Jessie L. Weston on Parsifal: continued
Extracts from Weston's Legends of the Wagner Drama
ith the Second Act we reach the most important deviation which Wagner has made
from the original form of the story; the substitution of a sharp and sudden test of his hero's purity and steadfastness, for the long period of trial and slow
development which the poem assigns to him. There is no doubt that, dramatically, the story gains much by the change, but as regards the character of the hero
himself the advantage is not so obvious...
n the Parzival Klingsor never appears
personally; he is lord of the Château Merveil, that mysterious Magic Castle which in one form or another appears so often in the Grail
legends, and which in the poem seems to be regarded rather as a parallel to the Grail Castle than its opposite, as suggested in the drama.
It is not Klingsor and his captives, but King Arthur and his court who, in the Parzival, form
the worldly and carnal foil to the spiritual conception of the Grail and its knights.
he character of Klingsor is, so far as we can
tell, peculiar to the German version of the legend. One of the continuators of the Conte del Graal relates the story of a certain King Carduel of Nantes
and a magician, which, in some features, strongly resembles the account given by Wolfram of Klingsor;
but this is the only parallel, and the name appears nowhere save in the Parzival. But for some reason difficult to discover the character took a strong
hold of the popular mind, and Wolfram's magician seems to have become in the eyes of medieval German writers as real and historical as
Wolfram himself. In the Wartburgkrieg both are represented as taking part, and engaging in a riddling contest, in which Wolfram, as he certainly ought to do, proves victorious. One tradition even represents Klingsor as a
bishop -- a curious transformation!
ut nowhere does Klingsor appear as of so really
evil character as he does in the drama. Immoral as he is, and to a certain degree revengeful, as his dealings in magic are by Wolfram, as
by Wagner, ascribed to his desire to avenge his own well-deserved punishment upon others; but the dwellers in his Magic Castle are surrounded by luxury and
splendour, and have nothing, save their separation from their friends, to complain of. Nor are they other than innocent in life. Orgeluse expressly states that Klingsor is both wise and courteous, and, moreover, strictly observant of
his pledged word. For the dramatic presentment of Klingsor as an embodiment of evil, the sworn foe and opponent of the Grail king and his knights, Wagner is alone responsible: the Perceval legend has no traditional villain like Regin
or Hagen in the Siegfried saga.
Right: Elaine the Grail
Maiden by D.G.Rossetti.
or is the Kondrie of the poem as closely
connected with the magician -- true, she visits the Magic Castle, but it is apparently at her own free will that she comes and goes; nor does Klingsor appear to be resident there. But the parallel of Kundry as represented in the drama will be sought
for in vain elsewhere; the elements of her many-sided character are indeed present in the legend, but to Wagner alone belongs the credit of having combined these
scattered indications in a creation neither out of harmony with itself nor with its original elements -- a conception as artistically true as it is dramatically
powerful... For the rightful understanding of so complex a personality we must look beyond the poem which was Wagner's ostensible source, though we shall find that
much is due to the indications of the Parzival, utilised by the dramatist with rare skill. Wagner's Kundry represents alike
Wolfram's Kondrie, the loathly messenger of the Grail, and the Lady Orgeluse, the sometime love of Anfortas, in whose service he received his incurable wound, who offers
herself to Parzival (who alone, of all knights, refuses to serve her for such guerdon), and finally marries Gawain. The messenger of the Grail figures in several versions of the story, her appearance being far more repulsive
than could be represented on the stage, and in more than one instance we find that this hideous aspect is simply the result of a spell, and when the hero achieves
the quest the damsel is released and transformed into surpassing beauty. The fact that Wolfram knows of a second Kondrie, Gawain's sister, resident in the Magic Castle, who is 'Kondrie la
Belle', seems to indicate that the Kondrie of the Parzival, too, had originally this double character.
hat Orgeluse, though clearly distinct from
Kondrie, has also a supernatural origin, appears probably, both from her surpassing beauty and the fact that Gawain finds her beside a spring of water (a very general indication of the fairy nature of the lady), and also from her close connection
with the Magic Castle... Therefore, in representing Kundry both as undergoing transformation from extreme ugliness to brilliant
beauty, and as closely and intimately connected with Klingsor and his castle, Wagner is in all probability reproducing features
which, if not originally united in the same person, are yet a very old and integral part of the legend. But into this strange personality of Kundry are interwoven other elements, foreign to the Perceval legend, yet of great antiquity, and
calculated to emphasise at once her unearthly nature and her close connection with the spiritual significance of the drama.
he names by which Klingsor invokes his
slumbering tool -- Herodias, Gundryggia -- point clearly to the mythical element in her
character. Both names are known in Germany as appellations of the Wild Huntress: Gundryggia or Gundr is also the name of one of
the Valkyrie, otherwise there appears to be no special legend attached to the character; but with Herodias this is not the case.
