Jessie Laidlay Weston on Parzival and Parsifal
Legends of the Wagner Drama
he name of Jessie Laidlay Weston (1850-1928) is familiar to scholars of European literature on account of her studies of medieval literature in relation to Celtic and Germanic mythology, and in particular for her books and articles about the Grail legend. In her first book, Legends of the Wagner Drama (1896), Miss Weston discussed the relation between various Wagner dramas and those medieval poems and sagas on which, in her view, Wagner had based his dramas. In her treatment of Parsifal, extracts from which follow below, Weston compares and contrasts the action of Wagner's drama Parsifal with the poem Parzival of the German poet-knight Wolfram von Eschenbach and with the earlier Perceval ou le Conte du Graal of the French poet Chrêtien de Troyes, together with other, lesser poems of the same period. Weston is perceptive in identifying the elements of these sources that were adopted and adapted by Wagner. She also indicates where Wagner has deviated from the story as told by Wolfram for purposes of his own that Weston does not attempt to explain. Weston's interpretation of Parsifal has been (and continues to be) highly influential for the understanding of Wagner's last drama throughout the English speaking world. Quotations from Wolfram's poem were taken from Miss Weston's own English translation.
Other Books by Jessie Laidlay Weston
Many of Jessie Laidlay Weston's writings are now out of print and may be hard to find. The obvious exception is her last completed and more celebrated book From Ritual to Romance (1921) which, although many of her ideas are now regarded as outdated, has never been out of print. I have written about some of Miss Weston's ideas, as presented in this book and in her earlier paper The Grail & the Rites of Adonis, in another article. In the postscript to the above-mentioned book she proposed an analogy between the hallows of the Grail Castle — spear, cup, sword, shield/dish — and the suits of the Tarot. I have made some notes on this topic in a separate article. Other works by Jessie Laidlay Weston:
Extracts from Jessie Laidlay Weston's Legends of the Wagner Drama
he keynote of the drama is struck in the peace of the opening scene; the repose of the Grail watchers, the solemn call to prayer from the castle, and the rising sun flashing the lake mists in the background. Wagner has followed his source [i.e. Wolfram] in placing the mysterious castle in the midst of a forest, and representing its discovery as a task in which both human skill and energy are unavailing. Both in the poem and in the drama the guidance must come from above; and the fact that Wagner apparently considers the guiding power to be the Grail itself, while Wolfram believes the guidance to come directly and immediately from God, is apparently due to the more definitely Christian character ascribed to the Grail by the dramatist.
he name of the castle, Monsalvat, is of course derived from the Monsalväsch of the Parzival (a name peculiar to the legend), where the derivation appears to be 'Mont Sauvage', from the wild and lonely character of the surrounding district, a feature emphasized in the poem; but some scholars would explain the terms rather as signifying Mount of Healing (or Salvation), a rendering to which Wagner, from the form given to the name, seems to incline.
to its locality Wolfram is by no means explicit: he certainly never says it is in Northern Spain, where Wagner places it; according to his statements it was within thirty-six hours' ride from Nantes. Writers later than Wolfram, however, do locate the Grail Castle in Spain, and the idea seems to have originated with the writer of Der jünger Titurel, a poem which deals very fully with the Grail and its guardians, and, long attributed to Wolfram, is now known to be the work of a certain Albert von Scharffenburg, a very inferior poet. This location of the Grail Castle in Spain is of course favoured by those scholars who regard the Grail myth as of Oriental origin, and the Spanish Moors the medium of communication to Europe; but as a matter of fact there is practically no evidence to connect the Grail with Spain, saving the statement, which Wolfram refers, and probably correctly, to his French source, that the legend of the Grail was originally found in an Arabic manuscript at Toledo. The truth of this statement may be gauged by the fact that the same manuscript is stated to have contained the story of Parzival, the Aryan-Celtic origin of which is beyond doubt. It is much more in accordance with the general indications of the legend to believe that the poets imagined the castle to be situated in the northwest of France.
