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myth of Perceval is part of a larger tradition of
stories about young heroes who are brought to a test or trial. The hero has to take
the correct action or make the correct response instinctively. Passing the test may
bring a kingdom, riches or some gift; failing the test may bring death or exclusion.
Usually, the hero only gets one chance. The unasked Question is the opposite of a
riddle and therefore a more difficult test.
the medieval Grail romances, the hero (Perceval, or
Peredur or Parzival), visits the Grail
Castle twice. On the first occasion, the boy remembers that he has been taught
not to ask unnecessary questions, and so does not ask a necessary question. As a
result, he fails and the land becomes, or at least continues to be, a waste land. By the time he finds the Grail
Castle again, the hero has achieved enlightenment and is able to ask the Question
and so bring healing.
Chrétien's account, the necessary Question is:
served by the grail?. A possible answer would be:
The old king, whose heir you
In itself, deliverance as the result of the right
kind of question is a universal, i.e. an archetypal, motif. Indeed, in fairytales
it is usual for the hero who wishes to acquire the treasure to have to fulfil one
or more special conditions, on the correct execution of which the result depends.
One such condition is the question. There is often a prohibition on asking, as for
instance in the legend of Lohengrin where it is a matter of guarding a
mystery. The mystery is generally that of the hero's descent which, most
frequently, is miraculous. With Perceval the matter stands differently. Excepting
in Wolfram, and in Wagner where a pure fool,
through pity wise becomes the quintessence of Parsifal's character, the
question is not based on compassion.
Wolfram's account, the necessary Question is:
do you suffer so?. A possible answer would be:
I was wounded by the spear and
it alone can heal me.
agner dispensed with the Question entirely.
What is important is not the
question, but the recovery of the spear (Cosima's Diary, 30 January 1877). Wagner realised
that there was another possibility: Parsifal fails
to understand what he experiences at the Grail Castle,
until he has relived Amfortas' encounter with
Kundry. He then understands through emotional identification with the suffering Fisher King.
here is, however, a question in Wagner's version: it is asked by Parsifal on his arrival at the lake in the domain of the Grail.
Who is the Grail?, he asks. Gurnemanz laughs.
That cannot be
spoken, he says,
but if you are called to its service, the knowledge will not be hidden for long.