THE HIGH HISTORY OF THE GRAIL (PERLESVAUS)
(translated by Nigel Bryant [Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1978, pp.
ir Gawain slept there that night and was given good lodging. The next
morning after hearing mass he departed, and after taking his leave and
riding out of the castle he found himself in the most beautiful land in
the world, with the most beautiful meadows and rivers that ever a man
beheld, and forests stocked with wild beasts and hermitages. He rode on
until one day, just as evening was setting in, he came to a hermit's cell,
a hut so low that a horse could not enter, and the chapel was no bigger.
The good man had not come out of his house for at least forty years. He
leaned out of his window when he saw Sir Gawain, and cried:
Gawain wished him God's blessing, and said:
'Sire, would you give me lodging here?'
'None but God finds lodging here, sire,' said the hermit. 'No
earthly man has come in here with me for forty years. But just ahead
there is a castle where good knights are given lodging.'
'To whom does the castle belong?' asked Gawain.
'To the Fisher King. It is surrounded by great rivers, rich in
fish, or would be if only he were not languishing. But he gives lodging
only to good knights.'
'May God grant that I be one,' said Sir Gawain.
Knowing now that he was near the castle, he dismounted and made
confession to the hermit, telling him of all his sins for which he was
deeply and truly repentant.
'Now, sire,' said the hermit, 'do not forget to ask, if it be
God's will, what the other knight forgot; and do not be afraid of anything
you see at the entrance to the castle. Ride on without fear, and worship
the holy chapel that you will find at the castle, where the flame of the
Holy Spirit descends each day because of the Holy Grail with they serve
there along with the sacred lance with the head the bleeds.'
'Sire,' said Sir Gawain, 'may God guide me to do His will.'
He took his leave and departed, and rode on until a valley opened
out before him, flourishing with good crops; and there sat the castle.
And just then Sir Gawain saw the holy chapel appear; he dismounted and
went down on his knees, bowing to it and worshipping it with a gentle
heart. Then he remounted and rode on until he came across a magnificent
tomb with a beautiful lid, which seemed to be quite near the castle; there
appeared to be a little cemetery there, for it was fenced all around, and
yet there seemed to be no other tombs. And just as he was passing the
cemetery, a voice cried out to him:
'Do not touch the tomb, for you are not the knight by whom it
shall be known who lies within.'
Hearing the voice Sir Gawain rode on past; but as he approached
the castle entrance he saw that there were three long and terrible bridges
to cross, with three great rivers flowing beneath. It seemed to him that
the first bridge was about the length of a bowshot but less than a foot
wide. It looked narrow indeed, and the river beneath was wide and deep
and swift. He did not know what to do, for it seemed to him that no-one
could cross it either on foot or on horseback.
Just then an aged knight appeared from the castle and came to the
head of the bridge, which was called the Bridge of the Needle, and cried
at the top of his voice:
'Sir knight, come across now! It will be dark soon and the people
of the castle are waiting for you!'
'But sire!' shouted Sir Gawain. 'Tell me how I can cross!'
'In faith,' the knight cried back, 'I know of no other way across
but here at this gate, so if you want to come to the castle, take courage
and cross now.'
Sir Gawain felt ashamed for having tarried so long, and thought
again of how the hermit had told him to fear nothing he saw at the
entrance of the castle; and he had made confession in all truthfulness and
repented of his sins, and feared death the less for having done so. So he
blessed himself with the sign of the cross and, thinking that he was about
to die, commended himself to God; then he spurred forward. And as soon as
he began to ride ahead he found that the bridge was as wide as he could
Many knights who wanted to enter the castle had been tested by this
crossing. Sir Gawain was astonished to find the bridge so wide when it
had looked so narrow; and it was a drawbridge, and by an ingenious device
it rose by itself when he had crossed so that no-one then could enter the
castle, for the river below flowed swiftly indeed.
The knight had now ridden back over the second bridge, and once
again the thought of crossing filled Sir Gawain with fear, for it seemed
just as long as the first. And he looked at the river beneath, with was
no less swift nor any less deep, and it seemed to him that the bridge was
made of ice, weak and fragile and rising high above the water. But
because of the other he ceased to fear this bridge, and he rode over,
commending himself to God and passing right across; whereupon he found
that the bridge was the strongest and finest he had ever seen, with
statues all along the way; and when he had crossed it rose up just as the
other had done.
But when Gawain looked ahead he could not see the knight, and so
he came up to the third bridge. Because of what he had now seen he felt
no fear, and the third bridge was not like the others: all across it were
marble columns, with a pommel on each one which seemed to be of gold.
Then he looked at the gate ahead of him, and there he saw depicted Our
Lord on the cross, with His mother on one side and Saint John on the
other; all in gold they were, with precious stones that blazed like fires.
