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. Wolfram uses 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 15, which introduces the mixed-race knight Feirefis to the Grail legend. Parzival comes upon the heathen knight, and they fight each other to a draw before discovering their common heritage. The half-brothers then join Arthur’s Round Table and go on the Grail Quest.
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.
Full soon had he come, our hero, to a mighty woodland shade,
And without, in the light of the dawning, his armour a knight displayed.
‘Twere a marvel could I, a poor man, of the riches now speak to ye
That the heathen he bare as his decking, so costly their worth should be
If more than enough I told ye, yet more would be left to tell;
Yet I would not his wealth were hidden – What of riches, I ween, shall dwell
In Bretagne alike and England, and be tribute to Arthur’s might,
They had paid not the stones that, shining, glowed fair on his armour bright.
Now the knight, so young and gallant, in a haven beside the wood,
But little known, on the water had anchored his ships so good.
And his armies were five-and-twenty, and they knew not each other’s speech –
’Twas a token fair of his riches, and the lands that his power might reach,
As the armies, so were the kingdoms that did service unto his hand –
And Moor and Saracens were they, and unlike was each warlike band,
And the hue of their skins was diverse – Thus gathered from lands afar
Ye might see in his mighty army strange weapons of heathen war.
So thus, in search of adventure, from his army this man would ride,
In the woodland green he wandered, and waited what should betide.
And since thus it well doth please them, so let them ride, these kings,
Alone, in search of ventures, and the fair fame that combat brings.
Yet Parzival rode not lonely, methinks he had comrades twain,
Himself, and the lofty courage that lord o’er his soul did reign.
And that he so bravely fought here might win from a woman praise,
If falsehood should not mislead her, that injustice should rule her ways.
So spurred they against each other, who were lambs in their purity,
Yet as lions were they bold and dauntless, ’twas a sight for a man to see!
With skill do they wield their weapons, and sparks spring from the helmets fair,
And a whistling wind ariseth as the blades cleave the summer air;
God have Gamuret’s son in His keeping! and the prayer it shall stand for both,
For the twain shall be one nor, I think me, to own it were either loth.
For had they but known each other their stake ne’er had been so great,
For blessing, and joy, and honour, were risked on that combat’s fate,
For he who shall here be victor, if true brother and knight he be,
Of all this world’s joy is he forfeit, nor from grief may his heart be free!
And a gallant knight was the heathen, and he spake out, right courteously,
(Tho’ the tongue was the tongue of a heathen yet in fair French his speech should be,)
‘Now I see well, thou gallant hero, thou hast no sword wherewith to fight,
And the fame shall be small I win me if I fight with an unarmed knight,
But rest thee awhile from conflict, and tell me who thou shalt be,
For the fame that so long I cherished it surely had fallen to thee
Had the blow not thy sword-blade shattered – Now, let peace be betwixt us twain,
And our wearied limbs will we rest here ere we get us to strife again.’
Then down on the grass they sat them, and courteous and brave were they,
Nor too young nor too old for battle – fit foemen they were that day!
Then the heathen, he spake to the Christian ‘Believe me, Sir Knight, that ne’er
Did I meet with a man so worthy the crown of such fame to bear
As a knight in strife may win him – Now, I prithee, tell thou to me
Thy name, and thy race, that my journey may here not unfruitful be!
Quoth the son of fair Herzeleide, ‘Thro’ fear shall I tell my name?
For thou assets of me such favour as a victor alone may claim!’
Spake the heathen prince from Thasmé, ‘Then that shame shall be mine, ween,
For first will I speak my title, and the name that mine own hath been;
“Feierfis Angevin” all men call me, and such riches are mine, I trow,
That the folk of full many a kingdom ‘neath my sceptre as vassals bow!’
Then, e’en as the words were spoken, to the heathen quoth Parzival,
‘How shall “Angevin” be thy title, since as heirdom to me it fell,
Anjou, with its folk and its castles, its lands and its cities fair?
Nay, choose thee some other title, if though, courteous, would hear my prayer!
If thro’ thee I have lost my kingdom, and the fair town Bealzenan,
Then wrong hadst thou wrought upon me ere ever our strife began!
If one of us twain is an Angevin then by birthright that one am I! –
And yet, of a truth, was it told me, that afar ‘neath as Eastern sky,
There dwelleth a dauntless hero, who, with courage and knightly skill,
Such love and such fame hath won him that he ruleth them at his will.
And men say, he shall be my brother – and that all they who know his name
Account him a knight most valiant, and he weareth the crown of fame!’
