Once And Future #5: Arthurian Annotations – Perceval And Galahad

by Oliver MacNamee

Having touched upon both Perceval and Galahad’s part in the ever-changing legend of the Holy Grail, it’s worth looking in more detail at these two knights, given the revelations made in issue #4 of Once and Future by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamara Bonvillain. 

While we were given a Galahad; the knight who eventually hunts down the Holy Grail in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Gillen revealed to us all in Once and Future #4 that Duncan, the newest monster hunter from a line of such, was actually named Perceval and his grandmother had brought him up in particular way, on purpose, for this very eventuality. Even to the point that he remained virginal; something of a must for any Holy Grail seeking knight and the reason Lancelot never was able to get his mitts on this prize.

I have made mention of my belief that Gillen, on the whole, is mining from Malory’s tome, but he’s obviously reaching beyond this one specific representation of Arthur, his Round Table Knights and the high Medieval chivalric code that saw knights beholden to a very strict and religiously motivated code of conduct that saw all such knights sworn to a life of celibacy while giving their all for a specie courtly lady, who’s honour they would always uphold, no matter what. All of which was at a huge cost to their very freedom, if you ask me. Being a knight in this era of Arthurian legend was a vocation indeed and, as Lancelot learnt, hard to stick to. Although, to be fair on Lancelot, he was cheated out of his virginity. Indeed, it’s because he is cheated by Elaine of Corbeni (as discussed in the last ‘Arthurian Annotations’ column I posted) that he realises he can have an affair with Guinevere after all. Some rather dodgy logic at work there, and a thought process that’s aw the decline of Camelot and the golden age of chivalry and King Arthur.

But then, in the earliest story of Perceval, by the 12th century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval fails to actually get the Grail himself, even though he comes achingly close to it. Only he fails to ask the right questions when confronted by the ailing Fisher King (mentioned in Gillen’s series over the past two issues and, indeed, something of a surrogate father figure, given he is revealed to be related to Perceval in this tale) and a series of visions, which are echoed within Once and Future #5 as Galahad stares on dumbfounded while a similar procession of spectral servants pass him by (above). It’s a great inclusion and highly appropriate for such an ethereal artefact as the Holy Grail can be at time within the Arthurian canon.

At the Fisher King’s, sir knight,

You saw the lance that bleeds pass,

Yet twas so hard for you, alas,

To open your lips and speak

That you thereby failed to seek

The reason why that drop of blood

Fell from the lance of gleaming wood!

And then, of the grail that you saw,

You asked not what noble lord,

What rich man, one served with it.

(Chrétien de TroyesPerceval, The Story of the Grail) 

Sadly, the story was never finished leaving Perceval in a strange and unsatisfactory literary limbo of sorts. Well, until now it would seem. Gillen is finally giving Perceval the ending he deserved. Or at least I hope that’s what he’s doing. This particular story arc ain’t over yet. 

As for the more successful hunter of ancient artefacts, Galahad – Lancelot’s illegitimate son birthed as a result of his devilish dalliance with Elaine who, of you remember, tricked Lancelot into believing she was Guinevere – at least in this later tale, Perceval is part of the accompanying knights who travel with him on his hero’s quest to save the king and the country. But, it’s Galahad most people will remember, even though in John Boorman’s Malory inspired film Excalibur, he has Perceval once more seek out the Grail. Although, I imagine its as because there was no time for the story of Lancelot’s enchantment and subsequent downfall to be included in an already busy film.

Parsifal by Rogelio de Egusquiza (1910)

Unlike Perceval, there is the strong sense of predestination to his tale, as he comes to Arthur’s court and is almost immediately offered the Siege Perilous, a chair purposefully kept empty for the one who would bring the Holy Grail to Arthur. Following this, Galahad receives his own magical sword from a stone and sets off on his successful quest.

And, while the original story does not see Perceval capture the Holy Grail, the tragedy with the later take is that b slowing his knights to all go out and see the Holy Grail it eventually leads to the fall of Camelot. Hardly the healing this holiest of artefacts promised, right? I think I’ll stick with Perceval. Looks like Gillen will be too.

Once and Future #5 is out now from Boom! Studios

Essential Reading: Chrétien de TroyesPerceval, The Story of the Grail, Thomas Malory – Le Morte D’Arthur

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