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Literature / Parzival

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This was a thing which was called the Grail, Earth's perfection's transcendence.
Book V

Parzival is a narrative romance in Middle High German by Wolfram von Eschenbach.

It details the exploits of Parzival (Percival), knight of the Round Table, in his search for the Holy Grail. Divided into sixteen 'books' written in long verses of rhyming couplets, the first two portray the (bigamous) exploits of Parzival's father, then the next three show Parzival's career as a young and inexperienced knight, culminating in his stay at the mysterious castle of the Grail, with its tormented king. On failing to ask the question which would end the king's suffering, Parzival finds himself cast out in shame, and spends the remainder of the poem attempting to find the castle again in order to ask the right question.

The latter half of the poem is interspersed with episodes following Gawan (Gawain) in his efforts to disprove an accusation of murder, and then get married, with the last books uniting the two plots.

The story is considerably embellished by the idiosyncratic style of Wolfram himself, prone to digressions, comments on his society (and his love life), as well as sarcastic attacks on his readers and other authors.

Dating from the first decades of the thirteenth century, it took its inspiration from the unfinished twelfth-century French romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes, which was the first work about a quest for the Grail. Both works drew on the idealised presentation of King Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, and it is Geoffrey's vision of courtly life that forms the background for Wolfram's Parzival, although Wolfram probably only knew it via Chrétien.

Parzival was the equivalent of a best-seller in its age: no other 13th-century literary work was copied or quoted as often. Although some of the more educated authors of the time, e. g. Gottfried von Straßburg, the writer of the Middle High German Tristan and Iseult, looked down on the "wild tale" (wilde maere), it was one of the main reasons why in the middle ages it was said of Wolfram: "layen mund nye pas gesprach" (the mouth of no lay person ever spoke better).

Parzival proved very influential in the presentation of the Grail Legend, as well as being the touchstone for the German understanding of Arthurian Legend. Richard Wagner's last opera, Parsifal, was based on this, while his earlier opera Lohengrin was written around a "sequel" to the poem (Lohengrin is Parzival's son).

Parzival provides examples of:

