.”[16] Every story that begins in the Odyssey ends and becomes whole unto itself, but the Conte du Graal emphasizes a lack of ending—perhaps even a resistance to ending on both the level of the overall story as well as the level of individual quests within the story.

Instead, quests and questions in the Conte du Graal accumulate. It is not just that Chrétien left it incomplete, but that incongruities dominate what we do have. Chrétien takes Perceval outside of the Waste Forest and his mother-centric world, to which he tries to return, but never does. Later, he takes Perceval to the Grail Castle, another setting Perceval leaves and never finds again, though not for lack of trying.

To borrow another term from those wise and complex ancient Greeks, the Conte du Graal appears littered with aporias. Tracing the roots of this word reveals its meaning: In Attic Greek, a “poros” (the transliteration of “πόρος”) is “a means of passing a river, a ford or ferry;” “a” (“ἄ”) is the negation.[17]  Hence, “aporos” (“ἄπορος”) comes to mean: “without passage, having no way in, out or through,” and, “of places, impassable.”[18] “Aporia” (“ἀπορίᾳ”) is defined as “being ἄπορος” and so “difficulty of passing” is carried into the word’s meaning, but it also comes to mean: “in Dialectic, [a] question for discussion, [or a] difficulty [or] puzzle”[19]—to be more general, an aporia is something unsolvable, unbridgeable. It seems appropriate, then, to describe the quests Perceval fails to complete (the quest of returning to his mother, the quest of returning to the Grail Castle) as aporias.

Misreading as Aporia

Another type of aporia that presents itself in the Conte du Graal lies in the misreadings that occur in the story’s plot. In the act of misreading, some meaning does not completely come through to a reader, something is blocked. Perceval demonstrates himself as a fabulous misreader from the beginning: In one of the first scenes we see him in, he hears Arthurian knights and interprets the sounds of clashing weapons and branches[20] to mean they are devils and the site of their brightness and their vivid colors to mean they are angels.[21]

This episode results in Perceval’s departure from his mother. Though he tries to return to her later on, his quest becomes interrupted; he never finds his way back to the Waste Forest where he first hears and sees those Arthurian knights. The aporia of misreading, then, leads to a structural aporia. To be more precise, Perceval never returns to his mother because he reaches an unfordable stream on his way back from Arthur’s court at Carduel. (We note that this presents a literal aporia in the world of the romance.) At this precise moment, the Fisher King appears out of the river, driving the narrative towards the Grail Castle and the mysteries it holds. After the fated scene where Perceval fails to ask his questions, he learns that his mother is dead—and so we have a structural aporia in that his quest to return to her can no longer be completed; in that this particular question does not reach an endpoint.

Aesthetic Entanglement

This is not to say, however, that misreading is necessarily unproductive. Peter Haidu implies this in his Aesthetic Distance in Chrétien de Troyes, and I wish to further examine this point. Haidu begins with a discussion of how irony functions in Cligès. Irony, he says, “defined one’s relationship to the text, a relationship both sympathetic and reserved; this was not a story to become ‘involved’ in, these were not characters with whom a reader might identify himself; one was to keep one’s aesthetic distance.”[22] Haidu continues to examine how irony creates aesthetic distance in the Conte du Graal; he finds that irony “is usually perceptible only by juxtaposition either with the structural context or with general social ideals. Furthermore, the incongruities in Perceval often obtain comic or even farcical effects rather than ironic tone…”[23]

While I agree with the latter statements in that Perceval’s naiveté leads him to situations we deem comic due to social standards set by the text and by our own common knowledge, I would say that it is precisely these elements that also draw us further into the text. Irony and incongruities in the Conte du Graal’s plot do not present so much an aesthetic distancing as an aesthetic entanglement, if you will.

To return to our example of Perceval’s first misreading, the misreading also draws us into Perceval’s world—and so, just as Perceval enters the knights’ world, we enter his world. Again, the birth of Perceval’s Arthurian consciousness occurs here through his discovery of new sounds. Appropriately, Chrétien’s language recreates for us, his readers, this discovery that Perceval makes in the plot as there lies evocative symmetry, assonance, and consonance in ll. 103-106: “Et sovant hurtoient as armes / Li rain des chanes et des charmes. / Sonoit li fus, sonoit li fers / Et des escuz et des auberz.” [“All of a sudden, arms clashed / Against oak and hornbeam branches. / Wood snapped, and the iron of swords, / And shields, and armor rang out.”] Symmetry first appears here in l. 104, where “des chanes” and “des charmes” mirror each other. Both halves of the next two lines are also symmetrical, with “sonoit li fus” mirroring “sonoit li fers” and “et des escuz” mirroring “et des auberz.”

It is notable that both ll. 105-6 can be divided into halves with four syllables each to form units that have meaning—in fact, this is notable not because it is a novelty on Chrétien’s part, but because it is precisely the opposite. That is, it was standard earlier in the 12th century to have a whole sentence expressed in one, two, or three couplets, but because Chrétien frequently abandons this standard in his romances, it is possible he employs it here to evoke in a slightly antiquated manner the sounds of blows exchanged back and forth in battle.[24] The composition of the lines themselves therefore evokes the sounds they describe.

Assonance and consonance also appear in many repeated sounds, furthering ll. 104-106’s aural vivacity. Aside from the words that Chrétien actually repeats, “chanes” and “charmes,” “fus” and “fers,” and “escuz” and “auberz” sound notably similar. All these elements of symmetry, assonance, and consonance lead to l. 107, where Chrétien emphasizes that Perceval is taking in what these lines describe through his own ear: “Li vallez ot et ne voit pas.” [“The young man hears, and does not see.”] And so, Perceval misreads sounds, and we, in reading his story, misread with him, with Chrétien’s language drawing us into Perceval’s experience.

The beauty of rediscovering sight follows in ll. 127-129’s list of colors. Upon seeing the knights’ shields, Perceval is presented with: “Lo vert et lo vermoil / Reluire contre le soloil / Et l’or et l’azur et l’argent.” [“And then he saw green and vermillion, / And also gold and azure and silver / Dancing under the sunlight.”] It is striking that Perceval fits this discovery into the religious language that he already knows from his mother; we remember that he takes the sounds the knights make as a sign that they are devils, and here, he takes the light gleaming off the their armor and shields as a sign that they are angels. This latter interpretation becomes especially striking because the same vividness of the knights’ shields comes back later in the form of the Grail—which is not to say that Chrétien describes the Grail with these precise colors, but that the abundance of light (“reluire contre le soloil”) does become evoked again:


Un graal entre ses .II. meins

Une damoisele tenoit,

Qui aviau les vallez venoit,

Et bele et gente et bien senee,

Quant ele fu leianz antree

Atot lo graal qu’ele tint,

Une si grant clartez i vint

Qu’ausin perdirent les chandoilles

Lor clarté comme les estoilles

Qant li solaux luist o la lune.[25], [26]

Here, Chrétien leads us to another instance of misreading, for Perceval does not understand the need to perform the ritual task of asking questions. However, it is not only misreading at work in this case: The Grail also presents a mystification in that its meaning is purposely hidden—which is what sets up the task for Perceval to ask the questions. That is, Perceval’s religious interpretation of the knights as angels does present an example of misreading, but here, the aporia—what does not become understood—lies in the ritual task of asking about the mysterious objects Perceval sees. The act of misreading, then, becomes nuanced; for all that the imagery on light draws these two scenes together, the aporia created in one instance lies in interpretation of the mundane while the aporia created in the second lies in relation to the divine. Like the Conte du Graal’s structure, aporias do not become reduced into a formula—which is precisely what creates more structural complexities that entangle us further into this story.

Charitable Questions

A closer examination of the scene where Perceval finds himself facing the aporia of the unfordable river further reveals how the Conte du Graal’s structure entangles us in its complexities. After leaving Beaurepaire, Perceval finds the river and Chrétien tells us:

Ensin selonc la rive estrive

Tant qu[e] a une roche aproche,

Et l’eve a cele roche touche

Si qu’il ne pot avant aler,

Tant qu’il vit par l’eve avaler

Une nef qui d’amont venoit,

Dos homes en la nef avait.

Et il s’areste, ses atant,

Si cuida qu’il alassent tant

Que il venisent jusqu’a lui.

Et il s’arestent amedui,

Ami l’eve tuit coi esturent,

Que molt bien aencré se furent.

Et cil qui fu devant peschoit

« Ensaigniez moi, por Dé, seignor… »[27], [28]

Again, Chrétien presents here an instance of literal aporia in his story’s plot, which we also see reflected in his language. Perceval comes to the end of his path when he reaches the “roche”—so at the moment when he can no longer move forward in his setting, the Fisher King appears to push the narrative forward. How mysterious it is that we cannot pinpoint where the Fisher King comes from; we are only told that “une nef que d’amont venoit,” with the word “amont” hiding a set location from us. Thus, we have Perceval, unable to cross, when the Fisher King appears and “s’arestent amedui,” with “amedui” literally at the end of l. 2942. Neither can reach the other. And so we return to our idea of a literal aporia in this scene, where Perceval finds himself at the river he cannot move beyond, facing the Fisher King’s own limited movement—limited not only in the sense that the Fisher King is paralyzed, which Perceval does not yet know, but also that the Fisher King’s boat remains still (“coi”) out there in the middle of the water.

