M for Merlin

Helen Cooper

The season was spring, trees
Were sprouting leaves, meadows
Were green, every morning
Birds sang in their own
Sweet language, and the world was joyful.
And the son of the widowed lady
Living alone in the Barren
Forest rose, and quickly
Saddled his hunting horse . . .

In these lines we are introduced to the hero of Chrétien de Troyes’s last romance, written late in the 12th century. He is a youth brought up in the forest, without any knowledge of his high lineage, knighthood, the basic rules of polite behaviour, or his own name. It is so common in romances, as in fairy tales, to have the characters defined only by their status or their attributes, that the anonymity does not worry us; it feels like an intrusion into the story to attach a name to either the princess or the frog. But Chrétien’s withholding of the names of his heroes is both intentional and strategic, and if there is any quibble to be had with this newly completed set of translations by Burton Raffel, it is that he announces the hero’s name so large and loudly on the title pages. It’s all right for two of the romances, Erec and Enide and Cligès; but elsewhere, it’s not how Chrétien works.

The Story of the Grail (to give it its original title) is a story about naming; about what things are. Riding out to visit his mother’s labourers, the boy encounters a group of knights, whom he believes must be angels. When they ask him his name, he replies with the set by which people call him: Dear Son, Dear Brother, Good Master the last getting an acknowledgment as a ‘fine name’ from the knight who is questioning him, as it indicates high status. He determines to go to King Arthur and get himself made a knight. Before he sets out, his mother gives him instructions on how to behave in the world, and tells him something of his own history how his father and brothers were killed in combat and she had withdrawn to the forest to preserve her last remaining child. She does not, however, name any of them, despite her insistence that one of the most important things he must do is to find out the names of his companions wherever he rides or lodges, ‘for a name tells you a man’. Her son rides off to find King Arthur, leaving her swooning with grief. He still does not know who he is.

There follows a series of adventures that alternate high martial prowess and social disaster, until he is taken in hand by an old knight who trains him in the arts of chivalry and courtesy: in particular, he is not to chatter. After defending and falling in love with a noble maiden named Blanchefleur, he decides he must visit his mother, and in the course of his journey takes lodgings in a distinctly fishy castle. It appears at the moment he needs it in the middle of a deserted landscape; it is an uncertain distance from anywhere else. Inside, a lance dripping blood and ‘a grail’, a kind of dish, are carried through the room. Remembering his mentor’s instructions, the boy refrains from asking all the questions that are on the tip of his tongue. In the morning, he awakes to find the castle empty. As he rides out, the drawbridge is raised so close behind him that his horse has to leap to get clear, but his calls go unanswered. A little way down the road, he finds a maiden sitting under a tree with a dead knight in her arms. She tells him that he has been in the castle of the wounded Fisher King, and she asks him if he enquired about the spear and the grail. When she learns that he did not, she castigates him, and demands:

‘My friend: tell me your name.’
And then, not knowing his name,
He somehow knew, and said
He was Perceval from Wales,
Not knowing if he spoke the truth,
But he did, though he did not know it.
And hearing this the girl
Rose and faced him, and spoke
As if in anger, ‘You’ve just
Changed your name, my friend.’
‘Really?’ ‘You’re Perceval
The Unhappy, the Miserable, the
Unfortunate!’

Not ‘Perceval de Galles’ but ‘Perceval le Chetis’ a name that denies itself the moment that he has learnt it. Perceval discovers his name in a kind of baptism into self-consciousness, or conscience: he has failed on a quest that he did not even know he was following. He has obeyed his instructions rather than his instincts and so lost the chance to heal the wounded king.

What happens next would take a very long time to relate: indeed Chrétien died some six thousand lines later before he had finished the story, and a sequence of continuators took over for several thousand more. What the grail was, or what it was for, remained a mystery, and therefore capable of inspiring an afterlife that has come to include Glastonbury, ley-lines, Monty Python, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and a thriving industry of occult bookshops. It was Chrétien who first realised that the legendary history of Arthur, largely invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth a few decades earlier, allowed huge scope for making up adventures for his knights. Of all his creations, the grail has turned out to be the most extraordinary. He gave it no origins or purpose or any kind of explanatory identity no equivalent of a name or a lineage. It is as if Perceval had been left as the nameless son of an unidentified mother, an unwritten history behind him and an undefined future ahead.

Perceval, however, is named; and his naming is the pivotal event of the romance, whatever more may be to come. The giving of a name, in most of Chrétien’s romances, is what gives shape and structure to a story that otherwise might seem to have as much form as a piece of string with only one end. Enide, who shares the title of her romance with her suitor and husband Erec, is named within the text only at the moment of her marriage. You would expect this to be the moment when she gives up her own name to take on that of her husband; but the point of this romance is that Enide has to keep her own sense of integrity and autonomy, to follow her instincts of faithfulness rather than the instructions of the man she has sworn to obey. The Knight of the Lion does name its hero, as Yvain, but the crucial moment in this romance is not when his name is revealed but when he loses it: having forfeited his right to his lady, he goes mad, and refuses to acknowledge his name until he has won the right to reclaim it and his lady together. The lion keeps him company in the meantime, as a convenient means of identification and as a sign that he is really as noble a man as the lion is a noble beast. The Knight of the Cart is more like The Story of the Grail, in keeping its hero nameless until well into the story. In contrast to Perceval, he knows who he is; but the other characters do not, and Chrétien’s original readers probably did not either, since all the other romances about him were yet to be written. Having ridden his horse to death in an effort to rescue Guinevere from an abductor, he is given his byname in scorn after hitching a lift in a cart of the sort used for displaying criminals. We hear his name only when he is finally in combat against his enemy, from the lips of the woman he loves: Lancelot.

