Consideration of Works Past: Parzifal


Parzival was written by Wolfram von Eschenbach right around 1200, plus or minus a decade. It was inspired by Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval. It’s the story of the knight Parzival (or Perceval) and his search for the grail. Troyes did not complete Perceval. von Exchenbach completed it for him but by creating a wholly separate work.

I came to Parzival by way of my father.

Dad was raised a Southern Baptist and it preyed on him most of his life. In the last decade or so he discovered Joseph Campbell. Campbell gave him the metaphorical tools to pull himself out from under his oppressive upbringing. Like any good evangelist, Dad taped the Campbell lectures (The Transformation of Myths Through Time) and sent them to me. I listened to them.

Joseph Campbell could really tell a story.

I was struck by the Arthurian knight romances. Ygraine and the Green Night. The stories of Gawain. Arthur pretty much left me cold. But it was the Parzival story that struck me between the eyes. I went out and read it. Read it again. It has had a strong effect on my work ever since.

This is an extremely compressed recounting of the story and leaves out all of Gawan’s part which comprises half the book:

Parzival is the son of a great night. Said great knight abandoned Parzival’s mother and in return Parzival’s mom decides that Parzival will never be a knight at all and retires to a country estate. Eventually, Parzival meets knights and goes to Camelot not as a knight but as a country buffoon. He leaves there and eventually ends up with a knight named Gurnemanz who teaches him all he knows. Parzival is such a wonderful student that when he makes ready to go out in the world Gurnemanz offers him his daughter. Parzival doesn’t take her. He decides that whatever love he gets will be earned.

He goes out in the world and meets and falls in love with Condwiramurs– her love is earned. They marry but shortly afterwards Parzival goes to seek word of his mother.

Parzival wanders a bit and eventually ends up at the castle of the Grail King– the king entrusted with the Holy Grail. The Grail King is terribly wounded and in terrific pain so that he could neither “sit nor stand nor lie.” Parzival is moved to ask him what ails him and offer condolence and compassion. But Gurnemanz had always told him not to ask questions. So he doesn’t. He wakes up in an abandoned castle and thinks it might have been dreams or spirits, not realizing he has failed the test and the adventure.

Parzival returns to court and in conversation it is revealed to him that he was to ask an unspecified question of the Grail King and that was the source of his failure. But this doesn’t deter him from making a name for him and becoming a candidate for the round table. He is at the height of his powers. Noble. Good. Married with children. He is possibly the strongest and most noble of the knights. Then a messenger from the Grail King comes to him and states he has no honor. Parzival is struck by this and leaves the round table.

He wanders the countryside doing good but alienated from God, his wife and his colleagues. Ultimately, he meets the hermit Trevrizent who guides him towards God and penitence. Parzival vows to complete the adventure he failed. Trevrizent doesn’t believe this can be done. It could be flying in the face of God to do so. Nevertheless, Parzival undertakes it. He has several adventures (along with Gawan’s wild ride.) and ultimately again encounters the Grail King, offering him compassion which cures the Grail King’s wound. Parzival is reunited with his wife and children and becomes the Grail King himself.

Parzival is an astonishingly modern story. It’s one of the few “coming of age” stories that deserves the term. A modern coming of age story might stop with marrying Condwiramurs. Or make the Grail King some sort of tyrant that is then overthrown by Parzival. I’m going out on a limb and term these “coming of manhood” or perhaps “coming of sexuality” stories. They are stories of people who clearly leave childhood behind but then they embrace a childhood fantasy fulfillment and call it adulthood. They stop short.

That’s when Parzival downshifts and really gets going.

It’s the difference between finding your destiny and finding your place. A person’s destiny is the goal shaped for him by fate, his bloodline, his genetics. A person’s place is where they choose to put themselves. I argue that Parzival’s destiny was to be the finest knight of the round table– which he abandoned. His place, where he decided to put himself with his wife and children, his job, was to be the Grail King.

So many “coming of age” stories involve revolution and war of some sort: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, etc. But these are wish fulfillment stories. It is the fervent hope of every child becoming an adult to change the world. For that matter it is the hope of us all. But every one of us must find our place in the world, by choosing the table where we sit, the job we perform, the people we love. Most of us will never change more than a small piece of the world but it should be our piece of the world to change. A piece we have chosen. Parzival did not win his place by war or cunning but by the inherent risk of kindness.

Parzival had a huge effect on my writing. It completely changed the nature of story I wanted to write and what stories I thought should be written. It’s the reason I think King Kong stops at exactly the wrong spot: Kong’s death. Kong should not die because in killing Kong we can declare him dead and discard him. But if Kong lives then we must confront him. He must change us and we must change him. I even wrote a story about that but of course it can’t be sold for copyright reasons.

Many stories in SF and fantasy are transformative. Something happens in the story that transforms the society. It could be a revolution, a war, etc. Many stories in SF and fantasy conform to the unacknowledged forms of coming of age stories. This isn’t just fiction. Many of the real life stories that underpin the media such as reality television, celebrity reporting, religious instruction and politics are forced into the same sort of transformative narrative. I don’t know if this reflects Calvinist America, Western European Culture or modern mass media. The child fulfillment metaphors surround us.