It seems important here that Perceval meets the Fisher King, who he later discovers is his father,[29] as he is trying to find his mother. Thus, the status of Perceval’s family comes into question—almost in a literal sense, as Perceval indirectly questions both his mother and father. Perceval promises that he will find his mother “s’ele estoit vive,” wherein the shortened “si” translates to the hypothetical “if,” which gives us an implicit question in the uncertainty it indicates: Perceval will find her, only if she is alive. How appropriate it seems, then, that Perceval’s first words to the Fisher King also form a question of sorts: “Ensaigniez moi, seignor, por Dé…,” he says, a phrase that becomes repeated verbatim in l. 2962. Perceval thus asks his father twice for help crossing the unfordable stream. By questioning his mother and father, albeit implicitly in different ways, Perceval’s actions suggest a familial identity in question, which transfers for Perceval into an individual identity in question. We furthermore see here that Perceval does ask questions, perhaps even incarnates the idea of a question, and yet, he fails to perform the ritual act of asking questions at the moment it becomes crucial at the Grail Castle, forming another incongruity in this text.

Thus, we find aporias on several levels in the Conte du Graal. Misreading constitutes a type of aporia, but other aporias in the plot, like Perceval’s failed quest to return to his mother, also surface. These failed quests, in turn, create structural aporias because they drive Perceval’s narrative in other directions, making it rare that he returns to locations he leaves. To take these ideas a step further, it appears the Conte du Graal constitutes an accumulation of questions and aporias, not meant to be answered—and perhaps charitable because of this, because these questions entangle us further into Chrétien’s work.

II. Topography, Interiority, and Paradoxicality

Crestïens seime et fait semence

D’un romanz que il encommence[30], [31]

Intersections of Topography and Paradoxical Interiority

Chrétien, in presenting himself as a sower, sows the landscapes of his story. Indeed, topography in the Conte du Graal appears significant from its beginning, where Chrétien introduces us to the setting of the Waste Forest, the land of Perceval’s youth. As Perceval adventures, however, we again realize that there stands little chance of him returning there, especially after he learns about his mother’s death. The Waste Land therefore fades as a stable reference point in the world of the story.

Indeed, the Conte du Graal appears to lack any stable topographical reference point. As with the Waste Land, locations Chrétien presents in the Conte du Graal that at first appear stable tend to shift. This becomes all the more evident in a brief comparison with Chrétien’s presentation of central loci in the Chevalier de la Charrette. Here, both Logres, where Arthur holds his court, and Gorre, Méléagant’s kingdom, remain fixed as Lancelot and the other principal players travel between them.

This contributes to the sense that, even as Lancelot sets out to return to Arthur’s court after fighting Méléagant for the second time in Gorre to dissolve suspect rumors about Guinevere and Keu, the narrative is always progressing forward. In the Conte du Graal, however, Arthur’s court circulates, Perceval circulates, and landscapes like the Waste Forest appear and disappear, never to be reached again. Rather than moving relentlessly forward, the Conte du Graal appears to move non-linearly, at times along two paths at once, even before it branches off to intersperse Gauvain’s story with Perceval’s. To return to our comparison with the Charrette, there are also instances here where the narration does not follow Lancelot; for example, Lancelot is not at Arthur’s court at the beginning of the story, and disappears from the narration shortly after leaving Gorre in the aforementioned scene only to reappear at Guinevere’s tournament. However, the Charrette never loses its sense of forward movement no matter which character(s) it focuses on at any given moment, whereas the Conte du Graal exemplifies circular movement even when the narration solely follows Perceval.

This circular sense of movement that stems from Perceval’s travels between shifting topographies appears related to the particular brand of interior consciousness Perceval develops. To take a step back, we can loosely categorize the topographies that Chrétien constructs into representations of two worlds. There are those that belong to the Arthurian world, like Gornemant’s castle, and those that belong to the Grail-centric world, like the Waste Forest, and, of course, the Grail castle. These two loose categories[32] of topographies reflect the two divided kingdoms of Arthur and of Perceval’s family, kingdoms that split before Perceval’s birth. In becoming shaped by both as he travels, Perceval, who appears destined to reconcile the two worlds,[33] instead develops contradictory values that shape his interiority into a state of paradox. Thus, the shifting topographies and Perceval’s adventures through them appear in a symbiotic relationship with Perceval’s development of a paradoxical interior, which seems in turn to point towards a paradox at work in the romance’s very structure.

Gornemant’s Role in Perceval’s Interiority

Questions of Perceval’s interiority and exteriority surface early on in the Conte du Graal. Before Perceval leaves his mother, she vests him with Welsh attire and arms.[34] In his eagerness to join the ranks of Arthurian knights, however, Perceval exchanges his Welsh attire for the Vermillion Knight’s armor after the Vermillion Knight’s defeat. He thereby begins to exteriorly look like an Arthurian knight, but as Rupert Pickens appropriately notes in a discussion of point of view in the Conte du Graal, Perceval does not begin to develop interiorly as an Arthurian knights until he meets Gornemant, who lives away from the circulating Arthurian court.

This brings us to one point we need to nuance before continuing our discussion. Thus far, we have talked about the Arthurian court as a representation of a kingdom that Perceval’s family has renounced because, as we have learned from the mother, the Arthurian kingdom was caught in destructive wars wherein Perceval’s brothers and father perished. However, a brief examination of Arthur’s court reveals that it does not seem to uphold the stately conduct we expect of it. In Arthur’s first appearance, he is pensive and silent (“pensis et muz” in l. 869), mulling over the Vermillion Knight he cannot defeat (and whom Perceval, as-yet untrained as a knight, defeats without much difficulty), and not at all the incarnation of the strong political center we expect.

There are also other members of the court who continuously defy any expectation we might have of the Arthurian ideals they uphold. Keu, for example, is perpetually crass in his words and actions. Chrétien even informs us in a later scene that though Keu appears Arthurian exteriorly, he hardly incarnates courtly Arthurian virtues:

Et Kex parmi la sale vint,

Trestoz desafublez, et tint

En sa main destre un bastonet,

O chief ot chapel de bonet,

Don li chevol estoient blonde.

N’ot plus bel chevalier ou monde,

Et fu treciez a une trece,

Mais sa biauté et sa proesce

Enpiroient si felon gap.[35], [36]


Thus, Gornemant becomes the one who knights Perceval and who gives him the second set of instructions that lead him to his failure at the Grail castle. Gornemant, rather than anyone in Arthur’s court, mentors Perceval in developing an interior as the Arthurian knight Perceval’s mother has prevented him from becoming.[37] The Birth of Gornemant’s Castle

Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that Chrétien describes Perceval’s first view of Gornemant’s castle with the vocabulary of birth. After leaving Arthur’s court at Carlisle, Perceval traverses a forest that leads to a river. « Si s’en va tot selonc la rive / Lez une grant roiche naïve / Qui d’autre part de l’eve estoit… »[38] On this rock lies the castle, « bel et fort, » and in following the river, Perceval:

…vit les tors do chastel nestre.

Avis li fu qu’eles nessoient

Et que fors do chastel issoient.

Ami lo chastel en estant

Ot une tor et fort et grant,

Qui a la mer se conbatoit

Et la mers au pié li batoit.[39], [40]

We again see Chrétien sowing the topography of his story (and we recall the « seime et fait semence » of the prologue) in that the castle’s towers “nestre” and “nessoient,” as if Chrétien sowed them into the ground and is now summoning them out. The repetition of “nestre” in “nessoient” emphasizes the idea of birth, of creation. “Nessoient” also becomes doubly emphasized in its rhyme with “issoient,” which is modified by “fors,” giving it direction. The castle’s movement becomes further underscored by the tower “qui a la mer se conbatoit”—as if the tower is also a warrior, ready to spring into battle against the pummeling sea.

Thus, the very site at which Perceval begins to develop an Arthurian interior also develops out of the landscape; the site where he becomes trained in Arthurian combat is itself personified as if it were an Arthurian knight. It becomes difficult to determine if changes in topography foreshadow changes in Perceval’s interiority or if the former becomes a reflection of the latter—but rather than reducing this relationship into strict either/or logic, we could simply accept it. Chrétien molds his characters’ interiority as he molds his landscape.

The Rise of the Grail Castle

Perhaps it is not surprising then, that Perceval’s development of familial identity also intersects with another instance of topographical change. After Perceval leaves Gornemant’s castle, he reaches the unfordable stream where he meets the Fisher King, who gives him instructions towards the Grail Castle. Unable to immediately find it, Perceval thinks the Fisher King has lied to him: “Peschierres, qui ce me deïs, / Trop grant vilenie feïs / Se tu lo me deïs por mal,” he says.[41], [42] And then:

Lors vit devant lui en un val

Lo chief d’une tor qui parut,

L’en ne trovast jusqu’a Barut

Si bele ne si bien assise.

Carree fu, de roche bise,

S’avoit .II. torneles entor.[43], [44]

The Grail Castle “parut” from the “val,” as if fully formed.[45] (Perhaps underscoring this movement, Méla has titled this section “Le château surgi du val” in his modern French translation.) It becomes the site where Perceval fails to perform the ritual act of asking of the Lance “commant cele chose venoit” and “do graal cui l’en an servoit.”[46] In fact, Perceval re-formulates the question of the Grail a few lines later: “il ne set cui l’en en sert”[47]—he therefore knows what the questions at hand are, but fails to pass this ritual test of initiation into the Grail community of which his family is a part. The day after, he discovers from his first cousin that his mother has died, and in conversing with her, knowledge of his name, “Perceval li Gallois,” also transcendently comes to him. Thus, the Grail Castle’s sudden appearance intersects with his new knowledge of his family and the name that reinforces those ties in its rejection of Arthurian identity—he is “Perceval the Welshman.”

