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Arthurian legend

THE STORY OF SIR PERCEVAL OF GALLES

The tale of Sir Perceval of Galles is a Middle English version of the famous story of Sir Perceval, first told by Chrétien de Troyes in the late-twelfth century. Found also in the Thornton Manuscript, or Lincoln Cathedral MS 91, a volume dating to around 1440, this idiosyncratic English version makes no mention of Chrétien's Graal and has an ending all of its own. Its language and rhyming suggests that it may have been composed in fourteenth century East Anglia.

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, upholding his honour and proving 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 a 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 defective 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 cultured.

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 astounded 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 the spitting image of 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 that 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, distraught. '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.

'Hoi!' 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 should break the point of my spear in a branch, a fire will release the iron,' he thought, so he went off to gather firewood and kindling and then, taking his fire-iron and flint, kindled a flame. Then he went off to gather a lot more wood and soon had a roaring bonfire on which to put the Red Knight so that he could free all his armour. But Sir Gawain had followed Perceval and soon 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!' exclaimed 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 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. In this way do men travel to the Land of Women. Forth he rode, among men who did not know him, unrecognised, towards adventure. 11

Let us leave young Perceval a while in God's blessing and turn to King Arthur. The king has experienced so much grief at the loss of Perceval that he has taken to his bed. He sighs heavily, his heart is near to being broken.

As he lay thus, the messenger came with letters from the Lady Amour. The king could not stand, so he read them lying down.

'You can see your answer for yourself!' he said. 'A man who is sick may not travel to fight in the field.'

The messenger was aggrieved. 'Then this place of safety offers no safety whatsoever!' he cried. 'Why did I not turn and accompany that young knight after all?'

'Which young knight was that?' asked the king. 'There are no men in my land worthy to be called 'knight', except for these three: Gawain, Yvain and Kay.' 12

'I have no idea of his name, although I would have liked to have learnt it. I could only get from him that he was his mother's son, but he was strong and healthy, bold and aggressive and had been lately in battle. His horse was blood red and so was all his armour and his surcoat, and all of fine quality, as befits a knight.'

The king commanded that his horse and arms be brought to him at once: 'It is Perceval!' he cried.

For the love of Perceval they all fell to their arms; Gawain, Yvain, Kay and the king took their horses and set off, frightened that if they did not make haste the child would be killed before they arrived. The king took these three knights with him, and himself the fourth, and they rode like the wind.

Perceval traversed the plain and crossed the mountains into the Land of Women. And about evening he saw a large number of pavilions surrounding a city. The sultan, who was a giant, was away hunting, but he had left a large guard over the castle. Four hundred were by the gates alone, well armed and with weapons at the ready. Perceval raced towards them before anyone had time to gather his wits, but then one of them grabbed his bridle and asked where he thought he was rushing to.

'I have come to see the sultan,' replied Perceval, 'for he will shortly be killed, in faith, if I can find him!

When they heard that he had undertaken to kill their sultan, they made every effort to seize him. Perceval trampled under his horse's feet the man who held his bridle, and then laid waste about him with the point of his spear. He fought from midnight until dawn, and there was no one who could stand even half a stroke of his sword. He made the saracens’ head bones hop like hail upon the grass! When dawn broke, they all lay dead.

By now, Perceval was so tired that he cared neither for life nor for death, but only for a place to rest. The only safety he could find, however, was beneath the castle wall itself, in a hollow beside a postern gate. His horse stood over him as he lay exhausted.

When the sun rose, the watch came out onto the top of the wall and saw the carnage by the gates. They were astounded. Hundreds lay dead. The Lady Amour was called to see for herself.

The lady came, Lady Amour the beautiful; she climbed the steps onto the castle wall and down below she saw heads and helmets and many shields lying, I tell you no lie. They all marvelled how this had come about, and who might have done it all and then failed to make himself known to the gatekeeper.

And as they looked all around, they peered down at the foot of the wall and saw a great red horse and a bloody knight lying at its feet. Then said the Lady Amour: 'He is the one who has done all this; either he is asleep or he is himself dead, for his armour is covered in blood.' She called her chamberlain, a courteous and noble man, and instructed him to go and see whether the knight was alive. 'If he is,' she said, 'ask him to come and speak with me.'

