Herauf! Herauf! Zu mir!
Dein Meister ruft dich, Namenlose,
Herodias warst du, und was noch?
Gundryggia dort, Kundry hier!
Hieher! Hieher denn, Kundry!
Dein Meister ruft; herauf!
Arise! Arise! To me!
Your master calls you, nameless one,
First she-devil! Rose of Hades!
Herodias were you, and what else?
Gundryggia then, Kundry here!
Come here! Come here now, Kundry!
Your master calls: arise!
[Parsifal, Act 2]
An introduction to Richard Wagner's Kundry
n Wagner's last music-drama Parsifal, we encounter a mysterious
creature called Kundry. In the domain
of the Grail, this Kundry appears as a wild woman, an unkempt, shabby and repulsive
crone. On the other side of the mountains, however, in the magic garden of the sorcerer Klingsor, she appears as a beautiful maiden. In this article, I shall
try to identify the many elements that were combined to create the most complex
character in all of Wagner's dramatic works. Further articles will explore some of
these elements in detail.
agner's Kundry can be related to
several female characters who appear in his Percevalian sources; although it is important to appreciate that Wagner also
added elements from completely different literary and mythical traditions; notably,
the exotic Herodias. The Percevalian
sources included, as I have described in a separate article, Wolfram's Parzival, Chrétien's Perceval and the anonymous Welsh/Breton Peredur. In addition, Wagner, in the late 1860's, had a copy
of Perlesvaus, or The High History
of The Holy Grail, although it has not been established
that he knew this book before writing the Prose Draft of
Right: A dark-skinned Condrie abuses Parzival in this painting from Ludwig
's castle of Neuschwanstein.
of the archetypes of this tradition that caught Wagner's imagination was that of the
Loathly Damsel. This creature appears at critical points in
all four of these poems. Generally she brings news (in German, "news" or
"information" is Kunde, whence Kundry), explains what has happened, and hints at what might happen
later. Wolfram presents Condrie la sorziere as the
High Messenger of the Grail. In Perlesvaus, perhaps taking a hint from an
unimportant line in Chrétien's poem, she becomes the Bald
Damsel, who is also lady Fortune. In Wolfram it is Sigune who becomes bald.
element, found only in the Welsh/Breton Peredur
and in the allegorical Perlesvaus, seems
to have been particularly important for Wagner:
the repulsive, filthy Loathly Damsel is also the beautiful
Grail Bearer who is seen at the Grail
Castle. This dual nature of the character as she appears in these two poems, is
also found in other medieval literature, notably in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's
Tale. Wagner kept this element of duality; although in his version, it is
Condrie la sorziere who is seen at the Grail
Castle, and her beautiful transformation is controlled by Klingsor. Here Klingsor seems to be based on Wolfram's
Clinschor who has cast a spell over
the proud and beautiful Orgeluse.
olfram's account of the first visit of the sheltered youth
to the Grail Castle was based upon an earlier version of
this incident in the poem by Chrétien (summary).
Left: The Grail bearer as portrayed by Arthur Rackham.
things are unclear in Chrétien's account, not least the
phenomena seen by Perceval at the
Grail Castle, including the beautiful maiden who bears the
Grail. The poet died leaving his poem for others to complete,
which they did in various ways (the so-called Continuations). As in the
modern detective story, we can see that Chrétien was
building up to an ending in which these mysteries would be
explained both to the young hero and to the reader (as they are explained by the
hermit in Wolfram's completion of the story).
hrétien does not explicitly state that the Grail was the source of the food that was served to Perceval and the others present in the hall;
although the passage has often been read that way, and later authors developed the
horn of plenty aspect of the Grail. Perhaps the
original of this Grail was a Celtic vessel that provided limitless food, such as that from which,
in an Irish tale, the daughter of Lugh fed Conn?
is it clear whether the radiance that appears when the Grail
enters emanates from the cup itself or from the girl
who bears it. It is possible that the original Grail Bearer
was a goddess and it might be that, through misreading of this passage, the divinity
had been transferred from the girl to the vessel itself. The remaining question is:
Right: Waltraud Meier as Kundry, Bayreuth 1989.
oomis believed that he had found the origin of
the Loathly Damsel in Celtic tales
1. He pointed out similarities between her description as found
in the Welsh text of Peredur and Irish adventures,
suggesting that the Loathly Damsel is one aspect of the
Sovereignty of Ireland, who may be identified with the goddess Eriu.
Her role in the myth of Irish kingship is to personify the land;
her metamorphosis from hag to beautiful maiden represented the change from winter to
spring, when vegetation appears out of the dead land. In order to win her, the
aspiring king must embrace her winter aspect, and marry her in the spring to ensure
the fertility of the land. This is one version of the myth of the Waste Land. It is in her winter aspect that Eriu appears in the
story of Niall, and it is
in her spring aspect that she appears in the tale of Conn,
in which she offers the hero drink from a golden cup.
story of Perceval is the story of
Conn reversed: Perceval fails the test. Instead of the Loathly
Damsel becoming a beautiful goddess, the beautiful girl becomes an ugly creature
who pours scorn on the Quester for his failure. It is possible to see traces of this
myth in Wagner's Parsifal: Kundry's kiss; the
arrival of the hero at the edge of the forest as winter changes to spring; Kundry's assistance in the anointing of
Parsifal as king.
