Lef, lythes to me · Two wordes or thre · Of one that was faire and fre · And felle in his fighte. · His righte name was Percyvell, · He was fosterde in the felle, · He dranke water of the welle – My friends, listen to a few words about a man who was handsome, courageous and a great fighter. His name was Perceval; he was brought up in the wilderness and drank water from springs, and little harm it did him! 1∩
Perceval's father was an illustrious man who won much renown in King Arthur's hall; he was loved more than any other knight there, and that is the truth. He was so strong on a horse and so skilled in arms that King Arthur gave him his sister Blanchefleur to wed, to have in matrimony until his life's end, and gave him lands to live off, for the king recognised his merit. This knight's name was Perceval.
Lands and wealth did King Arthur bestow upon Perceval, and the honour of marrying into his family.
The wedding over, a great jousting took place in which Perceval won great honour. He defeated the Red Knight and the Black. Amongst all who faced him with lance and shield, he upheld his honour and proved his might. He broke sixty lances that day, as Blanchefleur looked on at her new husband from the castle walls. The Red Knight lay half-dead in the field, stunned by the impact of Perceval's lance, and everybody marvelled how Perceval could parry such blows as this knight had been giving. No one dared meet him on the field after that and Sir Perceval was given the trophy. His proud wife was as happy as he.
Blanchefleur was delighted that her husband had won the prize; but the Red Knight was less pleased, as he nursed a broken hand and promised that, if he ever recovered from his injuries, he would take his revenge. But this knight saw no cause to rush, and an uneasy peace reigned between them for a while. Blanchefleur gave birth to a son and named him Perceval after his father. Sir Perceval announced a banquet to celebrate the birth, and afterwards – what else? – but a jousting! It was proclaimed that Sir Perceval would take on all-comers in the field, and all the mighty warriors in the land were encouraged to attend. The Red Knight was delighted to hear this.
Well may Sir Perceval have cried, 'A curse on faulty armour!' for the Red Knight killed him. And this Red Knight, let us not conceal the fact, was delighted by this and left the tournament a happy man; and as he rode away, no one had the stomach to challenge him, in fun nor otherwise, since he had killed the best knight in King Arthur's land.
So now Sir Perceval is dead, slain in combat; and Blanchefleur has made a vow that she will never live in a place where any jousting takes place but will bring her son up in the forest in seclusion, where he will have only the leaves of the trees to watch, woodland clearings to run about in and the deer to play with.
She took her leave of civilisation and made her way to the wild wood and the forest creatures, taking only a maiden with her and a flock of goats to provide milk. Of all her lord's possessions she left everything except a little hunting spear for her son to use when he got older. And when Perceval could walk she gave him the spear.
'What is this, mother?' he asked. 'What is this stick for, that you have given me?'
'Son,' she replied, 'it is called a hunting spear. I found it in the forest.' And the child was delighted with his new toy, and killed many wild creatures with it. He roamed about the trees, javelin in hand, beneath the branches, growing healthy and strong, casting his spear at the woodland game. Small birds, deer – all came to his mother's table; through no pressure from her, it must be said. He learnt to throw so well that soon no animal was safe from him.
Fifteen winters he spent in this way, with no other instruction but the ways of the ancient woodland. Then one day, Blanchefleur said: 'Sweet child, I advise you to pray to God's dear Son that he help you to become a good man and have a long life.'
'Sweet mother,' replied the child. 'Who is this 'God' that you want me to pray to?'
'He is the great God of heaven,' she replied, 'who made this world in six days.'
'By Christ!' said the child, 'I will pray with all my might that I may meet with this man.' And off he went, leaving his mother with her goats, to search for the great God. And as he walked through the ancient forest, he met three of King Arthur's knights riding along a path. One was Sir Yvain, another Sir Gawain, and the third Sir Kay; they were all three of them his relatives and were dressed in fine clothes. The boy wore nothing but a goatskin and his face was half hidden by a shabby hood as he stared at them like a simpleton.
They were clothed all in green, and young Perceval was certain that they were the God that his mother had spoken of; or at least, one of them was. 2∩
'Which of you is the great God that my mother told me has made this world?' he asked.