The chamberlain went beneath the wall and woke the knight up. And as it was told to me, he knelt down and said: 'My lady, the beautiful Amour, awaits you in her chamber and urges you to come to her, if you will.'

Perceval arose courteously and went with the chamberlain to meet the Lady Amour. She was delighted to see him and asked whether he knew anything about the bodies lying on the grass outside the gates.

'I had no desire to kill them,' replied Perceval, earnestly. 'I have come to kill the sultan, and they tried to stop me.'

The lady could see that Perceval was a powerful warrior and was overjoyed to hear what he had to say. He would make her a good husband, she thought, if he could win her in the field. They led his horse to a stable and Perceval into a hall, where he was given a meal. Perceval was given a chair of gold at the high table and seated opposite the fairest maiden in the world. And she made such friendly and entertaining conversation as they fell to their food that Perceval had soon committed himself openly to killing the sultan.

'When the sultan and I meet in battle,' he declared, 'I shall burst his pride with the point of my spear!'

'Whoever does so,' the maiden responded, 'shall win this kingdom, and me as well, to do with as he likes.'

Perceval was only a little way into his first course when news came that the enemy was gathering. Through their anger at the massacre that had taken place by the gates, the saracens had nearly broken into the city. The bells were ringing to summon all to arms.

Perceval leapt from the table – for his manners were less than proper. 'Friends, now I go! I shall kill them all before I die!' he shouted. The maiden kissed him, set his helmet upon his head and then Perceval went to fetch his horse. In his rage, no man dared ride with him. He rode out alone.

When he came to the enemy ranks Perceval raced in at a gallop and all the blows that were aimed at him bounced off his armour as though he was made of stone! The mighty and the feeble fell before him with equal indignity. By midday there was not a man left alive on the whole field. Perceval looked about him to see if there was anyone left to kill and in the distance he caught sight of four knights riding towards him. 'If one of these is the sultan,' he said to himself, 'I shall do as I have promised.'

Perceval rode towards them as the lady watched from the battlements. She had seen the carnage and now saw him engage with yet another four knights and she feared that exhaustion may overcome him, for they seemed to be very powerful warriors, these four.

King Arthur gazed at the advancing figure. 'I see a bold knight riding towards us with what I can only surmise to be malicious intent,' he said. 'It would bring us very little honour, however, if the four of us were to set upon him all at once.' So they tossed a coin 13 and it fell upon Sir Gawain to meet the knight. Delighted, Gawain rode off.

At first, Gawain felt that he was destined not to recognise the knight bearing down on him, but as he drew near, he glimpsed the red arms and guessed that it was Perceval, so he made no threatening gestures but made his horse stand still. 'I am a fool for getting myself into this position,' he told himself. But perhaps this is not Perceval; perhaps he has been killed already and this is another man. If I were to back down now, and then find that it is not Perceval, my reputation will be ruined. I will not let that happen by God! I will set a lance to him, and judge by the outcome who is sitting in that saddle.'

They came together, their shields clashed and each lance broke to the hilt with the impact. Perceval cried out: 'I have never met such a sultan as you! I have killed four hundred of your men and it seemed like child's play compared to the blow that you've just given me! But I shall return it with interest.'

From these words, Gawain knew that it was the child Perceval. 'I am no sultan!' he cried. 'I'm the man who dressed you in that armour. And I give you the prize. My name is Sir Gawain. Do you remember when you were about to burn that knight because you could think of no other way of removing his armour?'

Perceval knew then who it was he was fighting against and put up his visor; they kissed and embraced one another, these bold warriors. And as they were talking, King Arthur rode up. He was glad to see them greeting one another as cousins should and they all rode to the castle, where the lady welcomed them all, and Perceval in particular.

'You are my knight in shining armour!' she cried. Their horses were taken to the stables and the king made his way to the hall with his three knights, and with the lady, where a fine meal was spread before them all. She entertained them with the finest wines and the choicest conversation, and she asked about the child Perceval and questioned how he could be so accomplished in battle and yet so untutored in the finer arts of courtesy and well-mannered behaviour. She had seen nothing so far but his roughness. And King Arthur explained that his father had been killed and his mother had taken him as a baby into the wild forest to bring him up in seclusion, so it was little wonder if he was a bit wild.

