Do you perceive me? Parzival: a book of love

By Andre Bartoniczek, February 2015

When the Arthurian knight Gawan confesses to the beautiful and powerful Orgeluse how happy he is when he sees her she responds: “That’s as may be. As if I needed to know that.” And: “It is time for you to ride on.” Similarly charming later on: “Welcome, you goose! Never has a man been the bearer of so much stupidity as yourself. May God throw you off your horse!”

Photo: © DerLukas/

The verdict of the pupils could not be clearer and they are all completely bewildered when Gawan continues to woo this lady undeterred despite further humiliations. Why does Gawan do this to himself? After all, he is otherwise so prudent and clear-thinking, why does he not just get on his horse and ride away? At this point at the latest that touching moment always occurs when there is a sudden turn in the conversation, the pupils leave their initial reaction behind and turn to certain questions with impressive assurance: could it be that Gawan sees something in Orgeluse which she is hiding? Does he perceive something in her which no one is allowed to see although it is perhaps something wonderful and magnificent? I have yet to experience a lesson in which the pupils did not very rapidly and clearly recognise: there must be a reason why Orgeluse acts as she does.

Is it not the case that sometimes at the most important moments we have to provoke the person we love in order to test them, whether they really mean me rather than my beautiful, rich or powerful external appearance? A woman like Orgeluse is wooed by innumerable men – but are any of them truly interested in her real being?

The pupils formulate questions here which are ultimately addressed to life itself and particularly also to our current adult world. Are Orgeluse’s thorns not the same as those which young people so effectively extend because they want to know whether there is a genuine interest in their innermost person – be it from parents or teachers – or whether it is only about the affirmation of existing expectations concerning friendliness, hard work and correctness?

Is it not the case that we have that interpersonal mess at home and in the classroom because in reality we have the longing to be noticed and seen by the other person? We ourselves are under inspection: our civilisation is trained to focus on externalities – status, money, consumption as much as on the security of empirical thinking. For an understanding of love it means that scents trigger biochemical reactions which make us think we are in love so that the species is conserved; the sexual drive ensures reproduction; love otherwise is a product which is available for purchase.

Can you see through the bedazzlement?

The German lesson has long ceased to be for the communication of learning content for the exams but has turned into a reflection on questions of life. That is not an easy subject, after all: which pupil would talk about these things, which they might well have experienced themselves to a certain extent, in the classroom? No, that is something you prefer to keep to yourself and instead suffer inwardly. In this lesson, however, everyone immerses themselves together in the images of Parzival, comes to passages such as the one just quoted, and does not need to talk about themselves at all. No one has to expose their own inner side which is still so new and at risk. But it is equally difficult, and in some circumstances dangerous, not to talk about our own experiences and states of mind at all: the pupils cannot overcome their own hardship, are completely unfamiliar with many things and keep increasing the stress on themselves instead of being able to liberate themselves through understanding coming from another person or themselves. The encounter with literature is like looking into a mirror, discovering oneself and finding precisely the questions, pain, hope and thoughts expressed which deeply occupy us. We should not underestimate the extent to which this has a clarifying and sustaining effect on the soul life of young people, even if nothing appears to have happened at all.

Readers might observe in themselves what they feel and what effect it has in them when they discover what happens next with Orgeluse. Gawan risks his life to pass an extremely dangerous task: he is to seize a wreath which is hanging on the other side of a deep gorge. He jumps and almost falls into the depths with his horse. When Orgeluse sees this she bursts into tears. Gawan survives and now Orgeluse throws herself down in front of him in tears, asks for forgiveness and reveals her true feelings.

The curtain opens and we can look into the immense truth of this person – with her tragedy but also with her most intimate avowal of love. Orgeluse’s attacks were the consequence of an unspeakably painful event: her husband was killed and when subsequently it was the Grail king Amfortas of all people who took care of her, inflamed with love, and forgot his actual task of protecting the Grail for a moment because of her beauty, the king was emasculated through the spear of the enemy of the Grail, Klingsor.

She was the object of an egoistically tinged desire and she now knows its consequences. While Amfortas begins his future martyrdom as the suffering Grail king, she goes the way of that terrible rejection of people who are actually dear to her with the anxious question which can never be spoken: do you see through the bedazzlement – can you perceive me? The story itself affirms the certitude of the intimate answers of the pupils to the riddle of Orgeluse und Gawan, and because at the same time these motifs combine with the complete content of the story of Parzival, the drama about the future of the Grail and Klingsor’ campaign of destruction, a profound experience of truth can inwardly come about.

Who is hidden in the “holy fool”?

