Saturday, August 30, 2014


Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach

Written in about 1200, Parzival expands and finishes Chretien de Troyes' unfinished tale of Parsifal.  I'm used to seeing this knight in a sort of mystical, perfect Christian knight way, because I'm most familiar with the Quest for the Holy Grail which is very mystical indeed, but Parzival is flatfootedly not one bit mystical and, while Christian, does not spend a lot of time on religion.  Parzival is a perfect knight--by the end--but he takes a while to get there and his virtues are largely expressed in chivalric battles that reveal his prowess.  His progress is revealed by how and why he fights.

Wolfram was something of an upstart in the world of German Arthurian storytelling, and he has to fight for his place a bit.  His story (he actually refuses to call it a book!) was written in episodes which were performed before he wrote the next part, and there are some references to his audience and to other, more established Arthurian poets.  He knows the French tales well and is really quite the all-around knowledgeable guy; we hear about all sorts of things and there is a lot of variety.

We start with a couple of chapters on Parzival's father, Gahmuret, a very skilled Angevin knight who sails to far-off lands for adventure.  He sails so far that he gets to a country where the people are dark-skinned non-Christians, though they have the same courtly society.  (Apparently they are meant to be Muslim Arabs, but Wolfram's information was so bad that it's impossible to tell; I got it from the notes.)  Gahmuret fights for the Queen of the country and marries her.  Again, however, Wolfram shows a stunning naivete; he had probably never seen any dark-skinned people in his life and was evidently not sure what would happen if two people of different races married.  So he makes their son parti-colored "like a magpie."  This son, Feirefiz, grows up to be a wonderful knight, and he eventually marries the Gral Maiden and fathers Prester John.

Gahmuret, however, does not stick around and heads off for more adventure, marrying another Queen, fathering Parzival, and then heading out to die in battle.  Parzival grows up isolated from all courtly society, so naive that he doesn't know a knight when he sees one, but he sure knows that he wants to be one!  He is so ignorant and gauche that he gets into trouble several times and even commits an awful sin that has to be expiated before he can reach his goal.  Soon, however, he learns and becomes a member of Arthur's court.  He wins and marries a queen who he loves deeply, but knightly adventure calls and they become separated by events.

It's at this point that Parzival miraculously gets to the Gral castle of Munschalvasese.  There he sees a fantastic Gral procession and a miserable Fisher King, but it's more magical in tone than religious.  Here, the Gral is a stone that prolongs everyone's life.  Of course Parzival fails to ask the Question he is supposed to ask, and weighed down by his failure, he wanders for a few years and falls further and further down from where he should be.  He fights unjustly, and eventually stops caring about God, but then he is called to repentance and taught what he should do.  It is when he learns to fight with a heart true to the right that his chance to make amends arrives.

The story takes a sudden turn and spends a whole lot of time following Gawan on his adventures, much of which involves getting his sister together with a king who loves her but also wants to kill Gawan.  I found this diversion kind of exasperating, but evidently Wolfram's audience were big Gawan fans and were in fact rooting for him to succeed in the Gral quest!  Eventually Wolfram wrestles the tale back to Parzival in time for him to fully mature, be reunited with his wife and sons, and travel to Munschalvaese to fulfil his quest, whereupon he takes his rightful place as Gral King.

The names in this story are something else.  By the time they've gone through English, French, and German, they are really interesting.  Utepandragun should look a bit familiar; he is Arthur's father.  Ginover is Arthur's queen, and most of the rest of the characters have names like Meljekanz and Condwiramurs.

A really fascinating Arthurian tale, with lots of detail and interesting material to delve into. 


Ekaterina Egorova said...

Oh no, this one also switches to Gawain?? I thought the story structure here would be much better than in Chretien's Perceval... Now I feel like I'm not ready to start it yet. The experience of Chretien's Perceval is still too fresh...

Jean said...

The translator says it has a structure--he draws a diagram and everything, and the logic makes sense, but it sure doesn't *feel* like there is much structure. I got the impression that Wolfram was doing that on purpose. So yeah, you should probably hold off until you feel stronger.. ;)