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Parzival: A Romance of the Middle Ages Paperback – Mar 12 1961
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From the Inside Flap
Parzival, an Arthurian romance completed by Wolfram von Eschenbach in the first years of the thirteenth century, is one of the foremost works of German literature and a classic that can stand with the great masterpieces of the world. The most important aspects of human existence, worldly and spiritual, are presented in strikingly modern terms against the panorama of battles and tournaments and Parzival's long search for the Grail. The world of knighthood, of love and loyalty and human endeavor despite the cruelty and suffering of life, is constantly mingling with the world of the Grail, affirming the inherent unity between man's temporal condition and his quest for something beyond human existence.
From the Back Cover
An Arthurian romance completed by Wolfran von Eschenbach in the first of the thirteenth century.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
Eschenbach's Parzival is of utmost historical significance. Written by a self proclaimed illiterate, this is one of the few stories to emerge from the dark ages. On the surface it is an Arthurian romance, a quest for the grail, and is very valuable as it describes the daily routines and practices of knights, made much more realistic than romanticized accounts of them as Eschenbach was in fact a ministerial-a poorer knight/soldier. On a deeper level, Eschenbach's tale has been highly studied as he was rumored to have links with the Knights Templar, and much speculation has been forwarded that this tale is codified with some of the secret knowledge they were rumored to possess in the form of anagrams and ciphers, a practice common in those times to mask information considered heretical by the church.
Unfortunately, this edition is of very little value to the student or researcher. The translation is incomplete, and highly edited with some passages made up entirely by the translator. This sad fact is admitted by Andre Lefevere in his forward, who claims that the original was too mundane and the text needed much 'cleaning up', so what you're left with is a harlequinized version of the story. I was very upset that this isn't mentioned in the initial editorial review, as this edition is not cheap by any means. Also, the footnotes are annoyingly redundant, unless you aren't aware of such thing as 'mounting a steed' means 'getting on a horse' or that 'the brother bought something to drink' because 'he was thirsty' (I'm not making these up).
In all, if I had known that this edition was a highly diluted translation of the original, I surely would not have invested forty dollars for it. Be forewarned, unless you are looking for a romance novel 'Based upon the Legend of Parzival', you may not be getting what you expect, and what you are paying quite a sum of money for.
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[Additional Note, March 2015; Jessie L. Weston's nineteenth-century verse translation, "Parzival: A Knightly Epic," is another alternative, although I hesitate to recommend it. Nabu Press has issued it in paperback, as well as out-of-copyright German text editions and modern German translations. Many of these, and others, can be also be found at archive.org (the Library of Congress website), although the two volumes of Weston's translation must be searched for as "Parzival," and not under the translator's name. (Archive.org also makes available the 1891 fifth edition of Karl Lachmann's enduring edition of Wolfram's works; Edwards, and, I think, the other modern translators, mainly used the 1926 sixth edition.) There are also Project Gutenberg editions of a number of Weston's works, including "Parzival," some of them available in Kindle format, among other versions. In fact there are three Kindle editions of her "Parzival" currently (March 2015) available; one observing the original two-volume hardcover arrangement in its now digital format, for which I can't see any necessity.]
The most recent translation, Cyril Edwards' "Parzival: With Titurel and the Love Lyrics," I have not yet seen. It includes a fragmentary related work, and Wolfram's contributions to the "Minnesaenger" (love poetry) tradition, which makes it attractive. The price of the hardcover is against starting with it! A more reasonably-priced paperback, aimed at the student market, would be a winner, if the translation is good. [Additional Note: this translation is now (from 2008) available in a shorter format as "Parzival and Titurel" in the Oxford World's Classics series; I have reviewed it separately, based on the Kindle edition. In brief Edwards' translation may be more faithful to Wolfram's style, but some readers find it difficult going.]
