It is agreed that the essential and predominant characteristic of the Perceval literature is the asking and answering of a question which bears on its surface every aspect of triviality, but is yet the pivot on which the whole circle of these romances may be said to revolve. On the other hand, the question is absent from the Galahad story, and in place of it we have a stately pageant of chivalry moving through the world of Logres to find the high mystery of sanctity. But that finding is destined only to dismember the Arthurian empire and to pass, in fine, leaving no trace behind it, except the sporadic vision of a rejected knight, which is mentioned but not described, and occurs under circumstances that justify grave doubts as to its existence in the original texts.
Now, the entire critical literature of the Graal may be searched in vain for any serious explanation as to the actuating motive, in or out of folk-lore, concerning the Graal question. On the part of the folk-lore authorities there have been naturally attempts to refer it to something antecedent within the scope of their subject, but the analogies have been no analogies, and as much extravagance has resulted as we have yet heard of in the connection which some scholars have vaguely termed
mysticism. The symbolical and sacramental value of the Graal Quest, outside all issues in folk-lore, is from my standpoint paramount, as it is this indeed without any reference to the opinions which are founded in folk-lore or to the speculations thereout arising; and the fact remains that the palmary importance of the mystic question lapses with the pre-eminence of the Perceval Quest. Initiation, like folk-lore, knows many offices of silence but few of asking; and after many researches I conclude--or at least tentatively--that in this respect the Graal romances stand practically alone. It is therefore useful to know that it is not the highest term of the literature.
In the Conte del Graal of Chrétien, the law and order of the Quest is that Perceval shall ask the meaning of those wonders which he sees in the pageant at the Castle of the Quest. The references are many in the poem, but they are merely repetitions. Perceval did not ask (1) how such things came to pass; (2) nor anything whatsoever; (3) he did not dare to ask about the Graal, qui on en servoit, because his teacher in chivalry had cautioned him against idle curiosity and such impertinence, for which reason he reserved his speech. It is understood that through the oppression of the centuries the keeper of the Holy Graal is, according to the Didot Perceval, in a state of distress, longing for his delayed release. Before he can go in peace he must pass on the divine tradition of the Secret Words, but before he can so transmit them he must he asked a question. That question is: De quoi li Graus sert. It will perform a twofold office, firstly, to heal the king, and, secondly, to liberate his speech. Perceval reaches the Castle, but notwithstanding that the voice of one who was invisible had announced at the Court of King Arthur, in Perceval's presence and in that of all the knights, both the nature and effect of the question, he entreats nothing for fear of offending his host. Hence he departs in disgrace, and the king remains unhealed.
Within the limits of the Gautier section of the Conte del Graal there are not less than three versions of the visit of Gawain to the Graal Castle, representing specific variations of different manuscripts. Without exercising any discrimination between them, but rather by a harmony of all, it may be said that he does ask concerning the Lance and Graal, but as he cannot re-solder the sword, he can learn nothing regarding the Sacred Vessel, or, if there is a sign of willingness on the part of the Keeper, he goes to sleep and so escapes the story. The result is that the enchantment is in part only removed from the land. When the same poet recounts the second visit of Perceval, the knight on beholding the Hallows does not know where to begin, but at length prays that he may hear the whole truth concerning the Graal, the Sword and the Lance. The condition of the answer, as in the case of Gawain, is that he shall re-solder the Sword, and we have seen already that in this task Perceval is successful partly, but the king's healing does not seem to be effected, though the path thereof is open, and the knight has not yet achieved the Quest. The result on external nature is not stated by Manessier.
