Ritual to Romance
THE TASK OF THE HERO
As a first step towards the successful prosecution of an investigation into the
true nature and character of the mysterious object we know as the Grail it will be well to
ask ourselves whether any light may be thrown upon the subject by examining more closely
the details of the Quest in its varying forms; i.e., what was the precise character of the
task undertaken by, or imposed upon, the Grail hero, whether that hero were Gawain,
Perceval, or Galahad, and what the results to be expected from a successfuI achievement of
the task. We shall find at once a uniformity which assures us of the essential identity of
the tradition underlying the varying forms, and a diversity indicating that that tradition
has undergone a gradual, but radical, modification in the process of literary evolution.
Taken in their relative order the versions give the following result.
GAWAIN (Bleheris). Here the hero sets out on his journey with no clear idea of the task
before him. He is taking the place of a knight mysteriously slain in his company, but
whither he rides, and why, he does not know, only that the business is important and
pressing. From the records of his partial success we gather that he ought to have enquired
concerning the nature of the Grail, and that this enquiry would have resulted in the
restoration to fruitfulness of a Waste Land, the desolation of which is, in some manner,
not clearly explained, connected with the death of a knight whose name and identity are
is the loss that ye lie thus, 'tis even the destruction of kingdoms, God grant that ye be
avenged, so that the folk be once more joyful and the land repeopled which by ye and this
sword are wasted and made void1." The fact that Gawain does ask concerning
the Lance assures the partial restoration of the land; I would draw attention to the
special terms in which this is described: "for so soon as Sir Gawain asked of the
Lance ... the waters flowed again thro' their channel, and all the woods were turned to
Diû Crône. Here the question is more general in
character; it affects the marvels beheld, not the Grail alone; but now the Quester is
prepared, and knows what is expected of him. The result is to break the spell which
retains the Grail King in a semblance of life, and we learn, by implication, that the land
is restored to fruitfulness: "yet had the land been waste, but by his coming had folk
and land alike been delivered3."
Thus in the earliest preserved, the GAWAIN form, the effect
upon the land appears to be the primary result of the Quest.
PERCEVAL. The Perceval versions, which form the
bulk of the existing Grail texts, differ considerably the one from the other, alike in the
task to be achieved, and the effects resulting from the hero's success, or failure. The
distinctive feature of the Perceval version is the insistence upon the sickness, and
disability of the ruler of the land, the Fisher King. Regarded first as the direct cause
of the wasting of the land, it gradually assumes overwhelming importance, the task of the
Quester becomes that of healing the King, the restoration
of the land not only falls into the background but the operating cause of its desolation
is changed, and finaIly it disappears from the story altogether. One version, alone, the
source of which is, at present, undetermined, links the PERCEVAL with the GAWAIN form;
this is the version preserved in the Gerbert continuation of the Perceval of Chretien de
Troyes. Here the hero having, like Gawain, partially achieved the task, but again like
Gawain, having failed satisfactorily to resolder the broken sword, wakes, like the earlier
hero, to find that the Grail Castle has disappeared, and he is alone in a flowery meadow.
He pursues his way through a land fertile, and well-peopled and marvels much, for the day
before it had been a waste desert. Coming to a castle he is received by a solemn
procession, with great rejoicing; through him the folk have regained the land and goods
which they had lost. The mistress of the castle is more explicit. Perceval had asked
concerning the Grail:
"par coi amendé
Like Gawain he has 'freed the waters' and thus restored the land4.
Somes, en si faite maniére
Qu'en ceste regne n'avoit riviére
Qui ne fust gaste, ne fontaine.
E la terre gaste et soutaine."
In the prose Perceval the motif of the Waste Land
has disappeared, the task of the hero consists in asking concerning
the Grail, and by so doing, to restore the Fisher King, who is suffering from extreme old
age, to health, and youth5.
"Se tu eusses demandé quel'en on faisoit, que li rois ton
aiol fust gariz de l'enfermetez qu'il a, et fust revenu en sa juventé."
When the question has been asked: "Le rois péschéor estoit gariz et tot muez de
sa nature." "Li rois peschiére estoit mués de se nature et estoit garis de se
maladie, et estoit sains comme pissons6."
Here we have the introduction of a new element, the
restoration to youth of the sick King.
