The Great Myths #30: The Holy Grail Appears (Middle High German)

Codex_Manesse_149v_Wolfram_von_EschenbachThe story of the Holy Grail’s appearance to a young man named Perceval/Parzival/Parsifal, is told in many places, and goes something like this: he comes by chance upon the Grail Castle, and is introduced to a wounded man, the Fisher King; during a feast that night, the Grail appears, and if only Parzival would ask a human question of his host – “What ails you?” – his wound and his wasted land would be restored. Instead, the propriety of knighthood keeps him from inquiring, and the next morning the castle is empty; upon leaving, it disappears, and he spends many years trying to find it again. The most complete and arguably the best version of this story is that of Wolfram von Eschenbach, who died around 1190; it is given in its entirety here, to see the wealth of detail and asides that go, essentially, into narrating a simple story of youthful tragedy:

Would you like to hear how things stand with him [Parzival]? He came that evening to a lake. There huntsmen had moored – to them those waters were subject. When they saw him riding up, they were so close to the shore that they could hear clearly all he said. There was one man he saw in the boat who wore such clothing that even if all lands served him, it could be no better. His hat was trimmed with peacock feathers. This same fisherman he asked for information – that he might advise him, by God’s favour and his courtesy’s command, where he might find lodging. The sad man replied as follows:

      “Sir, to my knowledge neither water nor land within these thirty miles is inhabited, except for one castle that lies nearby. By my loyalty, I advise you to go there. Where else could you go before the day is out? There, at the cliff’s edge, take a right turn. When you come up to the moat, I expect you’ll have to halt there. Ask for the drawbridge to be let down for you and for the road to be opened to you.”

      He did as the fisherman advised him, took his leave and departed. The fisherman said: “If you find your way there, I’ll attend to you tonight myself. Then thank me according to how you are treated. Be on your guard – unfamiliar paths run there. You may well ride astray along the slope. I would not wish that upon you by any means.”

      Parzival set off, trotting watchfully along the right path up to the moat. There the drawbridge was raised, the stronghold not deceived of defence. It stood just as if it had been turned on a lathe. Unless it flew or were blown by the wind, no attack might harm the castle. Many towers, several great halls stood there, wondrously defended. If all armies on earth were to attack them, they wouldn’t yield a single loaf under such pressure, not in thirty years.

      A squire deigned to ask him what he sought, or where he had travelled from. He said: “The fisherman has sent me here. I bowed to his hand, only in the hope of finding lodgings. He asked for the bridge to be lowered, and told me to ride in to you.”

      “Lord, you are welcome. Since it was the fisherman who promised it, honour and comfort will be offered you, for the sake of him who sent you here,” said the squire, and let the bridge down.

      Into the castle the bold youth rode, entering a courtyard wide and broad. It had not been trampled down by merry sports. Short, green grass grew everywhere. There bohorts [ mounted charges carried out in teams] were shunned. Seldom was it ridden over with banners like the meadow at Abenberg. Rarely had joyous deed been done there, not for a long time now. They were well versed in heart’s sorrow.

      That did not cost Parzival dear. Knights young and old welcomed him. Many elegant young lordlings leapt towards his bridle, each vying with the other to grasp it. They held onto his stirrup; thus he had to dismount. Knights asked him to walk on – they led him to his chamber. With all alacrity it followed that he was courteously disarmed. When they saw that the beardless youth was so winning in appearance, they said that he was rich in blessings.

      The young man asked for some water; he at once washed the rust off him, from his face and off his hands. Old and young alike thought that a new day shone from him as he sat there, that charming wooer. Entirely free of reproach, a cloak with phellel-silk from Araby was brought to him there. The well-favoured youth put it on. With open ties, it fetched him praise.

      Then the discerning chamberlain said: “Repanse de Schoye wore this cloak, my Lady the Queen. It is to be lent to you by her, for no clothes have yet been cut for you. It was, I think, an honourable request for me to put to her, for you are noble, if I have judged right.”

      “God reward you, lord, for saying so! If you assess me rightly, then I have won good fortune. It is God’s power grants such reward.”

