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Matter of Britain character
Rogelio de Egusquiza - Parsifal.jpg
Parsifal by Rogelio de Egusquiza (1910)
In-universe information
OccupationKnight of the Round Table
Family Pellinore, Lamorak, Aglovale, Tor, Lohengrin, his sister, Feirefiz

Percival ( /ˈpɜːrsɪvəl/ , also spelled Perceval, Parzival), alternatively called Peredur (Welsh pronunciation:  [pɛˈrɛdɨr] ), was one of King Arthur's legendary Knights of the Round Table. First mentioned by the French author Chretien de Troyes in the tale Perceval, the Story of the Grail , he is best known for being the original hero in the quest for the Grail, before being replaced in later English and French literature by Galahad.


Etymology and origin

Percival in Newell Convers Wyeth's illustration for Sidney Lanier's The Boy's King Arthur (1922) Boys King Arthur - N. C. Wyeth - p214.jpg
Percival in Newell Convers Wyeth's illustration for Sidney Lanier's The Boy's King Arthur (1922)

The earliest reference to Perceval is in Chrétien de Troyes's first Arthurian romance Erec et Enide , where, as "Percevaus li Galois" (Percevaus of Wales), he appears in a list of Arthur's knights; [1] in another of Chrétien's romances, Cligés , he is a "renowned vassal" who is defeated by the knight Cligés in a tournament. [2] He then becomes the protagonist in Chrétien's final romance, Perceval, the Story of the Grail . [3]

In the Welsh romance Peredur son of Efrawg , the figure goes by the name Peredur. The name "Peredur" may derive from Welsh par (spear) and dur (hard, steel). [4] It is generally accepted that Peredur was a well-established figure before he became the hero of Peredur son of Efrawg. [5] However, the earliest Welsh Arthurian text, Culhwch and Olwen , does not mention Peredur in any of its extended catalogues of famous and less famous warriors. Peredur does appear in the romance Geraint and Enid , which includes "Peredur son of Efrawg" in a list of warriors accompanying Geraint. A comparable list in the last pages of The Dream of Rhonabwy refers to a Peredur Paladr Hir ("of the Long Spear-Shaft"), whom Peter Bartrum identifies as the same figure. [6] Peredur may derive in part from the sixth-century Coeling chieftain Peredur son of Eliffer. The Peredur of Welsh romance differs from the Coeling chieftain if only in that his father is called Efrawg, rather than Eliffer, and there is no sign of a brother called Gwrgi. Efrawg, on the other hand, is not an ordinary personal name, but the historical Welsh name for the city of York (Latin Eburacum, modern Welsh Efrog). [6] This may represent an epithet that denoted a local association, possibly pointing to Eliffer's son as the prototype, but which came to be understood and used as a patronymic in the Welsh Arthurian tales. [6]

Scholars disagree as to the exact relationship between Peredur and Percival. Arthur Groos and Norris J. Lacy argue that it is most likely that the use of the name Peredur in Peredur son of Efrawg "represent[s] an attempt to adapt the name [Perceval] to Welsh onomastic traditions", [7] as the Welsh romance appears to depend on Chrétien de Troyes, at least partially, as a source, and as the name Peredur is attested for unrelated characters in Historia Regum Britanniae and Roman de Brut . [8] Rachel Bromwich, however, regards the name Perceval as a loose French approximation of the Welsh name Peredur. [9] Roger Sherman Loomis attempted to derive both Perceval and Peredur from the Welsh Pryderi , a mythological figure in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, [10] a derivation that Groos and Lacy find "now seems even less likely". [8]

In all of his appearances, Chrétien de Troyes identifies Perceval as "the Welshman" (li Galois), indicating that, even if he does not originate in Celtic tradition, he alludes to it. [3] Groos and Lacy argue that, "even though there may have been a pre-existing 'Perceval prototype,' Chrétien was primarily responsible [...] for the creation of [one of] the most fascinating, complex, and productive characters in Arthurian fiction". [11]

In some French texts, the name "Perceval" is derived from either Old French per ce val (through this valley) or perce val (pierce the valley). [12] These etymologies are not found in Chrétien de Troyes, however. [13] Perlesvaus etymologizes the name (there: Pellesvax) as meaning "He Who Has Lost The Vales", referring to the loss of land by his father, while also saying Perceval called himself Par-lui-fet (made by himself). [14] Wolfram von Eschenbach's German Parzival provides the meaning "right through the middle" for the name (there: Parzival). [14] Richard Wagner followed a discredited etymology proposed by journalist and historian Joseph Görres that the name derived from Arabic fal parsi (pure fool) when choosing the spelling "Parsifal" for the figure in his opera. [15]

In Arthurian legend

Percival's attributed arms in later stories (following just a plain red shield of the Red Knight in Chretien's Perceval) Blason Perceval.svg
Percival's attributed arms in later stories (following just a plain red shield of the Red Knight in Chrétien's Perceval)