In the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes we find ourselves in presence of certain
definite changes, neither slight, nor unimportant, upon which it seems to me insufficient
stress has hitherto been laid. The question is changed; the hero no longer asks what the
Grail is, but (as in the prose Perceval) whom it serves? a departure from an essential and
primitive simplicity - the motive for which is apparent in Chrétien, but not in the prose
form, where there is no enigmatic personality to be served apart. A far more important
change is that, while the malady of the Fisher King is antecedent to the hero's visit, and
capable of cure if the question be asked, the failure to fulfil the prescribed conditions
of itself entails disaster upon the land. Thus the sickness of the King, and the
desolation of the land, are not necessarily connected as cause and effect, but, a point
which seems hitherto unaccountably
to have been overlooked, the latter is directly attributable to the Quester
"Car se tu demandé l'eusses
but by Perceval's failure to ask the question he has entailed dire misfortune upon the
Li rice roi qui moult s'esmaie
Fust or tost garis de sa plaie
Et si tenist sa tière en pais
Dont il n'en tenra point jamais,"
"Dames en perdront lor maris,
This idea, that the misfortunes of the land are not
antecedent to, but dependent upon, the hero's abortive visit to the Grail Castle, is
carried still further by the compiler of the Perlesvaus, where the failure of the
predestined hero to ask concerning the office of the Grail is alone responsible for the
illness of the King and the misfortunes of the country. "Une grans dolors est avenue
an terre novelement par un jeune chevalier qui fu herbergiez an l'ostel au riche roi
Peschéor, si aparut à lui li saintimes Graaus, et la lance de quoi li fiers seigne par
la poignte; ne demanda de quoi ce servoit, ou dont ce venoit, et por ce qu'il ne demanda
les terres comméues an guerre, ne chevalier n'ancontre autre au forest qu'il ne li core
sus, et ocie s'il peut9."
Tiéres en seront essiliés,
Et pucielles desconselliés
Orfenes, veves, en remanront
Et maint chevalier en morront8."
"Li Roi Pecheors de qui est grant dolors, quar il
est cheüz en une douleureuse langour-ceste langour li est venue par celui qui se heberga
an son ostel, à qui li seintimes Graaus s'aparut, por ce que cil ne vost demander de
qu'il an servoit, toutes les terres an furent comméues en gerre10."
"Je suis cheüz an langour dès cele oure que li chevaliers se herberga çoianz
dont vous avez oï parler; par un soule parole que il déloia a dire me vint ceste
From this cause the Fisher King dies before the hero has achieved the task, and can
take his place. "Li bons Rois Peschiéres est morz12."
"There is here no cure of the King or restoration of the land, the specific task of
the Grail hero is never accomplished, he comes into his kingdom as the result of a number
of knightly adventures, neither more nor less significant than those found in non-Grail
The Perlesvaus, in its present form, appears to be
a later, and more fully developed, treatment of the motif noted in Chrétien, i.e., that
the misfortunes of King and country are directly due to the Quester himself, and had no
antecedent existence; this, I would submit, alters the whole character of the story, and
we are at a loss to know what, had the hero put the question on the occasion of his first
visit, could possibly
have been the result achieved. It would not have been the cure of the King: he was,
apparently, in perfect health; it would not have been the restoration to verdure of the
Land: the Land was not Waste; where, as in the case of Gawain, there is a Dead Knight,
whose death is to be avenged, something might have been achieved, in the case of the
overwhelming majority of the Perceval versions, which do not contain this feature, the
dependence of the Curse upon the Quester reduces the story to incoherence. In one Perceval
version alone do we find a motif analogous to the earlier Gawain, Bleheris form. In
Manessier the hero's task is not restricted to the simple asking of a question, but he
must also slay the enemy whose treachery has caused the death of the Fisher King's
brother; thereby healing the wound of the King himself, and removing the woes of the land.
What these may be we are not told, but, apparently, the country is not 'Waste13.'
we have a version closely agreeing with that of Chrétien; the hero fails to enquire the
meaning of what he sees in the Castle of Wonders, and is told in consequence: "Hadst
thou done so the King would have been restored to health, and his dominions to peace,
whereas from henceforth he will have to endure battles and conflicts, and his knights will
perish, and wives will be widowed, and maidens will be left portionless, and all this
because of thee14." This certainly seems to imply that, while the illness of
the Fisher King may be antecedent to, and independent of,
the visit and failure of the hero, the misfortunes which fall on the land have been
directly caused thereby.
The conclusion which states that the Bleeding Head seen by the
hero "was thy cousin's, and he was killed by the Sorceresses of Gloucester, who also
lamed thine uncle - and there is a prediction that thou art to avenge these things- "
would seem to indicate the presence in the original of a 'Vengeance' theme, such as that
referred to above15.
In Parzival the stress is laid entirely on the sufferings of the King; the question has
been modified in the interests of this theme, and here assumes the form "What aileth
thee, mine uncle?" The blame bestowed upon the hero is solely on account of the
prolonged sorrow his silence has inflicted on King and people; of a Land laid Waste,
either through drought, or war, there is no mention.
