Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival" and "Titurel". Did Parzival fail in his search for the Holy Grail because of his education?
Essay 2016 19 Pages
Table of Contents
Parzival’s education and its consequences
4. Parzival’s progress
Parzival’s education and its consequences
Ist zwîfel herzen nâchgebûr,
daz muoz der sêle werden sûr.
gesmaehet unde gezieret
ist, swâ sich parrieret
unverzaget mannes muot,
als agelstern varwe tuot.
der mac dennoch wesen geil:
des himels und der hellle. (Parzival, 1, 1-9)
These are the opening lines, and also very important ones for this essay, of a medieval classic. ‘Parzival’ by Wolfram von Eschenbach is probably the most popular medieval work in the German history of literature. When people try to sum up its plot, they commonly say something like this: the hero of the story is Parzival, an Arthurian knight, who is on his quest for the holy grail after failing the first time he had the chance to. What most people do not know, is that his story is close connected to another Middle High German romance by Wolfram von Eschenbach called ‘Titurel’. By reading this, you learn more about the characters in ‘Parzival’ and maybe understand more easily why everything happened the way it did. But the essential question after reading a plot summary like this is: Why did he fail the first time when searching for the holy grail? What did or did he not do? Why did or did he not do this thing? The answers to these questions will be covered in the following work. The first step to do so will be by tracing back Parzival’s different forms of education he got, starting by his mother Herzeloyde when he was still a little child to Gurnemanz, lord of the castle in Grâharz, a little afterwards and finally by Trevrizent, a hermit and important character regarding the grail family. I will start by elucidating the different forms of education he got and then analysing them, in order to explain why Parzival acted the way he did. Another important step in my opinion will be a short characterisation of each ‘teacher’ he had, so we can better understand why they educated him in the way they did.
Book III is all about Parzival’s youth and a big part of his education. His youth is, a lot of scholars are agreeing on this, characterised by tumpheit. This means having no understanding, being a fool and stupid and being naïve (Lexer Online-Wörterbuch). A moderate dose of this foolishness would be normal for young, inexperienced boys, but Parzival shows exceptional tumpheit. The wisdom he is lacking of in the beginning is divided in two: first of all, he has no idea at all about chivalry; secondly, he only has a very superficial knowledge about religion (Sacker 1963, p. 29). Bumke explains this in the lack of a courtly education and infantile innocence. To explain this, we need to take a further look at his childhood.
Right after giving birth to her son and the death of her husband Gahmuret, Herzeloyde escapes from her court into the wilderness of Soltane, because she wants to flee chivalry. She is characterised by her husband’s death and does not want her son to live the same life as his father did. In the woods, she lives in seclusion, forbidding her servants to ever mention anything about chivalry to her son. This is why he grows up knowing nothing about knighthood at all. The only thing he is allowed to do is hunting. He has a great talent in doing so, which shows his inherited power of eventually becoming a (good) knight. But when succeeding in killing a bird, he bursts into tears, already showing his complicated character and his big compassion. He is also very fascinated when listening to the singing birds, and his mother, observing him, is afraid that his art and gelust (118,28) will be awaken due to his noble descent. She wants to save him all the trouble she had to go trough by ordering yet another radical solution: she wants all the birds gone. She wants to protect Parzival by all means from chivalry.
But this comes to a sudden end when he encounters four knights by chance during his hunting. Having heard from his mother that god is represented by shining light, mistakes the four knights for gods. They elucidate the young boy about knighthood and, being totally fascinated by their stories, young Parzival wants to leave Herzeloyde to become a great knight too. Heartbroken by his strong will to become like his father, she dresses him like a fool and gives him the worst horse in hope that he eventually come back to her, being mocked by everyone else.
This leads us to the two lessons his mother gave him: religious education and her advices of being a good knight.
When Parzival is asking her ‘ ôwê muoter, waz ist got? ’ (119,17), she only gives him a very fragmentary explanation. She reuses the same words than the narrator did in the prologue. She is telling him about the dualistic separation of good and bad and god and the devil. But she is using the comparison of light and dark. God would be ‘ noch liehter denne der tac
Her second lesson she gives Parzival consists of her advices the moment her son is leaving her to become a knight. It can be divided in five parts. First of all, he should avoid dark waters and just cross rivers at fordable spots. Secondly, he should always be very polite and greet everyone. Besides, he should learn from a wise and grey man when meeting him and when encountering a nice lady, he should take her ring and kiss her. What Herzeloyde does not tell her son is the meaning of stealing a lady’s ring. Her last advice is that he is allowed to take Waleis and Norgals from Lähelin, two countries that this man took from Herzeloyde (127, 12-128, 10). Parzival immediately wants revenge for the two stolen countries, which also shows that he is willing to obey her other advices. Both her lessons are fragmentary and predestined to be misunderstood. But he is also taking her orders literally, which will cause him a lot of trouble, as we will see now.
Her religious instructions already lead to his comical behaviour when meeting the four knights in the woods. First, he mistook them for the devil because of their stamping, and then he thought of them as god because of their shining armour. This shows us that he is taking Herzeloyde’s light and dark symbolic literally. It makes him look foolish and is also the main reason that he will doubt god later in the story when god is not helping him. At this point, Parzival is taking her words literally again, he thinks that god is acting actively. Following her other advices, he got in even more trouble. When crossing the river only at fordable spots, he lost a whole day on his way to the Arthurian court. Then, when encountering the first lady he has ever seen outside of Soltane, Jeschute, he is taking his mother’s advices literally again and takes her ring and kisses her without her consent. This brings her bad luck as her husband thinks that she cheated on him and punishes her very hard. When finally arriving at the Arthurian court, his foolish appearance make everyone laughing, even the queen Cunneware, which gets her beating by Keie. When seeing this incident, Parzival wants to throw his javelin at Keie, but, because of all the people surrounding the queen, he cannot do so. This is ‘the first time he realises that he is not yet acceptable in court society’. This leads to his decision not returning to Arthur anymore. Herzeloyde’s efforts have resulted in the mocking of her son, but he is not returning to her as she wished for, but is more determined than ever to find a mentor. Thus, this is the second time that a lady gets punished because of his behaviour. Also, when encountering Ither, he mistakes him for Lähelin, and wants to revenge his mother. Without knowing that Ither is family, he kills him and takes his armour, feeling like a real knight for the first time, even though he still wants to wear his silly clothes underneath. The act of keeping his foolish clothes beneath the new armour is reflecting his failure in proving his worth as a knight and in demonstrating just the opposite. He only now looks like a real knight on the outside.
 See: Bumke, Joachim (2004): Wolfram von Eschenbach, p. 61.
 Sacker, Hugh (1963): An introduction to Wolfram’s ‘Parzival’, p. 35-36.
 See : Sacker, Hugh (1963): An introduction to Wolfram’s ‘Parzival’, p. 35.