Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Weight of Contractsˡ in The Merchant of Venice

 Something of a teaser before Friday night's Merchant of Venice reading...

In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the bounds of the law are airtight—or so they seem. Portia’s dead father has stipulated the conditions for Portia’s marriage in his will. Antonio agrees to Shylock’s terms of a loan for Bassanio, agreeing to a pound of his own flesh as collateral. Portia and Nerissa make their husbands promise to keep their rings at all costs. The overarching concept of weight in The Merchant of Venice balances these precarious contracts on the scales of law.

It is unclear what binds Portia to her father’s will. Presumably, without fulfilling the stipulations of the will, Portia will not receive her inheritance. However, who is enforcing the will? Even Portia suggests a lack of enforcement when she states, “[S]o is the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father” (1.2.24-25). The very person who wills Portia to adhere to specific terms under which she may marry is incapable of seeing his will carried out. Perhaps it is due to love and honor for her father that Portia will not abandon the will’s conditions as Nerissa seems to say: “Your father was ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations; therefore the lott’ry that he hath devis’d in these three chests of gold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but on who you shall rightly love” (1.2.27-33). Nerissa also implies the soundness of Portia’s father’s reasoning and character. Even so, the weight of the will on Portia’s “little body” makes her “a-weary of this great world” (1.2.1-2). Contrastingly, Portia’s adherence to her father’s will still pushes the limits of that will. If Bassanio would only stay with her a while, Portia “could teach [him] / How to choose right” (3.2.10-11). However, she still falls back within the will’s bounds, recognizing that she is “forsworn” not to give away any clues (3.2.11).

Antonio, unable to pay Shylock’s loan, believes he must give up his life in order to pay the specified weight of a pound of his flesh when the promise of triple the sum owed to Shylock fails to appease him. Shylock in multiple instances demands revenge through “flesh and blood” even while arguing for the humanness of Jews (3.1.37).2 This repetition of the concepts of both “flesh” and “blood” throughout the play is reversed in the court scene when Portia, in disguise, resorts to the exact wording of the bond to decree that precisely one pound of flesh is granted Shylock, but he must find a way to take it without one “jot of blood” (4.1.306). This loophole threatens the scales of law, but they are able to remain balanced since it does not overreach law's bounds.

 Portia’s and Nerissa’s tests of their husbands creates a strange test of binding contracts. For some reason the women feel the need to deceive their husbands in order to see how faithful they are in their oaths to their wives, even accusing them of cheating and pretending to have cheated on them. Gratiano exclaims, “Why, this is like the mending of highways / In summer, where the ways are fair enough. / What, are we cuckolds ere we have deserv’d it?” (5.1.263-265). And, truly, it does not seem that the men have deserved this treatment. Indeed, because Bassanio and Gratiano actually did give the rings to Portia and Nerissa respectively, they did remain within the bounds of their promises. The “heavy husband” of each woman is made light of (5.1.130).

Measurements, scales, and weights define the law and contracts with utmost precision. However, the very weight of these contracts are made lighter by the ways in which the characters push against boundaries to find room for love and mercy. 
ˡ My thanks to Dr. Allen for raising the question of binding contracts at Dr. Farabee’s Sept. 29, 2011 playreading.
2 These words concern Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, but in the same scene Shylock goes on to apply similar images of blood and flesh directed at Antonio and those who would wrong Jews.

Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 288-317. Print.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The (Humanities) Adjunct Conundrum: It's My Career

The Perks of Adjuncting

That's right. I am doomed to have no job security whatsoever while my job is to teach just like any other college faculty member. But, not as like any other faculty member in other ways--this job I must do only "part-time" or, as I would state more accurately, even less so. And, then I must work this less-than-part-time job at multiple campuses simultaneously, which actually adds up to an average full-time teaching schedule without the pay or benefits at any one of them. I can't and won't pretend I am alone in this. I am only describing what I know so many other humanities graduate degrees are also experiencing because, most likely, they are not yet taken seriously in the professional world (despite other positions or part-time work experience along the way) and have been passed up for someone with equal qualifications but more years and experience in the position or its equal that would have provided a much more stable and secure full-time position (or, not to mention, part-time).

