Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170 - c. 1217): Parzival

Portrait of Wolfram from the Codex Manesse (see note 2 below for
 more details)

Parzival was begun around 1198 and completed around 1210. It is a narrative poem of 24,810 lines in 16 books divided into 30-line sections made up of couplets, and it looks like this:

‘nû habet iuch an der witze kraft
und helt in alle ritterschaft.’
der site vuor angestlîche vart.
der knappe alsus geborgen wart
zer waste in Soltâne erzogen,
an küneclîcher vuore betrogen,
ez enmöhte an einem site sîn:
bogen unde bölzelîn
die sneit er mit sîn selbes hant
und schôz vil vogele die er vant.
swenne aber er den vogel erschôz,
des schal von sange ê was sô grôz,
sô weinde er unde roufte sich,
an sîn hâr kêrte er gerich.
sîn lîp was klâr unde fier:
ûf dem plân an dem rivier
twuoc er sich alle morgen.
er enkunde niht gesorgen,
ez enwære ob im der vogelsanc.
diu süeze in sîn herze dranc:
daz erstracte im sîniu brüstelîn.
al weinde er lief zer künegîn.
sô sprach si: ‘wer hât dir getân?
dû wære hin ûz ûf den plân.’
er enkunde ir gesagen niht,
als kinden lîhte noch geschiht.     (from Bk III, Sections 117-118)

‘Now use your wits and keep all knighthood from him.’ The custom travelled an anxious road. The boy thus hidden away was brought up in the forest clearing of Soltane, cheated of his royal heritage except on one count: with his own hands he whittled himself a bow and little arrows and shot many birds that he came upon. But whenever he shot the bird whose song was so loud before, he would weep and tear his hair – and his hair came in for grief. His body was fair and proud. Every morning he washed in the stream by the meadow. Of sorrow he knew nothing, unless it was the birdsong above him, for the sweetness of it pierced his heart and made his little bosom swell. Weeping he ran to the queen, and she said, “Who has hurt you? You were out on the meadow.” He could tell her nothing, as is still the way with children. (transl. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage, 1961)

[The meter is 4-stress. Most of the lines are basically like English tetrameters, but one line-type unknown to English is the one that ends in two syllables that are both stressed, though the last only secondarily – as above in the lines ending with mor´-gen` and sor´-gen` . The penultimate syllable must be long (presumably to delay the arrival of the final stress, an interesting metrical combination of quantity with accent). Editors of MHG texts use the circumflex symbol to indicate a long vowel.]

The earliest written account of the Percival story is Chrétien de Troyes’ Li contes del graal, which is his longest poem but was left unfinished, presumably at his death, some time around 1190. There are many unfinished narratives in the world but this one causes more anguish than most. Chrétien was undoubtedly drawing on Celtic oral tradition, but no writer other than Chrétien appears to have known how the story was meant to end, and perhaps the Percival legend had not achieved much fixity apart from certain key features, e.g. the hero’s naivety, his upbringing in isolation, his visit to the Grail castle and his failure when there to ask about the elephant in the room, i.e. the king's wound. 

Various French continuations appeared shortly after Chrétien’s death, but Wolfram doesn't seem to have known them – where similar situations arise these can be attributed to both authors drawing the same fairly obvious inferences from Chrétien’s fragment.

The tale of Peredur in the Welsh Mabinogion may draw on earlier tradition independent of Chrétien’s poem, but this is not certain. New material such as the surprising reference to windmills suggests a 13th century composition. Peredur’s ending is not very persuasive as independent testimony to some powerful Ur-legend, though it may restore the hero’s original name.

Wolfram tells us of his own supposed independent source, named Kyot. Reluctantly, this colourful person must be regarded as Wolfram’s invention. Wolfram’s creativity consisted not so much in adding new narrative as in a prolonged meditation on and enrichment of Chrétien’s work. Wolfram applies a much more elaborate and consistent setting. The Middle-Eastern (“heathen”) flavour of the account of Gahmuret in the first two books, and the eventual appearance of Feirefiz, his heathen son, towards the end, are Wolfram’s principal additions. In other respects he adds very little to Chrétien’s story, but he intensely re-imagines it in order to achieve a greater concentration and unity. Chrétien’s introduction of the Proud Castle with the besieged damsel – it is not followed up in the poem as we have it – is quietly omitted. Wolfram transforms Orgeluse into someone that Gawan can fall in love with and happily marry. This does not seem to have been Chrétien’s intention, and the authors of the French continuations (who perhaps were more aware of Gawain’s role within the wider context of the Arthurian corpus) did not opt for this approach. Where Chrétien calls Orgeluse evil-hearted, Wolfram calls her mighty.

