e seems to be quite unpromising material from which to make a knight. Like
Siegfried, he has been brought up in the isolation of a deep forest and by a conscious decision of his mother, he has been shielded from all concepts of chivalry and
warfare. Furthermore, she seems to have neglected both his moral training and instruction in basic etiquette: in the romantic poems, he mistreats the first woman he
comes across, taking her ring and stealing a kiss; when he has need of arms, Parzival kills the knight Ferris for his red armour and
weapons. Wagner emphasizes moral development: Gurnemanz's questioning of the boy reveals that he cannot distinguish between good
and evil. He is unable to comprehend the suffering of Amfortas because, in his sheltered childhood, he had been kept from all
knowledge of suffering. There is a strong suggestion here of a parallel with the Buddha (Gautama Shakyamuni), who was brought up in ignorance
of old age, sickness and death. It could even have been the realization that the youth of the Buddha, traditionally an Indian noble or prince with an over-protective
widower father, about whom Wagner had been reading in 1856-7, resembled the youth of Wolfram's Parzival, a Welsh noble or prince with an over-protective widowed
mother was the seed from which the drama developed.
olfram's poem has two poles: at one is the chivalric
ideal of triuwe (treue), constancy or faithfulness; at the other, zwivel (zweifel), inconstancy or wavering. He begins his poem,
dwell with the heart, then the soul will not fail to find it bitter. The ignorant and foolish boy has to learn faithfulness to something (the Grail) which on his first visit to the Grail Castle he did not understand; only after he has understood what the Grail represents and why Amfortas suffers, through his faith and by paths of suffering he is able to find the place
again; only then, by the wisdom gained through compassion or fellow- suffering, is he able to heal. Wagner shows us a young man
growing in compassion, from the first inarticulate stirrings of compassion for the dead swan (Parsifal cannot find words, so he shows his remorse by breaking his
bow), through his evident sympathy for the suffering Amfortas (Parsifal presses his hand to his heart) and his remorse for the suffering that he had caused his own
mother, to the compassion for Kundry that he is able to express after experiencing her kiss.
The stone which the builders rejected, the same
is become the head of the corner.
arsifal is also like Siegfried in that he appears
to accomplish things for himself; although in some mysterious way, the Grail is acting in the background to bring about its (or perhaps we
should say, his) own redemption (the release of the Grail and with it the regeneration of the Grail community). If we consider this
parallel further, it could lead into deep waters. As a free agent, Siegfried might (as Wotan thinks) be able to achieve what Wotan, the least free of all, cannot
achieve; applying the same pattern to Parsifal, he might be seen as a free agent who is able to accomplish what the Christian God cannot. It is possible to read Wagner's text as a return to the Gnostic or Manichaen roots of the legend. Whereas Siegfried forges his own destiny, Parsifal redeems himself, not just by faith
but by his actions. For a Christian, this sub-text is a far more serious objection to Parsifal than the representation of the
Mass on a stage; and therefore, in spite of all of the Christian symbolism and allusions to Jesus Christ and to Mary Magdalen in the poem, it is hard to agree with
Lucy Beckett's assertion that this is an intrinsically Christian work.
n Wolfram's work, as it would most likely have been in
Chrétien's poem had he finished it, the development of the pure fool culminates in a perfect knight. Parzival has acquired the necessary wisdom, not only to heal his maternal uncle but also to assume his throne as king and guardian of the
sacred relics. In Wagner's text and music, we find the same development, but here it goes further than in the chivalric romances, even beyond Wagner's initial
conception. Originally, it would seem, Wagner had introduced Kundry's kiss as the mechanism by which
Parsifal would be awakened to an understanding of the suffering of Amfortas (with all that it
entails); he would understand by an emotional identification after reliving what had happened to Amfortas. During the development of Wagner's ideas, something diffused into the part of his mind that was occupied with Parsifal,
from the part that was simultaneously concerned with Die Sieger. In the latter, the Buddha, sitting under the tree, experienced
supreme, unsurpassed enlightenment.