So, that leaves these degrees with the experience they do have--and, consequently, leads them to the one type of job they can get. All that slave-labor as TAs in grad school pays off in one way on CVs where it fails on business resumes since it proves to college department chairs or deans that the grad behind the teaching experience section can survive the 101 classroom gig and help to fill their colleges' ever growing number of sections for a small fee--one that will undoubtedly be accepted as one of their only options because if they don't take it, someone else will (not much to negotiate, there...). And why do they do it? Perhaps there truly are no other options available (or granted to them) for financial income of any sort. Perhaps they hope if they gain more teaching experience it will eventually lead to something full-time, or, more likely, hope that if they teach long enough somewhere, it will have to become permanent sooner or later--even if it's later. Perhaps it's simply pride: if they don't keep up with positions at a level more prestigious professionally than working retail, food service, or nannying, they will never achieve the kinds of jobs they worked and hoped so hard for in grad school, and their degrees will be for naught. But then again, perhaps that slave labor in grad school simply convinced them that the classroom was where they best belonged, and to pass up the opportunity to be there, no matter in what form or for what pay, became unthinkable.

While I may have arrived at this last conclusion myself (though not without a mix of several of the others), I also can't and won't pretend I wasn't grasping at any other professional- (or even para-) level full-time (or continued part-time) position I could get just to add any kind of stability to my material life possible. In some ways, I still hope that I will come to a point where one of these positions is available to me--or at least that adjuncts will gain some semblance of the slightly longer stability (or simply a smoother hiring process and better foresight for future appointments) that at least two campuses I teach at are in continued negotiations and speculations over. Yet, for all of the uncertainty, I have come to several more realizations.

For one thing, I love teaching, and I love what I teach. Teaching is the only kind of job I've had that I can't say I dread going to do every day. Even on bad days, once I get into the classroom, I'm "on" and don't have room or time for anything else because my students never deserve it--no matter how much some classes try to push irritable buttons. I have a habit of teaching Yolanda O'Bannon's short essay "Living What You Do Every Day" in my developmental writing courses because it reminds me that "you have to live what you do every day of your life, so better to do what you love." Beyond that, I probably love it because I find it rewarding. It is one of the more directly rewarding and fulfilling types of jobs, and I guess that keeps me reminded of why I like doing it. I also enjoy the fact (yes, I believe it is a fact) that teaching is the best teacher, and find that it improves so many of my own skills each time I get to try it.

Now, I've basically convinced myself that those reasons mentioned are the only ones I really need to be happy and satisfied with my probable life as a career-adjunct, but the common downsides have still attempted to thwart complacency in my status without wanting to reach for more. I have to admit, I often attempted to convince not only myself, but also others to whom I felt the need to justify my precarious position, by glibly listing all of the "perks" I actually experience as an adjunct that I couldn't in a higher status. Among these are included the seeming lack of authority over me; the random, but scheduled hours, which actually allow me to be home in between most classes and let me get other household tasks done bit by bit--not to forget the relatively few hours I am not able to schedule my own time unlike full-time 8-5s; and all of the meetings and committees I am not expected to be a part of, so I can simply come to campus, teach, and leave!

Of course, what I don't mention are the opposite sides of each of these. With no real attachment anywhere, I fall into the "adjunct void" in which I truly don't seem to belong anywhere or get to know any colleagues. Nor do I feel I have any real opportunities to try to make a difference in any of the institutions I work at as I might if there were a higher level of commitment to me as an employee of that institution or from me to it. The actual hours I teach classes may be far less than the standard eight-hour day, but every moment in between (even if I'm juggling laundry and dishes at the same time just because I may be at home) must be dedicated to grading and lesson-planning if I am to keep up or have any evenings or weekends free. On a larger scale, if I don't manage to get about seven classes a year, I won't make enough for my budget, and I never have the certainty that I'll be able to get them. Moreover, with only continuing "teaching" for my CV/resume experience list, it seems unlikely I could move into any more stable administrative or other professional type of full-time position that I might enjoy if teaching full-time (in title) never becomes possible.

