The Great Myths #36: Parzival Grows Up & Leaves Home

codpalgerm-parzival-44vii-87rThe sad early life of Parzival is narrated here. His father having died while out on crusade, his mother, Herzeloyde, tries to keep all knowledge of knighthood from her Parzival’s awareness. She retreats to the woods with a small retinue, and of course all of her attempts are in vain.  

 This lady [Herzeloyde] quick to sorrow withdrew from her land to a forest, to the Waste of Soltane – not looking for flowers on the meadow. Her heart’s sorrow was so entire that she took no interest in any garland, whether red or faded. To that place she took, seeking refuge, noble Gahmuret’s son. The people with her there have to cultivate and clear the ground. She knew well how to cherish her son. Before he reached the age of reason, she gathered all her people about her, both men and women, ordering them all, on pain of death, never to voice the word “knight” – “for if my heart’s beloved ever heard what a knight’s life is, that would oppress me sorely. Now keep your wits about you, and conceal all chivalry from him.”  

That practice ran a risky road. The boy was hidden thus, brought up in the Waste of Soltane, cheated of knightly ways, were it not for one sport – a bow and little bolts. Those he cut with his own hand and shot down many birds he found there. Yet whenever he shot a bird whose noise had been so loud with song before, he would weep and tear at himself, wreaking vengeance on his hair. His person was radiant and proud. On the meadow by the riverbank he would wash himself every morning. He was ignorant of anxiety, except for the birdsong above him – that sweetness pressed into his heart, stretching his little breasts. All in tears he ran to the queen. She said: “Who has done you harm? You were out there on the plain.” He could not tell her about it, as still may happen to children today.

This was a matter she long pursued. One day she saw him gazing up into the trees, following the birds’ sound. She observed that her child’s breast swelled at the sound of their voices, compelled to it by lineage and his desire. Lady Herzeloyde turned her hostility against the birds, although she knew no reason for it. She intended to silence their sound. She commanded her ploughmen and farmhands to make haste and to choke and catch the birds. The birds were better mounted – the death of a good few was avoided. A number remained alive there, afterwards making merry with song.

The boy said to the queen: “What grudge do they bear the birdlets?” He asked for an immediate truce for them. His mother kissed him on the mouth, saying, “Why do I contravene His commandment – He who is, after all, the Highest God? Shall birds for my sake abandon joy?”

The boy at once said to his mother: “Alas, mother, what is God?”

“Son, I’ll tell you, in all earnest. He is even brighter than the day, He who took upon himself a countenance fashioned after man’s countenance. Son, take one piece of advice to heart, and call upon Him in your hour of need. His loyalty has always offered help to the world. But then there is one who is called Hell’s lord – he is black, disloyalty does not avoid him. Turn your thoughts away from him, and also from doubt’s deviation.”

His mother taught him in full the distinction between darkness and light. Thereafter his boldness leapt and bounded. He learned the javelin’s throw, shooting down by it many a stag, to the profit of his mother and her people. Whether there were thaw or snow, his hunting gave grief to the game. Now hear strange tales: when he’d shot a weight as a mule would have found a heavy enough load, all uncut-up, he’d carry it home.

One day he was following a hunting track, along a mountain slope – a long one. He broke off a twig, for the sake of the leaf’s voice. Close by him there ran a path – there he heard the sound of hoofbeats. He weighed his javelin in his hand, saying: “What have I heard? Oh, if only the Devil would come now, in his fearful wrath! I would take him on, for sure! My mother talks of his terrors – I believe her courage is daunted.”

Thus he stood, avid for battle. Now see, towards him there came galloping three knights, of perfect form, fully armed from the foot upwards. The boy thought in all sincerity that each of these was a god. Then he stood there no longer, but threw himself into the path, down upon his knees. Loudly the boy then cried: “Help, God! You surely have help in your power!”

The foremost knight grew angry at the boy lying in his path: “This foolish Waleis is barring us from swift passage.”

One thing for which we Bavarians are famed I may also apply to the Waleis: they are more foolish than Bavarian folk, and yet valorous in combat. If any man grows up in both those lands, propriety will work wonders on him.

Then there came galloping up, well accoutred, a knight who was in great haste. He was riding in warlike pursuit of some who had by now got far away from him; two knights had abducted a lady from him in his land. The warrior thought it a disgrace – he was grieved by the distress of the damsel who rode, wretched, ahead of them. The other three were his subjects. He rode a handsome Castilian. Very little of his shield was intact. His name was Karnahkarnanz, leh cons Ulterlec. He said: “Who is blocking our way?” With these words he rode up to the boy. Parzival thought he was shaped like a god. He’d never seen anything so bright. His surcoat swept the dew. By little golden bells, before each leg, his stirrups were made to ring out, and were adjusted in correct proportion. His right arm rang with the sound of bells whenever he thrust or swung it. It sounded so loud as his sword-blows struck – that warrior was bold in pursuit of fame! Thus rode that mighty prince, magnificently accoutred.

Karnahkarnanz asked Parzival, that garland of manly beauty: “Young lord, did you see two knights ride past you, who are incapable of adhering to the knightly code? They wrestle with rape and are daunted when it comes to honour. They have with them a maiden they have abducted.” The boy believed, no matter what Karnahkarnanz said, that it was God, as Lady Herzeloyde the Queen had described to him, when she defined bright radiance for him. He called out loudly and in all sincerity: “Now help me, helpful God!” Again and again fil li roy Gahurmet fell to his knees in prayer. The prince said: “I am not God, though I willingly carry out His command. You can see four knights here – if you could see aright.”

