week 4: Sir Perceval de Galles

week 4: Sir Perceval de Galles

Number of replies: 11

This is a specimen of a so-called tail-rhyme romance - the form Chaucer was parodying in "The Tale of Sir Thopaz" (which, by the way, makes reference to Perceval).

This time our focus will shift more towards the "idea of romance" - because, in what could be seen as a very special sense, Perceval has it all (and not quite): becoming a knight, spectacular adventures, giants, Saracens, magic rings...

So I suggest we first look at Perceval in comparison to Ywaine and Gawaine: what is missing, what is added...

Our investigation of specifically English romance will continue with a brief comparison of the English text with Chrétien's romance - please look at the first 1000 lines or so of Chrétien, as well as the synopsis of his plot, and try to voice your impressions on what the English poem does with the story - in what direction it moves away from Chrétien.

Finally, I'd like to ask you to look at the FORM of the English romance: note the style, the narratorial comments etc.

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Re: Sir Perceval de Galles

by Danila Gudkov -
The incredibly obvious difference between the English text and Chrétien's romance is, of course, behavior of Perceval. In the former Perceval is natural knight. He knows nothing of chivalry and honor, yet does heroic actions anyway and seems to be a paragon of virtue. In the latter he is much more unpleasant. He sees that his mother collapsed yet still chose to rode away paying her no mind until much later. The encounter with the lady also makes him much worse, as in the English text Perceval just peacefully ate half the food,kissed a sleeping lady, exchanged rings and went on his way, though later on there were some major problems because of it. In Chrétien's romance the encounter with the lady is very similar to rape as Perceval forcefully does what he wants to her and we immediately learn of her further indignities caused by him. Admittedly, in both versions this is all due to some massive misunderstanding of his mother's advice and his general naivety caused by his isolation from society. It would seem that ME version suggests that chivalry and honor are inherent qualities whereas Chrétien implies that these qualities need to be taught and reinforced by other knights as Perceval's mother failed to teach him the proper behavior. Also Blanchefleur is the lover of Perceval in Chrétien, not his mother as in ME version, which is certainly worth a chuckle in my opinion.
When comparing Perceval to Ywaine and Gawaine the former is less inconsistent in characters motivations and in some parts more sensible although in Perceval fate has a much more obvious hold on the story with all its prophecies. On a more humorous note, Perceval has a clear problem with absent doors and guards in ME version, as Red Knight, a notorious enemy of king Arthur, just waltz into the hall, mocks everyone, drinks their wine and goes away with nobody doing anything to stop him. And we immediately learn he has been doing that for 5 (!) years yet nobody, not even Arthur thought of any way of delaying the Red Knight so that Gawain or Arthur could armor up and deal with the intruder. Similar thing happens with the kissed lady as in ME version she sleeps in a hall with no door.
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Re: Sir Perceval de Galles

by Michaela Válková -
To start with comparison with the first texts we have read, the obvious similarities would be the similar set of characters of King Arthur and his knights, Sir Kay’s boastful nature ('Your haughty words will always bring harm,' he told Sir Kay), similar magical objects (such as the protective ring), and some events (for example the fight between Perceval and Gawain in which they are not aware that they are about to fight their friend). What seemed different in Perceval though was the context of the story – Perceval gives more attention to the political situation, finishing the tale with a mention of the crusades.

When it comes to the form of Perceval, there seems to be more humour. For example, the first meeting of Perceval and Arthur is described in very humorous terms: “The king was perplexed, he reached up and pushed the horse's mouth away.” It is not the only occasion in the story that is funny though. Perceval’s uncouthness brings about quite a few funny moments as could be expected when a self-confident boy of the age of fifteen who has never seen anyone but his mother and her maid and who was brought up in a forest meets the King’s court. One of the best moments was when Perceval thought that Arthur and his knights were the God: “'Which of you three / is the great God / that my mother told me / has made this world?' he asked.”

Turning to the narration, the obvious point of interest are the narrator’s comments. Every now and then, the narrator comments on the story. The narrator gives his opinions: “I have never seen/ such a knight in this country.” He also reminds us that we are reading a tale of which he is the master by telling us that we are going to jump to a different storyline: “The King is on his way; / let him come when he may, and I will return in my tale back to Perceval again.” The narrator also steps in to inform us about inner feelings of the characters: “(though he would rather conceal it).” Therefore, it would seem we are dealing with an overt, omniscient narrator. In my opinion, the narrator brings a nice, fairy-tale atmosphere to the story and I enjoyed his comments.

