The Fisher King

Parcival and the Holy Grail

Vacillation saps the courage of the heart

Loyalty emboldens duty’s flame

Heaven and Hell exist in equal part

And honour finds its contrary in shame

Our story begins with a prince whose lust to earn fame and glory as a knight outshone all else within him. He burned with ambition to gain honour in combat and to win the heart of a noble lady. He was Gahmuret of Anjou, and a more wilful and spirited knight you will not find.

When his father, Gandin, King of Anjou, was killed in single combat, his elder brother Galoes inherited the crown and lands, and Gahmuret resolved to set out into the world in pursuit of his destiny. His mother, the queen, already devastated by the sudden loss of her husband, could not countenance his departure, and she implored him to remain in Anjou, but Gahmuret, his heart already set on adventures in distant lands, was unmoved by her pleading and weeping. When he departed with his entourage and panniers full of precious stones, Gahmuret did not look back at his home and family, and as fate would have it, he was never to see them again.

The young Angevin won glory and renown throughout Christendom and beyond. In the old city of Baghdad, he joined the company of the mighty Baruc, who held sway over two-thirds of the known world. Unbeaten with lance or sword, the reputation of the Christian knight grew far and wide, until few dared to challenge Gahmuret of Anjou in single combat.

In a twist of fate, returning to his homeland under sail with an army of loyal fighting men, a powerful tempest carried the vessel off course, and after narrowly escaped wreckage, they made landfall in the port city of Zazamanc, on the edge of the African desert.

Queen Belakane of Zazamanc was both shy and beautiful. Many princes had proclaimed their love for her, but none more fervently that Prince Isenhart, who felt driven to perform ever more daring feats of valour in the hope of winning her favour, but she had remained unyielding. Finally, in desperation, he was killed in a senseless battle, and his kinsmen rounded upon the Lady Belakane, whose modesty they viewed as cold-heartedness, and they raised an army to lay siege to Zazamanc.

From the moment they laid eyes upon each other, the Christian knight and the black queen of the desert were drawn into a sacred bond, and when she explained her plight, the young Angevin swore to be her champion unto death. The following dawn, Gahmuret rode out into the field, raised his lance to the queen and her ladies, who were watching from the balcony above, and with a flurry of trumpet blasts, he issued his challenge.

Champion after champion rode against him that day, but Gahmuret of Anjou remained unbeaten, until no contender could be found, and the day and the battle was declared won.

When he presented himself before the Queen, blood-stained and battle-weary, she knew that her heart could no longer remain reticent. In the union that followed, they discovered the passion and the sweetness of love, and Gahmuret believed that he had found the beloved of his dream.

They were wed, and Gahmuret became King of Zazamanc and Lord of the desert. The affair with Isenhart’s kinsmen was settled, all prisoners were released, and peace reigned over the realm. For a time, long nights of love and gentle days in the court or riding out into the desert brought him an unfamiliar happiness, but Gahmuret’s first and perhaps only true love was for the glory to be found in the world of valour, pitting sword against sword in honourable combat, and it wasn’t long before he began to tire of the passive charms of his desert retreat, despite the continuing allure of the marriage bed.  

Belakane noticed his brooding restlessness, and felt the withdrawing of his affections, but it came as a deep shock when one evening, after only three months of marriage, Gahmuret snapped: ‘I am done with your desert. I need the taste of combat to feel life in my veins. I will soon return to France; there is a war brewing and I am needed there.’ She felt sure that the news that she was carrying his child would lift his spirits and cause him to reconsider, but only two days later, she awoke to a parchment left in her purse, and from her balcony, she saw that the ship had weighed anchor and her husband had gone.

‘It is true, my love, that I have stolen away, and that makes of me a thief. But this was only to lighten the grief of our parting. I am and always will be a man of iron, and I must follow my destiny. If our child is a boy, then he will be brave and true, as he is an Angevin, in the lineage of kings. He will also be blessed with love, as I have been by you. Until we meet again, dearest lady, forgive me and farewell.’

A son was born to Belakane six months later, a magpie child, with skin that was both black and white, as if declaring the duality of his ancestry. He was named Feirefiz Angevin, and all who laid eyes on him could see that he was chosen by destiny.

During the French wars, Gahmuret gained such favour that the Queen of France herself became besotted with his valour. Yet, his insatiable ambition for fame could not be quenched, and when he heard news of a tournament, to take place at Kanvoleis in Wales, where all the most renowned knights would be jousting for the prize of the hand and lands of Lady Herzeloyde, he was unable to resist the challenge.

He told himself that the only prize he sought was to be worthy of victory and that, following the tournament, he would return to his Zazamanc bride and child, but life makes its own demands, and Gahmuret was no exception to this rule, however strong willed.

He arrived in Kanvoleis under the banner of the King of Zazamanc, with a reputation as a great and noble champion, and when the fighting commenced, the crowd were not disappointed, for it seemed there could be no match for his skill and valour in the art of jousting. As knights fell around him, the roar of the crowd confirmed that they, at least, had found their champion, and Gahmuret continued to defeat his opponents until there was no-one remaining to challenge him.

That evening in his lavish pavilion, Gahmuret served a feast for all the kings and princes he had taken captive during the fray, and when the meal was done, Queen Herzeloyde and her ladies arrived to declare him the champion of champions, that he might claim his prize. Seated close together, she could hardly contain the rising longing that she felt within her, and Gahmuret was so moved by the dazzling radiance of the young Queen, that he felt ready to pledge his whole self in the service of her love.

‘You have won the contest, so will you now take your prize?’ she asked demurely. Her modesty was disarming, but Gahmuret replied, ‘The honour of victory is prize enough.’ She looked deep into the man who sat before her, who had already won her heart, ‘I am yours for the taking. But I make no claim upon you if it is not also your will.’ Gahmuret felt confused, and he knew not which way to turn, ‘I confess, my Lady, that the will is strong, but the way is not so clear. In Zazamanc there is a Queen who holds my lands and child, and I fear that the memory of her will forever stifle any other happiness.’ At this, the young queen asked, ‘Why then did you leave her?’ to which Gahmuret replied, ‘To follow where honour leads, my Lady. As a knight, there are more causes to serve than can be contained in one realm.’ Herzeloyde rose to leave, ‘I will bid you goodnight my Lord, and I trust that by tomorrow you will have found reason to decide whether to honour or disgrace me.’

Gahmuret felt troubled by the exchange, but the arrow of a yet deeper misfortune was about to find its mark. In the discourse that followed, Lord Hardiz of Seville confided that King Galoes, his beloved brother was dead, and that his death had occurred in single combat defending Gahmuret’s honour. This news triggered a spasm of grief, and through his weeping, Gahmuret asked of his mother the queen, to which Hardiz replied: ‘Brace yourself my friend, for you will need all your manly courage. After the loss of Gandin and then of Galoes, without you by her side, she too died of a broken heart.’ Gahmuret was torn asunder, and he retired to a long night of sorrow.

As dawn broke, he considered his options with the strategic mind of the warrior, and although the loss of his mother weighed heavily, he saw clearly what must be done, and he delivered himself to the queen’s private chamber. She received him cordially, and requested, ‘If you are to break my heart by leaving, do not delay, for I have already made my feelings plain, and only mockery and shame await me now.’ The knight replied, ‘You have no cause to grieve or fear, my Lady. For if you can grant me one request, then I will be forever yours.’ ‘And what, pray, is the request?’ asked the queen defensively. ‘The freedom to venture out when honour and chivalry dictate,’ was the reply. She pondered deeply for a moment, and then lit up with her dazzling smile, and said, ‘If you are freely choosing it, then my heart and my lands are rightly yours, whatever the terms.’  

Queen Herzeloyde of Wales, and Lord Gahmuret, King of Anjou were married amid great celebration. The fair lady opened her heart to her husband without restrain, and her womb was soon full with the fruit of their love. When their son was born, Gahmuret named him Parcival, meaning ‘pierce through the heart,’ in the hope that he will seek the middle path, as his father had done.

Only weeks after the birth, news arrived of an uprising in Babylon, and out of loyalty to his friend, the Baruc, Gahmuret felt honour bound to speed to his aid. As he prepared to leave, Herzeloyde tried to change his mind, just as his African queen, and his mother, had once done, but as before, Gahmuret was resolute, ‘Remember your promise, my lady. There is no life without honour.’ Herzeloyde observed, ‘I see no honour in leaving an infant son for the love of violence.’

‘Peace, madam. Promises are made to be kept.’ The Queen was beside herself, ‘But I need you here now, and your son needs you, and I fear that we will lose you. Please stay, Gahmuret, I beg you. Only bad will come of this adventure.’

Undeterred, Gahmuret rode off to war, and six months later came word of his death on the battlefield. When Herzeloyde received the news, she was instantly overcome with grief. She took comfort from nothing or no-one, and spoke endlessly to her infant son of his father. She swore to him that she would protect him from the evil pursuit of gallantry, and she fell into a madness from which she would never recover. Herzeloyde abandoned her lands and her duties, and retreated into the depths of the forest, where she lived in secret with her son. Wales and Anjou were left with no monarch, and a long season of war descended.

Parcival’s childhood was spent in innocence and wonder. His body and his instinct were strong, and he became a master of the javelin. After seventeen winters, he encountered three noble knights riding through the forest, and when they happened upon this half-wild youth, in his sackcloth tabard and carrying his javelin, they thought they had met the perfect fool. The vision of these men in armour, on fine horses, with all the accoutrements of chivalry stirred something deep within him. His mother had schooled him about God, and Gahmuret assumed that he was in the presence of the Lord, but the trio laughed mockingly, and corrected him that they were in fact noble knights, and members of the Round Table. ‘Well then I wish to be a knight’ declared the young innocent, and they laughed once more, and one replied, ‘That is not so easy. Only at Caerleon, and by the will of Arthur, can that marvel be performed.’

When Gahmuret returned to the bothy and his mother, he spoke feverishly about the noble knights, and how glorious a vision it had been, and that now he would go to Caerleon immediately, so that King Arthur could perform the marvel of making him a noble knight, for that is what he knows he must do.

 Herzeloyde tried to humour him at first, but when she realised that he was serious, she begged him to remain with her. Like his father before him, he paid no heed to a mother’s pleadings, and Herzeloyde became deranged with the tragedy that she could see unfolding. She told her innocent son that he knew nothing of the ways of the world, and as he prepared for his departure, she tried to fill his head with advice to keep him from harm: ‘Always offer a cheerful greeting to whosoever you might meet. Guidance from a grey-haired man should always be followed, without question.’ When Parcival left their forest home, riding bareback on their old cart horse, Lady Herzeloyde surrendered to grief. She covered herself in ashes, swore that no food would again pass her lips, and for one full moon she keened and wailed, until her soul finally found peace.

Parcival left the forest in search of the castle of King Arthur. Along the trail, he met a maiden seated by a great oak. Her face was red with tears and a fallen prince was lying dead by her side, his head in her lap. Following his mother’s advice, he greeted her cheerfully, and introduced himself by name. The maiden looked through a veil of tears, and declared: ‘Upon my word, are you Parcival, the rightful King of Wales, whose name means Pierce-through-the-heart? Your father was an Angevin and your mother is Queen Herzeloyde. I am Sigune, your cousin, for my mother is Herzeloyde’s sister. This prince who lies dead in my arms was slain on your account whilst guarding your lands.’ Parcival replied: ‘Cousin, your suffering saddens me deeply, and my disgrace is great. By the will of God, I will soon become a knight, and then I will avenge this wrong.’ Sigune stared incredulously at the youth, ‘Become a knight! But Parcival, you are already a great prince, and heir to many lands. Hasn’t there been killing enough? And what of your mother, the Queen?’ Parcival told Sigune that his mother was alive, and living beside the stream within the wildwood forest. ‘And you have left her there alone in these most troubling of times? I beg you, Parcival, reconsider your cause. These are painful and difficult times, full of bloodshed and war. Do not add to this misery. Find a different path, dear cousin.’ Parcival was perplexed by this outburst, and he could only reply, ‘I shall be a noble knight. It is God’s will. Farewell cousin,’ and he climbed back on his nag and began to trot away. ‘Then you are an innocent and a fool!’ she called after him, her voice choked with grief.

Parcival rode directly to the castle at Caerleon, the seat of the holy order of the Knights of the Round Table. Outside the ramparts he encountered a knight with gleaming scarlet armour, and galloping on a sorrel charger. Parcival was much impressed by his finery, and when they spoke, the Red Knight said: If you are to enter the castle, then pass a message to Arthur, for I shall attend here to face any champion that he chooses to send.’ Already imagining himself chosen as the champion, Parcival entered the castle. But reality offers a different path from the hopes and wishes of a simple fool, and instead of being embraced by the company, and honoured by the king, Parcival was mocked by the assembly for his hand-made clothing, and laughed at for his lack of etiquette. He left in a rage and back in the field, he taunted the Red Knight by claiming that he himself, seated on his nag, and bearing no arms, would face him as a champion. The Red Knight promptly charged and struck him a severe blow about the head with his lance, which threw him to the ground. Parcival stood up, regained his balance, and in a flush of rage, he withdrew his hunting javelin from his pack and hurled it with full force towards its mark. The weapon point penetrated the socket of the Red Knight’s eye, and his body slowly keeled over and toppled from his horse. Parcival was shocked by his own powers, for he had never killed a man before. In an instant, a grand and noble knight had been transformed into carrion for the birds. Parcival removed the dead man’s armour and considered his rapid change of circumstance with satisfaction. Wearing the suit of scarlet armour, he mounted the dead knight’s horse and galloped away. In that moment, the whole world seemed to lie at his feet.

Lord Guernemanz had been a loyal servant to Queen Herzeloyde and her father before her, and he was delighted when Parcival rode into his domain, and immediately offered to mentor him in the ways of chivalry. Heeding his mother’s guidance, Parcival noted the old man’s grey hair, and resolved to follow all his advice without question. Within his household, Parcival learned to wield a sword with strength and honour and the foolish and innocent youth was gradually transformed into a proud and brave knight. A year and a day later, and Parcival was on the point of leaving, Guernemanz issued the following final counsel: “A wise knight never willingly reveals his ignorance. Only fools and spies ask questions.”

In search of a hero’s quest, Parcival rode to Belrepaire in defence of the fair Lady Blanchefleur, whose citadel was under siege by the forces of Duke Orilus. When Parcival arrived, crops were burned, and corpses littered the charred fields. The bastion of Belrepaire were desperately defending the drawbridge of the castle, and were on the brink of giving way, when Parcival galloped into the fray, with the battle cry: “For God, Lady Blanchefleur and Belrepaire.” The knight with gleaming scarlet armour on a huge sorrel horse became the saviour that day. That evening, within the safety of the citadel, Parcival met the Lady Blanchefleur. He was enraptured by her chaste beauty, but her grief at the laying waste of her lands and her people stirred an even deeper response. With an unshakable sense of destiny, Parcival pledged to champion Lady Blanchefleur’s cause, and vowed to be her servant unto death. The following morning, he challenged Duke Orilus in single combat, under the gaze of Lady Blanchefleur and the citizenry of Belrepaire. Orilus was fierce and strong, but the young Parcival was stronger still, and in the final moment, with Orilus lying under the point of a sword, he was forced to yield in exchange for his life, and the siege was over. A marriage between Parcival of Wales and Lady Blanchefleur of Belrepaire followed swiftly, and for a brief moment, the young prince felt that he knew only happiness.  

When Parcival considered the plight of his poor mother, however, alone in the forest, he felt restless, and he pledged to journey there and bring her back to join him in his new-found happiness. They both wept at parting, as if they foresaw the troubled path ahead.

The journey was long and full of trials and challenges. Parcival increased his fame with each victory in combat, until he could not easily remember how many knights he had dispatched. One dark and oppressive afternoon, as the gloom of night descended, he encountered an angler, sitting rod in hand, in a boat on a lake. They exchanged greetings, and Parcival asked where he could find shelter for the night. The fisherman pointed towards a crag by the shore of the lake: ‘Beyond the cleft in the rock is a mansion, and the only house for miles around. Tell them I guided you there, and you will receive royal hospitality this night.’

Parcival arrived at the drawbridge of the great house in the final embers of daylight. He called out his name, and that the fisherman had bid him shelter here. The bridge was lowered across the moat, and a voice boomed out: ‘Parcival of Wales, welcome to Montsauvage.’ In the gloaming of the courtyard, he was met by a line of knaves and servants. He dismounted and his horse was led to rest and stable. In silence, he was shown to a bedchamber fit for nobility, given scented water in which to bathe, a clean mantle of the finest cotton to wear, and pages to assist him at every move. Although grateful for these kindnesses, Parcival felt a disquiet which unnerved him. Everything was of faultless quality, and served with such grace, but in an atmosphere of desolation and sadness.

When Parcival was led into the great hall, he had never witnessed such splendour. One hundred chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and around the hall were one hundred couches, each seating four courtiers. A great fire of aloes wood was roaring in a marble fireplace, and close to the fire, the lord of the castle lay on a sling-bed. His face was ashen-grey and cold, and he looked more dead than alive. The Fisher King bade Parcival to sit close to him, with the words, ‘Do not be a stranger to me.’ Parcival could see his discomfort in the drawing of each breath. Although he wondered at the cause of his hosts suffering, he remembered the advice of his mentor Guernemanz, and he remained silent.

Suddenly, the great doors opened, and a page entered the hall. He was greeted by a moaning lament, which rose in volume and intensity as the page advanced. He carried a lance that leaked bright red blood from its point. The blood dripped down its shaft onto his hand. As the blood-soaked lance was transported around the chamber, the whole assembly wrung their hands, and sobbed with grief, and the weeping and wailing only softened gradually, once the page had finally left the hall. Parcival was bemused by this public lament. What meant the blood-soaked lance? Whose blood had been spilled? These and other questions lay unspoken at his lips, but out of respect and politeness, he refrained from asking them.

Next through the doors came a procession of maidens, wearing samite gowns and garlands of flowers in their hair. They carried white ivory trestles which were set before the lord, and a translucent stone tablet was lain upon the trestles. Golden candelabras with huge white candles and white silver knives were placed on the tablet. If the maidens were princesses, so then arrived their queen.  Her face was as glorious as the sunrise, and the chastity of her body and purity of her soul were unmistakable to all. Upon a green brocaded cloth, she carried the Grail, an object so radiant that it transcended all earthly perfection, and she placed it on the tablet, before the wounded king. Throughout this magnificent display, Parcival stayed true to the advice of his mentor, and he refrained from asking any questions.

A sumptuous meal was served, with plate after plate of fine foods, and a different sauce and pickle for each dish, After the feast, a page appeared carrying a sword with diamonds in the sheath, a large ruby embedded in the hilt, and with a blade so perfect that it could only have been fashioned by the gods themselves, and the Fisher King bestowed it upon his now bewildered guest. ‘Sir,’ he said with laboured breath, ‘This fine sword has been my trusted ally in many a battle. May it serve to makes amends for any lack of hospitality you may have suffered here.’ Parcival received the gift graciously and without question. He kept his decorum, as he felt was right and proper, and the questions remained unasked, and forever begging.

In the silence that followed, the Fisher King looked with an air of disappointment upon his guest, and said, ‘You must be weary, Sir, I will bid you good night,’ and the evening came to an abrupt end. When he finally lay down to sleep, Parcival received an anguished dream, laced with sword-blows and lance-thrusts, and on waking he felt he had suffered the pain of death on thirty different occasions.

He woke to an empty chamber, with his two swords and armour lying on the stone floor. He arose with a sense of dread, he armed himself completely from heel to crown. In the courtyard, he found his charger tethered, with his shield and lance propped up nearby. The castle was empty, the gate wide open, and the earth churned by trampling hooves. Parcival assumed that the knights of the castle had been called out on an urgent cause, and he mounted his horse and crossed over the drawbridge at a brisk trot. A hidden sentinel pulled up the drawbridge behind him and a voice called out: ‘Damn you! You should have asked the question. Due to your foolishness the chance has been lost.’ Parcival called back over the turret, asking for more explanation, but none was forthcoming. He decided to follow the tracks, in the hope that he would find the knights of the Fisher King’s castle and join their cause.

After a time, the tracks faded to nothing, and Parcival was confronted by a woman lamenting. She was pale and without hair, in her arms was the embalmed body of a dead knight. After greeting her, Parcival offered his service, and she thanked him mournfully and replied: ‘I recognise you, Parcival. I am your cousin Sigune.’ He stared at her and said: ‘Mistress Sigune, can it be you? Since I saw you last, you have lost your colour and your strength.’

Sigune asked him where he had come from and Parcival replied: ‘A short distance hence there is a castle more splendid than any I ever saw.’ Sigune answered with some disdain: ‘Don’t be so ready to deceive those who trust you. Neither timber nor stone has been hewn to make a dwelling for thirty miles around, except for a solitary castle, rich in all earthly splendours. Many have tried to find it, but all have failed, for if anyone is meant to see this castle, it must come to pass unwittingly. It was the ancient stronghold of King Frimutel, and after his death, his son Anfortas became Lord, but he was afflicted grievously. If, however, you had found yourself within that company,’ she continued, ‘Anfortas would have been relieved of his suffering.’

