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The Progress of a Hero: from foolish youth to wise leader

Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote about a foolish young man who became a perfect knight. Wagner's Parsifal goes beyond perfect knighthood, to the perfection of wisdom.

A Man Grows Slowly Wise

The poems of Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach concerning the young man who appears, at first, to be nothing but a fool (doch eben nur ein Tor!) are early examples of the genre of bildungsroman: a story in which a young person grows up. In these chivalric romances, we are told how an apparently unpromising candidate can become, not only a knight, but a knight who is able to achieve where others have failed. In Wolfram, it is through gaining both maturity and wisdom that Parzival develops into a knight who is able to find the Grail Castle for the second time and to ask the vital question.

Parsifal finds the Grail Temple and heals King Amfortas, in Harry Kupfer's staging for Finnish National Opera. Above: Parsifal finds the Grail Temple and heals King Amfortas. Finnish National Opera, Helsinki.

In Wagner's treatment of the myth, the recovery of the Holy Spear replaces the question on which the action of the medieval romances hinges. Now the key to obtaining wisdom is fellow- suffering or compassion: mitleiden leidvoll wissender Tor, Wagner wrote in the Prose Draft. In Schopenhauer's ethics, it is compassion that is the foundation of morality. From compassion follow the virtues of justice and loving-kindness, and from them all other virtues.

In some respects, Parsifal is the typical Wagnerian hero, related closely to Siegfried in his initial innocence and readiness to destroy whatever and whoever stands in his path. He is also related to Siegfried (and even more closely to his father Siegmund) in his life of painful wandering and to both Siegfried and Tristan in his musings about his parents: like them both, he feels guilt for the death of his mother. But at the start, unlike these other heroes, he is not in search of anything or anyone in particular, wandering aimlessly, unaware of the possibilities of life and of his own potential. Hence Gurnemanz's surprise when Parsifal returns to Monsalvat:

Erkennst du ihn? Der ist's, der einst 
 den Schwan erlegt!
(Kundry bestätigt mit einem leisen 
Gewiss, 's ist Er, der Tor, 
 den ich zürnend von uns wies.
(Kundry blickt starr, doch ruhig  
auf Parsifal.) 
Ha! Welche Pfade fand er? Der Speer - 
 ich kenne ihn! 
(In grosser Ergriffenheit) 
O! Heiligster Tag, an dem ich heut' 
 erwachen sollt'!

Do you recognise him? It is he, who once killed the swan! (Kundry confirms this with a gentle nod of her head.) Truly, it's him, the fool, whom I chased away in anger. (Kundry looks steadily but peacefully at Parsifal.) Ah! What path did he find? The spear - I recognise it! (Now greatly moved.) Oh! Holiest of days, that I should have woken today!

Wolfram's Parzival takes leave of his mother Herzeloyde

He seems to be quite unpromising material from which to make a knight. Like Siegfried, he has been brought up in the isolation of a deep forest and by a conscious decision of his mother, he has been shielded from all concepts of chivalry and warfare. Furthermore, she seems to have neglected both his moral training and instruction in basic etiquette: in the romantic poems, he mistreats the first woman he comes across, taking her ring and stealing a kiss; when he has need of arms, Parzival kills the knight Ferris for his red armour and weapons. Wagner emphasizes moral development: Gurnemanz's questioning of the boy reveals that he cannot distinguish between good and evil. He is unable to comprehend the suffering of Amfortas because, in his sheltered childhood, he had been kept from all knowledge of suffering. There is a strong suggestion here of a parallel with the Buddha (Gautama Shakyamuni), who was brought up in ignorance of old age, sickness and death. It could even have been the realization that the youth of the Buddha, traditionally an Indian noble or prince with an over-protective widower father, about whom Wagner had been reading in 1856-7, resembled the youth of Wolfram's Parzival, a Welsh noble or prince with an over-protective widowed mother was the seed from which the drama developed.

Wolfram's poem has two poles: at one is the chivalric ideal of triuwe (treue), constancy or faithfulness; at the other, zwivel (zweifel), inconstancy or wavering. He begins his poem, If inconstancy dwell with the heart, then the soul will not fail to find it bitter. The ignorant and foolish boy has to learn faithfulness to something (the Grail) which on his first visit to the Grail Castle he did not understand; only after he has understood what the Grail represents and why Amfortas suffers, through his faith and by paths of suffering he is able to find the place again; only then, by the wisdom gained through compassion or fellow- suffering, is he able to heal. Wagner shows us a young man growing in compassion, from the first inarticulate stirrings of compassion for the dead swan (Parsifal cannot find words, so he shows his remorse by breaking his bow), through his evident sympathy for the suffering Amfortas (Parsifal presses his hand to his heart) and his remorse for the suffering that he had caused his own mother, to the compassion for Kundry that he is able to express after experiencing her kiss.

open quotes The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner. close quotes

[Matthew 21:42] Parsifal Act I in a Danish Royal Opera production.