To finish with the difference between the English and Chrétien’s romance, the Chrétien’s version seems to be more serious. I also couldn’t but agree with Danila who mentioned the scene in which Perceval kisses the lady. In Chrétien, the scene comes across as unpleasant and hence our characterisation of Perceval differs because of it.
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Re: Sir Perceval de Galles

by Dominika Kecsöová -
I agree with Danila that Perceval (both ME version and Chrétien´s) certainly stresses nature over nurture when it comes to knighthood: Perceval cannot be anything else but a knight, since he was born of a noble lineage and no matter how isolated he is, he decides immediately upon seeing a knight that this is the path for him (despite his mother´s warnings). In light of this it makes sense that the ME version dwells so long on Perceval´s mother and father and even provides some hints as to Perceval´s skills: “The childe es payed, of his parte, / His modir hafe gyffen hym that darte; / Therwith made he many marte / In that wodde-lande” (this part a bit worryingly suggest that he takes pleasure in killing animals, or, less worryingly, in his skills with the spear, however you wish to see it).
Unlike previous knights, Perceval seems completely unready to face the world – after all, he learned about God and horses finally at the tender age of fifteen. Perceval is a knight without courtliness, while, in comparison, Gawain and Yvain both seem to have some preconceived ideas of what a knight should do and be, Perceval fails to meet even the criteria set by his mother (though he is more successful in the ME version than he is in Chrétien). Perceval seems to keep the knightly code accidentally, like when he avenges the death of his father on the Red Knight or kills the Saracen army for lady Lufamour.
I am especially struck by the recurrent theme of madness: Perceval´s mother goes mad because of grief, like Yvain (which entails living outside of society, just like Yvain did) and is then healed by a magical/medicinal drink and brought back into society (bathed and dressed and fed fine foods).
The Christmas setting and the taunting is highly reminiscent of Gawain and the Green Knight.
The narrator is highly ironic at times and Perceval, especially in his fight with the giant, is as witty as he is cruel, even though just before he describes Perceval thus: “Thofe he couthe littill insighte, / The childe was of pith“ (so, not incredibly sharp, but at least he is strong). It is also interesting how quickly he cuts to the end and what he includes: he returns for a time to Lufamour and then leaves for the Holy Land, continues to kill Saracens and dies there – presumably the happy ending every knight should look forward to.
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Re: Sir Perceval de Galles

by Adéla Zeimannová -
While both texts have similarities as others have pointed out, Perceval is not really a hero in the ME version, or at least his aspirations are not heroic. He wants to become a knight simply because he is fascinated by them, fighting seems to be a game to him, any heroic motivation like the need to protect his lands, lord or people is lacking. While the Red Knight is the one who killed his father, thus, killing him would mean revenge, Perceval does not know that he’s his father’s killer and kills him only to get his armor and get what he wants which is to become a knight. The final difference being that be it not for the magic ring, Perceval would be probably killed in the very first battle. Ywain seems to have been destined to success with or without the help of magic. However, the Perceval text also stays rather economic in terms of characters, much of the supporting knight characters seen in other romances is embodied by Gawain and there are no other magical elements or other extra characters like giants, ladies in distress, etc.

The differences between the versions seem rather great, the Middle English author changes not only the narrative itself, but also Perceval’s characterization and overall tone of the text. The ME version seems more humorous and comedic in a kind of satiric way almost. The author somehow omits the whole Holy Grail part of the story and Perceval’s significance in it. He retains the events like Perceval’s isolated childhood and his leaving to become a knight, and the strange encounter with the maiden and later the Red Knight but even those are rewritten. The ME version seems to take a gentler approach to Perceval’s approach and behavior, e.g. the scene with the maiden. In ME version, Perceval is painted as naïve and foolish, yet still chivalrous, taking only half of all the food and drink, kissing the maiden, and exchanging her ring for his mother’s. A quite calm and almost unimportant scene. In Chrétien, as Danila has pointed out, is pretty much rape, he forces himself on her, basically steals the ring and leaves like nothing has happened, lacking any sort of pity. Similar to all encounters in the ME version, Perceval is a wild simpleton, a much less developed character than Chrétien’s Perceval who grows and matures throughout the story in which his foolishness in discarded with the entering into courtly society. The ME poet seems to create a much more positive and rather humorous image unlike Chrétien’s Perceval whose ego and arrogance knows no bounds for which Chrétien criticizes him.
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Re: Sir Perceval de Galles

