Chretièn De Troyes’ The Story of the Grail: Compartmentalizing Morality

Chretièn De Troyes: Apparently medieval portraits looked a lot like contemporary bobble heads.

Chretièn De Troyes: Apparently medieval portraits looked a lot like contemporary bobble heads.

I must assume that something was lost in translation when reading Jean Chretièn De Troyes’ The Story of the Grail.  The narrative, which draws on Arthurian romances/legend, seems bipolar, sociopathic and lazy all at once.  Its heroes and protagonists compartmentalize in a manner that would have allowed them to easily navigate an Orwellian dystopian society and their moral code seems bizarrely fixed and contradictory.  It offers some interesting insights into medieval morality, or perhaps simply insights into concepts of entertainment in the medieval era.  The narrative follows a would-be night named Perceval, but abruptly shifts into a narrative about Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, disjunctively returns Perceval’s narrative before dismissing him entirely and returning to Gawain in time for the author to die midsentence and leaving the narrative unfinished.  That said, it has its moments.

 

 

Perceval likely wouldn't have scored high on an IQ test, but hey, there are cultural biases in those test and he was great with a giant penis lance.

Perceval likely wouldn’t have scored high on an IQ test, but hey, there are cultural biases in those test and he was great with a giant penis lance.

The narrative begins with an unnamed naïf who we later learn is named Perceval the Welshman, though he is most often referred to as the Red Knight.  It seems that in medieval England the Welsh were subject of the same type of stereotyping that Polish people and Newfoundlanders are today as one knight calls Perceval a dolt before it is stated that “Welshmen are by nature more stupid than beasts in the field”.  I’m not sure what the cause of this miswelshmandry is, but it seems to be a stereotype that Perceval struggles to overcome, most especially because the stereotype actually applies to him.  Perceval mistakes knights for angels and fancy tents for churches.  Perceval seems to exemplify the problems with blind adherence to absolute rules coupled with sociopathic tendencies. His mother gives him some ‘sensible’ rules to follow before he leaves to become a knight and as he leaves she faints and/or drops dead.  He’s not sure which it is, but rather than check on her he just leaves her laying there?  Then he comes across a tent which he mistakes for a church because it looks fancy, and so he goes into pray.

 

 

This is what I image Perceval's life goals look like.

This is what I image Perceval’s life goals look like.

In the tent that the sociopathic compartmentalization is exhibited in an instance of what can only be called medieval rape culture.  Perceval, not yet the Red Knight, enters and finds a maiden in the tent.  His mother told him to only kiss maidens, the purpose of this instruction being that he not ‘ruin’ them.  So he kisses the maiden, despite her overt protestations.  It is a rule, after all, which his mother gave him. He also eats some meat pies, drinks some wine and takes her ring (as that was another instruction his mother passed down to him).  After he leaves the maiden’s boyfriend arrives and not only assumes that she has been raped, but also that she liked it.  The maiden’s boyfriend later claims that “it’s a well-known fact that a woman wants to win every battle but this one”, ‘this one’ being rape.  She is eventually tortured by her boyfriend, but he is defeated by Perceval, who has by that point in the narrative become the Red Knight, and all is corrected as she is returned to her boyfriend/torturer after he makes amends?

 

Helen Mirren is one in a long list of actresses who have played Arthurian maidens.

Helen Mirren is one in a long list of actresses who have played Arthurian maidens.  She played Morgana in the film Excalibur.

The presentation of women is obviously problematic.  They are often not even referred to by name in most instances.  One lord has two daughters, neither of whom is named.  They are simply referred to as the elder daughter and younger daughter, as if the only thing that is important is their constructed role within the familial structure.  Their names, identities and goals are unimportant.  Likewise most maidens are only referred to as maidens and are often linked with a knight who may or may not be named.  In identifying them only as daughters, or wives, of mothers, or by the status of their virginity with terms like ‘maiden’, the women are reduced to base functions or defined by their relationships with the men around them.  They essentially have no identity and are defined by social place markers.  Their standing is also unflattering.  Perceval is told not to openly say that he learned things from his mother, because it makes him sound foolish, whilst other women are described through their vices or inability to defend themselves, defining them by their need for a man to protect them.  In such cases they are often presented as manipulative as well as uncaring and lacking empathy (ironic considering the nature of the heroes in the work).  One man suggests that as “long as a woman can have her pleasure she doesn’t care about anything else.”  Not a flattering portrayal of women to say the least.  This type of misogyny is strung throughout the work.