When King Arthur had explained all this, he turned to speak with others, but Perceval piped up: 'If I am not yet a knight,' he demanded, 'you must do as you promised and make me one!'

'Your work is not finished,' said the king. 'You shall win your spurs upon the sultan.'

'Then lead me to him!' said Perceval.

But there was nothing left to do that day except go to bed and rest.

Early the next morning, the sultan discovered what had happened in his absence and, learning that one man had been responsible for it all, he rode to the castle walls.

'Although you have killed all my men,' he cried, 'you shall find Golrotherame ready to fight with you here, on the condition that it shall be to the death!

King Arthur, Lady Amour and all in the tower agreed to these terms on Perceval's behalf and called the lad to them. King Arthur dubbed him 'knight'; for although he was very ignorant he was magnificent in battle, but he urged him to show some breeding. The king dubbed him Sir Perceval the Welshman. And so King Arthur made Perceval a knight in the Land of Women.

No more speeches were made and Sir Perceval rode out to meet the sultan. They rode at one another without any further ado. Perceval knocked the sultan out of his saddle and the heathen's horse ran off. 'You have received what I promised you would,' cried Sir Perceval, 'and now I shall make it stick,' and he pinned the sultan to the ground with the point of his spear. Perceval tried to kill him, but could find no way of doing so. In desperation: 'I shall make a fire,' he declared, uncertainly.

'Why don't you get off your horse and use your sword?' shouted Sir Gawain.

'Horse?' replied Sir Perceval. But the sultan had already got to his feet; he drew his sword and struck at Sir Perceval with it repeatedly.

'Now you have shown me what to do!' cried Sir Perceval. He dismounted and took a swing at the sultan with his sword that carried the sultan's head clean off. He returned to gather his horse, and the maiden, Lady Amour, jumped for joy.

Perceval rode happily into the castle and went up to the maiden's private rooms. Each was glad of his victory. What more needs to be said? They were married the very next day.

And so Perceval is now king of all he surveys. King Arthur takes his leave, for Perceval is now married to the lady, and now rules over all her lands.

Perceval ruled well and the people loved him. And for twelve months he lived with the Lady Amour; but then his thoughts turned to his mother whom he had left living only on what she could gather from the forest, and on spring water. Eating grass and drinking water from pools; it is no lie! She lived thus, in the ancient forest, like an animal. 14

So he made to set off to find her, and no one could persuade him otherwise. He took his leave. Lady Amour tried to talk him into staying until the end of Twelfth Night, but to no avail. He called a priest, heard Mass, and departed.

Perceval rode alone, I tell you in all faith, until he came to the edge of a forest, and there he found a woman crying out to the Virgin Mary for help. And the Virgin sent it amazingly quickly, I have to say, for Perceval came upon the woman almost at once, bound hand and foot to a tree. He asked her who had done this to her and she replied: 'Sir, the Black Knight. He has done this to me, for a transgression that I made twelve months ago, on Christmas Day. As I lay upon my bed asleep, someone, be he knight or king I have no idea, stole the ring from my finger and left me his, which was much the inferior. For the one he took has a stone that is unique. Whoever wears it cannot be hurt by any blow in battle, and cannot die.'

Immediately, Perceval knew that he had been the one who had caused the lady all this woe. He released the lady and they both sat on the ground together. And realising how tired he was, Perceval fell asleep with his head on the lady's knee. But he did not sleep for long, for the lady soon cried: 'Wake up! Here comes the Black Knight! Run for your life!'

'Did you not tell me just now that I could not die?' retorted Perceval as he set his helmet on his head. But before he could mount his horse, the Black Knight had appeared.

'What is going on here?' cried the Black Knight. 'Were you making love together? You shall pay for this!'

'We shall see about that!' cried Perceval. They fell upon each other like hardened warriors, with shield and lance. Sir Perceval bore down upon the Black Knight and would have delivered a fatal blow had not the lady intervened. Sir Perceval spared his life. 'And here is the ring,' he said. 'If you have the one I left with you, we shall exchange them and I shall be happy to have my own back.'