      They poured him wine, treating him in such fashion that those sad people were happy in his company. They offered him honour and hospitality, for there was greater supply there than he found at Pelrapeire, when his hand had parted it from sorrow.

      His equipment was carried away from him. This he later regretted, not expecting to be the butt of any jest. Too haughtily a wag summoned the stranger, rich in courage, to come to court and meet the host, as if he were angry. In consequence he almost lost his life at young Parzival’s hands. When he found that his beautifully coloured sword lay nowhere near him, he clenched his hand into a fist, so that the blood shot out of his nails and spilled itself all over his sleeve. “No, lord!” said the knightly company. “This is a man who retains the power of jesting, however sad we otherwise are. Show your courtesy towards him. All you need to have heard is that the fisherman has arrived. Go to him – you are his worthy guest – and shake from you anger’s burden!”

      They walked up into a great hall. A hundred chandeliers hung there, many candles pressed into them, high above the castle-dwellers – small candles all around the walls. A hundred couches he found lying there, as arranged by those in charge – a hundred quilts lying on top of them.

      For every four companions there was a separate seat, with spaces in between, and a circular carpet spread out before. Fil li roy Frimutel could well afford the like. One thing was not neglected there: they had spared no expense, but had walled in three square fire-frames with marble. In them was that fire’s name, the wood called lingum aloe. Such great fires no man has seen, neither since nor before, here at Wildenberg. Those were costly constructions! The host asked that he himself be seated facing the middle fireplace, upon a camp-bed. Quits had been called between him and happiness – he lived only for dying.

      Into the hall came walking one who was warmly welcomed – Parzival the bright-hued – by him who had sent him there. He did not permit him to remain standing there. The host asked him to come closer and sit down, “by me here. If I seated you at a distance, over there, that would be far too inhospitable towards you,” said the host, rich in woe.

      Because of his sickness, the lord had great fires lit, and wore warm clothes. Of broad and long sable-skin – such, both outside and inside, his fur jacket and the cloak over it had to be. The least of those skins was well worthy of praise, being black and grey. Of the same material was the hood on his head, doubly lined with sable dearly bought. A braid of Arab silk ran round the top of it, with a little button in the middle, a translucent ruby.

      There sat many an elegant knight, when sorrow was carried before them. A squire leapt at the front door, carrying a lance – a custom that furthered grief. From its blade blood gushed forth, running down the shaft to his hand, stopping at his sleeve. Then there was weeping and wailing over all the wide hall. The populace of thirty lands would be hard put to exact so much from their eyes! He carried the lance in his hands round to all four walls, and back again to the door. The squire leapt out through it.

      Soothed was the company’s distress, which grief had commanded of them before, reminded of it by the lance which the squire had carried in his hand.

      If you will not weary of it now, I shall pick the tale up here and take you to the point where they served courtesy there. At one end of the great hall a steel door was opened, from which two noble maidens emerged. Now hear how they are arrayed – in such fashion that they would reward love well if a man had earned it by his service there! Those were lustrous damsels – two garlands over loose-flowing hair, flowers forming their headdress. Each carried in her hand a candlestick of gold. Their hair was wavy, long and fair. They carried burning lights. Nor should we forget here the damsels’ garments, in which they were seen to enter. The Countess of Tenabroc – her dress was of brown scarlet; her playmate wore one of the same; the dresses were both drawn in tight by two belts about their figures, above the hip, at the waist.

      After them came a duchess and her playmate, carrying two little trestles of ivory. Their mouths shone as if with fire’s redness. They bowed, all four. Two quickly placed the trestles before the host. There service was carried out to perfection. They stood together in a group, all of them well-favoured.

      Those four wore identical clothing. See now where other ladies have brooked no delay, four-times-two of them, acting to order. Four carried huge candles. The other four, without reluctance, carried a precious stone, through which by day the sun shone brightly. Its name was renowned: it was a garnet hyacinth, both long and broad. To make it light of weight, it had been cut thinly by whoever measured it for a table-top. At its head the host dined, displaying his opulence. They walked in correct procession straight up to the lord, all eight of them, inclining their heads in a bow. Four placed the table-top upon ivory, white as snow – the trestles that had survived there before. They knew how to withdraw decorously, to stand by the first four.

