Summer Reading Reviews, Part 3:
Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival, with Titurel and the Love-Lyrics. Cyril Edwards, tr. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004. Pp. xxxiii, 329. 1 chart, 7 illustrations. £50.00.

God bless Wolfram von Eschenbach for being so weird. I'll talk about his particular Saracen-weirdness in a minute (and see previous post for my justification of the word "Saracen"), but for now let me say that this is by far one of the most readable and entertaining romances I've ever come across. Like Chretien before him, he's obsessed with details: how people look, what they're dressed in, how their horses look, what their horses are dressed in, the color of the damn grass even—it's all there. To give you one example, Gahmuret, Parzival's father, constantly looks like a million marks, kitted out in ermine and those damn anchors. Nor is clothing Wolfram's only poetic vice, as he is fond of multilingual puns, strange phrasing like "God was in a sweet mood for breeding when he wrought Parzival" (48), and one of my favorite episodes ever, the fight between Gawan and. . . a lion:

er hetem den schilt nâch genomn:
sîn êrster grif was alsô komn,
durch den schilt mit al den klân.
von tiere ist selten ê getân
sîn grif durch solhe herte.
Gâwân sich zuckes werte:
ein bein hin ab er im swanc.
der lewe ûf drîen füezen spranc:
Ime schilde beleip der vierde fuoz. (f. 571-2)

The lion had almost succeeded in taking the shield from him. Its first lunge had gone through the shield, along with all its claws. Seldom before has a beast clawed with such force! Gawan prevented it from snatching his shield. He hewed one leg off it! The lion leapt about on three feet, the fourth foot stuck in the shield.

See what I mean? I can only imagine Gawan yelling "getitoffgetitoffgetitoff!" while flailing wildly at it with the sword. It's not heroic, but I grew up with Monty Python.[1]

You can also see here how readable Cyril Edwards' translation is. It's modern, but it retains Wolfram's diction pretty well. The Boydell and Brewer edition is, as one might expect from that publishing arm, a fine one indeed. The introduction is focused but explanatory, and seems aimed for the general educated reader—exactly the sort of person who might have need of the book in the first place. Edwards includes many footnotes—a convenience often overlooked or, as in the Oxford edition of the same translation, relegated to far-less-accessible footnotes—and while it seems in places a few more might be useful, one sees why they might have been life out. The critical material, including a short explication of the illustrations in the Munich manuscript, is also well done. The only downside I see is that common to many of Boydell and Brewers' editions: a lack of a bibliography, with the result that one has to comb footnotes to find a citation.

Saracen Decorations

Save for Gahmuret's episode in the holy land/Outremer/Over There, the Orient shows up mostly as "Saracenerie," moveable goods from the luxurious East, and the standard furs, gems, and silk. It's everywhere in Parzival, from the one-off ruby to the ever-present Syrian silk to the gold braidwork on the Fisher-king's robes. "Arab," "Moor," "Saracen": these are just color-words for Wolfram—pun slightly intended, for while he primarily uses them as one-off references or flavorful adjectives attached to consumer goods (Moorish horses, Arabian silk, etc), he does of course "color" the Moors/Arabs black. Yet unlike many of his fellow epic-romance writers, Wolfram spends little time attributing to that color any significance other than wonder: the Moors are black, so it seems, because the spectacle of a literally half-black, half-white half brother for Parzival is just too good to pass up. One gets the impression that they do not function as allegorically for Wolfram as they do for, say, "Turold" or the compositor of El Cid, in part because when Wolfram wishes to be allegorically nasty, he is.

Witness the sorceress Cundrie (100 ffl), whose monstrosity is evident from the start. She is marked as other both physically, through the use of animal-derived signifiers such as bristles and tusks, and mentally, though her learning. For, as Wolfram tells us, "she spoke all languages well: Latin, heathen and French. She had a cultivated mind, encompassing dialectic and geometry: known to her, too, were the skills of astronomy" (100). This catalog seems to be as monstrous an indicator as her tusks, yet it is less so because of what she knows than the fact that she knows it at all. However, I know less than nothing about the expectations of women's education in medieval Germany, much less the education of sorceresses, and so can't be sure to what degree such erudition is normal for Wolfram's audience. I suspect it isn't quite normal, because Wolfram takes the time to single it out. The point is: some things in Wolfram might be monstrous, but Saracens aren't, and that alone makes him interesting.

Cundrie is not alone: she and her brother Malcreature [2] were sent to the Fisher-king by Queen Secundille, wife of Feirefiz, Parzival's half-brother and ruler of all of Tribalibot (aka India). This gift is interesting, because it sets up a reciprocal relationship between heathenesse and the Grail: the Fisher-king sends gifts to her in response, and both are pleased. But this makes little sense, for as we are told later, no pagan can see the Grail or, presumably, use it to gain its riches. Of what use is the pagan connection to the holiest of Christian relics?

The Saracens have interesting connections to the entire legend. Wolfram, admitting to his audience that Chretien's narrative is defective, invents a bard named Kyot, who "found in Toledo, lying neglected, in heathen script, this adventure's fundament. The a b c of those characters he must have learned before hand, without the art of necromancy" (145). As Cervantes would do some four centuries later, Wolfram imagines the Orient as a place of secret knowledge as well. In the latter's case, however, the knowledge isn't just a story, but the "Truth" of Christianity, written down in "heathen script," which can presumably be read by "heathens." The knowledge they possess is, like possessing the Grail itself, useless to them. One suspects that beneath his relatively benevolent position, Wolfram is suggesting that the heathens are sinister, keeping truth from not only themselves but all of Christendom as well, just for spite.

Or perhaps it is this: we are told many times that no-one can take the Grail by force, but must be summoned to it (250). Yet the Grail calls to Christian and heathen alike, and does not distinguish. Wolfram's portrait of Christianity is nicely universalizing, even if disturbing in its treatment of the heathen, who is all too willing to let go of "Jupiter and Juno" in the face of Christian "truth." [3] We may praise Wolfram for letting the Saracens off so easily, but we should remember that his is the most distorted view of Islam yet (of the three I've read, that is): unlike the Spanish Saracens in Roland, Parzival's pagans don't even name-drop Mohammed. Again, Wolfram understands the Orient as a source of wealth and the location of earthly paradise, but he displays even less knowledge of the east than John Mandeville.
[1] Which reminds me, while we're on the subject of Python and Germans: I watched the Staatsoper Stuttgarts rendition of Das Rheingeld a few days ago, and couldn't finish it, primarily because the guy who sang Wotan did so out of the side of his mouth like Terry Jones (albeit Terry Jones with eczema, poor guy).
[2] Wolfram has hit the bottom of the name bag now.
[3] In typical knightly fashion, Feirefiz is won over to Christianity by the radiant beauty of the Grail-maiden, and not out of any desire to see the Grail as such.

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