- From Blood-on-Snow to Boys-on-Sand: Perceval’s Mirror in Michel Tournier’s The Ogre
In the closing pages of Michel Tournier’s 1970 French novel The Ogre, Abel Tiffauges, who has risen over the course of this novel from a seemingly mundane Parisian garage owner to the unofficial head of the Kaltenborn Napola in East Prussia, flees the burning school as the Russian army advances into Germany.1 While escaping the besieged grounds, he catches sight of his three favorite Jungmannen, Hajo, Haro, and Lothar, each impaled by an ornamental sword on the Napola’s fence and bleeding onto the untouched snow below. Lothar Wüstenroth, a fair-skinned boy with white hair whose surname evokes the color red, becomes a sheath for the blade protruding from his mouth while Hajo and Haro, milk-colored red-haired mirror twins, flank Lothar, each pierced through the side. The sight reminds Abel of an earlier scene where he sees these boys in a similar formation, dressed in red jerseys and practicing maneuvers on the white sand of the quadrangle at the Napola. So transfixed by the Jungmannen as he fondly gazes upon them here, Abel does not notice when the commandant of the fortress approaches and remarks that these three red silhouettes on white ground resemble the Three Swords of Kaltenborn, the weaponry of the Teutonic Knights featured on the castle’s heraldry.2
As I shall explore in this study, these scenes of red and white, along with the presence of blood and snow and references to medieval chivalry, have a textual precedent within Chrétien de Troyes’s Story of the Grail. In this twelfth-century Arthurian romance we read that Perceval, while on a quest for the meaning of the Grail and Bleeding Lance that will restore the Fisher King to health and the Waste Land to prosperity, encounters a similar image. Becoming enamored with knighthood, the profession that took the life of his father and [End Page 62] brothers, he leaves his mother to die, kills the Red Knight by striking him in the eye with a javelin, and, although he becomes quite a reputable warrior, cannot escape the violence of his chosen career and the misfortune it brings. One morning, as he comes across a field where it has snowed the previous night, Perceval witnesses a violent skirmish between a goose and a falcon that leaves three drops of blood on the pure background. As with Abel, the image of red on white leaves the young knight dumbstruck; the scarlet color of the blood contrasted against the white of the melting snow immediately reminds him of his beloved Blancheflor (White Flower), whose ivory-tinted skin and rosy cheeks and lips held him enraptured earlier in the tale.
The blood-on-snow episode from Chrétien’s romance, I argue, serves as the literary basis for the boys-on-sand scene of The Ogre because it presents a perfected red and white image of the beloved that becomes a mirror appealing, not for passive contemplation on the object of desire, but rather active deliberation on the way in which it defines and informs a character’s beliefs, deeds, and nature. Such engaged reflection is required because both Perceval and Abel have conformed themselves to violence they do not comprehend. Perceval’s decision to become a knight, a profession highly condemned at the start of the romance for its senseless carnage, causes the death of his mother; Abel is unaware that his attempt to find personal meaning in everything around him and his increasing obsession with children are converse reflections of Nazism. The boys-on-sand scene within Tournier’s text hearkens back to Perceval because the young knight, like Abel, remains fundamentally blind to a truth about himself that he should discover in the beauty of the spellbinding image. In the episode of the three boys dressed in red upon white sand, Tournier therefore rewrites the scene from The Story of the Grail, itself an image inherited from Ovid’s myth of Narcissus, where three drops of scarlet blood seep into untouched snow. This rewriting sheds light on the private mythology of Abel...