The Perilous Seat

Though, the French writer Chretien de Troyes was the first to write about the Grail and the hero Perceval (in c. 1180, titled Conte du Grail), the Round Table was not linked to the Grail at all. It wasn’t until around 1200 that Robert de Boron, a French poet, wrote his trilogy that the Round Table became more entwined with the Grail.

According to Boron and the Vulgate Cycle (1227-1235), the Round Table was devised and created by Merlin, during the reign of Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur. Merlin used the tables of the Last Supper and of Joseph of Arimathea, as models for the Round Table. The Queste del Saint Graal says that Merlin made the table round, because he wanted it to symbolise the roundness of the Earth.

Since the Round Table could seat 150 knights, it was Merlin who help Arthur to chose the last fifty knights. Each seat (sieges) would have the name of knight magically written on the back of the seat, in letters of gold.  As the legend evolved and the tales of the Grail became more firmly rooted in the Arthurian legend (in the 13th-14th century), there was only one seat left vacate, that was the seat that no other knights could sit upon: the “Siege Perilous”.  The Siege Perilous was reserved for the true Grail knight, and would remained unoccupied until the Grail hero appeared. Anyone who sat on it would be killed. –


This idea of a table symbolizing the earth doesn’t necessarily support the sad supposition that the people in the Europe in the Middle Ages believed the world to be flat. The Round Table is a different kind of symbolism. If we read it in Jungian terms, it is symbolic of the soul and the perilous seat is that place you cannot take until, like Perceval, you are ready.

In most of the legends, Perceval first meets the old and crippled Fisher King and sees the grail, but fails to ask the question that would heal the Fisher King and restore the kingdom. Perceval is sometimes associated with the greatest of Irish hero’s – Finn Mac Cumhail:

As a boy, Finn is said to have entered into the service of an old man, Finn Eger, who had been waiting seven years for the Salmon of Lynn Feic. Shortly after arriving, the youth succeeds in catching the fish where his elder had failed. The old man takes charge of the catch nevertheless. The young Finn is told to watch the fish while it roasts with the specific condition that he not eat any of it. But the boy, being young, hungry and impulsive, disobeys the command. He reaches into the fire to assuage his gnawing hunger, burning his hand in the process. As he put his thumb into his mouth to soothe the pain, he immediately became possessed of all knowledge, thereby becoming the symbolic successor of Finn Eger. In this myth the wonderful fish initially appears as a feature common to Celtic other world tales. It is “the magic food,” writes Nitze, “whereby a hero is made immortal, and which enables him to be re-born.” 

In the Mideavel legend of the Fisher King, the wound of the king is not just confined to him, but to his entire realm, or the realm in which the hero lives – his heart. Perceval, unable to cross a raging river, is directed by a fisherman and given shelter in the Grail castle. As a guest at dinner in the castle he sees the grail  and the lance that wounded the old king, but keeps quiet. When he wakes the next day, the castle is gone, the grail, the king, even the fisherman is gone. The only person he meets with is a woman who sits weeping by the river’s edge, holding the dead body of her beloved on her lap. She refuses to leave her loved one until she has buried him. But she, of course, is no ordinary woman. She is the messenger. She tells him of the secrets of the Grail and that he is to go on a quest. Then she asks his name and provides him with the moment in which he define himself. Finally, she scolds him for his passiveness and assumptions in not asking questions of the king and gives him the question to ask.

Perceval spends years in the wasteland realm that illustrates the anxiety and loneliness that plague men, searching for the Grail Castle and the Fisher King.  He must first prove himself in the world of men before returning to the castle to finally ask the question: “What troubles you?”

With this one, compassionate question Perceval heals the Grail King and lifts the enchantment that made his realm a wasteland. Thus as a mature man, he returns to Camelot and takes, his rightful seat – the Perilous Seat – at the round table.

I could give you a long, drawn-out interpretation of this myth, but I know my role in this story and you should know yours. I sit by the river’s edge, the river’s run. I give you the question. You must ask it if you are to take your seat at the table and begin-again.

Wishing you all an adventurous New Year.

Provencal Fish in parchment
Photo by Karen Tedesco


1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, quartered
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 fresh fennel bulb, stems trimmed and fronds reserved
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 small white onion, very thinly sliced
1 pound sole fillets
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves
4 tablespoons butter
4 teaspoons anise-flavored liqueur such as Pernod or Ricard

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Toss the tomatoes with the garlic, fennel seed, 1 teaspoon of the olive oil and a pinch of salt in a bowl.
Remove the tough outer layer from the fennel bulb. Thinly shave the fennel with a mandoline or a sharp knife and combine in another bowl with the remaining teaspoon oil, pinch of salt, lemon juice and the onion.
Fold 4 pieces of parchment paper (12 x 17 inches) in half, then open them flat on a work surface. Place some of the tomatoes (about ¼ cup) on the sheet to one side of the fold. Place a portion of sole over the tomatoes; season the sole with salt and top with the fennel mixture, some tarragon, 1 tablespoon butter and 1 teaspoon of the Pernod if using.
Fold the parchment to close. Starting at a corner, make overlapping pleated folds all around to form a half-moon shaped package.
Repeat the process with the remaining sheets of parchment, tomatoes, sole, fennel, tarragon, butter and Pernod. (The packages can be prepared ahead and refrigerated up to 4 hours in advance of baking).
Place the packages on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Transfer the packages to serving plates and cut open with scissors – sprinkle the fish with reserved fennel fronds and serve immediately.


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