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The Seeds of a Story


A study by John William Waterhouse for his painting The Decameron, 1916.

"If you sow lightly, you reap

Lightly. And a good crop

Requires the kind of soil

Where seeds sprout a hundred-

Fold, for even good seed

Dries up in dried-up ground.

What Chrétien sows—the seeds

He scatters—are the start of a story [...]"

—Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval: the Story of the Grail, translated by Burton Raffel 


We live in a world chock-full of stories. Presumably, each has its merits, and yet some stories are quickly forgotten while others become favorites. As a storyteller, I'm intrigued by our attraction to certain stories and curious about how we make them our own. There are certain fairy tales, "The Prince Lindworm" for example, that maintain a haunting sense of significance for me. I've mused over this tale many times, drawn to the moment in which a queen "forgets" the advice of a mysterious crone and eats both of the magical roses. She later gives birth to a dragon. Oops. 


One of Joseph Campbell's favorite stories was the Arthurian legend of the Grail quest and the wounded Fisher King. This was the topic of his master's thesis at Columbia University and a touchstone for his later ideas. The image of the solitary knight following a pathless path is emblematic of the hero's adventure, and Campbell's vision of the modern individual on a personal quest for fulfillment. You may recognize this oft-quoted line from the moment the grail magically appeared to the Knights of the Round Table: "Further, they decided that each should go on this quest alone and enter the forest at the point of his own choosing, where it was darkest, because it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group." (The Flight of the Wild Gander: Selected Essays 1944 - 1968, 222)


Perceval, the Story of the Grail was written in the 12th century by the French Romantic poet Chrétien de Troyes, who reworked Celtic legends and British history to create the young knight Perceval and the image of the grail. He describes the adventures of a naive young man who acquires the trappings and skills of a seasoned knight, and finds himself at the mysterious castle of the Fisher King. There he beholds the grail, and although he is filled with wonder, he asks no questions. The following morning, he awakens to find himself alone in an empty castle.


Perceval eventually rejoins King Arthur's court and is welcomed as a hero. In the midst of the celebration, a loathly lady appears and castigates him for his silence at the Grail Castle. She tells him that his failure to ask a question will bring continued suffering to the kingdom. Filled with remorse, Perceval vows to rectify his error and begins his search for the grail. 


At this point in his story, de Troyes shifts the action to the knight Gawain. Perceval has a few more adventures and then boom--the story abruptly stops mid-sentence. de Troyes abandoned his story and Perceval's quest.  He died without finishing his tale, however, the seeds that he sowed undeniably sprouted.  


Percival's quest and the image of the grail inspired other poets, who refashioned some of the elements and brought the story to a successful conclusion. In Parzival, for example, the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach has Parzival discover that he has a brother, a Moslem named Feirefiz. When they put down their swords, the loathly lady (Cundrie) declares Parzival the Grail King. The two brothers find the Grail Castle and all ends well.


Campbell often told von Eschenbach's version of the story. He developed an elegant exegesis on the meaning of the symbols, and the significance of this new story at this point in history. According to Campbell, the appearance of the grail quest story in the Middle Ages signals a shift in authority, away from the well codified and corrupt religious order, toward personal experience, and the emergence of a new vision of the individual. In Flight of the Wild Gander he writes: 


The Grail is housed not in a church but in a castle; its guardian is not a priest but a king. It is carried not by an assortment of questionable males but by twenty-five young woman, whose virtue must be unsullied, and the knight who achieves the quest, and so restores the Waste Land to bounty, succeeds through integrity of character, in the service of a singly focused love, amor. (219)


Like many others, I feel the invitation to pick up where he left off implicit in de Troyes’ unfinished tale. I'd begin with the moment the loathly lady departs, leaving Perceval and King Arthur's court in a state of shocked dismay. A younger me, like that brave knight, would put on her suit of armor and ride off to the rescue without a backward glance. Today, that impulse to fix and set things right feels like an evasion of the real challenge. I see Perceval sitting alone in the empty hall after all of the guests have gone, absorbing the implications of his failure. 


Was a search for the grail necessary, I wonder, or had it already been found? What if Perceval laid down his sword, chastened by his new awareness of the limits of his understanding? What if he went back to his beautiful lady and became a devoted husband and father, a good and honest neighbor? What if he was tested by marriage, parenthood, illness, and heartbreak, rather than the enemy's sword and the solitude of the dark forest? If he posed the right question to his daughter, perched on his knee, and she changed the world? 


No one knows why Chrétien de Troyes didn't complete his Perceval. Maybe he lost interest in the story or didn't realize its significance, as Campbell suggests (Flight of the Wild Gander, 218). Maybe the expectations of his royal patron, Count Philip of Flanders and Alsace, limited his ability to tell the story that he imagined. Maybe the image of the grail catapulted him to a place beyond words and a feeling that he couldn't share. Maybe he told the part of the story that was his to tell.


We have inherited many tales of adventure, and yet the possibilities in our storied lives are not exhausted. Each of us can enter the forest of story and begin the quest of our own devising, following the trail our imagination sets down. You may find that the ground around your favorite tales is well trod, but you can still make the story your own. Start where you will. Scatter some seeds and see what sprouts.

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