Chrétien de Troyes: Life and Work

Sir Percival and two other knights with the Holy Grail
Above: Sir Percival and two other knights with the Holy Grail, 1286. © Bettmann Archive

Chrétien de Troyes the Poet

Chrétien de Troyes (died c. 1185) was probably the greatest medieval writer of Arthurian romances. Of his life we know neither the beginning nor the end, but we know that between 1160 and 1172 he lived, perhaps as herald-at-arms (according to Gaston Paris, based on Lancelot lines 5591-94) at Troyes, where was the court of his patroness, the Countess Marie de Champagne. She was the daughter of Louis VII and of Eleanor of Aquitaine. It appears from contemporary testimony that the authority of this celebrated feudal dame was weighty.

The old city of Troyes must be set down large in any map of literary history. For it was there that Chrétien was inspired to write four romances which together form the most complete expression we possess from a single author of the ideals of French chivalry. These romances, written in eight-syllable rhyming couplets, treat respectively of Erec and Enide, Cliges, Yvain, and Lancelot. Another poem, Le Roman de Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal, was composed about 1175 for Philip, Count of Flanders, to whom Chrétien was attached during his last years. It was left unfinished at his death after he had written more than 9000 lines.

Book cover: The Manuscripts of Chrétien de Troyes

Chrétien's Roman de Perceval in Context

The unfinished poem Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal is generally considered to be the "definitive" Grail Romance. It is accompanied by four Continuations by other writers, so called because these books continue the story left incomplete by Chrétien. Although he cannot have been the first poet to write about the Grail Castle, the quester and the Fisher King, his Perceval is the earliest written account of the Grail Quest to have survived. Unless, as Jessie L. Weston asserted, the First Continuation to Perceval, a story about Gawain, existed in some form already. Contemporary poets writing about the Grail included Robert de Boron, although he wrote only about the history of the Grail and not about the Quest. There can be no doubt that Wolfram's main source, for his poem Parzival (ca.1205), was Chrétien's romance or that he also used other, related material. The existence of other Grail stories, now lost, is suggested by Wolfram's claim to have found the story in a book and by his naming of characters, which suggests a French source other that Perceval. For example, Wolfram gives the name Anfortas to the Fisher King and it has been suggested that the name derives from the Old French "enfertez". Similarly, Parzival's wife he renames as Condwiramurs, which is plausibly derived from the Old French "conduire amours". A few characters are given names by Wolfram although they were not named in the Perceval. It is possible that Wolfram invented these names but more likely that he found them in another book, not by Chrétien, that told the story of Perceval. So by 1200 there was a growing literature about the Grail, of which only a few poems have survived.

Chrétien's Sources: the Welsh/Breton Tradition

It is widely although not universally accepted that Chrétien based his story on Celtic sources, one such candidate being the story of Peredur, a version of which would be incorporated into the collection of Welsh legends known as the Mabinogion; alternatively, Welsh and Breton tales provided material used in both romances. This would explain Chrétien's Perceval the Welshman. Welsh tales about Peredur and Gwalchmei might have arrived in Brittany with refugees from the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England. That there was migration during the fifth century, beginning perhaps as early as 380, is mentioned by writers such as Nennius (c.800). Procopius, the Byzantine chronicler, recorded that both Britons and other peoples, in need of land for an expanding population, migrated from England to western Gaul and to north- western Spain, where they were allowed to settle on depopulated land. Continued contact with kin in England can be assumed and so it is likely that songs and stories about Peredur, Gwalchmei and other heroes circulated on both sides of the Channel. The surviving but fragmentary Welsh/Breton literature suggests a rich tradition from which Chrétien and other writers shaped the Matter of Britain.

The Story of Perceval and his Quest (in a nutshell)

Chrétien's story, which later authors would follow to a lesser or greater extent, is about a youth who had a sheltered upbringing. After the deaths of his father and brothers, his mother took him to her castle in the Welsh forest and there brought him up in ignorance of war and weaponry. After the boy has met a group of knights who were passing through the forest, he leaves his mother, who dies of a broken heart. Perceval goes out into the world and naively tries to follow his mother's advice, which only causes trouble for himself and others. He goes to Arthur's court and asks to be made a knight but there he is only laughed at. He meets an old knight called Gornemant who gives him a rudimentary education in the use of weapons and chivalry. Gornemant advises the boy not to ask too many questions. Perceval wanders in search of adventure: he rescues a damsel in distress and falls in love with her, his Blancheflor. Then his wandering takes Perceval to an encounter with the Fisher King, who invites him into the Grail Castle: where he witnesses a strange procession in which a maiden carries a "grail". The boy, recalling his teacher's advice, does not ask for any of this to be explained and he fails to ask the Question that would have healed the infirm king. As a result of his failure, the land becomes a Waste Land. (In versions of the Grail story in which Gawain is the quester, the land is wasted before the quester arrives at the Grail Castle and so his failure fails to heal both the king and the land.)

Perceval meets his cousin (who is unnamed in this story but who will become Sigûne in Wolfram's poem). She explains that he failed at the Grail Castle and that it was because of the boy's sin against his mother, who died of grief at his departure. This implies that Perceval's lack of concern for his mother and his lack of compassion for the Fisher King are related, at least in the opinion of his cousin. On his way to the court of Arthur there is a curious incident (also retold by Wolfram) in which Perceval falls into a trance while contemplating three drops of blood in the snow, which make him think of his beloved. After other knights have failed to do so, Gawain breaks the trance and accompanies Perceval to Arthur's court. There he is abused by the messenger of the Grail, the Loathly Damsel, for failing to ask the healing question. Another knight arrives with a complaint against Gawain and so both he and Perceval depart from the court, each on his own quest. In subsequent chapters the poem tells alternately of the adventures of these very different knights. Gawain demonstrates his courage and courtesy, while Perceval is growing in chivalric honour but lacks spiritual awareness. He meets five knights who criticize him for wearing armour and bearing weapons on Good Friday. They direct him to a hermit (who turns out to be Perceval's uncle) to begin his spiritual instruction. Only when Perceval has achieved a balance between chivalric and spiritual values will he be able to complete his quest. But the poem breaks off before Perceval can return to the Grail Castle, where we assume that he will ask the question(s) and so heal the Fisher King and his land.