Percivale’s Mother

Having seen her knightly husband maimed and impoverished, and her two older sons slain as soon as knighted, it seems only natural that she would do her best to keep her youngest son forever innocent of all knowledge of knights or any weapons except hunting javelins. He appears fluent enough, when it suits his purposes, in the language of Arthur’s land as well as the language of his own home, so she has not neglected his education entirely, only selectively.

When, despite her pains, he meets five knights, she yields to the inevitable and allows him to set off for court, which suggests that, though manipulative, she is neither tyrannical nor domineering. Her parting advice has been interpreted as calculated to make him appear so oafish he will soon come home again; to me, however, at least in modern translation, it seems sound knightly instruction, though he only half listens and later misinterprets some of it with results both slapstick and tragic.

Probably her strangest move is keeping him in ignorance of his own name, even as she counsels him never to spend too much time with another man before asking his name. As the fifteen-year-old rides away, his mother falls in a dead faint; this, presumably, is the moment she expires of grief, which hardly sounds as if she hopes to see him return.

Her fall gives him no pause at the time, but afterward “My mother told me…” becomes his catch-phrase until Gornemant advises him to stop saying it; returning to check on her obsesses him until he learns that she is indeed dead.

She was sister both to the Fisher King’s father and to a holy hermit who eventually told Percivale that the sin of leaving her fallen had caused his failure at the Grail Castle – a thing also told him earlier by his cousin – but her prayer had kept him alive.