P arsifal is also like Siegfried in that he appears to accomplish things for himself; although in some mysterious way, the Grail is acting in the background to bring about its (or perhaps we should say, his) own redemption (the release of the Grail and with it the regeneration of the Grail community). If we consider this parallel further, it could lead into deep waters. As a free agent, Siegfried might (as Wotan thinks) be able to achieve what Wotan, the least free of all, cannot achieve; applying the same pattern to Parsifal, he might be seen as a free agent who is able to accomplish what the Christian God cannot. It is possible to read Wagner's text as a return to the Gnostic or Manichaen roots of the legend. Whereas Siegfried forges his own destiny, Parsifal redeems himself, not just by faith but by his actions. For a Christian, this sub-text is a far more serious objection to Parsifal than the representation of the Mass on a stage; and therefore, in spite of all of the Christian symbolism and allusions to Jesus Christ and to Mary Magdalen in the poem, it is hard to agree with Lucy Beckett's assertion that this is an intrinsically Christian work.

Parsifal Act 3 at the Flemish Opera

In Wolfram's work, as it would most likely have been in Chrétien's poem had he finished it, the development of the pure fool culminates in a perfect knight. Parzival has acquired the necessary wisdom, not only to heal his maternal uncle but also to assume his throne as king and guardian of the sacred relics. In Wagner's text and music, we find the same development, but here it goes further than in the chivalric romances, even beyond Wagner's initial conception. Originally, it would seem, Wagner had introduced Kundry's kiss as the mechanism by which Parsifal would be awakened to an understanding of the suffering of Amfortas (with all that it entails); he would understand by an emotional identification after reliving what had happened to Amfortas. During the development of Wagner's ideas, something diffused into the part of his mind that was occupied with Parsifal, from the part that was simultaneously concerned with Die Sieger. In the latter, the Buddha, sitting under the tree, experienced supreme, unsurpassed enlightenment.

On the threshold

This idea was merged into Kundry's kiss, so that Parsifal now, in the third act, attained enlightenment similar to that of the Buddha: not only the suffering of Amfortas but that of all creation, in its striving and cycles of existence, was revealed to him with crystal clarity: Welthellsicht, perhaps even Satori or Bodhi. Like the Buddha too, before his enlightenment, Parsifal is tempted by beautiful women:

open quotes They assailed the prince with all kinds of strategems. Pressing him with their full bosoms, they addressed to him invitations. One embraced him violently, pretending to have tripped. Another whispered in his ear, "Let my secret be heard". A third, with appropriate gestures, sang an erotic song, easily understood; and a fourth, with beautiful breasts, laughed, earrings waving in the wind, and cried, "Catch me, sir, if you can!" But that best of youths, when wandering in the forest like an elephant accompanied by his female herd, only pondered in his agitated mind: "Do these women not know that old age one day will take away their beauty? Not observing sickness, they are joyous here in a world of pain. And, to judge from the way they are laughing at their play, they know nothing at all of death". close quotes

[Ashvaghosa, Buddhacarita¹]

As  discussed in another article, the words of Gurnemanz in the second scene of the last act and the events of the final scene (especially as presented in some modern stagings) suggest a comparison between Parsifal and Christ; a parallel that Wagner repeatedly disavowed, but which he himself suggested to King Ludwig, for whom this was a profoundly Christian work.

open quotes Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. close quotes

[John 12:3]

This parallel is underlined by the presentation of Kundry in Act 3 as a Magdalen, anointing the pure one with oil of spikenard and washing his feet, which she then dries with her long hair; and by the appearance of the dove at the end of the opera. This is, it is true, an element taken from Wolfram, perhaps originating with his source Kyot as a religious symbol; it too has a strong resonance with the Gospel of St. John.

open quotes And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.close quotes

[John 1:32]

P arsifal's progress goes beyond achieving the state of perfect knight. This is the most significant difference between Wagner's poem and Wolfram's Parzival, the story of a fool who became a knight. Wagner's Grail king is a spiritual hero on the same spiritual plane as the Buddha and the Christ. Whose teachings, Wagner believed, were essentially the same.

Postscript: Parsifal and Buddhism

Since I wrote the article above, my understanding of the Buddhist ideas and symbolism in Parsifal has been significantly improved and expanded as a result of intensive studies in the related literature, combined with visits to Bayreuth and Zürich in the summer of 2000.

It is now clear to me that Wagner's original conception involved a merging of the respective stories of Parzival and the Buddha Shakyamuni; and that it was inherent in Wagner's concept, from its beginning on a spring morning in 1857, that his hero Parsifal would progress to the level of Buddhahood. It should not be thought, however, that Wagner identified his Parsifal with the Buddha Shakyamuni, any more than he was identified with Christ. Wagner's inspiration, I firmly believe, was found in his observation that the early life of Wolfram's Parzival resembled the early life of the Buddha, about whom Wagner had been reading in 1856-57. Wagner's hero progresses from fool to sage. At the end of his path Parsifal takes the last step (der Rettung letzter Pfad) of attaining enlightenment: something Wagner believed was common to both the Buddha and the Christ.

