by Wolfram von Eschenbach

Other authorsA. T. Hatto (Translator)
Paperback, 1980



Call number





Penguin Classics (1980), Paperback, 448 pages


Parzival, an Arthurian romance completed by Wolfram von Eschenbach in the first years of the thirteenth century, is one of the foremost works of German literature and a classic that can stand with the great masterpieces of the world. The most important aspects of human existence, worldly and spiritual, are presented in strikingly modern terms against the panorama of battles and tournaments and Parzival's long search for the Grail. The world of knighthood, of love and loyalty and human endeavor despite the cruelty and suffering of life, is constantly mingling with the world of the Grail, affirming the inherent unity between man's temporal condition and his quest for something beyond human existence.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
The search for the holy grail - "the stuff of legend" - King Arthur'e knights of the round table ride out in pursuit of the mysterious object that will provide beneficence to all who are able to see it. This 13th century version by Wolfram von Eschenbach is one of the earliest and some familiar figures are missing; there is no Lancelot, no Galahad, no Merlin and even the grail (gral here) is nothing like a chalice or cup that is usual in these tales.

Wolfram, however much he tries to deny it has based his story on the original version by Chretien de Troyes, which was written some 20 years earlier in about 1190 and was unfinished. Wolframs version completes the story in such a way that it remains fairly true to the original, he also greatly expands Chretien's story and adds a sort of a prequel that gives the whole thing some context. In Wolfram's retelling however the focus of the story has subtly changed. The main theme of Chretien's tale was the search for the gral by a knight who was worthy in the eyes of God. This is still an essential part of Wolfram's tale, but he is more interested in centering Parzival as a knight who is destined to take his place in the dynasty of the community of the grail. We are therefore told of his ancestry his progeny and his relationship to Ansfortas (The Fisher King). To reinforce this interpretation Wolfram says on the final page of his story "If master Chretien has done wrong by this story...... I have names Parzival's sons and his high lineage correctly, and have brought him to the gaol with a happy dispensation intended for him, despite his setbacks."

In Wolfram's story Parzival is one of the essential guardians of the grail, but this has been denied him by his mother's attempts to keep him safe from the rigours of knighthood. He is first denied his lineage and then himself denies his service to God. He achieves redemption through chivalry, feats of arms and a long period of celibacy. Wolfram's point here is that noble lineage cannot be denied; it will always come to the fore and be recognised in the face (good looks) and the stance of the individual. The religious content of the story is still in evidence, but Wolfram's treatment of it is peculiarly secularised. The clergy are not in evidence and Trevizent whose role is to tell Parzival of his true lineage and restore his faith in God is described as a hermit and holy man. Trevizent tells Parzival "no man can win the gral other than one who who is acknowledged in heaven as destined for it" Gawan{Gawain) in a parallel story is also searching for the gral, but his task has come to him second hand as his chivalric code has indebted him to take over the task from another knight. It is clear that Gawan who is "under the tyranny of love" will never see the gral, but his adventures are a useful counterpoint to Parzival's and Wolfram shows his skill in bringing the two strands of his story together, which is something Chretien had neglected to do.

I have previously read and enjoyed Chretien de Troyes Arthurian Romances for the high poetic style in which they were written and for their sense of magic and mystery. Wolfram's style is more prosaic, there is more detail and his love of pageantry, rank and order is evident in almost everything he writes. He is more successful in binding all of the parts of the story together and tidying up the loose ends, he also brings a certain authenticity to his story telling; he was a German knight in service, and his experience shows in how he describes the elaborate procedures in removing armour. He also seems more knowledgeable in the art of jousting, telling us through one of his characters that there are essentially five lance strokes and then goes on to describe what they are. Much of his expansion of Chretien's tale is due to to the heraldic aspects of the story; his description of the first sighting of the grail contains the names of many of the ladies who tale part in this pageant like procession, his portrayal of King Arthur's camp is careful to place in order and rank all of the important knights that are present. This was so important to Wolfram and his audience and at one stage it degenerates into Parzival and his brother Firefiz, trying to outdo each other by listing the names of the important knights in their service. This is an aspect of the story that can be of little interest to today's readers and results in confusion at times as there is a need to keep the important characters in mind to make sense of the story. In A T Hatto's good translation he has thoughtfully included a glossary of names.

