The Great Myths #10: The Holy Grail Appears (Old French)

In the clear light
Of the fire, [Perceval] could see, behind him,
The page in charge of his weapons
And armor, and handed him
The sword, to hold with the rest.
And then he rejoined his host,
Who’d done him so great an honor.
They sat in a hall lit
As brightly as candles can make
An indoor room. And as
They chatted of this and that,
A servant entered the hall,
Carrying – his hand at its center –
A white lance. He came out
Of a room, then walked between
The fire and those seated
On the bed, and everyone saw
The white wood, and the white
Spearhead, and the drop of blood
That rolled slowly down
From the iron point until
It reached the servant’s hand.
The boy saw that wondrous
Sight, the night he arrived there,
But kept himself from asking
What it might mean, for he’d never
Forgotten – as his master at arms
Had warned him, over and over –
He was not to talk too much.
To question his host or his servants
Might well be vulgar or rude,
And so he held his tongue.
And then two other servants
Entered, carrying golden
Candleholders worked
With enamel. They were wonderfully handsome
Boys, and the candleholders
They each clasped in their hands
Bore at least ten
Burning candles. A girl
Entered with them, holding
A grail-dish in both her hands –
A beautiful girl, elegant,
Extremely well dressed. And as
She walked into the hall,
Holding this grail, it glowed
With so great a light that the candles
Suddenly seemed to grow dim,
Like the moon and stars when the sun
Appears in the sky. Then another
Girl followed the first one,
Bearing a silver platter.
The grail that led the procession
Was made of the purest gold,
Studded with jewels of every
Kind, the richest and most costly
Found on land or sea.
No one could ever doubt that here
Were the loveliest jewels on earth.
Just as they’d done before,
When carrying the lance, the servants
passed in front of the knight,
Then went to another room.
And the boy watched them, not daring
To ask why or to whom
This grail was meant to be served,
For his heart was always aware
Of his wise old master’s warnings.
But I fear his silence may hurt him,
For I’ve often heard it said
That talking too little can do
As much damage as talking too much.
Yet, for better or worse,
He never said a word.
The lord of the castle ordered
Water brought and tablecloths
Spread, and those whose work
This was did what had
To be done. Then host and guest
Washed their hands in mildly
Warmed water, and two servants
Brought in a large ivory tabletop
(The book where one reads this story
Says it was all of one piece).
They held it there a moment,
As the two noblemen watched,
While two other servants
Brought in wooden supports
(Fashioned, we’re told, of timber
Made totally indestructible
For two remarkable reasons:
They’d been carved of ebony, and this wood
Never decays or burns,
So neither possible danger
Could ever occur). Then they set
The ivory top over
The supports, and spread out the tablecloths.
What can I say of these cloths?
Ambassadors – cardinals – popes:
None could command such whiteness.
Their first course was a haunch
Of rich venison, in pepper
Sauce; they drank their clear
Wine from golden cups.
The roasted meat was sliced
Right in front of the diners
(The whole haunch having
Been carved on that silver platter),
And served, to host and guest,
On well-baked breadlike shells.
Meanwhile, the wonderful grail
Was carried back and forth,
But again the boy was silent,
Not asking to whom it was served.
And again it was thoughts of his master
Which kept him from speaking, for he never
Forgot how clearly he’d been warned
To beware of too much talking.
And so he stayed silent too long.
With every course, the grail
Was borne back and forth,
Uncovered, plainly visible,
And still he did not know why.
Although he wished to know
He told himself he’d surely
Make some safe inquiry
Before he left; someone
Would tell him. He’d wait until morning,
When he was taking leave of the lord
Of this castle and all who served him.
And so he postponed his questions,
And simple ate and drank.
There was no shortage of food
Or wine, not at that table;
He dined in delight, and enjoyed it.
They ate exceedingly well:
The lord of the castle served
What kings and counts and emperors
Are supposed to eat, and the boy
Sat at the table beside him.
And then, when dinner was done,
They spent the rest of the evening
Talking. Then servants prepared
Their beds and brought in exotic
Fruit for their final repast –
Figs and dates, nutmeg,
Cloves, pomegranates,
And finally a healthy honey
Paste of Alexandrian
Ginger and other digestive
Herbs that help the stomach
And soothe and calm the nerves.
They drank assorted fine
Liqueurs, neither sharp nor sweetened,
And well-aged wine, and clear
Syrup. The boy was astonished;
He’d never heard of such things.
Then his host [the Fisher King] said, “My friend,
It’s time we went to bed
For the night. If you’ve no objections,
I’ll sleep in my own room,
And whenever you wish to, you can sleep
Here. I cannot walk,
So they’ll have to carry me out.”
Then four strong and lively
Men came into the hall;
Each one grasped a corner
Of the bed the lord lay on,
And picking him up, carried him
There where he needed to be.
Other servants stayed
With the boy, to attend to his wants,
And gave him whatever he needed,
And when he wished to sleep
They took off his shoes and his clothes
And laid him in the finest linens
And blankets. And he slept until morning –
Indeed, till the sun was well up
And the servants were bustling about.
But looking around, he saw
None were in the room
Near him, so he had to rise
Unassisted. This was annoying,
But he saw it had to be done
And did it, alone, as best
He could, shoes and all,
Then went to fetch his armor,
Which someone had brought and left
On top of a table. Once
His clothing and equipment were in place,
He tried the doors to other
Rooms, all open the night
Before, but wasted his time,
For now they were locked. He banged
And called as loud as he could,
But nothing was opened and no one
Responded. Tired of shouting,
He went to the hall’s main door
And, finding it open, descended
The stairs. Coming to the bottom,
He found his horse, all saddled,
And saw his lance and his sword
Leaning against a wall.
Mounting, he looked in every
Direction and still saw no one:
No soldiers, no pages, no serving
Men. Glancing to his right,
Toward the gate, he saw the drawbridge
Had been lowered and left unguarded;
He could enter, and he
Could leave, whenever he liked,
Needing no permission.
The household servants, he thought,
Had probably gone to the woods,
Checking snares and traps,
And left the drawbridge down.
He wanted to waste no more time,
But thought he might just ride
Behind them a bit, to ask,
If he could, why the lance
Dripped blood (was some sorrow involved?)
And why they’d borne the grail.
He rode right out the gate.
But just as he got to the end
Of the drawbridge, he felt his horse’s
Hind feet rise in the air,
And the horse make a swift leap –
And had the animal jumped
Less well, they both might have been
Hurt, horse and rider
Alike. Turning around,
Anxious to see what had happened,
He saw the drawbridge had been raised.
He called, but no one answered:
“You! You who raised
The bridge, come out here! Talk to me!
How come I can’t see you?
Step forward, let me see you!
There’s something I want to ask you,
Something I want to know.”
He spoke like a fool: no one
Answered, and no one would –
So he rode into the forest,
Following a path that showed
Signs of fresh hoofmarks,
A horse that had gone before him.
“That,” he said to himself,
“Must be the fellow I’m hunting.”

– Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval: The Story of the Grail (Perceval, le Conte du Graal),
translated by Burton Raffel, lines 3181-3428

Also read: Perceval: The Story of the Grail, Chrétien de Troyes, The Holy Grail 

Read the other Great Myths here

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