Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

In Arthurian Legend, a peasant boy who becomes a Knight of Arthur's Round Table. In the early Romances his role is central to the Grail; in later stories he takes something of a secondary seat to Galahad. Nevertheless, it is in the stories about Sir Perceval that the core of the Grail mythology is presented.

Perceval (sometimes rendered Percival) first appears in the unfinished Perceval, ou Le Conte del Graal (begun ?1182) by Chrétien de Troyes, though Chrétien almost certainly drew the story from Celtic tradition and probably from the same source as the later Welsh text Peredur (?1250), which forms part of the Mabinogion. In both stories Peredur/Perceval is a lowly son of noble descent who works with farm animals and the soil. His mother has kept him ignorant of the ways of the world, but a chance encounter with a band of knights captures the boy's imagination and he eventually makes his way to Arthur's court where, by a series of challenges, he proves his worth. One of these challenges results in the boy witnessing a strange procession, variously described: the essence of all accounts is that a squire (or squires) carries a Bleeding Lance, followed by candlesticks or silver salvers, followed in turn by a vessel that purports to be the Grail. In Chrétien's Perceval this happens at the castle of the Fisher King, and Perceval's failure to ask key questions about the nature of the Grail and whom it serves perpetuates the enchantment on the Fisher King, which enchantment results in the Waste Land. Perceval subsequently attains the Grail and even succeeds the Fisher King.

The Perceval story was developed in other medieval texts by writers who became fascinated by the Grail and with Chrétien's unfinished work. Most of these were French writers at the court of Count Philip of Flanders, and were writing in the period 1200-1250; they included Gauchier de Donaing, Manessier and Gerbert de Montreuil. Their work has been painstakingly edited by William Roach (1907-1993) in The Continuations of the Old French "Perceval" of Chrétien de Troyes (5 vols 1949-1983 US). Roach earlier assembled another anonymous text known as The Didot-Perceval (1200; ed Roach 1941 US), named after the French owner of the manuscript. This version drew heavily on the now lost Perceval of the Burgundian poet Robert de Boron (?   -1212). The other main text of this period, also an expansion of Chrétien's Perceval, is Parzival (circa 1200-1210), by Wolfram von Eschenbach (?1170-?1220), which was the main source of Richard Wagner's Parsifal (1882). These texts add as much, if not more, to the ritual aspects of the Grail legend as they do to the Arthurian romance, and incorporate elements which have since become fundamental to Masonic and other traditions.

Although Perceval's role was diminished in later romances, his circumstance as a peasant-boy-turned-Hero has become a fundamental device in all fiction and a cliché of modern fantasy (especially Genre Fantasy); examples include the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, which drew directly upon the original legend, and the Belgariad by David Eddings. Perceval's story contains parallels with that of Arthur himself, and he certainly has many of the traits of the Hidden Monarch – though his links with the Grail suggest a more fundamental Christian or even pre-Christian Fertility cult.

Perceval was used as a role-model of Christian virtue in Sir Percival: A Story of the Past and the Present (1886) by Joseph Henry Shorthouse (1834-1903), an Allegory that challenged the new Victorian values. His story also appears in Perronik the Fool (1926) by George Moore (1852-1933), though Moore drew his inspiration from a Breton folktale. In modern fantasy the most complete picture of Perceval's character and transcendence is Percival and the Presence of God (1978) by Jim Hunter (1939-    ); two other works exploring different facets of the character are Firelord (1980) by Parke Godwin and the Parsival trilogy (1977-1980) by Richard Monaco. Chrétien's original tale was filmed by Éric Rohmer (1920-2010) as Perceval le Gallois (1978). [MA]

further reading: The Legend of Sir Perceval: Studies Upon its Origin, Development and Position in the Arthurian Cycle coll (1906-1909) by Jessie L Weston.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.