There is a weird story which relates how the enmity of Herod's queen towards John the Baptist was really
caused by the saint's rejection of her proffered love. When after death she would have covered the severed head with tears and kisses, it recoiled, and from the
dead lips issued a blast of wind so powerful that Herodias was carried away by it, and like Dante's sinful lovers sweeps for ever
onward before its resistless force. This curious legend appears to owe its origin to a misunderstanding of Hrödes, one of the many names of Wotan, who, in his elementary character of the air, is the original Wild Huntsman. Among the many explanations traditionally given of the
object of this mysterious chase we find the god represented as pursuing his flying bride; and vice- versa the deserted goddess seeking her lost husband. This chase
being closely associated with St. John's (Midsummer) Day, the remembrance of the saint, coupled with the misunderstanding of the name, probably contributed to the
evolution of this quaint legend (author's footnote: cf. Simrock, Deutsche Mythologie, 'Herodias').
he effect of the introduction of this mythical element, so far as the drama is
concerned, is to heighten the interest of the struggle between Kundry and Parsifal, which becomes
not merely the struggle between evil and good, but specifically the struggle between evil and good as represented by paganism and Christianity. Heathen and Christian myth are here brought into sharp opposition, the powers of the elements, the earliest object of worship,
with the fully developed and mystical Christianity symbolised by the Grail.
Right: Sir Galahad, by G.F. Watts (1817-1904).
he fact that Wagner hints at a legend similar to that of the Wandering Jew as connected with Kundry emphasizes the identification which the name of Herodias has suggested; students of mythology will be well aware that there is a common origin for the two legends, and the 'Ewige Jude' and the 'Ewige Jäger' are, to say the least, very near relations. If Wagner, in adopting and laying such stress upon the temptation
incident, has departed somewhat from the older form of the Perceval legend, if we must look for the poet's type of his hero rather
in Galahad than in Parzival, it cannot be denied that he has treated the episode with a force and genius which raise it
immeasurably above the level of any of the trials besetting the hero of the later Grail legends, and this gain in interest is undoubtedly
due to the greater prominence given to the character of Kundry. The conception of this wonderful Second Act may throughout be
considered as the work of Wagner's genius; there are certainly hints and suggestions in Wolfram's poem which doubtless gave to Wagner the
impulse of casting his drama in the particular form he chose, but they are but hints, and only a great dramatic genius could have made such use of them.
n the episode of Gawain and Orgeluse the lady bids the enamoured knight fetch her steed from a garden where it is tied beneath a tree, but to take no heed of any
warning addressed to him by those within:
There he saw many a maiden, and knights so brave and young,
And within that goodly garden so gaily they danced and sung...
They cared for that lovely garden, on the greensward they stood or lay,
Or sat 'neath the tents whose shadow was cool 'gainst the sunlight's ray.
Left: Design for act 2 of Parsifal by Thomas Edwin Mostyn, 1914. © Bradford Art Galleries and Museums.
- but the garden has no connection with the Magic Castle, nor are the dwellers in it other than 'good men and true'. We are told of no garden round the Château
Merveil, and the introduction of the magic element and the Flower Maidens into this version of the legend is due to Wagner alone. But when we consider the
symbolical nature of the drama, and the typical nature of the hero, so strongly emphasized in the last Act, we cannot but feel that there is a dramatic
significance and propriety in Wagner's choice of the scene of Parsifal's trial which cannot be overlooked. Old theologians were
wont to dwell lovingly upon the fact that a garden was the scene alike of man's Fall and of his Redemption; what more fitting than that Parsifal, the type [in the theological sense] of the Saviour of mankind, should be tempted, and conquer, in a garden? And here we touch
what is the real inwardness, and to many minds will form the undying fascination, of this great drama, viz. the spiritual significance which Wagner has attached to
the character of Parsifal; the mystical presentation of his legendary healing task; the identification of the hero of the Grail quest as a type of Christ.
