Percivale of Wales

Parcefal, Parceval, Parcevalle, Parcevau, Parcevax, Parcheval li Galois, Parcival, Parsifal, Parsival; Partzefal, Parzival, Perceval de Gales, Perceval li Galois, Perceval the Welshman; Percevale, Percevas, Percevax, Percevelle, Perchevael, Perchevaus, Perchevel, Perciauales, Percival, Percyvell, Peredur, Perlesvaus, Perlevax, Persevall, Persevax, Prenzival, Pressivalle, Prezzivale

The knight most closely associated with the Quest for the Holy Grail. Early legends have him raised in the wilds of Wales, but others state he was the only surviving son of Evrawc, Earl of the North. There was a real Peredur, who was king of York between 560/580 AD.

D.D.R. Owen identifies the naming of Perceval of Wales in line 1526 of Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec and Enide as this famous knight’s first documented appearance in Arthurian literature. The following notes take into account only Chrétien de Troyes, the Vulgate, and Malory, without reference to the German or early Welsh versions, or to the various continuations of Chrétien’s work except as they may have gotten into the Vulgate and Malory.


Becoming a Knight

The knight’s history as per Chrétien’s last romance, Perceval: Beneath the Welsh mountain Valbone (identified with Mount Snowdon), Percivale had been raised in ignorance of knights, organized religion, and even his own name. He was, however, good at riding his hunting horse and bringing game down with his three javelins. One day when he was about fifteen, while out in the woods he happened to meet five knights, whom he mistook for angels until the chief of them explained otherwise, adding that King Arthur, who had made him a knight, was presently at Carduel.

Returning home, the rustic boy told his mother he had met the knights, fairer than God and the angels. She fainted. On regaining consciousness, she told him his family history: his father, whose name (though she does not give it) was known throughout the islands of the sea, had been maimed with a wound through the thighs, then impoverished and driven into exile at the death of Uther Pendragon. At the time of the family’s flight, the youngest son had been no more than two. His older brothers had in due time been sent, one to the King of Escavalon and the other to King Ban of Gomoret, to serve their squirehoods and be dubbed knight; both were slain in knightly combat on the way home, which caused their father to die in grief and their mother to try her best to keep her youngest at home in ignorance of all such matter.

Now, upon the lad’s singleminded insistence that he, too, will be a knight, she dresses him in rough but sturdy leather clothes (perhaps the best, considering the family’s history, that she has for him) and gives him advice: serve and honor all women – it is permissible to take a freely offered kiss, finger ring, or almspurse from a maiden, but nothing more; never be very long in a man’s company without asking his name; converse often with gentlemen and take their advice; and pray in every church and chapel he can. So rustic has been his upbringing that he has to ask what churches and chapels are! (Yet he appears to be equally fluent in English and Welsh, translating from one language to the other and back in order to question his mother’s workers on behalf of his fice chance-met knights.)

Seeing him ride away, she collapses beside the drawbridge. He looks back and sees her lying as if dead, but hurries on anyway.

Next morning, he comes to a tent pitched in a field beside a stream and at first mistakes it, in its beauty, for a chapel. Going in, he finds a damsel sleeping alone. Misconstruing the spirit of his mother’s advice regarding women in the way most favorable to his own inclinations, he insists on kissing her willy-nilly, seven times without pauce, and might go further were it not for two things: his own inexperience, and his catching sight of an emerald ring on her finger. Appropriating the ring by force, he refreshes himself with wine and one of three venison pasties he finds in the tent, generously offering her some and seeming genuinely puzzled at her bing too upset to eat. He leaves, and her sweetheart, the Haughty Knight of the Heath, shortly returns. Refusing to believe that the stranger took only kisses, and those against the damsel’s will, the Haughty Knight combines her punishment with his own quest to find and slay the intruder.

Meanwhile, the youth reaches Arthur’s court. The Red Knight of Quinqueroi has just thrown it into some turmoil by seizing the king’s cup so recklessy that he sluiced the queen with its wine, then riding off with it. Passing him, the Welsh youth falls in love with his armor and, on seeing King Arthur, begs him for both knighthood and the red armor of that knight outside. Arthur seems quite willing, and the maiden P.A. Karr call “Verrine” greets the boy as the future greatest knight of all, but Kay jeers at him and strikes “Verrine”.

The boy, meanwhile, goes after the Red Knight and demands his armor. In reply, the Red Knight gives him a buffet with his lance, whereupon the youth kills him with a javelin cast through eye and brains. Yvonet, one of the squires from Arthur’s court, has followed the youth outside and shows him how to strip the armor from the Red Knight and put it on himself, but the boy refuses to take the dead knight’s silken tunic, thinking it much poorer than the coarse but sturdy clothes his mother made him. Apparently considering himself a knight simply by virtue of the armor, the boy leaves promising to come back someday, if he lives, and avenge the maid whom Kay struck.