Of the other two, both rendered in prose, the older is "Parzival: A Romance of the Middle Ages" (usually cited without the subtitle, in my experience), translated by Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage, and published by Vintage Books (Random House), in 1961. With an Introduction, Additional Notes, an Index of Persons, and a Genealogical Table, I found it an attractive entrance to Wolfram-studies, and Middle High German literature beyond the "Nibelungenlied." The language of the translation is relatively colloquial, and has been criticized as both inexact in its use of hunting and heraldic terms, and perhaps too American. A more valid criticism, in my opinion, pointed out that a good deal of the introduction is spent discussing discarded theories floated by Jessie L. Weston (of "From Ritual to Romance") in connection with her verse translation at the end of the nineteenth century. Since Weston's version was the one most likely to be familiar to Mustard and Passage's original readers, this made a certain amount of sense, but they might have mentioned that her views were no longer taken very seriously. The cover art is a medieval "portrait" of the armored Wolfram, anonymous under his knightly helmet.
Almost twenty years later, A.T. Hatto (on whose review of the Vintage translation I have been drawing) produced his own version, in the Penguin Classics (1980); the cover art uses manuscript illuminations of scenes from the poem. Like Hatto's "Nibelungenlied" translation, it is in prose, and has, instead of an extended discussion before reading, an appended "Introduction to a Second Reading," along with a Glossary of Personal Names, and a List of Works in English for Further Reading. The critical discussion is excellent, and postponing it until a reader has a chance to form an opinion is an interesting idea. At least the student won't be quite so tempted to substitute reading the editorial commentary for a reading of the text, if one has to look for it.
Hatto's English is a bit obviously British; and some of his "corrected" readings are actually more difficult to follow, unless you are already familiar with the technical languages of hunting and blazonry. Otherwise, for example, " a pair" of birds is going to be clearer than "a brace" of them. This was not the case with Hatto's translation of the "Tristan" of Wolfram's rival, Gottfried von Strassburg (also from Penguin). The "Tristan" tradition makes a great point of how its hero uses the correct -- meaning fashionable -- hunting language, and Hatto was there, obviously, correct to reproduce the impression of mastery of an esoteric art. Either version is enjoyable, although Hatto (obviously) seems a bit more concerned with precision, and Mustard and Passage a little more with immediate appeal to readers.
Wolfram himself was translating, in his own fashion, Chretien de Troyes' unfinished "Perceval, or, The Story of the Grail" -- although he himself claims to have an additional source, the mysterious "Kyot," who had a better, truer, version. Since Chretien himself claimed to have been working from a source provided by a patron, this has at times sent scholars searching in many directions. Jessie Weston's theory, emphasizing Wolfram's references to Anjou and the Angevins, whose dynasty of Counts had come to rule England (see Henry II), was as plausible as most, and just as much a blind alley. It looks very much as if Wolfram had some sort of additional material -- there are odd resemblances to "Morien," an apparent interpolation in the medieval Dutch translation of the Lancelot-Grail romances, for example -- but mostly to have used his imagination quite freely.
We have an entire opening section with the hero's father, Gahmuret the Anschevin, having adventures in a vaguely-conceived Near East and North Africa, where he leaves a "pagan" wife and son, the latter, the multi-colored Feirefiz, crossing paths with Wolfram's main hero years later. (It is worth noting that, although Wolfram is a snob, and is fascinated by physical differences between human beings, he is in no sense a racist; color is no bar to aristocracy.) This is followed by Gahmuret's second marriage and death, the birth and upbringing in forest isolation of Parzival himself, his fateful encounter with Arthur's knights, and the splitting of the story to include the exploits of Sir Gawain (recognizable under German renderings, variously handled by translators over the years), and Parzival's first adventure at the Grail Castle, all derived from Chretien's account of Perceval and Gauvain, all retold in Wolfram's quirky style. Then Wolfram returns to what seems to be new material, writing his own conclusion. (Eric Rohmer's film version of "Perceval" is a splendid visualization of Chretien's version, and works almost equally well for parts of Wolfram's retelling, too.)
As in other versions, Chretien's very mysterious "graal" is drawn into a Christian conception of the universe. But Wolfram explains it as a sort of magic stone that fell to earth during the War in Heaven, not a relic of the Last Supper. That more explicitly Christianized version seems to belong to the Old French cycle of "Joseph of Arimathea," "Merlin" and "Perceval," attributed to Robert de Boron, and was later picked up and amplified in the "Vulgate Cycle" of Arthurian romances (centering on Lancelot, and introducing Galahad as the Quest hero, alongside Perceval), the version known in English through Malory, and, so far as the Chalice interpretation, also used by Wagner.