      On those eight ladies were dresses greener than grass, samite of Azagouc, well-cut, long and wide. About the middle they were squeezed together by belts, precious, slender and long. These eight discerning damsels all wore over their hair an elegant, flowery garland. Count Iwan of Nonel and Jernis of Ril – many a mile, indeed, their daughters had been brought to serve there. The two princesses were seen to approach in most lovely garments. Two knives, sharp-edged as fish-spines, they carried, to proclaim their rarity, on two towels, one apiece. They were of silver, hard and gleaming. Wondrous skill lay therein, such sharpening not spared that they could readily have sliced through steel. Before the silver came noble ladies, called upon to serve there, carrying lights to accompany the silver, four maidens free of reproach. Thus they all six approached. Hear now what each does: they bowed. Two of them then carried the silver forward to the beautiful table, and laid it down. Then they decorously withdrew, immediately rejoining the first twelve. If I’ve checked the numbers right, there should be eighteen ladies standing here. Avoy! Now six are seen to walk in clothing that had been dearly bought – half cloth-of-gold, the other half phellel-silk of Nineveh. These and the first six before them wore twelve dresses, of mixed material, bought at a high price.

      After them came the queen. Her countenance gave off such sheen that they all thought day wished to break. This maiden, they saw, wore phellel-silk of Araby. Upon a green achmardi she carried the perfection of Paradise, both root and branch. This was a thing that was called the Grail, earth’s perfection’s transcendence. Repanse de Schoye was her name, she by whom the Grail permitted itself to be carried. The Grail was of such a nature that her chastity had to be well guarded, she who ought by rights to tend it. She had to renounce falseness.

      Before the Grail came lights. Those were of no small expense, six glasses, long, clear, beautiful, in which balsam burned brightly. When they had advanced from the door in fitting fashion, the queen bowed decorously, as did all the little damsels carrying balsam-vessels there. The queen, devoid of falsity, placed the Grail before the host. The story tells that Parzival often looked at her and thought: she who was carrying the Grail there – he was wearing her cloak! Courteously, the seven went back to the first eighteen. Then they admitted the most noble amongst them – twelve on either side of her, they told me. The maiden with the crown stood there in great beauty.

      All the knights seated throughout the great hall had chamberlains assigned to them, with heavy golden basins, one for every four knights, and also a well-favoured page, carrying a white towel. Opulence was seen there in plenty. There must have been a hundred tables carried in through the door. One was placed with alacrity before each group of four noble knights. Tablecloths, white in colour, were diligently laid upon them.

      Then the host himself took water. He was lame of high spirits. Together with him, Parzival washed himself. A silken towel, brightly-coloured, was then proffered by a count’s son, who hastened to kneel before them.

      Wherever any of the tables stood, four squires were instructed not to be forgetful in serving those who sat at them. Two kneeled and cut the food; the other two did not neglect to bring in drink and good, and attended to them by their service.

      Hear now more of opulence! Four trolleys had to carry many a precious gold vessel to each knight sitting there. Those were drawn to all four walls. Four knights were seen to place them on the tables with their own hands. Each vessel was followed by a clerk who also took it upon himself to collect them afterwards, after the meal had been served there.

      Now hear a new tale: a hundred squires had been given their orders. Courteously they took bread in white towels from before the Grail. They walked over in unison and apportioned themselves to the tables. They told me – and this I tell upon the oat of each and every one of you! – that before the Grail there was in good supply – if I am deceiving anyone in this, then you must be lying along with me! – whatever anyone stretched out his hands for, he he found it all in readiness – hot food, cold food, new food and old too, tame and wild. “Never did anyone see the like!” – someone or other is about to say, but he’ll have to eat his words, for the Grail was bliss’s fruit, such sufficiency of this world’s sweetness that is almost counterweighed what is spoken of the Heavenly Kingdom.