Chrétien often makes the point in these early passages that the young man hears and understands little or not one word of what various other characters say to him; yet Percivale’s own later actions and statements make it clear that some of the information filters through, if slowly and often imperfectly. The Fool Percivale may be, in more or less the Tarot sense, yet one might say there are imperfections even in his foolishness.

The boy next comes to the castle of Gornemant of Gohort, from whom he accepts a day of instructions in chivalrous combat, a night’s good lodging, and certain advice before setting off again next morning, his host would like to keep him longer, but by now the youth had developed misgiving about the way he left his mother, and is anxious to return and check on her health.

Gornemant formally dubs him knight (though it seems doubtful that they boy understands the significance of his act), charges him always to show mercy when a fallen adversary requests it, to help anyone in distress, and to pray often in church; in these points Gornemant either reinforces or augments the lad’s mother’s earlier advice, but in one other he departs from it radically and with tragic consequences: where the mother had urged asking people their names, Gornemant enjoins against talking freely.


His first adventures

The young knight next comes to Beaurepaire, the castle of Gornemant’s niece Blancheflor; defeats both Clamadeu of the Isles and his seneschal Engygeron (Anguingueron), who are besieging her; and wins her pledged love. Still anxious to see his mother, he leaves Beaurepaire promising to return.

Now he encounters the Fisher King’s castle, where he is given Trebuchet’s Sword and sees the Grail procession. More mindful of Gornemant’s injuction than his mother’s, he saves all his questions until morning. When morning comes, of course, it is too late: he finds himself alone in the place, and even as he exist over the drawbridge, it begins rising under him, forcing his horse to make a great leap to safety. Riding on, he finds a damsel weeping for her love, who lies in her lap freshly beheaded by the Haughty Knight of the Heath.

Learning where and how the newcomer spent the night, she upbrades him for failing to ask any questions about the Grail and asks his name. Although he had never known it before, he instinctively answers, “Perceval the Welshman”, whereupon she reveals that she is his first cousin, raised with him in his mother’s nursery, and that his mother is, indeed, dead. Robbed of his purpose in revisiting his home, he pursues the Haughty Knight of the Heath, defeats him, and orders him to make sure his damsel has a chance to recover from her ordeal before taking her with him to Arthur’s court.

When the Haughty Knight and his damsel bring Arthur their news of Percivale, the King commands his whole court out on a search for the young knight. By chance, Percivale arrives in the vicinity and sees a goose narrowly escape from a hawk after leaving three drops of blood on the fresh snow. The blood and snow remind Percivale of his lady Blancheflor’s complexion, and he promptly loses himself in rapt contemplation of her remembered beauty, casually unhorsing both Sagramore and Kay – giving the latter a broken arm and dislocated collarbone and thus avenging the maid he struck – when they come rather rudely to see who he is. Gawaine, being ever courteous and coming when two of the drops have disappeared in the melting snow, enjoys better success and brings Percivale back to Arthur.

The whole court rejoices. On the third day of their rejoicing, the Loathly Damsel suddenly rides in, gives Percivale another scolding for his failure at the Grail Castle, and touches off a flurry of questing fever. While other knights vow to undertake this or that adventure, Percivale pledges not to pass more than a single night in any one place until he has learned the secrets of grail and bleeding lance. Here Chrétien’s narrative abruptly switches to Gawaine; by the time it returns, briefly, to Percivale, he has spent five years in strange adventures, forgetful even of God. The chronology is mysterious, and may suggest either – pragmatically – that the Percivale and Gawaine narratives have been spliced together carelessly, or – mystically – that Percivale has been adventuring in some faery realm where normal time does not apply.

Nevertheless, Percivale has at least remembered to send some sixty famous knights to Arthur’s court after defeating them, by the Good Friday when he meets a party of penitent knights and ladies returning from making their confessions to a hermit in the woods. Percivale goes to this holy man, who turns out to be his mother’s brother. The hermit instructs Percivale in his religious duties and family history: his mother is indeed dead, and it was the sin of causing her death that prevented Percivale from asking the right questions, but it is her parting prayer that has kept him safe from harm. The man served from the Grail is another of Percivale’s mother’s brothers, as well as father to the Fisher King, and the food served him is a single Mass wafer. Having learned all this, Percivale stays with his hermit uncle at least until Easter, which could signify that he considers his quest fulfilled.