In a little space he spake further, ‘If, Sir Knight, I thy face might see,
I should know if the truth were told me, if in sooth thou art kin to me.
Sir Knight, wilt thou trust mine honour, then loosen thine helmet’s band,
I will swear till once more thou arm thee to stay from all strife mine hand!
Then out he spake, the heathen, ‘Of such strife have I little fear,
For e’en were my body naked, my sword, I still hold it here!
Of a sooth must thou be the vanquished, for since broken shall be thy sword
What availeth thy skill in combat keen death from thine heart to ward,
Unless, of free will, I spare thee? For, ere thou couldst clasp me round,
My steel, thro’ the iron of thy harness, thy flesh and thy bone had found!’
Then the heathen, so strong and gallant, he dealt as a knight so true,
‘Nor mine nor thine shall this sword be!’ and straight from his hand it flew,
Afar in the wood he cast it, and he quoth, ‘Now, methinks, Sir Knight,
The chance for us both shall be equal, if further we think to fight!’
Quoth Feirefis, ‘Now, thou hero, by thy courteous breeding fair,
Since in sooth thou shalt have a brother, say, what face doth that brother bare,
And Parzival deemed that he found there a gift o’er all others fair,
For straightway he knew the other, (as a magpie, I ween, his face,)
And hatred and wrath were slain here in a brotherly embrace.
Yea, friendship far better ‘seemed them, who owed to one sire their life,
Than anger, methinks, and envy – Truth and Love made an end of strife.
Then joyful he spake, the heathen, ‘Now well shall it be with me,
And I thank the gods of my people that Gamuret’s son I see.
Blest be Juno, the queen of heaven, since, methinks, she hath ruled it so,
And Jupiter, by whose virtue and strength I such bliss may know,
Gods and goddesses, I will love ye, and worship your strength for aye –
And blest be those shining planets, ‘neath the power of whose guiding ray
I hither have made my journey – For ventures I here would seek,
And found thee, brother, sweet and awful, whose strong hand hath made me weak.
And blest be the dew, and the breezes, that this morning my brow have fanned.
Ah! thou courteous knight who holdest love’s key in thy valiant hand!
Ah! happy shall be the woman whose eyes on thy face shall light,
Already is bliss her portion who seeth so fair a sight!
When Feirefis and Parzival arrive in Arthur’s camp, they are greeted by Gawain and given an audience with the king:
And soon as he doffed his harness they gazed on the wondrous sight,
And they who might speak of marvels said, in sooth, that this heathen knight,
Feirefis, was strange to look on! and wondrous marks he bore –
Quoth Gawain to Parzival, ‘Cousin, I ne’er saw his like before,
Now who may he be, thy comrade? For in sooth he is strange to see!’
Quoth Parzival, ‘Are we kinsmen, then thy kinsman this knight shall be,
As Gamuret’s name may assure thee – Of Zassamank is he king,
There my father he won Belanké who this prince to the world did bring.’
Then Gawain, he kissed the heathen – Now the noble Feirefis
Was black and white all over, save his mouth was half red, I wis!
And Feirefis sat by King Arthur, nor would either prince delay
To the question each asked the other courteous answer to make straightway –
Quoth King Arthur, ‘May God be praised, for He honoureth us I ween,
Since this day within our circle so gallant a guest is seen,
No knight hath Christendom welcomed to hear shores from a heathen land
Whom, an he desired my service, I had served with such willing hand!
Quoth Feirefis to King Arthur, ‘Misfortune hath left my side,
Since the day that my goddess Juno, with fair winds and a favouring tide,
Led my sail to this Western kingdom! Methinks that thou nearest thee
In such wise as he should of whose valour many tales have been told to me;
If indeed thou art called King Arthur, then know that in many a land
Thy name is both known and honoured, and thy fame o’er all knights doth stand.’
And Arthur willed ere the morrow a banquet, rich and fair,
On the grassy plain before him they should without fail prepare,
That Feirefis they might welcome as befitting so brave a guest.
‘Now be ye in this task not slothful, but strive, as shall seem ye best,
Then henceforth he be one of our circle, of the Table Round, a knight.’
And they spake, they would win that favour, if so be in it should seem him right.
Then Feirefis, the rich hero, he brotherhood with them aware;
And they quaffed the cup of parting, and forth to their tents would fare.
And joy it came with the morning, if here I the truth may say,
And many were glad at the dawning of a sweet and a welcome day.
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 joins the Round Table (ca. early 1200s) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.