The Grail Cycle, also known as the Vulgate is a massive, aggregated collection of tales and rewritings of previous texts that weaves together a prolix, extensive history of the Holy Grail from its origins in Christian apocrypha, its apotheosis as the source of all adventures in King Arthur’s kingdom, until its departure from Logres, causing the latter’s downfall. It results from the collision of three massive lines of storytelling: the ground story of Geoffrey de Monmouth rise and fall of King Arthur; Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval, ou le conte du graal; and the story of Lancelot, the greatest knight on Earth. Each of these lines have been gradually amplified and modified by writers, until someone eventually decided it was time to package and polish it all into a box set, and that gave us the manuscripts usually referred to as the Lancelot-Grail or Vulgate cycle.
But to call the whole edifice unwieldy is an understatement. So the hypothesis, spearheaded by scholar Fanni Bogdanow and others, is that some writers decided to pare down the Lancelot-Grail into a more streamlined story. By excising almost all but the necessary bits of Lancelot’s story and adding references to the story of Tristan (who had his own gravity-altering Roman bring every possible little bit of Arthuriana in its vicinity), those writers tightened the Cycle around the story and the role of the Grail.
Because it exists only through a process of reconstruction spanning a textual tradition in multiple languages, the Post-Vulgate Cycle is a debatable object. Scholars differ in their opinion whether there is such a coherent whole. On the French side there seems to be more skepticism than on the English side. Although it is possible to find a modern French translation of the Suite du Merlin, the “Post-Vulgate” label is not affixed to it, since we speak rather of the “suite romanesque” (in contrast to the “suite historique” of the Vulgate).
Moreover, the Queste and the Mort Artu are not available in French translation, which renders this English edition the only game in town for modern readers. Bearing in mind that Bogdanow’s work stitches together parts from medieval Portuguese and Spanish texts, it may be asking a lot to send someone unschooled in these matters read her text. And even here, this English translation was completed before Bogdanow even finished publishing her reconstruction (the translator worked directly from the original sources), so that it may differ on certain points from the “official” version.
These textual quibbles aside, if one wants to read the entire Post-Vulgate cycle, you must start by reading the same Estoire and Merlin as the Vulgate, then you branch off into these two volumes. You may also want to jump in directly into the Merlin Continuation since footnotes hither and thither will alert you to events previously told.
And what of the story? It is indeed much more efficient, reducing the number of characters, and the number of damsels on palfreys asking for help. Gawain is an even worse vilain, and one could argue he is responsible for almost all the downfall of Logres. Palamedes, the Sarracen knight known to readers of the Tristan, has a major role in the Quest. The removal of the Lancelot takes away the need for the story to navigate the tension between Lancelot’s worth and his adultery with Guinevere. Being now a minor figure, he functions mostly as genitor of Galahad, and his worth is dismissed as limited by his sin. The Queste is the central focus : its origins in the Dolorous Blow, the rise of the Beast, Palamedes’s conversion and his defeat of it, until Galahad’s coronation as keeper of the Grail. The downfall of Arthur is a very short episode now, and little time is spent on its political complexities.
Yet in the end… something was missing. That impressive sense of tapestry, which only the massive Vulgate could achieve was lost in the compression. Perhaps the Post-Vulgate is a step closer toward the modern form of the novel we know. Although still very mechanical in its emotional painting and scene description, its matter-of-fact approach to battle descriptions as is typical of medieval romances, one could sense that this is not anymore a vast chronicle, a mine of story and data, but rather that it points towards an individualized oeuvre. The cathedral is slowly turning into the burgher’s house…
Lancelot-Grail: 8. The Post Vulgate Cycle. The Merlin Continuation. Translated by Martha Asher. ISBN 9781843842385
Lancelot-Grail: 9. The Post-Vulgate Cycle. The Quest for the Holy Grail and The Death of Arthur.
Translated by Martha Asher. ISBN 9781843842330