ut in the process of development which the legend has undergone, the nature of the castle to which the hero pays at first an abortive, and afterwards a successful, visit has passed through various transformations. At first it probably symbolised the abode of the departed, and was as such identical with the castle of Brynhild which figures in the Thidreksaga [the saga of Dietrich von Bern] and the Nibelungenlied; and the hero's task was to break the spell of death or slumber binding the inhabitants. In the performance of this task certain talismans not infrequently played an important part; gradually these talismans became Christianised; and now in the Grail legends we have two castles — one, that of the Grail, the other, retaining its pre-Christian character, being known by varying names, the Castle of Maidens, the Château Merveil, or as here, Klingsor's Castle. Such a bespelled castle is undoubtedly an original and essential feature of the Perceval story.
he Parzival gives no account of the building of Monsalväsch, such as Wagner puts into the mouth of Gurnemanz, but simply speaks of Titurel as being first king and ruler of the Grail and its knights; but elsewhere Wolfram is more explicit. Among the works which the poet-knight has left are poems, or songs, dealing with the loves of Sigune and Schionatulander, four in all, but critics are doubtful whether more than the first two can be rightly ascribed to Wolfram. In the first of these poems, which are classed together under the name of Titurel, we find the old king, oppressed with the infirmities of age, resigning his kingdom to his son Frimutel, and telling him that he received the Grail from the hands of angels, that he was the first mortal to whose charge it was committed, and that the rules for the order of Grail knights were found on the mystic stone. There is no mention of the Spear here, nor of the building of Monsalväsch, the reason probably being that both castle and weapon were older than the Grail myth, and the writer accepted them as he found them.
t is doubtful whether the Titurel preceded or followed the Parzival; probably the latter, and Wolfram's intention was to fill up lacunae in the history of Sigune, who plays an important part in the Parzival. Its statements agree with those of the more important work, and a common source is evidently at the root of both. The old knight Gurnemanz, who is so prominent in the drama, is also a characteristic figure in the original Perceval legend, where his office is to instruct the hero in knightly customs and bearing — instruction of which he has much need. The Welsh (Peredur) version represents this character as identical with the Fisher-King, and as uncle to the hero; but he is, as a rule, distinct from both, and the relationship of uncle rather pertains to the Hermit, also an essential character of the legend, whose office it is to direct the hero's spiritual development, whereas the old knight's teaching is directed rather to his outward bearing (combined in the case of Gurnemanz of Graharz with a good deal of ethical teaching).
n Chrêtien's poem the name of the knight is Gonemans de Gelbort; Gerbert, one of Chrêtien's continuators, calls him Gornumant, of which form Gurnemanz is obviously the German rendering. It will be seen that in the drama Wagner has united the characters of these two instructors in the person of his rather didactic old knight: the Gurnemanz of the First Act answering to Gurnemanz of Graharz, who appears in the Third Book of the poem and not again, though he is frequently alluded to as a model of knightly wisdom, skill and courtesy; the Gurnemanz of the Third Act answering to the Hermit Trevrezent, who in the Ninth Book of the poem unfolds to Parzival the mystery of the Grail, and restores him to faith in God.
Above: the family tree of Parzival, according to Wolfram von Eschenbach
nd here it may be well to remark that Wagner's treatment of the Perceval legend differs in some essential characters from his treatment of the other legends he has dramatised; he has handled it with far more freedom and boldness, and, while adhering faithfully to the spirit of the original, he has recast the incidents with great gain to the dramatic form, and in more than one detail with a happy insistence on what was probably an original feature of the legend. The result of this treatment has been that, though the story of Parzival is really longer and more full of incident than is that of Siegfried, the salient points are so happily brought out, and the balance of the whole is so well preserved, that, though treated in one drama instead of in two, it in no way suffers from compression. It is a new rendering of an old myth ...
Above: Scenes from Wolfram's Parzival in a watercolour by Eduard Ille, 1869.
