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Reply To: Another Parcival tale?

#72968

Sunbug,

What a treasure to find in your attic! King Arthur’s Knights: The Tales Retold for Boys and Girls, by Henry Gilbert, with 16 Illustrations in Color by Walter Crane, published in 1911, can be downloaded for free as a PDF through Google books. The illustrations are compelling, and the tales are perfect for children; I can only imagine the sensual delight of holding the book in your hands, the perhaps slightly musty bookish, smell, the feel of turning the pages, the brilliance of the illustrations.

There are a number of sources of the Grail legend. The earliest known text, Perceval, aka Li Contes de Graal, is by the French court poet (and likely cleric) Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1140 – 1191), unfinished at the time of his passing (Chrétien credits a book given him by the Count Philip of Flanders as his source), and has a decidedly Christian take on the tale. In Chrétien’s account the Grail is not a cup, but a wide, deep dish, and the question Perceval poses is “Whom does the Grail serve?”

The version Campbell prefers is the same one on which Wagner based his opera, by the German knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170 – 1230), who claims as his source a Provençal author named Kyot – more of a secular rather than Christian tale. Here the Grail is neither cup nor dish, but a stone (the lapis exilis, which in alchemy refers to the philosopher’s stone and Parzival heals the Grail King, Anfortas, through an act of compassion as he asks “What ails thee, Uncle?”

These are but two of multiple versions. Among others, there is also the Welsh version of the Grail romance, where Perceval / Parzival is known as Peredur and the Grail is neither dish nor stone, but a man’s head born on a silver tray), which appeared shortly after Chrétien’s version. Campbell suggests that, “by Chrétien’s time, c. 1160 – 1190, there was a floating body of Celtic lore available in French, both in oral and written form, from which the poets of the age were deriving the matière of those masterworks of petit romance that stand at the headwaters of our modern creative tradition. Back of all lay Celtic myth.” The Masks of God, Vol. IV: Creative Mythology, 528)

Best as I can tell, Gilbert’s primary source is Le Morte D’arthur, compiled by Sir Thomas Malory c. 1470 from a variety of French and English sources; Gilbert also draws on the Mabinogion, a Welsh cycle of tales that includes Peredur.

You’ll notice the elements of the Grail romance are divided between two different tales in the Gilbert/Crane work. Chapter VII – “How Sir Perceval Was Taught Chivalry, and Ended the Evil Wrought by Sir Balin’s Dolorous Stroke” – seems the tale you refer to above (with Tod the dwarf, the injury to King Pellam from Balin’s dolorous stroke, etc.). But the recovery of the Grail itself occurs in Chapter X – “How the Three Good Knights Achieved the Holy Graal.” In this chapter, Sirs Bors, Perceval, and Galahad together enter the castle, with the ultimate honor belonging not to Perceval, but to Galahad (who in an account from Malory’s Le Morte D’arthur, based on what’s called the Prose Vulgate Lancelot, c. 1180 – 1230, is the child of Lancelot and Elaine, daughter of the Grail king, who has disguised herself as Guinevere). Galahad’s and Perceval’s spirits depart their bodies to accompany the Grail back to heaven, leaving Sir Bors to tell the tale.

Of course, there is no right, true, and original version of the Grail romance (no more than there is any one right way to tell a specific joke – we all put our own twist on it in the telling). Some have questions posed to the grail king, some don’t; the Grail can be portrayed as a dish, cup, stone, even a head; sometimes the hero is Parzival, Perceval, Galahad, even Lancelot. None are wrong, all are authentic.

The stories in Henry Gilbert’s work are truly charming, and have that old-time feel of childhood folk tales. I’m so glad you have rediscovered this cherished childhood companion!