The Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes, is one of the greatest literary works of all time. Written in the second half of the twelfth century, this poem tells the story of Perceval, a teenager raised in a forest by his mother, who encounters some knights, then sees, by chance, a grail in a castle. Not understanding the significance of this, he misses the chance to find out the true nature of the grail by not asking about it. He then wanders in the hopes of finding it again.
The story is both that of Perceval’s coming of age and his quest. The first part shows how this teenager, after being raised in a forest with no father, discovers the ways of the world: he discovers knights and kings, tastes the pleasures of love and the pain of combat. Naïve at first, he slowly adapts to his world, yet never really fits in. After he sees the grail in a castle that he came upon by chance, he then starts learning more about who he is and what the significance of this event might have been. He goes in search of the grail, yet, the text being unfinished, the reader can only speculate on the result of this quest.
While there are many versions of the story, the one by Chrétien de Troyes, the first one written, is psychologically the most powerful and is one of the great myths of the western world. There are several translations available of the Conte du Graal, probably read mostly by college students studying medieval literature. Yet I believe that this story deserves its rightful place as one of the classics of literature, and one of the most powerful myths in the West.
My goal in this translation is not to make a philological translation (although it is based on the authoritative edition of the Old French text and is as faithful as possible). There are scholars who have done so, but their translations often read like scholarly translations: boring, heavy, and stylistically flawed. I am trying to make a translation that can be read with the same lightness that I experienced when I read a modern French translation. This is not a boring story; far from it. But the translations that exist are not made for the average reader looking for a spiritual classic. My translation will also be, in part, a Jungian reading of the text. The symbolism of the Grail legend is extraordinary, and, as Jung and von Franz have shown, this legend can be seen as a paradigm of the process of individuation. I would like that to come through, and I would hope that the readers would be reading this text in part for its symbolic richness.
Individuation can be seen as the realization of self. It is the coming to terms with our inner world, and its unification with our conscious self. And it is the realization that as individuals we are different from the world around us, and that we can become unique. The Grail quest is a search for that indescribable uniqueness that is within all of us. Whether one sees it as the inner Christ, Buddha nature, or the Tao, it is all the same. Many people have an idea that something exists deep within them, but few can follow the path and seek it. Even fewer actually find it.
The Story of the Grail, or the Romance of Perceval, by Chrétien de Troyes
The following are links to PDFs of my translations, together with the original Old French.
1 – Prologue
4 – The Red Knight
This is all I’ve translated for now. Other installments may follow.
Little is known about Chrétien de Troyes. He died in the 1180s, but it is not known when he was born. He was probably a cleric, and was in the service of at least two important figures of his time, Marie de Champagne, and Count Philippe of Flanders.
His works mark the beginning of a tradition of narrative fiction in Europe. It also marks the beginning of the Arthurian Legend, at least in what we know today. It is very likely that the sources of this legend come from older folk tales and legends, but the text by Chrétien is the oldest surviving example.
His other works also dealt with similar themes: chivalry, romance, and Arthurian legend. He is the author of four other known texts: Erec et Enide, Cligès, Le Chevalier de la charrette, and Le Chevalier au Lion.
This text is written in Old French, which was the vernacular language in France at the time of its writing, and the works of Chrétien mark the birth of vernacular literature in France. The text was composed in verse, and written to be read aloud. Texts such as this were not read on paper; few people knew how to read, and books were very expensive until well after the 15th century. The text was read in what we would call today a performance, and was probably read in installments, being too long to be read all at once.
Unfortunately, this text is unfinished. It is likely that the text was composed completely, and perhaps even "performed" in a full version. But Chrétien did not live long enough to put it all down on paper. The mystery of this text owes a great deal to its unfinished nature, in the same way that Bach’s Art of Fugue has a greater force because we do not know exactly how it was meant to be finished. This leaves the imagination of the reader in a powerful position; that of being able to create the end of the myth.
Of course, we would not be the only ones to do so. There were many attempts to finish this story in the centuries after it was composed. This shows the power that the myth had even at its beginning. None of what is known as the Continuations have the same depth of symbolism and imagery.