'Son,' said Sir Gawain, 'such a title does not belong to any of us.'
'Then I will kill you all unless you tell me who you are,' said the child Perceval, 'since you are not gods.'
'Then who should we say has killed us?' asked Sir Kay, astringently. The child grew angry at this reply and would have attacked the knight, but Sir Gawain stepped between them.
'Your haughty words will always bring harm,' he told Sir Kay. 'I shall engage this child courteously, if you will allow me. 'Sweet son,' he said, turning to the young Perceval, 'We are knights of King Arthur's, who is waiting on a hill.'
'Will King Arthur make me a knight if I go to him?' asked the boy in goatskins.
'I cannot say,' replied Sir Gawain, 'but I advise you to go to the king yourself and find out.'
As Perceval walked home, 3∩ he came across a clearing full of wild horses. 'These are what the knights were riding upon,' he said to himself. 'I will capture the largest one and ride it home so that my mother can tell me what it is.' So he caught the largest mare and cried: 'Tomorrow I shall ride you to the king!' And he leapt up and rode her home, bareback.
Blanchefleur had never been so unhappy as when she saw her son riding towards her on that horse, for she knew that her son's nature could not be suppressed. 'Oh!' she cried, 'the sorrow that I shall now endure! Why have you brought this mare home with you?' But the boy was delighted only to hear his mother name the creature, and took no notice of anything else.
So now he calls his horse a mare, as his mother did, and thinks that all horses are called mares. ‘Mother,’ he said, ‘I have been to a hill just over there, where I saw three knights in green. I’ve promised to go before their king and ask if he will make me one of them. If he doesn’t do this for me, I said that I’ll kill him, and I will.’
Blanchefleur was distraught. 'Then you have been persuaded to bring about your own death!' she said. 'If you find yourself in an unfamiliar place, do as I tell you: tomorrow is Christmas Day, and if you intend to set off to be a knight, be sure that you are always courteous and even-tempered, both in hall and in private; and when you greet a knight, take off your hood.'
'Sweet, mother,' replied Perceval, 'I have no idea what a knight looks like. Tell me.'
His mother took out some fine clothes of ermine. 'When you see this fur on their hoods, they are knights,' she said.
'By great God,' he exclaimed, 'whenever I see this fur, I shall behave as you say!'
Perceval slept beside his mother all night, and in the morning, he set off on his mare, without a bridle and with only a willow halter to control the animal with. His mother gave him a ring so that she might know him when he returned: 'For I shall always be waiting here for you,' she said. He took the ring and his hunting spear, leapt up onto the mare's back, and rode away.
Soon he came to a hall and said to himself: 'For good or ill, I shall find out what is inside.' So he rode in and found a wide table already laid for a meal and a bright fire burning in the hearth. Nearby was a manger filled with corn, so he led his mare to it and tied her up with the halter.
'My mother instructed me to show moderation,' he thought, 'so I shall take only half of this fodder,' and he divided the corn into two equal portions and gave his mare only the one. Then he went to the table and found a loaf and a jug of wine, so he divided them equally and left half for someone else. He wished very much to be thought refined.
When he had finished his meal, he walked into the private chambers to see if there were any marvellous things to see, and there he found a pile of fine clothes and a lady sleeping on a bed. 'We shall exchange gifts and promises,' he thought. He kissed the pretty young lady and took a ring from her finger, exchanging it for his own. Then he went back to his horse, took his hunting spear, leapt onto her back and went on his way. 4∩
So onwards rides Perceval, seeking marvels and eager to be made a knight. And he came to where King Arthur was sitting, eating the first course of a meal. Riding straight into the hall, ignoring both gatekeeper and doorman, he rode up to the king and stood so closely to him that his mare nuzzled with her lips against the king's forehead.
The king reached up and pushed the horse's mouth away.
'Fair noble child,' he said, 'stand beside me and tell me where you are from and why you are here.' And Perceval replied: 'I am my mother's child, come from the forest to find the blessed Arthur. Yesterday I saw three knights; you shall make me one, as I sit upon this mare, before you eat any more, or I shall kill you!'
