Jessie L. Weston on Parsifal : continued


Extracts from Weston's Legends of the Wagner Drama

  1. The Grail Castle
  2. Titurel and Gurnemanz
  3. Wagner's Treatment of the Legend
  4. Amfortas and the Fisher King
  5. The Bleeding Lance
  6. The Swan Episode
  7. Departure from the Castle
  8. Klingsor
  9. Kondrie, Orgeluse, Herodias
  10. The Magic Garden
  11. Philosophical and Mystical Conception of the Hero
  12. The Good Friday Episode - Trevrezent
  13. The Healing of Amfortas
  14. Concluding Remarks
Castle in the wilderness - Schloss Duwisib, Namibia

Above: "This is Klingsor's magic castle. Concerning this sorcerer dark things are said. No one has seen him: he is known only by his power. That power is magic. The castle is his work, raised miraculously in what was previously a desolate place with only a hermit's hut upon it." (Wagner's 1865 Prose Draft)

Scenery for Act 2 by Max Bruckner
Left: Scenery by Max Bruckner for Act 2 of Parsifal 1882.


With 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...

In 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.

The 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!

But 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.

Image: Elaine by D.G.Rossetti

Right: Elaine the Grail Maiden by D.G.Rossetti.

Kondrie, Orgeluse, Herodias

Nor 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.

That 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.

The 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').

The 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.

Image: Sir Galahad, by G.F. Watts

Right: Sir Galahad, by G.F. Watts (1817-1904).

The 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.

The Magic Garden

In 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.

Image: Stage design for act 2 by T.E. Mostyn 1914.

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.

Philosophical and Mystical Conception of the Hero

What 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.

But why did his choice fall on this special legend, and why did he select its hero as his 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.

Image: Parzival and Trevrezent on Good Friday

The Good Friday Episode - Trevrezent

The 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.

There 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.

The Healing of Amfortas

The 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.

It 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.

In 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 ...

Image: Set design for the Good Friday Meadow by Joseph Harker, Covent Garden 1914

Above: Design for act 3 of Parsifal by Joseph Harker, 1914. ©ROH Covent Garden archives.

Concluding Remarks

Throughout, 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 eternally unrivalled.

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