Quick Links:
 • Home
 • Essays
 • Teaching
 • Sitemap

 Course Pages:
 • German 101
 • German 102
 • German 203
 • German 204
Parzival: Midterm Examination

2. "The epic is an outward and inner journey leading to recognition."

Epics often take the form of journeys by which the hero completes the highest possible achievement and proves himself worthy of the role which fate has carved out for him. Underway on the journey, the hero must pass through treacherous situations which teach him and help him to develop his strengths. Odysseus' travels allow him to prove and expand his physical prowess, his mental agility, and, in the end, his faithfulness and compassion; Aeneas, too, travels towards a specific goal, through many dangers, in order to redeem and prove himself worthy. Medieval Germanic epics follow a similar journey form, but, in many cases, the hero travels not only to reach a physical goal, but a spiritual one as well. Thus Hartmann's Gregorius must learn the intellectual and spiritual tenets of his world while also perfecting his knightly behavior in order to become the ideal ruler and pope. Similarly, in Wolfram's Parzival, the hero not only journeys toward physical and knightly perfection, but toward an inner mâze and staete which enables him to become the perfect Gralsritter. Parzival takes this combination of inner and outer development to a new height in the medieval epic, however, by interweaving both levels and mirroring the outer courtly development with the inner education of the spirit.

Throughout Parzival's passage to enlightenment, he is shown to reach certain stations, each of which represents a step towards the final product. Scenes such as Herzeloyde or Gurnemanz delivering their teachings to the young Parzival are clear indications of these steps: at each point, the young lad learns how to behave or react to situations that he will later encounter. While some of these teachings deal with outward behavior (e.g. Herzeloyde's reminder that Parzival should seek out the favor of a lady and win her kiss and her broach), others touch more of a spiritual mindset ("irn sult niht vil gefrâgen," with its disastrous consequences, is less a societal commandment than an indication of the peaceful, reserved, and self-sufficient intellect which Parzival will eventually develop). As Parzival passes through these stations, he continues in his efforts to become a good courtly knight, complete with armor, horse, battle-readiness, and courtly art and manners, while at the same time he is gradually developing the moral and ethical qualities -- compassion, truthfulness, intelligence, steadfastness -- needed for his future position as Gralsritter.

Some of the most interesting moments in Parzival arise when these outward and inner levels clash or come together in a manner that sets each of them apart. A prime example is the young hero's battle with the Red Knight, Ither. On one level, by winning Ither's luxurious armor, Parzival has gained a necessary component of knighthood, and is thus closer to his goal of becoming a true courtly knight. At the same time, the very manner by which he kills Ither, as well as his refusal to part with the clothes his mother gave him, betrays Parzival's inner tumbheit, his immaturity and inability to behave in the manner required by the Gralsfamilie.

When he first encounters Ither in the field before Arthur's court, Parzival is immediately struck by the knight's impressive armor and accoutrements. Clearly the hero recognizes that in order to become a respected knight of the land, he, too, must have such a worthy outward appearance, and he thus sets forth to win the knight's armor from him. The Red Knight, obviously seeking no quarrel with this young fool, calls Parzival "dear friend" (p. 81) [1] and compliments his beauty and appearance. The true knight would respond, it seems, by repaying the compliment and, perhaps, even desiring to know the other's identity and position. If Parzival had so inquired, we later learn, he might have avoided the tragic battle with Ither, who is his own relative -- as Trevrizent reproaches, "You are kin to Ither, yet your hand denied the kinship." (p. 266) But the young innocent's desire for outward trappings outpaces his inner maturity, and the two end up in mortal combat. In fact, Parzival refuses to discuss anything with Ither, and focuses exclusively on his covetous desire for the armor: "Hand it over," he exclaims, "and stop this foolish talk." (p. 86) Parzival declares that his mind is set on becoming a knight, and that the armor is the necessary prerequisite for that standing, and as such rightfully should be given to him. "I'm not going to be a squire any longer. I'm going to carry the shield of a knight," he reports (p. 86), as if the external trappings were all that mattered to attain knighthood.

When Ither strikes Parzival in response to such a rude demand, the young hero is stunned, but immediately seizes the advantage. Since he cares (and knows) nothing of the rules and conventions of knightly honor, Parzival unabashedly uses his javelot to pierce through the holes in the Red Knight's helmet and strikes him dead through the eyes, in one blow. Again, the true courtly knight would never, on his honor, have performed such a base deed, but to Parzival it seemed the only choice open to him. Once defeated, the Knight's armor becomes the sole interest of the young lad: he struggles in vain to remove Ither's helmet and kneepieces, but "though he trie[s] again and again in his simplicity" (p. 86), he does not know enough to handle the armor on his own. It falls to the squire Iwanet, "nimble-witted" as he is, to find Parzival "in childish distress" and aid him in donning the slain knight's armor. Throughout this passage, emphasis is laid on the slow and stupid thinking of Parzival, who, though he may have won the Knight's armor, has a long journey ahead on the road to inner enlightenment and recognition.