And on the right he saw a beautiful angel, his finger pointing to the
chapel of the Holy Grail. He had a precious stone in the middle of his
chest, and letters written above his head saying that the lord of the
castle was as pure and clean of all sins as the jewel. Just then Gawain
saw at the gateway a huge and terrible lion, standing there on all fours,
but as soon as it saw Sir Gawain it lay down on the ground, and he passed
by quite freely.
He arrived at the castle and dismounted, and leaving his lance and
shield propped against the wall he climbed up the marble steps and entered
a most magnificent and beautiful hall, set all around with images in gold.
And in the middle he found a rich, high couch, at the foot of which there
was a beautiful chess-board, finely wrought, and a golden cushion full of
precious stones, beautifully embroidered in gold; but the chessmen were
not set up. Sir Gawain was gazing at the beauty and splendour of the hall
when two knights appeared from a chamber and came up to him.
'Welcome, sire!' they said.
'May God bring you joy and good fortune,' replied Sir Gawain.
They bade him be seated on the couch, and then had two boys take
off his armour; and when that was done water was brought in two basins to
wash his face and hands. Then two maidens came, and dressed him in a fine
gown of golden cloth.
'Sire,' they said, 'be thankful for what is done for you here, for
this is the lodging of good and true knights.'
'That I will,' said Sir Gawain. 'Great thanks.'
He saw then that the night was very dark, but that there in the
hall, without candles, it was as bright as if the sun had been shining,
and he wondered to himself where the light could be coming from.
Dressed in the fine gown, Sir Gawain was handsome indeed to
behold, and he had all the appearance of a worthy knight. Then the
'Sire, will you come now to see the lord of the castle?'
'I would gladly see him, my lords,' replied Sir Gawain, 'and I
wish to present to him a most sacred sword.'
And so they led him to the chamber where the Fisher King lay,
which seemed to be strewn with grass and flowers. The king was lying in a
bed hung on cords, with posts of ivory and a mattress of brocaded silk on
which he lay, and his coverlet was of sable with the finest of sheets; and
on his head he wore a sable hat covered with red samite and blazoned with
a cross of gold. His head rested on a pillow hung with a balmy fragrance,
and a jewel was set at each corner, shining with a brilliant light. And
there in the room stood a pillar of copper, and on it an angel sat,
holding a golden cross on which there was a piece of the real cross where
God was crucified, as big as the cross of gold itself, and this the worthy
king worshipped; and in four golden candlesticks stood four tall candles
which burned throughout the hours when light was needed.
Sir Gawain came up to the Fisher King and greeted him, and the
king welcomed him with great joy.
'Sire,' said Sir Gawain, 'I present to you the sword with which
Saint John the Baptist was beheaded.'
'Great thanks, sire,' said the king, 'I knew that you were
bringing it. Neither you nor anyone else could have entered this castle
without the sword, and if you had not been a knight of great worth, you
would never have won it.'
He took the sword and held it to his lips and face, kissing it
very gently and rejoicing at its touch. Then a most beautiful maiden came
and sat at his head, and he gave the sword into her keeping. Two others
sat at his feet, gazing at his with gentle eyes.
'What is your name?' said the king.
'Sire,' he replied, 'my name is Gawain.'
'Gawain, this light that is now about us comes to us from God out
of love for you. Each time a knight comes to lodge at our castle, the
light appears in this way. I would give you a much finer welcome than I
do if I could only help myself, but I have fallen into languor since the
time that the knight of whom you have heard came to lodge here. Because
of just one thing that he neglected to say this languor has come upon me,
and I beg you in God's name to be mindful of it, for you should be glad
indeed if you could restore me to health. But look: here is my sister's
daughter, whose land, her inheritance, has been seized from her, and it
can only be restored to her by her brother, whom she is going to seek. We
have heard that he is the finest knight in the world, but we can get no
proper news of him.'
'Sire,' said the maiden to the king her uncle, 'thank Sir Gawain
for the honour he did to my lady my mother: when he came to her house he
brought peace to all the land, and won the guardianship of our castle for
a year's term. He left my mother's five knights to serve as our guard,
but now that year is out and the great war has reopened, and if God does
not help us and I cannot find my brother, our land will surely be lost.'
'Damsel,' said Sir Gawain, 'I would do everything in my power to
help you if I had the chance and opportunity. And there is no knight in
the world I would more gladly see than your brother; but I can give you no
certain news of him, except that I came across a hermitage where there was
a hermit king, and there I was told to make no noise because the finest
knight in the world was lying there in distress. His name, the hermit
told me, was Par-lui-fet. I saw his horse being cared for by a boy
outside the chapel, and his arms and shield had been laid in the sun.'
'Sire,' said the maiden, 'my brother's name is not Par-lui-fet but
Perceval: that was his name in baptism. And those who have seen him
would say that he is the most handsome of knights.'
'Well truly,' said the king, 'I never saw a more handsome knight
than the one who came to this castle, nor any who looked finer, and I know
that he must indeed have been a good knight, for otherwise he could not
have gained entrance. But I was poorly rewarded for his lodging, for I am
now of no help to myself or to others. In God's name, Sir Gawain, be
mindful of me tonight, for I have great faith in your worth.'