he Fisher-King, the wounded lord of the Grail, appears in every version of the Grail myth; in the English
Sir Percyvelle, in which the Grail does not appear, alone is he missing. Belonging to that part of the Perceval legend which has been
most strongly and directly affected by the development of the Grail myth, the character of the wounded king has now become so closely associated with the Christian talisman,
that even when the earlier form of the legend has become obscured, and Perceval himself has ceased to be
a rule the king is represented [in the romances] as an old man; that Anfortas, in the Parzival, appears in the prime of life and manly beauty is due to the youth-bestowing properties of the Grail; Trevrezent, the Hermit, who is spoken of throughout as an aged man, is Anfortas' younger brother. In his representation of the Grail king, Wagner has, on the whole, followed the indications of his source; one generation has been dropped out, and Amfortas appears as Titurel's son, and not his grandson, thus heightening the tragic effect of the king's refusal to unveil the Grail; and the relationship between himself and Parsifal no longer exists. The distinctive feature of Wolfram's version, and that which has given Wagner the hint for the colouring 'motif' of his drama, lies in the fact that he represents Anfortas as wounded in punishment for an unlawful love; in other versions the king is wounded in battle, or accidentally, by handling a mysterious sword destined for the use of another. This change, thoroughly in harmony with the high spiritual and ethical treatment which raises Wolfram's version of the legend so immeasurably above those of the French poets, has been utilised by Wagner to the great benefit of the character of Amfortas, which in the drama possesses a significance altogether lacking in the legend.
hy Wagner changed the name of the king from Anfortas to Amfortas does not appear: the original form is supposed to have been derived from the French Enfertez = the sick man, with Provençal ending -as; names derived from Provençal French being a marked feature in Wolfram's poem.
n his account of the weapon with which the king has been wounded Wagner departs boldly from his source, and from what was almost certainly the oldest form of the story. For we are here confronted with what was evidently one of the original features of the legend; in most of the earlier forms, e.g. in Chrêtien, in Peredur, and in the [prose] Perceval, we find a bleeding Lance accompanied by another talisman, which latter is eventually identified with the Grail. The Spear is in Chrêtien the subject of a longer digression and explanation than is the Grail itself; and while Perceval goes in quest of the Grail, and to ask the question which will heal the wounded king, Gawain goes in search of the Spear...
e not infrequently meet with the statement, in print, that it was Chrêtien de Troyes who first identified the Spear with the Spear of Longinus, and the Grail with the vessel of the Last Supper; but both these statements are incorrect. True, the Spear is so spoken of in the introduction to Chrêtien's poem, and Spear and Grail are alike Christian symbols in the minds of Chrêtien's continuators; but the introduction is no less the work of a hand other than Chrêtien's, than is the continuation (or, to be more correct, continuations), and he himself gives no account of the origin of either.
he fact seems to be that the Spear was, as Wolfram represents, the weapon with which the king was wounded; and although Wagner has radically changed the character of the weapon, yet in representing the Spear, rather than the Grail, as the object of the hero's quest, and the animating motive the desire of healing the maimed king, he is probably reproducing with fidelity original features of the story. No one can quarrel with Wagner for having represented both Spear and Grail under the more fully developed Christian character in which they are most familiar to us; the fact that he has done so bears out the contention advanced above, that in the Parsifal Wagner has been singularly happy in emphasizing the spiritual significance of the legend without detriment to its original form.
he episode of the swan, with which the hero makes his entry upon the scene, was doubtless suggested by a beautiful passage in the poem, where Wolfram depicts the child Parzival as slaying the birds in pure thoughtlessness, and then overwhelmed with remorse for the harm he has unwittingly done:
he identification of the swan as the bird of the Grail is a later feature, due to the connection with the myth of the swan-knight, who, in the latest forms of the story, became identified with Lohengrin, Parzival's son, and appointed heir to the Grail kingdom. The bird of the Grail is, more correctly, the dove, the badge of the Grail knights in the poem as in the drama; but Wolfram alone knows of this feature, and we cannot consider it part of the original legend...
n the legend Parzival is not, as in the drama, driven from the hall with contumely but awakes in the morning to find himself alone in the castle, all the inhabitants having vanished; and it is as he rides forth from the castle that an unseen hand raises the drawbridge, and the voice of one unseen pours mockery upon him for his failure to ask the mystic question:
— words in which we find the source of Gurnemanz's taunt, cast by Wagner in a more homely and proverbial form. The whole incident has an unmistakable
'folk-lore' flavour about it, though perhaps it is more common [in folk-tales] to find that not the folk alone, but castle or palace itself, has vanished, and the hero awakes to find himself lying on
Left: Scenery by Max Bruckner for Act 2 of Parsifal 1882.
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,
ut why did his choice fall on this special legend, and why did he select its hero as his
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