by Valeriia Kliuieva -
I agree on the comments above: Perceval, though expected "To become the knight of all knights" according to the prophecy, is completely unaware of the chivalry and has this lack of knowledge due to decision of his mother, who has a bad experience. His behaviour is therefore ignorant and even though the thing he is unaware in the romance the most - chivalric code - is hidden from him, he also only can think about himself, is unpatient and a rapist (I totally agree with Danila) which is more than on my opinion is supposed to be excused by his ignorance. He seems to be pre-destined to become a knight, and this is an interesting transformation.
The English version and the French one seem to have different parts of the story emphasized, and though they do not differ in the main plot, they read extremely defferently. E.g., in the English version Perceval has a major problem with patience and therefore everything he wants he tries to get through the threats to kill, whereas in the French one he is a curious and naive soul, seems to be very distracted and impressed by the knights and their armour (and I understand him), and no threats are used here, only his desire and curiosity, that in the end buy him the position of the knight. In the French version, however, he is depicted as wilde and ignorant in the scene with the girl, which I must say is pretty disgusting "And your kisses, you know,
Are better than any I ever
Had from my mother's chamber
Maids: your mouth tastes better".
So far I also haven´t find much of the romance attributes in this case, as already mentioned (no magical elements, no meaningful numbers), but the fact there is a Christmas day the story starts on (or rather on the Eve), but I haven´t finished the complete romance yet.
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Re: Sir Perceval de Galles

by Kateřina Mudrová -

As has been mentioned, both stories operate in the established Arthurian universe; the core (character) traits of the main members of the court such as Arthur, Gawain or Kay remain relatively unchanged. The standards of the courtly manners are also universally agreed upon. Both stories also use romance stock characters and plot episodes such as the noble lady in distress, the tyrant invader, the giant, a madness episode etc. I have to agree that it is the treatment of the courtly/knight culture which forms the main difference between the two stories. While in Ywain, the proper manners were present in the main character since the beginning and the main focus was the romance between Ywain and Alundine, with a bit of character development, in Perceval the main focus is much more socially oriented, with a nature/nurture question of what makes a man a true knight.

Concerning the difference between the two Perceval’s, Chretien’s text is a highly detailed account, with a great amount of symbolic scenes, especially the Fisher King scene with the grail. In this version, Perceval remains disadvantaged by his lack of social skills. While his intentions are good (he tries to obey the advice of his mother and Gornemant) but he does not have the experience (and intelligence?) to interpret or use it properly which leads to many unfortunate consequences (by that I mean Chretien is much more serious about the (social) implications of Perceval’s ignorance). The English version, on the other hand, is relatively simplified version of the story, focusing only on a limited action aspect of the plot. All difficulties caused by Perceval’s lack of social skills are solved either through by his extraordinary strength or magic (the healing of the mother) and as a result, the story reads as much more light-hearted.

For me personally, It was interesting to see that what the poet chose as the core of the knightly nature which (the English) Perceval inherited from his father was not inherent nobility, compassion, and bravery but rather an irrational lack of fear and unrestricted need to show off his strength and skill. The way in which he runs around the woods killing any animals he runs across or kills the red knight and throws his body into the fire crying “'Lie still and roast!' was almost disturbing. Anyway, I find it odd his mother as a noble lady did not choose to teach him any basic good manners or religion (she refused the whole of society not just the knightly culture). Also I’ m not entirely sure how to interpret the claim that /Perceval was to be the greatest among knights (is it sarcasm?)

 
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Re: Sir Perceval de Galles

by Ivana Turusová -
Apart from what has already been mentioned, to me, the biggest shift from Ywaine and Gawaine dwells in the hero and also the attitute of the narrator. What is missing in Sir Perceval (at least in the first 1000 lines approximately) is the figure of an honorable and admirable hero that is perfect from the start. We see Perceval being brought up by his mother (who tries to protect his from danger but, ironically, lets him run around the forrest with a spear and kill animals) completely unaware what it means to be a knight, and we see his quest to become one, learning things along his way.
I feel like the ME version tried to make Perceval's character more likeable to the reader because he is portrayed as rather confused in society due to his solitary upbringing, naive. In Chrétien, Perceval is an unpleasant arrogant character from the start, even though it is again the result of his poor education.
What was interesting to me was the way Chrétiens treats his characters - they seem to be punished way more cruelly than in the ME version - for example Perceval's mother faints and gets mad (and later dies), the maiden has been harshly punished (stripped naked and forced to walk on foot), even though the situation is completely Perceval's fault, and Sir Kay beats up the queen's handmaiden who laughed at Perceval. All three obvious victims here are surprisingly (or not?) women.
It may also be just my impression but I think that perceval depends more on the narration of the author, unlike in Ywaine and Gawaine where the characters spoke most of the time. As few colleagues already said, the ME version had a certain comic touch - the scene where King Arthur had to move away Perceval's horse from his face - truly amused me. On the other hand, I felt quite uncomfortable reading Chrétiens version owing to vile behavior of Perceval.
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Re: Sir Perceval de Galles