Appendix: Wagner's Books from the East

Here is a list of books, each of which Wagner at some time had in his possession, concerning the literature, religion or other aspects of India, Nepal, Ceylon or some nearby country. In preparing this list, I have concentrated on books that are about these countries — regardless of where they were written — and on translations of oriental literature, as opposed to western literature that found its inspiration in the orient. In one case, where it has not been established for certain that Wagner had a copy of the book — although he might have known about its contents at secondhand — this is marked as (probable). In all other cases, there is documentary evidence that Wagner had the book; in most of these cases, Wagner's copy of the book can be see at Haus Wahnfried, either in the salon or in the "Dresden library" collection.

Key to the table: A number in the column headed S refers to the reading list provided by Schopenhauer in his misleadingly-named Sinology. A mark in the column headed W indicates that the book is at Haus Wahnfried: D= Dresden library, followed by the book's number in Westernhagen's catalogue. A number in the column headed BB refers to an entry in the Brown Book. A date in the column headed CT refers to the entry for that day in Cosima's Diaries.

Date & place Title and edition Author or translator S W BB CT
Unknown Bhagvat Gita: in the original Sanskrit Unknown *
Unknown Gita Govinda: in the original Sanskrit Dschajadewa *
1801/2, Strassburg Oupnek'hat: in Latin Anquetil Duperron *
1808, Heidelberg Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier Friedrich Schlegel *
1820-27, Bonn Indische Bibliothek: eine Zeitschrift August Wilhelm Schlegel *
1834, Paris Livres sacrées de l'orient Guillaume Pauthier *
1834, Paris Essais sur la philosophie des Hindous H.T. Colebrooke, tr. G. Pauthier * 13-14.01.1874
1843, Leipzig Barlaam und Josaphat tr. Rudolf von Ems D8
1843, Leipzig Die Mährchensammlung des Somadeva Bhatta aus Kashmir tr. Hermann Brockhaus *
1843, Leipzig Sammlung orientalischer Mährchen, Erzählungen und Fabeln tr. Hermann Brockhaus *
1844, Paris Introduction à l'histoire du buddhisme indien Eugène Burnouf 10 * 22.05.1873
1847, Leipzig Abhandlung über die heiligen Schriften der Indier H.T. Colebrooke, tr. Ludwig Poley *
1852, Paris Le Lotus de la bonne Loi (The Lotus of the Good Law) Eugène Burnouf *
1852, Stuttgart Sakuntale Kalidasa, tr. Ernst Meier *
1853, London A Manual of Buddhism in its modern development (probable) Robert Spence Hardy 23
1854, Stuttgart Indischen Sagen Adolf Holtzmann *
1854-58, Paris Ramayana Valmiki, tr. Hippolyte Fauche * 16.08.1865
1856, Berlin Malavika und Agnimitra Kalidasa, tr. Edmund Lobedanz * 13-14.03.1873
1857, Berlin Die Religion des Buddha und ihre Entstehung Carl Friedrich Koeppen 26 * 20.11, 04.12.1873, 01.10.1882
1857, Berlin Indischen Skizzen Albrecht Weber *
1858-67, Leipsig Indische Alterthumskunde Christian Lassen *
1859, Leipzig Pantschatantra: fünf Bücher indischer Fabeln, Märchen und Erzählungen Theodor Benfrey *
1861, Leipzig Urwasi (Vikramorvasi) Kalidasa, tr. Edmund Lobedanz * 13.03.1873
1861, Paris/Nancy La Bhagavad Gita: ou le Chant du bienheureux Emile-Louis Burnouf *
1863, Paris Mahabharata Hippolyte Fauche *
1869, Berlin Indische Streifen Albrecht Weber *
1870-73, St. Petersburg Indische Sprüche Otto Böthlink *
1872, Paris Chefs-d'oeuvre littéraires de l'Inde, de la Perse, de l'Egypte et de la China. Bd.1.- Rig-Véda ou livre des hymnes Philippe-Edouard Foucaux *
1874, London Sutta Nipáta, or dialogues and discourses of Gotama Buddha M. Coomára Swámy *
1874, Basel Geschichte der indischen Religion Paul Wurm *
1881, Berlin Buddha. Sein Leben, seine Lehre, seine Gemeinde Hermann Oldenberg * 18.09, 01.10, 14.10, 30.10.1882
Footnote 1: Wagner did not have access to the Buddhacarita, which was not available in any European language until a decade after his death. Neither does he mention the Lalita-Vistara, another account of the life and miracles of the Buddha, of which an English translation was published in 1881 and a French translation in 1892. The various accounts of the life of the Buddha that were available to Wagner, in books and articles, were brief and fragmentary.

Footnote 2: Several recently published books about Indian religions were found in Paris by Judith Gautier and Catulle Mendès. These included Eugène Burnouf's Introduction, Emile-Louis Burnouf's translation of the Gita, and the Oupnek'hat. The books were presented to Wagner on his 60th birthday.

The assistance of the staff at Haus Wahnfried and of Dr. Sven Friedrich in this research is acknowledged with gratitude.