Through his readings of the appearance of the Grail castle, Roger Dragonetti argues that Chrétien communicates the sense of movement, of development into an interior, from the first moment Perceval meets the Fisher King. Indeed, Dragonetti draws our attention to the possibility that this sense of inward movement is inherent in the name “Perceval,” of which the separate syllables are woven through Chrétien’s language. He explains this and then visits a passage we have already examined:

Il est bien certain que dans la scène introductive du château du Graal, plusieurs motifs sont organisés de telle sorte qu’ils composent musicalement le nom du héros. Le regard du valet, qui « perce » pour ainsi dire les profondeurs de l’eau (eve) et de la vallée (val)… :

Qu’il esgarda une riviere

En l’avalee d’une angarde.

L’eve rade et parfonde esgarde,

Si ne s’ose metre dedans

Tant que a une roche aproce,

Si que l’eve à la roche touche

Si qu’il ne puet avant aler.

Atant vit aval l’eve aler

Une nef qui d’amont venoit…[48], [49]

It therefore seems significant on multiple levels that the Grail castle is set in a valley (“un val” in Old French). We have the implied downward movement in the name Perceval, as if he is destined to find the valley and to become introduced to the Grail community. To take the idea of the valley one step further, we can also see the valley of the Grail castle, hidden at first sight, as a pocket of wealth hidden in a text; as something Chrétien, the sower, has planted. By delving into the valley along with Perceval, we take a step further in developing our own interiority.

The Language of Stability

In Perceval’s case, however, the linear relationship between changing topography and the development of interiority becomes further complicated in a re-examination of the language with which Chrétien describes Gornemant’s castle and the Grail Castle. While the towers of the former are born and the towers of the latter appear (we remember l. 1276’s “nestre and l. 2989’s “parut”), Chrétien also describes them with the vocabulary of sturdiness. To return to Gornemant’s castle, we have:

Ami lo chastel en estant

Ot une tor et fort et grant,

Qui a la mer se conbatoit

Et la mers au pié li batoit.

Au .IIII. parties do mur,

Don li carrel estoient dur,

Avoit .IIII. basses torneles,

Qui molt estoient fors et beles.

Li chastiaus fu molt bien seanz

Et bien aaisiez par dedanz.[50], [51]

Gornemant’s castle thus appears solid once fully formed. Though the tower is personified as an Arthurian knight ready to spring in to battle, it simultaneously remains “fort et grant” and “li carrel estoient dur;” “dur” becomes emphasized here in the end rhyme with l. 1283’s “mur,” as if the walls are also solid. Overall, Perceval’s impression becomes: “Li chastiaus fu molt bien seanz / Et bien aaisiez par dedans;” the castle appears well-situated to him, and well-furnished inside. We note, however, that these lines are also in free indirect discourse, so they do not simply describe Perceval’s impression. Chrétien changes the camera angle of the lines in his narration from outside the castle walls to inside, as if he were also trying to communicate how well the castle is situated in its terrain and how well-furnished it is.

Echoes of this language of stability reappear in Chrétien’s description of the Grail castle. After Perceval sees the towers “parut,” we are told that: “L’en ne trovast jusqu’a Barut / Si bele ne si bien assise” [my emphasis],[52] which is followed by commentary on the rock in l. 2992’s “roche bise;” the actual substance of which the castle is made.

The language of stability of the Conte du Graal’s castles therefore appears especially important. If we return to the idea that the story’s topography reflects Perceval’s interiority, the idea arises that the topography stabilizes, it reflects some form of stability in Perceval’s interiority. And indeed, Perceval, once he does learn something, has difficulty making nuances—which explains his all-too-literal interpretations of his mother’s advice and his all-too-strict following of Gornemant’s advice that leads him to his failure of asking the questions at the Grail castle.


We have, therefore, a paradox: The changing topography that reflects change in Perceval’s interiority becomes stable once it settles, thereby also reflecting the difficulty of nuancing the interior that develops. As we’ve briefly noted, Rupert Pickens, in the third chapter of The Welsh Knight: Paradoxicality in Chrétien’s Conte del Graal, examines how Perceval becomes shaped to reconcile Arthurian values and familial values, but how his difficult-to-change interiority prevents him from achieving this mélange.

Pickens specifically looks at Chretien’s use of names for Perceval and the moment where Perceval discovers his name in conversation with his first cousin, whom he discovers weeping over the death of her lover. She asks him: “Commant avez vos non, amis?” after which our narrator tells us:

Et cil qui son non ne savoit

Devine et dit que il avoit

Percevaus li Gualois a non,

Ne ne set s’il dit voir o non

Mais il dit voir, et si no sot.[53], [54]

The Weeping Maiden, however, retorts: “Percevaus li chaitis!” [“Perceval the miserable!”], implying by her challenge of Perceval’s inexplicable self-identification as “gallois” that it contains inherent value. Pickens explains:

Chrétien’s use of hypomone[55] suggests that transcendence lies in the concept of the gallois. In the Grail community, the gallois is regarded somehow to be positive. In “changing” Perceval’s name, the Weeping Maiden contrasts gallois with the notion that he is ill-fated, unfortunate, wretched, captive. Certainly, Perceval, as valet gallois, would ask the Grail questions. …In courtly communities, the gallois is regarded negatively, and its abandonment, which implies acquisition of sophisticated modes of thought and behavior, as well as accomplishment in the arts of love and warfare, are viewed as a process of refinement and human maturation.[56]

He concludes:

In his original gallois state, Perceval would have unhesitatingly asked the Grail questions; however, he could not have been interested in the answers, much less could he have understood them. It is for this reason that the Grail perspective unifies the poem, because it accounts for every component in the poem’s antithetical paradoxicality. Having regained the gallois through experience of the courtly, Perceval reaches for the high order of chivalry, comprehension of which is conditional for restoration of the Grail kingdom.[57]

“And/Both” Structure

Thus, changes in the Conte du Graal’s topographybecome shaped along with Perceval’s interior paradoxicality. This, in turn, suggests that paradoxicality is at work in the structure of the romance itself. That is: The landscapes Perceval adventures through shape his paradoxical interior, while, at the same time, the structural appearance of the landscapes themselves appears paradoxical. It hardly seems accidental that the Conte du Graal structurally places the Grail Castle episode after Perceval leaves Gornemant’s castle, re-vested with Arthurian clothes and invested with Arthurian values, exteriorly and interiorly incarnating what his family rejected when he was very young. (We become aware that the Arthurian kingdom incarnates different—though likely not mutually exclusive—values from the Grail kingdom from the romance’s beginning, when Perceval’s mother tells the inattentive Perceval the story of the family’s split from Uter Pandragon.[58]) Thus, it seems as if Perceval, who is born a member of the Grail community and who becomes a member of the Arthurian community, is meant to reconcile their differences, but paradoxically, it remains precisely because he becomes shaped by both that he cannot reconcile them. And again, the structural stacking of the Grail Castle episode after Perceval leaves Gornemant’s castle does not help because Perceval arrives at the Grail Castle incarnating the wrong values for that setting.

All of this raises the question of whether more than a single structure is at work in the Conte du Graal. Indeed, Pickens determines that there is what he calls a double romance structure here because of its paradoxicality. In an examination of the sequels to our unfinished Conte du Graal, Matilda Bruckner expands this idea in relating it to structural patterns in other 12th century literature, wherein “opposed terms are generally intertwined, mutually implicated and inseparable, that is, non-disjunctive, in Julia Kristeva’s terminology.”[59] An examination of both sides of Chrétien’s structure in its and/both state therefore becomes necessary for full comprehension of the Conte du Graal’s complexity.

Blood on Snow: Presence and Absence

A scene towards the end of our narrative’s account on Perceval illustrates the idea of “and/both,” non-disjunctive structure and offers a new way of looking at our narrative. Before Arthur’s court finds him, Perceval sees the freshly fallen blood of a wild goose on freshly fallen snow that triggers his memory of Blanchefleur:

La gente fu navree el col,

Si saigna .III. goutes de sanc

Qui espandirent sor lo blanc,

Si senbla naturel color.

Qant Percevaus vit defolee

La noif sor coi la gente jut

Et lo sanc qui entor parut,

Si s’apoia desus sa lance

Por esgarder cele senblance.

Et li sanz et la nois ensanble

La fresche color li resanble

Qui est en la face s’amie,

Et panse tant que toz s’oblie,

Q’autresin estoit en son vis

Li vermauz sor lo blanc asis

Con ces .III. gotes de sanc furent

Qui sor la blanche noif parurent.[60], [61]

This scene presents an interesting scenario because it illustrates the relationships between topography, interiority, and structure, all of which at times appear to function in similar ways. We have a new topography here created by the freshly fallen but marred snow, which causes Perceval to interiorly de-center himself from his present and re-center himself on Blanchefleur. However, he does not physically return to her and our narrative therefore never structurally returns to her castle, creating another instance of structural aporia. An interestingly-constructed topography therefore speaks to an interior in paradox that also speaks to structural paradox.

We will first examine how the language Chrétien uses to describe the blood on the snow constructs an enigmatic topography. The drops of blood are described as “li vermauz sor lo blanc asis” [“vermillion sitting on white”]. As with the language describing the castles as well-situated and sturdy, “asis” connotes stasis, as if they had always been there, and reflects Perceval’s own stillness in that scene. Reinforcing the idea that the blood has always been above the snow is the end rhymes of “sanc” and “blanc” in ll. 4121-4122: “Si saigna .III. goutes de sanc / Qui espandirent sor lo blanc.” “Sanc” here is literally placed over “blanc” so that the position of the words reflects the image they describe, reminding us that the blood has fallen from the harmed goose.