Yet, despite everything, my biggest realization of all is how humbling this adjunct conundrum has been for me in teaching me reliance and trust not on myself, but on God. I have always been one to make things happen one way or another, and I've generally learned I can't rely on anyone else to make them happen. I like things stable and predictable. I have always felt that if something didn't work out the way I thought it should, I wasn't doing something well enough or that I went wrong somewhere. I would forget who was really in control. Having come into this direction in life working from semester to semester as an adjunct has obliterated all of my naive notions about my life. I have now begun to rethink everything it means for me.

In such an unstable, unreliable position with no worldly job security, after submitting my CV, or my name pleading for any opportunities, I can only pray and rely on God to provide. If He chooses that it would be best if I only get two classes to teach one semester instead of three, I trust (although sometimes that's still a work in progress) that he will see me through somehow, by either providing another opportunity or by making up for it in another semester. If nothing else, my lack of control and uncertainty keeps His prayer line on my speed-dial--at work, getting ready, on walks, driving between classes... I know I've been self-reliant for far too long (or so I believed it was I making everything happen as it should), and God made sure to show me that mistake. But, at the same time, he has graciously blessed me with an (unreliable, yet fairly continued) job I enjoy so much, and I praise him for such a rare opportunity. I also believe he has used this situation to show me that worldly wealth is truly only earthly and temporal. Through adjuncting, I've been earning, semester by semester, just enough to feel perfectly content. Due to these things, I remember much more often what is truly important, and I try more and more to direct my thoughts heavenward. I guess adjuncting has been a lesson in being satisfied with what I have and humble about where I am at, without having to constantly strive for more--which would still only be earthly "perks" anyway.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Lancelot of the Lake: The Burdens of Knighthood

Another close reading, this time examining the purpose of the knight...

There seems to be a problem with the definitions of Christian worth and nobility along with the definitions of knighthood and duty in Lancelot of the Lake. Lancelot has some very selfish ends to be in compliance with these ideals. But, it can also be seen how these ideals do not fit together quite harmoniously, either. Lancelot starts out with a pureness, an innocence, in which he spouts “noble advice” and simply feels it feels right address Lionel as his cousin (44). Lancelot also has a profound definition of what it means to be noble realizing that “all men are descended from one man and one woman” so a “great heart” is all that is necessary to make a nobleman (44). Lancelot is definitely a more spiritually connected being here than he seems to show evidence of later on. This rather inherent spirituality does not contradict what is said to be the original purpose of the knight as a protector of the church.

As a protector of the Holy Church, the knight is almost more of a symbolic figure as a soldier against evil, sin, and unbelief in the abstract sense. Literally, in Lancelot of the Lake, the whole of the knight and his purpose is a multifaceted metaphor for the Christian believer in general. The knight is the son to his mother the church, standing between her and evil (just as the knight’s shield is between him and the blows), to “protect” and “avenge” her (53). The knight should vigilantly defend the church as his hauberk defends the knight against attack (53). His double-edged sword serves both God and His people and the point signifies obedience to the knight—or perhaps this could be read, too, as obedience to the will of the Holy Church as the knight is a servant of the church? And the people the knight aids should aid him materially where the church should keep him spiritually through prayer and alms (55). This metaphor and the “two hearts” the knight is meant to possess are reminiscent of the Christian putting on the armor of God from Ephesians 6 and the idea of being in the world but not of the world from John (55). Where this separation and balance starts to become hazy is when loyalties, oaths, and the quest for renown and prowess become conflated.

