This is Not a Grail Romance

Academic books don’t come much more obscure than ones examining mediaeval literature. However, I’m assuming that you folks have at least a passing interest in Arthuriana, and in the origins of literature, so hopefully you will find the following of interest.

One of the most famous writers of Arthuriana is Chrétien de Troyes, and one of his most important works is Perceval, which forms the basis of the story of the quest for the Holy Grail. De Troyes, of course, wrote in mediaeval French, but there is also an extant parallel story in mediaeval Welsh. It is called Peredur son of Effrog, and it is of unknown authorship. A translation is usually included in books titled The Mabinogion, though Peredur is not part of that cycle. It is Peredur that is the subject of This is Not a Grail Romance, by Natalia Petrovskaia.

Perceval is not just a Grail romance, it is the ur-Grail-romance, so it is a bit surprising to see someone claim that the Welsh version is no such thing. Yet Petrovskaia makes a very good case. Traditionally (particularly by English and French scholars) it has been held that Peredur is a badly written Welsh knock-off of the French original, but that too Petrovskaia seeks to debunk.

Part of the problem with Peredur is that it comes in four (or possibly three) parts. Part 1 tells of the arrival of Peredur at Arthur’s court, and echoes much of the narrative of the French story. (It is also the basis for Nicola Griffith’s Spear). Parts 2 and 3 (sometimes called 2a and 2b) are further adventures of Peredur which do not appear in the French. They are found together in Welsh, which is why they are sometimes held to be a single story, but they have different settings. Part 4 (or 3) is separate, and contains elements of the Grail legend found in De Troyes.

Petrovskaia suggests that it is helpful to think of these stories as being similar to a modern media franchise. They are, perhaps, like a collection of Bond movies. They are about the same character, but in each film you have a different director, different script writers, different location, different love interest for the hero, and a different actor playing Bond.

The basic thesis of Petrovskaia’s book is that Part 1 is probably an original Welsh tale which found its way into France, and upon which De Troyes embellished the story of the Grail Quest. Parts 2 and 3 are separate Welsh stories which did not find their way to de Troyes (or did not interest him). Part 4 is a separate work created by someone who was aware of Perceval, and who was attempting to retcon the whole thing into a single narrative, but without the actual Grail.

Much of the evidence for this comes from the structure of the stories. The first three parts all show signs of having been constructed to a pattern. There are three stories, each of which has a discrete beginning, middle and end, and each of those is composed of three scenes. This sort of nested-threes structure is found in all mediaeval Welsh literature; not just fiction, but histories and law codes as well. Petrovskaia suggests that it is a type of aide memoire, a bit like a memory cathedral, which Welsh bards used to help them remember the text in absence of written versions. Part 4 does not follow this structure, suggesting a later composition.

Another piece of evidence is internal consistency. Each of the four stories references events elsewhere within the story, but no events outside of the story (though Part 4 does revisit locations from Part 1, and all four parts use familiar characters such as Arthur, Cai and Gwalchmai).

An old Welsh word for a storyteller is cyfarwyddwr, which literally means someone who puts signs together. These days it means a director, including a movie director.

What, then, of the Grail? The Welsh version does have the famous procession. It occurs in Part 1 before Peredur is accepted at Arthur’s court. It does have the spear dripping blood, but there is no Grail. Instead there is a salver bearing a severed head. That is a much more Celtic thing. Petrovskaia’s suggestion is that what Peredur is witnessing is not some sort of Christian ritual, but rather a funeral procession. This would also explain the hero’s refusal to ask what the heck was going on, because in mediaeval Wales it was deemed impolite to ask the name of the deceased at a funeral especially if, as in this case, they were family, because of course you should know who it was. There was an actual law stating that you could punish someone for being so rude.

Part 3 is quite interesting because the love interest for this story is a woman called the Empress of Constantinople, or rather the Empress of Cristinobyl, a place name that is usually translated as Constantinople, even though that spelling for the city is not found anywhere else in Welsh literature. Peredur marries her and lives with her for many years. The meaning of all this is unclear, but one possibility is that this is a reference to the Holy Roman Empress, Queen Matilda of England. If that is so, then Part 3 of Peredur is political fiction about the civil war in England between King Stephen and his wife, Matilda. Stephen died in 1154, and was succeeded by Matilda’s son, Henry II. Chrétien de Troyes was born in 1160, so if this interpretation is true it would suggest earlier composition of the Welsh stories.

Another fascinating element of Petrovskaia’s argument concerns the Witches of Gloucester, who are allies to Peredur in Part 1, but become his enemies in Part 4. They are very unusual witches, because they never do any actual magic. They do, however, teach the young Peredur fighting skills. Petrovskaia suggests that they may be more akin to characters such as Scáthach and Aife who appear in Irish legend and also teach warcraft to young men.

I find all of this fascinating. But what really got me to sit up and take notice is an unexpected twist at the end of Part 4. The plot of this section of the story is driven by an ugly woman called the Black-Haired Maiden who keeps turning up and sending Peredur on quests. At the end of the story, Peredur is back at the castle of the Fisher King and he is approached by a young blond lad who explains that there was no black-haired maiden. Rather it was he, a young man in disguise, who had played that part. There is no explanation for this. It is just left there hanging for the reader to try to make sense of.

Sometimes mediaeval fiction can be very weird.

book cover
Title: This is Not a Grail Romance
By: Natalia Petrovskaia
Publisher: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru
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