Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On the interaction between the Arthurian world, the Grail community and the Orient in Parzival (c.1215)

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, composed in the first quarter of the 13th century, springs out of a myriad of traditions, but the most obvious antecedent is Perceval, le Conte du Graal by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes, likely written some fifty years before. Wolfram’s version owes a great debt to the Arthurian romance tradition to which Troyes belongs, insofar as it borrows freely from stock Arthurian structures and even pre-existing Arthurian characters like Gawan. However, Wolfram makes several significant changes to the original French, changing the all-important “grail” itself from the familiar iconography of a blessed goblet or drinking-vessel into something much more otherworldly and strange, a stone whose form and essence remain vague and ill-defined. The other key addition is the presence of the Orient, both in the work’s initial back-story and in its final conclusion. These two changes take the German Parzival in a very different direction, such that it is in parts more knotty, more unfathomable, and the relationship between all three “worlds” – the world of Arthurian romance, the world of the Grail, and the world of the Orient – becomes a crucial element in, indeed perhaps the crucial element of, Parzival’s narrative.
The Arthurian romance tradition, or the Artusepos, begins most prominently in France and makes its way over to Germany via Hartmann von Aue in Erec and Iwein, written between 1180 and 1205. It is in this cultural context that it reached Wolfram, and he includes much that is familiar from this tradition. Many of the stock elements are here: there is a court with emphasis on chivalry which is set against a world of aventiure, an unknown and wondrous space wherein an unruly young knight, the story’s hero, sets out to seek autonomy, discover himself, and establish his own rule. Reliably, various characters find married love by the story’s end – another staple of the Arthurian romance. Arthur himself is the centre of the web, the epitome of the courtly and chivalric way of life which brings stability to its own sphere. As Will Hasty points out[1], Wolfram presents this world, by and large, in a positive light – the narrator is very much textually associated with it, to the extent that he reminds his audience of his own knightliness (‘schildes ambet ist mîn art’, 115.11). Let us not forget, too, the first key moment in which Parzival is exposed to this world – ‘den dûhte er al sein got getân:/ern hete sô liehtes niht erkant’, 121.30-122.1). Knights possess a grandeur that can be paralleled with the divine.
Indeed, Lefevere[2] and Spiewok[3] both explore how in writing Parzival Wolfram was in part setting out his preferred standards to which he hoped chivalry would aspire. In the chaos and dissolution of his own time – notably, the era of the Crusades and hundreds of miniscule German duchies; an era Walther von der Vogelweide describes thus: “Treuloßigkeit lauert im Hinterhalt, Gewalttätigkeit treibt Straßenraub, Frieden und Recht sind todwund” – Wolfram explicitly writes Parzival as heading towards a more “ideal” world, such that “his prescription for the ills of his time is a conservative one indeed. He simply, quixotically and earnestly, calls for a return to the “true” ideals of “real” knighthood”[4]. At the centre of these ideals is triuwe, which holds the highest value he can place on anything– true loyalty, to one’s self, one’s wife, one’s kin, one’s court[5].
As much as the work sees him setting out his ideal standards by which we should judge Arthurian romance, however, Wolfram also takes the opportunity to critique it – at first humorously, when Herzeloyde tries to subvert Arthurian epic by dressing her over-zealous son in a silly costume, but later more seriously: the chivalric universe is shown as having fundamental existential limits at the crucial moment at which Cundrie, the messenger of the grail, interrupts the feast at Arthur’s court to condemn his loss of honour, with all the familiar tropes of Arthurian greatness expressly belittled (‘gunêrt sî iuwer liehter schîn/und iuwer manlîchen lide’, 315.20-21). Additionally, a huge number of deaths and no small shortage of pain are caused by chivalry and knighthood in Books I-III alone. Though they often spark further plotlines (Gahmuret sets off when his father dies, Herzeloyde hides in the wilderness when her husband dies, and Parzival becomes a knight after slaying Ither), there is a sense in which this sequence reinforces a critique of the Arthurian realm[6]. Knighthood may breed glorious victory, but kills incalculable numbers in doing so. Though Wolfram seems to morally side with Parzival’s decision to abandon the innocent natural world in favour of the experiences of knighthood, he does not shy away from critiquing the path he must take to get there or the role he is expected to perform.
The key evidence for this, aligning with Cundrie’s stinging condemnation referred to above, is the Grail storyline. Artusrittertum, as a stage in Parzival’s life, is already reached by Book VI, at which juncture there are ten more books to go: it is not an endpoint, but merely one step towards a greater, more important goal[7]. The snowfall in the same book sees a “close encounter of the Arthurian and Grail realms”[8], as the wintry weather reminiscent of the wasteland of Anfortas’ community strikes the court of King Arthur, associated with May and spring-time with the words ‘der meienbære man’ (281.16). Where the first great wilderness space outside of the Arthurian world – the Waldeinsamkeit in which Herzeloyde shrouds her child – is left behind early in the narrative when Parzival bids farewell to the world of ignorance, the second occurs in the form of the Grail King’s community – very much the antithesis to chivalric “business as usual”[9].
