The epic poem Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach (ca. 1170-1220) is one of the greatest works of medieval literature. The story centers on Parzival, son of Gamuret (also Gahmuret), who joins the quest for the Holy Grail and also gives a prominent place to his half-brother Feirefis (also Feirefiz), who is the son of an African queen and whose skin is both black and white. Wolfram uses the the tale to puncture the chivalric, knightly ideal while also providing incisive and witty commentary on contemporary society more generally. Its quality can be seen in its lasting influence, especially on nineteenth-century writers and composers, most notably Richard Wagner.
The excerpts below come from Book 16, which introduces Feirefis to the Grail legend. Having completed their quest, Parzival, Feirefis and the other knights are greeted by the Grail’s keepers. As a heathen, Feirefis is not able to see the Grail, but he is captivated by the maiden Répanse de Schoie, who bears the cup. Feirefis agrees to be baptized to win her hand. He converts, marries, and then takes up the Grail’s command to spread the Gospel. Feirefis and Répanse travel eastward as far as India where their son, the legendary Prester John, will found a Christian kingdom that Europeans long hoped would become an ally against Islam.
As with the tales of the Saracen brothers Sir Safir, Sir Palamedes, Sir Segwarides and the Moorish Sir Morien, the incorporation of non-white knights into the Arthurian legend not only reflects the presence of Black soldiers in Europe but also shows Christian writers grappling with the encounter with Islam and hoping for distant lands open to Christian conversion.
Book XVI Lohengrin
Afortime methinks ye heard it, how they to Anfortas bare
The Grail, even so would they do now ‘fore the child of King Tampentäre,
And Gamuret’s son – The maidens, no longer they make delay,
Five-and-twenty in rightful order they went thro’ the hall their way.
And Feirefis gazed on the first maid, with her sweet face and waving hair,
And she pleased him well, yet the others who followed were yet more fair;
And costly and rich their garments, and lovely each maiden’s face,
But Répanse de Schoie, who followed, was first in her maiden grace,
And the Grail, so men have told me, might be borne by her hand alone;
Pure was her heart, and radiant as sunlight her fair face shone.
Did I tell ye of all the service – how many did water pour,
And the tables they bare, (I wot well far more than they had of yore,)
How discord fled from the palace; how the cars on their circuit rolled,
With their freight of golden vessels, ‘twere long ere the tale were told.
For the sake of speed would I hasten – with reverence from the Grail
Each took of the fowl the forest, wild or tame, now their drink should fail;
Each took wine or mead as it pleased him, Claret, Morass, or Sinopel;
At Pelrapär ’twas far other, as Gamuret’s son might tell!
Then the heathen would know the wonder – What hands did these gold
That stood empty here before him? The wonder, it pleased him still!
Then answered the fair Anfortas, who sat by the heathen’s side,
’Seest though not the Grail before thee?’ But Feirefis replied,
‘Naught I see but a green Achmardi, that my Lady but now did bear,
I mean her who stands before us with the crown on her flowing hair,
And her look to mine heart hath pierced – I deemed I so strong should be
That never a wife nor a maiden my gladness should take from me;
But now doth it sore displease me, the love I may call mine own –
Discourteous indeed I think me to make unto thee my moan
When I never have done thee service! What profits my wealth, I trow,
Or the deeds I have done for fair women, or the gifts that I gave but now,
Since here I must live in anguish! Nay, Jupiter, thou wast fain
I should ride here, didn’t hither send me to torment of grief and pain?’
And the strength of his love, and his sorrow, turned him pale where he erst was light –
Kondwiramur, she had found a rival in this maiden’s beauty bright –
In her love-meshes did she hold him, Feirefis, the noble guest,
And the love that he erst had cherished he cast it from out his breast.
What recked he of Sekundillé, her love, and her land so fair,
Since she wrought on him woe so bitter, this maiden beyond compare?