Lancelot appears to become much more self-serving once he reaches knighthood. Even this he obtains through his own way. After this, we never quite see the same sort of spiritual connection so prominent early in the text. Certainly, Lancelot still seems to be serving the Lady of the Lake above all as he is carrying out her will for him by gaining immediate knighthood and carrying out all types of tests and adventures to gain his fame. However, Lancelot’s knighthood in practice (mainly meaning his carrying out of the Lady of the Lake’s predicted future for him) does not closely follow his expected role as defined in the beginning for knights. Even though part of that role is serving God’s people, which Lancelot would seem to be doing by serving King Arthur, it still looks like he is really serving himself. First, he breaks his promise to Yvain to return and goes off to aid Lady Nohaut first, taking leave of Arthur’s court a bit prematurely. In this, he serves his own desire for Guinevere to be the one to knight him, and the Lady of the Lake’s desire for his future—which in essence is also Lancelot’s wish. His love for Guinevere is then his new driving force, but also a selfish one (not to mention an adulterous, un-Christian one), on top of these others. Most peculiarly of all is Lancelot’s mostly unexplained need “to travel in complete secrecy, so that no one should recognize him, as he wished to win honour and renown (98). This perhaps makes his deeds appear to have a less selfish intent, but the result is truly greater renown as he becomes the mysterious knight—who is, of course, always recognized from his description by the queen, serving his more selfish end.

When Lancelot’s selfishness seems to have consequences, or at least when this friction between the loyalties, oaths, and quest for renown start to take effect, is in Lancelot’s conquering of the Dolorous Guard. There are some rather disturbing scenes of brutality that are described, and it is hard to distinguish just how Lancelot feels about all of it. The knights of the Dolorous Guard are problematic because they sincerely want Lancelot to succeed and lift the enchantments, yet they serve their lord, King Brandin, and do his bidding. On the other hand, they do his bidding because it seems they must in order for someone to be able to break the enchantments. But, where this is unsettling is in that these knights tell Lancelot this, making it clearly known to Lancelot. And, although Lancelot must understand this, he much more appears to ignore it in order to succeed. Lancelot continues to attack those knights who are being replaced even after their replacements arrive. Although this may be necessary to lift the enchantments, it conflicts with the moral and knightly code of mercy and nobleness. Moreover, the means by which Lancelot goes about defeating some of these knights is excessively brutal:
He went over to him, and struck him with his horse’s chest, so that he knocked him back down to the ground, then rode over him until he was quite battered, and unable to get up. Then he looked, and saw the knight lying in the stream, who was already getting up again. He went towards him, sword in hand, and struck him without slowing down, so that he completely stunned him and knocked him down again in a daze, and rode his horse over him also, as much as he had the other, so that he badly injured him and he passed out from the pain. (108)
Lancelot is also “forced” to kill those knights that were unconscious and unable to answer his command for them to become his prisoners calling on God to “never be his witness if he went on feeling sorry about killing them” (115). Necessity or not, these instances feel uncomfortable in terms of serving “God’s people.” What is worse is that there is no immediate gratification or relief for the people of the Dolorous Guard when Lancelot does not complete the lifting of the enchantments right away.
In the end, with Lancelot’s adulterous love for Guinevere, I am not sure we ever see his original innocence returned. As great a knight as Lancelot becomes, the sometimes questionable (or at least very hazy) things he has to do to get there make him much less admirable. Even when Lancelot weeps for some of the things he has done, it does not last long or hold much weight over him. But, at least these moments might show a troubled conscience—but then if they do, how is what Lancelot does as a knight following the protective order of the Holy Church?

Works Cited

Lancelot of the Lake. Trans. Corin Corley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Malory’s Le Morte Darthur: Merlin’s Providence

Just a little Merlin (close reading) for some Hallowe'en reading...

The first noticeable difference in Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the Arthurian legends from the previous existing accounts is the pervasive influence of Merlin. Although Merlin has been given a prominent place in the modern notions of the Arthurian tradition, Malory’s is the first text to truly establish Merlin as a crucial player in the accession of Arthur to the throne as well as a character. Because Merlin only seems necessary in a few points in earlier texts, he is given little description or attention. In fact, Geoffrey of Monmouth seems to have spent the most time on Merlin’s character, and then only in a small anecdote of Merlin as a child and the discovery of him and his prophecies. However, the prophecies are set apart from the rest of the account and only a few seem to be truly integrated. Malory, on the other hand, creates a much more prominent as well as integrated Merlin, undetachable from the rest of the plot. Malory’s Merlin becomes, in Le Morte Darthur, the motion of God’s Providence.

