Chrétien and the Silent Majority

“Well I didn’t vote for you” 1

Silence versus speech, namely question and answers, serves as one of the central conceits of Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail (Perceval). Perceval begins the story as an uncouth youth who states whatever he wishes, and as indicative of most bildungsroman narratives, he matures, but he matures into silence. The gentleman and vavasour, Gornemant of Gohort, gives Perceval advice, “‘he who talks too much commits a sin’…I warn you not to talk too much” (402)2, and this becomes Perceval’s guiding motivational aphorism, following his mother’s earlier advice. In the definitive moment of him being seated at the Fisher King’s table and witnessing the grail procession, he does not ask any questions, and his “failure becomes one of being silent” (Murrell 55). Perceval’s (de)evolution as a character seems analogous to the modern day apathetic citizen, for though he undergoes “refinement” his resultant character shift, though societally acceptable, results in failure.

Raised ignorant to his noble bloodline, chivalry, and courtly etiquette, Perceval knew no other life besides the sheltered existence manufactured for him by his mother in the Waste Land (387). Chance or fate brought him in contact with five knights, beginning his tale and indoctrination into knighthood. Perceval leaves after receiving a lecture from his mother, who faints upon his departure from worry (387-389). Impulsive decision and want drive Perceval to King Arthur. He bursts into the court at Camelot:

The boy [Perceval] did not give a fig for anything the king told him, nor did his grief or the shame done the queen make any impression on him. ‘Make me a knight, sir king.’ he said, ‘for I wish to be on my way.’ The eyes of the rustic youth were bright and laughing in his head. No one who saw him thought him wise, but everyone who observed him considered him handsome and noble.

‘Friend,’ said the king, ‘dismount and give your hunter to this squire…’

And the boy replied: ‘The knights I met in the heath never dismounted, yet you want me to dismount! By my head, I’ll not dismount, so get on with it and I’ll be on my way’ (393)

Perceval’s boldness here, namely his refusal to dismount, appears as an affront to Arthur’s authority, but his actions derive from his limited intellect in courtly mannerisms. He does not care to change his mode of discourse. Following his courteous labeling of Perceval as “friend” and asking him to “dismount,” Arthur takes a dig at Perceval’s age and background: he stands as no more than a “naïve boy” (393). He adds in a positive comment about his uncertain noble birth and potential to be “brave and wise,” but he lists the negative first—despite the use of subordinate conjunction “though.” This sentence structure prioritizes Perceval’s status as “naïve” and reinforces Arthur’s conception of him as merely a simple Welsh boy (393).

Later on in this above, excerpted passage, Arthur evokes the longstanding argument of nature versus nurture in the near conditional, “if his [Perceval’s] folly has come from poor teaching, [then] he can still prove brave and wise” (393). The phraseology here supposes that Arthur maintains some degree of hope for “saving” the boy from his ignorance by knighting him. The rest of Arthur’s commentary, however, pushes this hope to the background as he deftly exclaims how Perceval will “be dead or crippled” because “he’s so simple-minded and uncouth” (397). Arthur zeros in on Perceval’s intelligence and mannerisms after analyzing his physicality and personality because both mattered when assessing the overall ability of a knight. Perceval’s noble birth, however, stands as the key to his knighthood. Arthur made Perceval a knight, and Perceval dedicated his all to becoming a faithful knight, only at the expense of losing a part of his personality, and perhaps, identity.

Perceval’s change in character and his silence in wake of the Fisher King’s procession connects with and contrasts to his initial depiction as an “uncouth” Welsh boy. Note his aforementioned, brash request to be knighted, and then the curious questioning by his lodgers as to whether “[he] is a mute” (404). Between these two events, Perceval, who Chrétien always emphasizes is a “youth,” learns traditional courtly manners, gains a new set of clothes (401), fights Anguingueron (409) and Clamadeu (417), rescues a castle from starvation (412), all the while holding his tongue. Eventually, Perceval realizes that he must return to his mother and leave “his beautiful love Blancheflor” who he picked up during the above delineated exploits (417). On his way to reunite with his mother, Perceval stumbles upon the titular grail in the castle of the Fisher King. During the grail procession, Chrétien spares no narrative criticism. The procession begins with the passing of a white lance, candelabra, and grail. After each item passes by Perceval, he fails to question why, even after the procession repeats. Chrétien’s commentary during this scene highlights Perceval’s impressionable nature, calling attention to the “admonishment given by the gentleman” or “wise gentleman’s advice” that Perceval keeps “in his heart” (420, 421). This “gentleman,” Gornemant of Gohort, appears in Chrétien’s three main, and near identical criticisms of Perceval: that is, Perceval “refrained from asking” out of fear “that if he asked they [the Fisher King and fellow guests] would consider him uncouth” (420). Curiously, this is the second appearance of “uncouth” as a supposedly negative adjective tied to Perceval as a character, and looking at the historical definition of the word to align with Chrétien’s timeframe meant merely “unknown, unfamiliar, or strange” (OED). Retrospectively, “strangeness” should not be a problem or character flaw, but Chrétien thought otherwise. With the passing of the grail, though, Chrétien states another characteristic of Perceval, possibly residual curiosity from his bumbling ignorance that he happily voiced prior to his teaching, “[Perceval] saw the grail pass by completely uncovered before him…he wanted to know; he said to himself that he would be sure to ask one of the court squires before he let thereSo the question was put off and he set his mind to drinking and eating” (421, emphasis mine). Perceval wants to know, and that makes a key distinction between being indifferent, a “marvel,” or just not having the audacity to speak out or question out of fear.

