A vessel for a voyage of discovery

Chretien de Troyes: - Sealed in Parchment:
February 3, 1995

Hit befel in the dayes of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned, that there was a myghty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil."

These sonorous words open what for many remains the supreme achievement of Arthurian literature, the Morte d'Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory. Caxton's fittingly magnificent edition of Malory's oeuvre was printed in 1485, the date to which old-fashioned English school histories ascribed the close of the Middle Ages.

It is intriguing to compare Malory's opening with that of the first Grail romance, the Perceval of Chretien de Troyes, which was written about the year 1182. "It was at the time when trees blossom, when thickets come into leaf and meadows grow green, and birds in their own tongue sing sweetly in the morning, and everything is aflame with joy, that the son of the widow of the remote forest wilderness awoke, and lightly saddled up his hunter and seized three javelins, and thus equipped he fared forth from his mother's manor."

Malory's kingdom lies in a distant and ultimately doomed age of greatness, while Chretien's cheerful verses depict a bright and eager youth, stepping lightly out into the fresh spring dawn in a forest identified neither in time nor in space.

The sources upon which Malory grounded his majestic history were medieval French Grail prose romances, which in turn derived from adaptations or continuations of metrical romances composed by trouv res of the 12th and 13th centuries. Of these Chretien de Troyes was the first and most gifted, who wrote his five great Arthurian poems during the latter part of the 12th century. Erec et Enide is based on the folktale motif known as Patient Griselda, in which a loyal wife undergoes suffering and injury before convincing her mistrustful husband of her true worth. Clig s relates the adventures of a gallant knight, which refer in little more than name to the renowned court of King Arthur. Le chevalier de la charette boldly recounts the tale of the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, whose adulterous theme does not appear to have shocked its fair dedicatee. (Marie of Champagne was after all half-sister to Richard Coeur-de-lion, who might himself have ridden in the lists at Carlisle or Camelot.) The eponymous hero of Yvain, Knight of the Lion, lived for a while as a wild man in the forest with a lion for a companion, until he was civilised by love and so fitted to become a paladin of Arthur's court.

What little is known of Chretien de Troyes derives from passing allusions contained in his surviving poems. His name indicates that he was born, or at any rate dwelt, in Troyes, the capital of Champagne, whose brilliant countess urged him to write his romance of Lancelot. For reasons that remain unknown Chretien subsequently repaired to the court of the crusading Count Philippe of Alsace, to whom he dedicated his most celebrated and influential poem. This was the story of Perceval, Le Conte du Graal, which remains incomplete, possibly owing to the poet's death.

Primarily it represents a vivid portrayal of the gradual attainment of the chivalric ideal. The charm of diction, the lively characterisation and the skilled narrative development derive largely from the genius of the poem's maker. But it is clear that the plot did not originate with him. Chretien himself states at the outset that his work was fashioned from matter contained in a book, Il Contes del Graal, which was given him by Count Philip of Flanders.

What lies in turn behind the poet's source has fascinated scholars for a century and more. The Grail Vessel bears so many facets that it is scarcely surprising that it has attracted a plethora of explanations, ranging from scholarly to speculative. Where one writer detects Cathar doctrines skilfully concealed from the baleful gaze of the Church, another sees Hermetic mysteries transmitted from Egypt by the learned Moors of Spain. Or was it the distorted image of a Byzantine mass, a historical image of the crippled Baldwin IV of Flanders, or even Jessie Weston's Phrygian vegetation cult of Attis, nurtured through untold centuries by a succession of proto-feminists lurking deep among the mountains of North Wales?

The principal provenance, not only of the Grail mystery but of much else that is enigmatic in the story, probably lies in insular Celtic legends of Cups of Plenty and Horns of Wisdom, possibly reaching France through the medium of Norman settlers in Britain. But it is likely that influences on the legend had become multifarious by the time it came to be refashioned by Chretien, and the text will undoubtedly long continue to provide fertile ground for exploration and interpretation.

Le conte du Graal is thus both a unique delightful and seminal work of literature, and a possible source of lost esoteric wisdom or vanished arcane ritual. Admirers of great poetry, medievalists, Celtic scholars, and adepts of religio-historical conundrums alike may rejoice at the fact that at last a fully satisfactory scholarly edition has become available, thanks to the indefatigable labours and superb scholarship of Keith Busby. Hitherto scholars have been obliged to rely upon the edition of Hilka (1932), which, though a fine work of scholarship for its day, suffered from notable deficiencies. Hilka had not consulted all the manuscripts, which resulted in unsatisfactory or inadequate selection of variant readings, and misguidedly sought to emend the text in light of the Champagne dialect supposed to have been employed by Chretien. The alternative edition was that of Roach (1959), which, although accurate, suffers the grave disadvantage of being in effect a single-manuscript edition.

Busby scrupulously deploys all manuscript readings, from which he has cautiously established a valid text. At the same time he warns the reader against any unwary assumption that the variant readings can be dispensed with. None of the surviving manuscripts is contemporary with the time of Chretien, nor do they originate from Champagne, so that the full apparatus criticus remains an essential tool. This Busby has provided in exemplary fashion, and his edition will undoubtedly remain the definitive version for decades to come.

Sandra Hindman's study is not directly concerned with the work of Chretien himself, but with the beautiful and informative illustrations that adorn many of the manuscripts containing his poetry. Her careful analysis elicits many unexpected insights into important 13th-century social and artistic matters. It was a period when the aristocracy faced increasing challenge from the developing Capetian monarchy, as well as other socio-economic ills. Their landless younger sons, bachelors, sought to recover wealth and status through warfare and successful marriage, and Hindman contends that contemporary illustrations in manuscripts of Yvain and L'Atre perilleux emphasise the status and career of these fortune-seeking cadets of noble houses.

She assigns Le Conte du Graal to an intermediate point between oral and literate cultures, and has much to say about the relationship between reading and social issues. Her book is replete with original suggestions, as well as intriguing details, such as the fact that needle-holes appearing above some miniatures indicate they were originally protected by silk flaps.

The appearance of two such masterly works of scholarship on important aspects of the mati re de Bretagne reflects the enduring fascination evoked by the work of one of the greatest poets of medieval Europe.

Nikolai Tolstoy is a historian and biographer.

Chretien de Troyes:: Le Roman de Perceval ou Le Conte due Graal

Author - Keith Busby
ISBN - 3 484 503 0
Publisher - Max Niemeyer Verlag
Price - DM196
Pages - 583pp

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