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 story to construct a chivalric, knightly ideal while also providing incisive and witty commentary on contemporary society. Its quality can be seen in its lasting influence, especially on nineteenth-century writers and composers, most notably Richard Wagner.
The passages below come from Book I, which follows Gamuret of Anjou as he travels the world seeking adventure. He journeys to the Middle East and then to the African kingdom of Zassamank, where he finds the noble Queen Belakané (also Belacane) besieged by the King of Scotland. He frees the queen, and they fall in love and marry, and their extraordinary son Feirefis (also Feirefiz) has skin that is mottled black and white. Eventually Gamuret becomes bored and abandons them both on the pretext that she is a pagan. Before leaving, he makes sure that Feirefis knows who his father is, thus setting up Feirefis’s later encounters with his half-brother Parzival.
The passages here from Book I are remarkable for the idealized depiction of Belakané’s blackness and Feirefis’s “magpie” complexion. Wolfram first confirms and then subtly overturns contemporary associations of blackness (sinfulness, faithlessness, ugliness) and whiteness (purity, nobility, beauty) to suggest both the fallibility of his characters and the availability of the Gospel to all.
If unfaith in the heart find dwelling, then the soul it shall reap but woe;
And shaming alike and honour are his who such doubt shall show
For it standeth in evil contrast with a true man’s dauntless might,
As one seeth the magpie’s plumage, which at one while is black and white.
And yet he may win to blessing; since I wot well that in his heart,
Hell’s darkness, and light of heaven, alike have their lot and part.
But he who is false and unsteadfast, he is black as the darkest night,
And the soul that hath never wavered stainless its hue is white!
(lines 1 –8)
And his heart never failed or faltered, but onward his course he bare
To Zassamank’s land and kingdom; there all men wept that hero fair, Eisenhart, who in knightly service gave his life for a woman’s smile;
Belakané thereto constrained him, sweet maid she, and free from guile
(Since her love she never gave him, for love’s sake did the hero die,)
And his kinsmen would fain avenge him, and with force and with subtlety
Their armies beset the maiden, but in sooth she could guard her well
Ere Gamuret came to her kingdom, and her wrath on her foemen fell.
For the Prince Friedebrand of Scotland, and his host that against came
By ship, ere he left her kingdom had she wasted with fire and flame.
(239 – 248)
When the young Angevin had hearkened to the tale of their bitter pain,
He proffered to them his service for such payment as knight may gain,
(As it oft shall befit a hero) – They should say for what goodly prize
He should dare the hate of their foemen? And they answered him in this wise
With one mouth the hale and the wounded – Naught would they from him withhold,
But lord should he be of their treasure, of their jewels alike and gold,
A fair life should he lead among them! – But such payment he little sought,
For many a golden nugget from Araby had he brought.
And dark as night were the people who in Zassamank dwelt alway –
And the time it seemed long unto him that he need in their midst must stay –
But he bade them prepare a lodging, and methinks it became them well
The best of their land to give him, since awhile he with them would dwell.
And the women they looked from the windows, and they gazed on the noble knight,
And they looked on his squires, and his harness, how ’twas fashioned for deeds of might.
(259 – 270)
And much folk was within the city, and Moors were both man and maid.
Then the hero he looked around him, and, lo! many a shield displayed,
Battle-hewn and with spear-thrust pierced they hung on each wall and door.
And wailing and woe was their portion; for the knight at each window saw
Many men lie sorely wounded, who to breathe the air were fain,
And e’en tho’ a leech might tend them no help might they think to gain
Who were hurt too sore for healing – In the field had they faced the foe,
And such shall be their rewarding who in conflict no flight will know –
Many horses were led towards him, sword-hewn and with lance thrust through;
And on each side stood dusky maidens, and black as the night their hue
(295 – 304)
Then the Burg-grave of the city, with fair words did he pray his guest
To deal with him and his household in such wise as should seem best.
And the host, he led the hero to his wife, and courteously
Did Gamuret kiss the lady, small joy in the kiss had he!
Then they sat them down to the table, and e’en as the feast was o’er,
The Marshal he gat him swiftly to the queen, and the tidings bore,
And craved from her goodly payment, as to messenger shall be due.