All who were there, both young and old, were astonished that the king should allow himself to be spoken to like this, by a child whose horse stood so close to him. The king looked up at the boy, and suddenly, tears ran down his cheeks.
'Alas!' he cried, 'you remind me of someone that I once knew! If you were dressed well,' he said, 'you would be very like a knight I loved greatly while he was alive. I still think about him a great deal; it was fifteen years ago now that a murderous knight took his life, although I have not yet found an opportunity to bring this villain to grief. He is such a skilful warrior that no man can possibly defeat him alone, unless he were the son of Sir Perceval; if only we knew where that boy was!'
The child felt that he had waited too long, for he had no idea that he had ever had a father. 5∩
'Sir,' he said, 'shut up! I don't care! I don't want to stand around here waiting for you to finish talking! Make me a knight, if you intend to.' The king assured the boy that he would knight him if he got down off his horse and came to eat with him. The king looked at the boy and saw in his face and in his build the son of Sir Perceval, and it ran through his mind how his sister had retired into the wild forest to bring up her son in seclusion.
He spoke mildly to the child, who got down off his horse, gave it to someone to look after and went to the table. But before he could begin his meal, the Red Knight entered the hall, on a red horse, clothed all in red, blood red. Fighting his way passed the guards and doorkeepers, he called the king and all his knights cowards and recreants. He seized a cup that stood on the table in front of King Arthur, and no man dared to stop him. The cup was of gold and full of wine and the Red Knight drank it back and then rode out of the hall, taking the goblet with him.
'Ah! Dear God!' cried the king in anguish. 'Will I ever find a man to face up to this fiend? For five years now he has done this to me, taken my cups and humiliated me; and always he flees before I have time to take the field against him.'
'Jesus!' said Perceval. 'I will cut him down and retrieve your cup, if you will only make me a knight!'
'As I am a true king,' said Arthur, 'I will make you a knight immediately.'
Up rose King Arthur and went to a private room to fetch some armour. But before he had time to return, the child Perceval had raced off in pursuit of the Red Knight, wearing only his goatskins.
'Oi!' he cried to the Red Knight. 'You on that mare! Give the king back his cup or you'll feel the point of my spear!'
The Red Knight looked back at this young lad in goatskins and in order to see his assailant more clearly, he lifted his visor.
'If you are not careful, you impudent young whippersnapper,' he cried, 'I will throw you into that bog over there like an old sack.'
'Impudent or whatever I am,' said Perceval, 'we shall soon see whose brows turn black!' and he threw his spear through the air with great force. It went in through one of the Red Knight's eyes and came out through the back of his head. The blow knocked the knight out of his saddle and he fell dead onto the ground. His horse ran off.
'You are a wicked man!' said the child. 'If you will wait a second I shall go and fetch your mare, so we can fight honourably together like knights.'
Perceval rode after the Red Knight's horse and brought it back to where the Red Knight lay.
'I see that you have stayed still as I asked you to,' he said. 'But now get up and let us deal blows together. I have brought you your mare.'
The knight lay still. How could he do otherwise? He was dead.
The child got off his mare and went over to strip the body of armour, but he had no idea how to remove all the bits and pieces, nor how to unlace the straps. The Red Knight was so well armed that Perceval could find no way of getting the steel off.
'My mother taught me that if I break the point of my spear in a branch, a fire will release the iron,' he thought, so he went off to gather some firewood and kindling. Then, taking his fire-iron and flint, he kindled a flame and went off to gather a lot more wood. Soon had a roaring bonfire to put the Red Knight on, so that he could free all his armour. But Sir Gawain had followed Perceval and quickly came up to where the Red Knight lay beside a fire of oak and birch.
'What is this for?' asked Sir Gawain, pointing to the great branches blackening in the flames.
'I want to get at his armour, here on this hill,' replied the unlettered youth.
'If you will wait a moment, I will help you to disarm him,' cried Sir Gawain and he got off his horse, unlaced the Red Knight and gave the suit of armour to the child.
When Perceval was fully dressed in the Red Knight's armour, he took the body by the neck and threw it into the flames. 'Lie still and roast!' he cried; and as the body burned, the child, now wearing the Red Knight's arms, mounted his warhorse and looked down at himself. 'Now I may be taken for a knight!' he cried.