Chrétien’s commentary on Perceval’s lack of initiative and his check on himself to fit into societally acceptable behavior emphasizes his change but also the extent of the hold this “gentleman” had on Perceval—he shaped Perceval, boxing him into his own norm. Perceval forgets the value in speaking out, a trait he frequently used in the first half of the tale. In this instance, the mode shifts from a creation of Perceval as a character to an onslaught of narration. Chrétien relays Perceval’s many missed opportunities, and this narration does not necessarily espouse a tone of derision; if anything, Chrétien’s humor comes through.

In the introduction to the collection containing Perceval, William W. Kibler notes how Chrétien’s use of humor “give[s] the impression of a real discussion” and shows his ability to “incorporate keenly observed realistic details into the most fantastic adventures” (17). This trait carries into Chrétien’s brilliant narrative quips in Perceval: “It is a difficult task to teach a fool” (395); “If anyone were to tell it again it would be boring and wearisome” (398); “I’ll say no more about the meal” (401); and “I could tell you all about it if I made that my purpose, but I do not want to waste my efforts, since one word is as good as twenty” (414). Assessing the pagination of these excerpted lines of narration shows that Chrétien writes with leisure, and perhaps, to entertain himself as much as the reader3. Contextually, these quips read as humorous, and the language breaks up the narration, directly addressing the audience. While Chrétien maintains free reign to insert commentary and move or direct the discourse, Perceval does not. As a character of his own creation, Chrétien silences Perceval, especially considering the Fisher King’s grail procession. Chrétien’s ultimate quip foreshadows Perceval’s failure4, and calls for an even level between silence and brash exclamations/demands: Chrétien inserts a narrative quip as foreshadow, commenting on Perceval’s silence, and calling for some middle ground: “Yet I fear that this may be to his misfortune, for I have heard it said that at times it is just as wrong to keep too silent as to talk too much. Whether for good or for ill he did not ask or inquire anything of them” (421).

Moving from Perceval’s character arch to Chrétien’s actual narration brings to light one filmic adaptation of this grail cycle, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (henceforth, MPHG). Chrétien created the grail story in Perceval, and his text serves as the bedrock for other grail cycles. As Professor Elizabeth Murrell notes that any discussion of MPHG, “must be informed by the numerous versions of the various stories that compose the grail cycle and that fill the historical space between Chrétien and the production of the film” (51). She calls attention to the varying versions of the grail procession seen across centuries from Sir Thomas Malory to Milton, but for sake of conciseness, and to stick within the bounds of this paper’s thesis, the focus remains on Chrétien’s Perceval and how it relates to MPHG.

The surrealist humor in MPHG tests audiences much like Chrétien’s quips—Python humor is rooted in intellectual and linguistic puns, and some of the jokes may come off as absurd rather than funny. Regardless, that humor augments the film from a low budget British import to a defense of humor as a medium for challenging political discourse, defending its own absurdity; as medieval film specialist Kevin J. Harty states, “this silly film is by no means a trivial one” (147). The social significance of this humor, especially when considered from a political standpoint, serves a key purpose: humor drops the barriers inevitably raised with political discourse. Consider Terry Gilliam’s comment on MPHG, “humor is a great test, as well as a great defense” (Meuwese 56). The “test” and “defense” in Gilliam’s quote refer to the “crude” or “irreverent” animation in MPHG, but the quote also speaks volumes for the film as an “interpretation of the medieval and the modern” and as a culturally significant commentary on issues of “justice, violence, and desire” (Harty 147).