      From elegant golden vessels they partook, as befitted each course, of sauces, pepper, verjuice. There the abstinent and the glutton both had plenty. With great decorum it was brought before them: mulberry juice, wine, red sinople. Whatever anyone reached out his goblet for, whatever drink he could name, he could find it in his cup, all from the Grail’s plenty. The noble company was entertained at the Grail’s expense. Parzival marked well the opulence and this great mystery, yet out of courtesy he refrained from asking questions, thinking: “Gurnemanz advised me, in his great and limitless loyalty, that I ought not to ask many questions. What if my stay here turns out like that with him there? Without asking any questions, I’ll learn how it stands with this household.”

      As these words passed through his mind, a squire approached, carrying a sword. Its scabbard was worth a thousand marks; its hilt was a ruby, and its blade, too, might well be the cause of great wonder. The host gave it to his guest, saying: “Lord, I took this into extremity in many a place, before God afflicted my body. Now let this be your compensation, if you are not well treated here. You’re well capable of carrying it along all roads. Whenever you test its mettle, you will be protected by it in battle.”

      Alas that he did not ask then! I am still unhappy for him on that account, for when he took the sword into his hand, he was admonished to ask the question. I also grieve for his gentle host, whom misfortune does not spare, but from which he would then have been absolved by questioning. Enough has been dispensed there. Those in charge laid to and took the tables away again. Four trolleys were then loaded. Each and every lady did her duty, first those that had arrived last, then the first. Then they let the most noble amongst them back to the Grail. To the host and to Parzival the queen bowed courteously, as did all the little damsels. They took back through the door what they had decorously carried out before.

      Parzival gazed after them. Lying on a camp-bed, he saw, in a chamber, before they closed the door behind them, the most handsome old man of whom he ever gained knowledge. I may indeed say, without exaggeration, that he was even greyer than the mist.

      Who that man was – hear tidings of that later, and of the host, his castle, his lands. These shall be named to you by me later, when the time comes, as is fitting uncontentiously, and with no delay whatsoever. I tell the string without the bow. The string is an image. Now, you think the bow is quick, but what the string dispatches is faster still, if I have told you true. The string is like straightforward tales, as indeed meet with people’s approval. Whoever tells you of crookedness desires to lead you astray. If anyone sees the bow strung, he conceded straightness to the string, unless someone wishes to stretch it to the curve, as when it must propel the shot. If someone, however, shoots his tale at a man who is perforce disgruntled by it – for it has no staying-place there, and a very roomy path – in one ear, out the other – I’d be altogether wasting my toil, if my tale were to press itself upon him. Whatever I sad or sang, it would be better received by a billy-goat – or a rotting tree-trunk.

      I will tell you more, however, of these sorrow-laden people. There where Parzival had come riding, seldom was joy’s clamour seen, be it a bohort or a dance. Their lamenting constanty was so entire that they cared nothing for mirth. Wherever, these days, lesser gatherings are seen, joy cheers them from time to time. There every nook and cranny was well supplied, and at court, too, where they were now to be seen.

      The host said to his guest, “I believe your bed has been prepared. If you are weary, then my advice is that you go and lie down to sleep.”

      Now I ought to raise the hue and cry because of this parting they are enacting! Great harm will make itself known to them both.

      From the camp-bed Parzival, that youth of high lineage, stepped back onto the carpet. The host wished him goodnight. The company of knights then leapt up in their entirety, some of them pressing closer to him. Next they led the young man into a chamber, which was so splendidly adorned, embellished by such a bed that my poverty pains me forever, seeing that the earth flourishes with such luxury.  

      To that bed poverty was a stranger. As if glowing in a fire, a phellel-silk lay upon it, of bright hue. Parizival then asked the knights to go back to their chamber, as he saw no other beds there. With his permission they departed.

