The Perilous Cemetery (L'Atre Perilleux)Edit
''The Perilous Cemetery (French: L’Atre Perilleux) is a mid-13th century Arthurian prose romance written by an anonymous author who focuses on the exploits of Gawain (Gauvain) as he ventures to restore the honor of his liege and himself. This work occurs during Arthur's reign over Britain when the round table and his knights are at their strongest. The Perilous Cemetery is a somewhat obscure work that is based on the manuscript 472 from the Musee Conde in Chantilly.
The Perilous Cemetery is part of a bigger collection called the Chantilly Manuscript 472. This French manuscript contains 10 works which are centered primarily around Gawain which causes some scholars to believe that this document exists as a Gawain Cycle. One such scholar is Dr. Lori Walters from the University of Florida in one of her articles she claims that "The Chantilly manuscript includes stories of many different knights, each engaged on a quest; all the Arthurian works mention Gauvain, and in six of the ten Arthurian works (Rigomer, L'Atre périlleux, Fergus, Hunbaut, La Vengeance Raguidel, and Perlesvaus), he is one of the major characters. It is significant that the other four works include Le Bel Inconnu, a romance about Gauvain's son, Guinglain, and three Chrétien romances: Erec et Enide, Yvain, and Lancelot. As I suggested in my original study, this collection, as well as individual works in it, such as the Atre périlleux and Hunbaut seem to be responding to perceived gaps in Chrétien's treatment of Gauvain."1 The Perilous Cemetery is an important Arthurian work because it develops Gawain's character extremely well. This work is more than a story because it offers numerous lessons in Chivalry as well as courtesy. Both of these traits were highly respected in Medieval times so a story who offers lessons in them and that is also entertaining can be considered an important work.
The story begins with a damsel requesting that she be Arthur's cup-bearer at his feast and that he assign his best knight to be her guardian during her time at his castle. Arthur argues that he cannot choose the best of his knights because he does not want to express nepotism by naming his cousin Gawain. After a brief argument Arthur caves and grants her the protection of his best and most courteous knight, Gawain. During the great feast the following day a knight clad in exquisite armor interrupts Arthur's meal by riding his horse right up to the table and snatches the damsel under Gawain's protection. The knight then challenges any knight to stop him and informs the court which road he will be leaving from and even goes so far as to say that he will be traveling very slowly should anyone choose to pursue him. This scene introduces Gawain's problem because he is renowned as the most courteous and chivalric knight in Arthur's court therefore he believes that by leaping from the table and pursuing the knight would be too disrespectful to his liege because he does not have permission to leave the table proving that his chivalry so good that it actually impedes on his knightly duty. After an outraged Sir Kay pursues and is defeated by the knight, Escanor, Gawain with proper permissions and protocols finally begins his pursuit.2
This scene sets the stage for the rest of the story because this leads Gawain on a great adventure of self actualization and gives him various reactions with a plethora of different denizens of Arthur's Britain. On his way to restore his King's honor Gawain comes across the remains of his murdered double and this causes everyone to believe that the real Gawain has been murdered. According to Elizabeth Kinne :"L'Atre perilleux becomes an abstract exercise in imagining what the Arthurian world might be like without the renowned knight"3 since the embodiment of chivalry has been slain everyone is afraid that chivalry itself passed with him. This troubles Gawain but his loyalty to Arthur comes before investigating his own murder so he continues his quest under the guise of the Nameless Knight which works to his advantage because his methods of defeating Escanor are somewhat un-chivalric in that Gawain slays his enemy’s horse and even kills Escanor after he surrenders. Which is unbecoming of the knight as noted by Kinne where she claims that "[he] is disintegrated only to be reconstructed; concurrently, courtliness is unlearned and relearned."3
On his way to and from this battle Gawain encounters many people who are mourning the loss of who they thought was the real Gawain. Under his new persona Gawain is able to teach these people various lessons in Chivalry and it can be argued through the text that Gawain lost his own chivalry with the death of his double (evidence is found in how he handled the battle with Escanor) and his adventuring enables him to recover pieces of himself in order to become the most chivalrous again.
Eventually, with Escanor dead and the mystery surrounding the death of Gawain solved, harmony and chivalry are restored to Arthur's land with Gawain to thank. This achievement allows Gawain to temporarily perform actions that are reserved for Arthur such as presiding over a wedding.
Arthur - King of Britain and liege of all Knights of the Round Table. He plays a minor role in The Perilous Cemetery but his minor role shows many traits of his character. He expresses great disappointment in Gawain's inability to save the damsel and shows sarcasm when discussing Sir Kay.
Sir Kay - Very brash and full of pride. He takes it upon himself to pursue Escanor without Arthur's permission and is utterly crushed by Escanor as Arthur predicts.
Gawain - The embodiment of courtesy and chivalry. So chivalrous that it causes Arthur much displeasure when he remains seated as strange knight insults his liege and the round table as a whole simply because he wishes to not get up from the table without Arthur's permission. The story develops him greatly through his exploits on his way to restore Arthurs honor.
Escanor - Very blatant knight and seeks to challenge Gawain in battle. He sends the damsel to Arthur's court in order to coerce Gawain into fighting him. He is able to easily defeat Sir Kay but falls to Gawain.
1 . Walters, Lori J. "Parody and moral allegory in Chantilly MS 472." MLN 113.4 (1998): 937. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 5 May 2011.
2.White, Richard. King Arthur in Legend and History. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.
- Walters, Lori J. "Parody and moral allegory in Chantilly MS 472." MLN 113.4 (1998): 937. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 5 May 2011.
- Kinne, Elizabeth. "Waiting for Gauvain: Lessons in Courtesy in L'Atre périlleux." Arthuriana 18.2 (2008): 55-68. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 5 May 2011.
- White, Richard. King Arthur in Legend and History. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.