It seems unclear, in the beginning, why Arthur must not be brought up by his father, Uther, but instead by the lower Sir Ector aside from the fact that Merlin orders it so. Malory does not seem to elaborate on this much; however, it is clear that in this way, Arthur is brought up in such a way that he does not know his royal heritage. Therefore, Arthur has the opportunity to fill his later inherited role as a good and righteous king, sympathetic to the common people and naturally kind to his former equals. This is shown first when Sir Ector witnesses Arthur pull the sword from the stone and recognizes Arthur as his superior, and not his son. Arthur, of course, swears to be his foster family’s “good and gracious lord,” and to have his “foster broder Syre Kay” as “senceall of alle [his] landes” (9-10). It seems that the peasants also desire one of their closer peers to take the throne (especially after they see the sign of “Goddes wille”): “[A]lle the comyns cryed at ones, ‘We wille have Arthur unto our kyng” (11). In this way, Merlin has created a good and desirable king (even though some see his youth negatively) by influencing Arthur’s upbringing. 

Of course, it is also Merlin who devises the sign for everyone to see that it is Arthur who should be king. It is Merlin who advises the Archbishop of Canterbury to make sure all lords and “gentilmen of armes” go to London to see “somme myracle who shold be rightwys kynge of this reame” (7). Because this was all “counceilled” and “devysed” by Merlin, it also seems clear that Merlin is responsible for the “miracle” supposedly from “Jesu” (7). However, rather than completely undermining God’s Providence, Merlin seems to almost be enacting it, instead. Merlin does recognize God’s will as is seen before Uther’s death, but puts himself alongside the workings of God stating, “God and I shalle make hym to speke” (7). This is seen also when Merlin acts through the Archbishop of Canterbury, a representative of God. Malory even describes this as the Archbishop acting according to “Merlyns provydence” (italics mine 11). Yet, Merlin’s providence still seems to be under God’s Providence

Merlin’s many prophecies, though made by Merlin, are still foreseeing what will happen. Even though Merlin aids in the creation of certain ends, his prophecies (and especially the ones that are seen fulfilled) prove that there is a predestined future, inevitable in one way or another. For example, Merlin foretells both his and Arthur’s deaths, saying it is “Goddis wylle” that Arthur “be punysshed for [his] fowle dedis,” but yet he will have a “worshipfull dethe” while Merlin will only have a “shamefull dethe, to be putte in the erthe quycke” (31). Even so, knowing his fate, Merlin cannot change it as it is later fulfilled through his hopeless love for Nenyve, a damsel of the Lady of the Lake. Even though she only uses Merlin for the “wondyrs” he can teach her, he continues to follow her anyway, until “by hir subtyle worchyng she made Merlyon to go undir that stone to latte hir wete of the mervayles there; but she wrought so there for hym that he come never oute for all the craufte he coude do” (79). Merlin may help along and help devise some of the pieces along God’s Providence, but the end is still out of his control.

However, Merlin’s end is not the end of his devices. Merlin plants certain things for the future to let them play out as they will. One such “device” is set up after the burial of Balyn and Balan when Merlin puts Balyn’s sword
into a marbil stone stondynge upright, as a grete mylstone, and hoved always above the water, and dud many yeres. (And so by adventure hit swamme downe by the streme unto the cité of Camelot . . . And that same day Galahad the haute prynce com with Kynge Arthure; and so Galaad brought with hym the scaberde and encheved the swerde that was in the marble stone hovynge upon the water. . .) (61)
Merlin also leaves the scabbard “on thys side the ilonde, that Galaad shole fynde hit” (61). In this way, Merlin both prophecies what will happen and helps to make it happen without his being there to guide events in that future. Even though here Merlin is devising God’s Providence, God is left to oversee that these events happen. 

Perhaps the reason for including Merlin so much more thoroughly is Malory’s way of playing off of what had become a much more popular figure in the Arthurian legend and creating a more solidly memorable character. Perhaps Malory meant to attempt a more concrete explanation for the random and ungrounded supernatural events that must happen in his encyclopedia according to the previous romances, accounts, or compilations. Whatever the case, Malory does seem to be mixing the traditional explanation that sufficed at one time—simply that of “God’s Providence”—with a more realistic means for the events within Malory’s reinvented Arthurian world.
Works Cited
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. New York: Norton, 2004. Print.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Otherworld Intervention: The Role of the Supernatural in Geoffrey and Chrétien

A little Arthurian magic before Halowe'en...   