'Truly, sire,' said Sir Gawain, 'if it please God, I shall do
nothing here for which I may be reproached.'
At that Sir Gawain was led into the hall, and there he found
twelve aged, white-haired knights; yet they did not look as old as they
were, for each was one hundred or more, though they did not look more than
forty. They seated Sir Gawain to dine at a splendid table of ivory, and
then sat down all around him.
'Sire,' said the foremost knight, 'remember what the king asked of
And Sir Gawain replied:
'Sire, may God keep me mindful.'
At that moment in was brought a loin of stag and other venison in
great plenty, and rich golden plate adorned the table, with great lidded
goblets of gold, and magnificent golden candlesticks bearing great
candles. But the light of these was dimmed by the other light in the
room. Just then two maidens appeared from a chapel: in her hands one was
carrying the Holy Grail, and the other held the lance with the bleeding
head. Side by side they came into the hall where the knights and Sir
Gawain were eating. So sweet and holy a fragrance came forth that their
feasting was forgotten. Sir Gawain gazed at the Grail and thought he saw
therein a chalice, which at that time was a rare sight indeed; and he saw
the point of the lance from which the red blood flowed, and he thought he
could see two angels bearing two golden candlesticks with candles burning.
The maidens passed before Sir Gawain and into another chapel. Sir Gawain
was deep in thought, so deep in joyful thought that he could think only of
God. The knights stared at him, all downcast and grieving in their
hearts. But just then the two maidens came out of the chapel and passed
once more before Sir Gawain. And he thought he saw three angels where
before he had seen but two, and there in the centre of the Grail he
thought he could see the shape of a child. The foremost knight cried out
to Sir Gawain, but he, looking before him, saw three drops of blood drip
on to the table, and was so captivated by the sight that he did not say a
word. And so the maidens passed on by, leaving the knights looking at one
another in dismay. Sir Gawain could not take his eyes off the three drops
of blood, but when he tried to kiss them they moved away from him, and it
grieved him deeply that he could not touch them with his hand or anything
within his reach. Thereupon the two maidens passed once more before the
table, and to Sir Gawain it seemed that there were three; and looking up
it appeared to him that the Grail was high up in the air. And above it he
saw, he thought, a crowned king nailed to a cross with a spear thrust in
his side. Sir Gawain was filled with sorrow at the sight and he could
think of nothing save the pain that the king was suffering. Again the
foremost knight cried out to him to speak, saying that if he delayed
longer, the chance would be lost forever. But Sir Gawain remained gazing
upwards in silence, hearing nothing that the knight had said. The maidens
disappeared into the chapel with the Grail and the lance, the knights
cleared the tables, left the feast and moved off into another chamber, and
Sir Gawain was left there alone.
He looked all around him and saw all the doors shut tight, and
then, looking towards the foot of the couch, he could see two candlesticks
burning before the chessboard with all its pieces set up; one set was of
ivory and the other of gold. Sir Gawain began to move the ivory men,
whereupon the gold pieces countered his moves and checkmated him twice.
In the third round Gawain hoped to gain revenge, but seeing that he was
heading for defeat once more he broke up the game. A maiden then came out
of a chamber and bade a boy remove the chessboard and the pieces and take
Sir Gawain, exhausted from wandering for so many days in search of
the castle in which he now found himself, fell asleep on the couch and
remained there until day had dawned, when he heard the loud blast of a
horn. At that he donned his armour and went to take his leave of the
Fisher King, but the doors were bolted fast against him: there was no
entrance for Gawain. He could hear a most beautiful service being sung in
a chapel, and it grieved him deeply that he could not hear mass. Just
then a maiden came into the hall and said:
'Sire, you can now hear the service and the great rejoicing for
the sword that you gave the good king. You would rightly have been glad
at heart if you had been inside the chapel now: but your silence has lost
you the right of entry. For this chapel is so holy because of the sacred
relics which lie within, that no priest or man can enter from noon on
Saturday until the Monday after the mass. And there can be heard the most
beautiful service and the sweetest voices ever to grace a chapel.'
In his bewilderment Sir Gawain could make no reply, and the maiden
'Sire, may God keep you safe, whatever you may have done; for it
seems to me that your only failing was to neglect to say those words which
would have restored joy to the castle.'
With that the maiden departed, and once again Sir Gawain heard the
horn sound, and a voice cried aloud:
'Who does not belong here, let him be gone, whoever he may be.
The bridges are lowered, the gate is open and the lion is in its den. And
after this the bridges must be raised again, because the King of Castle
Mortal is besieging this castle, for which he will surely die.'
At that Sir Gawain left the hall, and there at the foot of the
steps he found his horse and arms ready for him. He mounted and rode out
of the castle, to find the bridges high and wide, and on he galloped
beside a great river which flowed through a valley and into a forest....
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