'Let us get off this hill,' said Sir Gawain. 6∩ 'You have done what you wanted to and night is fast approaching.'
'What!' cried Perceval, 'do you think that I intend to return to King Arthur with the cup? No! I am as great a lord as he! He shall not make me a knight. Take the cup and give it to him yourself, for I will go further into this land before I get down off my new horse.' 7∩
Perceval rode all that night, and the next morning he met a witch. She recognised the horse and the arms. 'I thought you had been killed by King Arthur's knights,' she said. 'One of my men came and said that the fire burning on that hill yonder was your pyre.'
'I have been over there,' he replied, 'and saw nothing but goatskins and other miserable things!' 8∩
'My son,' said the witch, 'if you were killed and your arms taken away, I would be able to heal you and make you as you were before. I could bring you back to life!'
Hearing this, Perceval saw another use for the fire he had made; he skewered the witch on the end of his spear, led her back to the bonfire and cast her into the flames. And there he left them both, eager to seek more adventures.
Soon he came across ten men on horseback at the edge of a wood. 'Come what may, I will find out what they are doing,' he thought to himself and rode towards them. But seeing the Red Knight riding in their direction, they made to flee, and the faster Perceval pursued them, the faster they tried to escape until Perceval saw that one of them wore the ermine of a knight and he raised his visor.
'Sir, God protect you!' cried Perceval. The knight stopped and said: 'Thank God!' understanding at once that the Red Knight must have been killed and that this youth was wearing his arms. 9∩
'You have killed the greatest enemy I ever had!' cried this knight.
'Why were you running away from me, then?' asked Perceval.
'These are my nine sons,' replied this old knight, unflinchingly, 'and it was through fear of losing them that I ran from you. We thought you were the Red Knight. Fifteen years ago he murdered my brother, and he had vowed to kill us all because he feared that my sons should seek revenge when they are old enough, for the death of their uncle. Had I been in the place where he was killed, I would have fasted until I saw his body burn on the pyre.'
'Christ!' exclaimed Perceval. 'I've done even better than I thought I had, then?'
The old knight was very happy and led Perceval to his castle where he earnestly invited him to lodge for the night. He was good at persuading guests to stay and led Perceval into the hall, took off his armour, stabled his horse and set before him a fine meal. Perceval enjoyed food and drink and attentive service, and while he was eating, the porter came in to announce the arrival of a man from the Land of Women. 10∩
'Sir,' said the porter, 'he asks only for a quick meal, for charity, since he is a messenger and may not stay for very long.'
'Let him in,' said the old knight. 'It is no sin to feed a traveller.'
The messenger entered the hall and greeted the old knight at the high table. The knight asked him who was his lord, and where he was going.
'I come from the Lady Amour, and I am bound for the court of King Arthur to ask for his help. A sultan has risen up and seized my lady's lands, and for her beauty and for her wealth he has vowed that she shall have no peace until she agrees to marry him. He has already murdered her father, her uncle and all her brothers and now she is holed up in a castle under siege and the sultan has no intention of letting up until he gets his own way. My lady has vowed to kill herself before marrying him, but he is so strong that only a hardened warrior can meet with him.'
'I pray you,' said Perceval, 'show me the way to your lady's castle and I shall engage with this sultan myself and kill him, if I may keep my life!' But the messenger asked him to stay where he was. 'I shall go to the court of King Arthur,' he said. 'I have already delayed too long and must go immediately, as fast as I can.' The old knight begged the messenger to take his nine sons with him, but he refused. He did, however, reluctantly agree to take three of the sons, and they were all very happy to be chosen.
They readied themselves and rode off, laughing and joking with Perceval, but little good it did them. Perceval had thought of a ruse far worse than they imagined, though they were happy enough to be travelling in the direction of King Arthur's court. For at the end of each mile, Perceval sent one of them quickly onwards to the king, and when they were all gone, he rode off alone as though he had been new born, sprung from a stone. Forth he rode, among men who did not know him, unrecognised, towards adventure. 11∩