by Jáchym Hájek -
To me the most obvious difference between Ywain and Perceval's story was the absence of honour in Perceval - where Ywain rides off to fight a knight to restore his cousin's honour, Perceval does so only to get what he wants - a knighthood. And while Perceval is described as a "good boy", he isn't much of that, really - he only half-listens to his mother as soon as he wants something, he exchanges her ring for another at the nearest opportunity, even though it was his mother's gift and a means of coming back together, which isn't really a good son's behaviour.
I definitely agree with my colleagues on the differences between the ME version and Chrétien - while the ME Perceval is naïve and laughable, Chrétien's is disturbing, bordering on evil sometimes.
As per the humour mentioned, while I certainly found many passages in the ME version funny (and the horse bit was definitely one of them), sometimes it was a very morbid kind of humour - like Perceval talking to the dead body of the Red Knight and the narrator just remarking on it almost jokingly, despite that literally being a dead man with a spear through his skull.
One worrying aspect in regard to knighthood is the behaviour towards women - Perceval ignoring his mother can still be seen as childish behaviour, but his so-often mentioned kissing of the sleeping lady or Kay's treatment of the handmaiden are very much in discord with anything chivalrous. If we think of how much nicer Chrétien was to his characters in Ywain and how we seemed to see more love and chivalry in the French version, this is a very stark contrast.
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Re: Sir Perceval de Galles

by Zuzana Šindlerová -
What strikes me as extremely disturbing is the mistreatment of women in Chrétien’s narrative (especially after reading Finlayson “Definition of Middle English Romance” article and him mentioning courtly love and service to the women as crucial elements of the romance). Here the male characters seem to abuse women every chance they get. Perceval is inconsiderate to his mother, he sees her unwell and fainted, he still leaves without a care. The scene with the lady in the tent is definitely described as rape. I do not think this behavior stems from Perceval’s misunderstanding of his mother’s advice, who clearly stated that he ought to behave himself in a chivalric manner and help the ladies. The lady in the tent is obviously suffering, she is crying, telling him not to touch her and at the end she tells him he has humiliated and greatly hurt her. Perceval, ignoring this, does as he wishes to. Furthermore, to make her case even more terrible (especially for the modern audience), she is not believed by the other knight who makes her walk naked and barefooted as a punishment for her infidelity (something we might call victim-blaming today). There is also another case of the queen’s maid who is slapped hard by the Knight Kay because she hurts her his ego, proclaiming Perceval to be the greatest knight.
I wonder what Chretien’s audience would think of Perceval’s extremely strange behavior (the total lack of social or communication skills – completely unable to conduct a normal form of dialogue, unwilling to answer the question, even though asked multiple times). Would they be willing to excuse his weird behavior and think of him as being the product of wild upbringing or would they find it as upsetting as I do? And would they consider him completely inconsiderate and arrogant or the notion of his noble birth would make it seem all okay in their eyes?
What would be the Chretien’s contemporaries’ viewpoint on the fact that the legendary Arthur and his famous court, full of valiant and brave knights, are completely unable to protect his king from the insolence of one singular Red Knight. Would this not breech their expectations of what the legendary King and his court ought to be like? If they are so completely to defend themselves the honor of the Queen (who is humiliated when the red Knight spills the wine all over her) and all that in the stronghold or center of the King Arthur’s power, in front of all his servants, knights and members of the court.

I think the ME version at least provides a comical relief, excusing Perceval’s strange behavior as part of his foolishness and silly misunderstanding of the normal conduct. Even though it is reads as a more simplistic version, it does not pain me as the Chretien’s more sophisticated version does because I find no justification for Perceval’s (and other male characters’) inexcusable conduct (either in mistreatment of women or anyone weaker in the social standing – the fool, for example).
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Re: Sir Perceval de Galles

by Liana Marie Ellegate -
Comparing Perceval and Ywaine and Gawaine, both contain the main characteristics that come to mind when we think of an Arthurian Romance - the chivalric knights, the adventures in honour of an innocent victim or maiden, the love. That being said, there are big differences in the approach to the genre. As others have noted, the major difference is in the main characters. Ywain is well versed in the concepts of chivalry, honour and love. While he makes mistakes, he approaches all his adventures with these codes and concepts in mind. Preceval, on the other hand, lacks knowledge of any of these. He is a rough character that behaves abhorrently for a knight - though this is covered up with the excuse of him having been raised away from societal customs.

