Quests and questions in medieval epics: Peredur, Perceval, Parzival; Gwalchmai, Gauvain, Gawan

1 Below is a rough-and-ready table, which shows parallels and differences between the Welsh medieval tale, Peredur, the late 11th century epic by Chrétien de Troyes in French, and the German epic by Wolfram von Eschenbach (circa 1200).  Much is left out, eg regarding the respective styles of the writers.  (Fuller summaries can be found elsewhere.)

Peredur Perceval Parzival (with book nos)
The story of P’s father.  1 & 2
P, from mother to court. P, from mother to court. P, from mother to court.  3
P meets tent maiden*. P meets tent maiden. P meets Jeschute.  3
Gwenhwyfar* insulted. Guinièvre insulted. Ginover splashed by kt.
P with uncle 1. P with Gornemant. P with Gurnemanz.  3
P + Condwiramurs.  4
With Uncle 2 Grail Castle Grail Castle  5
Bloody spear and head* King and Grail etc Anfortas and Grail etc  5
P asks no questions. P asks no questions. P asks no questions.  5
Meets foster-sister. Meets cousin. Meets Sigune  5
P in love. P loves Blanchefleur.
P defeats jealous knight. P defeats jealous knight. P defeats Orilus.  5
P  with Witches.
P lost in thought of maiden. P lost in thought about B. P lost in thought of C.  6
Angharad and P.
The Empress* and P.
———— ———— ———–
Ugly maiden reproves P.** Ugly maiden reproves P. Cundrie denounces P.  6
Gwalchmai’s adventure. Gauvain’s adventures. Gawan’s adventures – 7, 8
P with hermit. P with hermit uncle. P with Trevrizent.  9
P kills Witches***.
Gauvain’s adventures. Gawan’s exploits  10-13
Gawan et al wed.  14
P and half-brother.   15
P back with Cond.  15
P poses the Question.  16
Anfortas healed.  16
P > King , Cond > Queen.  16

*symbols of sovereignty?

**Should the challenge be about neglecting his wife, or neglecting revenge, or indeed both?

***Peredur achieves revenge for the harm done to his family.

2 The anonymous Peredur is written in prose and is very short, compared with the others.  Perceval has over 9,000 lines of verse.  Parzival is much longer, with over 24,000 lines.  It can be safely said that Parzival elaborates upon (and completes) Perceval, Wolfram’s only, or chief, source.  It can be proposed that Perceval expands upon Peredur or upon a common source, but that the French version may have influenced the Welsh manuscripts that have come down to us, especially in the latter part (cf the Question Test).

3 Perceval is unfinished.  There are medieval French language continuations, not discussed here.  Peredur displays up to three endings!  In other words, while the story is easy to follow at the outset, it is confused and confusing later on.  The ending given by the destruction of the Witches of Caer Loyw provides a fitting ending, if one assumes that the tale is fundamentally about revenge and the gaining of sovereignty over the tribe or clan.  Reconciliation with the hero’s wife (which one?) would parallel what happens in the similar and contemporary Geraint and Owain (Iarlles y Ffynnon).

4 About half of Peredur is devoted to the adventures of Gauvain.  The proportions are not so tilted in Parzival, but six books are allocated to Gawan, out of the sixteen.

5 Significant wounds in the Parzival story relate to intimate areas.  There is a strong hint that Anfortas has been wounded in the genitals, because of his illicit love affair, outside the Grail Order.  Clinschor the enchanter has been castrated, because of his adultery.  (I was expecting him to appear in person in the story, but he doesn’t.)

6 It is a characteristic of Parzival that all the participants are related – either by blood or (in the course of the narrative) by marriage.  Wolfram marries off all the principal unmarried characters.  (See, for example, Book 14.)  This is not a feature of the other versions.

7 Wolfram is very forgiving of characters that have done wrong.  He has good words to say about Keie, Orilus and Clamidê (oppressor of Condwirmarus).

8 On reading Peredur, one has no sense of an audience – with Perceval and Parzival one does.  Chrétien and Wolfram address their listeners (the latter, frequently), in asides.  Wolfram includes many references to his contemporaries, to places and to current events.