One of the always-present tensions in Arthurian legends is the conflicting duties of the chivalric code, serving both secular and religious ends. Chrétien de Troyes’s romance of the grail quest is a prime example, but even Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of Britain displays some of his conflicting intentions. However, in the middle of this tension occurs the weird and mystical. The ideas of magic and supernatural have a very ambiguous role in the medieval Arthurian tradition where the lines between reality and the otherworld are constantly blurred and confused. Are these bizarre elements merely included for the excitement or intrigue they might provide, or do they serve a larger purpose? Examining the effects the supernatural has on the characters or events in the romantic history of Britain and the tale of Perceval while taking into account possible medieval reception and author motivations shows how the supernatural fits within the conflict between the sacred and secular. The role of the supernatural aspects in Geoffrey’s The History of the Kings of Britain and Chrétien’s The Story of the Grail (Perceval) serves to affirm a divine destiny and purpose.

 The range of medieval ideas of magic extends from the extremes of the evil power of demons to divine miracle with a kind of milder, ambiguous variety in between—perhaps not truly good or evil. Geoffrey of Monmouth appears to be exhibiting the middle realm in his History—or at least trying to make the possible extremes seem safer or more realistic. The finding of Merlin, a boy born without a father, whose blood King Vortigern requires to solidify the foundations of his tower fortress is the start of the more major elements of the supernatural in the history. Geoffrey, however, does not state it as fact that Merlin was conceived from an incubus but steps around making the assertion through using the words of the sage Maugantius (129). Since Geoffrey provides no alternative, the idea is taken for fact and serves as explanation for Merlin’s ability to make the subsequent prophecies. The prophecies themselves are then an instance of the supernatural entering the worldly sphere of reality, seemingly outside of any religion. 

 However, including this unearthly wise figure and his prophecies does not necessarily condemn Geoffrey’s credibility with his audience or church. Julia Crick argues that the inclusion of the prophecies actually helped give his History its credibility. Whether or not they truly believed in the prophecies, rulers and politicians would both use and reject various prophecies if it helped their cases (Crick 365). In the church, other, non-Christian prophets were already accepted, which let it see Merlin “as the mouthpiece for divine revelation” (362). Furthermore, when studied in conjunction with his History, readers were able to identify some of the prophecies already fulfilled in the historical events (363). In this sense, Merlin’s supernatural role is moved into the divine realm. Nikolai Tolstoy supports the ready acceptance of prophecy in the Middle Ages by noting that “prophecy played a central function in understanding the world and determining courses of action . . . . after all, several books of the Bible testified to its authority” (8). Again, the prophecies do not then conflict with a religious world view, but support divine destiny. This shows Geoffrey’s habit of keeping the history theologically Christian, but giving into his desire to include the marvelous. 

Other instances of the supernatural in Geoffrey’s History continue to show his pattern of reconciling magic with realism and Christianity. Early in the History, when an Irish Sea creature abruptly appears and gobbles up the cruel King Morvidus just after he has his prisoners brutally killed, it is difficult not to interpret as a divine providence that decided to intervene (Monmouth 80). Taken from folklore or contrived by Geoffrey, the point he is making about evil kings is clear. Geoffrey also inserts Arthur’s shield, Pridwen, which bears a depiction of the Virgin Mary, “keeping him always mindful of her” along with “the greatest of swords,” Caliburn, “which had been made in the isle of Avalon” (166-167). With these superior weapons (Pridwen literally depicts spiritual matters and Caliburn comes from the mystical Avalon), Arthur defeats a staggering 470 Saxons each “with a single blow” (167). Arthur’s incredible victory eventually allows him to have mercy on the “holy men” and grant the bishops some land (169). These details keep Christianity at the center of Arthur’s success thus far in the history, which is reminiscent of biblical battles in which God is on the side of the believers, causing their success.  