  • Always Someone Better: For Parzival this is his elder brother Feirefiz.
  • Anachronism Stew: Mediaeval writers generally had a very loose sense of historical accuracy, and Wolfram was no different, including both the worship of Roman gods and the courtly standards of his own time in a story set roughly halfway between both time periods. The illuminations to the various manuscripts continue this, with the characters depicted in contemporary dress.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: Herzeleide arranged a tourney, where the winner would be rewarded with her hand. On the eve of the tourney, the participants had a warm-up battle, where Gahmuret - who wasn't even going to participate in the actual tourney - dominated so completely that Herzeleide decided to skip the tourney and just marry Gahmuret. He objected, because he was already married and wouldn't have wanted to stay with Herzeleide anyway, but she got judges to rule that he had to.
  • Anti-Climax: Gawan's both much hyped duels end up being settled without a fight. In one case, it turns out that the reason for the challenge - Gawan allegedly having killed king Kingrisin - wasn't even true.
  • Author Appeal: The ubiquity of extragant costumes and big fancy castles is easy to understand when you take note of the parts where Wolfram laments his own poverty. It becomes especially clear in the chapter on Gahmuret and Herzeleide's wedding, where it's mentioned that even poor minnesingers were given precious gifts.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Obie and Meljanz. So belligerent, it caused a war.
  • Book Dumb: From the author, who claims not to know "a letter of the alphabet".
  • Canon Welding: With Parzival, Wolfram linked the story of Percival with that of the Swan Knight (by identifying the latter as Parzival's son) and with the legend of Prester John, who according to Wolfram is descended from Parzival's brother Feirefiz.
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: Obie's child sister Obilot convinces Gawan to aid Obie against her rejected suitor King Meljanz. After Gawan captures Meljanz, he leaves him in Obilot's care so she can reconcile him with her sister.
  • Clear My Name: Gawan's motivation; he wants to disprove an accusation of murder.
  • Converting for Love: Discussed in Belakane's case, later done by her son Feirefiz. This is the only reason that anyone is seen converting.
  • Cool Horse: Gringuljete, the Grail Knights' horse, is able to run all day.
  • Damsel in Distress: Taken up to Eleven with Gawan, who has to liberate several hundreds of ladies imprisoned by the wizard Klingsor in his castle.
  • Deuteragonist: Gawan, who is the subject of most of the middle third of the poem.
  • Direct Line to the Author: Wolfram by and large follows the narrative Chrétien de Troyes' unfinished Perceval li Gallois, but to justify where he deviates from it he claims that Chrétien got important details wrong. How does he know? Because he got the true account. This was written down by the wise Moorish astrologer Flegetanis, the son of an Arabian father and a Jewish mother, who read it from the stars. Flegetanis' work was translated from Arabic into Latin in Toledo and made its way to France, where it was translated into Provencal by the writer Kyot or Guiot. This led not a few scholars to set off in search of Wolfram's alleged source, the book of Guiot, so far without success.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Most scholars agree that the idealized community of Grail Knights and Maidens is modeled on and may be seen as recruitment propaganda for The Knights Templar.
  • Driving Question: In this case, the question is "What is the question?" "What ails you?" (the question that will heal the Grail King)
  • Duel to the Death: Many encounters Parzival or Gawan have with another knight end in this.
  • Everyone Is Related: Everyone in Parzival's story turns out to be a relative of his.
  • Exposition: Parzival's meeting with the hermit, which takes up most of a book.
  • Favors For The Adorable: Obilot is able to wrap Gawan around her little finger, where her (presumably less cute) father failed to move him. Gawan remarks that when she and her friend Clauditte are grown up, they are going to destroy entire forests (because of all the knights breaking lances for their sake).
  • Fiction 500: In a story full of absurd wealth, Feirefiz still manages to impress everyone by sprinkling around extravagant gifts.
  • Gratuitous French: Wolfram liked to use French vocabulary, even if he apparently only knew it by ear (e. g. Parzival comes from the house of Anschouwe, i. e. Anjou). He is sometimes called the medieval German poet who brought more French words into the German language than any other.
  • Healing Hands: Gawan is not just a great fighter, he is also a skilled healer.
  • The Hermit: Trevrizent, the retired knight.
  • Heroic BSoD: On being separated from his wife for years in his search for the Grail, the sight of three drops of blood which form a resemblance to her causes Parzival to become immobile. But not so badly that he can't defeat any knight that tries to take advantage of him, before going right back to rigid silence.
  • Hero of Another Story: Wolfram linked the already existing but originally completely unrelated stories of Percival and the Swan Knight by identifying the latter as Parzival's son Loherangrin.
  • Holy Grail: A Trope Codifier.
  • Improvised Weapon: Gawan is attacked by a bunch of armed knights when he was a guest and had given away his weapon. He grabs an oversized chessboard and starts whacking his attackers with it, and his host Antikonie does her best to uphold Sacred Hospitality and protect her guest by throwing chess pieces at the attackers.
  • Inconsistent Spelling: All the main heroes of the Matter of Britain. Parzival, Gawan, Artus, Lanzelot...
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Parzival believes himself to be this, but over time he comes to realise his sins, and then repent them.