Although we know very little about Wolfram von Escenbach from other sources, his habit of authorial intervention into his Parzival provides an intriguing glimpse of the man and his times. Wolfram comes across as mischievous, playful and probably totally disingenuous. It is only three chapters into the book before he launches into his "Apology". Typically in medieval literature an "apology" would appear near the end of a piece of writing and would be an attempt by the author to absolve himself of any sins in telling his story, he would be at pains to square himself with the clergy and religious convention. Not so with Wolfram; the subject of his apology is his perceived treatment of women:

"From one alone would I withold my love service - having found her unfaithful my anger towards her does not change .........I have not lost my ability to judge shrewdly of their ways and behaviour, yet I will champion any women of modest character, touching her good name - any pain she suffered I should take very much to heart........ a man who aims at love through chivalric exploits gambles for high stakes."

Later in the story Wolfram expounds the views through his characters that fidelity in marriage is the true path to salvation, however I am never sure where the irony stops and he comes across to me as someone well used to the conventions of courtly(adulterous) love. Many of his female characters have "hot lips" and he is not above giving us some salacious details for example this is Gahmuret Percival's father:

"Over his hauberk he wore a small white silken shift of the Queen's (the one who was now his wife) as it came from her naked body. - They saw no less than eighteen pierced by lances and hacked through by swords, before he left the lady. She used to slip them on again when her darling returned from jousting...... The love of these two expressed a deep attachment"

Later in the apology Wolfram says he has "not a letter to his name" trying to intimate that he cannot write. He also tries to obfuscate his debt to Chretien by inventing a Provencal knight "Kyot" who supposedly is responsible for the original story. Apart from being disingenuous his interventions can also be humorous and irreverent. After describing the meagre food that Parzival manages to forage while doing his penance with the hermit Trevrizent, Wolfram says this fare would not do for him and says to the reader "But why do I mock these good people, I am misbehaving again". I particularly like his little aside about King Arthur: "Arthur was generous in giving ladies away - he never wearied of bestowing such gifts! but this was all discussed and agreed beforehand".

Wolfram is a true story teller in every sense of the words. but he 'nails' his story of Parzival. There are some longueurs and his expanded tale runs aground sometimes when he gets lost in the pageantry. It is however endlessly fascinating and a must read for anyone interested in medieval literature or the King Arthur legends.
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LibraryThing member Neutiquam_Erro
Wolfram von Eschenbach gives us a glimpse into the fantasy life of the 12th century noble. His romance of Parzival, based on Chretien de Troyes Arthurian works, is the modern day equivalent of an action movie - the plot is unbelievable but the settings, ideas and characters reveal much about the society for which it was produced.

The story tells the tale of how Parsival is born, becomes a knight of the Round Table and ultimately achieves the Grail, which, it turns out, is not Joseph of Arimathea's chalice but is rather a stone. The text does not actually dwell on the description of the Grail, and aside from this oddity, follows the usual myths about the Grail quite closely. And while the Romance is entitled Parzival, he has to share his screen time almost equally with Gawan (Gawaine) who looms large in the book and generally gets all the interesting action.

The Romance is often less than romantic. No stodgy Victorian drama this, it revels in violence, dirt and sexual encounters, often much more explicit than later Arthurian writings. Parzival definitely does not fit the "my strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure" knightly mold. One of his first acts is a rape. Gawan, noble knight that he is, basically falls in love with anything that moves including a girl who is little more than a child. Death and destruction are all part of daily life for these guys and it becomes very difficult to tell the difference between tourneys and battles. Wounds are described in detail, including the unfortunate Lord of the Grail's rather private injury.

The plot largely concerns itself with tourneys and jousts, although there are definitely some interesting moments. The description of the Grail, the mystical Bed Marvelous (translated as Wonder Bed in this version) and the horrifying appearance of the sorceress Cundrie add some magic to the daily grind of hand-to-hand combat.