Klaudité, and Sekundillé, Olympia, and many more,
Who in distant lands had repaid him with love for his deeds of yore,
What cared he now for their kindness? It seemed but a worthless thing
To Gamuret’s son, the heathen, great Zassamank’s noble king!
Then he saw, the fair Anfortas, his comrade in pain so sore,
(For the spots in his skin waxed pallid, and heavy the heart he bore,)
And he spake, ‘Sir Knight, it doth grieve me if thou dost for my sister mourn,
No man for her sake hath sorrowed since the day that the maid was born.
No knight for her joust hath ridden; to none doth she favour show;
But with me did she dwell at Monsalväsch, and hath shared in my bitter woe,
And it somewhat hath dimmed her beauty, since she seldom hath joyful been –
Thy brother is son to her sister, he may help thee in this I ween.’
‘If that maiden shall be thy sister,’ quoth Feirefis Angevin,
‘Who the crown on her loose locks weareth, then help me her love to win.
’Tis she that my heart desireth – What honour mine hand hath won
With shield and spear in Tourney, for her sake hath it all been done,
And I would she might now reward me! The Tourney hath fashions five,
And well known unto me is each one, nor against knightly rule I strive.
Spear in rest ‘gainst the foe have I ridden; I have smitten him from the side;
His onslaught have I avoided; nor to fair joust have failed to ride
In gallop, as should beseem me; I have followed the flying foe –
Since the shield, it hath been my safeguard, such sorrow I ne’er may know
At Agremontein, I bare then a shield of Asbestos bright,
And a surcoat of Salamander, else sure had I there been burned;
And in sooth my life have I perilled, and my fame have I dearly earned.
Ah! would but thy sister send me to battle for love’s reward,
In strife would I do her bidding, and her fame and mine own would guard.
And ever my heart fierce hatred to my god Jupiter shall bear,
If he make not an end of my sorrow, and give me this maiden fair!’
Of the twain, Frimutel was the father, and therefore Anfortas bore
E’en such face and such form as his sister – Then the heathen he looked once more
On the maiden and then on her brother – What they bare him of drink or meat
No morsel he ate, yet he sat there as one who made feint to eat.
Then to Parzival spake Anfortas, ‘Sir King, it doth seem to me
That thy brother, who sitteth by me, he faileth the Grail to see!’
And Feirefis spake that he saw naught, nor knew what It was ‘the Grail’;
And they hearkened his words, the Templars, and a marvel they deemed
And Titurel needs must hear it, in his chamber the old king lay,
And he quoth, ‘If he be heathen, then such thought shall he put away
As the eyes unbaptised may win them the power to behold the Grail!
Such barriers are built around It, his sight to the task shall fail.’
Then they bare to the hall these tidings, and the host and Anfortas told
How that which the folk did nourish, Feirefis,he might ne’er behold,
Since from heathen eyes It was hidden, and they prayed him to seek the grace
Of Baptism, by its virtue he should win him in Heaven a place.
‘If I, for your sake, be baptized, will that help me to win my love?’
Spake Gamuret’s son, the heathen – ‘As a wind shall all sorrows prove,
That wooing or war shall have brought me, to the grief that I now must feel!
If long or short the time be since I first felt the touch of steel,
And fought ‘neath a shield, such anguish ne’er hath fallen unto my share,
And tho’ love should, I ween, be hidden, yet my heart would its grief declare!’
‘Of whom dost thou speak?’ quoth the Waleis, ‘of non e but that lady bright,
Who is sister to this, thy comrade – If thou, as a faithful knight,
Wilt help me to win the maiden, I will give her with kingly hand
Great riches, and men shall hail her as queen over many a land!’
‘If to Baptism thou wilt yield thee,’ spake the host, ‘then her love is thine,
(And as thou I right well may hail thee, since the Grail and Its realm are mine,
And our riches methinks are equal)’ – Quoth Feirefis Angevin,
‘Then help me to bliss, my brother, that the love of thine aunt I win.
And, if Baptism be won by battle, then help me to strife I pray,
That I, for sweet love’s rewarding, may do service without delay.