The boy asked on: “You name knights – what does that mean? If you don’t have divine power, then tell me, who gives knighthood?”

“King Arthur does that. Young lord, if you enter his castle, he will confer upon you a knight’s name, so that you will never have need to feel ashamed of it. You may well be of knightly lineage.”

The warriors eyed him closely. God’s skill lay in his creation, they saw. From the adventures I learn – which imparted to me the truth of the matter – that no man’s appearance had ever turned out better since Adam’s time. Because of this his praise ranged far and wide in women’s mouths.

Again the boy spoke, giving rise to laughter: “Oh, knight God, what may you be? You have so many rings tied to your body, up there and down here.” At this place and that the boy’s hand clutched at all the iron he found on the prince. He scrutinized his armour closely: “My mother’s damsels wear their rings on strings – they don’t fit into one another like this.” The boy then asked the prince, following his instinct: “What is the purpose of this that can suit you so well? I can’t pick it apart!”

At that the prince showed him his sword: “Look now, if anyone desires battle of me, I defend myself against him with blows. To protect myself against his, I have to put armour on, and to defend myself against bowshot and the thrust of spears I must arm myself like this.” To that the boy replied: “If the stags wore hides like this, then my javelin wouldn’t wound any of them – many a one falls dead before me!”

The knights grew angry that Karnahkarnanz was lingering with the boy, who wielded great folly. The prince said: “God keep you! Oh, if only your beauty were mine! God would have granted you perfection, if you but had your wits about you. May God’s power keep sorrow far from you!”

His men and he himself rode on in great haste, until they came to a glade in the forest. There that courtly man found Lady Herzeloyde’s ploughs. Greater sorrow had never befallen her people. He saw them hastening to the plough, then sowing, and afterwards harrowing, plying their goads over sturdy oxen.

The prince offered them good morning and asked them in they had seen a damsel in distress. They could no other than answer what he asked: “Two knights and a maiden rode by that way this morning. The lady rode in sorrow. They used their spurs hard, those who took the damsel with them.” (It was Meljahkanz. Karnahkarnanz caught up with him, taking the lady from him by battle – she who was lame of joy before. She was called Imane of the Beafontane.)

The farm-folk were in despair, as the warriors sped by them. They said: “How did this happen to us? If our young lord has seen the slashed helmets on these knights, then we haven’t taken proper care. We shall hear the queen’s anger because of this, and rightly so, for he was running alongside us this morning, while she was still asleep.”

The boy cared little then who shot stags, small or great. He headed back to his mother and told her the news. At that she collapsed; she was so greatly shocked by his words that she lay unconscious before him.

When the queen returned to her senses, although she had been daunted before, she said: “Son, who has told you of knighthood’s order? Where did you learn of this?”

“Mother, I saw four men, even brighter than God in appearance – they told me about chivalry. Arthur’s kingly might, in accordance with knightly honour, must conduct me to the shield’s office.”

Now new wretchedness arose. The lady did not rightly know how to devise a plan to divert him from this intention. The boy, foolish yet worthy, repeatedly asked his mother for a horse. It grieved her to the heart. She thought: “I don’t want to deny him anything, but it’ll have to be a most miserable nag!” Then the queen thought: “Lots of people are prone to scorn. My child shall wear fool’s clothes over his fair body. If he is torn and trounced, he may well come back home to me.” Alas for such wretched suffering! The lady took a length of sackcloth. She cut him a shirt and breeches, both visibly of one piece, reaching down to the middle of his white legs. This was acknowledged as a fool’s garb. A hood was to be found above. All of fresh, rough calfskin, from a single hide, two boots were cut to fit his legs. There great sorrow was not shunned.

It was the queen’s intention to entreat him to remain there that night. “You mustn’t leave here before I have given you some advice: on untrodden roads you must avoid dark fords – those which are shallow and clear, there you must ride in boldly. You must cultivate courteous ways, offer to all the world a greeting. If a grey, wise man is willing to teach you courtesy, as he well knows how, you must follow his instructions willingly, and not be angry with him. Son, let this be commended to you: wherever you may win a good woman’s ring and her greeting, take them – they will cure you of sorrow. You must hasten towards her kiss and grasp her firmly in your embrace – that will bring good fortune and high spirits, provided she is chaste and worthy.

“You must also know, son of mine, that the proud, bold Lähelin has won in battle from your princes two lands, which ought to serve your hand: Waleis and Norgals. One of your princes, Turkentals, met his death at his hand – he slew and took captive our people.”

“That I’ll avenge, mother, God willing. My javelin will wound him yet.”

Next morning, when the day appeared, the boy quickly formed his decision – he was in a hurry to find Arthur. Lady Herzeloyde kissed him and ran after him. Sorrow befell the whole world there! When she could no longer see her son, he having ridden off – who’s any the better for this? – then that lady slow to falsity fell down upon the ground, where grief gave her such a cut that death did not shun her.

Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival,
Book 3, stanzas 117-128, translated by Cyril Edwards

Read my interview with Cyril Edwards here

Read the other Great Myths here

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