The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Parzival

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Parzival
Edition of 1920. See also Parzival on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

PARZIVAL. Wolfram von Eschenbach's ‘Parzival’ is a Middle High German epic composed early in the 13th century. Its verse as a rule has four accents, two successive verses always being combined by a rhyme. It is divided into 16 books and in part (books 3-12) is based on the Old French ‘Perceval le Gallois’ by Chrestien de Troyes. But the latter remained a fragment, and Wolfram's poem excels it by greater depth of thought and feeling, and a higher standard of morals. Originally Parzival belongs to those simpletons popular in folklore who in foolishness and innocence accomplish some great deed. This old theme is remodeled and ennobled in our poem. The hero is endowed with that virtue which the Germanic peoples consider the highest — faithfulness, and he passes through a change of mind typically Christian in character which enables him to attain his aim. The aim itself is set high and is of a double character. In its worldly aspect it is represented by King Arthur and his followers (see special article) who hunt after glory and pleasure, who indulge in heroic deeds, the worship of women, adventures, festivals and the like. In its worldly and spiritual aspect it is represented by the king of the Grail and his followers who, while doing justice to the world, try above all to fulfil the highest commandments of God. The Grail (q.v.) symbolizes this ideal, and he who comes nearest to it is to be king of the Grail. Parzival first wants to become an Arthurian knight and then strives for the kingship of the Grail. Apart from its symbolic meaning, the Grail is with Wolfram a precious stone of miraculous power granting food at will and preserving the life of king Anfortas, if he looks at it. Its original connection with the Lord's Supper and Crucifixion can still be traced in Wolfram's poem. Book 1 and 2 deal with Parzival's parents, especially his father. Book 3 takes up the story of Parzival himself. His mother brings him up in a lonely forest, but the boy leaves her in order to become a knight. He first leads the life of a guileless adventurer until old Gurnemanz teaches him the noble laws of worldly knighthood. He wins the beautiful Kondwiraraur for a wife and leaves her only in order to visit his mother. Unawares he comes to the castle of the Grail. There religious fervor and true humanity should make him ask about the wonders of the Grail and the sufferings of its king Anfortas. But regard for courtly manners controls his behavior, he suppresses the all-important questions and must leave the castle, It is true, he is afterwards received at the Round Table of king Arthur, yet on account of his behavior at the castle of the Grail he must withdraw also from the company of Arthur. Now Parzival quarrels with God because He allowed him to fall into disgrace, and sets out to win the Grail in spite of Him (Books 3-6). For years he roams about in vain, comforted only by his love for Kondwiramur. At last the hermit Trevrizent teaches him that man lives in sin and can not accomplish anything great unless called by God. In deepest humility and with a purified soul, Parzival resumes his faithfulness to God and not until now has he a chance to win the Grail (Book 9). This change in Parzival is depicted between the descriptions of the adventures of Gawain, a nephew of Arthur and first knight of the Round Table, who crowns his accomplishments by conquering the castle of the magician Klinschor and winning the love of the haughty Orgeluse, but who in spite of all his attempts fails to gain the Grail (Books 7S, 10-13). With the 14th book Parzival comes again into the foreground. After he has defeated Gawain, he is received at the Round Table for a second time. In his half-brother Feirefis, he learns to admire pagan knighthood and is at last called to the Grail. Now he asks the decisive question about the sufferings of Anfortas. The latter recovers from his pain. Parzival is elevated to the kingship of the Grail and reunited with his beloved wife Kondwiramur. The expression in Wolfram's ‘Parzival’ is original and even peculiar, the thoughts have a tendency to mysticism, the outer world is given most of the space, and yet the spiritual element breaks forth in places with controlling power. For such and other reasons the poem is not easy to read. But it seems fair to say that before Dante's ‘Divina Commedia,’ no other poem of the Middle Ages has so much to say to the modern mind as Wolfram's ‘Parzival.’ Consult edition in ‘Deutsche National-Literatur’ (Vol. V, 1882-98); free, but excellent translation into Modern German with illuminating explanations and notes bv W. Hertz (5th ed., Stuttgart and Berlin 1911); English translation by Weston, Y. L. (1894); Vogt, F., ‘Geschichte der mittelhochdeutschen Literatur’ (2d ed., pages 37-41, Strassburg 1902); Golther, W., ‘Die deutsche Dichtung im Mittelalter’ (pp. 206-224 and 578, Stuttgart 1912).

Ewald Eiserhardt.