59 pages 1 hour read

Wolfram Von Eschenbach


Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Adult | Published in 1215

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Summary and Study Guide


Parzival is a medieval romance poem written by Wolfram von Eschenbach, likely written during the early 1200s. In the poem, a knight named Parzival searches for the Holy Grail. Commonly associated with the stories of King Arthur, Parzival is regarded as one of the most important verse poems of the medieval German period. The story has been adapted many times, notably as an opera named Parsifal by the composer Richard Wagner.

This guide uses the 2006 Oxford World Classics edition, translated by Cyril Edwards.

Plot Summary

Parzival begins with the story of Gahmuret, Parzival’s father. Gahmuret is the youngest son of the King of Anjou. Since he does not stand to inherit anything, he sets out on an adventure to the Middle East. He saves Queen Belacane and marries her, becoming king. The couple has a son named Feirefiz, whose mottled skin resembles a magpie. When Gahmuret tires of life in the Middle East, he returns to Anjou. There, he falls in love with Queen Herzeloyde at a jousting tournament. Though he is reluctant, he marries her but returns to the Middle East to quell a siege. Gahmuret is killed in battle before his son, Parzival, is born.

Queen Herzeloyde raises Parzival in the wilderness to keep him ignorant of the world of knights. One day, Parzival meets three knights in a clearing. He is stunned by their magnificent appearance but does not understand the concept of a knight. They tell him about the glory of King Arthur’s court and Parzival resolves to become a knight. His mother gives him advice before he leaves: only cross the river in places where the water is clear, greet everyone politely, listen to the advice of wise men without anger, and if a maiden gives him her ring and a kiss, he should be strong and bold.

Parzival comes across a lady and, misinterpreting his mother’s advice, he steals her ring, a kiss, and the clasp on her garment. Terrified, she distracts him with food and then tells him to return the stolen items, otherwise her husband will be angry. Parzival refuses and rides away, leaving the distraught woman to try to explain to her husband what happened. The Duke casts her away for being unfaithful. Later, Parzival meets the couple again and facilitates reconciliation.

Parzival seeks Arthur’s court and hopes to be knighted. Outside the court, he meets the Red Knight, whom Parzival defeats in a duel. He takes the Red Knight’s armor. He meets an old man named Gurnemanz who tutors him in the ways of knighthood. The old man also counsels him against talking too much and asking too many questions. Parzival hears of a besieged Queen Condwiramurs and resolves to rescue her. Her kingdom, under attack by land and sea, is gripped with famine. Parzival saves the Queen, defeating the evil King Clamide’s seneschal (i.e., steward), Kingrun, whom he sends to Arthur’s court. Parzival and the beautiful queen fall in love. Like his father, he is restless and leaves to go adventuring.

Parzival becomes the guest of the Fisher King. At dinner, Parzival is seated near the King, who looks gravely ill. Parzival witnesses the spectacle of the Grail Procession. However, Parzival, remembering his mentor’s advice about minding his own business, does not ask the King what ails him, nor what the Grail Procession means. The next morning, he wakes to find the castle deserted. He failed the test. Parzival becomes famous for his exploits, and Arthur searches for Parzival, who now wears the Red Knight’s armor. Gawan finds him, taking him back to court, where he is made a knight of the Table Round. Parzival then sets out to seek the Holy Grail. Here the story splits in two: half follows Gawan’s adventures and decision to search for the Grail and the other half follows Parzival.

Parzival fights with a Knight of the Grail and then meets a pilgrim knight on Good Friday, who chastises him for bearing arms during the Holy Tide. The knight directs him to the hermit, Trevrizent. Parzival finds the hermit, who enumerates all the ways that Parzival has sinned and brought his misfortunes upon himself. The hermit then instructs him in religion, the mysteries of the Grail, informs him of his mother’s death of heartbreak, and tells him that he is the Fisher King’s nephew. He absolves the dejected Parzival and sends him on his way.

Gawan and Parzival meet again and, as they do not recognize each other, they fight. Gawan loses. Parzival helps defend Gawan from a false murder charge. Ever restless, he longs for his wife and steals away from court. Later, he battles a man from the Middle East, only to find out that it is Feirefiz, his half brother. The two are welcomed at Arthur’s court. Parzival is summoned to the Grail Kingdom once more. This time, Parzival heals the king by asking the right questions. Quest complete, he rejoins his wife, while Feirefiz is baptized and weds Repanse de Schoye. Parzival becomes Lord of the Grail, as was prophesized.