'It is too late for that,' said the Black Knight. 'That ring is no longer yours. As soon as I saw it I took it to the lord of this land, who is a giant, and anyone who asks for it now will be given short shrift!' 15

Perceval was furious and galloped away. The giant was in his castle and saw Sir Perceval approaching. 'How can this happen?' he called to his gatekeeper, 'that a man rides freely in my land? Give me my battle weapons and he will soon wish that he was somewhere else.'

Grasping an iron club, he went to meet Sir Perceval. The club was heavy enough to fell a knight in full armour: the head alone weighed twelve stones! They met on a windswept moor far from any town.'

'By the gods! Are you the one who killed Golrotherame?' asked the giant. 'He was my brother!'

'By the grace of God, I shall kill all giants like you!' replied Perceval.

Such a violent meeting has seldom been seen, before or since. The valleys echoed to the blows. The giant would have killed Perceval with his club, but the young knight stepped inside the blow and prepared to deliver one of his own. The club fell to the earth and embedded itself in the ground and Perceval thrust his sword into the giant's neck and then cut off his hand and his left foot.

'You would have been better off with a lighter club,' he observed, helpfully.

The giant let go of his club and struck Perceval a blow with his fist. Perceval was so angry that he cut off that hand as well. Then he cut off the giant's head.

Perceval left him lying there and rode to the castle. The porter saw his master slain and dared not withhold entry to the young knight. Perceval asked him about the ring and the porter led him to the giant's chest where all his gold was stored, and invited Perceval to take whatever he wanted. Perceval tipped all the gold out onto the floor and there was the ring. 'A curse on the day that ever that ring was made!' cried the porter.

'Why?' asked Sir Perceval.

'Because one day my master went to woo a lady and gave her that ring as a token of his love. "Where did you get that ring?" she screamed at him. "Thief! You have killed my son and taken the ring from him." She tore her clothes and went into the wood to live as a lunatic, naked, and has been there ever since. I have tried to catch her, but as soon as I come near, she flies off like a startled animal.' 16

'I shall go after her at once, myself, but not on horseback like a huntsman. I will go on foot to capture that lady,' said Perceval. 'I ought to be able to bring her out of her grief, for I am her son.'

And so Perceval entered the deep forest, wearing only the skin of a goat. For seven days he searched, but could find no trace of his mother. He was so focused upon his task that he neither ate nor drank; until on the ninth day, he came to a natural spring in the forest and paused to drink. And when he left the spring, he was aware suddenly of a lady beside him. When she saw him, she was startled and looking at his goatskin cried: 'I had a son like that once!' Perceval was delighted to hear this and crept closer to her, calling: 'Mother dear, stay still!' And when he was so close that she could not escape, she turned on him and would have killed him if he had not been the stronger of the two. But he took her up on his back and brought her to the castle, where the porter let him in.

The giant had a special drink, as the story tells us, and the porter brought it to her, for he had no thought but for the lady. They gave her the drink with a spoon, and she slept for three days and three nights, with the porter awake by her side. And when at last the lady woke, she was back in her own state again and walking normally, as she had not been doing for some while. They all went down on their knees to thank God for this happy outcome. And they filled a bath for Perceval's mother and made her get into it.

Then Sir Perceval returned home with his mother, and the queen and all her lords welcomed him and were very joyful.

Afterwards, he went to the Holy Land, captured many cities, and there he was killed, as I understand. And so ended he. Now Jesus Christ, King of Heaven, as you are Lord of all things, grant us your blessing. Amen.

Translation and retelling of Sir Perceval of Galles copyright © 2001, 2016 by Richard Scott-Robinson

references

Perceval – Wikipedia

Sir Perceval of Galles – TEAMS Middle English text with an introduction

Sir Perceval of Galles – Wikipedia

Robert Thornton – Wikipedia

Medieval Institute Publications – ShopWMU – Brasswell, Mary Flowers (Ed), 1995. Sir Perceval of Galles and Yvain and Gawain. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University for TEAMS. Medieval Institute Publications. TEAMS Middle English texts

notes

  1. This is probably the romance that Geoffrey Chaucer refers to in his Canterbury tale of Sir Thopas... 'him-self [Sir Thopas] drank water of the wel, as did the knight sir Percivel, so worthy under wede...'

