The Story of Percival
Percival was raised away from court in a secluded forest by a mother who wanted to shield him from the ways of chivalry. Her husband and two sons were killed in battle, and she was committed to keep her youngest ignorant of all things having to do with knighthood.
Percival was thus raised in a natural innocence that made him look foolish to those more worldly. He had no idea what a knight was. When he chanced upon three knights passing through the forest, he looked at their mail armor and thought it their skin. “Surely they must be angels, as my mother described!”
He approached the knights and made a fool of himself, asking questions that the knights thought obvious. After a while, they wished him well and left. He ran back to his mother, who reluctantly explained that these men were knights, and described them in vile terms. Her intent to dissuade her son fell on deaf ears. Percival declared in no uncertain terms that he wanted to become a knight. His mother finally relented, and she sent him on his way to King Arthur’s court to claim his knightly inheritance.
Percival reveals his foolishness as he travels, but finally makes his way to King Arthur. By killing one of the king’s worse enemies with a hunting javelin, he takes the red armor of the fallen and continues on his way to destiny.
A kindly knight by the name of Sir Gornemont takes Percival under his wing and teaches him the skills of combat and requirements of chivalry. Since Percival had a habit of asking too many questions, Gornemont told him to restrain his inquisitiveness and use less words.
Percival leaves his mentor and wins the heart of a noble damsel named Blacheflour. After doing so, he decided to visit his mother.
It was on this journey home that he found the mysterious Grail Castle, and met the Grail King, also known as the Fisher King. This noble lord suffered from a wound which left him crippled and in pain.
While attending a feat at the Grail Castle, Percival was amazed when everything came to a reverent stop, allowing a procession to pass through the room. A girl was part of this procession who carried a cup that glowed with a strange light. A lad followed who carried a white lance. From the tip of the lance fell drops of blood, as if the weapon itself were bleeding. Some say there were other hallows as well. A book, or a platter, a broken sword or image of a head.
Percival was astounded by what he saw. As they left the hall, he had to bite his tongue to stop himself from asking about it. He did this so as not to appear rude, as his mentor had warned him.
He slept in the Grail Castle that night. When he awoke in the morning, the people were all gone. He saddled his horse and left. Upon leaving, the Grail Castle disappeared.
He learned from a hideous woman that by not asking about the Holy Grail, he had failed his more important test. If he had asked, the Fisher King’s wound would have been healed. She also told him that his journey home was for nothing. His mother had died soon after he had left her from a broken heart.
Percival’s grief could not have been greater. He traveled in search of the Grail Castle in order to help the Fisher King, and encountered adventures that proved his worth as a knight. Word got back to King Arthur about this nameless Red Knight and his many great deeds.
He eventually rediscovered the Grail Castle and was welcomed once again. As the procession moved before him, he looked to the Fisher King and asked: “What is the secret of the Grail? Whom does it serve?”
With that, the Fisher King’s wound instantly healed. Percival learned that this king was actually his uncle. By passing this initiation, Percival would take his place as the next Grail King.
The story is rich with symbolism.
We might say that our childhood is a “dark forest” that hides what it means to be an adult. We might stay there as innocent fools for the rest of our lives, our potential wasted. But, if we are lucky, we leave the tangled forest through education and effort, and find our way to King Arthur’s table, where inspiration and the promise of knighthood is granted.
We learn from kindly mentors, from books or friends or common sense. Once the fire for authenticity is started in our hearts, it is not easily quenched. We learn from our adventures, and hopefully find truth.
According to this story, proving ourselves is only the beginning of our quest. We are called to confront Mystery, represented by the Holy Grail. Discovering it, or seeing it, is not enough. We have to ask about it. We have to make inquiries. This is the only way to properly respond to Mystery. We relate to the ineffable not by claiming it, or controlling it, or describing it with guesses. We relate by approaching it, fearlessly, with an open mind and a desire to learn. We invite its question mark into our lives, and insert it into all our conclusions. By recognizing its existence, we better fulfill who we are in a universe we cannot explain.
Percival’s questions healed the wound of the Fisher King. The wound represents our culture. It wasn’t Percival’s wound. It belonged to the sovereign of the land, what was referred to as the Wasteland. The inherent message? When values are perverted, neglected or wasted, the world is decimated. By asking the questions and seeking the truth we can be part of the healing of our culture.