And mine ear well doth love the music when the spear-shafts in splinters break,
And the helmet rings clear ‘neath the sword-thrust, and the war-cry the echo wakes.’
Then Parzival laughed out gaily, and Anfortas, he laughed yet more,
‘Nay, nay’ quoth the host, ‘such blessing is no guerdon for deeds of war.
I will give unto thee the maiden, by true Baptism’s grace and power,
But the god and the love of the heathen shalt thou leave in the self-same hour;
And to-morrow, at early dawning, will I give to thee counsel true,
Whose fruit shall be seen in the crowning of thy life with a blessing new!’
Now Anfortas, before his sickness, in many a distant land
Had won him fair fame, for Love’s sake, by the deeds of his knightly hand.
And the thoughts of his heart were gentle, and generous he was and free,
And his right hand had won full often the guerdon of victory;
So they sat in the wondrous presence of the Grail, three heroes true,
The best of their day, and the bravest that sword-blade in battle drew.
An ye will, they enough had eaten – They, courteous, the tables bare
From the hall, and as serving-maidens, low bent they, those maidens fair.
And Feirefis Angevin saw them as forth from the hall they passed,
And in sorrow and deeper anguish I ween was the hero cast.
And she who his heart held captive, she bare from the hall the Grail,
And leave did they crave of their monarch, nor his will to their will should fail.
How the queen, herself, she passed hence; how men did their task begin;
Of the bedding soft they brought him who for love’s pain no rest might win;
How one and all, the Templars, with kindness would put away
His grief, ‘twere too long to tell ye – speak we now of the dawning day.
In the light of the early morning came his brother, Parzival,
With the noble knight Anfortas, and in this wise the tale they tell;
This knight who to love was captive, proud Zassamank’s lord and king,
They prayed, of true heart, to follow, and they would to the Temple bring,
The wisest men of the Templars – knights and servants, and goodly band,
Were there ere the heathen entered: the Font was a ruby rare,
And it stood on a rounded pillar that of Jasper was fashioned fair,
And of old Titurel, he gave it, and the cost was great I ween –
Then Parzival spake to his brother, ‘This maid wouldst thou have for queen,
Then the gods thou hast served henceforward thou shalt for her sake for swear,
And ever thine arms, as a true knight, ‘gainst the foes of the true God bear,
And, faithful, still do His bidding’–‘Yes, aught that may win my love,’
Quoth the heathen, ‘I’ll do right gladly, and my deeds shall my truth approve.’
Now the Font, toward the Grail had they turned it, filled with water, nor hot nor cold,
And a priest by its side did wait them, and grey-haired he was, and old;
He had plunged ‘neath baptismal waters full many a paynim child,
And he spake to the noble heathen, and gentle his speech and mild –
‘If thy soul thou wouldst wrest from the Devil, thou shalt serve Him who reigns on high,
And Threefold is He, yet but One God for aye is the Trinity.
God is Man, and the Word of His Father, God is Father at once and Son,
And alike shall the twain be honoured, and the Spirit with them is One!
In the Threefold Name shall it cleanse thee, this water, with Threefold might,
And from shadows of heathen darkness shalt thou pass into Christian light.
In water was He baptised, in Whose likeness was Adam made,
And each tree from the water draweth its sap, and its leafy shade.
By water all flesh is nourished, and all that on earth doth live,
And the eyes of man are quickened, such virtue doth water give;
And many a soul is cleanseth; till it shineth so pure and white
That the angles themselves in heaven methinks shall be scarce so bright!’
To the priest then he spake, the heathen, ‘If it bringeth me ease for woe
I will swear whatsoe’er thou biddest – If reward in her love I know,
Then gladly I’ll do His bidding – Yes, brother, I here believe
In the God of my love, and for her sake all other gods I’ll leave,
(For such sorrow as she hath brought me I never have known before,)
And it profiteth naught Sekundillé the love that to me she bore,
And the honour that she hath done me – All that shall have passed away–In the Name of the God of my father would I fain be baptized to-day!’