Left: Winkelmann as Parsifal and Materna as Kundry, Bayreuth 1882. ©Richard-
agner's dramatic genius can be seen in his ability to select from sources and to make new connections between their elements. Drawing
on diverse sources, Wagner made some radical changes to Wolfram's story, simplifying the plot and reducing many simple
characters to a few complex ones.
agner adopted the Christianised version of the
Grail, rather than the mysterious stone described in Wolfram's account. By 1865 he had discarded the Question entirely; after considering several alternatives, he made
the recovery of the spear the focus of the story, removed
Gawain and his quest, and later changed
some of the names (although the names in the Prose Draft
are still those taken from Wolfram). Wagner merged two of
Wolfram's characters to make a composite called Gurnemanz, and merged at least three of the
female characters into a composite called Kundry. He linked together the Grail, the
spear and the wild woman: when Titurel arrived in the mountains with the holy relics, he found
Der fand, als er
die Burg dort baute, sie schlafend hier im Waldgestrüpp, erstarrt, leblos, wie
the young Parsifal, the wild woman has
many names. The many elements in Wagner's Kundry included another archetype found in literature from the Middle
Ages onwards: the Wandering Jew. In Wagner's poem,
Kundry becomes a reincarnation of Herodias who, because she had laughed at the Saviour's
suffering 2, was
cursed to wander through the world until His return. She
is not only cursed to wander, but also always to tell the truth; and she cannot weep,
only laugh her accursed laugh. Another Herodias can be found in Heine's poem
Atta Troll; this former princess of Judea does
not wander the world, but rides, laughing, with the Wild Hunt across the
sky. She appears as a
cruel rose in Mallarmé's Les fleurs (1864):
L'hyacinthe, le myrte à l'adorable éclair
Et, pareille à la chair de la femme, la rose
Cruelle, Hérodiade en fleur du jardin clair,
Celle qu'un sang farouche et et radieux arrose!
Left: Olive Fremstad as Kundry
her Cambridge Handbook, Lucy Beckett entirely misses
the point of the Herodias reference,
but makes an interesting observation about the reference to Mary Magdalen. Beckett reminds us that in 1848 Wagner had
sketched a scenario for a play called Jesus of Nazareth, which includes a
scene in which the penitent Magdalen kneels in
repentance before Jesus on the shore of Lake Gennesareth; later in the play she was
to anoint his head and wash his feet, just as Kundry does toward Parsifal in the opera. Although Wagner repeatedly denied that Parsifal was a Christ- figure (
gave the Saviour a thought, he said), this image had stayed with him and was
incorporated by him into the Good Friday scene.
Die Sieger, an opera that Wagner never completed, a chaste
young man called Ananda receives into the religious
community a beautiful girl called Prakriti, who has passionately loved him; but Shakyamuni, the future
Buddha persuades him to renounce her. The Buddha reveals that in an earlier incarnation, Prakriti had rejected, with mocking laughter,
the love of a young man. Prakriti is
a parallel to Mary Magdalen in the sense that both are
outcasts. By absorbing these two outcast women, in their different ways excluded and
despised by patriarchal societies, who by their associations with the Buddha and
Christ respectively introduce further religious iconography to Wagner's drama, Kundry
gained a further dimension.
Left: Cartoon by M. Kringle, in Klier
he last word in this article shall belong to
Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose essay From
Chrétien de Troyes to Richard Wagner
(in The View From
Afar) provoked me to look more closely at the origins of Kundry.
We may ask ... whether Wagner, by
making Kundry a double
creature, was not unconsciously going back to a very ancient tradition, of
which only a vestige survives in Wolfram. Celtic literature sometimes describes an old, repulsive hag
who offers herself to the hero and then, when he accepts her, turns into a
radiant beauty - an image, we are told, of the sovereignty that a pretender
to the throne must win. Furthermore, in order to construct the character of
Kundry, Wagner blended into
one, four heroines of Chrétien and Wolfram: the 'hideous damsel' already mentioned; the
Maiden-who-never-laughs, except to tell Perceval of his promised destiny [Wolfram's Cunneware]; the
cousin [Wolfram's Sigune] who tells him that his mother is dead and who, in
Wolfram, is the first to call him by his name; and
the 'wicked maiden' ... Orgeluse. According to Wolfram [she
is] indirectly responsible for the treacherous blow that strikes Anfortas down.
Here it should be noted that Wagner's main
source of Celtic legends was a Breton collection that included the Peredur
. His Bayreuth library contains some volumes of
, a collection of Irish folktales and legends in German translation.
In the 1865 Prose
Wagner writes of an ancient curse
without stating why Kundry
had been cursed. Only in the second Prose Draft of 1877, after Wagner had been
reading books about early Christianity, did he introduce the idea that Kundry had
mocked Jesus and that he had cursed her; so that she now seeks Christ from world to
endlos durch das Dasein quält