9 At one end of a spectrum, Peredur reflects old Celtic mythology, with its magic and shape-shifters.  At the other end, Wolfram creates his own mythology, loosely based upon the Templars: the Grail Order represents and serves the dual values and principles of Christianity and chivalry.  Clinschor’s powers of enchantment are portrayed in Parzival, but (to my mind) they are not well worked out.  There is no confrontation between Gawan and Clinschor, only the former’s survival of the assaults associated with the perilous bed (Book 11).  (Compare Perceval, lines 7676-7884.)

10 I haven’t mentioned the Grail!  The concept is adumbrated in Perceval and expanded upon, on a grand scale, by Wolfram.  It does not appear in Peredur, as is plainly evident.

11 Parzival can be regarded as a “bildungsroman” – the story of the education and development of the hero to full maturity and his taking on of adult responsibilities.

12 Finally, a personal opinion: I do not think it is fair that any of the main protagonists should be blamed for not asking the great question concerning the Grail (or its Welsh equivalent, the bloody severed head).  The advantage of this (non-)event is that it ensures the continuation of the story and provides the hero with obstacles to overcome and chances to prove himself.

All three versions are a “good read” – in translation.  The original medieval texts require notes and glossaries to be understood.

Principal books consulted

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales

Goetinck, G W (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawg, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth (Middlesex): Penguin

Hertz, W and Hofstaetter, W (1969), Parzival: eine Auswahl, Stuttgart: Reclam

Jones, G and Jones, T (1949), The Mabinogion, London: Dent (Everyman)

Jones, R M (Bobi) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant: Iarlles y Ffynnon, Peredur, Geraint, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

Mustard, H M and Passage, C E (1961), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, New York NY: Random House (Vintage)

Owen, D D R (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: Dent (Everyman)

Wright, J and Walsh, M O’C (1954), Middle High German Primer, London: Oxford University Press

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Racism and sexism in three parallel medieval romances – ‘Peredur’, ‘Perceval’ and ‘Parzival’

Introduction

The Welsh Peredur (written down in the 14th century but of earlier composition), the French Perceval (11th century, by Chrétien de Troyes), and the German Parzival (circa 1200, by Wolfram von Eschenbach) – each can be called a “bildungsroman”, insofar as it traces the education, development and maturing of a young protagonist.

(Peredur starts very well, but the ending as we have it is confused; Perceval is unfinished; Parzival is very sophisticated.)

I wish to discuss two episodes about the hero, before he has gone out into the wider world, from the rural, isolated spot where his widowed mother is keeping him.

The lad and the knights

Early on, then, the young man suddenly comes across a posse of Arthurian knights.  The knights ask the hero for directions, and he asks them about their equipment. So their priorities are different.

(1) In the anonymous Welsh Peredur, when the eponymous hero meets three Arthurian knights, his questions are answered readily:

‘Say, friend,’ said Owein, has thou seen a knight go hereby today or yesterday?’  ‘I know not,’ he replied, ‘what a knight is.’  ‘Such a thing as I am,’ said Owein.  ‘Wert thou to tell me that which I would ask of thee, I in turn would tell thee that which thou dost ask.’  ‘I will, gladly,’ said Owein.’

[Peredur, tr G Jones & T Jones, p 184; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 118f]

(2) In the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, however, some of the five knights (passing by) treat the hero differently, when he asks questions, and they complain that he is holding them up.  They comment on Perceval unfavourably:

“So help me God,” says their chief, “he’s a real ignoramus….” – “You may be perfectly certain, my lord, that the Welsh are by nature more stupid than grazing beasts; and this is one is just like a beast.”

[Perceval, tr D D R Owen, page 377]

Has the writer picked up discriminatory attitudes from the Norman French who were interacting with the Welsh in Britain at the time?

(3) Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (based here upon Perceval) reproduces this scenario, with variations.  Here, the hero delays four passer-by knights with his questions: three become impatient (while their leader is more sympathetic):

The foremost lost his temper at the sight of the boy in mid-path.  ‘This stupid Waleis [Welshman] is slowing us down.’  (The Waleis, I must tell you, share the same distinction as the Bavarians, but are even denser than Bavarian folk…)

[Parzival, tr A T Hatto, Book 3, p 72]

The lad and the maiden in the tent

The hero’s first encounter with a stranger, on his way to Arthur’s court, happens to be with a lady.  (Note that the hero recalls his mother’s advice and applies it, or misapplies it, here.)  The main thread of the three parallel stories is this: the hero enters a tent (or pavilion) and finds there a beautiful lady; he helps himself to food and drink, takes a ring from her finger, and kisses her.  But the details vary a lot.  I need to quote from the descriptions at some length.