Wolfram’s inventions make for social and psychological depth rather than narrative action. For example, he invents the maid Bene, daughter of the ferryman, and thus creates a situation in which Gawan could please himself with a lower-class girl. The scene is elaborated; everyone behaves well. The nature of Wolfram’s interests requires nothing else, and it is characteristic of the pellucid and measureless depths that he works with. The wonderful scenes of negotiation at Joflanze illustrate the same reluctance to create new and dramatic turns in the plot. This perhaps appears a weakness when Cundrie at length appears and makes the bald announcement that Parzival’s exile from the Grail is now to be resolved; it focuses the reader’s vague awareness that Parzival is something of an absentee-hero after Book VI. Wolfram patches together a more or less unified tale from Chrétien's fragment, which after astonishing us with the unprecedented bildungsroman about the ignorant Perceval in the first half, then seems to loiter inconsequently in its Gawain adventures until it breaks off - though Chrétien had forewarned us that he intended to speak for a long time about Gawain before returning to Perceval.

I don't intend a criticism, but I do intend an observation, in claiming that Wolfram's battery of rhetorical devices is very adroit at papering over the defects of his fragmentary source. For example, Chrétien's brief switch back  to Perceval when recounting the Good Friday advice of the hermit is very abrupt compared to Wolfram's Book IX.

Or consider the episode with the Bed of Marvels (Bk XI). Chrétien's description of the setting is intriguing. He invents such amazing things as castors for the bed, as well as glass so clear that you can see what is going on inside. But when it comes to the actual trials, they are disappointingly  brief: a shower of darts followed by a lion. The bed-castors in Chrétien are only decorative, but Wolfram turns them into part of the adventure; the bed whizzes about, the floor is like an ice-rink. He adds in a shower of stones, and expands the other trials. When the excitement is over, Gawain is seriously wounded. Yet though Wolfram has a far better sense of proportion and of how to create a world in which meaning can develop, you miss some of Chrétien's occasionally bald clarity. For example,  when Anguingeron pleads with Perceval for his life, he comes up with quite a poweful argument:

"My good friend, don't be so haughty as to refuse me mercy. I assure you and concede that you have got the better of me and are an excellent knight, but not so good that a man who hadn't seen us fight it out, but who knew the two of us, would ever believe that you alone could have slain me in single combat. But if I bear witness that you defeated me in arms in front of all my men outside my own tent, my word will be believed and your fame will be reckoned to be greater than any knight's ever..."

In Wolfram's poem, this passage seems to be vaguely referred to in Kingrun's "God has bestowed much honour on you, and if people say that your strength has prevailed over me and that you have conquered me, you have had your success"  - and again, when Clamidê pleads: "Oh no! noble knight and brave! By me your honor will be increased thirtyfold." But in Wolfram the point of the original argument is never reached.

Reading these passages, I feel like speculating that, whatever may be the truth about Wolfram's literacy (he claims to be illiterate), this seems like the way Wolfram might develop a retelling of a story he had originally heard. He had indeed listened with deep attention, but afterwards he had made the story his own; intending to follow it faithfully, he was nevertheless extremely free and inventive in his rendering - exactly because, when he made his own poem, he didn't have Chrétien's text to hand. He was working from memories.


Wolfram took immense care over working out the family relationships, geography and time-scheme of his story. The upshot is that Parzival creates its own, self-consistent world, but feels quite distinct from the vast Arthurian narrative edifice, the work of many hands, that arose from Chrétien’s foundations in France.  