 

 

Keira Knightley played the most popular Arthurian maiden, Guinevere, in the film King ARthur.

Keira Knightley played the most popular Arthurian maiden, Guinevere, in the film King Arthur.

Perceval, though the hero of the first half of the narrative, is a fucking moron.  Not only does he leave his mother to die before sexually assaulting (?) a maiden whom he thinks he is somehow protecting, but he doesn’t even know what sex is.  In one castle a maiden is so smitten with him that she sneaks into his bedchamber in almost nothing and gets into bed with him (he, it is said, had no trouble falling asleep despite having heard the dire troubles faced by the people who were boarding him up for the night, whilst the maiden was in capable of sleeping, demonstrating Perceval’s utter lack of empathy).  Perceval is described as not knowing the pleasures of sex and is completely unaware of the forward advances.  She let him kiss her all night, and as the author is sure to tell us, it did not “displease her”, though she was likely wondering why the fuck he wasn’t whipping it out, but such are the trials of a maiden using sex to convince a knight to defend her honour when the knight doesn’t know the pleasures of sex and is too dull to realize the link between kissing and the fact that he stands up at attention during such moments.  Seriously?  Even monkey can figure out how to masturbate.  Later, when he is asked his named by another maiden, he replied that he thinks it is Perceval the Welshman.  This guy doesn’t even know his own name?  She affirms that Perceval is his name and then also lets him in on the fact that she is his first cousin, who formerly lived under the same roof for a number of years and that his mother is dead.  He also meets his uncle who has to explain their familial relations as well.  Despite the fact that Perceval’s IQ would likely somewhere south of 60 (not that I mean to anachronistically project such tests into the medieval era), he still manages to defeat everybody he comes up against, and each time grants them mercy and sends them to turn themselves in to King Arthur under the name of the Red Knight, which they all do because apparently they are, despite being tyrants, also ‘honourable’?  Compartmentalize much?  I get the impression like there were very few people in the era who would have done well enough on the GRE to get into grad school.

 

 

Gawain: not as bad as the De Troyes bobble-head portrait, but still, nothing to write home about.

Gawain: not as bad as the De Troyes bobble-head portrait, but doesn’t quite look like the pimp De Troes describes him as.

De Troyes was likely as tired of Perceval as the reader and so abruptly shits to a narrative about Gawain.  Gawain seems to be at least a little smarter than Perceval, but his narrative makes little sense, an aspect of the narrative that is not assisted by the fact that the story breaks off mid-sentence.  Several times Gawain is accused of killing people’s fathers or brothers or other familial relations, and Gawain never actually denies doing any of this, though none of it is confirmed either.  We don’t even get a context to these alleged killings.  He is supposed to have confrontations with as many as three people, none of which materialize, though the final one would have had the author survived long enough to finish the narrative.  This is not certain, of course, since the narrative seemed to suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder.  I’m a narrative about a dunce Welshman.  I’m a narrative about a would-be rapist.  I’m a narrative about a Red Knight. I’m a narrative about Gawain.  I’m narrative about a Red Knight.  No, I’m a narrative about Gawain.  And there is a grail somewhere around here but the author is going to take so fucking long to get to the grail that he will actually die before he gets there.  Even the tenses and perspective seems to shift.  The author seems to be subservient to Gawain in parts, and speaks in past tense and future tense and present tense.  This guy couldn’t make up his mind.  And don’t even get me onto the facial-hair rant he goes on.  When describing a group of knights, he goes onto to tell the reader how many had beards and how many didn’t and how many had white hair.  I assumed this was to let the reader know the general statistics concerning ages of the knights, but then he started rambling on about how some shaved their mustaches and some didn’t, while some shaved their beards, and how some could only grow thin beards.  De Troyes clearly had some sort of facial-hair fetish.

 

 

 

John William Waterhouse's 'The Lady of Shallot Looking At Lancelot' is based on Arthurian legend.

John William Waterhouse‘s ‘The Lady of Shallot Looking At Lancelot’ is based on Arthurian legend.