(4) Note that, when Peredur reaches the pavilion, he has not eaten for “two days and two nights”.  I proceed:

The maiden made him welcome and greeted him….’ My mother,’ said Peredur, ‘bade me wherever I saw meat and drink, to take it.’  ‘Go then, chieftain,’ said she, ‘to the table.  And God’s welcome to thee.’ [Peredur takes half, only.] ‘My mother,’ said he, ‘bade me take a fair jewel wherever I might see it.’  ‘Take it then, friend,’ said she.  ‘’Tis not I will begrudge thee.’  Peredur took the ring, and went down on his knee and gave the maiden a kiss [on her hand?], and took his steed and departed thence.

[Peredur, tr Jones & Jones, pp 185f; emphasis added; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 120f]

Note how polite both parties are and how generous the lady is.  She is a good hostess and he is a good guest.

Given the mythological and magical elements underlying the story, it is possible that the lady has insight into Peredur’s destiny; and she may indeed be an Otherworld character (and herself an educator).

In her study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, G Goetinck states:

The meeting of Peredur with the Tent Maiden is one of the first episodes in which the hero is helped and guided by the power of the Otherworld whilst he is being trained.  It is also a version of the meeting between the hero and Sovereignty….

[Goetinck, p 140]

(5) In Perceval, there are no indications of a mythological aspect to the lady, and the situation is quite different:

On the bed [in the tent], all alone, lay a young girl fast asleep….She woke with a start….The girl trembles with fear on account of the youth, who to her seems crazy….”Be on your way, lad!” she says.  “Be off, before my lover sees you.” – “By my head, I’ll kiss you first, whoever it may upset,” says the youth, “because my mother told me to!” – “I’ll certainly never kiss you if I can help it,” says the maiden. “Be off…!

Perceval is much stronger than the lady: he kisses her seven times [presumably on her mouth]; and he pulls her ring (“set with a brilliant emerald”) from her finger, and puts it on his own.  She bursts into tears.  He adds insult to injury:

“Bless you, maiden.  Now I’ll be off well rewarded – and it’s much nicer kissing you than any chambermaid in all my mother’s house, for there’s nothing bitter about your mouth!”

[Perceval, tr Owen, pp 383f]

Perceval takes food and drink, without asking permission, and departs, leaving the young woman still weeping.

Perceval, then, is cruel and unfeeling and not at all chivalric.  He does not treat the young lady as his equal.  He totally misapplies his mother’s advice about how to treat women.  His immaturity does not excuse his behaviour.  He gets off to a bad start in his career as a knight.

Perhaps the status of this lady reflects the low status of women in France, at the time, compared to the rights accorded to them in the Wales of the early Middle Ages (cf the laws attributed to Hywel Dda).  From the remarks made by the lady in Perceval, it is clear that she relies on her male friend to defend her; and for her it is unfortunate that he is temporarily absent.

(6) Parzival is like Perceval, at this point in the story.  (The lady is named Jeschute and she is a duchess.)  The account is long and circumstantial. It reflects badly upon the hero.  I quote a salient passage:

The lady wailed loudly.  He paid no attention to what she said but forced her mouth to his.  Wasting no time, he crushed her breast to his, duchess or no, and also took a ring.  On her shift he saw a brooch and roughly tore it off.  The lady was armed as women are: but to her his strength was an army’s.  Nevertheless there was quite a tussle of it.

[Parzival, tr Hatto, Book 3, p 77]

Conclusion

The fundamental theme of the three romances is the education of the hero concerning love, chivalry and government.  Evidently, Perceval and Parzival have a very long way to go before they can be regarded as educated!  Peredur, however, has already mastered basic courtesy.  The nature of his encounter with the lady is appropriate to the development of the overall story.  Perceval and Parzival’s behaviour, by contrast, is characterised by the use of brute force, so that they come across as villains rather than heroes, at least for the interim.

The Welsh story is shorter and more concise than the continental ones.  On the surface it is unsophisticated, in comparison with its continental analogues.  But it has beauties and subtleties of its of its own; and in some respects it deserves to be seen as more appealing than the other two.

References

Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Goetinck, G W (editor) (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawc, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

See also:

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion