Percival is a prominent knight who appears in the Arthurian legends with a strong connection to the Holy Grail. Depending on the version, he is so important that some stories are entirely focused on him and his exploits.
In this article, you will learn:
- Who Percival was
- What he did
- Why he is so important to the Arthurian legends
Who Was Percival?
Percival was a knight who served at Arthur’s court. He was an exceptionally holy knight, and he was involved in the quest for the Holy Grail.
In fact, he is the one who features in the earliest surviving account of the Holy Grail, before any other knights from the Arthurian legends were attached to the quest for that object.
At one point, Percival is shown the Grail and the castle of the wounded Fisher King, but he fails to ask the right question that will heal the king.
After this encounter, Percival sets off on a persistent quest to find the Grail again. As he does, he learns to be truly chivalrous, and he develops a keen understanding of how chivalry is connected to the teachings of Christianity.
Percival’s name is written in many different ways across the different tales. Today, another common spelling is ‘Perceval’ (used in the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example).
To list just a few examples, his name is also spelled:
- Percevaus (earliest known spelling)
There is no widespread agreement as to the etymology of the name ‘Percival’. Some scholars believe that it is simply a French approximation of the Welsh name ‘Peredur’, the name of a Welsh figure with strong connections to the legend of Percival.
In some versions of the tale of Percival, the writers actually stated what his name meant. One claim was that it comes from the French phrase ‘through this valley’. A similar claim was that it meant ‘pierce the valley’.
These etymologies originate from dividing up the name ‘Percival’ into elements which appear to be French words (for example, the last part, ‘val’, is identical to the Old French word for ‘valley’).
But these ideas are very unlikely. In all probability, the name does simply come from the Welsh ‘Peredur’, albeit with strong French influence in the spelling of the name.
Percival is usually depicted as being young during his time as Arthur’s knight. One of his main attributes was his youthful innocence.
Because of being raised by his mother away from the rest of society, Percival was completely unaccustomed to the normal vices of mankind. His innocence was largely from this, not merely the fact that he was young.
Percival was so innocent, in fact, that it was almost to the point of being foolish.
Because of this upbringing, Percival was different from all the other knights of Arthur’s court. His innocence made him the holiest of them all (at least until Galahad was introduced into the Arthurian legends).
This made him uniquely suited for the quest for the Holy Grail.
Percival was from a royal family. However, the legends are not consistent regarding who his father was.
Most famously, he was said to have been the son of King Pellinore. However, other legends make him the son of a king named Alain le Gros. Occasionally a different king or knight is depicted as his father.
Usually, his family in the legends is something like this:
- Pellinore (father)
- Aglovale (brother)
- Lamorak (brother)
- Dornar (brother)
- Tor (half-brother)
- Dindrane (sister)
This is only a general list, because there is a lot of variation in the sources. And generally speaking, Percival’s mother is not provided with a name.
Legend Of Percival
In the earliest version of the tale of Percival, which is Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval, the Story of the Grail, Percival’s father dies when the titular character is very young. His mother then takes him to a forest and raises him there, away from the rest of society.
He has complete ignorance of everything outside of his immediate environment. He does not know about knights, religion, or even his own name.
Nonetheless, Percival is a good hunter. He is skilled at horse riding and javelin throwing. Presumably this is how he is able to sustain himself for so many years in the forest.
Learning About His Origins
One day, when he is 15 years old, Percival encounters some knights in the forest. He is stunned by them, thinking that they are angels from God. He has never seen anything like them before.
The leader of the group explains that they are knights who serve at King Arthur’s court. Percival then returns to his mother and explains what he has seen.
His mother is shocked by this. She then decides that this is the time to reveal Percival’s family background to him.
Percival’s father had been famous. But then he was wounded in the thighs and driven into exile upon the death of Uther Pendragon, King Arthur’s father.
Percival’s older brothers had been sent to serve as knights at the courts of two kings, but both of them were slain in knightly combat. Upon learning of this, their father was so grief-stricken that he died.
Wanting to protect her son from the things that led to her older sons’ deaths, Percival’s mother had decided to raise him away from the rest of society, in the forest.
The Damsel in The Tent
Upon learning of all this, Percival becomes determined to become a knight. His mother dresses him up in leather clothes, gives him advice about being chivalrous (such as honouring women and praying in churches and chapels whenever he gets the opportunity), and then sees him off.
As Percival is on his way to King Arthur’s court, he encounters a beautiful tent which he mistakes for a chapel and enters it. He meets a woman there, whom he forcibly kisses several times (due to misunderstanding his mother’s advice).
He takes the woman’s emerald ring, some wine, and several pasties, before then continuing on his journey.
After Percival leaves, the woman’s lover returns to the tent. He is called the Haughty Knight of the Heath. He is furious with what Percival has done, so he vows to kill him.
Becoming a ‘Knight’
Percival arrives at Arthur’s court and finds that it is in chaos due to the actions of a knight called the Red Knight of Quinqueroi, who has stolen King Arthur’s cup of wine.
When Percival sees the Red Knight, he is enamoured with his armour. He wants it for himself. Percival goes up to Arthur and asks him for two things: to be granted knighthood, and to receive the armour of the Red Knight.
A maiden standing near Arthur proclaims that Percival will one day be the greatest knight in the world, but then Sir Kay hits her for saying this.
Percival goes up to the Red Knight and asks to have his armour. The knight strikes Percival with his lance, and in retaliation, Percival throws a javelin at the knight. It pierces the knight’s head, killing him.
Percival then takes the knight’s armour and apparently considers himself to now be a knight. He then departs from Arthur’s court, but as he does, he vows that he will return one day and avenge the maiden who Kay struck.
After this, Percival arrives at the castle of a king named Gornemant. Percival stays there for the night.
During his stay, King Gornemant teaches Percival about chivalrous combat. He also gives him advice about chivalry in general. In large part, the advice he gives is the same as the advice he had received from his mother.
But in one key aspect, the advice is different. Percival’s mother had told him to never stay long in the company of a man without asking his name. In contrast, Gornemant instructs Percival to never be hasty to ask questions.
After leaving Gornement’s castle, Percival saves the king’s niece, Blancheflor, from two knights who are besieging her at her own castle. She then declares her love for him, and Percival promises to return to her one day.
The Grail Castle
At this point in the story of Percival, he arrives at the castle of the Fisher King. This king has been wounded in the thighs or the groin, and as long as he is injured, his land is desolated and ruined.
At this castle, there is a strange procession. During this procession, various marvellous objects are carried from one room to another by young men and women.
There is a bleeding lance, candelabra, a silver platter, and a type of dish called a ‘graal’. This is the dish, or cup, which later became known in the legends as the Holy Grail.
Because of the instruction he had received from Gornemant, Percival does not ask any questions while seeing this procession.
The next morning, Percival leaves the Grail Castle. He encounters a maiden who criticises him for not asking about the grail. If he had done so, the Fisher King would have been healed.
Joining Arthur’s Court
After this, Percival fights and defeats the Haughty Knight of the Heath and sends him to Arthur’s court. When the knight tells Arthur about Percival, Arthur sends men after him in the hope that Percival will become one of his knights.
Sir Kay manages to find Percival. But he approaches him rudely, which makes Percival throw him off his horse, breaking his arm and his collarbone. In this way, he fulfils his promise to avenge the maiden whom Kay had struck.
Galahad approaches with more grace, and he convinces Percival to come with him to Arthur’s court. Percival thus becomes one of Arthur’s knights.
However, just as this happens, a lady arrives and admonishes Percival for not asking about the grail. With this second admonition, Percival vows to find the Grail Castle again so that he can learn more about the grail (as well as the bleeding lance).
Completing the Quest
The earliest source that tells the story of Percival ends there, so there is no real conclusion to the story. However, later versions provide us with some closure.
Writing not long after Chretien, Robert de Boron’s tale describes how Percival was able to find the Grail Castle again with the help of Merlin, King Arthur’s advisor.
Percival arrives at the castle and watches the procession a second time. Now knowing what he has to do, he asks about the grail. Thus, the Fisher King is healed and his land is restored from being a wasteland.
The Fisher King then departs from the earth (presumably going to heaven) after appointing Percival as the new keeper of the Holy Grail.
Sources For the Legend Of Percival
The two main sources for the legend of Percival in its earliest form are Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval, the Story of the Grail, and Robert de Boron’s Perceval.
The former was written in the late 12th century, between 1181 and 1190. This was Chretien’s last poem, and he did not finish it before his death. That is why there is no resolution to the story of Percival’s quest for the grail.
Robert de Boron wrote Perceval at the very end of the 12th century or the very beginning of the 13th century. His actual poem has not survived, but we know of its contents from a prose version.
This prose version is known as the Didot Perceval, and it is thought by some that Robert himself may have been the one who created this prose version, either before or after he wrote his poem.
Percival in Modern Media
Percival has appeared in numerous pieces of modern media, since he is one of the most popular characters in the Arthurian legends. Some notable examples are:
- Perceval le Gallois: This 1978 film by Éric Rohmer is an eccentric portrayal of Chretien’s poem.
- Excalibur: This 1981 film by John Boorman presents a classic retelling of the Arthurian legend, with Percival as one of the leading characters.
- Merlin: This BBC series, first released in 2008, features Percival in a way that bears very little similarity to the Percival of the legend, beyond his role as one of Arthur’s knights.
- Here Lies Arthur: In this 2007 novel by Philip Reeve, Percival appears as ‘Peredur’, taking inspiration from the Welsh sources of the character.
- Once Upon a Time: This ABC series features Percival in season 5, broadcast in 2015, where he is one of Arthur’s knights.
Frequently Asked Questions About Percival
How did Percival become a knight of the round table?
In the earliest version of the legend, Percival is invited by Arthur to become one of his knights after Percival proves his worthiness by defeating the Haughty Knight of the Heath and sending him to Arthur’s court.
Did Percival find the holy grail?
The earliest version of the legend is unfinished, providing no resolution to Percival’s quest for the grail. However, Robert de Boron’s version, written just after, explains that Percival completed his quest and became the new keeper of the Holy Grail.
What did Percival do in Arthurian legend?
Percival killed the Red Knight of Quinqueroi, saved Blancheflor when she was being besieged by two knights, defeated the Haughty Knight of the Heath, broke Sir Kay’s arm and collarbone, and found the Holy Grail.
See our complete list of Arthurian characters for more entries like this one.
- Norris Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra Mancoff – The Arthurian Handbook (Second Edition)
- Alan Lupack – The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
- Ronan Coghlan – The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
- Anonymous – Lancelot-Grail, the French Vulgate
- Sir Thomas Malory – Le Morte d’Arthur