And he spake, ‘It shall end in gladness, the grief that erewhile we knew,
We have welcomed here, O Lady, a knight of such gallant mien,
We must thank the gods who have sent him, for our need they have surely seen.’
(311 – 320)
‘Now fain would I speak with the hero, see though to the time and way;
E’en now might he ride to the castle, for peace shall be kept to-day.
Were it better that I should seek him? He is other than we in face,
Pray Heaven it not displease him, but our need with the knight find grace!
I would that I first might know this, ere the rede from my folk I hear
That I show to this stranger honour – If it pleaseth him to draw near,
Say, how shall I best receive him? Shall the knight be so nobly born
That my kiss be not lost, if I kiss him?’
(335 – 342)
And in marvellous fair arraying he saw many ladies stand.
And the queen, her eyes brought her sorrow as she looked on the Angevin,
So lovely was he to look on that he needs must an entrance win
Thro’ the gates of her heart, if ’twere anguish or joy that within he bore,
Tho’ her womanhood ‘gainst all comers had held them fast closed before.
Then a space did she step towards him, and a kiss from her guest she prayed;
And, herself, by the hand she took him and they sat them, both man and maid
In a window wide, that looked forth from the palace upon the foe,
And a covering of wadded samite was spread o’er the couch below.
Is there aught that than day is lighter? Then it likeneth not the queen!
Yet else was she fair to look on, as a woman should be, I ween,
But unlike to the dew-dipped roses was her colour, yea, black as night.
And her crown was a costly ruby, and thro’ it ye saw aright
Her raven head. Then as hostess she spake to her guest this word,
That greatly she joyed at his coming, ‘Sir, Knight, I such tale have heard
Of thy knightly strength and prowess – Of thy courtesy, hear my fair,
For fain would I tell of my sorrow, and the woe that my heart dot bear!’
‘My help shall not fail thee, Lady! What hath grieved, or doth grieve thee now,
I think me aside to turn it, to thy service my hand I vow!
I am naught but one man only – Who hath wronged or now wrongeth thee
My shield will I hold against him – Little wroth shall thy foeman be!’
(362 – 382)
Then e’en tho’ she was a heathen Gamuret he be thought him well,
That a heart more true and tender ne’er in woman’s breast might dwell.
Her purity was her baptism, and as water that washed her o’er
Was the rain that streamed from her eyelids o’er her breast, and the robe she wore;
All her joy did she find in sorrow, and grief o’er her life did reign –
And many a glance thro’ her tear-drops on Gamuret shyly fell,
And her eyes to her heart gave counsel, and his beauty is pleased her well,
(And she knew how to judge a fair face, since fair heathen she oft had seen,)
And the root of true love and longing it sprang up the twain between.
She looked upon him, and his glances, they answering sought her own –
(447 – 451)
Nor long at the board they lingered – The hero was sad, and gay,
He was glad for the honour done him, yet a sorrow upon him lay,
And that was strong Love’s compelling, that a proud heart and courage high
Can bend to her will, and gladness shall oft at her bidding fly.
Then the hostess she passed to her chamber, yea, e’en as the meal was o’er;
And a couch did they spread for the hero, and love to the labour bore.
And the host to his guest spake kindly, ‘Now here shall thy sleep be sweet,
Though shalt rest thro’ the night that cometh, to thy need shall such rest be meet.’
Then he spake to his men, and he bade them they should hence from the hall away,
And the noble youths his pages, their couches around his lay
Each one with the head toward his master, for so was the custom good;
and tapers so tall and flaming alight round the chamber stood.
Yet ill did it please the hero that so long were the hours of the night,
For the Moorish queen so dusky, had vanquished his heart of might.
And he turned as a willow wand bendeth, till his joints they were heard to crack,
The strife and the love that he craved for he deemed he o’er-long did lack.
And his heart-beats they echoed loudly, as it swelled high for knighthood fain,
And he stretched himself as an archer who beneath a bow amain.
And so eager his lust for battle that sleepless the hero lay
(545 – 564)
Then he led him (ill it pleased him) and there met then the royal maid,And she loosened the bands of his vizor, and her hand on his bridle laid,
To her care must the Burg-grave yield it: nor his squires to their task were slack,
For they turned them about, and swiftly they rode on their master’s track.
