Episode 31: Perlesvaus, Pt. 1
Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Welcome back to the wacky world of Arthuriana! We’re focusing on good Sir Percival this week, but his tale might be stranger than you remember — this spinoff from Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished tale takes unexpected liberties, particularly in the number of decapitated heads present. Seriously, there are a lot of heads.
Perlesvaus is a thirteenth century Old French chivalric romance, purportedly based on an older Latin translation of the tale by Flavius Josephus. This assertion is nonsense, but does reflect the common attempt to couch credibility in one’s work by claiming to an older, “now lost” text as a reference or basis for the translation. This tradition carried on well into the eighteenth century (see “Captain Charles Johnson’s” A General History of Pirates as a good example).
Since Chrétien de Troyes original Percival tale was left unfinished, and the Arthurian tradition had been well established by this time, it did not take long for other authors to try and “complete” the work. Perlesvaus is a good example — Chrétien’s work was written in the late twelfth century, and Perlesvaus has been dated to the early thirteenth century. Clearly, the Arthurian tradition was not only popular, but demanded completion and adaptation.
Perlesvaus is an unusual take on the “quest for the holy grail” story, so much so that Roger Sherman Loomis has argued that the Perlesvaus author must be deranged and possibly had paranoia due to his obsession with severed heads and desire to place occult meaning in names. Whatever inspired this version of the quest, it is certainly entertaining in its execution.
Let’s get started!
The work begins with a short lineage of Percival, to establish his validity as a “real” knight and worthy of the grail. According to the text, Joseph of Arimathea — the man responsible for caring for the holy grail and the holy lance after Christ’s death — was an uncle to Ygles, Percival’s mother. Ygles married Allen le Grosse (aka “Big Allen”), and the two live in their castle, Kaamalot. No, that’s not a misspelling, and no, don’t worry about how the dates and timeline work out. We don’t know either.
After establishing Percival’s family, the tale immediately tells us that Arthur has fallen from grace in the kingdom and is a bad king. Only 25 knights reside with him, as opposed to the 370 there once were, and Queen Guenivere is sick of her husband’s languor. She encourages (or rather, forces) him to go to the Chapel of St. Augustine to determine just how to fix himself and the kingdom. Arthur says he will, and takes Chaus, a local squire.
That night, Chaus has a dream that he follows Arthur into a chapel, but when he arrives, the only one present is a dead knight, with candles in tall candlesticks around him. Chaus decides to remove one of the candles, stuff the candlestick down his pants, and flee. Upon riding off, he encounters a giant with a knife who demands that he replace the candlestick. When Chaus refuses, he stabs the squire and Chaus wakes up screaming. When Arthur assures him it was only a dream, Chaus pulls up his shirt to reveal where the dream-knight stabbed him, as well as pulling the candlestick from his pants.
After this debacle, Arthur decides he’ll go to the chapel without a squire, and sets out. He stops into a small hermitage along the way, where he hears the voices of angels and demons arguing from inside the chapel. He brings his horse inside, though it barely fits inside the door, and the voices cease. A dying hermit lies in his own coffin, and Arthur simply decides to stand and watch. After some time, a strange voice tells him to go, as this space is not for him. After he leaves, he hears the voices of angels and demons once again, arguing over who gets the man’s soul. Suddenly, the Virgin Mary herself intervenes to claim the soul for heaven. After hearing this, Arthur continues on his way.
Along his journey, King Arthur meets a damsel with a mule, who points him in the right direction. Finally, Arthur gets to the Chapel of St. Augustine, but is physically barred from entering by a magical barrier. Inside, Mary and Jesus are having mass with a hermit. Once mass concludes, they disappear and Arthur can go inside. The hermit explains that he could not enter or attend mass because he’s such a terrible king.
Arthur asks how he can stop being such a terrible king, and the hermit tells him that the greatest king in the world, the Fisher King, possesses the grail and lance, and holds a procession with them every day. When a visiting knight did not ask about the procession, he cursed all the knights in the land to compulsively battle one another on sight — this curse, in turn, made Arthur fall in renown and prowess. Only when a knight does ask the Fisher King about the processions will all return to normal. Well, now he knows.
With his strange answer in mind, Arthur leaves the chapel and runs into a great knight on a black horse with a black shield and a flaming lance. The knight demands a battle because he knows Arthur has a candlestick that was stolen from his brother. (This is presumably the knight in Chaus’ dream.) The knight charges and cuts Arthur’s arm, and the flames on the lance immediately go out. The knight is relieved and asks to surrender, saying that he was only fighting until the blood of Arthur put the lance out. Arthur does not allow him to surrender, but kill the Black Knight instead.
He once more runs into the damsel with the mule, who demands that he bring her the Black Knight’s head, or else his cut will never be healed. Arthur returns to find the Black Knight’s body hacked to pieces and carried away by a train of other knights. Arthur tricks the knights into giving him the head, and the damsel smears the knight’s blood on the wound and heals the king. The damsel says the head will help her get her castle back.
Before departing, the damsel asks him for one more favor: if Arthur sees the good Sir Percival, tell him that she’s looking for him. Arthur asks who Percival is, and the narrative jumps into a flashback.
