by Wolfram von Eschenbach
(ca. 1205)
   For many medieval and modern readers WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH’s Middle High German Parzival (ca. 1205) represents one of the most important courtly ROMANCES of the entire Middle Ages. In part based on CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES’s PERCEVAL (ca. 1180–90), in part the result of Wolfram’s own literary invention (Wolfram’s work is about twice as long as Chrétien’s), this romance draws from many different literary traditions (Asian, Celtic, Latin, French, and German); combines a multitude of political, religious, ethical, moral, erotic, and anthropological issues; and projects, almost in a utopian manner, a new universal human community where racial and religious conflicts are reduced, though not completely eliminated, to an astonishing degree. Parzival is divided into 16 books, but from a narrative point of view into four major sections. The first deals with Parzival’s father, Gahmuret, and his first wife, the black Queen Belakâne, then with Gahmuret’s second wife, Queen Herzeloyde, followed by Gahmuret’s death while in the military service of a mighty military ruler in the East, and the birth of Parzival. The second part deals with Parzival’s upbringing in the wilderness of Soltâne, where his mother tries to shield him entirely from the dangers of knighthood, then his entering the world of chivalry at the court of King ARTHUR, his marriage with Condwîr âmûrs, his encounter with the Grail kingdom at Munsalvaesche, and his ultimate failure to meet the challenges presented to him there because he is only schooled according to standard chivalric teachings by the knight Gurnemanz that do not apply to the Grail. This section concludes with Parzival being cursed by the grail messenger Cundrie for his failure, which makes him depart from King Arthur’s court. The third part represents a major shift in narrative focus. Parzival’s friend Gawan is equally challenged in his chivalry by another knight, and, like Parzival, he now departs from King Arthur to pursue his own destiny. After several erotic and knightly adventures, he meets the Duchess Orgelûse, a woman whose husband had been killed by King Gramoflanz. Distrustful of all men, she now gives Gawan the cold shoulder. He falls in love with her, however, and has to undergo many difficult and also embarrassing, if not humiliating, adventures before she begins to accept his wooing. Finally, Gawan risks his life to liberate Castle Schastel Marveile from a magic spell, thereby freeing many women from a sorcerer’s power, among them his two sisters, his mother, and his grandmother. As a final act he promises to fight King Gramoflanz, which then paves the way for Gawan to win Orgelûse’s love.
   King Arthur, however, manages to settle the conflict between Gramoflanz and Gawan, foreshadowing the happy outcome of Parzival’s quest. The latter, who had revoked his belief in God after he had been cursed by the Grail messenger Cundrie for his failure at Munsalvaesche, comes across Christian pilgrims who show him the way to the hermit Trevrezent. The latter, who turns out to be Parzival’s own uncle, reintroduces him to Christianity and teaches him the full meaning of the Gospel. In his discussions with Trevrezent, the truth about Parzival’s terrible failures and crimes committed throughout his life is revealed:When Parzival left his mother without turning back to her even once, she died of grief. Outside of King Arthur’s court he killed his relative, the knight Ither, whose red armor he claimed for himself.And, as Parzival has to admit shamefully, he did not ask the crucial question of the Grail king concerning his suffering although he had observed the liturgical procession, the appearance of the Grail itself, and the lamentation of the entire court. Trevrezent, however, assumes, like a priest, Parzival’s guilt and seeks God’s forgiveness on his behalf, which allows his nephew to return to the world of chivalry and to seek out Munsalvaesche once again.
   At this point he runs into his half-brother Feirefiz, son of Gahmuret and Belacane, who is checkered in black and white as a result of his hybrid nature. Since they do not recognize each other, they engage in a deadly battle. At one point Parzival would have killed Feirefiz if God had not made his sword (originally Ither’s) break apart, so Feirefiz, observing this and being the perfect knight, offers peace and reveals his own identity, a gesture normally expected from the defeated knight first. They ride together to King Arthur’s court, and soon Cundrie arrives and announces that Parzival has been chosen as the successor of the Grail king, contingent, of course, upon his asking the crucial question. Once Anfortas has been released from his suffering and so from his office and has his wound healed quickly, Parzival assumes the throne at Munsalvaesche. Feirefiz is baptized, though rather quickly and without any real religious indoctrination because he wants to marry Anfortas’s sister, Repanse de Schoye. Both return to Feirefiz’ kingdom in the East where their son, John, rises to the position of the mythical Prester John, the vastly powerful ruler and missionary of the Eastern world. Parzival, on the other hand, now reunited with his wife Condwîr âmûrs and his two sons, stays behind and rules the Grail kingdom.Wolfram’s Parzival concludes open-endedly as the narrator only indicates that Parzival’s son Loherangrîn was later appointed as the husband of the duchess of Brabant, but then left her again when she asked him, against his explicit ban, about his origin. Without fully embracing religious and racial tolerance, Wolfram’s narrative still offers most amazing perspectives regarding the relationship between various peoples and religions. Cundrie, the ugliest woman on earth, emerges as the most learned person, commanding knowledge of Arabic, lapidary sciences, astronomy and astrology, and so forth.Violence, which erupts at many points in the romance, is viewed very negatively, especially violence against women. Feirefiz’s love for Repanse is treated as more important than what a true conversion to Christianity would normally require. His quick baptism proves to be enough for him to enter the otherwise closely guarded Grail community, especially as he partly belongs to that world anyway through his father. Most important,Wolfram projects a new, religiously inspired Grail kingdom that supersedes the world of King Arthur. The Grail world, in turn, assumes a global position, sending out its knights to wherever a country is in need of a royal husband. Feirefiz and later his son John connect the European world with the Asian world. Though certainly under Christian rule, this new universal perspective proves to be highly innovative for the Middle Ages.
   ■ Bumke, Joachim. Wolfram von Eschenbach. 7th rev. ed. Stuttgart:Metzler, 1997.
   ■ Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival. Studienausgabe. Translated by Peter Knecht, with an introduction by Bernd Schirok. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1998.
   ■ Wolfram von Eschenbach,. Parzival. Translated by A. E. Hatto. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1980.
   ■ Wynn, Marianne. “Wolfram von Eschenbach.” In German Writers and Works of the High Middle Ages: 11701280, edited by James Hardin and Will Hasty, 185–206. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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