MPHG serves an important modern interpretation of Perceval. As a cult classic, its many one-liners rank as cultural mainstays5. Indeed, Professor Greg M. Smith observes that the “picaresque structure of Arthurian tales dovetailed” with the Python sketch comedy, creating nonlinear “self-enclosed sketches,” and these “structural characteristics” made the film “a series of ‘quotable’ moments” for “fans” to “integrate…into their lives” (72). To go along with Chrétien’s quips and (foreshadowing) narration, MPHG features three narrative interludes between scenes five and six, 23 and 24, 31 and 32, and importantly humorous one-liners throughout. During the second narrative interlude6, the narrator and several of the main characters of the film directly address the audience with an exclamatory “Get on with it!” a line resonating with Chrétien’s “I’ll say no more about the meal” (401) or “I do not want to waste my efforts” (414). Bringing in MPHG, draws from Professor Elizabeth Murrell’s paper, “History Revenged: Monty Python Translates Chrétien De Troyes’s Perceval, Or The Story of the Grail (Again).” Murrell positions Perceval as MPHG’s Arthur. Looking at the humor of inherent in Perceval’s character in Chrétien and comparing him King Arthur, in MPHG serves as a kind of play on the current state of affairs: even the most chivalric, noble, king of kings can be made fun of, and so must the orange buffoon in Office of the President of the United States; citizens need not be silent to tyranny; they must satirize it, and though MPHG is “not really satirizing anything specific” (Sims), both works maintain political undertones.

MPHG parallels Perceval—the former draws from latter as source material. Chrétien wrote in a time of political discord. MPHG first aired in the United States in 1975, three years after Watergate7. Both use humor in their narration or allow their characters to voice humorous one-liners, but the silencing of Perceval in the grail procession, a scene solely found in Chrétien, marks an important difference. Murrell finds the tension in both works derives from “the clash of the authority of the parent (the domestic) and the authority of the king (the political or public) when there is no mediating discourse” (55). As aforesaid, Chrétien calls for a middle ground in his foreshadowing narration in the grail procession. The United States, in 2017, needs a middle ground. In a sense, citizens largely begin active political life as “uncouth youths” like Perceval. Society expects perfection, and a “gentleman” like Gornemant comes in to correct, educate outspoken youths, effectively silencing options most different to his own, so said youth never again speaks boldly to persons above his status (split infinitive for your pleasure). They become indoctrinated into a societal situation knowing how to behave in traditional discursive situations but not knowing how to assert their own identity, their own options to fully participate (in society, or Socratic question and answer situations as seen in both Perceval and MPHG).

After Perceval’s failure to speak, he wakes to a silent castle, leaves, and comes across a lady, his cousin, weeping over the death of a knight. She begins a series of questions and answers with Perceval. She asks him what he saw at the grail procession, and Perceval gives her fragmentary answers leading to the important question, “‘Did you ask the people where they were going in this manner?’” to which Perceval answers, “‘No question came from my mouth’” (425). Following this statement, Chrétien reveals Perceval by name, calling him Perceval the Welshman (then the lady calls him Perceval the wretched). Supposedly, Perceval had not known his name up to that point, but “although he did not know if that were true or not, he spoke the truth without knowing it” (425). This scene matches several scenes in MPHG, but “The Bridge Of Death” (Q: Stop! What is your name? A: It is Arthur, King of the Britons), “Constitutional Peasants” (Q: Who are the Britons? A: Well, we all are. We’re all Britons, and I am your king),8 and “The Witch Trail” (Q: How do you know she is a witch? A: She looks like one) scenes seem most apt in the exchange of information. And, whether rhetorical in some instances or not, these questions move along discourse and allow the sharing of information. In the case of MPHG, these questions receive answers that completely inverse the discourse or undermine the questioner, particularly in the case of the “Constitutional Peasant” scene, for the peasants render King Arthur’s authority null, much like pre-educated Perceval’s run-in with the king.

These two works negotiate different modes of discourse, for Chrétien excessive speech or excessive quietness result in failure, or as Perceval’s cousin relates “much suffering” and a kind of “sin” (425); for the Pythons, not poking fun at authority results in a failure of their comedic art. Both works satirize the present. Their shared humor makes it a point that the petty differences in politics and authority today, the silencing of different opinions and not listening yields a kind of injustice. Satire in art always serves a key purpose in society, and Perceval and MPHG both attest to the fact that power struggles will always plague modern society—said struggles date back to the “medieval,” and yet, like Perceval, citizens remain silent, become labeled as a silent majority, content with half listening to some autocratic figurehead in a wig.


