Wolfram von Eschenbach Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The small corpus of nine songs that can be safely attributed to Wolfram von Eschenbach were presumably composed early in his literary career. More than half of these can be categorized as Tagelieder, or morning songs, a type of courtly poem which Wolfram refined for his German audience. The typical situation depicts daybreak and the call of the watchman, announcing the day’s arrival to a pair of young lovers. Obviously, the man must leave, for if he were seen, his honor and the lady’s reputation would be ruined. There is a tearful farewell, a last embrace, and the man departs. Wolfram’s songs develop this theme artistically, allowing each of the three figures—watchman, man, and woman—to present in turn the episode from his (or her) individual point of view. Wolfram employed rhythmic crescendos to accentuate the dramatic moments of daybreak and farewell in a sensual atmosphere.

One noteworthy variation among Wolfram’s lyrics is the antimorning song. Here, the poet speaks directly to the watchman, reprimanding him for warning the waking lovers. In praise of connubial bliss, the poet extolls the security of matrimony, which requires no secrecy and no painful farewells at dawn. Although this song is not one of Wolfram’s finer creations, it does highlight his witty and often mocking temperament, a trait which can be traced throughout his later works. The same parodistic tone is evident in the remaining songs. The common theme in these poems is courting the favor of a lady. Conventional and even second-rank in appearance, these works display qualities which parody the entire established tradition of courtly love poetry. By pirating famous lines from other poems and including trite love phrases, Wolfram created fanciful songs which attest the superficiality of courtly conventions.


Wolfram’s greatest achievement is clearly Parzival. This epic romance is enormous in scope, portraying literally dozens of legendary characters who span Europe and Asia over an extended period of time. The number of questions surrounding its creation are enormous as well: Which source or sources inspired Wolfram? Is Parzival indebted to Chrêtien de Troyes and Robert de Boron, to a combination of various related tales, or to the mysterious “Kyot,” as Wolfram insists? Was the work interrupted by war or by Wolfram’s changing mood? Was it written under the auspices of one or more patrons? Was the work composed in the same chronological order in which it appears today? Were the first two books—that is, the prologue—written only after the completion of the entire manuscript and then added to the beginning of Parzival’s story? These are a few of the nagging questions surrounding Wolfram’s classic tale. It is certain only that Parzival was not written in one uninterrupted effort and that publication of separate episodes preceded the final edition of almost twenty-five thousand lines.

Though Parzival is an Arthurian romance, it is clearly differentiated from earlier versions by its non-Celtic preoccupation with Christianity and the Holy Grail. Artificially divided into sixteen books by the philologist Karl Lachmann, the work traces the life and development of Parzival and his Arthurian counterpart, Gawan. In a prologue, the audience learns that Parzival’s father, Gahmuret, was an exemplary knight. Through a series of adventures, Gahmuret wins and marries first a heathen queen and then a Christian queen, finally to die in chivalric pursuit of further love and fame. Upon the birth of her son, Parzival, the Christian queen fears that he will end like his father; therefore, she rears the boy in complete ignorance of courtly society. One day, young Parzival encounters several knights and immediately decides that he, too, must partake of this splendid life. For his protection, his mother sends him off in fool’s garb and gives misleading advice, hoping that he will soon return unharmed and chastened. After his departure, she dies of a broken heart, but young Parzival perseveres, soon joining King Arthur’s knights at the Round Table. He then discovers the Grail Castle and its king, Anfortas, who suffers from a most painful affliction. Failing to “ask the question”—that is, to show compassion and inquire as to the origins of the wound and the condition of the king—Parzival is expelled from the castle for his uncharitable silence. Because of his ignorance, inexperience, and overwhelming desire to become a knight, he commits numerous sins of omission and commission. Guided only by his heart and the wise counsel of the hermit, Trevrezent, Parzival matures through years of lonely struggle, proving that he is worthy of his responsibilities as a knight and as a Christian.

As Parzival wanders off into the wilderness in search of himself, Wolfram introduces Gawan, a member in good standing of Arthur’s Round Table. Gawan is the epitome of the medieval knight, at once adept in chivalric combat and skillful in the conventional graces required of all nobility. He is ever willing to fight on behalf of a worthy cause or a beautiful lady, and he fulfills his Christian duties with similar ease. During the course of the tale, Wolfram clearly distinguishes Gawan from Parzival on one crucial issue: Gawan’s Christianity is the fulfillment of a chivalric vow, an obligation to which he is committed, while Parzival’s spiritual quest derives from inner motivation. Whereas Gawan accepts his religion unquestioningly, Parzival must struggle with doubt, at one point even renouncing God for his apparent injustice. This difference is finally decisive; it is the reason that Parzival and not Gawan will ultimately become Grail King—that is, the personification of the highest values both in worldly society (as king) and in the spiritual realm (of the Grail). At the conclusion of the epic, Parzival is crowned King of the Grail, reunited with his wife and friends, and introduced to a stranger from India; this speckled man is his half brother, Feirefiz, the child of Gahmuret’s heathen queen. Together, from Europe to India (that being the extent of the known world in Wolfram’s day), the sons of Gahmuret will uphold courtly and Christian values, to the benefit of all humankind.

It is clear, then, that Parzival is not the shallow, disorganized composition described by Wolfram’s critics. The epic can and should...

(The entire section is 2617 words.)