Medieval Arthurian Legend
Chrétien de Troyes: The Story of the Graal
12th century, Old French.
The eloquent old ladies that Sir Gawain speaks to so courteously that evening are both dead ladies, and one of them is his mother. It is a castle of the dead.
Chrétien de Troyes' last poem Perceval, the Story of the Graal is ostensibly unfinished and it is widely believed that he died before completing it. The poem leaves Perceval in mid-quest, trying to rediscover the Graal Castle in order to ask questions that he had failed to ask there before. But it can legitimately be asked whether Perceval is in fact still looking, as the story follows Sir Gawain through a long train of events that ends the poem in mid-sentence.
The final part of the story follows a succession of adventures embarked upon by Sir Gawain, and catches up with Sir Perceval for a final time on the morning of Good Friday. Five years have elapsed since Perceval left King Arthur's court. During this time he has sent sixty worthy knights to the King. But a curious statement opens this powerful scene. 'Perceval, as the story tells us, had so mislaid his memory that all thought of God had vanished from his mind.' This comes as a shock to the reader because nowhere up until now has anything like this been so much as hinted at. It is a bolt from the blue. All we knew was that Sir Perceval was seeking a Graal Castle in order to ask questions that he had failed to ask the first time he was there, and for which omission a hideous hag had so admonished and derided him. He had set off to try to show the curiosity he had failed to show before. Perhaps the very act of showing this curiosity, or of wishing to ask the questions he had failed to ask during the strange ceremony that took place there, was tantamount to a renunciation of God.
So on the morning of Good Friday, Perceval meets with some pilgrims returning from a hermit's chapel, visits the hermit himself and is reunited with God. But then, surprisingly, he falls away from Chrétien's story completely. Almost as a negation of the later Cistercian quest for the Holy Grail, Perceval finds God by seemingly abandoning his search for the Graal. He stays with the hermit for a while and then Chrétien informs us that: 'The tale no longer speaks of Perceval at this point; you will have heard a great deal about my lord Gawain before I speak of Perceval again.' Chrétien de Troyes had no intention of speaking of Perceval again! Perceval has abandoned his quest now that he has found God. The quest is taken up by Sir Gawain.
And indeed it is. In this final part of the romance, Gawain is charged to take up the search for the castle of the Fisher King before returning in a year's time to face single combat. But instead of finding this Graal Castle, he comes upon a castle which lies across a river – just like the mysterious castle of the Fisher King that Perceval stumbled upon – and from whose windows hundreds of women can be seen. And when Sir Gawain enters the hall of this mysterious castle, there are already some clues as to what it might be. The building lies on the other side of a river, a tributary of which is forded by a Perilous Ford across which no knight has ever crossed and lived to tell the tale. The castle itself is reached with the aid of a ferry guided by a ferryman; a ferryman, moreover, who appears to lay claim to all knights who are injured in battle on the side of the river opposite the castle and who then ferries them across; like the Ancient Greek ferryman Charon taking souls across the river Styx.
The castle itself is made of marble and has five hundred windows of glass through which can be seen many hundreds of women looking out. There are other instances of astonishing glass or crystal buildings in Medieval literature; their inner spaces may model a region beyond the crystal spheres of the outer heavens in a view of the heavenly universe that was widely accepted at the time. Islands of ladies figure in Old Irish mythology and they almost certainly signify an afterlife.
So our suspicions are aroused. And as you might expect, access to this castle is a truly perilous business. As the ferryman warns Sir Gawain: 'Take my advice and give this castle a wide berth. To go close to it is to place oneself in great peril.'
Inside the main hall is a bed. It appears to be necessary for a knight to lie upon this bed. Then hundreds of crossbow bolts and longbow arrows are shot into the mattress upon which he is lying. If this does not have its intended effect, a ferocious lion is then let loose. No knight has ever survived this ordeal before, we are told. Is there any surprise!
Death is the only possible outcome. Or at least, so we are led to believe. But Sir Gawain survives the hail of arrows, cuts off the lion’s head and is proclaimed the new master of the castle. But soon he hears worrying news. Now inside the castle, he is, he learns, unable to leave. His journey across the river has been one-way only – perhaps as by now we may have suspected that it might have been.
However, this news – worrying or otherwise – proves to be false. The ferryman has no problem taking Sir Gawain back across the river. And whilst adventuring on the further bank, and as though to emphasize the point, he returns across a Perilous Ford from which no knight has ever returned, more easily than it takes him to cross it in the first place.
Sir Gawain crosses the main river back to the enchanted castle, having learned that its true rulers are a trinity of females; mother, daughter and grandmother. But stranger still, he learns from a knight on the other side of the Perilous Ford that the grandmother is King Arthur’s mother, and her daughter is Sir Gawain’s own mother, the wife of King Lot. But we learn that King Arthur has not had a mother for sixty years and
I dare say that Gawain has not had a mother for at least these past twenty years. The eloquent old ladies he speaks to so courteously that evening are both dead ladies, and one of them is his mother. It is a castle of the dead.
But now, because of Sir Gawain's valour, all the inhabitants of the castle are free to return into the outside world. And it is at this point in the tale that Chrétien's story nears its conclusion, in an ellipsis, as though Chrétien had said all that he wanted to.