However, Chrétien also describes the blood with language connoting upward movement: The blood drops “sor la blanche noif parurent.” “Parurent” is reminiscent of castles appearing and disappearing; of how Gornemant’s castle is born and how the Grail castle’s towers appear (and we remember again l. 1276’s “nestre and l. 2989’s “parut”). In the same way that these structures rise from the terrain, “semblance” suggests that the blood rises up from below the snow. Thus, we have the blood described as both falling down and rising up, as if it could, at once, fall down into the earth to disappear, and rise up to disappear into the air. The drops are, in a way, there and not, the same way Perceval is there and also not, and the way Blanchefleur is there and not.

Blanchefleur therefore presents a de-centering because she withdraws Perceval from his present, but also a centering because he is being drawn back to her. Perceval, deep in his thoughts, “toz s’oblie,” withdrawn from the present so much that he reacts to the following attacks by Sagremor le Furieux and Keu mostly by instinct. Though physically there, he remains interiorly centered on “la face s’amie.”

And, perhaps appropriately, Blanchefleur also seems split between representing Arthurian values in that she is Gornemant’s niece and therefore tied to the Arthurian court, and Perceval’s familial values in that the advice Perceval’s mother gives him shapes his interaction with her. Granted, Perceval takes his mother’s advice too literally when he encounters the Tent Maiden and does not quite follow knightly standards even with Blanchefleur (we remember that they never do consummate their relationship)—but he nevertheless fulfills a part of his mother’s wishes,[62] saving her kingdom and promising his devotion her. Moreover, it remains the mother who shapes Perceval’s interaction with the female characters he meets because Gornemant, focused on fighting that he is, fails to address this aspect of chivalric life in his own set of instructions.

Another brief comparison to the Chevalier de la Charrette reveals the differences between what Blanchefleur represents to Perceval and what Guinevere represents to Lancelot, thereby underscoring the difference between Perceval and Lancelot themselves. Perhaps Perceval appears similar to Lancelot when Lancelot finds himself at the ford and when he finds Guinevere’s comb; both present instances wherein Lancelot is completely removed from his present.[63] There are indeed similarities between these scenes from the Charrette and our scene from the Conte du Graal, but one striking difference appears in the relentless individuality on Lancelot’s part that comes through in those scenes. Though Lancelot is also de-centered from his immediate situation and re-centered elsewhere, the subject of his thoughts provides a central point of focus—Guinevere does not incarnate the irreconcilable (though again not mutually exclusive) values of two kingdoms in the manner of Blanchefleur. Thus, though Lancelot is so absent in those scenes to the point of not knowing who he is (“ne set s’il est ou s’il n’est mie”) and to the point of appearing ill (“la color / ot une grant piece perdue”), the person on whom he becomes fixated provides him with straightforward, linear orientation. He must find Guinevere at the frightening cost of almost anything. Of course, this raises other questions about the Arthurian court in the Charrette, questions about the role of a knight and the role of a queen—but questions of the court aside, it remains that Lancelot’s focus reflects a personal goal. Perceval’s fixated thoughts on Blanchefleur, on the other hand, speak to how he grows both as a knight of the Arthurian kingdom and of the Grail kingdom. Because the values of these kingdoms appear too difficult to reconcile, he and his story develop into states of interior and structural paradox, respectively.

III. Turning Left, “Something,” and a Return to Charity


La senestre selonc l’estoire

Senefie la vaine gloire

Qui vient par fausse ypocresie[64]

Perceval on the “senestre chemin”

Chrétien warns us in his prologue about the dangers of turning left, a message rooted in medieval beliefs of the left side of anything—a left hand, or the left fork in a road—representing evil. And yet, on the way to Gornemant’s castle, Perceval “tourna…a senestre” after following a river too dangerous to cross to its mouth:

Vers la grant riviere qui bruit

S’an va tote une praerie,

Mais en l’aive n’entra il mie,

Qu’il la vit molt corrant et noire

Et assez plus corrant que Loire.

Si s’en va tot selonc la rive

Lez une grant roiche naïve,

Qui d’autre part de l’eve estoit,

Si que l’eve au pié li batoit.

Si con l’eive aloit ou regort,

Torna li vallez a senestre.[65], [66]

The mise-en-scène of the river Perceval cannot cross is by now a familiar one in our discussion, but what appears significant in this particular instance is that it seems as if the landscape leads Perceval to turning left. By the definition Chrétien gives in his prologue, then, the river bears Perceval into “vaine gloire / Qui vient par fausse ypocresie” [“vain glory / That comes through false disguises”]. If we take a step back from the literal meaning of the dangers of human vanity against which these lines intone, we can think of Perceval venturing into simply what is not “destre.” That is, we can think of Perceval leaving the eternally trusted “droit chemin;” stepping off the beaten track, so to speak. It seems appropriate for Chrétien’s language to alert us to something suspect in Perceval’s “torna …a senestre” at the same moment when we can first suspect the changing nature of the story’s topography. That is, before this point, the topography laid out in the Conte du Graal has been fairly conventional. Perceval has left his mother (whom we do not yet know has died) for Arthur’s court, and appears to be adventuring solely between the Waste Forest and Carduel, two settings we expect to remain stable.

In following Perceval as he turns “senestre” at this point, we begin to consciously follow him into the sinister unknown, off the beaten track, to return to our metaphor. Of course, this phrasing assumes that Perceval was on the “droit chemin” in the first place—and, as we begin to question this idea, we realize that it is possible this entire work has been an adventure into the unknown from the beginning. It confirms that the Conte du Graal, rather than follow the structural ring composition of ancient epics that exemplifies the logic of either/or, seeks to explore a different structure that embraces the peripheral—what lies in the aporias—and the logic of and/both that becomes formulated when peripheral elements collide to produce paradoxes.

We, the Reader, on the “senestre chemin”

A discussion of the peripheral seems to lead us inevitably to the Grail, which is incredibly central to the Conte du Graal, and yet only appears briefly, never to appear after the famed dinner scene. We have the Grail, then, that seems central and yet becomes largely peripheral, and Perceval in pursuit of the Grail, whom we follow, and whom the narrative ultimately drops. It appears, then, that what the Grail represents for Perceval, Perceval represents for us. That is, in his adventures, Perceval encounters a changing topography that seems to frightfully lack a center, as the place of Arthur’s court as well as the castles—Gornemant’s castle, the Grail Castle—appear and disappear. And as the narrative’s topography shifts on Perceval, Perceval’s location shifts on us. Like the castles, he appears and disappears so that his pursuit of asking the questions becomes akin to our pursuit of him. The work, then, takes for us the position that the Grail holds for Perceval. The story breaks out of the work itself, perhaps incarnating what would be the opposite of a mise-en-abyme, and as the story is largely an adventure into the undefined “senestre,” we also become entangled in the “senestre,” the aporias and the paradoxes.

“L’illisibilité” of the Grail

Perhaps another way of thinking about the Grail is considering its centrality to lie in its very externality. Indeed, it appears as if the narrative thread of the Grail has a way of changing so that any sense of its closure remains external to Perceval’s reach. Part of what contributes to the Grail’s enigmatic nature is that Perceval does discover from his hermit uncle the answer to his question of whom the Grail serves. We are told about the Grail and the Grail King that “Tant sainte chose est li Graals / Et il, qui est esperitax, / C’autre chose ne li covient / Que l’oiste qui el graal vient.”[67] [“Such a sacred thing is the Grail / And he is so purely spiritual / That nothing else would suit him / Other than the host that comes from the grail.”] However, rather than bringing a sense of closure to Perceval, these answers seem almost unnecessary in the face of the ritual questions Perceval has yet to ask the Grail Castle inhabitants.

Thus, no topographical shift occurs here, but it appears that there is a subtle shift in narrative goals. For all that Perceval seems closer in his understanding of the Grail, his quest remains incomplete. A sense that a long way still lies before him comes from the hermit uncle’s explanation that Perceval’s misfortune has come from leaving his mother,[68] for which he must now repent: “…[Va] el non de penitance / Au mostier ainz qu’en autre leu / Chascun main, si avras grant preu” [“Go, in the name of penitence, / To the monastery before anywhere else / Every morning, and you will be rewarded”], the hermit tells him.[69]

For the moment, then, the goal appears for Perceval to atone for leaving the timeless Waste Forest in which his mother raised him. This shift prevents us from achieving one final way of reading the Grail in that more distance has been created between Perceval and the Grail in the appearance of the additional requirement of the quest for atonement. In creating this distance, the narrative preserves the Grail’s mystery, and in preserving this mystery, the Grail retains a protean nature. In its undefined state, it retains the possibility of encompassing so many more meanings.

If we keep in mind this idea of the Grail’s protean nature, a re-examination of the famed dinner scene where it first appears suggests that the Grail itself is not supposed to be read. The Grail appears, beautiful and divine: “Une si grant clartez i vint / Qu’ausin perdirent les chandoilles / Lor clarté comme les estoilles / Qant li solaux luist o la lune.”[70] [Outside of this obvious beauty and divinity, the Grail remains difficult to read; in other words, despite Chrétien’s evocation of light and “clarté,” the Grail remains in shadow. As we mentioned earlier in our discussion, though misreading does occur on Perceval’s part in this scene, the Grail also presents a mystification.