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  2. Perceval sets out to find the 'Great God' and encounters three knights of King Arthur. Is this significant? The knights are dressed all in green. Otherworldly denizens are often dressed in a monocolour, usually scarlet or green. Compare this with the Green Knight in the famous alliterative poem, or the ladies that Sir Degaré encounters in a mysterious castle in which he appears to be invisible, or the twelve damsels that Helgi Thorisson encounters in the forest.

    Perceval has set off to discover the Great God and very shortly, as the reader will soon discover, ends up at the court of King Arthur. Did the author of Sir Perceval of Galles know exactly what he was doing?

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  3. There is a real sense of dislocation here.

    Given his impetuous nature, one fully expects Perceval to try to confront the King straight away. But he at once turns passively for home, as though believing that the King's presence is not immediately attainable.

    Perhaps the King is not standing on a nearby hill waiting for his knights to return to him, but lying within a nearby hill, waiting, like many a Tuatha de Danaan, or like a dead Irish chieftain of pagan memory, holding court within his mound, within his barrow upon the hill.

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  4. Since Perceval is intent upon reaching the legendary King Arthur, he may have to enter the Otherworld, the land from which no stranger returns, the land of the dead, in order to do so. We might further predict that Perceval may have to lose his identity, may enter King Arthur's Court knowing only that he is his mother's son, possessing nothing to shed any more light upon his identity. Or perhaps he will assume the identity of another. But by exchanging the ring, he has already conferred upon himself the gift of immortality, a necessity if he is to enter the land of the dead and return again.

    Don't believe me?

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  5. Like the Fair Unknown, Perceval has come to King Arthur's court with no knowledge of who he is. Like Malory's Knight of the Torn Shirt, we might expect him to leave King Arthur's court in disguise. Like the Fair Unknown, we may predict that Perceval will travel through the Otherworld as he journeys from King Arthur's court in his new arms.

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  6. 'We are knyghtis all thre · With Kyng Arthoure duelle [dwell] wee · That hovyn es on hyll... ... Then sayd Sir Gawayn hym [Perceval] till [to] · "Goo we faste fro this hill! · Thou hase done what thou will · It neghes nere nyghte." King Arthur was on a hill and unable to be reached when Perceval first encountered Sir Gawain, and Sir Gawain's reaction now seems to confirm that there is something spooky about hills!

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  7. Perceval seems in some sense fully to have taken on the character of the Red Knight now he is dressed in his arms. But this will probably not last for long. Hints are all that are required. And how likely is it anyway that the armour has fitted Perceval so well? It always seems to, though, in these stories.

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  8. Perceval has left his clothes lying beside the burning corpse on the bonfire and is wearing the Red Knight's armour. He tries to reassure the old lady, the Red Knight's mother, that old goat skins are lying beside the fire. Is he trying to make out that Perceval has died? Or an old goat? Anyway, the old lady is not reassured, and reminds her son that he can be reborn. 'Mi son, and [if] thou were thare slayne, and thyn armes of drawen [off drawn - taken off], I couthe hele the [heal you] agayne als [as] wele als thou wae are [were before].

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  9. This is a case of the author completely destroying the mythological effect. In Chretién de Troyes' original story of the Graal, Perceval encounters Sir Kay and Sir Gawain while wearing the Red Knight's arms and, unable to bring himself to his senses as though in a trance, is forced to act out his role as the Red Knight almost against his will. Hannah has been true to the version in the Thornton manuscript, and this moment has lost its force. Perhaps this is why Geoffrey Chaucer held such a low opinion of the work.

    But, unlike The Greene Knight, a tale included in British Library Additional MS 27879 (the Percy Folio), whose author removes all of the vitally pagan elements of the story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and leaves us nothing but an emasculated carapace, the author of Perceval of Galles seems to have known what he was about. Perhaps he simply chose to disguise his knowledge by mixing all his elements together in a new and disordered jumble. Maybe he felt it was safer that way. Possibly this was becoming an accepted literary style for those in the know.