At the beginning of the Longer Prose Perceval it is said that the reticence of the questing Knight at the Graal Castle caused such mischances in Greater Britain that all the lands and islands fell into sorrow. There appeared to be war everywhere, no knight meeting another in the forest without running on him and slaying him, if he could. The King Fisherman himself passed into languishment. The question which ought to have been asked was: "Unto whom one serveth of the Graal." Many penances will be ended, it is said, when he who visits the Graal Castle demands unto whom it is served; but this event never comes to pass in the story. The desire to ask questions seems to have been rare therein, for Gawain when conversing with a wandering damsel, who was formerly the bearer of the Graal, fails to inquire why she carries her arm slung
on her neck in a golden stole, or concerning the rich pillow whereon her arm reposes. He is told that he will give no greater heed at the court of King Fisherman. The King himself always dwells on the misfortune which overtook him through the failure of Perceval. When Gawain actually reaches the mystic Castle, he sees the Graal and the Lance, but he is lost in a joy of contemplation and he utters no word.
It has been said that there is a question in the Romance of Galahad, and it might have been added that there is one in the prose Lancelot; the second illustrates the first, and we shall find that they are both mere traces and survivals, as the prologue to the Conte del Graal has the shadow of the secret words, peculiar to the cycle of De Borron, when it affirms that the Graal secret must be never disclosed. I do not think that, as regards the later instance, I should be justified in assuming that he who wrote this prologue was in touch direct with the implicit of the De Borron cycle, and I do think alternatively that if people were disposed to lay stress on such remanents of the question as I am citing here, they are likely to find that it will work rather in a reverse direction. The fact remains that Lancelot saw the Graal in one episode of the great story dedicated to him, that he asked the question which is so important in some other romances, that he asked it quite naturally--as who would have failed to do?--that he was answered also naturally, and that nothing depended therefrom. He cried in his wonder: "O Jesu! what does this mean?" He was told: "This is the richest thing in the world." In the Galahad romance, when he beheld, by the Stone Cross in the wild, a sudden passage of the Graal and the healing of a certain knight, it is hinted by some texts that he ought to have asked something, despite the lesson which he had in the voiding of things previously; but he was so far right on the fact that his imputed omission carried no consequence.
The hindrance to the question in the Parsifal is the same as we have found in Chrétien; at all that he saw the knight of the Quest was agaze with wonder; he thought also that if he refrained from asking he would be told eventually. That which followed herefrom was sorrow to the host, with continued suffering, and woe also to the guest. For this silence he is always represented in the romances as earning reproach and contumely from persons outside the Castle, but in the German poem there is no suggestion of an external enchantment. It is to be noted further that Parsifal has not received a prefatory warning regarding the question, as he has in the Didot Perceval.
In Diu Crône by Heinrich, when the questing knight has beheld the Reliquary and the Spear, he does the opposite exactly, for he can no longer contain himself, and so asks his host, for the sake of God, to tell him what the marvels mean and who also are the great company whom he beholds. Even as he speaks, all present spring from their seats with a loud cry and the sound of great rejoicing. The host tells them to sit down again, and then he explains to the knight that he has seen the Holy Vessel of which he may say nothing, except that joy and consolation supervene upon his saving question. Many are liberated from the bondage which they have endured so long, having little hope of acquittance. There was a time when they trusted in Perceval, as in one predestined to enter into the knowledge of the Graal, as if through everlasting portals, but he fell away like a knight of no spirit who dared and demanded nothing. Had he done otherwise, he would have released many from their toil who remain in the semblance of life and are yet dead. The woe came about through the strife of kinsmen, "when one brother smote the other for his land." For this disloyalty the judgment of God descended upon him and his consanguinities, so that doom overtook them all. The living were expatriated, and the dead, under greater disaster,
remained in the shadow of life. To end their woe it was necessary that a man of their race should seek an explanation of their sad, long-enduring prodigies. It does not appear that the Graal or the Spear have any connection with the Passion of Christ, and there is no secret communicated, for the history of the Sacred Vessel is not recounted?
From the consideration of this subject we may come away therefore, confirmed in our reasonable certainty that the question with which we have been dealing is unlike anything in literature. We shall see ultimately how it is accounted for by expert knowledge of folk-lore--connected or otherwise with quests and vengeance missions--in Welsh or English literature.