Moving on to comparing the English vs. French versions of Perceval, there is a lot to note. The two stories, though sticking to a similar plot line, have a distinctly different feel straight away. As was noted by Danila, the portrayals in the character of Perceval from the beginning paint a different picture of how the audience should view Perceval, as well as set different atmospheres for the story. The English Perceval is a character that is gruff yet comically confused by the new things he encounters and the situations he finds himself in. The French Perceval, on the other hand, has an underlying feeling of immorality to his character - the way he dishonours the maiden sets that impression straight away. Though he is interacting with knights of honour and striving to be one of their order, the tainted impression of his character remains.

Finally, looking at the form of the English version, the initial impression I had was that the narration (in Middle English) flows very well. The rhyming and almost sing-song voice of the narration pulls the reader into the story and transports them to a different time. I imagine this style would have captivated contemporary audiences, and also would have translated very well into an oratory performance of the tale.
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Re: Sir Perceval de Galles

by Helena Znojemská -
I'd like to thank you all for your observations on the two Percevals and their comparison with Ywaine and Gawaine / Yvain; they have helped me notice a certain logic in the relation between the Middle English and the French text I haven't realized on first reading.
I'll start with a relatively minor issue: most of you have expressed your surprise at the difference between the general image of Arthur's court and the chivalric world in general in Chrétien's Yvain and Perceval, the latter being much darker and less courtly especially as regards the treatment of women. It's a mere speculation, but whereas Chrétien seems to claim Yvain as his own matter, the impulse and material for Perceval is credited to Count Philip of Flanders; in that respect, we may perhaps see Yvain as displaying Chrétien's "normal" attitude to his subject-matter, the "normal" courtly narrative, while in the latter it is, perhaps deliberately, problematized (Chrétien writing "on assignment"?). A number of scholars has noted a similar sharpening of vision in the two romances written expressly at others' instigation (the other being Lancelot).
But now for your core observations: characterization of Perceval in the two versions and the nature/nurture issue.
Mostly you have agreed that, in comparison with Chrétien's version, there was little character development in the Middle English Perceval. Chrétien's protagonist learns, and learns through repeated failures (although often his learning process is harder on the others than on himself) - he starts as a totally self-absorbed individual (cf. Zuzana's remark about his failure to respond, indeed even notice the knight's questions in the first meeting), gradually gets to know the forms of chivalry but by the time the story breaks off he still hasn't fully understood, apparently. The Middle English Perceval continues unchanged throughout. This is definitely worth further discussion - what's the effect of this lack of inner development combined with Perceval's social progress (even including his dying a crusader)?
Again, most of you saw the Middle English protagonist displaying much less objectionable behaviour than his French counterpart (the scene with the lady). You were undoubtedly right - we can also list here the fact that Perceval (though he fails to respect his mother's legacy, yes, Jáchym) is never allowed to spurn his mother's wishes so harshly simply because she never voices them in the manner of the French romance, where she actually explains to her son why it is she decided to bring him up in ignorance in the forest. Plus he humbly returns to bring his mother to her senses, shedding, for the moment, his new knightly identity (so learning something, after all?). But Valeriia dissented, observing, correctly, that the English Perceval keeps threatening to kill people if he doesn't get what he wants, while the French Perceval isn't so pushy (except with women, yes). We get something of the egotistic disregard for others' feelings in Perceval's total ignoring of what Arthur tells him of his father - stop your chattering! Just make me a knight! So I'd like to ask you to think about this - I'd bring that up during tomorrow's session.
In a sense, all these observations necessarily touch on the nature/nurture issue - so how would you say the English version refers to that (there seems to be a certain degree of disagreement among you)?
Finally - humour in Perceval. You noted Perceval's crude jokes at the expense of his defeated enemies. Some situational comedy - Perceval's mare kissing Arthur's forehead. Some of you spoke of irony or satire - where would you look for it? Is there humour at Perceval's expense? At the expense of the whole chivalry thing? Or even the generic props?