‘I saw great marvels there’ he told her. ‘And did you see the Grail and his lordship all desolate of joy?’ she asked, ‘What glad tidings! Is the man of sorrows now released from living death? I see you wear the sword, and if you know it’s secrets, it will always find its mark. But if the strike be not in service of the highest honour, the sword will shatter into shards of light. Dear cousin, all the marvels that you encountered will be at your command, and you will have all that you could wish for here on earth, if you duly asked the question.’

‘I asked no question,’ he replied. ‘Then you have failed in dishonour.’ She snapped. ‘You witnessed the bloody lance, in the presence of the Grail. Where was your compassion for your host? Why did you not inquire about his suffering? You are cold hearted and selfish. You who left your own mother to die alone of grief.’

Parcival was struck as if by a knife in the heart. ‘She is dead,’ continued Sigune, ‘I have grieved over her grave. And you killed her with your ignorance, just as you failed before the grail. Shame on you, Parcival the wretched.’ He stood rigid with shock, and became visibly pale, as the words sunk in. He staggered towards his horse, his mind swimming in confusion and grief, and rode away. Knowing not where he was going, he raced across fields, and a cacophony of emotions exploded within him.

For an unknown period Parcival rode hither and thither, lost to the world and with the words ‘Parcival the wretched’ echoing in his mind. Then by a frozen lake, in the dead of winter, he encountered King Arthur out with his hunting party. Arthur was delighted to see him after his now famed victory over Orilus at Belrepaire, and he invited Parcival to share Christmastide with him and his company. Clouded by shadows and unaware of the honour being bestowed, he could only reply ‘Forgive me, I am unworthy,’ but King Arthur insisted, and Parcival accompanied them to Caerleon, under a cloud of shame and despair.

That evening, Parcival was initiated by Arthur as a Knight of the Round Table, but as the sword Excalibur came to rest upon his shoulder, the door of the hall crashed open with a great commotion, and in rode a hideous apparition in the form of Cundrie the sorceress, riding on a skinny mule and carrying a whip, with two boar’s tusks protruding sideways from her mouth. She was dressed in a tattered bridal gown, a mat of furs and a peacock feather hat, and as she rode in, she screeched in a coarse voice: ‘The Round Table is annihilated, desecrated! Honour is abandoned! Treachery has joined its ranks!’

The King stared at the spectacle, and replied: ‘Who in this fair assembly do you dare accuse a traitor?’  The sorceress retorted, ‘Why, the youth who kneels before you, the wretched Parcival.’ There was a gasp amongst the court, and then staring directly at the young knight, she said: ‘You ignorant fool, you canker, you unworthy clot. You dishonoured the Red Knight with a despicable death to win the arms that you bear, and he was your own blood, one of your father’s kin.’ Parcival tried to reply, but found himself lost for words. The sorceress continued ‘Nothing to say, you ignoramus. And this silence when words are required is your even greater sin.’

A murmur circled around the court, and Arthur requested ‘Speak plain, madam. What is the complaint?’

‘The complaint? Oh, I will tell you the complaint,’ replied Cundrie, and she looked directly at Parcival and said: ‘Tell me, when the fisher king sat in joyless pain, why did you not redeem him from his suffering? You could have eased his load with a single heart-felt question!’

She turned to the king and said: ‘This wretch was granted access to Montsauvage, and at the side of Anfortas he sat for an entire evening. He witnessed the bleeding lance, the cutting silver, the holy Grail itself. His host gave him the sword, but he failed, through false pride and ignorance, to ask the question that would have provided the Fisher King with release from his suffering.’

In a turmoil, Parcival stammered ‘But I did not know. I, I was following advice from one who counselled me as a father…’

‘And what of the wisdom of your own heart? Did you have no pity? No curiosity? No compassion? Honour lies not in thoughtless obedience. It was this blindness to your heart that caused your mother’s death.’ This final accusation sent a shock around the court, and Arthur intervened by asking: ‘Does she speak the truth, Parcival?’ but at this point, he felt cast into an impenetrable pit of darkness, and he could find no words.

‘See how he condemns himself with silence, now as then,’ scoffed the hag. ‘Shame on you. You are destined for hell. You are doomed upon this earth, accurséd Sir Parcival! You feather’s hook, you adder’s fang!”