It is at this point that the classic Arthurian structure elides into something else. Although we are still in the familiar territory of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King, key parts of the conventional legend, Wolfram aligns them with spiritual transcendence and an almost monastic Christianity in the figure of the ascetic Trevrizent – ‘diu verholnen maere umbe den grâl’ (452.30). The transformation that this cultivation of one’s interiority can bring about is the most obvious religious alternative to the heretofore primary mode of being – the materialistic sensuousness of courtly chivalry. Will Hasty views the Grail storyline as being an “alluring alternative mode of being or opportunity for reflection about, criticism of, or emancipation from a constrictive, unjust social conformity”[10], wherein a sufficient religious transformation is to take place within Parzival such that he is fit to win the Grail.
It is a reading which is a natural fit with the Grail’s chief features – that it is associated with Christ’s suffering (via the dove that brings communion wafers down from the heavens) and that it is a clear barometer of one’s spirituality: for example, it cannot be held by a sinful person, is invisible to the baptised, and cannot be found by those who specifically seek it (‘der stein ist immer reine’, 471.22). This ties in superbly to Parzival’s individual journey of self-discovery, our well-worn Arthurian staple: as Bumke notes[11], his quest is rife in Sündenmotive, with both the death of his mother and the killing of Ithers on Parzival’s own head, which together Trevrizent, the hermit associated with the Grail, describes as ‘zwuo grôze sünde’ (499.20). If man can be so entangled in sin such that even the all-important notion of triuwe is forgotten, all he can do is submit to God as a vassal and hope to achieve salvation.
But what is also notable about the Grail is that it very much lies outside the chivalric world: no longer it is a great goblet (an emblem of the court, but also of the Eucharist) but it is now a stone of some description[12], and yet remains vague and incorporeal – “a mediated approximation, a representation of a representation”[13], in whose unconstructed nature we are partially complicit ourselves – ‘sol ich des iemen triegen,/sô müezt ir mit mir liegen’ (238.11-12). It is also worth noting that the Grail has nothing to do with the church whatsoever. The “official” church does not appear to have been much beloved by Wolfram, getting only one cursory mention in Parzival; and the single most spiritually significant object in the entire work is completely out of their hands. Though this is a work deeply concerned with religious matters it is not a work soaked in church dogma – “so sichert schließlich der Gral auch ohne Vermittlung der Kirche [my italics] die unmittelbare Verbindung zwischen Gott und der ritterlichen Ordensgemeinschaft des Gralsvolkes”[14].
How, then, is Parzival to attain this spiritual transformation via the Grail, transcending the courtly world he is familiar with, a man who has been condemned for the magnitude of the sins he has committed along the way and who seemingly cannot reconcile his quest for the Grail with his married life with Condwiramurs? Our answer is to be found in Parzival’s third “world”, one we encounter right at the beginning, and in Wolfram’s greatest addition to the Parzival legend: the Orient.
The first crucial thing to note about the Orient in Parzival is that it bookends the text. Books I-II concern themselves with Gahmuret’s Orientreise, while Books XV-XVI deal with the narrative fallout of that very trip, forming a ‘Rahmen’[15] which fits around the rest of the (more explicitly Arthurian) text. In the former Feirefiz is conceived; in the latter he returns to fight his half-brother Parzival, proving himself the only warrior who is more than a match for the eponymous protagonist, and together they forge a form of West-East utopianism. In this way Wolfram is able to highlight that the Oriental world is as much a part of Parzival’s father’s legacy as he is, and that as he discovers himself and his true place in this world he is not only able but willing to accept a wholly ‘alien’ intellectual and cultural sphere, and that only then are the promised possibilities of Arthurian structure – flowering in full status as a knight, with all the self-knowledge that entails, as part of the movement towards the religious transcendence that comes with the Grail – fully achievable.
The Zweikampf between Parzival and Feirefiz is an enormously important moment, because it represents not merely a standard test of Parzival’s chivalry as we would expect from Arthurian romance; but also the symbol of opposition between East and West, between Islam and Christianity (highly apt in Wolfram’s day); and more crucially still, Parzival’s inner struggle with himself. Naturally, to fight one’s brother is in no small part to fight against one’s ancestry, inheritance and status, and this is explicitly addressed in the text with the line ‘mit dir selben hâst du hie gestritn/gein mir selbn ich kom ûf strît gerîtn’ (752.15-16). Indeed, Feirefiz’s return to the story marks a kind of Trinity with his half-brother and their shared father, as the work acknowledges: ‘beidiu mîn vater unde ouch du/und ich, wir wâren gar al ein/doch ez an drien stücken schien’ (752.8-10). Only after Parzival has confronted his past and his wider sense of self is he truly legitimate to claim the Grail and become the religious leader he is meant to be. This point is rammed home in Books XV-XVI as it is both Cundrie and Feirefiz, emblems of “the Other”, who accompany him to the Grail castle for the work’s denouement[16].