"Iuch solt' iur wirt erbarmet hân,
The punishment falls on the hero who has failed to put the
question, rather than on the land, which, indeed, appears to be in
no way affected, either by the wound of the King, or the silence of the hero. The
divergence from Chrétien's version is here very marked, and, so far, seems to have been
neglected by critics. The point is also of importance in view of the curious parallels
which are otherwise to be found between this version and Perlesvaus; here the two are in
marked contradiction with one another.
An dem Got wunder hât getân,
Und het gevrâget sîner nôt,
Ir lebet, und sît an saelden tôt16."
"Dô der trûrege vischaere
Saz âne fröude und âne trôst
War umb' iren niht siufzens hât erlôst17."
The question finally asked, the result is, as
indicated in the prose version, the restoration of the King not merely to health, but also
to youth -
"Swaz der Frânzoys heizet flô'rî'
GALAHAD. In the final form assumed by the story,
that preserved in the Queste, the achievement of the task is not preceded by any failure
on the part of the hero, and the advantages derived therefrom are personal and spiritual, though
we are incidentally told that he heals the Fisher King's father, and also the old King,
Mordrains, whose life has been preternaturally prolonged. In the case of this latter it is
to be noted that the mere fact of Galahad's being the predestined winner suffices, and the
healing takes place before the Quest is definitely achieved.
Der glast kom sinem velle bî,
Parzival's schoen' was nu ein wint;
Und Absalôn Dâvîdes kint,
Von Askalûn Vergulaht
Und al den schoene was geslaht,
Und des man Gahmurete jach
Dô man'n in zogen sach
Ze Kanvoleis sô wünneclîch,
Ir dechéines schoen' was der gelîch,
Die Anfortas ûz siecheit truoc.
Got noch künste kan genuoc18."
There is no Waste Land, and
the wounding of the two Kings is entirely unconnected with Galahad. We find hints, in the
story of Lambar, of a knowledge of the earlier form, but for all practical purposes it has
disappeared from the story19.
Analysing the above statements we find that the results may be grouped under certain
(a) There is a general consensus of evidence to the effect that the main object of the
Quest is the restoration to health and vigour of a King suffering from infirmity caused by
wounds, sickness, or old age;
But this much seems certain, the aim of the Grail Quest is two-fold; it is to benefit
(a) the King, (b) the land. The first of these two is the more important, as it is the
infirmity of the King which entails misfortune on his land, the condition of the one
reacts, for good or ill, upon the other; how, or why, we are left to discover for
(b) and whose infirmity, for some mysterious and, unexplained reason, reacts
disastrously upon his kingdom, either depriving it of vegetation, or exposing it to the
ravages of war.
(c) In two cases it is definitely stated that the King will be restored to youthful
vigour and beauty.
(d) In both cases where we find Gawain as the hero of the story,
and in one connected with Perceval, the misfortune which has fallen upon the country is
that of a prolonged drought, which has destroyed vegetation, and left the land Waste; the
effect of the hero's question is to restore the waters to their channel, and render the
land once more fertile.
(e) In three cases the misfortunes and wasting of the land are
the result of war, and directly caused by the hero's failure to ask the question; we are
not dealing with an antecedent condition. This, in my opinion, constitutes a marked
difference between the two groups, which has not hitherto received the attention it
deserves. One aim of our present investigation will be to determine which of these two
forms should be considered the elder.
Before proceeding further in our investigation it may be well to determine the precise
nature of the King's illness, and see whether any light upon the problem can be thus
In both the Gawain forms the person upon whom the
fertility of the land depends is dead, though, in the version of Diû Crône he is, to all
appearance, still in life. It should be noted that in the Bleheris form the king of the
castle, who is not
referred to as the Fisher King, is himself hale and sound; the wasting of the land was
brought about by the blow which slew the knight whose body Gawain sees on the bier. In
both the Perlesvaus, and the prose Perceval the King has simply 'fallen into
languishment,' in the first instance, as noted above, on account of the failure of the
Quester, in the second as the result of extreme old age.
In Chrétien, Manessier,
Peredur, and the Parzival, the King is suffering from a wound the nature of which,
euphemistically disguised in the French texts, is quite clearly explained in the German20.