When Cundrie had left the ring, Parcival, now overwhelmed with shame, told the assembly: ‘I must take my leave, and pay off this burden of debt. Only grief will be my companion now, until I am once again in Montsauvage, and at the side of Anfortas! Scorn I can endure, but from my own sadness I cannot be redeemed. There will be no return until I once again see the Grail, whether the time until then be short or long. Never in my life will I part from this purpose.’

Parcival left Arthur and the Round Table and through the mists of fate he wandered, lost and unguided, and plagued by the growing torment of his folly, until he was lost within a labyrinth of despair. With each encounter, he sought solace, insight or knightly valour, but his self-loathing drove him towards hopeless remorse. He thought of nothing besides the perdition unleashed by his offence, the needless suffering of the Fisher King and the marvel of the Grail. If only he had succumbed, on that fateful night, to curiosity or to compassion, such a different story would here be told.

He longed to see the Lady Blanchefleur, but he knew that there could be no reunion until his honour was restored. For three years he wandered, and then one freezing night she came to him in a dream, and she asked of him ‘Whom does the Grail serve’ and counselled him to trust and follow his heart. Parcival woke in tears, at the impossibility of his situation, but taking solace from the dream, he let his trusted horse guide him that day. At dusk, he found himself at a hermitage in a forest, and the hermit was kneeling in prayer beside his fire.

Later that evening, after some simple sustenance, and seated together by the fire under a cold and stary night sky, the hermit Trevrizent persuaded the young knight to share something of his story, and Parcival circled around his shame, his guilt, and the curse that he carried through innocence and obedience. When he spoke of grief, the hermit asked him to put words to his grief, and Parcival replied:

‘My father, whom I never knew, my mother, whose heart was broken by my leaving, and my wife, from whom I have been parted by a vow and a curse.’ ‘Tell me of the vow and the curse’ responded the hermit.

‘I vowed that I can no longer return to Belrepaire until I have found the Grail castle.’ Trevrizent was physically shaken by this reply, and after he had teased out the whole story, the hermit consoled Parcival that all was not lost.

‘The first guardian of the Grail was your great grandfather. Anfortas was born the eldest son of Frimutel, and his sister, and mine, was Herzeloyde, for I am your mother’s brother. In the service of love, my brother was pierced by a poisoned spear, and no herb or tincture, no remedy or concoction, from near or far, has ever been found to antidote the poison, or provide relief for his suffering. Yet due to the power of the Grail, Anfortas cannot die, and now he lives between the worlds.’

‘It is written upon an inscription that a knight is destined to arrive unwittingly, and in the presence of the Grail, entirely from his own volition, he will pose the correct question, to bring an end to this anguish.’ The hermit put his hand upon Parcival’s shoulder, and he confided, ‘The Grail is a great mystery. Your journey is a test, and such a test cannot be considered over until you have gasped your final breath.’ Then his voice changed, and as if in a trance, he uttered quietly, ‘You have a brother, the first son of your Angevin father, by his Zazamanc queen. He is a great and wealthy lord, with a mottled magpie black and white complexion, and with your brothers help, I believe you will discover whom the Grail serves.’

These words, spoken gently by this holy man, echoing those from his dream only the previous night, sent Parcival into a spin. ‘Tell me, uncle, whom does the Grail serve?’ The hermit replied ‘As a knight, you have proved yourself worthy, you have shown pride, courage and all the virtues befitting of that station. But the Grail asks more of us.’ Parcival stared incredulously, ‘I have sacrificed all on this quest, what more is there?’ Trevrizent answered and his voice was trembling with compassion, ‘To accept and transform the wound within your heart.’

Parcival remained with the gentle hermit for some time, and gradually, an understanding dawned within him, that due to pride he had closed his heart, and become consumed with the notion of honour and justice. He realised that he was his own accuser, and to become free of guilt or blame, he must now forgive himself. Thus, in the company of the whitehaired holy man, Parcival began to understand the meaning and purpose of suffering.

When he finally parted from Trevrizent, Parcival felt clearer of purpose than ever before, and he rode like the wind straight into the arms of destiny. In a wide clearing surrounded by forests, he encountered a stranger, a Saracen in pursuit of his lost father. They eyed each other from a distance, and both recognised in the other a challenger of the highest ranking. Such a noble battle could only be embraced, and they lowered their lances, and prepared for the joust.