What is particularly dazzling about this achievement is that it is not just in the events of Parzival that Wolfram ensures we view West and East as equal in cultural status and valour, but that he does this even on a linguistic level. Wolfram’s style is down-to-earth, elliptical and inelegant (a far cry from Gottfried’s much-vaunted ‘ebene unde sleht’ (Tristan 4659) technique), and this eschewing of the more well-known French style is only a part of the linguistic plurality he allows to permeate his work: French words are used, certainly, even by figures of the Orient; imagined languages occur; Latin makes an appearance; Cundrie and Feirefiz share a linguistic moment in which the planets are all named in Arabic; Feirefiz’s 25 armies all speak different languages. The narrator is expressly choosing to “decentre[…] the primacy of his own language”[17], which has the same effect as ensuring the Orient plays a key role in Parzival’s acceding to the Grail: in both examples, the end result cannot be reached alone but must be accompanied by one’s recognition of the wider cultural nexus into which one fits.
The final apotheosis of Wolfram’s “utopian” world, emblematic of a better knighthood, sees Parzival as the King of the Grail and Feirefiz as the most powerful ruler in all the Orient. To a modern sensibility the fact that Feirefiz converts to Christianity before the end, is baptised, and vows to spread the gospel throughout India might be less than savoury, but in the 13th century this was an avowedly different attitude to the Orient and of Islam than had been seen up until now. Arthurian legend and the near-fantasy portrayal of the Orient meet over the spiritual crux of the Grail itself, and only with all three in perfect alignment, like Cundrie’s planets, can stability be restored.


Bumke, Joachim, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Sammlung Metzler, 2004 (8. Auflage).
Dallapiazza, Michael, Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Berlin, 2009.
Groos, Arthur, Romancing the Grail, Ithaca, 1995.
Hasty, Will (ed.), A Companion to Wolfram’s Parzival, Boydell & Brewer, 1999.
Lefevere, André, “Introduction” to Parzival, A&C Black, 1991.
Noltze, Holger, bî den dûht in diu wîle lanc – Warum langweilt sich Gahmuret bei den Môren?, Göppingen, 1995.
Prager, Debra N., Orienting the Self: The German Literary Encounter with the Eastern Other, Boydell & Brewer, 2014.
Raucheisen, Alfred, Orient und Abendland: Ethisch-moralische Aspekte in Wolframs Epen Parzival und Willehalm, Frankfurt, 1997.
Spiewok, Wolfgang, Nachwort, in Parzival, Reclam, 1981.
Suerbaum, Almut, “Siben sterne si dô nante heidensch: Language as a Marker of Difference in Wolfram’s Parzival and Adolf Muschg’s Der Rote Ritter”, Oxford German Studies 33, 2004.

[1]Hasty, Will, in A Companion to Wolfram’s Parzival, Boydell & Brewer, 1999 (ed. Will Hasty).
[2]Lefevere, André, “Introduction” to Parzival, A&C Black, 1991.
[3]Spiewok, Wolfgang, Nachwort, in Parzival, Reclam, 1981.
[4]Lefevere, André, “Introduction” to Parzival, A&C Black, 1991.
[6]Hasty, Will, in A Companion to Wolfram’s Parzival, Boydell & Brewer, 1999 (ed. Will Hasty).
[7]Spiewok, Wolfgang, Nachwort, in Parzival, Reclam, 1981.
[8]Groos, Arthur, Romancing the Grail, Ithaca, 1995.
[9]Hasty, Will, in A Companion to Wolfram’s Parzival, Boydell & Brewer, 1999 (ed. Will Hasty).
[11]Bumke, Joachim, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Sammlung Metzler, 2004 (8. Auflage).
[12]It has been suggested by Joachim Bumke that the Grail was made into a stone in Wolfram’s Parzival expressly to reflect “die orientalischen Wundersteine”, which would fit with the overarching aims of the text.
[13]Groos, Arthur, Romancing the Grail, Ithaca, 1995.
[14]Spiewok, Wolfgang, Nachwort, in Parzival, Reclam, 1981.
[15]Spiewok, Wolfgang, Nachwort, in Parzival, Reclam, 1981.
[16]Suerbaum, Almut, “Siben sterne si dô nante heidensch: Language as a Marker of Difference in Wolfram’s Parzival and Adolf Muschg’s Der Rote Ritter”, Oxford German Studies 33, 2004.
[17]Groos, Arthur, Romancing the Grail, Ithaca, 1995.

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