The symbol of Parzival's inner immaturity is presented clearly in the next scene: while helping Parzival into the new armor, Iwanet points out that the old clothes -- the fool's costume made by Herzeloyde -- must be removed in order to fit the boots on properly. But the young hero, tied as he is to the infantile reliance on his mother and the childish thinking he had always known, refuses to discard his mother's clothes: "Anything my mother gave me is not going to be cast off." (p. 87) The young lad's refusal to sever the trappings of his childhood and immaturity is yet another tragic decision which shows his inner development to be lacking. Not until he learns and truly understands the error of his ways (with help from Trevrizent as well as from Cundrie's lambasting) will Parzival reach the level of inner enlightenment needed to take his place in the Gralsburg. Having the armor is the outward appearance of knighthood (and indeed, when Parzival leaves Arthur wearing the red armor, he is for the first time called a "man" rather than a "lad"), and thus is the first step on his path to societal standing, but his inner immaturity is constantly referenced. Indeed, the very taking of Ither's armor in such a base fashion, as necessary as it may have been at the time, indicates at once the two types of journey which the hero must undertake.

Clearly the Parzival epic is set apart from its contemporaries by its complexity in plot, tone, and textual coherence. It reflects, perhaps more than any other epic, the blending of inner and outward journeys that the hero undergoes. Whether such a two-tiered journey is characteristic of all epics, however, is a far larger question that would take a great deal more discussion. Although other medieval epics such as Gregorius do reflect this statement, I have serious doubts as to whether it could apply to a Heldenepos such as the Nibelungenlied, in which the emphasis, however personal and traumatic, is more on external events, causalities and the preservation of knightly êre and triuwe. Nonetheless, Parzival's legacy of a journey toward societal as well as moral education has had a great impact on later genres of German literature such as the Bildungsroman, and must be counted as a supreme representative of its time and place in medieval Germany.

1. Song of Praise for Rüdiger

Hear ye all now, ye knights of the land
Of Rüdiger the righteous, and of his sad fate.
Oh, where do I begin to tell of his strength,
His courage and his honor, and what it all cost?

A great warrior was he, and the fairest of men,
Many thousands of warriors lost their lives to him here.
His sword it was strong, his shieldnever broke,
He fought off all foes that tried to oppose him.

Above all he sought to uphold his honor
For honorable he was, up until the end.
He lived to be true, to be fair, good and honest --
Even his servants can testify to that.

But fate played her hand and laid him a trap:
Too many loyalties that conflicted in his court.
His promise to Kriemhild, that he would always uphold
Her honor and protect her, revenge her if needed.

He held to his promise, no matter the cost
When Attila added his own pleas to hers,
That Rüdiger might help them avenge against Hagen
Who killed off their son, their heir and their pride.

But complicating the matter were Rüdiger's own ties
Of friendship and hosting to the Nibelungen lords;
Having invited them in, how could he with honor
Turn against them now, and break the Gastfreundschaft oath?

Compounded with the fact that they were his family,
By marriage at least, his own young daughter given
To Giselher, with Gunther and Gernot the kings.
Surely no man has faced such a dilemma!

But try as he might to dissolve those bonds --
Convince the Burgunden to leave, and with them take Hagen,
Or even try to talk Kriemhild out of revenge --
No, the scene had been set, and follow it he must.

So fate cruelly dealt him this inescapable mess.
He chose the most binding of the oaths he had taken
To Kriemhild, the princess, whose son now lay dead,
To aid her, avenge him and get rid of Hagen.

Alas, what a choice -- it had to go badly!
He fought well and hard against his own friends
And when the time came, he gave them no quarter
But took many men with him on this fateful day.

Together with Gernot he died here today.
Killed by his friend's hand, but nobly and honorably.
He chose the only path that honor would allow
And he made the land poorer, his daughter an orphan.

Now hear me, ye knights and ladies of the land:
Rüdiger was truly the greatest of men!
May his spirit live on and his memory never fade.
We shall sing of his glory and honor forever!


(1)  All citations from Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival: A Romance of the Middle Ages, trans. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage, New York: VintageBooks, 1961. [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1998 for German 611 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Parzival As Epic: A Journey Leading to Recognition." Website Article. 26 October 1998. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/611midterm.html>.