More important, perhaps, than a study of the text, is an understanding of the period in which it was composed. The 12th century in Europe was a period of renaissance, or, more correctly, awakening from the Dark Ages. A number of new structures and systems were established.
The Catholic Church had succeeded in achieving Papal authority over most of Western Europe, and all of the Barbarians had been either converted or driven back. A new legal system was developed; universities were created. Towns were starting to grow, because of an overall increase in wealth, and more efficient agriculture (caused, in part, by warmer temperatures, which increased yields).
Castles and cathedrals became more common, since the techniques of building with stone were now established. The middle of the 12th century saw the beginning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
There were social changes also. The royal court became a place of exchange of ideas; chivalry and courtly love were born, and with them, the romantic literature that recounted their episodes. This literature was in the vernacular language, not in Latin. And music came into its own importance, particularly with the polyphony of Pérotin and Léonin.
France, and especially the area surrounding Paris, was a cultural melting pot. Scholars came from far away to attend the universities, bringing with them the ideas and legends from their own countries.
Here are some books, CDs and DVDs that are related to the Conte du graal.
Emma Jung & Marie-Louise von Franz
The Key text to understanding the symbolism and psychology of this story is The Grail Legend, by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz. The first half of the book is devoted to the Grail story of Chrétien, and the second half to the more Christian inspired story of Robert de Boron. The detailed discussion of the symbols in the story and their interrelationship makes this required reading for anyone who wishes to understand what lies behind this legend.
Robert Johnson’s book, He; Understanding Masculine Psychology is a short, concise attempt to present the Grail legend and its significance in understanding how male psychology manifest itself. The book has some drawbacks, however: while Johnson claims to be using the story by Chrétien, he refers to Perceval as Parsifal, and makes some mistakes in his presentation of the story itself. It is as if he never really read the story, but just its interpretation.
Chapter 14 of Norman F. Cantor’s book, The Civilization of the Middle Ages gives an enlightening account of the vast changes that took place in the twelfth century in Europe. The rest of the book will help situate what led to this period and what followed, and led to modern Europe.
Ken Follett, best known for his thrillers, wrote a book called The Pillars of the Earth. Described on the cover of the paperback edition I have as an "epic saga of love, passion, and revenge", this book tells the story of an Englishman who sets out to build cathedrals in the 12th century. While not being a "serious" book, it is interesting to read for its historical accuracy, and the images it gives of medieval life. It is also one heck of a good read. A recent TV mini-series based on this novel is a good way to see what the time looked like, though it’s certainly not entirely reliable.
Rohmer’s 1978 film, Perceval le Gallois, has the merits of following the original text perfectly, but suffers from an overall staleness, both in the acting, and in the images. It is all shot on stage, and the background are all made out of cardboard. Nevertheless, this film captures one aspect of the story, that of its narrative.
To understand what medieval life was like, Monty Python’s Holy Grail shows the true squalor and misery that was rampant during that period. The story itself has little to do with the Grail legend, and the character of Perceval is not even present. The film’s sets and costumes are more 14th century than 12th century.
Another film that shows medieval life in all of its tension and suffering is Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal. Set in the period of the Black Death, again, somewhat later than the Grail legend, this film gives a real understanding of the medieval conception of life and death.
Pérotin and Léonin
Hearing the first notes of Pérotin’s Viderunt Omnes one is transfixed by the hauntingly hypnotic feeling that comes through the music. If you close your eyes, you can almost go back in time. Yet this music also reminds us of minimalist music, by composers such as Steve Reich, or Arvo Pärt. Listen to the Hilliard Ensemble’s recording in the ECM New Series.
Another composer from the 12th century is Léonin. Two excellent discs of his music give an overview of his compositions, very similar in style to those of Pérotin. Magister Leoninus, Sacred Music from 12th-century Paris Volume 1 and Volume 2, performed by the Red Byrd ensemble on Hyperion Records.
How can one talk about the Grail and not mention Wagner’s Parsifal? Even if you do not like his music, listen to the overture from Parsifal, to discover the leitmotifs Wagner chose to interpret the different characters and events. This music has nothing to do with the middle ages, but many like this music. (It’s not my cup of tea.) An excellent version is a recording from Bayreuth in 1962, conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch, on Philips.