Then the priest laid his hands upon him, and the blessing baptismal gave,
And he did on the chrisom vesture, and he won what his soul did crave,
For e’en as he was baptized they made ready the maiden mild,
And for christening gift they gave him King Frimutel’s lovely child.
From his eyes had the Grail been hidden ere baptismal water brightHad passed o’er his head, but henceforward, ’twas unveiled to his wondering sight,
And, e’en as the rite was over, on the Grail they this writing read;
‘The Templar whom God henceforward to a strange folk should send as head,
Must forbid all word or question of his country, or name, or race,
If they willed he aright should help them, and they would in his sight find grace.
For the day that they ask the question that folk must he leave straightway’ –
Since the time that their king, Anfortas, so long in his anguish lay,
And the question o’er-long awaited, all questioners but please them ill,
The knights of the Grail, and no man doth question them with their will.
Then in joy and in fair diversion, till eleven days were o’er,
Feirefis abode at Monsalväsch, on the twelfth would he ride once-more,
He would lead his wife, this rich man, to his army that yet did wait
His coming, and Parzival sorrowed for the brother he won so late,
And mourned sore when he heard the tidings – Then counsel he took straightway,
And a goodly force of the Templars did he send with them on their way,
Thro’ the woodland paths should they guide them – Anfortas, the gallant knight,
Himself fain would be their escort – sore wept many maidens bright.
And new pathways they needs must cut them to Karkobra’s city fair –
Then Anfortas, he sent a message to him who was Burg-grave there;
And he bade him, if aye of aforetime rich gifts from his hand he won
To bethink him, that so this service of true heart by him be done;
His brother-in-law with his lady, the king’s sister, he now must guide
Thro’ the wood Loehprisein, where the haven afar lieth wild and wide –
For now ’twas the hour of parting, nor further the knights must fare,
But Anfortas, he spake to Kondrie, and he bade her the message bear.
Then from Feirefis, the rich man, the Templars leave did pray,
And the courteous knight and noble rode hence on his homeward way.
And the Burg-grave no whit delayed him, but he did e’en at Kondrie’s word,
And gave welcome fair and knightly to the folk and their noble lord.
Nor might Feirefis grow weary of his stay, at the dawn of day,
With many a knight as escort, they guided him on his way.
But I know not how far he had ridden, nor the countries his eyes had seen
Ere he came once more to Ioflanz, and its meadows, so fair and green.
And some of the folk yet abode there – and Feirefis fain had known,
In the self-same hour, the tidings of whither the host had flown;
For each one had sought his country, and the road that full well he knew – King Arthur to Camelot journeyed with many a hero true –
Then he of Tribalibot hastened, and his army he sought once more,
For his ships lay yet in the haven, and they grieved for their lord full sore
And his coming brought joy and courage to many a hero bold –
The Burg-grave and his knights from Karkobra he rewarded with gifts and gold –
And strange news did they tell unto Kondrie, for messengers sought the host,
Sekundillé was dead; with the tidings they many a sea had crossed.
Then first in her distant journey did Répanse de Schoie find joy,
And in India’s realm hereafter did she bear to the king a boy;
And Prester John they called him, and he won to himself such fame
That henceforward all kings of his country were known by no other name.
And Feirefis sent a writing thro’ the kingdoms whose crown he bore,
And the Christian Faith was honoured as it never had been of yore
(And Tribalibot was that country which as India here we know.)
Then Feirefis spake to Kondrie, and he bade her his brother show
(Who reigneth in far Mosalväsch) what had chanced unto him, the king,
And the death of Queen Sekundillé – and the tidings the maid did bring;
And Anfortas was glad and joyful to think that his sister fair,
Without or strife or conflict, the crown of those lands might bear.
Source: Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, a Knightly Epic, trans. by Jessie L. Weston (New York: G. E. Stechert & Co., 1912).
Parzival: A mixed-race knight takes Christianity to the world (ca. early 1200s) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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