  • The Lady's Favour: Obilot wants to give one to Gawan... which causes her a minor crisis as she does not own anything except dolls. Her mom quickly sews her a new dress with a detachable sleeve, so she can give that to her chosen knight.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Parzival's Moorish half-brother Feirefiz.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Parzival's white, Christian father Gahmuret and his black, pagan first wife Belacane, mother of Feirefis. Christian clerics encourage Gahmuret to marry Herzeloyde (a white Christian) without bothering about an annulment or divorce.
  • Meaningful Name: Quite a few, even if it is not always easy to see as they usually take the form of Old French names phonetically spelled by a speaker of Middle High German. For instance, the Grail Castle is called Munsalvaesche, which would correspond to Modern French Mont Sauvage (wild mountain).
  • The Mentor: First Gurnemanz, who teaches Parzival the knightly ethos and courtly manners (and unfortunately tells him it is rude to ask unnecessary questions), then Trevrizent, who instructs Parzival in the deeper Christian ethics.
  • My Beloved Smother: Herzeloyde raises Parzival alone in a forest and does everything she can so that the fate of his father (Gahmuret was killed in battle) does not befall him, even dressing him up in a fool's costume as he sets out into the world.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In one conversation, Parzival discovers that he has killed a relative, was responsible for the death of his mother (by leaving to become a knight), and had been unworthy to find the Grail.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: Employed a couple of times, perhaps most notably when Gahmuret sails away from Zazamank and just so happens to meet Fridebrant's ship in the middle of sea. This may sound like a huge coincidence, Wolfram admits, but it's what the Story tells, and he was told it was true.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Parzival, spurred by what his mother told him a knight should do, innocently takes tokens of her favour from Jeschute. When her husband Orilus arrives once Parzival has gone, he believes that she has been unfaithful to him. This is definitely not Played for Laughs.
  • One-Steve Limit: Not broken, but definitely stretched. Which one was Meljanz and which was Meljakanz, again? Kingrisin and Kingrimursel?
  • Passing the Torch: Parzival becomes the new Grail King.
  • Plot Tumor: Some look on much of the Gawan-centric chapters as this, but the Gawan plot actually serves an important purpose: The protagonist and deuteragonist epitomize two different models of chivalry, Gawan as the perfect knight in the traditional Arthurian mold, while Parzival aspires to and ultimately reaches the higher ideal of a Christian Knight of the Grail.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Gahmuret admits that if Belakane had converted to Christianity, he could probably have resisted his wanderlust and stayed with her. Unfortunately, it didn't occur to him to just ask - she would have been all right with that.
  • Precocious Crush: Obilot develops one on Gawan, who tells her that she would need to be at least five years older before he'd accept any sweet loving from her.
  • Prequel: Wolfram's final, unfinished poem — which scholars entitled Titurel after the first name mentioned in it — elaborates on the story of Parzival's cousin Sigune and her lover Schionatulander. In Parzival Sigune is first seen grieving over Schionatulander after he was killed in a joust.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Most antagonists in the book have the chance to do a Heel–Face Turn, or get a happy ending, or at least be treated with some sympathy from the narrator, but those who have raped someone are irredeemable and deserve only death - as mentioned by a squire discussing a knight in king Meljanz's army, and shown in more detail when Gawan saves Urian's life and it comes back to bite him in the ass.
  • Red Is Heroic: Parzival, early on, is known as the Red Knight, on account of his armour. Subverted in that the armour originally belonged to Ither, a relative of his, whom he unwittingly killed in a way that was not exactly considered worthy of a knight. So the red armour turns into a mark of shame.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Gahmuret's two sons are this to his two widows. Wolfram in particular describes Belacane kissing the white parts of baby Feirefiz's piebald skin because they reminded her of his father.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: Sir Kay tends to be a bit of a Jerkass and Butt-Monkey in Arthurian Romance, but when he portrays Kay getting into a fight with Parzival (and losing, of course), Wolfram notes that in his distrust of strangers coming to Arthur's court and his rudeness to them he actually fulfilled a valuable function. If only, Wolfram says, his own benefactor landgrave Hermann of Thuringia had a Kay at his court it would not be so overrun with spongers!
  • Trope Codifier: Both for the Grail Legend and, particularly in the German-speaking world, Arthurian Legend.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Urian. Gawan saves his life twice. His thanks? Stealing Gawan's horse.
  • Visible to Believers: When Parzival and his pagan half-brother Feirefiz enter the Grail Castle, it turns out Feirefiz cannot see the Holy Grail because he is not a Christian. As soon as Feirefiz has renounced Jupiter and let himself be baptized, he can see the Grail.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Gender-flipped and used with unusual precision. The world's most beautiful men are Parzival, Gawan, and Parzival's father's cousin Kailet, in this order. Which means that Kailet was the fairest of them all before Parzival and Gawan were born. Just so you know.
  • Worthy Opponent: Kingrimursel treats Gawan this way. He wanted to fight a fair duel against Gawan, and when Gawan is instead attacked while he's unarmed, Kingrimursel sides with him to repel the attackers.