The author also had some lazy an awkward moments.  After abruptly leaving Perceval, whose name is in the subtitle, the author abruptly returns to his narrative, placing it five years into the future before abruptly cutting his narrative off again and then announcing that the “tale no longer speaks of Perceval”.  The narrative finishes with Gawain, whose name is not in the subtitle?  When speaking to battles that takes place, De Troyes seems to have no interest in detailing them, overtly stepping outside of the narrative to tell the reader he isn’t going to bother with the details.  At one point he says: “it seems to me a waste of effort to elaborate upon it”.  On another occasion he writes: “I do not want to waste my efforts, since one word is as good as twenty”.  This sentence would actually be interesting to unpack if it weren’t coming from an inconsistent narrator who seems more lazy than thoughtful and who expressed an omniscient understanding in some points, a limited guestimation in others, and places himself as a first-person narrator subservient to one of the characters whilst not explaining how he happens to know all of this information.  Can one word say as many as twenty?  Certainly, and certainly not.  It is an interesting claim, but one which seems to be thrown in as an excuse for De Troyes to ‘get back to the good stuff’, rather than one that is meant to challenge how we perceive the value of words.

 

Not even Hitler would have tolerated the kind of animal cruelty suggests by Arthurian knights, even if he agree with their antisemitism.

Not even Hitler would have tolerated the kind of animal cruelty suggests by Arthurian knights, even if he agree with their antisemitism.

Then there is the anti-Semitism.  When Perceval’s mother is explaining Christ to Perceval, she explains him as the man “whom the Jews greatly defiled”.  I’m guessing that she couldn’t read Latin, otherwise she might have realized that it was the Romans who did that and the Jesus himself was actually Jewish.  Medieval stoner says: “Jesus was Jewish?  Medieval mind blown!”  Later in the work one person speaks of Jewish people as the “wicked Jews, whom we should kill like dogs”.  Kill like dogs?  I’m not sure I like this.  It is combining animal cruelty with anti-Semitism to create the ultimate asshole (not to be confused with the Ultimate Warrior).  Why are these guys killing dogs?  And why are they being so cruel about it?  And what is their problem with Jewish people?  This is just all kinds of wrong.

 

 

John William Waterhouse's 'The Lady of Shalott'.  JWW really liked her a lot.

John William Waterhouse’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’. JWW really liked her a lot.

The work is a translation, and I’m not sure how much of the issues are due to the translation, but I get the feeling that they root problem is the source material.  Though poorly written by today’s standards, it is unfair to hold medieval work to contemporary standards as such an approach takes the works grossly and anachronistically out of context.  That said, regardless of the quality (or lack thereof), the work serves as an interesting piece in two ways.  One, it is just so absurd, surreal and ridiculous, that it is entertaining.  I mean, this work can be seen as being on par with works from the absurd theatre in some respects.  I certainly laughed out loud at points and had some enjoyable eye rolls.  The work also serves as an interesting historical document.  It is unclear if the work serves as a reflection of medieval values, or simply medieval entertainment.  It is very likely that medieval audiences were laughing at much of the behaviour displayed in such narratives.  Either way, it is an interesting read if nothing else.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the laughs – you are funny. Medieval texts are pretty hilarious when viewed through our 21st-century lens, although, as you note, they’re important historical documents that enthusiasts hungrily devour to the last crumb.

    What I find really trippy about Chrétien, Malory, et al is that the authors are reporting on events that happened as early as 468 A.D. That’s not easy to get one’s head around. In that way, the Arthurian legends that were finally plunked down on paper have more in common with oral culture — hence the many extant variations on the Arthurian stories. The Arthurian texts remind me of the freakiness of Grimm’s Household Tales, that pagan bible, if you will, of the collected tales of pre-literate Europe. Instead of trying to make sense of the narrative, we have to look for archetypes, patterns, stock characters, and themes – admittedly not easy to do in texts in which sometimes a lance is, as you say, a penis, and sometimes it’s just a lance.

    As well, are the values and attitudes expressed those of Chrétien, or was he trying to recreate a much earlier time? For example, is the scene in which Perceval assaults the sleeping maiden with twenty kisses a reflection of the rape culture of Chretien’s time, or is Chretien commenting on how barbaric those early Britons were? I mean, clearly even a monkey (masturbating or otherwise) can see that the maiden’s jealous boyfriend is a brute. So many of the episodes are meant to be instructive in some way.

  2. lol… laughing out loud at the masturbating monkey! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Forgot to mention that you might be interested in the 1991 movie The Fisher King, which features the Fisher King legend from The Story of the Grail.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHaZuRo3DZ4

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