 The more complicated instance of the supernatural is the concoction Merlin creates for Uther to take on the appearance of Gorlois so Uther can sleep with his wife Igerna without anyone knowing. Although it sounds like a fantastical, and rather demonic, potion, Geoffrey smoothes over the issue of black magic by attributing the “concoction” to advanced science, or “new arts that are unheard of in this day and age,” putting it into that more middle area of good and bad magic (158). This allows the king to commit adultery to satisfy a worldly desire. This is far from religiously acceptable; however, Geoffrey makes it seem not so sinful by meanwhile killing Gorlois in battle. Unlike what seems to be a mirroring of the biblical account of the sinful David and Bathsheba, Igerna is ignorant of what would be her sin (if Gorlois were still alive), and she becomes pregnant with Uther’s son, Arthur. So, rather than a detrimental act, Merlin’s concoction actually allows the existence of the famed king, fulfilling Merlin’s prophecy, and potentially occurs as an act of divine destiny. 

Chrétien, writing for the crusader, Count Philip of Flanders, clearly has a spiritual kind of chivalry in mind, as is seen from the dedication, for the romance, The Story of the Grail (Perceval). Throughout the story, there is a strong sense of destiny and a divine purpose—especially seen in the mystical and supernatural aspects—even though destiny may not be fulfilled through to the end.[1] There are at least six prophecies made about Perceval’s destiny. Perceval’s mother admits that he is “destined for knighthood,” and Perceval fulfills this destiny, although it seems he perhaps takes on knighthood rather than actually being knighted (386). Dennis D. Martin, in his analysis of Perceval based on the theological implications of the words give and take, suggests that Perceval’s failure arises from his inability to have “the discretion and discernment needed to know when to give and when to take” (179). Martin defines chivalry as having this discretion because “chivalry was all about giving and taking” (179). Perceval decides not to make the sign of the cross to invoke God’s help when he senses danger, deciding to use his own strength, he takes the maiden’s kisses and ring, and he forcefully takes the red armor. Even though the prophecies say Perceval will succeed in certain things—that he is already destined for them—Perceval tries to make his own destiny not trusting, or perhaps knowing, God.  To put first the spiritual chivalry over the secular, Perceval needs to trust in and remember God with a humble mind for true success and fulfillment of destiny.[2]

Aside from the prophecies, there are several other supernatural events in Perceval pointing to a divine plan. Oaths, in particular, seem to have a magical bind. Perceval also has no need to lock up his prisoners, as they have sworn “not to attempt to escape or ever seek to do them harm” (412). Each knight Perceval defeats and sends back to King Arthur as prisoner obediently goes and follows all of Perceval’s instructions exactly and perfectly. In this way, Perceval’s destiny to be the “supreme lord among all knights” by gaining his reputation so no one would “ever acknowledge” a knight better than he begins to form (Chrétien 394). It also carries his self-made promises (or perhaps prophecies) to Arthur’s court. Yet, this prophecy fulfilled seems to elevate the chivalric code of knights above the spiritual.

At the mysterious and mystical Grail Castle (which itself seems to appear out of nowhere), Perceval makes it clear which “higher” purpose he is aiming to follow. Ann McCullough makes a strong argument for the influence of the Jewish Passover celebration in the grail procession, meant to induce the youngest (Perceval, in this case) to ask about the reasons for the differences in that particular meal. This questioning would then have “liberated,” as in the Jewish tradition, the Fisher King and his lands (52). McCullough’s reason for the sin of the failure to ask is that Perceval, actually trying not to sin, “unknowingly breaks the religious law of the castle precisely because he is upholding another law: the law of chivalry” (54). The difference is that “[r]eligious law requires that one question—that is, that one should want to know; chivalric law requires that one remain mute and not exhibit the desire to know” (54). Perceval has followed the more secular advice of Gornemant. At this point, Perceval has become too earthly or secular minded to understand his role in the spiritual realm and greater divine plan, even though everything about the Grail Castle, the Fisher King, and the procession of the glowing grail and bleeding lance are all pointing him in the other direction. 

