Depiction And Development Of The Knight Hero In Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival

2577 words - 10 pages

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzival stands as one of the richest and
most profound literary works to have survived from the middle ages. Lost in obscurity for
centuries until rediscovered and republished by Karl Lachmann in 1833, the poem
enjoyed at least as great a popularity when it was first composed as it does among
today’s readers: Some eighty manuscripts have been preserved, in whole or in part,
from Wolfram’s era (Poag 40). Among the more intriguing aspects of the work is
Wolfram’s handling of the depiction and development of two of the story’s primary
characters, the knights Gahmuret and Parzival, father and son. Central to the action of
the text from its inception, yet never sharing a scene, these men function as the poem’s
heroes—larger-than-life figures of extraordinary strength, skill and courage whose
remarkable achievements and bravery carry the momentum of the story. These men
represent the classic knightly warriors of old who (at least ideally) dedicated their
energies and passions above all else to the noble pursuit of fame, honor and valor.
Indeed, in the course of discussing heroic development in Parzival, one must also note
the main characters’ chivalric development, as their natural proclivity and tendencies as
knights are clearly reflected and reinforced in their heroic manner and mien.
In the course of this investigation I wish to analyze the ways in which Wolfram
depicts these knighly heroes and their development. In this way I shall attempt to
achieve a better understanding of how Wolfram—and, by extension, the men of his
time—themselves understood the themes and events he describes. I shall also include
the critical perspectives of scholars whose have previously come to grips with the
question of the hero and with Wolfram’s magnum opus. I hope at least to do justice to
what I have come to see as a beautifully engrossing, and timeless, work of art.

Background and General Characteristics of the Poem
Little is known of Wolfram’s life; even the dates of his birth and death are
uncertain (Hasty ix). Perhaps for this reason, Poag begins his biographical discussion of
Wolfram with an extended description of life under the reign of Frederic Barbarossa
(13). Due to the paucity of reliable sources (outside the scant information given by
Wolfram in Parzival itself), scholars are left largely to surmise and suppose what kind of
man Wolfram was and how he lived. André Lefevere recognizes that Wolfram was
himself a knight, as the poet reminds his audience on several occasions (vii). He was,
furthermore, a ministeriale—one of the poorer class of knights without significant land
holdings or an important title—in a society and era in which knights were, for various
political reasons, being increasingly denied the influential duties and responsibilities
which were their raison d’etre (vii-viii). The intensifying societal disadvantages with
which knights of his day had to contend...

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