Notes

  1. This quote is taken from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (MPHG)…In my continual quest to find validity in my major or the importance of it—I found myself in medieval literature this semester. I can’t say I enjoyed every work we read, but to pass the time and cope with the fact that I had to do the readings to get a good grade and be a good student, I tried to find some iota of humor in everything we read. I didn’t know the course centered on Arthurian literature, much less romances, but when I discovered the variations of the traditional Arthurian myth and that romances began as simply texts written in French, I felt a bit better about being in this class. For this final exam (that I did not want to write because I am graduating and heading for my undetermined future in London and law school), I give you a loose analysis of what I feel the function of one tale we read. I also wanted to include the only thing I thought of time and time again this semester: MPHG...one of the most preeminent films of this past century, a work of pure comic genius. But, since Trump began his lame ass presidency this semester (I’m not trying to make fun of people who can’t walk “right” or of donkeys, they substitute for a harsher expletive that doesn’t belong in an academic paper), I had to root this whole paper in this depressing context. In this contextualization, I discovered ties throughout text, film, and politics, and something came out of this—namely this lame term paper that you probably won’t read all the way through, but that’s ok. I focused on The Story of the Grail (Perceval) because that story was hilarious and served as a major source text for the Pythons in crafting MPHG. Hopefully, you found my analysis enjoyable. Thanks.
  2. For sake of redundancy, unless otherwise prefaced with a different author, all of the following in-text citations come from: De Troyes, Chrétien. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. Ed. William W. Kibler. London: Penguin, 2005. 381-494. Print [cited below]. As this text is a prose version of Chrétien’s French poetry, I have given the page numbers rather than the line numbers.
  3. Note the headnote (pun intended) to Perceval “thanking” Count Philip of Flanders for his patronage (381). See Adolf for the historical context; supposedly, there was a political situation involving aristocracy, Philip of Flanders, and the monarch.
  4. For further commentary on this and an analysis of Perceval’s “failure” as criminal, see McCullough: “His obstinate questioning and his resistance to being questioned are interpreted as a sign of his sauvagerie and naivete, as ignorance of good manners. It is important to note that in this scene Perceval asks first about the lance that a knight, who looks to him like God himself, carries: that is, he asks the precise question that he refrains from asking at the castle. Perceval will soon discover, however, that his postponement of the question constitutes a crime” (52, emphasis mine).
  5. Notable lines include: “How could a 5-ounce bird possibly carry a 1-pound coconut?” “Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who.” “Look, that rabbit’s got a vicious streak a mile wide! It’s a killer!’ ‘It’s just a flesh wound.” “I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!” “Oh! Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being repressed!” “On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.”
  6. Excerpted narrative interlude: “The wise Sir Bedeveire was the first to join King Arthur’s knights, but other illustrious names were soon to follow: Sir Launcelot the Brave; Sir Galahad the Pure; and Sir Robin the Not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Launcelot who had nearly fought the Dragon of Agnor, who had nearly stood up to the vicious Chicken of Bristol and who had personally wet himself at the Battle of Badon Hill; and the aptly named Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film.  Together they formed a band whose names and deeds were to be retold throughout the centuries, the Knights of the Round Table.”
  7. See BBC News, Glass, and King.
  8. Excerpted scene below:

ARTHUR:  Old woman!

DENNIS:  Man!

ARTHUR: Old Man, sorry.  What knight live in that castle over there?

DENNIS:  I’m thirty seven.

ARTHUR:  What?

DENNIS:  I’m thirty seven — I’m not old!

ARTHUR:  Well, I can’t just call you `Man’.

DENNIS:  Well, you could say `Dennis’.

ARTHUR:  Well, I didn’t know you were called `Dennis.’

DENNIS:  Well, you didn’t bother to find out, did you?

ARTHUR:  I did say sorry about the `old woman,’ but from the behind

you looked–

DENNIS:  What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior!

ARTHUR:  Well, I AM king…

DENNIS:  Oh king, eh, very nice.  An’ how’d you get that, eh?  By

exploitin’ the workers — by ‘angin’ on to outdated imperialist dogma

which perpetuates the economic an’ social differences in our society!

If there’s ever going to be any progress–

WOMAN:  Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here.  Oh — how d’you do?

ARTHUR:  How do you do, good lady.  I am Arthur, King of the Britons.

Who’s castle is that?

