The High Book of the Grail, Perlesvaus – A Review by Josh Radke
Arthurian literature and Grail lore has been a popular topic of literary movements and studies since the first stories were published in the late 12th century. Two of my favourite authors, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, were fanboys of this literature.
Lewis paid brief homage to it via a passing mention in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) when Lucy is looking through the book of spells in Coriakin’s mansion.
Charles Williams, one of Lewis’s closest friends and a fellow Inkling, wrote two complex collections of Grail poems (long out-of-print), and considered part of an unfinished lyrical cycle: Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944). He also wrote a lengthy essay on Arthurian legend (also said to be an incomplete work), The Figure of Arthur, which is usually coupled with a complimenting essay by Lewis on the subject matter and Williams’ Grail poetry, Williams and the Arthuriad — collectively known and published as the Arthurian Torso (1948). (You can find all three of these collected together in a 1974 paperback that is also out-of-print and hard to find for less than $50.)
If you want to experience Arthurian literature as it was originally conceived in the 13th century and not how it evolved in the later medieval period (and more recent centuries), then The High Book of the Grail, Perlesvaus is the book for you.
In terms of tone and plot, this is not like any Arthur or Grail lore that is considered “mainstream”: there is no Merlin; there is no Excalibur or Lady in the Lake; there is no Galahad; Camelot is not the ultimate and primary city of Arthur’s kingdom; Avalon is not an enchanted island but one of the most sacred regions within Logres itself situated on a mountain between forests with one of the holiest chapels in Arthur’s kingdom. There is a running theme of forbidden romance between Lancelot and Guinevere but it does not develop as a sub-plot nor resolve as the story is more commonly known from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.
The stories in this collection are considered a continuation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, the Story of the Grail (c. 1180/90), which was left unfinished (literally mid-sentence) after Troyes’ sudden death. The High Book of the Grail, Perlesvaus was penned by an unknown French author about two decades later.
For those who read Troyes work, it must be noted that the stories in Perlesvaus do not follow Troyes to the letter, especially with Perlesvaus (i.e. Perceval). In Troyes work, the character is exclusively named ‘Perceval’, his mother dies from his failure to ask questions about the Holy Grail and Holy Lance, he has a an active romance, and generally he is a very flawed character. But in Perlesvaus, Perlesvaus’s mother is still alive; moreover, he remains chaste throughout the story, and the model of the perfect Christian knight.
In a profound way I appreciated this portrayal of the character in the continuation. It was not hard to believe that due to his failure to inquire properly concerning the mysteries of the Grail and Lance, and the grave kingdom-wide repercussions that resulted, that Perceval is humbled and penitent, even taking on a new name, Perlesvaus, to demonstrate this. In fact, he often hides his identity in the story, as if ashamed of his former life. That his mother is still alive could be explained in that her “death” from her son’s failure was more metaphorical than physical. Perhaps knowing he has done his family harm by his inaction, Perlesvaus is especially dedicated towards helping his mother and sister whenever they call him.
One of the biggest departures from popular Arthurian literature in thos work is the raison d’être of the Round Table and knighthood. In Perlesvaus, Arthur’s knights do not undertake individual quests for personal glory, honour, worthiness, or to provide the same to the legacy of Arthur’s court. In Perlesvaus, the primary context of every task — whether given or taken up — is to uphold and spread the New Law (i.e. the Christian faith) and to preserve Arthur’s kingdom therein.
The stories focus primarily on Perlesvaus (i.e. Perceval) as the Knight of knights — indeed nearly Christ-like — but there is a fair share of stories concerning the adventures of Gawain and Lancelot as well: all defending the faith and Arthur’s kingdom of Logres from traitors and heathen invaders, and righting wrongs done to the subjects of Logres.
Many of the stories present spiritual warfare in a literary sense, providing the tales with rich Christian imagery and supernatural elements — to the point that many stories feel like wondrous dreamscapes, of the type expected in traditional fantasy enjoyed today.
This continuation of stories, with Perlesvaus as the primary hero, and with Gawain and Lancelot not far behind, were intended to be read by (medieval) Christendom with the idea to inspire folks of any station (and, especially the Christian knight) towards sincere and reverent piousness, within the context of faith and its fruit of good works.
I love this collection — probably more than Malory’s popular collection (and I still like much of his material too!) — because of the profound Christian spirituality of the content. Unlike with Malory, and especially the literature that has come out since the 19th century, the primary concern of The High Book of the Grail, Perlesvaus is the specific edification of the Christian faith above all else.
Granted, I do not agree with the putting to death of heretics or anyone who refuses to believe in Christ as the book portrays regularly. But I still appreciate its unabashed Christian worldview and heroic characters who exude Christian virtue, who boldly confess Christ before believer and unbeliever alike, who are compelled to the service of others even when it is inconvenient or perilous.
Moreover, it is refreshing to read of knighthood being a vocation that carried with it many burdens and solemn duties. These are not tales of glory for anyone but God and Christ; these are tales of knights who suffer and toil beneath their responsibilities, relying on prayer and the will of God to endure. The knights understand their hardships to be necessary to their vocation and for disciplined faith, and therefore consider it an honour to bear for the sake of Christ and their fellow Christians.
The High Book of the Grail, Perlesvaus receives my highest commendation for readers looking for the oldest example of satisfying “Christian fantasy/fiction”.
About the Author Josh Radke
Josh is an uber-geek of the first order. He spent the better part of a decade as a ranking volunteer and second-level judge for Decipher, Inc.’s acclaimed Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings card games. He is a ‘literary simul’, authoring superhistorical and fantasy story under the name ‘Joshua Rothe’ (but his first love is screenwriting); his first novel is Stitched Crosses: Crusade. Josh also is co-founder of the indie publisher http://grailquestbooks.com/ with his fair lady, Kasandra, and is helping to develop her mythopoeic realm, Shadow of the Stars.