Which makes, in my opinion, the Parzival story so important. It is not about changing the whole world. It is about deciding on who you are, what you’re going to do and doing it in spite of its effects on the world. It’s about getting married, going out there and getting a job. It’s about doing good work when your heart’s not in it. It’s about being away from those you love because you have a hint that you’re doing the right thing but it’s far from certain. It’s about failing and not whining about it but going out there and try again.

Occasionally you see Parzival break through into modern stories. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy was offered the crown of England as his destiny in a battle against the damned. He refused the crown and took on the damned himself. It costs him his life.

It’s in the Star Wars movies. Not their execution– Lucas doesn’t have the nerve of a salamander. He knows the metaphor. He used it and then broke it.

But it still glows through like microwave background radiation. In The Empire Strikes Back Luke is forced to confront Vader and fails. Fails miserably. Fails and nearly takes the entire revolution with him. Fails with a wound that cannot be healed– the amputation of his hand. Yet he yearns to redeem his father who has so horribly injured him. Yearns enough to attempt it again in The Return of the Jedi even though it nearly kills him and does kill Vader. It is compassion that saves him and not strength of arms.

Then, of course, Lucas destroys it by adding Ewoks and showing everybody happy in Jedi Heaven. If I had been scripting the movie the Ewoks would have been cannon fodder to the last man and the final scene would have been Luke torching Vader’s body and saying good-bye. Jedi Heaven on the cutting room floor. No. Burned.

Parzival is a coming of adulthood story. It’s what we need. Sadly, it’s not what we usually get.




Consideration of Works Past: Parzifal — 8 Comments

  1. What I loved about reading Parzifal was the way that Wolfram brought his own knowledge of what chivalry and being a knight was into the story. I must admit though, that I never read it in verse form, just in a modern prose translation.

  2. I loved the Parzifal story, though I admit I did not see what you saw until I read your essay. Admittedly I haven’t reread it for a long time, and I was struggling to learn German when I read it (the old form on one page, and modern German on the other) but what charmed me was the little glimpses of medieval life. Wolfram was a great observer of real humans, and it shows in tiny details; when I traveled in Europe, it was memories of Wolfram that helped me imagine people busy in castles and old towns.

  3. What a wonderful discussion on what adult fiction should truly be about! A coming of age story is about breaking the bonds that tie you to childhood, but what a waste of a life if that is the only point where a person makes a serious re-evaluation and change.

    One place in your essay really caught my eye: “Parzival is moved to ask him what ails him and offer condolence and compassion. But Gurnemanz had always told him not to ask questions. So he doesn’t.” Teachers are vital and important, and Gurnemanz clearly was a good one. But being adult means making your own decisions — which, of course, we learn to do by making mistakes.

    That he then goes back and tries again is wonderful. How different from all those supposedly adult stories about people mired in regret who never do anything about it.

    You’ve inspired me so much this morning that I want to rethink everything I’ve ever written!

    • “That he then goes back and tries again is wonderful. How different from all those supposedly adult stories about people mired in regret who never do anything about it.”

      I just finished reading Goethe’s Faust: Part 2, because I detected it was a more mature story than the adolescent melodrama of Part 1. I thought Faust was a perpetual fool right to the end, but he kept driving forward. I’m the same damned fool. Perhaps we all are—so why is there such a dearth of stories like this?

      When I was in college, I imagined myself bursting out of my cocoon and becoming a butterfly. It took getting tossed out into the indifferent world to say, and then what? Most butterflies mate and die after spreading their wings. With so many butterfly stories on the market, you’d think life stopped after 30. Pfffffft! Mine’s just starting, thank you.

      The continuous struggle to find a place in the world, as an adult, is a constant theme in my life and work, so I’ve been hungry for inspiration. I’ve put Parzifal on my immediate reading list. Thank you, Steven.

  4. OMG, Steven! I am writing a story you must see! And now, aha, I see what the theme really is. It is about Gilgamesh, as fine an example of grown but not grown-up that you could ever imagine.

  5. Oh, yes.

    This is the one in which the Grail is not a cup but a stone — apparently an altar stone. (They had portable ones so that Mass could be celebrated wherever.)

  6. Not only did I write an entire short story inspired by Steven’s post here. But I sold it, and it is published! In the anthology HOW BEER SAVED THE WORLD, available in Kindle edition here:

    In which the epic hero Gilgamesh of Uruk drinks a beer in a bar and works through all the issues that Steven (and Parzival) deal with.

    So thank you, Steven, for scourging the wayward writer forward!

  7. This is beautiful. Thank you for linking me back to it. The whole arc, and how you describe it–his initial failure to act on his instinct for kindness, his not realizing that therefore he’s failed, and his decision, later, to make up for that failure even if it is flying in the face of God–very, very moving.