In his chapter “Lisibilité et Illisibilité du Graal,” Roger Dragonetti claims that the “illisibilité” of the Grail is precisely what gives it its power. There is an “impossibilité,” he says “à faire aboutir la quête de la littérature de même que celle du Graal;” he attributes this to writers’ imaginations.[71], [72] To take that a step further, we could say that the Grail’s function in this scene lies in presenting something mystical in the face of which Perceval’s silence becomes emphasized. His silence, after all, would not be nearly as meaningful in the face of an object that was not as mysterious, and the different forms in which this mystery manifests itself drive the narrative forward.

Portals and Silent Landscapes

If we examine the post-Grail scene, we see how the narrative thread of the Grail controls Perceval’s topography and how the Grail drives the story forward in its externality; in its absence. Perceval wakes up the next morning and finds the castle empty; upon wandering into the grounds, he crosses the bridge that he finds lowered (“Par lo pont qu’il voit avalé”).[73] To briefly draw again on Dragonetti’s discussion of Perceval’s name,[74] the word “avalé” brings to our attention the sense of downward movement present in “Perceval,” and subtly foreshadows and foregrounds the movement that occurs throughout the following lines.

As Perceval rides across the bridge, he wonders:

…do graal ou l’an le porte.

Lors s’en ist ors parmi la porte,

Mais ainz qu’il fust outre lo pont,

Les piez de son cheval amont

Santi qu’il leverent en haut,

Et ses chevaus fist un grant saut,

Et s’il n’aüst si bien sailli,

Ami l’eve fussent flati

Li chevaus et cil qui sus iere.[75], [76]

Thus, we have movement in several directions here, on several levels: Subjects in the story move as the bridge rises and Perceval himself successfully leaves the Grail Castle grounds due to the “saut” of his horse. Movement also appears in Perceval’s thoughts as he wonders of the Grail “ou l’an le porte / Lors s’en ist ors parmi la porte” [“where one carries it / When he goes out by way of the door”]. It becomes fascinating that these three moments of movement intersect: That is, Perceval wonders of the Grail where it goes exactly as he himself crosses the door and rises upward and outward due to the rising bridge and his horse’s quick response. It therefore appears that Perceval’s thoughts about the Grail’s movement lead to his own movement across the bridge; as if his thoughts lead to action in the world of his medieval romance.

The idea of thought leading to action raises the age-old criticism that literature, as thought, does not constitute action—but Chrétien’s language in this scene and its emphasis on movement suggest that the Grail does transcend the boundaries of the work that is the Conte du Graal. Ll. 3339-3340, for example, emphasize the word “porte” by repeating it as their end rhyme. Admittedly, Chrétien uses “porte” as different parts of speech to maintain the validity of the end rhymes according to 12th century standards of octosyllabic couplets—but it is precisely the differences in “porte”’s meanings that becomes significant. Roughly translated, the two lines read: “Where one carries [the Grail] / As it passes through the door” so that the first use of “porte” is verbal and the second nominal. However, the proximity of the two times “porte” appears in the same location in each line of Chrétien’s suggests that its verbal and nominal meanings blend together. That is, the idea of someone carrying the Grail through an entryway suggests that the Grail could be carried out of the work itself; that there exists a portal through which the Grail could transcend from the literary world into our world.

Further contributing to this sense of the Grail’s ability to transcend the story comes from l. 3340’s use of “s’en ist,” where the reflexive pronoun “s’en” gives “ist” direction—the Grail moves out of the door; away from it. And indeed, the Grail transcends the text in the mysteries it leaves in the aftermath of the dinner scene. After landing safely on the other side of the bridge, Perceval, believing that the Grail castle inhabitants are controlling the bridge’s movement, turns back and calls out to them: “‘…parole à moi! / Ou iés tu quant je ne te voi? / Trai toi avant, si te verrai, / Et d’une chose t’anquerrai / Noveles que savoir vodroie.’” But, as we are told: “Ansin de parler se foloie, / Que nus respondre ne li viaut.”[77], [78]

Because these latter two lines are in free indirect discourse, it becomes impossible to distinguish whether they are a part of Perceval’s thoughts or whether they are a comment of the narrator’s. In the first situation, Perceval again believes someone is there but simply does not want to reply. This leaves us with the possibility that he misinterprets the silence because there might not be anyone there. In the second case, the narrator informs us that someone actually is there, but simply does not want to speak.

The second situation resonates more with the silent landscape and the idea that the landscape wants to remain silent. As the Grail is silent to Perceval and Perceval is silent in the face of the Grail, the landscape becomes enigmatic; the very fact that we cannot distinguish Perceval’s thoughts from the narrator’s makes it more so. Thus, Perceval himself becomes for us what the mystery of the Grail is to him. By setting up Perceval as a central figure that comes to share this centrality with Gauvain, our text also pushes Perceval into the peripheral and thereby sparks our own desire to know more about him. In other words, as the Grail’s absence creates the silent landscape for him, the narrative’s eventual discarding of Perceval creates the silent landscape for us.

The “something” of the Grail

In a way, it is precisely silence that we speak to when we read—and it is silence that speaks to us.[79] It seems we return to Chrétien’s prologue in considering how much silence can speak—how much can lie in a landscape that seems to hold nothing, no answers; how much we can find in the story of Perceval, who begins and remains more known for his failures than his accomplishments.

Chrétien begins: “Qui petit seime petit quiaut / Et qui auques recoillir viaut.”[80], [81] What I find fascinating in these lines is the word “auques;” its modern English equivalent is “something” so that the second line roughly reads: “Who wishes to harvest something.” “Auques” / “something” is an incredibly neutral word. Following the implied praise of virtuous hard work in the first line, one would think that Chrétien would promise the worker abundant harvest, but instead, he simply leaves us with “something.”

Taken literally in the context of the parable of the sower, “something” seems to refer to food; the harvest. By extension, then, we can see the mystery of the Grail appearing in these first lines in that the Grail also provides nourishing substance in the form of an undefined host to the Grail King, sustaining his life force.

But the “something” of the Grail and the Conte du Graal is also more than that. Chrétien implies through the rest of the prologue that if we can figure out how to read the Conte du Graal correctly, we can also be different people; we can, perhaps, be figuratively enriched by the story the way the Grail literally enriches the Grail King. The enrichment is the “something” we stand to gain from it.

Chrétien’s Charity Revisited

It seems, then, that from the first two lines of the Conte du Graal, we are also people of the Grail, entangled by the Grail because its story nourishes and sustains our interiority. This leads to one interpretation of the title “le Conte du Graal,” which presents its own set of puzzles because, despite being called a story, the Story of the Grail is not very story-like. And, in relation to Chrétien’s other doubly-titled works, “Conte du Graal” stands out because it does not indicate a definitive aspect of Perceval’s character in the manner of Le Chevalier de la Charette or Le Chevalier au Lion. Indeed, if the title the “Conte du Graal” could relate to Perceval in any manner, it seems that it refers to Perceval’s search for the opportunity to ask the Grail and Lance questions—the meaning of the “Story of the Grail” therefore lies mostly in the act of searching. Thus, if we think again of Perceval incarnating for us the position the Grail takes in the story, one interpretation of the title is that we write the Story of the Grail as we experience our own search for Perceval and in our own efforts to grasp the work. In a way, we live the Conte du Graal.

In a discussion of Chrétien’s prologue, Roger Dragonetti mentions an idea related to this. He cites the ends of ll. 61-62: “Par lo commandemant lo comte / A arimer lo meillor conte” [by the count’s order / to rhyme the best story], and then offers the interpretation of the Story of the Grail as a “conte de Flandres” and, inversely, of Philippe as a “comte du Graal”[82]—a count of the Grail, and perhaps a person of the Grail, entangled by the Grail, as well.

And we also become entangled by the Grail because this particular romance, rather than following the format of ancient epics, seeks and explores structures that have not yet been formulated. This story therefore presents a re-structuring of the romance, signified by its very incompleteness. Though Chrétien’s death offers a plausible explanation for the Conte du Graal’s unfinished state, the fact that he supposedly left the Chevalier de la Charrette’s ending in the hands of Godefroi de Leigni raises the question of whether he preferred the Conte du Graal to exist in its unfinished form.[83] In other words, rather than give it the somewhat conventional ending of the Charrette wherein the hero returns to save his kingdom from the villain, I wonder if Chrétien intend for the Conte du Graal to simply defy ending.

A brief comparison of the prologues of the two romances does not provide a clear answer to this question but sheds light upon the goals Chrétien sets out in each. Chrétien, in the Charrette, addresses Marie of Champagne from the first line; he makes it clear that she is the sole reason behind his creation: “Puis que ma dame de Chanpaigne / Vialt que romans a feire anpraigne, / Je l’anprendrai molt volentiers / Come cil qui est suens antiers…”[84], [85] Thus, because Marie wishes a romance, Chrétien promises to undertake one. He promises from the beginning, then, that he will present an entire work, which perhaps accounts for the Charrette’s unoriginal ending. Perhaps, in the Charrette,it is more important that an ending exists.

