Knowing, Unknowing, and Life Without a Clue: A Prelapsarian Perceval
My presentation will be a new reading of the Middle English Perceval of Galles, a very liberal
translation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Conte du Graal. Today, Sir Perceval’s claim to fame is mainly as a footnote to the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s alter ego famously quotes from the romance in the Tale of Sir Thopas, thus revealing his ineptitude as a poet: “Hymself drank water of the well, /As dide the knyht sire Percyvell” (915-16). Rather than comparing the mid-14th century romance to its source or its parody, however, I would like to draw attention to the text itself. Perceval of Galles turns out to be a fascinating literary experiment. Instead of setting the protagonist’s enfance in the forest as the “anticourt” as Chrétien does, this romance asks us the question: What would the world be like if the Fall of Man had never happened? What consequences would this have for society? Chivalry? The family?
The Middle English Perceval stumbles through the chivalric universe as a prelapsarian wild
man, strong, smart, and indestructible. What he lacks is knowledge: “He knewe nother evyll ne
gude,” (594) as King Arthur aptly diagnoses. This explains Perceval’s unapologetic violence on one hand and his complete lack of a sex drive on the other, the latter much to the dismay of his wife, the linguistically oversexed Lufamour of Maydenlande. But the story does not stop here. What I would like to focus on in my presentation is Perceval’s “Fall,” quite literally, from a horse. Bumping his head helps him learn about grammatical gender as well as biological one, to tell French from English and the boys from the girls. Finally, he understands the cruel joke that has been played on him like a leitmotiv throughout the romance: a mare is a female horse, the mère is his mother, and he as the foal/fool should not straddle either.