hat led Wagner so to remodel the legend? In the first place his aim was
undoubtedly philosophical; deeply impressed by Schopenhauer's philosophy, he was desirous of embodying in dramatic form certain of the leading principles, or
formulae, of that philosophy. One of these,
the renunciation of the will to live, in other words, the sacrifice of self for the sake of another = altruism,
lies at the basis of Wagner's conception of the drama.
ut why did his choice fall on this special legend, and why did he select its hero
knight of compassion, type of the only perfect sympathy and self- renunciation the world has known? Here we must give to Wolfram von Eschenbach his true meed of honour; it was his genius which has impressed on the hero of the Grail quest
those characteristics which rendered him the fitting medium for Wagner's message to the world.
he Good Friday meeting with the Hermit is undoubtedly
part of the traditional story, and occurs both in the Welsh and in more than one French version; but nowhere is the incident treated so fully, or with such
solemnity and dignity, as in the Parzival. Wolfram devotes the longest and, on the whole, the finest of his sixteen books (the
ninth) to this episode, putting into Trevrezent's mouth a full account of the Grail (paralleled by
Gurnemanz's recital in the First Act), besides an exposition of the plan of salvation, extremely characteristic of the
theological teaching of the day.
here are, however, important differences here between poem and drama; Kondrie does not appear [on Good Friday] in the former, and Gurnemanz fills the
rôle not only of Trevrezent but also of the pilgrim knight who directs Parzival to the Hermit's
cell. The reproach which Gurnemanz addresses to Parsifal, for bearing arms on Good Friday, is in the poem spoken by the knight. An essential difference, too, is found in the fact that is in this concluding Act that the
spiritual significance of the hero's character and career becomes clearly manifest; here Parsifal is no longer, as in the poem,
the absolved, but the absolver, and as a consequence of this change the entire Good Friday scene, as rendered by Wagner, is touched with a
mystical beauty and tenderness which are indescribable, and have no dramatic parallel -- it is, emphatically, Charfreitags Zauber.
he closing scene of the drama owes its suggestion directly to the poem. In a fine
passage at the commencement of the last Book, Anfortas, despairing of cure, demands death at the hand of his knights, and
reproaches them bitterly when, relying on the succour promised by the Grail, they refuse to yield to his prayers. He attempts to bring
himself to bring about the desired result by closing his eyes for eight days to the life-giving sight of the Grail, for it is one of the
special features of the Grail as described by Wolfram that none beholding it can die within eight days of the
sight. But bodily weakness conquers Anfortas' will; when borne by his knights before the Grail he cannot
keep his eyes closed, and is therefore preserved in life till the coming of Parzival. It will be understood from this that the
Grail is not veiled as in the drama, and neither Titurel nor the Grail knights are
therefore involved, save through sympathy, in the tragedy of the king's suffering.
t is somewhat difficult to understand why Titurel, who beholds the Grail equally with the other inhabitants of the castle, should be represented by Wolfram as in extreme old age, while the other members of the family, Anfortas himself and Repanse de Schoie, retain their youthful beauty. The reason probably is that the character was an original part of the story, and did not
undergo modification with the varied developments of the Grail talisman.
n the healing of Amfortas the different
character ascribed in the poem and drama to the weapon with which he was wounded naturally affects the situation. The king, healed in the drama by the touch of the
Spear, is, in the legend, healed by the mysterious question, and at once becomes possessed of supernatural
beauty, exceeding even that of Parzival. He loses his kingdom, not as the result of a voluntary act of resignation on his part,
but at the declared will of the Grail, which has foretold from the first that with the coming of the promised knight and healer Anfortas shall lose his power; the reason being that he has transgressed the rules of the Grail Order by vowing
himself to Minne dienst ...
Above: Design for act 3 of Parsifal
by Joseph Harker, 1914. ©ROH Covent Garden archives.
hroughout, the effect of this last Act, with its Good
Friday episode and closing scene, is, as hinted before, to reinstate the hero, by means of an element foreign to the original legend, in the position which
rightfully belongs to him, i.e. to emphasise Parsifal as a hero of divine origin, though that divinity had become very completely
obscured... Wolfram represents his hero as
a brave man, but slowly wise; and the attainment of knowledge by suffering, of truest
wisdom by compassion's power, is the task Wagner sets his hero. As a music-drama, the position assigned to Wagner's latest work may vary; as an attempt to retell
an old legend with due reverence for its traditional form, and full sympathy for the modern spirit, the Parsifal will, in all probability, remain
© Derrick Everett 1996-2015. This page last updated This page last updated (fixed borders and horizontal rules) --- Sat 10 Oct 2015 21:40:00 ---