Explorations in Arthurian Legends

A Literature Review

Part 4: Wolfram and Gottfried

The English and French writers did not have a monopoly on telling fantastic and successful Arthurian tales, though. Germany produced some important contributions as well. The two foremost are Parzival and Tristan, by Wolfram and Gottfried, respectively.

Parzival, written in the early 13th century, portrays a world in which chivalry is the ideal pursuit of all good men. Parzival's quests to achieve greatness in both courtly and spiritually endeavors echoes the writings of Chretien de Troyes, as does much of Wolfram's early story. Here, as in Chretien, Parzival is ignorant of his dead father's knighthood; all he knows is what his mother tells him. In a chance meeting with a knight, the young Parzival convinces himself that this obvious example of superior ability is God; no subsequent amount of proof could prove him of something other than this high regard for things chivalric. Wolfram makes the young innocent out to be predisposed to be fired with passion for knighthood. In this, we see the author's vision of life: One person's destiny in life has everything to do with his inheritance and his pre-ordination. Parzival can't help himself in professing to adore chivalry: It's in his blood.

Following Chretien again, Wolfram has the young innocent end up at the castle of the learned knight, in this case Gurnemanz, who gives him the advice the following of which will bring him his greatest sorrow, at the Grail Castle. When Parzival meets Condwiramurs, things start to heat up. The two marry and share an ideal kind of love not seen in Arthurian stories up to this point. This love seems to transcend the trappings of the body. When Condwiramurs comes Parzival's room late one night, they refrain even from kissing, preferring to revel in the knowledge of their shared love; also, they wait until three nights after they are married to consummate the marriage.

Parzival has more adventures, of course, in case finding the Grail. But his finding an ideal love before these adventures occur is significant: The idea here is that the ideal love inspires the knight to do good and seek goodness. Other tales recounting similar characters and events spoke of this relationship in the reverse: Only after the knight had become a hero did he win his lady's hand.

The story turns familiar again with the tale of the Grail Castle, here called Munsalvaesche, owned by the Grail-king, Anfortas. But no sooner does Wolfram recount familiar images than he takes off on his own again, describing the Grail as a stone of strange powers that took up its position among men after a struggle between Heaven and Hell. Parzival does not ask the fateful question and so does not see the Grail. It takes him many tears before he realizes that all his worldly success is discounted by his own sins: killing a kinsman, causing the death of his mother. Even the ideal love he feels and receives from his wife is not enough to show him the way to spiritual perfection.

That path is arduous, but in the end Parzival achieves it. His companion, his half-brother Feirefiz, is this story's Galahad: as courteous as any knight of the Round Table and as virtuous as any Christian. He is the embodiment of what Wolfram is trying to say: that two halvesearthly chivalry and spiritual perfection do indeed make a whole.

Gottfried's Tristan, on the other hand leaves almost nothing to chance: Tristan is perfect; how could Isolde not love him? Their love, too, is above normal conventions, existing almost in a dream world that is far and away superior to the world of ordinary people and ordinary emotions. They are also equal. Yes, Tristan is a knight; and yes, Isolde is a lady; but Gottfried leaves no room for the traditional picture of a knight's serving at his lady's whim. As such equals, they are free to transcend the normal loving experience and enter a rapturous existence that, Gottfried suggests, gives them physical sustenance in addition to the obvious spiritual well-being.

Even the theatrical high point is different. In Gottfried, we share the lovers' banishment in the Cave of Loversthe picture of love incarnate. Banished from the court of King Mark, they find that loyalty exists only between those who truly love each other; nothing else seems to matter.

Tristan resonates with a very physical awareness, bordering on eroticism. Tristan and Isolde love each other in totality and hold themselves to a higher standard than do others; as such, they feel free to judge others by that higher standard. Thus, Mark is cruel and bound by his wanton desire for Isolde. For Tristan, Isolde is love itself; for Mark, she is an object to be had, not held.

In the grand epic tradition, Gottfried did not finish his poem. Tristan is forlorn at the end, wishing that he could find some easy way out of his predicament: his own banishment from Cornwall (his second). Echoing earlier themes, he is torn between two Isoldes. He has known a higher love, and he cannot have it now. In this scene (which could very well serve as a closing scene), we see the peril of such high emotions laid bare: They have the power to exalt two people above the cares of the day and exist only for the arms of each other; and they have the power to wound more deeply than is thought humanly possible when those arms are not linked.

Parzival and Tristan focus mainly on the doings of one knight. Another medieval poem to do such was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

More on Wolfram and Gottfried

Parzival text fragment

Basic Wolfram

Wolfram's Grail: "Stone from the Stars"

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