The natures of these puzzling relics also have significant effects on Perceval’s destiny. McCullough interprets Perceval’s inability to ask about the relics as caused by his aversion to pain and suffering as well as his “blindness” to them—and the grail and lance “point to a pain and suffering that must be acknowledged” (54). She believes this is why Perceval naïvely goes off to discover their secrets through knightly glory and chivalry, denying the possibilities of emasculation (54). The grail is some kind of serving vessel, symbolizing the mutual, humble service between Christians and Christ. That the pure “white lance” bleeding “a red drop” symbolically refers to Christ’s suffering and crucifixion for the redemption from sin requires a humble, servile mindset and potential suffering on the Christian’s part is foreign to Perceval (Chrétien 420). In this way, Perceval seems fated to fail. However, some critics trace this deficiency back to Perceval’s mother—whose fatal grief is, ironically, the apparent reason Perceval did not ask about the grail procession in the first place and sinned. Ewa Slojka blames Perceval’s mother’s loss of faith through her many sufferings as the cause of Perceval’s disconnect from the spiritual due to his “upbringing” from her (66). This dissolves Perceval’s bond with God—the supernatural—and God intervenes by having Perceval cross paths with Good Friday observers who direct him back to the “right” path, both literally to the holy hermit, and figuratively to repentance—inadvertently, to suffering on account of his sins (Chrétien 458).[3]
Even when the supernatural occurs because of secular reasons in both The History of the Kings of Britain and The Story of the Grail (Perceval), it ultimately leads to the greater Christian purpose. Where Geoffrey slyly inserts instances of the marvelous for reasons of both romantic intrigue and evidence of a divine destiny in the making, Chrétien boldly places mystical occurrences at the heart of his romance to point to the path of the superior spiritual providence over earthly glory. In The Story of the Grail, even secular preoccupations are turned by a higher intervention to the sacred in the end—whether or not readers will ever know the ending Chrétien had in mind! Geoffrey works to prove God’s divine will and active role within Britain, justifying its existence on a political level. The predestination emphasized by the supernatural in these works culminates in Perceval’s return to God, and likewise in the extra line of hope Geoffrey felt the need to add after Britain’s fallen fortune: “[Arthur] was carried away to healed of his wounds on the isle of Avalon” (199). Therefore, Arthur’s Christian purpose in Britain has hope to live on.


[1] Even if Chrétien meant to redeem Perceval after he fails to question the Fisher King (as seems to be the direction when Chrétien leaves off), Perceval still does not succeed initially in his spiritual fulfillment.
[2] Martin states, “What was once the marvelous acknowledgement of true human dignity—our reception of our very selves from God in grateful dependence—has become dehumanizing to many” (185-186). He continues to say that, therefore, love has become replaced instead with power. This is seen in Perceval’s more forceful, self-fulfilling moments.
[3] This all still supports the idea that The Story of the Grail “is one of spiritual growth” from M. Amelia Klenke’s 1956 article.
Works Cited
Chrétien de Troyes. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. London: Penguin, 2004. 381-494. Print.
Crick, Julia. “Geoffrey of Monmouth: Prophecy and History.” Journal of Medieval History 18.4 (1992): 357-71. Print.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Trans. and ed. Michael A. Faletra. Peterborough: Broadview, 2008. Print.
Klenke, M. Ameila. “The Spiritual Ascent of Perceval.” Studies in Philology 53.1 (1956): 1-21. JSTOR. Web. 6 Feb. 2011.
Martin, Dennis D. “Give and Take in Grail-Quest, Gawain, and Roman Missal: Why Perceval Just Doesn’t Get It.” Logos 4.4 (2001): 169-203. Project Muse. Web. 13 Feb. 2011.
McCullough, Ann. “Criminal Naivety: Blind Resistance and the Pain of Knowing in Chrétien de Troyes’s ‘Conte du Graal.’” The Modern Language Review 101.1 (2006): 48-61. JSTOR. Web. 13 Feb. 2011.
Slojka, Ewa. “Escape from Paradox: Perceval’s Upbringing in the Conte du Graal.” Arthuriana 18.4 (2008): 66-86. Project Muse. Web. 13 Feb. 2011.
Tolstoy, Nikolai. “Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Merlin Legend.” Arthurian Literature 25.1 (2008): 1-42. Print.