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  10. 'Come the portere fro the gate, saide a man was theratte of the Maydenlande,' Mention of a Land of Maidens, or a Land of Women, should alert the reader to the imminent approach of a journey into the Otherworld – the land beyond the grave. The Land of Women is akin to the Celtic Land of Youth, or a land of regained youth. It occurs in the story of The Voyage of Bran and in the Middle English The Isle of Ladies. and perhaps it signifies the female nature of an afterlife, the return to the womb of an Earth mother.

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  11. Hannah has here smoothed over quite a difficult passage in the Thornton Manuscript version. Perhaps she was copying from an uncorrupted version, or maybe her own literary imagination is at work here. By hurrying the three sons on to King Arthur's Court, Perceval seems to be doing them no favours. This would tally with it being a kind of Valhalla, a place beyond the grave. And with their departure, Perceval seems able to take on yet another identity, like 'a man newborn, as though sprung from a stone - Als he ware sprongen of a stane,' – perhaps as much a suitably anonymous way to travel to the Land of Women as to King Arthur's now Otherworldly court.

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  12. This seems to be Hanna's own construction. The version in the Thornton manuscript has King Arthur say only that: 'In my land I know of no lord worthy to be called a knight.' But Hannah is right. Sir Gawain, Sir Kay and Sir Yvain are the three knights mentioned in the work. And perhaps she is drawing attention to the fact that King Arthur's three nephews should have arrived at court by now, although their arrival is not mentioned at all. But there are three knights there beside King Arthur, one of them King Arthur's own nephew Sir Gawain. Perhaps we have been invited by Hannah to consider a numerical significance that has not been laboured by the author of the Thornton manuscript version.

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  13. This is another idiosyncrasy introduced by Hannah. The Thornton Manuscript reads thus:

    Then sayd Arthoure the Kyng,
    "I se a bolde knyghte owt spryng;
    For to seke feghtyng,
    Forthe will he frayne.
    If he fare forth to fighte
    And we foure kempys agayne one knyght,
    Littill menske wold to us lighte,
    If he were sone slayne."
    They fore forthward right faste,
    And sone kevells did thay caste,
    And evyr fell it to frayste
    Untill Sir Wawayne.
    Then King Arthur said:
    "I see a knight approaching;
    a battle
    appears to be his intent.
    If he engages us
    and we all fight with him,
    little honour will fall to us
    if he is quickly killed."
    So they hurried to it
    and cast sticks;
    and always the one that fell to be chosen
    was Sir Gawain's.

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  14. A transformation seems to have come over Perceval's mother. And here, perhaps, we are coming close to the original mythological significance of a retreat into the wild forest, and one that Hannah seems intent upon highlighting. It is glimpsed in Sir Orfeo's ten year stay in the wilderness prior to his finding a way into the Otherworld to rescue his wife Eurydice. It is found in Sir Yvain's spell of madness, roaming the wild wood before losing his identity as Sir Yvain and taking the name The Knight of the Lion. And a clue to its meaning might be found in the romance of Octavian.

    The romance of Octavian offers a variation on a common theme that lies at the heart of many of these tales retold by Hannah. It sees a lady done away with, not by exile in a mysterious rudderless boat this time but by a journey through a forest, during which her children are carried away by a lioness and an ape. The one is suckled by the lioness, as though in confirmation of the Platonic (and ancient Egyptian) idea that souls are reborn as animals before being reincarnated once more as humans, an idea that can be seen to echo through many of these tales; Saint Brandon and Sir Eglamour of Artois, to name just two. The idea seems to be that before two successive human incarnations, a spell of existence in a wild forest or on an isle of birds or an isle of sheep or on a barren rock among seagulls is in order.

    Possibly this explains the forest seclusion of the youthful Sir Perceval and the Fair Unknown prior to travelling to King Arthur's court. And perhaps it now explains the condition of Sir Perceval's mother.

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  15. Giants often roam the land in which these Medieval tales are set. It is yet another indication that we have been led into the Otherworld, the land beyond the grave, a land in which the traveller may once more find himself reduced to the power and stature of a child.

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  16. Now we know the reason for Sir Perceval's mother taking on an animal existence. She died through grief at the supposed news that her son was dead.

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