In a large series of episodes, Peredur son of Efrawg tells the story of Peredur's education as a knight. It begins with his birth and secluded upbringing as a naive boy by his widowed mother. When he meets a group of knights, he joins them on their way to King Arthur's court. Once there, he is ridiculed by Cei and sets out on further adventures, promising to avenge Cei's insults to himself and those who defended him. While travelling he meets two of his uncles. The first, who is analogous to the Gornemant of Perceval, trains him in arms and warns him not to ask the significance of what he sees. The second uncle is analogous to Chrétien's Fisher King, but what Peredur sees being carried before him in his uncle's castle is not the Holy Grail (Old French graal), but a salver containing a man's severed head. The text agrees with the French poem in listing a bleeding lance among the items which are carried in procession. The young knight does not ask about significance of these items and proceeds to further adventure, including a stay with the Nine Witches and the encounter with the woman who was to be his true love, Angharad. Peredur returns to Arthur's court, but soon embarks on another series of adventures that do not correspond to material in Perceval. Eventually, the hero learns the severed head at his uncle's court belonged to his cousin, who had been killed by the Witches. Peredur avenges his family and is celebrated as a hero.

Several elements in the story, such as the severed head on a salver, a hunt for a unicorn, the witches, and a magical board of gwyddbwyll, have all been described as Celtic ingredients that are not otherwise present in Chrétien's story. [16] Goetinck sees in Peredur a variant on the Celtic theme of the sovereignty goddess, who personifies the country and has to be won sexually by the rightful king or heir to secure peace and prosperity for the kingdom. N. Petrovskaia has recently suggested an alternative interpretation, linking the figure of the Empress with Empress Matilda. [17]


Arthur Hacker's 1894 illustration of a scene from Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, in which Percival is tempted by a devil in the form of a beautiful woman Hacker Arthur Percival with the Grail Cup.jpg
Arthur Hacker's 1894 illustration of a scene from Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur , in which Percival is tempted by a devil in the form of a beautiful woman

Chrétien de Troyes wrote the first story of Percival, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, in the late 12th century. Wolfram's Parzival, Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur , and the now-lost Perceval by Robert de Boron are other famous accounts of his adventures.

There are many versions of Perceval's birth. In Robert de Boron's account, he is of noble birth, and his father is stated to be either Alain le Gros, King Pellinore or another worthy knight. His mother is usually unnamed, but plays a significant role in the stories. His sister is sometimes the bearer of the Holy Grail, but not originally; she is sometimes named Dindrane. In the tales in which he is Pellinore's son, his brothers are Aglovale, Lamorak and Dornar, and he also has a half-brother named Tor by his father's affair with a peasant woman.

After the death of his father, Perceval's mother takes him to the forest, where she raises him ignorant of the ways of men until he is 15. Eventually, a group of knights passes through the forest and Perceval is struck by their heroic bearing. Wanting to be a knight himself, he travels to King Arthur's court. In some versions, his mother faints in shock upon seeing her son leave. After proving his worthiness as a warrior, he is knighted and invited to join the Knights of the Round Table.

In Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval, the earliest story about him, he is already connected to the Grail. He meets the crippled Fisher King and sees a grail, not yet identified as "holy", but he fails to ask the question that would heal the injured king. Upon learning of his mistake, Perceval vows to find the Grail castle again and fulfill his quest. The story breaks off soon after, to be continued in a number of different ways by various authors, such as in Perlesvaus and Sir Perceval of Galles . In later accounts, the true Grail hero is Galahad, the son of Lancelot, but, though his role in the romances is diminished, Percival remains a major character and is one of only two knights (the other is Bors) who accompany Galahad to the Grail castle and complete the quest with him.

In early versions, Perceval's sweetheart is Blanchefleur and he becomes the King of Carbonek after healing the Fisher King. In later versions, he is a virgin who dies after achieving the Grail. In Wolfram's version, Perceval's son is Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan.

In modern times

His story has been featured in many modern works, including Wagner's influential and controversial 1882 opera Parsifal .

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<i>Peredur son of Efrawg</i>

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  1. Erec, vv. 1506, 1526.
  2. Cligés vv. 4774, 4828.
  3. 1 2 Gross & Lacy 2002, p. 2.
  4. The Mabinogion 2007, p. 245.
  5. Groos & Lacy 2002, p. 9.
  6. 1 2 3 Koch, "Peredur fab Efrawg", pp. 1437–8.
  7. Groos & Lacy 2002, p. 3.
  8. 1 2 Groos & Lacy 2002, p. 35.
  9. Bromwich 1961, p. 490.
  10. Loomis 1949, pp. 346-352.
  11. Groos & Lacy 2002, p. 5.
  12. Gross & Lacy 2002, p. 3.
  13. Müller 1999, p. 246.
  14. 1 2 Groos & Lacy 2002, p. 4.
  15. Müller 1999, p. 247.
  16. Lovecy, "Historia Peredur", p. 178.
  17. Petrovskaia, Natalia I. (2009). "Dating Peredur: New Light on Old Problems". Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium. 29: 223–243. JSTOR   41219642.
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