Loose ends remain. For instance, even if Chrétien designed simply to have Percivale return and settle down with Blancheflor, there remain the mystery of the bleeding lance and the matter of Trebuchet’s Sword – prophesied to break in some crucial battle, but guaranteed repairable by one man (and one man only): its maker Trebuchet. (This sword may or may not have been broken in Percivale’s battle with the Haughty Knight; the authenticity of the passage is disputed. Even if broken, however, it has not been repaired.)

Chrétien had already mentioned “Perceval the Welshman” in earlier romances: Erec and Enide, and Cligés, where the famous knight opens the third day of the Oxford tournament by jousting with, and being defeated by, young Cligés. The progression of Cligés’ conquests in this episode – Sagramore the first day, Lancelot the second, Percivale the third, and Gawaine (fought to a draw) the fourth – indicates a high standing for Percivale; and his very appearance in this tournament necessitates some longer stay at Arthur’s court than we find in the romance named for him.

His identification as “the Welshman” may have been from the outset a sort of table-turning paradox: various verses in the “Perceval” seem to indicate that already in the late 12th century the hapless Welsh were coming in for the same sort of offensive ethnic humor we still see in the Mother Goose rhyme “Taffy Was a Welshman”, and that in our own century has been applied to Polacks and Norskes.

By the time we reach Malory, Percivale’s father has been identified as King Pellinore and his older brothers are LamorakAglovaleDornar, and a half-brother, Tor. Obviously, none of these was killed on the way home right after being knighted. Malory first mentions Percivale in Merlin’s prophecy of his future greatness, made just before Arthur’s acquisition of Excalibur. Percivale’s arrival at court is described in the middle of the books of Tristram. Tristram has joined the Round Table, Arthur has supposedly reconciled his quarrel with King Mark, and the two have gone back to Cornwall together. Eight days later, Sir Aglovale brings his younger brother Percivale, acting as his squire, to Arthur’s court and requests that he be made knight. Arthur dubs him the next morning, and at dinner commands him to be seated “among mean knights”.

Then was there a maiden in the queen's court that was come of high blood, and she was dumb and naver spake word. Right so she came straight into the hall, and went unto Sir Percivale, and took him by the hand said aloud ... Arise Sir Percivale, the noble knight and God's knight, and go with me ... And there she brought him to the right side of the Siege Perilous, and said, Fair knight, take here thy siege, for that siege appertaineth to thee and to none other. Right so she departed and asked a priest. And as she was confessed and houselled then she died. Then the king and all the court made great joy of Sir Percivale.

Chrétien’s account has become much shortened and more ethereal – no mention is made of Kay’s striking the prophetic damsel, but now she proceeds to a death probably symbolic in its holiness. Nevertheless, much later on, Percivale tells Persides, whom he has just rescued, to got to court and

[a]lso tell Sir Kay the Seneschal, and to Sir Mordred, that I trust to Jesu to be of as great worthiness as either of them, for tell them I shall not forget their mocks and scorns that they did to me that day that I was made knight; and tell them I will never see that court till men speak more worship of me than ever men did of any of them both.

Unless Malory’s editor omitted a portion of the account of Percivale’s arrival at court, this passage can best be explained as an accidental carry-over from some version of Chrétien’s material. In the next chapter after bringing Percivale to court, Malory describes the murder of Margawse and departure of Percivale’s older brother Lamorak. This may not accurately reflect the chronology, but it provides a logical reason for Percivale to leave court – also to turn against Mordred and his brothers.

Percivale next appears in time to rescue Tristram from Mark’s prison and to scold Mark. When Mark protests that Tristram is La Beale Isoud’s lover, the pure and innocent Percivale refuses to believe it, gives Mark a further lecture on the shame of evil thoughts, makes him promise not to hurt Tristram (causing him to turn from overt to secret villainy), and then heads alone for his home country of Wales. A few chapters later, Percivale appears in the neighborhood of Joyous Garde, where Tristram and Isoud have taken refuge. Percivale seems to have joined Ector de Maris and Harry le Fise Lake as temporary companions in adventure; they meet Palomides, among others, and Percivale learns from the Saracen of Lamorak’s death. After swooning for grief, the young knight mourns,

Alas my good and noble brother Sir Lamorak, now shall we never meet.

Apparently Percivale rode off alone in his grief, for he is not named as fighting at the Lonazep tournament, whither the other knights turn up at about this point.

When Lancelot ran away mad after Guenevere found him in bed with Elaine of Astolat, Percivale and his brother Aglovale were among the knights who joined the search for him. Aglovale and Percivale began their search by riding home to visit their mother, “that was a queen in those days”. She besought them to remain with her lest she lose them as she had lost Pellinore, Lamorak, and Dornar.