Onto the flat plain by the landing place rode the great retinue. The Queen’s squires chose a camp site suitable for the ladies by a clear, fast-running brook, and soon one saw many beautiful tents set up there. Further off many a great circle of tents was prepared for the King and the knights who had come with him. They had indeed left behind them on their ride a broad trail of hoof prints. (Bk XIII, 663)

The structuring of Wolfram’s topography is obviously connected with its foregrounding of the knightly social class. Thus the lands of the poem contain remote castles of fabulous wealth, meadows, rivers and forests, but where is the agriculture? Where does all this wealth come from? Wolfram’s theory of production (this is an exaggeration, but you know where I’m coming from) amounts to no more than the staggeringly generous gifts that Gawan or Parzival dispense to all and sundry, and that they in turn received from a kingly or fair hand or won through adventure. Realism is obviously not the point here, but medieval romances do, as it were without intention, contain much that was in fact realistic and is now an unselfconscious witness to their times. Thus in the passage above, the importance of a stream with a rapid current to eliminate mud (the water for those fabulous banquets could come from nowhere else), the segregation of King’s and Queen’s retinues, and the critical visual statement made by a trail of hoofprints, a topographic feature as central to the medieval eye as tarmac is to ours.   

Because of the gifts and the way that objects change hands through adventure and tourney, noble possessions often do not originate within their own lands. Thus the sword given by Anfortas to Parzival in fact has an unexpected association with Karnant, as Sigune explains to us (V, 254). Nothing else in Parzival suggests any link between Lac’s kingdom and the Grail kingdom. Compare the description of Duke Orilus’ arms, armour and horse at V, 261; they come from all over the place.

Thus the life of the ruler in Parzival is radically mobile. His possessions come from many different places, and he himself may make temporary court in many different places. Return to his “own” castle or lands may be infrequent. The dedication to a quest that prevents this (e.g. Parzival in nearly five years never visiting his wife at Pelrapeire) is a romance formalization of the kind of travelling lifestyle that rulers such as Richard Coeur-de-Lion favoured.   

What we automatically do, when we learn about the Grail sword’s association with Karnant, is try to respond to this information as if we were reading a more modern kind of romance in which the mystic and atmospheric connotations of places are evoked.  In order to delight in such atmospheres, we need to have a conception of place as something exotic and fathomlessly individual, a conception that grew from Shakespeare through Scott and onwards, achieving its heyday in Stevenson, Buchan, Conrad, the movies, the heritage industry and today’s brochures about foreign travel; a nationalistic conception. Tolkien, T.H. White, and others have imported this nationalistic idea into works that in some other respects look like medieval romances –  for example Tolkien’s locations (the Shire, Rohan, Lorien) are atmospheric, thus a Lorien dagger bears with it a refreshing and mystical breath of its home, even in the sickly surroundings of the Dead Marshes.  

Wolfram’s geography doesn’t have (or wasn't intended to have) this play of atmospheres. The sword’s history is not intended to provoke the deep suggestion that a Grail atmosphere hangs over Karnant. 


National boundaries and passports did not exist. A “land” still really meant a cultivated area like an island within a larger wilderness. When Parzival is described as being in a forest, this means he is not in any land, but between lands. Thus the question of whether, e.g. Brobarz borders Britain, or Logrois borders Klinschor’s land, really makes no sense.

Wolfram’s geography is consistent but you cannot draw maps of it. In fact there were no maps of that sort in Wolfram’s time; his poem predates a world of scale drawings (it began with the Portuguese charts), just as it predates a world in which Arabic numerals allowed calculation. As a matter of fact I do have such a map in my head, but this must be set down as the kind of anachronism that a reader necessarily imports to fill up imaginative vacuums, like my visualization of the armour and the tapestries, or the Hollywood fanfares that the trumpets seem to sound while I’m reading. (In my map the wilderness of Soltane is towards the top left and the city of Rosche Sabins is in the bottom right, so I suppose it reflects a reading sequence.)

Besides, Wolfram wanted to save the appearances of what he found in his sources; at some level he thought of his story’s locations as real. Therefore the city of Pelrapeire in Brobarz (Bk IV) is described as being by the sea, because the story contains ships which bring food to the besieged city. Wolfram knows (because the story tells him) that you can travel between Britain and Brobarz, but he does not know how far or in what direction. Hence Wolfram’s romance, being like most medieval romances overlaid on other sources, tends to contain a lot of sentences like “In the evening he came to a land called etc.”; the sort of vague geography that the latest author understands must have been roughly true.