his idea was merged into Kundry's kiss, so that Parsifal now, in the third act, attained an enlightenment similar to that of the Buddha: not only the suffering of Amfortas but that of all creation, in its striving and cycles of existence, was
revealed to him with crystal clarity: Welthellsicht, perhaps even Satori or Bodhi. Like the Buddha too, before his enlightenment, Parsifal is tempted by beautiful women:
They assailed the prince with all kinds of
strategems. Pressing him with their full bosoms, they addressed to him invitations. One embraced him violently, pretending to have tripped. Another whispered in
his ear, "Let my secret be heard". A third, with appropriate gestures, sang an erotic song, easily understood; and a fourth, with beautiful breasts, laughed,
earrings waving in the wind, and cried, "Catch me, sir, if you can!" But that best of youths, when wandering in the forest like an elephant accompanied by his
female herd, only pondered in his agitated mind: "Do these women not know that old age one day will take away their beauty? Not observing
sickness, they are joyous here in a world of pain. And, to judge from the way they are laughing at their play, they know nothing at all of
discussed in another article, the words of Gurnemanz in the second scene
of the last act and the events of the final scene (especially as presented in some modern stagings) suggest a comparison between Parsifal and Christ; a parallel that Wagner repeatedly disavowed, but which he himself suggested to King
Ludwig, for whom this was a profoundly Christian work.
Then took Mary a
pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the
his parallel is underlined by the presentation of Kundry in Act 3 as a Magdalen, anointing the pure one with oil of spikenard and washing his feet, which she
then dries with her long hair; and by the appearance of the dove at the end of the opera. This is, it is true, an element taken from Wolfram, perhaps originating with his source Kyot as a religious symbol; it too has a strong
resonance with the Gospel of St. John.
And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit
descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.
arsifal's progress goes beyond achieving the
state of perfect knight. This is the most significant difference between Wagner's poem and Wolfram's Parzival, the story of a fool
who became a knight. Wagner's Grail king is a spiritual hero on the same spiritual plane as the Buddha and the
Christ. Whose teachings, Wagner believed, were essentially the same.
Parsifal and Buddhism
ince I wrote the article above, my understanding of the Buddhist ideas and
symbolism in Parsifal has been significantly improved and expanded as a result of intensive studies in the related literature, combined with visits to
Bayreuth and Zürich in the summer of 2000.
t is now clear to me that Wagner's original conception involved a merging of the
respective stories of Parzival and the Buddha Shakyamuni; and that it was inherent in Wagner's concept, from its beginning on a
spring morning in 1857, that his hero Parsifal would progress to the level of Buddhahood. It should not be thought, however, that
Wagner identified his Parsifal with the Buddha Shakyamuni, any more than he was identified with Christ. Wagner's
inspiration, I firmly believe, was found in his observation that the early life of Wolfram's Parzival resembled the early life of
the Buddha, about whom Wagner had been reading in 1856-57. Wagner's hero progresses from fool to sage. At the end of his path Parsifal takes the last step (
der Rettung letzter Pfad) and with it achieves the level of enlightenment that Wagner
believed was common to both the Buddha and the Christ.
Wagner did not have access to the Buddhacarita
, which was not available in any European language until a decade after
his death. Up to 1865, when he wrote the first Prose Draft
, his sources of information about Buddhism, Brahmanism
and other oriental religions (in addition to references made by Schopenhauer) included the following:
- Introduction à l'histoire du Buddhisme indien, Eugène Burnouf, Paris, Imprimerie Royale, 1844. The book that inspired
Wagner's Die Sieger. Burnouf was the first writer to give a broad and relatively accurate account of the origins of Buddhism, with the first detailed
account in any European language of Maháyána teachings, drawn from Burnouf's own translations of Sanskrit manuscripts newly sent to Paris from Nepal.
- Die Religion des Buddha und ihre Entstehung, Carl Friedrich Köppen, Berlin, Schneider, 1857. Like Burnouf, recommended by
Schopenhauer (no.26 in the reading list he provided in Sinology) and read by Wagner
in 1858; he found it
an unedifying book; instead of sterling features from the oldest legends, which I expected, for the most part a mere account of
development in girth ....
- Indische Skizzen, Albrecht Weber, Berlin, Dümmler, 1857. Of particular interest in this book, of which (like the two books
listed above) a copy is present in Wagner's Bayreuth library, is the 1856 lecture Über den Buddhismus. In Weber's view the Buddha was both a religious
and a social reformer, a view that Wagner might have found consistent with his view of Jesus as expressed in his own Jesus von Nazareth. In this lecture
Weber expressed the opinion that the concept of karma was brought to India by the Aryan invaders, i.e. that it was part of the Vedic tradition from the
- Articles about religion in India, China, Ceylon, Tibet and Mongolia, recommended by Schopenhauer in the Sinology chapter of his On the Will in Nature.
His later reading included Anquetil-Duperron's translation of the Oupnekhat
, a favourite book of Schopenhauer, Burnouf's translation of the
and the following books in English:
Appendix: Wagner's books from the East.
A list of books, each of which Wagner at some time had in his possession, concerning the
literature, religion or other aspects of India, Nepal, Ceylon and other eastern countries.