The Grail Legend is one of the most intriguing tradition to come out of the Middle Ages. Although the Grail has taken second seat to King Arthur in today’s popular culture, that was not always the case. During the high Middle Ages, the time when “courtly culture” held sway, the story of the Holy Grail, and those who sought to discovery its secrets, was at the height of fame. Some say the story of the Grail served a dual purpose: to bring the secrets of the Eucharist, the Holy Supper, into the physical realm that the common person could see, and to serve as a “moral compass” for the frequently disorderly and often uncivilized knightly class. For those somewhat unfamiliar with the particulars of the legend, below is outlined the oldest, and most traditional form.
In the late 12th century, the French poet Chretien de Troyes, (famed for his Arthurian tales), wrote his most famous verse text -- Le Conte du Graal, or the Story of the Grail. Although the work was left unfinished, presumably because the author died before he could complete it, this single work catapulted him into the limelight in the court of Marie du Champagne as well as the literary world of Europe. In Chretien’s dedication, he states that his work goes to Prince Philip of Flanders who gave him the book from which the story was taken. Because Philip died while on Crusade in 1190, this year has been used to date the manuscript, however it has been suggested that this story could have been started as early as the 1170’s, making it contemporary with some of Chretien’s earliest Arthurian works.
The Story of the Grail begins with Perceval, a Welsh youth who turns out to be descended from a long line of knights, living with his mother in a peaceful woodland utopia. One day, he sees a sight his eyes can scarcely believe. Shining metal men riding on horseback through the flowered fields where he is hunting. He asks his mother whether these mystical beings were demons or angels, and she tells him that these are knights, and that his father and brothers were knights such as these, but that they had died in battle, so she had kept the knowledge from him so he would not share their fate. Undaunted by her reservations, Perceval rides off to the court of King Arthur to become a knight. Upon arriving at the king’s court, he immediately learns of a red knight that he must slay to claim the honor of knighthood for himself. So begins his long, perilous journey toward achieving the Grail.
Along his path, he sees a great many wonders he does not fully understand. In some texts, he is instructed by an older knight not to ask about things he does not understand so he is not seen as simple or bothersome with his questions. Eventually he encounters a man in a boat fishing in the waters that surround a great castle. He asks the fisherman who lives in the grand fortress, and he is answered, it is the castle of the King Fisherman, and that Perceval should seek shelter with the king. He rides on and is given entry into the castle. After being made comfortable, he is ushered into a great banqueting hall where he is seated among other knights. Soon his host, the fisherman he met earlier, now seen as old and feeble, is lead to his seat at the feasting table.
As soon as the king is seated, the bright candlelight that illuminates the hall is eclipsed by another brilliance that begins to light the room. Through a side door, a group of knaves and maidens walk into the hall in a procession carrying what appear to be holy relics -- a lance that bleeds from the tip, a vessel, usually a bowl, from the Last Supper, and finally the most holy among these, the Holy Grail, which Chretien fails to describe beyond its physical appearance. Three times Perceval fails to inquire about the vision he witnesses despite the obvious ecstatic effect the procession has on the other knights. Finally the miraculous parade leaves the room for the last time, and Perceval soon finds himself alone.
The next morning, he departs from the King Fisherman’s castle, and quickly learns that he has unwittingly done something that will have lasting ill effects not only on himself, but on the entire land. By not asking the question, “What is the Grail, and whom is served by it”, he has doomed the King Fisherman to a half-life of complete misery - unable to live and not quite dead. In addition, Perceval finds throughout his journey that his lack of action has been the cause of many catastrophe that has befallen nearly everyone he meets. For years he travels the land, proving himself worthy by feats of strength and honor, jousting, rescuing castles, protecting damsels’ honor, and avenging the wrongful death of many knights, eventually earning the honor of knighthood that was so easily bestowed upon him.
While Perceval slowly grows to an honorable knight, several others among Arthur’s knights venture through the world seeking fame, glory, and also the Holy Grail. Quite often, the stories of Perceval intersects and joins with these other knights, but always diverge again to the solitary path toward again finding the castle of the King Fisherman and by asking the all important question, achieving the Grail. However, Perceval would not reach his goal, at least not in this text. In fact, Chretien’s text ends with Gawain being confronted with adventure on the Isle of Glass. Future continuations and elaborations on the original story would serve to fill in many questions Chretien left unanswered. However these continuations will be discussed further on another page.
Oddly enough, this incomplete text would serve more to further Chretien’s acclaim as an Arthurian writer than the father of a legend. Probably because the most important parts being left incomplete, answering the question of what was the Grail and whom did it serve would become the obsession of an entire genre of medieval texts. Although it is widely agreed that these stories were nothing more than a widely popular fiction, there is some evidence to suggest that there may be more to it than simple imagination.