by Wolfram von Eschenbach

Start Free Trial

Critical Evaluation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093

Parzival is the masterpiece of Germany’s greatest medieval poet. It is, moreover, the groundwork of the great body of Richard Wagner’s operas on knightly themes. Despite its place in German literature and its influence on modern opera, Parzival is little known to readers of English. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s influence on the legends of the Arthurian cycle is also important. The Arthurian legends had a relatively low moral tone prior to their treatment by this poet who, upholding the knightly virtues of fidelity to the plighted word, of charity, and of a true reverence toward God, lifted the moral tone of the Arthurian romances. Most interesting is the identity of the Grail in Parzival. Here it is not the chalice used at the Last Supper, as it is in other versions, but a precious stone of supernatural powers.

Written at the beginning of the thirteenth century, Parzival is the most famous German tribute to the Arthurian legends, a celebration of the high nobility of knighthood. This masterpiece is a panoramic vision of chivalric deeds, loosely centered on its hero, Sir Parzival, and the quest for the Holy Grail. It is a tale of magnificence and splendor, where the spectacle of one astonishing battle is soon eclipsed by another. There is little of the farce or sly comedy of the French or Celtic traditions. In sixteen books of verses, Wolfram introduces close to two hundred characters, with the birth of Parzival not coming until the close of book 2. The first two books are concerned with the exploits of Parzival’s father, the gallant Gamuret, and many of the succeeding books relate the adventures of Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur’s nephews.

In many respects Parzival is best seen against the tradition it represents and with which it is at odds. Its primary source is Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval: Ou, Le Conte du Graal (c. 1180; Perceval: Or, The Story of the Grail, 1844), but Wolfram also mentions a “master Kyot,” whose identity remains problematic to scholars. Wolfram’s version is probably most familiar to contemporary audiences through Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal (1882).

The quest for the Holy Grail is one of the most ambitious adventures of the Arthurian court; American readers are probably most familiar with the tradition as it is recounted in T. H. White’s popular novel, The Once and Future King (1939-1958). White’s novel is based, in turn, on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). Parzival departs from Arthurian tradition in several significant respects, the most important being a general secularization of the legend. In Christian tradition, the Holy Grail is the vessel from which Christ drank during the Last Supper. In Parzival, it is something on the order of a magic rock, which furnishes each baptized beholder with whatever he desires in the way of food or drink. Another important deviation from Malory’s account is that Percival is permitted to see the Grail only because he is sexually pure, whereas Wolfram’s Parzival is not only happily married to Kondwiramur but is the father of the twins Kardeiz and Lohengrin.

What matters most in Wolfram’s story is knightly honor, by which is understood one’s repute in battle and the riches one displays. These riches include fine silken clothing; beautiful, gem-studded armor; lands; kingdoms; and women. In Wolfram’s world, women offered themselves as prizes, to secure, not diminish, their honor. A woman’s prestige was measured by the renown of her knight and protector, and her beauty was the means she had of enticing the ablest to her side. There was no taint of impropriety in such offerings; Herzeleide,...

(This entire section contains 1093 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Parzival’s mother, and Orgeluse, Gawain’s lady, offer themselves in this way.

Wealth was the visible proof of honor, since a knight’s riches would frequently consist of things he had won by conquering other knights. Wolfram describes repeatedly the fabulous wealth (and corresponding generosity) of Feirefis, Parzival’s half brother by a pagan queen. Since Parzival, the hero, must be the most honorable knight in this tale, it falls to his nearest kin to be the wealthiest. Since wealth is so nearly equivalent, however, with honor, Feirefis, although a pagan, is allowed to accompany Parzival to Monsalvasch, the Grail Castle, as his only companion.

While Feirefis can neither win the woman of his heart—Repanse de Schoie, the only one permitted to carry the Grail—nor even have the sight to see the Grail until he is baptized, this is not perceived as a serious obstacle. The baptismal ceremony is quickly performed, Feirefis showing no reluctance to renounce his religion to win Repanse de Schoie. Although it would be a mistake to read Parzival as a strictly secular tale, the energy that infuses it is not religious. The Christian core is respected, but Wolfram is much more interested in the noble tradition of knighthood.

This kind of secularization makes for some disjunctions in the narrative. For example, when Parzival fails at first to ask the suffering Grail king, Anfortas, the question that would have healed him of his long-festering wound, he does so out of politeness. He was taught not to ask nosy questions. This leads, however, to his failure and shame, a burden that he carries for years. By one set of standards his behavior was impeccable, but, unbeknown to him, in this instance the rules changed on him. His return to grace and power is equally arbitrary, as he is given a second chance to return to Munsalvaesche to ask the question.

The religious element to this part of the story is at odds with the story’s generally secular orientation. It is not because Parzival has expiated himself in any meaningful way that he is chosen to heal and later succeed Anfortas, but because he has been faithful to knightly conduct.

Unlike other Arthurian tales, in which knightly encounters are depicted frequently as contests between good and evil, Parzival reveals a world in which greatness tests greatness. There are none of the traditional villains of medieval romance: no evil knights, no ogres, no lecherous abductors. Everyone, to some degree, is noble, and all the battles seem to be fought to establish a hierarchy of nobility. In this context, the battles between Parzival and Gawain, and later Parzival and Feirefis (in which each knight is ignorant of the identity of his adversary), become emblematic of Wolfram’s chivalric vision. Nobility strives with nobility, until it is finally reconciled in harmony. Parzival is a salute to that knightly ideal.