So men saw the queen so gracious lead her guest thro’ the city street
Who here should be hailed the victor – Then she lighted her on her feet,
‘Ah me! but thy squires are faithful! Fear ye lest your lord be lost?
Without ye shall he be cared for; take his steed, here am I his host!’
And above found he many a maiden: then her hands of dusky hue
The queen set unto his harness, and disarmed the knight so true.
And the bed-covering was of sable, and the couch it was spread so fair,
And in secret a hidden honour they did for the knight prepare,
For no one was there to witness – The maidens they might not stay,
And the door was fast closed behind them, and Frau Minne might have her way.
So the queen in the arms of her true love found guerdon of sweet delight,
Tho’ unlike were the twain in their colour, Moorish princess and Christian knight!
(687 – 702)
Now that proud and gallant hero, his heart gave him little rest
Since he found there no deeds of knighthood, and gladness forsook his breast;
Yet his dusky wife was dearer than e’en his own life might be,
Ne’er knew he a truer lady whose heart was from falsehood free,
She forgat not what ‘seemed a woman, and with her as comrades good
Went purity untarnished, and the ways of true womanhood.
He was born in Seville’s fair city whom the knight would hereafter pray,
When he grew of his sojourn weary, to sail with him far away;
For many a mile had he led him, and he brought him unto his place,
And a Christian was he, the steersman, nor like to a Moor in face.
And wisely he spake, ‘Thou shalt hide it from them who a dark skin bear,
Too swift is my barque for pursuing, from hence shall we quickly fare!’
Then his gold it was borne to the vessel. Now of parting I needs must tell,
By night did he go, the hero, and his purpose he hid it well;
But when from his wife he sailed, in her womb did she bear his child:
And fair blew the wind, and the breezes bare him hence o’er the waters wild.
And the lady she found a letter, and ’twas writ by her husband’s hand;
And in French (for she well could read it) did the words of writing stand:
‘Here one love to another speaketh – As a thief have I stolen away
That mine eyes might not see thy sorrow – But this thing I needs must say,
Wert thou, e’en as I , a Christian I ever should weep for thee,
For e’en now I must sorely mourn thee. If it chance that our child shall be
In face like unto one other, then his is a dowry fair,
Of Anjou was he born, and Frau Minne for his lady he did declare.
Yet was he in strife a hailstorm, ill neighbour unto his foe;
That his grandsire hath been King Gander, this I will that my son shall know.
Dead he lay thro’ his deeds of knighthood; and his father the same death won,
Addanz was his name, and unsplintered his shield hath been seen of none;
And by birth he hath been a Breton, and two brothers’ sons were they,
He and the brave Pendragon, and their sires’ names I here will say;
For Lassalies he hath been the elder, and Brickus was his brother’s name,
And Mazadan was their father whom a fay for her love did claim.
Terre-de-la-schoie did they call her, to Fay-Morgan she led the king,
For he was her true heart’s fetters; and my race from those twain did spring.
And fair shall they be, and valiant, and as crowned kings they reign –
If lady, thou’ll be baptised though mayst win me to thee again!’
Yet had she no thought of anger, but she spake, ‘Ah! too soon ’tis o’er,
Of a sooth would I do his bidding, would it bring him to me once more.
In whose charge hath my courteous hero left the fruit of his love so true?Alas! for the sweet communion that we twain for a short space knew!
Shall the strength of my bitter sorrow rule body and soul alway?
And she quoth, ‘Now his God to honour, his will would I fain obey,
And gladly I ‘ld be baptizèd, and live as should please my love!’
And sorrow with her heart struggled, and e’en as the turtle dove
Her joy sought the withered branches, for the same mind was hers, I ween,
When the mate of the turtle diet, she forsaketh the branches green.
Then the queen at the time appointed bare a son, who was dark and light,
For in him had God wrought a wonder, at one while was he black and white.
And a thousand times she kissed him where white as his sire’s his skin.
And she named the babe of her sorrows Feirefis Angevin.
And he was a woodland-waster, many spears did he shatter fair,
And shield did he pierce – as a magpie the hue of his face and hair.
(855 – 906)
Source: Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, a Knightly Epic, trans. by Jessie L. Weston (New York: G. E. Stechert & Co., 1912).
Interracial romance in Parzival (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/.