La Nef,
Perceval: The Quest
for the Grail, Vols. 1-2

(Dorian, 1999, 2001)

Whether introduced to it by literature, Monty Python or Indiana Jones and his dad, nearly everyone has heard of the Holy Grail. It is probably the single-most recognized feature of the Arthurian legends after Arthur's sword Excalibur. And just as there are different variations to the story of how Arthur obtained his sword, there are numerous versions of the Quest for the Grail.

The version that La Nef has chosen to present on these two CDs (not issued as a set, by the way) is that written by Chrétien de Troyes, a 12th-century author of numerous Arthurian tales. Here, the hero is Perceval the Welshman, raised alone by his mother in the middle of a forgotten forest. Because his mother had lost her husband and two eldest sons to war, she chose to raise Perceval with no knowledge of war or chivalry -- so that when he first sees knights, he thinks they must be angels.

Volume One tells the story of how Perceval leaves his mother and goes to the court of King Arthur to obtain his own armor and weapons. He arrives just as the Red Knight, having insulted both Arthur and his queen, is leaving. Upon learning of what the Red Knight had done, Perceval determines that he will defeat the villain and take his arms and armor. And he does just that. Next, he travels to the Castle of Belrepeire where he meets the lovely Blancheflor, who spends the night with him. The following morning, he rides out and defeats her enemies. This portion of the story ends with Perceval deciding that it is time to seek out his mother and see how she fares.

In Volume Two, Perceval is taking part in the Quest for the Grail, though he does not know it. He finds himself at the castle of the Fisher King, where he sees a strange procession, but out of politeness does not inquire as to its purpose -- a decision he later has cause to regret. The following morning, the castle is empty, save for Perceval and his horse. He rides into the forest and has other strange encounters. Eventually, he returns to Arthur's court, but his quest is not finished. He vows to a holy hermit to continue until he has found the Grail.

The music that tells the story is intriguing. La Nef is an early music ensemble and they tell the story using both traditional and newer instruments, from shawn and psaltery to harp and pennywhistle. The tale is sung in French, although translated to modern French from de Troyes's medieval French. The singing style is operatic, which allows for a great deal of drama.

An attentive listener will recognize certain traditional airs, including "The Flowers of the Forest," "Morrison's Jig," "The Cuckoo," "Miss MacDermot" and, repeatedly, "The Star of County Down." These and other traditional tunes are worked into the story to give it the flavor of the countries of its origin.

Singers and instrumentalists come together to create an amazing, note-perfect experience. All that's missing is the visual element, but if you sit back and close your eyes, you can supply that yourself.

The story is open-ended, leaving room for a Volume Three. And if we're very lucky, La Nef will produce one soon.

[ by Laurie Thayer ]
Rambles: 2 November 2002

[ visit the artist's website ]