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 entire section is 1093 words.)