The Arab world also plays a large role in this novel, revealing a much more complex and enlightened medieval view of Islam than is commonly thought to have existed. Of course, the author seems to think Muslims worship Jupiter but, that aside, several of the main characters are Muslim and they are usually cast in very positive roles. Clearly, being a good knight had little to do with Christianity, and Feirefiz's (Parzival's brother) conversion at the end of the book seems almost an after thought by the author. The author's approach to Christianity is none to orthodox either and Parzival actually denies the existence of God at one point only to be led back to the the truth sometime later by a kindly cleric.

This translation of Parzival, originally written in German, leaves something to be desired. It often seems that the translators attempted to leave the German grammar intact. Perhaps they were seeking to leave an impression in English of the convoluted German sentence structure. Indeed, they often leave footnotes indicating that certain phrases were too tortured to translate directly and they have added information to make them more readable. The end result is that the book reads a bit like the King James Bible if you only modernized the vocabulary and left the grammar alone.

The book is also published in a rather unusual format, a very narrow paperback, with two unattributed illustrations that seem to have been added at random. It also contains a fairly extensive introduction, an extended set of text notes, a list of persons, and a set of family trees. The packaging seems intended for a general audience with some attention to artistic book headings and "Gothic" fonts on maps and elsewhere.

Overall, the story is fascinating both as a tale and as a way to understand how real knights viewed their ideal role models. The translation is tolerable, if difficult. The lack of an index or bibliography would not make this the best book for a scholar but, for fans of Arthurian legends who have the desire to study the early manuscripts and the persistence to get through them, this is a good read.
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LibraryThing member MissMyrrh
The first chapter is strenuous; I offer my congratulations to the brave souls who made it through. As a word of encouragement, the book is definitely worth the effort. It is an enchanting read; I particularly enjoyed the chapter with Obie and Obilot.
LibraryThing member MorgannaKerrie
Wow, surprisingly interesting read. I really enjoyed the tales in this book!
LibraryThing member willszal
You may not have heard of Parzival before. Although it's a famous piece of medieval German literature, it's second tier compared to more well-known myths such as Gilgamesh and Beowulf.

I was warned—but it is a slog! At times, I felt as though I was reading something written by one of those random text generators, using material from fantasy novels. I would have the thread of the story for a while, then lose it, and then pick it up again.

One striking aspect of the presentation is that it is written as though it was spoken word (as the story was traditionally told).

One question I have—if this is a chapter in the Arthurian epic, why is in German (as opposed to Old English)?

Although the book is called Parzival, it talks as much about Parzival's father (Gamuret), and his friend Gawain.

Many passages in the book have an air of absurdity to them. Although the same could be said of our era, the social conventions of the era are bizarre and incomprehensible. Much of the plot of the book hinges upon people seemingly deciding to make their lives impossible.

The tenor of the story is pervaded by an extreme sense of machismo and patriarchy. Knights regularly get in duels, only to discover later that they've attacked their allies, or that there was no reason for their engagement.

I will say, in reading modern fantasy such as Robert Jordan and Brandan Sanderson, it's amazing the degree of influence Parzival commands. From the names, to the medieval setting, to the story arc, so many modern fantasy series are essentially remixes of this book.
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LibraryThing member Shimmin
It has very encouraging reviews, but I simply couldn't get through the first chapter. The translation seems rocky and inconsistent, veering wildly in register within a single sentence, and I found it impossible to get a grip on Wolfram's voice and settle into the story. I suspect they were keen to retain as much as possible of the original, and this sabotaged the ability to produce a smooth and readable version. But I may be unfair; perhaps it was like that in the German.

It's also loaded with the same amount of detail as this genre likes; flicking through the book, I found him spending several sentences describing knives held by people forming one part of a procession that takes many pages. There was nothing to indicate these knives would be of later importance. It's just all about painting lavish word-pictures; more suited in my view to storytelling than reading.

In short, not for me.
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LibraryThing member millsge
This master piece of medieval literature is one of the greatest Grail stories and much of the mythology of the Holy Grail that one finds in today's popular writing comes from this epic. The story may seem to be slow going at first, but it will begin to work its magic and, without knowing when or how, you will find yourself living Parzival's journey. Unlike today's popular fiction and 'nonfiction' about the Grail, if you learn the lessons Parzival learns, this journey will lead you directly to the Grail.… (more)


Original language


Original publication date

1220 (ca)

Physical description

448 p.; 5.1 inches


0140443614 / 9780140443615

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