What Chrétien did in the 1180s, the rest of the world did the next week, and for centuries to come. The vast branching prose version of the Lancelot story that grew from Chrétien’s acorn could not hold his name back until his rescue of Guinevere, but it still allows her to name him. This prose Lancelot was part of Dante’s favourite reading; and it served him as a model both for the damnable (his Paolo and Francesca are seduced into adultery by reading it) and for the sublime, when Dante’s own name is first heard within the Divine Comedy from the lips of Beatrice. Lancelot is given his true name to confirm his status in the eyes of the world; Dante, to confirm his standing in the eyes of God though the inclusion of his name within the poem makes sure that the world will know it too.

A recurrent characteristic of medieval storytelling is that the readers or listeners are not allowed omniscience. If a character is anonymous in the story, the audience is kept in the dark as much as the people he meets. We have no knowledge of Perceval’s name, or Enide’s, or Lancelot’s, until they are publicly revealed. Alternative names are adopted by the storyteller as comprehensively as anonymity. Tristan, sojourning on enemy territory, passes himself off under the impenetrable pseudonym of Tantris, and that is the name that describes him in the narrative until his true identity is discovered. The young man who comes to Arthur’s court one day in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur is given the mocking nickname of Bewmaynes Beaumains, ‘fair hands’, the hands of a man not brought up to manual labour and Bewmaynes he remains until he reveals himself privately to Lancelot as Gareth, youngest brother of Gawain; Bewmaynes, moreover, he continues to be, once Lancelot has ridden off the page with a promise not to reveal who he is. Malory switches to Gareth, without comment, only after his dwarf has been captured and had the secret of his master’s name forced out of him. The effect can be particularly startling with a character like Merlin, who has a habit not only of going anonymous but of shape-shifting. In the one manuscript of the Morte D’Arthur none of the printed editions, from Caxton forwards, has reproduced the effect Merlin is reduced to a single capital M when he presents himself unrecognised; enough to give continuity of story to the readers, but reminding them, too, that for the characters within the narrative Merlin is not presenting himself complete to the eye.

Medieval romances became the pulp fiction of the Elizabethan age, and Spenser and Shakespeare both seem to have misspent their youth reading them. Among the things they learned was what could be done with names, or with their absence. Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight is introduced in the very first line of the Faerie Queene, but for a long time he is known only by the byname taken from the cross on his shield (the same arms that had in the later grail romances been borne by Galahad). Spenser names him by his true name, St George, only when an impostor has taken his shape, and George does not himself find out who he is until he learns his name from Contemplation, inward knowledge in the sight of God. Allegorical romance, as this poem is, can make the most of proclaimed identities, in the forms of coats of arms and real or pretended names. To be called St George is to know something very significant about yourself, and to tell your readers still more. To discover that your companion is not in fact called Fidessa, the emblem of faith, but Duessa, emblem of duplicity, makes a big difference.

You don’t need to be writing allegory to give your characters names that carry their meanings with them. Chrétien again leads the way, in particular with names for his ladies that tell you about their beauty: Perceval’s Blanchefleur, or Cligès’s Fénice, the phoenix: unique, unmatchable. The lover Valentine and the changeable Proteus, the ill-willing Malvolio and the whore Doll Tearsheet, continue the tradition. Novelists in the 18th century similarly delighted in type names for their characters, and no writer chooses names at random (James Bond by any other name Cecil Wrigley, for instance would smell very differently). What is more surprising is to find the moment of naming similarly significant. Most Shakespearean characters are identified almost the moment they walk on stage, since otherwise the audience has no way of knowing who they are. But what they are can be enough, especially since in a performance the audience can identify the characters visually, and doesn’t necessarily require a name. The wicked stepmother in Cymbeline remains just that. Claudius is never named in Hamlet outside the stage directions: the audience knows him simply as the murderer of his brother the king, the husband to his widow. Hamlet, by contrast, cut off from his roles as son and heir presumptive, and living much more within his own mind than in his social functions, is called by his own name pervasively, more often by a generous margin than any other Shakespearean character. The other leading tragic heroes speak their own names, names that the audience knows already but not from their own mouths, at the moments they are most conscious of losing themselves: ‘Othello’s occupation’s gone’; ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep’; ‘O Lear, Lear, Lear!’ It is however the plays closest to romance that often take the model originally established by Chrétien the furthest, in making the moment of naming also the moment when a whole series of relationships is completed. Viola in Twelfth Night remains anonymous, or known only by her male pseudonym, until the very end of the play, when she and her twin between them spell out her parentage, her sex and her name.

And novelists can do similar things, too. Names lead the plot in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, as its title insists: stay a Durbeyfield, and trouble would pass by. The Mayor of Casterbridge gives little away in its title, nor in its opening: ‘One evening of late summer, before the 19th century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot.’ The place is specific the familiar Hardy country; the time is almost as closely defined; the people are archetypal man, woman, child. The man’s name is withheld until the morning of terrible sobriety after he realises that he has sold his wife at the fair; and then he proclaims it himself: ‘I, Michael Henchard, on this morning of the 16th of September, do take an oath before God.’ Hardy no doubt did not know that he was in a tradition that went back to the very beginning of romance, the form that is itself the ancestor of the novel; but he knew a good literary effect when he saw it. For readers who want to appreciate such effects at their source, in Chrétien, and who can afford five separate volumes instead of the one-volume Penguin Classics prose translation, Burton Raffel’s version has a lot to be said for it; but you should put brown paper over the covers, and avoid looking at the title pages before you read the stories.