But the whole position is made absolutely clear by a passage preserved in Sone de
Nansai and obviously taken over from an earlier poem. This romance contains a lengthy
section dealing with the history of Joseph 'd'Abarimathie,' who is represented as the
patron Saint of the kingdom of Norway; his bones, with the sacred relics of which he had
the charge, the Grail and the Lance, are preserved in a monastery on an island in the
interior of that country. In this version Joseph himself is the Fisher King; ensnared by
the beauty of the daughter of the Pagan King of Norway, whom he has slain, he baptizes
her, though she is still an unbeliever at heart, and makes her his wife, thus drawing the
wrath of Heaven upon himself. God punishes him for his sin:
"Es rains et desous l'afola
in a remarkable passage, we are told of the direful result entailed by this punishment
upon his land:
De coi grant dolor endura21."
"Sa tierre ert a ce jour nommée
Now there can be no possible doubt here, the condition of the King is sympathetically
reflected on the land, the loss of virility in the one brings about a suspension of the
reproductive processes of Nature on the other. The same effect would naturally be the
result of the death of the sovereign upon whose vitality these processes depended.
Lorgres, ch'est verités prouvée,
Lorgres est uns nons de dolour
Nommés en larmes et en plours,
Bien doit iestre en dolour nommés
Car on n'i seme pois ne blés
Ne enfes d'omme n'i nasqui
Ne puchielle n'i ot mari,
Ne arbres fueille n'i porta
Ne nus prés n'i raverdïa,
Ne nus oysiaus n'i ot naon
Ne se n'i ot beste faon,
Tant que li rois fu mehaigniés
Et qu'il fu fors de ses pechiés,
Car Jesu-Crist fourment pesa
Qu'à la mescréant habita22."
To sum up the result of the analysis, I hold that
we have solid grounds for the belief that the story postulates a close connection
between the vitality of a certain King, and the prosperity of his kingdom; the forces of
the ruler being weakened or destroyed, by wound, sickness, old age, or death, the land
becomes Waste, and the task of the hero is that of restoration23.
It seems to
me, then, that, if we desire to elucidate the perplexing mystery of the Grail romances,
and to place the criticism of this important and singularly fascinating body of literature
upon an assured basis, we shall do so most effectually by pursuing a line of investigation
which will concentrate upon the persistent elements of the story, the character and
significance of the achievement proposed, rather than upon the varying details, such as
Grail and Lance, however important may be their role. If we can ascertain, accurately, and
unmistakably, the meaning of the whole, we shall, I think, find less difficulty in
determining the character and office of the parts, in fact, the question solvitur
ambulando, the 'complex' of the problem being solved, the constituent elements will reveal
As a first step I propose to ask whether this 'Quest of the Grail' represents an
isolated, and unique achievement, or whether the task allotted to the hero, Gawain,
Perceval, or Galahad, is one that has been undertaken, and carried out by heroes of other
ages, and other lands. In the process of our investigation we must retrace our steps and
turn back to the early traditions of our Aryan forefathers, and see whether we
even in that remote antiquity, lay our hand upon a clue, which, like the fabled thread of
Ariadne, shall serve as guide through the mazes of a varying, yet curiously persistent,
I MS. Bibl. Nat., f. Franç. 12576, fo. 90.
2 Ibid. fo. 90vo, 91.
3 Diû Crône (ed. Stoll, Stuttgart, 1852). Cf. Sir Gawain at the Grail Castle
for both versions.
4 Cf. MS. B.N. 12576, fo. 154
5 Perceval, ed. Hucher, p. 466; Modena, p. 61.
6 Cf. Hucher, p. 482; Modena, p. 82.
7 Perceval li Gallois, ed. Potvin, II. 6048-52.
8 Ib. II. 6056 - 60.
9 Potvin, Vol. I. p. 15.
10 Ib. p. 26.
11 Ib. p. 86.
12 Ib. pp. 176, 178.
13 MS. B.N. 12576, ff. 221-222vo.
14 Mabinogion, ed. Nutt, p. 282.
15 Cf. Peredur (ed. Nutt), pp. 282, 291-92.
16 Parzival, Book V. II. 947-50.
17 Ib. Book vi. II. 1078-80.
18 Parzival, Book xvi. II. '275-86.
19 Cf. Morte Arthure, Malory, Book xvii.
Chap. 18. Note the remark of Mordrains that his flesh which has waxen old shall become young again.
20 Parzival, Bk. ix. II. 1388-92.
21 Sone de Nansai (ed. Goldschmidt, Stuttgart, 1899), II. 4775-76.
22 Sone de Nansai, II. 4841-56.
23 It is evidently such a version as that of Sone de Nansai, and Parzival, which underlies the curious statement of the Merlin MS.
B.N., f. Fr. 337, where the wife of the Fisher King is known as 'la Veve Dame,' while her
husband is yet in life, though sorely wounded.