      Now service of a different kind will begin. The many candles and Parzival’s complexion vied in sheen – how might the day be any brighter? Before his bed lay another bed, upon it a quilt, on which he sat down. Pages quick – none too slow – many a one leapt nearer to him. They drew the boots off his legs, which were white. More clothing, too, was taken off him by many a well-born boy. They were comely, those little youths. After that there then entered by the door four lustrous damsels. They had the task of checking how the warrior was being tended and whether he lay comfortably. As the adventure mentioned to me, before each of these a squire carried a candle, burning brightly. Bold Parzival leapt beneath the bed-cover. They said: “You must stay awake for our sake, for a while yet.” He had played a game with haste, to the limit. A fair match for bright hue refreshed their eyes before they received his greeting. Moreover, their thoughts were troubled at his mouth being so red, and that he was so young that no-one could see half a beard-hair on it.

      Those four discerning damsels – hear what each of them carried – mulberry juice, wine and clary three bore in white hands. The fourth wise damsel carried fruit of Paradise’s kind, upon a napkin, white in colour. This damsel went so far as to kneel before him there. He asked the lady to be seated. She said: “Leave my head unturned – otherwise you would not be granted the service required of me in your presence here.” He was not forgetful of gentle discourse with them. The lord drank; he ate a little. Taking their leave, they withdrew. Parzival lay down. Young lordlings placed his candles on the carpet, when they saw that he was sleeping. Then they hastened away.

      Parzival did not lie alone. Keeping him company until daybreak, harsh toil lay with him. Future sufferings sent their harbingers to him in his sleep, so that the well-favoured youth fully counterweighed his mother’s dream, when she yearned for [Parzival’s father] Gahmuret. Thus his dream was stitched with sword-blows about the seam, trimmed with many a splendid joust. From head-on charges he suffered great duress in his sleep. Even if he’d died thirty times over, he’d rather have endured that awake – such payment did discomfort dole out to him.

      Because of these fearful matters he had no choice but to wake up in his extremity, his veins and bones sweating. Day, by then, was shining through the windows. He said: “Alas, where are the youths, why are they not here before me? Who is to hand me my clothes?” The warrior lay waiting for them to come, until he fell asleep again. No-one talked or called out there – they were all hidden. About mid-morning the young man woke up again. Immediately the bold knight rose.

      On the carpet the noble warrior saw his armour and two swords lying. One his host had ordered he be given; the other was from Gaheviez. Then he said to himself at once: “Alas, what is the meaning of this? In truth, I must put on this armour. I suffered such torture in my sleep that waking peril most likely lies ahead of me before the day is out. If this host is pressed by war, then I will gladly carry out his command, and, loyally, the command of her who lent me this new cloak in her kindness. If only her mind were so inclined that she were willing to accept service! It would be fitting for me to undertake it on her behalf, yet not out of love for her, for my wife the queen is just as lustrous of person – or even more so, truly!”

      He did as he had to do. From the foot up he armed himself well to meet battle, buckling two swords about him. Throught the door the noble warrior went out. There was his charger, tethered to the steps, shield and spear propped next to it, as he would have wished.

      Before Parzival the warrior attended to the charger, he ran through many of the chambers, calling out for the people. He neither heard nor saw anyone. Distress out of all proportion befell him at this, incited by his anger. He ran to where he had dismounted the previous evening, when he had arrived. There the ground and grass were disturbed by treading, and the dew all dispersed.

      Yelling at the top of his voice, the young man ran back at once to his charger. Scolding loudly, he mounted it. The gate he found standing wide open, great tracks leading out through it. No longer did he halt there, but trotted briskly onto the bridge. A hidden squire pulled the rope, so that part of the drawbridge very nearly felled the charger. Parzival look back – he’d gladly have questioned further then.

      “Go, and take the sun’s hatred with you!” said the squire: “You are a goose! If only you’d opened your gob and questioned the host! It has cost you much fame.”

      The stranger shouted back, asking for tidings. No reply met him at all. No matter how much he called out, the squire acted just as if he were sleep-walking, and slammed the gate shut. Then his departure had come too soon, at that loss-laden time, for him who now pays interest on joy. Happiness is hidden from him. Sorrow’s throw counted double when he found the Grail with his eyes, without a hand, and without the die’s edge. If troubles wake him now, that was something he was unused to before. He had not suffered much till then.

Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival,
Book 5, stanzas 225-248, translated by Cyril Edwards

Read my interview with Cyril Edwards here

Read the other Great Myths here


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