WOMAN:  King of the who?

ARTHUR:  The Britons.

WOMAN:  Who are the Britons?

ARTHUR:  Well, we all are. we’re all Britons and I am your king.

WOMAN:  I didn’t know we had a king.  I thought we were an autonomous

collective.

DENNIS:  You’re fooling yourself.  We’re living in a dictatorship.

A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes–

WOMAN:  Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.

DENNIS:  That’s what it’s all about if only people would–

ARTHUR:  Please, please good people.  I am in haste.  Who lives

in that castle?

WOMAN:  No one live there.

ARTHUR:  Then who is your lord?

WOMAN:  We don’t have a lord.

ARTHUR:  What?

DENNIS:  I told you.  We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune.  We take

it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.

ARTHUR:  Yes.

DENNIS:  But all the decision of that officer have to be ratified

at a special biweekly meeting.

ARTHUR:  Yes, I see.

DENNIS:  By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs,–

ARTHUR:  Be quiet!

DENNIS:  –but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more–

ARTHUR:  Be quiet!  I order you to be quiet!

WOMAN:  Order, eh — who does he think he is?

ARTHUR:  I am your king!

WOMAN:  Well, I didn’t vote for you.

ARTHUR:  You don’t vote for kings.

WOMAN:  Well, ‘ow did you become king then?

ARTHUR:  The Lady of the Lake,

[angels sing]

her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur

from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I,

Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.

[singing stops]

That is why I am your king!

DENNIS:  Listen — strange women lying in ponds distributing swords

is no basis for a system of government.  Supreme executive power

derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical

aquatic ceremony.

ARTHUR:  Be quiet!

DENNIS:  Well you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power

just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

ARTHUR:  Shut up!

DENNIS:  I mean, if I went around sayin’ I was an empereror just

because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me they’d

put me away!

ARTHUR:  Shut up!  Will you shut up!

DENNIS:  Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.

ARTHUR:  Shut up!

DENNIS:  Oh!  Come and see the violence inherent in the system!

HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!

ARTHUR:  Bloody peasant!

DENNIS:  Oh, what a give away.  Did you here that, did you here that,

eh?  That’s what I’m on about — did you see him repressing me,

you saw it didn’t you?

9. Some of the “works” in my Works Cited were not quoted directly in my essay, but I found them useful when preparing to write it, so I left them in because I did honestly read/watch/listen to them…well I did skim the Khanh Le thesis…


Works Cited

Adolf, Helen. “A Historical Background for Chrétien’s Perceval.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 58.3 : 597-620. ProQuest. Web. 10 May 2017.

De Troyes, Chrétien. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. Ed. William W. Kibler. London: Penguin, 2005. 381-494. Print.

“Echoes of Watergate Resurface as Trump-Russia Links Probed.” BBC News. BBC, 06 Mar. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.

Glass, Ira. “615: The Beginning of Now.” Audio blog post. This American Life. Chicago Public Media, 28 Apr. 2017. Web. 4 May 2017.

Harty, Kevin J. Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.

King, Colbert I. “Russia Is Trump’s Watergate. Will He React like Nixon?” The Washington Post. WP Company, 17 Mar. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.

Le, Khanh. Humor, Romance, Horror and Epic in Text and Film of Arthurian Legend Adaptations. Thesis. CUNY City College, 2014. New York: CUNY Academic Works, 2014. Print.

McCullough, Ann. “Criminal Naivety: Blind Resistance and the Pain of Knowing in Chrétien De Troyes’s Conte Du Graal.” Modern Language Review 101.1 : 48-61. ProQuest. Web. 10 May 2017.

Meuwese, Martine. “The Animation of Marginal Decorations in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’” Arthuriana, vol. 14, no. 4, 2004, pp. 45–58., http://www.jstor.org/stable/27870655.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail. By Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle. Perf. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2002.

Murrell, Elizabeth. “History Revenged: Monty Python Translates Chrétien De Troyes’s Perceval, Or The Story of the Grail (Again).” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 50, no. 1, 1998, pp. 50–62., http://www.jstor.org/stable/20688168.

Sims, David. “How Monty Python and the Holy Grail Influenced Film by Satirizing It.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 Apr. 2015. Web. 9 May 2017.

Smith, Greg M. “‘To Waste More Time, Please Click Here Again:’ Monty Python and the Quest for Film/CD-ROM Adaptation.” On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMs and the Promises of a New Technology. New York: New York UP, 1999. 58-85. Print.

“uncouth, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 11 May 2017.

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