When they left despite her prayers, she sent a squire after them; the squire fell afoul of one Baron Goodewin, who slew him because Aglovale had slain Goodewin’s brother Sir Gawdelin. Meeting the funeral party, Aglovale and Percivale went back and avenged the squire. A long time after, after much fruitless searching, the brothers lodged at Cardican Castle, and there Percivale rather inexplicably woke Aglovale’s squire at midnight and made him ride secretly away with him, leaving Aglovale behind. Percivale rescued Sir Persides from the Uncourteous Lady and bade him return to court with the message to Kay and Mordred quoted above, as well as the message to Aglovale not to come seeking him, for he would never return until he had found Lancelot. (Perhaps Aglovale had determined to give up the search and ride back to court.)

Percivale eventually met Ector de Maris and they almost killed one another in knightly battle “to the uttermost”, apparently for the excellent reason of proving their strength. But Percivale prayed to leave Jesu and, since he was “one of the best knights of the world … in whom the very faith stood most in” and “a perfect clean maiden” (we must now forget the lusty experiments and lady love of Chrétien’s Percivale), the Grail came and healed both knights, and Percivale got an imperfect “glimmering of the vessel and of the maiden that bare it”. Percivale and Ector continued together and found Lancelot living with Elaine at Joyous Isle. Percivale had a good two hours of chivalrous battle with him before they learned his identity and persuaded him to return to court.

That Pentecost, Galahad came to court and the Grail Adventures began. Percivale and Lancelot were the only Round Table knights whom Galahad did not defeat and “defoul” at his one tournament before Arthur, the day before the Questers departed. Percivale apparently began the Quest in Lancelot’s company, but they encountered Galahad again near the hermitage of a female recluse; this time Galahad jousted them both down.

The recluse cheered the victor so eagerly that Galahad rode away for modesty, while Lancelot rode away for shame, leaving Percivale alone with the holy woman, who turned out to be his aunt. She gave him good councel, advising him that to find Galahad, whose fellowship he wished, he should ride to Goothe Castle and, if unsuccessful there, to Carbonek. Percivale visited King Mordrains in his abbey. He was saved from twenty attacking knights by Galahad, but Galahad rode off again before Percivale could catch up. He was given a black demon horse that would have plunged him into the roiling water had he not made the sign of the cross in time. Fasting along a rocky island, he was joined by the Devil in guise of a fair damsel, who tempted him almost to the point of making love, but again Percivale made the sign of the cross in time; the Devil vanished and Percivale drove his own sword into his thigh as penance.

After these and other mystical adventures and visions, a divine or angelic messenger brought him a ship all covered in white samite to escape from the island of his temptation. When the ship came ashore on the mainland, Percivale was joined by Sir Bors de Ganis.

The ship then brought them to their rendevouz with Galahad and Percivale’s sister Amide. The four traveled together for a time, found King Solomon’s Ship, purged the castle of Earl Hernox of its wicked occupants, and shared Eucharistic visions in Carteloise Forest. At last they came to the Castle of the Leprous Lady, where Percivale lost his sister, promising her on her deathbed to see that her last wished were carried out. After the destruction of the castle, the three knights separated again for a while, but met once more and proceeded together to Carbonek for the climactic mysteries of the Grail.

Percivale left Carbonek with Galahad and Bors; they found their ship (with the Grail miraculously aboard) and sailed to Sarras, where they found the vessel with Amide’s body and buried her before being thrown into prison by King Estorause. When they were freed and Galahad was made king for a year in Estorause’s place, Percivale and Bors presumably acted as his chief counselors. Immediately after Galahad, the Grail, and Longinus’ Spear were taken to Heaven, Percivale

yielded him to an hermitage out of the city, and took a religious clothing,

Bors remaining with him but not taking the habit.

Thus a year and two months lived Sir Percivale in the hermitage a full holy life, and then passed out of this world; and Bors let bury him by his sister and by Galahad in the spiritualities.

Besides supplying Percivale’s age at fifteen when he recieved knighthood, the Vulgate reaffirms that he led a pure and chaste life and was second in holiness only to Galahad, adding that he went to Confession weekly.


See also
Percivale’s Angels | The Legend of King Arthur
Percivale’s Charcoal Burner | The Legend of King Arthur
Percivale’s Cousin | The Legend of King Arthur
Percivale’s Emerald Ring | The Legend of King Arthur
Percivale’s Hermit Uncle | The Legend of King Arthur
Percivale’s Mother | The Legend of King Arthur
Percivale’s Sword | The Legend of King Arthur
Percivale’s Thirteen Penitents | The Legend of King Arthur


Image Credit
Parzival fighting the Red Knight | Mural by August Spiess