Last night I finished reading Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which was written around 800 years ago. The oldest thing I’ve read, I’m pretty certain. The University of Cambridge was founded at the same time, which perhaps enhanced my sense of historical perspective.
I was reading it to satisfy a curiosity about the origins of Wagner’s opera Parsifal, which I’m going to see in London tomorrow. This text was one of his chief sources, though the events chronicled in Wagner’s opera form, as I had expected, only a very minor part of the book as a whole, and there are several things in the opera that do not occur in Eschenbach – Parsifal never kills a swan, he never meets Klingsor in person, Kundry doesn’t die. But the skeleton of the story – Parsifal is taken under the wing of Gurnemanz and taught how to be a knight, he searches for the Grail and succeeds in healing the wounded Amfortas, who has been ‘pierced through his genitals’ (ouch) – is there. Perhaps other aspects of Wagner’s plot occur in Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes, which was the basis of Eschenbach’s text.
I’ve used Wagner’s spellings so far, but will now revert to the ones I’ve been reading for the past two weeks, from Cyril Edwards’ recent (2004) translation. He notes at the start that his translation is less compromising than the previous ones in its representation of Eschenbach’s idiosyncratic, sometimes capricious style of writing, and I admit I found it pretty heavy going at times, though more for the saminess of the action – joust after joust after joust – than for any other reason. Fortunately the Oxford World’s Classics edition has an excellent introduction by Richard Barber that acts as an ideal primer for reading Grail literature, and this text in particular.
The narrative is shared fairly equally between Parzival and Gawan, both of noble stock – Parzival is descended from Gahmuret of Anjou, and Gawan is the nephew of King Arthur. The first two books (of sixteen) are devoted to Gahmuret’s adventures, and once Parzival is born the focus switches to his discovery of his heritage, his coming of age and his eventual heroism.
There are a number of things that take getting used to – a certain lack of variety in the plot, the universally observed rules of the chivalric code (honesty, bravery, nobility, the avenging of ills, etc., which most of us probably have an idea of), the frequency of outrageous coincidences (Parzival and Gawan are forever meeting people who turn out to be their aunt, uncle, brother or sister without apparently having had any awareness of their existence beforehand), the endless stream of characters. Eschenbach names several hundred people, and I was forever turning to the glossary of names and the genealogical table helpfully provided at the back. I’m not sure I’d have coped without it.
There is a straightforward artlessness about Eschenbach’s manner of storytelling that perhaps recalls other early texts – I thought of the Chester Mystery Plays – and which I found very moving in places. In one respect Eschenbach represents himself simply as a chronicler of events; in another he is a poet, and his descriptions become all the more poignant for being related in a matter-of-fact style. This excerpt from Book VI shows Parzival recalling the wife he has left behind him:
His falconers had ridden that evening from Karidœl to the Plimizœl, intent on hunting, but there they met with harm. They lost their best falcon — it hastened away from them and stood that night in the forest. It was overcropping that made it hasten away from the lure.
That night the falcon stood close by Parzival, both of them unacquainted with the forest and both feeling the frost hard there. When Parzival saw day appear, his path’s track was snowed over. Through much unpathed land he rode, over fallen tree-trunks and many a rock. The day, as it lengthened, shone ever higher, and the forest began to thin out, although there was one tree-trunk which had been felled upon a meadow. Towards that he slowly made his way, Arthur’s falcon keeping pace with him all the time. There a good thousand geese lay. A great gaggling arose. With a charge it flew in amongst them, the falcon, striking one of them such a blow that it only escaped by the skin of its teeth, under the fallen tree-trunk’s branch. Pain had put paid to its high flight. From its wounds, down onto the snow, fell three red tears of blood, which caused Parzival distress.
It was his loyalty brought this about. When he saw the drops of blood on the snow — which was entirely white — he thought: ‘Who has turned his skill to these bright colours? Condwiramurs, truly, these colours resemble you! God desires to enrich me with blessings, since I have found your likeness here. Blessed be God’s hand and all His creation! Condwiramurs, here lies your semblance, since the snow has offered whiteness to the blood, and that makes the snow so red. Condwiramurs, your bêâ curs resembles this — that you can’t deny!’
The warrior’s eyes matched — so it came to pass there — two drops with her cheeks, the third with her chin. It was true love he felt for her, entirely without deviation. He so immersed himself in these thoughts that he halted there, unconscious. Mighty love held sway over him there, his wife causing him such distress. These colours bore a likeness to the Queen of Pelrapeire’s person — she it was who plucked his wits from him.
Parzival remains in a love-induced trance while three separate knights assail him. Miraculously, he survives the experience.
Eschenbach is also a good-humoured and cheeky narrator. The episode where Gawan encounters a bed with a mind of its own (a depiction of which adorns the cover of the Oxford edition) is a highlight, as is the unflattering description of Cundrie’s physical appearance:
A plait crossed the hat and dangled down from her, as far as the mule. It was so long, and black, tough, none too lustrous, soft as a pig’s back-hair. She was nosed like a dog. Two boar’s teeth stuck out from her mouth, a good span in length. Each eyebrow thrust, plaited, past her hair-band. My courtesy has trespassed in the interests of truth, having to say such things of a lady! No other lady can complain of me on that count!
Cundrie had ears like a bear’s, no match for a suitor’s love’s desire. Her countenance was hairy, as all acknowledged. She carried a whip in her hand whose thongs were of silk, and whose stock was a ruby. This comely sweetheart had hands the colour of an ape’s skin. Her nails were none too bright, for the adventure tells me they stuck out like a lion’s claws. Seldom was a joust delivered for her love.
Like Shakespeare’s Caliban, Cundrie possesses some of the most richly evocative and exciting dialogue in the work, not least in the passage where she catalogues the planets in Arabic.
Anyone who knows anything about Wagner knows he was a bit of a raving antisemite. That’s more obvious in his writings than in his music, but if there is one opera above others that is tarred with that brush it may be Parsifal. There’s nothing explicitly antisemitic in its libretto, but the villainous character of Klingsor has historically been portrayed as a negative Jewish stereotype, and the theme of Parsifal’s blood purity, viewed from our post-WW2 perspective, can leave a bitter taste.
Bearing this in mind, it is refreshing to note the relative absence of such prejudices in Eschenbach’s text. The most interesting and enigmatic character in the whole story I found to be Parzival’s half-brother, Feirefiz. On account of his mother’s being a Moor, he is born with mottled black and white skin, and is occasionally compared to a magpie. Despite his unorthodox outward appearance and his being heathen rather than Christian, he is treated respectfully and without prejudice by others, possesses a powerful appeal to women, and is considered noble and brave. It is not until the very end of the book, where Parzival’s infant son Loherangrin is scared by the first sight of his uncle, that we see any negative reaction to Feirefiz. It may be galling to modern sensibilities that Feirefiz should be blind to the Grail until he has been baptised; but the extent to which such a man is not remotely demonised by Eschenbach – as one presumes he would have been by other authors – is pleasing.
Whether having read the book will affect my appreciation of the opera, I don’t know. I doubt it. But I have a feeling of preparedness that I never had when going into exams.