As for the Conte du Graal’s beginning, however, we return to the reference of the parable of the sower: “Qui petit seime petit quiaut / Et qui auques recoillir viaut / En tel leu sa semence espande / Que fruit a cent doble li rande.”[86], [87] To remind ourselves, Chrétien again sets up the idea that “something” (“auques”) will be given in return for hard work. He then praises his patron, Count Philippe of Flanders, for his charity:

Don saichiez bien de verité

Que li don sont de charité

Que li boens cuens Felipes done,

Onques nelui n’en araisone

Fors son franc cuer lo debonaire

Qui li loe lo bien a faire.[88], [89]

Ideas of the harvest and of charity tie together in Dragonetti’s discussion of the prologue. He interprets Chrétien’s motives in the prologue as “une symétrie remarquable entre la figure du protecteur et et celle non moins éminente de l’écrivain protégé.” [“A remarkable symmetry between the figure of the protector and the no-less eminent one of the writer-protégé.”] Chrétien, in praising Philippe’s charity, also implies his own charity. Dragonetti wittily summarizes this as the “très beau miroir narcissique du prologue.”[90] [“The well-formulated, narcissistic mirror that is the prologue.”] Chrétien is therefore also the “donateur” Philippe is, and the gift, the harvest, he gives us is his story in its aporia-riddled, paradoxical state.

It seems important to note that it is precisely these unresolved elements that have contributed to the continuations of the Conte du Graal as well as all the stories surrounding the Grail legend. Perhaps we are left without an ending because there is no final way to read the Grail; perhaps the narrative shift occurs, leaving us without closure, to avoid any finality in the way we approach the Grail. In resisting ending, both the story and the Grail retain their protean nature.

This offers an explanation as to why so much more has been written about the Grail, because it was not defined here; because this particular text built up its mystery, but resisted its conceptualization. The Grail remains difficult to conceptualize because it is not a concept, and neither is the experience of the Conte du Graal that is the story of the Grail.

A Return to Ritual

Perhaps the Conte du Graal is full of what we do not quite dare to think because there does not exist a set way of thinking about such things yet. If we look at it this way, the Grail itself becomes a gap of sorts, defined by absence—absence of the knowledge of its function at first, and then absence of closure.

This is linked to how the Conte du Graal seems to lack a fixed center, which becomes especially apparent in contrasting it with the fixed centers the Charette establishes. As we have seen, in the Charette, Logres and Gorre remain stable, and Lancelot, for better or for worse, always remains pulled towards Guinevere the way Chrétien is pulled towards Marie. Chrétien clearly illustrates this in ll. 5-6, where he promises that: « De quanqu’il peut el monde feire / Sanz rien de losange avant treire. » [“I will do anything in the world / Without the slightest intention of flattery.”] Even though Chrétien claims not to be flattering Marie in l. 6, in using the word “treire” (“pull”) he is clearly pulled towards her. That is, in saying he is not pulling forth anything for her, he is undoubtedly pulled towards her.

One problem in the Conte du Graal is that Perceval never becomes pulled towards one person, or one place. And so, Perceval never finds a center; he begins as peripheral, and always remains peripheral to representations of his family’s kingdom (the Waste Forest; the Grail Castle) and representations of the Arthurian kingdom (Gornemant’s Castle; Arthur’s circulating court). Instead, Chrétien, pulled by Marie in the Charette, is now the one pulling us. In Dragonetti’s words, « le poète dispense à la fois le remède et le poison et lie son lecteur par la magie du vers. »[91] [« The poet dispenses the remedy and the poison at the same time, and draws in his readers through the magic of his lines. »] As one partakes in rituals for their inherent meanings rather than to obtain something, it seems we read the Conte du Graal, the story of Perceval, more because we become pulled in to read and to think rather than to reach an endpoint.


Ce est li contes do greal

Don li cuens li bailla lo livre.

Or oez commant s’an delivre.[92]

As his prologue ends, Chrétien tells us that the content of his ensuing story, the Story of the Grail, originates from a “livre” given to him by Philippe of Flanders. In all likelihood, no such book exists and Chrétien fabricated this particular detail to give his story the weight of authority and historicity. What these lines remind us of, however, is that the Conte du Graal itself becomes a book—or, to be more historically accurate, it becomes a story recorded by scribes and retold orally in Chrétien’s 12th century world. As such, the Conte du Graal constitutes a work of fiction. We began our discussion of this work by exploring the aporias in its plot and structure, and we return here to the idea of aporias because there exists another yawning gap between the world of fiction and our world.

In another turn of events, however, as we have seen, the Conte du Graal also appears to transcend this. The structural aporias and the paradoxes in the Conte du Graal paradoxically bridge the gap between our world and the world of Perceval’s romance by placing us in the position of searching for Perceval just as Perceval, in his story, searches for the Grail Kingdom, for closure.

This appears appropriate in that there is something ritualistic in reading the Conte du Graal, which is not to say that reading necessarily constitutes a ritual, but that the act of reading and the act of searching that we come to perform in reading this text are not necessarily outwardly productive. Any meaning contained in reading and in searching in relation to the Conte du Graal, then, appears to be more inherent in performing the act itself—and so, again, reading this text assumes a ritualistic aspect.

To broaden the parameters of our discussion outside of Chrétien’s work, further explorations of how reading produces meaning took place through the movement of reader-response criticism. In her introduction to a compilation of articles that defined the movement, Jane P. Tompkins summarizes the movement’s origins:

In the context of Anglo-American criticism, the reader-response movement arises in direct opposition to the New Critical dictum issued by Wimsatt and Beardsley in the “The Affective Fallacy” (1949): “The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results. …It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of a poem and ends in impressionism and relativism” (p. 21). Reader-response critics would argue that a poem cannot be understood apart from its results.[93]

In an overview of the movement, Terry Eagleton sketches the process by which the “results” Jane Tompkins mentions come from reading. He draws largely on the work of Wolfgang Iser, one of the movement’s most definitive critics:

The process of reading, for reception theory, is always a dynamic one, a complex movement and unfolding through time…Reading is not a straightforward linear movement, a merely cumulative affair: our initial speculations generate a frame of reference within which to interpret what comes next, but what comes next may retrospectively transform our original understanding…[94]

The reader-response movement thus explores the production of meaning in literary texts from reading and re-reading over time.

To gain more insight into the movement, so we will briefly examine some of Iser’s thoughts as expressed in “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” and explore how they relate to the ritualistic aspect of reading the Conte du Graal.A fundamental aspect of Iser’s theories is that absence—“gaps,” as he says, which remind us of our aporias—are rich with potential for meaning:

…[T]he written part of the text gives us the knowledge, but it is the unwritten part that gives us the opportunity to picture things; indeed without the elements of indeterminacy, the gaps in the text, we should not be able to use our imagination.[95]

Thus, the production of meaning through reading relies more on what remains undefined than what the text defines. In other words, meaning relies more on the absence of definition, rather than the presence of it, which speaks to Perceval’s misreadings in their various form. Misreading, lack of knowledge, blocks created by aporias—in a sense, all of these phrases we have used in our discussion on the Conte du Graal describe the same potential for more possible meanings a text can produce.

Iser further discusses the potential of absence through describing the balance a text must maintain between creating illusions that are too definitive and those that are too undefined:

The polysemantic nature of the text and the illusion-making of the reader are opposed factors. If the illusion were complete, the polysemantic nature would vanish; if the polysemantic nature were all-powerful, the illusion would be totally destroyed. Both extremes are conceivable, but in the individual literary text we always find some form of balance between the two conflicting tendencies. The formation of illusions, therefore, can never be total, but it is this very incompleteness that in fact gives it its productive value.[96]

Whatever meaning we achieve through reading a text is what we form, and we will never able to form complete, definite meaning—but that renders the act of reading all the more productive. Thus, like the ritual act of the search we perform in the Conte du Graal, reading a literary text comes to hold inherent meaning. We do receive “results” from reading,[97] but like Perceval’s search for the Grail Kingdom and our search for Perceval, reading constitutes a perpetual process rather than an act that produces an endpoint.

Though the field of reader-response criticism offers much more to explore in relation to Chrétien’s work, I will, for now, briefly refocus our attention on the latter. Throughout our discussion, we have examined different aspects of the ritual act of sowing and reaping the riches of the earth that Chrétien presents in his prologue. In an article that further explores this prologue and how it comes to redefine “culture in the modern idiom,” G.G. Heyworth notes that the word “culture” itself comes from the Latin “cultura,” meaning the “tillage of soil.”[98] This appears to me an incredibly appropriate note because the Conte du Graal, this final work of Chrétien’s,presents an ingenious work of medieval culture that we must return to, that we must re-read, as the reader-response critics would say, to discover new meanings—as we must, still today, return to the earth every year for our sustenance.


A note on the translations: I have tried to translate passages from the Conte du Graal and passages of the criticism as accurately as possible. In translating passages from the Conte du Graal, I tried to stay faithful to the original text’s manner of straightforward storytelling while capturing 3-4 stresses each line to communicate some of the original text’s rhythm. A few poetic liberties were taken. Overall, any errors in translation are mine.
Bibliography of Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn. Chrétien Continued : A Study of the Conte du Graal and its Verse Continuations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Chrétien De Troyes. Le Conte du Graal ou le Roman de Perceval. Édition du manuscrit 354 de Berne, traduction critique, présentation et notes de Charles Méla. Paris : Le Livre de Poche, 1990.

———. Le Chevalier de la Charrette. Édition critique d’après tous les manuscrits existants, traduction, présentation et notes de Charles Méla. Paris : Le Livre de Poche, 1992.

Dragonetti, Roger. La Vie de la lettre au Moyen Age : Le Conte du Graal. Paris : Editions du Seuil, 1980.

Duggan, Joseph. The Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Frappier, Jean. « La Brisure du couplet dans Erec et Enide. » Romania 86 (1965) : 1-21.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths: Complete Edition. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Haidu, Peter. Aesthetic Distance in Chrétien de Troyes : Irony and Comedy in Cligès and Perceval. Geneva : Librairie Droz, 1968.

