Chrétien de Troyes was a French poet, born in the second half of the 12th century, probably in Troyes. Little is known of his life. From 1160 to 1172 he served at the court of Countess Marie de Champagne, but later – apparently in 1181 – he got attached to Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders.
Before 1181 he wrote four major poems in rhyming eight-syllable couplets: Erec and Enide, Cligès, Yvain the Knight of the Lion and Lancelot the Knight of the Cart. His final romance, Perceval the Story of the Grail, composed between 1181 and 1191, was left unfinished. Chrétien wrote only 9,000 lines; four successors of varying talents added more than 50,000 lines in what are now known as the Four Continuations.
Chrétien speaks in the vaguest way of the source for his romances and the materials he used, but a Celtic influence is easily detectable. Together, Chrétiens romances form the most complete expression of the society he dreamed of and the ideals of French chivalry. His writings were very popular and often adapted in other languages: in German, for instance, by Wolfram von Eschenbach (Parzival). They mark the beginning of Arthurian Legend and narrative fiction in Europe.
Perceval, the Story of the Grail (Perceval, le Conte du Graal) was dedicated to Chrétien’s patron, Count Philip of Flanders. It is the earliest account of the Quest for the Holy Grail. Since his father’s death, Perceval is raised by his mother, apart from civilisation, in a forest in Wales. By chance, Perceval encounters some knights and realises – despite his mother’s objections – he also wants to be a knight. He travels to the court of King Arthur, where a young girl predicts his greatness. In a knight’s armour, he sets out for adventure, falls in love with princess Blanchefleur and receives some lessons from the wise old man Gornemant.
Perceval reaches the castle of the Fisher King, where he is invited to stay. There he witnesses a mysterious procession in which young men and women are passing before him at each course of the meal, carrying magnificent objects: a bleeding lance, candelabras and finally, the elaborately decorated ‘graal’ or ‘grail’. This strange object, carried by a beautiful young girl, contains a single Mass wafer, which miraculously sustains the Fisher King’s wounded father.
Perceval has been warned against talking to much and remains silent. He wakes up the next morning, alone, and returns to the court of King Arthur. At Arthur’s Court, a very Celtic lady admonishes Perceval for not questioning his host about the Grail, because the right question would have healed the king. Upon learning of his mistake, Perceval vows to find the Grail castle again.
The next section of the poem deals with the adventures of Perceval and Gawain, and with Perceval meeting a hermit, his uncle, who teaches him about the Grail and ‘al things spiritual’. Here the completed section nears its end…
The Story of the Grail is one of the great myths of the western world, with a symbolism that is extraordinary, and – as Carl Gustav Jung has shown – the legend can be seen as a paradigm of the process of individuation or self-realisation.