Wagner plundered Wolfram for names and a certain "German" quality for his Grail opera, "Parsifal," besides using another version of a story Wolfram alludes to in "Lohengrin,' and the poet's name for a character in "Tannhauser." Personally, I suggest tossing aside all Wagnerian preconceptions, if any, and allowing Wolfram's real personality to have a chance. Sarcastic (especially about competitors), sentimental (especially about wives and children), full of pride in the knightly caste (a new phenomenon, which its members wanted to be very old), arrogantly announcing that he is completely illiterate in the company of poets who boasted they could read anything ever written, he is both annoying and lovable. A living personality, in fact, appearing in a time used to anonymous authors.
For those who find "Parzival" a pleasure, or who would like to try a more military, rather than chivalric, work, there are also translations of his "Willehalm," based on the Old French *chanson de geste* of William Curt-Nose, or Guillaume l'Orange, one of the heroes of the legends of Charlemagne and his descendants. I am familiar with two, both into prose. One, by Marion E. Gibbs and Sidney M. Johnson, was published by Penguin Classics in 1984, and is currently in print, as "Wolfram von Eschenbach: Willehalm." Charles E. Passage, one of the co-translators of "Parzival," had earlier translated it as "The Middle High German Poem of Willehalm by Wolfram von Eschenbach," published by Frederick Ungar in 1977. Although it is out of print, used copies of the trade paperback edition seem to be available.
Curiously, the supposedly illiterate Wolfram seems unusually aware of the idea (if not the facts) of history. The "Pagan" Saracens of his French source are connected by him with the Romans (as descended from the followers of Pompey, rather than of Caesar, and heirs of an old feud), and also with the extra-European characters he had already invented for "Parzival." He rather neatly brings into the correct sequence his versions of Arthurian and Carolingian Europe.
Wolfram von Eschenbach's early 13th century poem (rendered here from the Middle High German into modern English prose) chronicles the events of the title character's life from childhood to knighthood, and of his quest for and attainment of the Grail. Along with two chapters devoted to Parzival's father Gahmuret, and several throughout the middle of the story concerning Gawan, the book is a celebration of knighthood, most likely written from the point of view of one of its practitioners. More abstractly, it also approaches Jungian archetype territory and Joseph Campbell's ideas about Hero mythology; wrongs committed in ignorance block Parzival from obtaining the Grail when it is first revealed to him, and only after the quest's hardships have purged him of ignorance and sin is he rewarded with the earthly and spiritual sublimity of achieving his goal.
The Grail of this version is interesting in and of itself: Wolfram writes before the object had become wholly associated with either the last supper or Christ's crucifixion, and long before Mallory and Tennyson (or Terry Gilliam) stamped it into the culture's consciousness as a holy cup. Instead, here it is a stone, one that has both life-sustaining properties and the power to dispense enough food to supply the entire contingent of knights and ladies stationed at Munsalvaesche (the castle of the Grail's keeping). The king of this castle, Anfortas, (also known as the Fisher King), is gravely wounded - it is only the Grail that keeps him alive, albeit in excruciating pain. In Munsalvaesche, both king and subjects wait for someone to come who will ask the king the 'healing question' ('What is it that troubles you?'). Parzival, in his youthful ignorance, stumbles upon the castle and is shown the wonders of the Grail, but in order not to appear foolish, keeps his peace instead of asking the question that will bring the king relief. The following morning, he awakes to find his host gone, and as he rides out after him, he discovers that he can no longer find his way back to the castle. For the next four and a half years he wanders, dishonored, searching for the Grail. Only when the Grail calls to him, by virtue of Parzival's name appearing in writing on the stone, does his quest end.