Heyworth, G.G. “Perceval and the Seeds of Culture: Work, Profit and Leisure in the Prologue of Perceval.” Neophilologus 84:1 (2000: January), 19-35.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Book, 1996.

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History 3, No. 2, On Interpretation: I (Winter, 1972): 279-299. Accessed online February 7, 2012. http://www.jstor.gorg/stable/468316.

Liddell, H. G. and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon: Founded upon the Seventh Edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, edited by H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Accessed online through the Greek Word Study Tool from Perseus Digital Library, March 11, 2012.

Méla, Charles. Preface in Le Conte du Graal ou le Roman de Perceval. Edited by Charles Méla. Paris : Le Livre de Poche, 1990.

Ménard, Philippe. « Problèmes et mystères du ‘Conte du Graal’ : Un Essai d’interprétation. » in Chrétien de Troyes et le Graal (Colloque arthurien belge de Bruges). Editions A-G. Nizet, Paris, 1984 : 61-76.

Myres, John L. “The Pattern of the Odyssey.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 72 (1952): 1-19. Accessed online March 9, 2012.

Nimis, Stephen. “Ring-Composition and Linearity in Homer.” In Signs of Orality: The Oral Tradition and its Influence in the Greek and Roman World, edited by E. Anne Mackay, 65-78. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Pickens, Rupert T. The Welsh Knight: Paradoxicality in Chrétien’s Conte del Graal. Edited by R.C. La Charité and V.A. La Charité. Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum, Publishers, 1977.

Poulet, Georges. “Criticism and the Experience of Interiority.” Translated by Catherine Macksey and Richard Macksey. In Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, edited by Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Saly, Antoinette. « L’itinéraire intérieur dans le Perceval de Chrétien de Troyes et la structure de la quête de Gauvain » in Voyages, quête, pèlerinage dans la littérature et la civilisation médiévales : [actes du colloque organisé par le C.U.E.R. M.A. les 5, 6, 7, mars 1976]. Aix-en-Provence, Edition CUER MA ; Paris : diffusion, H. Champion, 1976 : 353-61.

Tompkins, Jane E. Introduction in Reader-Response Criticism. Edited by Jane E. Tompkins. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Waugh, Earle H. Introduction in Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Edited by Thomas Riggs. Vol. 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Accessed online through Gale Virtual Reference Library, April 27, 2012.

[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Le Conte du Graal ou le Roman de Perceval, presented by Charles Méla (Paris : Le Livre de Poche, 1990), ll. 1-4. Note that from now on, I refer to this text as “Le Conte du Graal.”

[2] Who sows little harvests little

And who wishes to harvest something

Should sow his seed in such a place

That his harvest multiplies a hundred times

[3] Philippe Ménard, « Problèmes et mystères du ‘Conte du Graal’ : Un Essai d’interprétation. » in Chrétien de Troyes et le Graal (Colloque arthurien belge de Bruges), (Paris, Editions A-G. Nizet, 1984), 71.

[4] Is the modern critic correct in making the Grail the sublime center of the romance, in attributing to it a capital letter, in speaking incessantly of the “Grail castle”? …Several clues suggest that the Grail does not play a fundamental role in the work: 1) No one is searching for it. There is no quest for the Grail as a significant and specific object. Perceval only searches for the Fisher King to find out whom the grail serves and why the lance bleeds.

[5] Earle H. Waugh, introduction to Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, ed. Thomas Riggs (Detroit: Gale, 2006), xiv.

[6] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 40-44.

[7] And what does the right hand signify?

Charity, who, out of goodness

Does not promote itself, but hides itself

So well that no one knows it

Except God and Charity itself,

Who hold the same name.

[8] Quite appropriately, as the focus of Auerbach’s analyses lies elsewhere. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 3-23.

[9] John L. Myres, “The Pattern of the Odyssey,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 72, (1952) 1-19.

[10] For example, Stephen Nimis discusses a scene from the Illiad (5.335-42 in Robert Lattimore’s translation) wherein the somewhat contradictory words “immortal” and “blood” play off each other and come to make the point that the immortal gods of ancient Greece do not have blood. Stephen Nimis, “Ring-Composition and Linearity in Homer,” in Signs of Orality:The Oral Tradition and its Influence in the Greek and Roman World, ed. E. Anne Mackay, (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 67-68. (Nimis also discusses in this article different ways that ring composition can be explained.)

[11] Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 392-409, ll. 56-681.

[12] Charles Méla, preface to Le Conte du Graal ou le Roman de Perceval, ed. Charles Méla (Paris : Le Livre de Poche, 1990), 12-13.

[13] Perceval leaves a mother because the tragedy of the father guides his destiny. Gauvain leaves [Arthur’s court], charged with the murder of a father in Avalon to become caught in the seductive story-thread of the mothers. This is the chiasmus of the Conte du Graal.

[14] Antoinette Saly, « L’itinéraire intérieur dans le Perceval de Chrétien de Troyes et la structure de la quête de Gauvain » (presentation at the conference « Voyage, quête, pèlerinage dans la littérature et la civilisation medievales, » March 5-7, 1976), 358.

[15]    Sometimes a character can repeat by dissociation of his aspects or his function, sometimes, two characters from the first series can fuse together in the second.

In the first case, for example, the Fisher King who guides and hosts Perceval corresponds to the ferryman who welcomes Gauvain and takes him to the Wondrous Bed; the Fisher King rich and maimed corresponds to the rich eschacier—the mutilation of the silver leg lets us read Gauvain’s ability to prove his prowess, while the Fisher King, lord of the castle of the Other World, gives way to the queen with white hair.

Now, an example of the second case: If the episode at Beaurepaire hinges upon a reminder of the revenge promised to the maiden who laughed and links itself through this connection to Arthur’s court, the progression of events with the maiden with short sleeves in Gauvain’s story corresponds to the progression of events with Blanchefleur in Perceval’s. The maiden with short sleeves serves simultaneously as the maiden who laughs and Banchefleur as a dissuaded maiden.

[16] Auerbach, Mimesis, 6.

[17] “πόρος,” Greek Word Study Tool from Perseus Digital Library, accessed March 11, 2012, Note that this citation, as well as the following two, are online entries from: H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon: Founded upon the Seventh Edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, ed. H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[18] “ἄπορος,” from Greek Word Study Tool from Perseus Digital Library, accessed March 11, 2012,

[19] “ἀπορίᾳ,” Greek Word Study Tool from Perseus Digital Library, accessed March 11, 2012,

[20] “Et sovant hurtoient as armes / Li rain des chanes et des charmes. / Sonoit li fus, sonoit li fers / Et des escuz et des auberz.” Le Conte du Graal, ll. 103-106. [“All of a sudden, arms clashed / Against oak and hornbeam branches. / Wood snapped, and the iron of swords, / And shields, and armor rang out.”]

[21] “Et vit lo vert et lo vermoil / Reluire contre le soloil / Et l’or et l’azur et l’argent.” Ibid., ll. 127-129. [“And then he saw green and vermillion, / And also gold and azure and silver / Dancing under the sunlight.”]

[22] Peter Haidu, Aesthetic Disctance in Chrétien de Troyes : Irony and Comedy in Cligès and Perceval (Geneva : Librairie Droz, 1968), 10.

[23] Ibid., 113.

[24] Jean Frappier, before exploring how Chrétien deviates from 12th century standards of couplet composition, quotes Paul Meyer on the contained construction of sentences in writings prior to Chrétien: « ‘La construction des phrases est en rapport étroit avec la construction des couplets. Une phrase peut être complète en un couplet, comme elle peut s’étendre sur deux ou plus, mais toujours elle se termine avec le second vers du couplet, jamais avec le premier. Il y a des phrases de deux, quatre, six vers, il n’y en a pas de trois, de cinq, de sept.’ » Jean Frappier, « La Brisure du couplet dans Erec et Enide, » Romania 86 (1965) : 2.

[25] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 3158-3167.

[26] With the young men came

A young woman who held

A grail between her two hands.

Beautiful, gracious, and well adorned

She was as she entered, holding the grail.

Such a great light came from it

That the candles lost their own,

Which also happens with the stars

When the sun or moon rise.

[27] Ibid., ll. 2932-2945, 2952.

[28] He approached a rock that blocked it,

Preventing him from crossing.

Then he saw by the water’s edge

A boat that came from another place.

There were two men in the boat

And he stopped, waiting for them,

Believing that they would stop too

When they reached him.

But they stopped in the river’s middle.

Completely stopped they were,

And very well anchored they stayed.

The one in front was fishing

“In the name of God, Sir, tell me…”

[29] It is important to note that while we can assume the Fisher King is Perceval’s father due to the information Perceval’s mother gives about his father’s wound, our text never actually confirms this assumption. Due to information later revealed to Perceval by his hermit uncle, we could also say the Fisher King is Perceval’s cousin. Cf. Joseph Duggan’s discussion on Perceval’s family in: The Romances of Chrétien de Troyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 77-85.

[30] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 7-8.

[31] Chrétien spreads the seeds

Of a romance that he begins.

[32] I call these “loose” categories because, as we shall see, not all topographies can be strictly seen as a representation of either kingdom.