In one respect this vague geography has a usefulness. Parzival spends several years on his Grail quest before eventually being invited back to Munsalvaesche (the Grail castle), but it is axiomatic that until he is invited he cannot ever seek it. Sigune tells us you can only find it by chance. The land of the Grail, Terre de Salvaesche, is a waste land for thirty miles around. Despite this, it does not seem to take Orilus long (in Bk V) to travel from Trevrizent’s cave to his own camp and from there it is only a mile to the banks of the Plimizoel, where Arthur is encamped. Our own map-making minds would soon have that mysterious Grail kingdom pinned down. 

Mustard and Passage in the Introduction to their very excellent translation oddly conflate two completely separate locations where Arthur makes camp; the banks of the Plimizoel in Books V-VI and the plain of Joflanze in XII-XVI. The former location is recognized by Arthur himself as drawing dangerously close to the sphere of the Grail. The latter location is close to Rosche Sabins and the Castle of Wonders, and Arthur has to pass through Logrois to get to it. It does indeed have rivers nearby, but they are the Sabins and the Poynzaclins, not the Plimizoel. It is in fact a significant feature of Parzival that sections of the poem tend to be organized around a principal location (e.g. Bk IV, Pelrapeire, or Bk VIII, Ascalun) and once these places have been left behind we never go back to them. The exceptions of course are the land of the Grail, e.g. Munsalvaesche, the one place you can’t go to deliberately (Bk V, XVI), and Trevrizent’s hermitage, central location of Bk IX but previously glimpsed as the location of Parzival’s oath to Orilus in Bk V. Wolfram uses the non-repeating sequence of locations as a way of organizing the past. At Joflanze, for example, he makes frequent references to the earlier scene at the Plimizoel. Thus the places are memory-stations for an audience who are listening to a recitation. *See note 1            


The Middle Ages, that civilization so energetic with what now seems misdirected intelligence, left behind astonishing and still unmatchable monuments. When we stand before a cathedral our main sense is of how impossible it would be to get back to the mental or spiritual state in which such a powerhouse could be conceived and executed. Reading Wolfram, Chaucer, or the Gawain-Poet, one is bound to have the same feeling about the medieval cultivation of courtly manners. These authors leave a testimony to a civilization that we cannot now attain, for medieval manners (at any rate the medieval ideal of manners) seems many degrees subtler than anything we have seen since. Reading these books, we feel cloddish and provincial.

In Wolfram’s poem it is clear that the incredible elaboration of courtesy and points of honour exists as a counterpoise to a degree of personal aristocratic power that settled governments and legal apparatus would later make obsolete. It’s just because Gawan and his peers could, if they wished, rape and murder their way around the lands that courtesy becomes so critical. But Wolfram does not present the behaviour of his heroes as a tight-lipped battle against temptation. Instead, he posits a high but irresistible force of Love that, on the contrary, a noble (wert) man ought not to resist (wern). 


Note 1. Contrast Chrétien's Knight with the Lion, which returns several times to the spring and its lady's castle, or the Knight with the Cart, with its returns to Bademagu's tower.

Note 2. The Codex Manesse is a minnesinger anthology produced in Zurich, mostly by 1304 but with addenda up to 1340. It's an exceptional MS both for its comprehensive corpus of poetry and for the wonderfully inventive illustrations of 135-ish named poets.  This being the Middle Ages, the MS is arranged in descending order of social status (like the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales), so it begins with the Emperor Henry VI  and a couple of other poetically-inclined kings, then goes down through the senior nobility (Heinrich von Veldeke at #16), minor nobility (Walther von der Vogelweide #45, Wolfram #47, Hartmann #60), then to mere Meisters and other commoners (Gottfried von Strassburg , #124).  Wolfram is the tall figure in full armour, his face concealed (like his horse). So the only face you can see belongs to Wolfram's squire; and the artist underlines that paradox by placing the squire dead centre, which in most though not all of the other portraits is where you'd look to find the poet. The dramatic device of double axes on a red background is an invention. 

(2005, 2013)



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