There are several different translations of 'Parzival' available, including this one by Mustard and Passage written in 1961. A.T. Hatto translated it for Penguin Classics in 1980, and in 2009, Oxford World's Classics published another version by Cyril Edwards. Using the look inside feature, I compared several paragraphs side by side, and, although I suspect that they all have strengths and weaknesses, if I were forced to pick based on this tiny sample, I would probably go with the Hatto. But, as they are all priced similarly, the Oxford edition has the advantage of including a secondary work, which may make it the best value.
Translations aside, the question remains as to whom to recommend this work, aside from medievalists and scholars. Grail researchers will also be interested, but anyone attempting this book should know it not an effortless read - nowhere near as difficult as Chaucer's Canturbury Tales or Beowulf, the translators do still attempt to reproduce Wolfram's style, and all three translations I looked at mimic an older structural and syntactical arrangement. A brief example, as Parzival rides into Munsalvaesche for the first time:
'Little gaiety had there been here for many a day; the knights were too sad of heart. Yet they did not let Parzival feel this, and welcomed him, young and old alike. Many pages ran out to seize the bridle of his horse, each one trying to be the first, and held his stirrup for him to dismount. Some knights bade him enter the castle, and led him to his chamber, where they quickly and skillfully removed his armor. When they then looked upon the youth, with his boy's face, still beardless, and saw how beautiful he was, they confessed that he was indeed richly blessed.' (Mustard and Passage)
Some readers may find the re-telling of 'Parzival' by Lindsay Clarke easier on the eye and ear (although there is no 'look inside' to see for sure) - and even Katherine Paterson's version for younger readers may be all the 'Parzival' that anyone really needs. Still, there is an inherent medieval atmosphere in the translations that attempt to replicate the original author's style which is missing in Ms. Patterson's re-telling, although it's difficult to know how much currency that carries with it. I would probably recommend the others over the re-telling simply because it feels more 'authentic' - but these are translations we're talking about, so none of them are really any more authentic than the other.
In the end, I found 'Parzival' worthwhile mostly because I appreciate the familiarity with a foundational piece of Western literature, and also because I find it enjoyable to recognize links between modern era literature and its source material. I realize that that is a very narrow recommendation - I did like the book, but I wouldn't have considered it a five-star experience. But, then again, as far as star ratings go, it seems ludicrous to assign a value to a work that has survived over 800 years. My way around it is to give everything over 500 years old an automatic five stars, even if I feel four is a better reflection of how it affected me - so there you have it.
Wolfram's Parzival is a more coherent and well-structured narrative than the Niebelungenlied, and is more courtly and refined than the Icelandic sagas of the same era. It is a lively, colorful insight into 13th century European culture. This, along with its place in the evolution of the Arthurian and Grail legends, is its main source of interest to modern readers.
Wolfram is particularly knowledgeable about military affairs and you can learn a lot from this story about what it was like (or supposed to be like) to be a knight at the time.
The Grail of this story is a stone. In Chretien's earlier story, on which Wolfram's is based, the Grail was a bowl. In other stories, it doubles as the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper and the vessel used to catch the dripping blood at the crucifixion. In our own time it has served as a boon to conspiracy theorists and an excuse to cast Sean Connery in an Indiana Jones movie. Next...well, who knows what's next?
Parzival combines folk traditions - the Grail's power of providing unlimited food and drink is a favorite folk motif, most famously with the magic porridge pot - with knightly adventure, and adds a dash of mysticism. It is no more than a dash, and I think subsequent commentators have read too much into this aspect. Certainly it is a coming-of-age story and a tale of redemption, but the spiritual edifice that has since been built around it seems to me a bit of a stretch. At the time of writing this review, youth counselors in Britain are using Parzival as an allegory to teach the true meaning of manhood. Good luck to them.
Although Parzival does not have the continuity errors of the Niebelungenlied, individual sentences are sometimes mangled beyond comprehension. Presumably they sounded more acceptable when recited as poetry. Hatto wisely avoids the temptation to tidy these passages up and translates them warts and all.
History books can only take us so far in an understanding of a previous age. To get beneath the skin, to understand the anxieties, hopes, prejudices and beliefs of the people who lived then, we must share the stories that they told. In Parzival, we see how medieval man related to his own masculinity, his fellow man, his womenfolk and his god.
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