I must concede that some actions defy adequate description, but if I tell you that this battle stretched both men to the very limits of their endurance, I trust that I will have conveyed to you that neither of these champions had ever felt the breath of defeat so close. As the battle raged, the blows and thrusts, lunges and counter-thrusts, combined to appear not as two men engaged in combat, but more as one being, composed of two equal and opposing forces, moving in a state of balance.

The Saracen brought the Christian to his knees, and Parcival’s shield took a strong battering as he fought to preserve his life. Then in an instant, the tables were turned, and the Saracen witnessed Anfortas’s great sword driving towards his head. He braced himself to leave this world, but when the sword struck, it shattered into a thousand shards of light.

In the moments that followed, both men were stunned and humbled by what had transpired, the Saracen scabbarded his blade, and they eyed each other as equals in the face of a miracle. Parcival spoke first, ‘You could have finished me there. You are valiant and honourable. Pray, what is your name?’ ‘I am Feirefiz Angevin’ came the reply. ‘Lord of Zazamanc, and son of Gahmuret of Anjou.’ Parcival gasped, ‘If this is true, then we must remove our helmets, and witness the miracle of brotherhood. For I am Parcival of Wales and Anjou, also son of the same Gahmuret.’ The two brothers looked upon each other in awe and disbelief. The mottled magpie complexion of the African king confirmed the truth of his origin, and they gazed at each other in wonder as a door on to a new world opened before them. They hugged, and kissed, and praised their respective gods, in gratitude for such deliverance.

The two brothers rode together to the company of Arthur’s court, where they were greeted royally. In the assembly of the Round Table, Feirefiz was duly honoured and embraced as kin, amid much rejoicing. Cundrie the hog-faced sorceress was there, and to Parcival she had this to say, ‘It is the Grail that calls you now. I have heard word from Montsauvage, and you, Parcival, and your lady Blanchefleur have been summoned to the Grail kingdom. Speak the question from your heart, and sorrow will be forever an orphan to you’

Parcival received this blessing with a prayer of gratitude, ‘For all I have endured I must give thanks to God. If I had not done wrong, and felt the sorrows inflicted by my sins, there could have been no redemption. Only now am I ready for salvations gifts.’

The two brothers rode to Montsauvage with Cundrie as their guide. They passed the lake and the cleft in the rocks, and the gleaming ramparts of Montsauvage finally came into view. The drawbridge was lowered to a fanfare of trumpets, and they were greeted with great rejoicing. Once inside the castle, they were guided to where Anfortas lay in the Great Hall, his breath laboured, his eyes half closed.

Parcival took his hand and looked upon him and he noticed the resemblance to his mother that had been lost to him before. ‘Uncle’ he announced his presence, ‘It is I, Parcival.’ The old man groaned and pulled him closer, his look beseeching. Parcival melted into a sea of silent tears. He wept for his uncle who lay before him, for his father who he had never known, his mother who he had forsaken, the Red Knight, his kinsman who he had recklessly slain, his beloved Blanchefleur who he had deserted, for his cousin Sigune in her unending grief, and for all the brave knights who were injured or killed by his furious pride. His heart opened to a tumult of suffering, and he felt nothing but compassion, towards others, and towards himself. Through his tears, Parcival looked deeply into the Fisher King’s eyes, and a bubble of grief burst within his heart and shook his body. With a voice trembling with emotion, he gave voice to the mystery that he was witnessing: ‘Uncle, what ails thee?’

In the hushed silence that followed, the atmosphere within the castle gradually changed. The life force, long since subdued and drained by his suffering, began to return to Anfortas, the colour returned to his face, the strength to his limbs, and his eyes opened widely. He rose from his bed, and a radiant smile appeared on his face.

The doors of the hall opened and the fair Blanchefleur entered. She had been escorted from Belrepaire to take her place at the side of the new defender of the Grail. Parcival and his lady were reunited, and Feirefiz embraced her as a sister.

Now the full party was assembled, and the procession of maidens once again entered the hall. The assembled knights and ladies of the court, Anfortas, his wounds now healed, Feirefiz, the long-lost soul brother, the beloved Blanchefleur, and the Grail King, Parcival the Wise, all watched in reverence, as the Grail was placed before them, and each one saw a reflection of their own soul’s yearning within its glowing form. Parcival and Blanchefleur gazed into the sacred stone and they saw there a life of love, humility, constancy and peace.

THE END