In short, Percival grew up in Kaamalot near a chapel with a tomb that can only be opened by the finest knight in the land. Ygles explains what a knight is, and Percival goes out hunting, dreaming of glory. He happens upon and red and white knight fighting in the woods, and strikes the red knight down with a hurl of his lance. The white knight asks him how he became so good at killing knights. Percival, in shock, says that it was an accident, and he thought that knights’ armor was invincible. He feels into the woods, gains glory, and is knighted by Arthur.
The narrative returns to Arthur, and the damsel once more asks him to deliver a message to Percival: his father, Big Allen, was killed, and Ygles now needs help to defend her property because the brother of the red knight is attempting to take her holdings.
The damsel then asks Arthur for his name and is infuriated when she realizes he shares a name with “that terrible King Arthur.” They part on bad terms.
Later that year, Arthur hosts a feast on St. John’s day. Most of the knights attend, save for Lancelot and Gawain. In the middle of the feast, three women burst into the hall, two on horseback carrying severed heads, and one walking with a shield and dog. These three sisters carry a demand for Arthur’s court. The first damsel, known as the Damsel of the Cart, explains that they are each cursed in some way, and they need someone to break the curse. Doing so will also free the knights of their battle compulsion.
To break the curse, the Damsel of the Cart asks Arthur to hang the shield of Joseph of Arimathea on their pillar, and the knight who will conquer the grail will take it down and replace it with his own. Furthermore, she asks him to take the dog she has with her, because it will not greet anyone but that knight. She also declares that she has come with a massive cart of 150 heads covered in gold, silver, and lead, those heads of the knights who have been killed as a consequence of this curse. Once Arthur and his court accept this proposal, the three ladies depart.
As they journey, they meet Sir Gawain, who carries a great lance and worn down armor, and he declares he is going to meet with the Fisher King. The Damsel of the Cart asks him to escort them past the castle of the Black Hermit, but not intervene should anything occur. Gawain agrees, as good knights do.
As they pass the castle, 152 knights dressed in black pour out of the gates and swiftly steal all the heads the women were carrying and ride back into the castle. Gawain does not intervene, but is angered by the theft. The Damsel of the Cart explains that they are waiting for the Good Knight (that is, Percival) to help them with their plight.
Later on their journey, Gawain and the women encounter a knight who immediately challenges Gawain in combat, as expected. If Gawain wins, he shall take the other knight’s shield, which he claims is Judas Maccabee’s shield. Gawain accepts, but when the Damsel calls out his name, the other knight immediately surrenders, recognizing Gawain’s prowess. The other knights in the castle of the Black Hermit toss him in the dungeon for his disgraceful defeat.
The ladies and Gawain part ways, and Gawain soon arrives at a hermitage where the damsel with the mule has also arrived. The three eat together, and the hermit tells Gawain there’s no good way to find the Fisher King’s court - if he is meant to be there, he’ll find it.
The unnamed damsel with the mule then asks Gawain to escort her to a castle. Gawain agrees, and they successfully pass by unharmed, since the damsel still has the head of the Black Knight that Arthur killed. For some reason, heads appear to be tokens of safe passage.
Gawain eventually finds Kaamalot, where Ygles is holed up trying to defend her property after Big Allen’s death. Though the castle is under siege, they lower the drawbridge for Gawain, and misidentify him as Percival. After a fright, Ygles invites Gawain in and explains she wishes her son would come back. The knights in the area are playing “king of the hill” with her castle, and no one else can help her. Her three brothers are also unavailable: one, the Fisher King, has slipped into a lethargy, the next, King Pelles (who might be king of the dwarves) is busy, and her final brother, the king of Castle Mortal, is evil.
Gawain stays with Ygles for a time and joins the tournament the other knights have to win the castle for themselves. Gawain wins the castle for a year, and he turns over the castle to Ygles and the five old knights who help defend it.
He goes on his way with another message for Percival to come home, should he see him on the way to meet the Fisher King. We’er ending our first part of Perlesvaus here, but don’t worry! There’s a lot more to cover in this odd rendition of Percival’s Grail Quest.
This part of Perlesvaus won’t have a rating or any segments, since it’s such a long tale. Instead, hold tight for our next episodes — we’ll have a lot more to cover!
Because we foound so many grerat names in this text, here's a short list:
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia! Searching for our sources? Read Perlesvaus here, and check out our Library for more! Additional references for interested scholars:
Harward, Vernon J. The Dwarfs of Arthurian Romance and Celtic Tradition. E.J. Brill, 1958.
Nitze, William Albert. The Old French Grail Romance Perlesvaus: a Study of Its Principal Sources. Baltimore, John Murphy company, 1902.
Loomis, Roger Sherman. The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. Princeton University Press, 1991.
Williams, Mary. “Notes on Perlesvaus.” Speculum, vol. 14, no. 2, [Medieval Academy of America, Cambridge University Press, University of Chicago Press], 1939, pp. 199–208. Link.
Williamson, Marjorie. “The Dream of Cahus in ‘Perlesvaus.’” Modern Philology, vol. 30, no. 1, University of Chicago Press, 1932, pp. 5–11. Link.
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