[33] I say this because, as Rupert Pickens notes, Perceval’s mother does raise him in the Waste Forest because “she regard[s] the world outside…to be in a state of moral decline,” but she simultaneously “remains proud of her own chivalric forebears and the prowess of her husband and sons.” Thus, while there is a clear divide between Perceval’s family and the Arthurian kingdom, it seems that the family, as represented by the mother, retains some ties to the world she renounced. And, since she knows that Perceval will be accepted by the Arthurian kingdom because of his heritage, it seems that Perceval is meant to reintegrate his family into this world. Cf. Rupert T. Pickens, The Welsh Knight : Paradoxicality in Chrétien’s Conte del Graal (Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum, Publishers, 1977), 72-73.

[34] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 460-469: « La mere…li aparoille et atorne / De chenevaz grosse chemise / Et braies faites a la guise / De Gales, o l’en fait ensanble / Braies et chauces, ce me sanble. / Et si ot cote et chaperon / De cuir de cerf clos environ / Ensin la mere l’atorna. » [His mother…dressed him and prepared him / In a large hemp shirt / And breeches and shoes in the Welsh style. / It seems to me it was all well-assembled. / There was also a tunic and a hood / Made from leather from local deer. / And so, his mother made him ready.]

[35] Ibid., ll. 2733-2741.

[36] And Keu comes into the room

Not at all well-dressed, he carries

A small baton in his left hand.

On his head full of blonde hair,

Which is braided into a single braid,

He wears a hat of good cloth.

Never was there a more handsome knight in the world

But his good looks and his prowess

Only worsen the cruelness of his mockery.

[37] For thoughts related to this, see: Pickens, The Welsh Knight, 66-69.

[38] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 1267-1269.

[39] Ibid., ll. 1276-1282.

[40] [He] saw a castle’s towers born.

To him, they sprang up,

As if they rose out from the castle.

At the center of one wall, there was

A tower, sturdy and grand,

That sat just at the sea’s shore

So the sea crashed against it.

[41] Ibid., ll. 2985-2987.

[42] “Fisher, you who told me this / If you possessed evil intentions, / You committed too great a crime.”

[43] Ibid., ll. 2988-2993.

[44] When he sees before him in a valley

The top of a tower that appears.

As far as Beirut, one would not find

A tower so beautiful nor so well-placed. [lit. = well-seated]

It was square and of grey rock

And it had two towers around it.

[45] If I may drawn upon the ancient stories of the Greeks once more, I’d like to point out that there lies some possibility for comparison between the births of Gornemant’s castle and the Grail Castle to the birth of Athena, who also springs out, fully formed, from Zeus’ head. Zeus has swallowed Metis (Thought, Intelligence)—which seems appropriate to Chrétien because he has also promised in his prologue to change our thoughts through his romance. For an account of Athena’s birth, see: Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: Complete Edition (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 46.

[46] Le Conte du Graal, l. 3143 ; l. 3231.

[47] Ibid., l. 3240.

[48] Roger Dragonetti, La Vie de la lettre au Moyen Age : Le Conte du Graal (Paris : Editions du Seuil, 1980), 28-29.

[49] It is evident that in the scene where the Grail castle is introduced, several motifs are organized so that they musically compose the hero’s name. They young man’s regard “pierces,” so to speak, the depths of the water (eve) and of the valley (val):

[And it was during this prayer] that he came

To a river at the bottom of a hill.

He watched the water rapid and deep

Not daring to venture in.

He followed the river until

He approached a rock that blocked it,

Preventing him from crossing.

Then he saw by the water’s edge

A boat that came from another place.

[50] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 1279-1288.

[51] At the center of one wall, there was

A tower, sturdy and grand,

That sat just at the sea’s shore

So the sea crashed against it.

And at the castle’s four corners,

Which were also of sturdy stone,

There were four smaller towers,

Also sturdy and grand.

The castle was strategically situated

And well furnished inside.

[52] As far as Beirut, one would not find / A tower so beautiful nor so well-placed. [lit. = well-seated]

[53] Ibid, ll. 3510-3515.

[54] And he who did not know his name

Guess and says that he has Perceval the Welschman

As his name. And he does not know if he spoke the truth

But he did indeed—again, without knowing it.

[55] Pickens defines “hypomone” as: “Tropical, or hypomonic, paradox presupposes a concept of ordinary, normal syntagmatic construction (in a sentence, A precedes B precedes C…) which an author violates for his own artistic ends.” Pickens, The Welsh Knight, 103.

[56] Ibid., 122.

[57] Ibid., 133.

[58] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 384-452.

[59] Matilda Bruckner, Chrétien Continued : A Study of the Conte du Graal and its Verse Continuations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 18.

[60] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 4120-4140.

[61] When Perceval saw the snow stained

By the wild duck that he harmed

He grasped his lance to lean on it

As he took in the scene before him.

The fresh color of the blood

On the snow made him remember

His lover’s face, and he became so                 engrossed

In picturing it that he completely forgot himself.

That was how evocative of her

These three drops of blood—

These three drops of vermillion on white—were.

[62] As she gives Perceval parting advice, she tells him : « Dames et puceles servez, / Si seroiz par tot enorez. / Et se vos aucune en avez / Aamee contre ses grez, / Ne [faites] rien qui li desplaisse. » Ibid., ll. 505-509. [“Serve ladies and maidens / And everyone will honor you. / If you wish to gain the love of one / Of them, do not act against her will / And do anything to displease her.”]

[63] Chrétien de Troyes, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, presented by Charles Méla (Paris : Le Livre de Poche, 1996), ll. 710-724 and ll. 1422-1436. Note that from now on, I refer to this text as “Le Chevalier de la Charrette.”

[64] Le Conte du Graal,ll. 37-39.

[65] Ibid., ll. 1262-1275.

[66] He crossed an entire prairie

Bearing towards a great, rumbling river

But he did not enter the water

Because he saw it run rapid and deep,

Even more rapid than the Loire.

So he bore along the river

Towards a large natural rock

Which was on the water’s other side

So that the water beat at its feet.

And so, following the narrowing river,

The young man turned left.

[67] Ibid., ll. 6351-6354.

[68] Ibid., ll. 6318-6327: “Et dit: Frere, molt t’a neü / Uns pechiez don tu ne sez mot, / Ce fu li diels que ta mere ot / De toi, quant tu partis de li, / Que pasmee a terre chaï / Au chief del pont devant la porte, / Et de ce duel fu ele morte. / Por le pechié que tu en as / T’avint que tu ne demandas / De la Lance ne do Graal… » [And he says: Your mother grieved over / A sin of which you know nothing. / When you left her, / She fainted and fell down / At the bridge before your door. / And so, she died out of grief. / Because of this sin that you committed / It came about that you did not ask / Of the Lance, nor of the Grail.]

[69] Ibid., ll. 6368-6370.

[70] Such a great light came from it

That the candles lost their own,

Which also happens with the stars

When the sun or moon rise.

[71] To be more accurate, Dragonetti attributes this to « le fol penser des écrivains »–quite a colorful phrase suggestive of the trials and tribulations (modern) writers face with their craft. Dragonetti, La Vie de la lettre, 238.

[72] “It is impossible to bring the quest of literature, as well as the quest of the Grail, to a close.”

[73] Le Conte du Graal, l. 3332.

[74] Cf. Dragonetti, La Vie de la lettre, 28-29.

[75] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 3339-3347.

[76] …of the grail where one carries it.

He then goes out by way of the door [lit. = When he goes out by way of the door]

But before he could cross the bridge

His horse’s feet rose;

He felt them rising high.

And then his horse made a great leap,

And if he had not leapt so well,

The horse and his rider

Would have fallen into the water.

[77] Ibid., ll. 3353-3359.

[78] “…Answer me! Where are you?

Come out, so I can see you

And ask you one thing—

I want to know about something I saw.”

[79] Georges Poulet begins his “Criticism and the Experience of Interiority” with a discussion related to these thoughts; he specifically points out that books remain closed objects until a reader comes to allow the words into his consciousness. Georges Poulet, “Criticism and the Experience of Interiority,” trans. Catherine Macksey and Richard Macksey, in Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. Jane P. Tompkins (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 41-49.

[80] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 1-2.

[81] Who sows little harvests little / And who wishes to harvest something.

[82] Dragonetti, La Vie de la lettre, 118.

[83] Le Chevalier de la Charrette, ll. 7102-7107.

[84] Ibid., ll. 1-4.

[85] Because my lady of Champagne

Wishes me to undertake a romance

I undertake it quite willingly

As one who belongs entirely to her.

[86] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 1-4.

[87] Who sows little harvests little

And who wishes to harvest something

Should sow his seed in such a place

That his harvest multiplies a hundred times

[88] Ibid., ll. 49-54.

[89] Thus, know this well :

This gift comes from the charity

Given by the good Count Phillipe,

Who never spoke to anyone about this

Save for his open, kind heart

Which encourages him to act well.

[90] Dragonetti, La Vie de la lettre, 106-111.

[91] Ibid., 115.

[92] Le Conte du Graal, ll. 64-66.

[93] Jane P. Tompkins, introduction to Reader-Response Criticism, ed. Jane P. Tompkins, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), ix.

[94] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 67. As with much of literary theory, however, reader-response criticism is not without limitations, and Eagleton gives a sketch of its capacity as well as these limits pp. 64-78—this is not to say that I agree with all that Eagleton sketches out, but that he brings up points for further debate.

[95] Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” New Literary History 3, no. 2 (Winter, 1972): 288.

[96] Ibid., 290.

[97] Cf. Iser on his gestalt theory.

[98] G.G. Heyworth, “Perceval and the Seeds of Culture: Work, Profit and Leisure in the Prologue of Perceval,” Neophilologus 84, no. 1 (2000: January): 19.