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.  

No comments:

Post a Comment