Parzival constantly challenges us to transform ourselves: not to let ourselves be deceived by the external side of things but to discover behind it their true nature, the secret of life. We later recognise the Grail king in the “holy fool”; the terribly severe Kundry in reality suffered deeply with Parzival; in Klingsor’s castle hundreds of men live invisible and unredeemed. It is fascinating how Wolfram von Eschenbach opened up the world behind the curtain for us as long as 800 years ago and acquaints us with ourselves. The means he uses are the image. There are an infinite number of stories which describe the situations of human life as they occur in “reality”, in other words they naturalistically depict their outer appearance. Parzival in contrast pre-empts what Paul Klee said at the start of the twentieth century in his famous words: “Art does not depict, it makes visible”. It uses images which in women and men, houses and castles, rivers and forests, birds and horses show things which are very familiar to us, but which through their mysterious conjunction become permeable for the crucial, the hidden connections which underlie them.

The three drops of blood in the snow, the fisherman with the crown of peacock feathers on the lake, Feirefiz with his black and white “patches” are fairy tale motifs which seem far removed from the reality of our lives and yet they call on layers in us which in some circumstances are much more crucial than our everyday “facts”. It is as if we are dreaming: we experience pictures which in this form do not add up but are strangely “unrealistic” in their composition and yet we sense that it is precisely these images which are often very significant, existentially important messages, signals, notifications. They often feel truer than the content of our ordinary ideas.

The same is true of Wolfram’s poetic images: a young man who under his knight’s armour still wears the linen sack from his mother, the “fool’s motley”, is historically inconceivable. But how much more profound than historical “correctness” is this image: while on the outside this youth already presents himself in a knightly way and demonstrates his adulthood, he is still the child on the inside which first has to grow into his role – a timeless situation for which countless current examples of the youthful “dual being” between coolness and insecurity could be cited; it is, however, traced in a much more fundamental way in these elemental pictures.

In their characteristic, timeless formulation of the truths of human life, Wolfram’s motifs could well be called “archetypal images”. This is directly connected with the nature of love. Seeing the real future of the “holy fool”, his great individuality; not judging Orgeluse by external appearances; experiencing not just wood and stones in the external world but the spiritual forces underlying them – all these things are the expression of a loving relationship with the other person and with nature. By assimilating the images in Parzival in themselves and coming to grips with them, the pupils for a short and rare moment penetrate below the surface of things and become aware of their spiritual origin, the reality of their innermost soul life. Love is no longer biochemistry and drives but it is perceived in its actual dignity and depth. With Parzival we reach the “captain of a true education” Gurnemanz who gives him as the most important teaching to take away with him: “Man and woman are one like the sun which shone today and what we call day. Neither can separate from the other, both sun and day blossom from a single core.”

What a perspective: underlying the all too often irreconcilable duality there is a mysterious, unified origin, and partnership would mean consciously re-establishing this unity! But then through Gawan there is exposed a dark but daily virulent connection: the action of a destructive power which does everything to destroy love: Klingsor. In the figure of this black magician, who is castrated after being caught in adultery, who is incapable of love and now tries to do everything to prevent it arising among human beings ever again, we discover the background of many contemporary events: he keeps men and women radically separated in their imprisonment in his castle – the phenomenon of isolation among human being finds its expression here. Klingsor sows hate and it is told how he acts on human beings such as to keep them in a state of permanent fear – a disease which has globally taken hold of our civilisation. Parzival calls on us to consider the question of the extent to which our daily lives are influenced by subliminally working forces intent on destruction.

The festival of love

But driven by his unshakeable love, Gawan emerges victorious from his battle with the magician and breaks his power. In doing so he releases many hundreds of women and men in the castle from their spell and at the end one of the most beautiful moments in the whole story occurs. All the women and men sit down opposite one another at tables in the large palace and see one another for the very first time. Countless candles in the chandeliers and on the tables illuminate the hall in a wonderful light and even more light streams from the joyous faces of the people. They meet one another’s eyes, become familiar with one another and finally music sounds – they ask each other to dance. And now there follows the exceptional closing image of this festival: after innumerable years of enforced separation through magic men and women join together in dance, “everywhere they could be seen in happiness”, “poor in sorrows, rich in joys” they become one with the music in their movements and finally in happy conversation. Orgeluse comes and sits down at Gawan’s side and puts her hand in his.

What was still an intellectual principle in Gurnemanz here becomes a reality. Parzival does not define love but allows us to experience it. That precisely is what lies at the heart of this story: if the great mystery of the Grail stands at its centre, the search for it, the destinies of its king and his community, then we come to the meaning of a specific image towards which all of the action is directed – its revelation.

We become witnesses of a miracle: the Grail, which is never described outwardly and thus cannot be misunderstood as a material object, unceasingly bestows on all those present food and drink, that is nourishment.

Valuable discussions in the lesson can be initiated by the question: what actually is nourishment for human beings? It quickly becomes clear that it is not just physical food which nourishes people but affection and emotional warmth – love – do so just as much. On the path from Parzival’s physical but completely clueless attack on the surprised Jeschute through his loss of self when he sees Kondwiramur in the drops of blood in the snow to the moment in which he asks the tormented Amfortas the liberating, empathetic question: “what ails you?” we have passed through a wealth of stations in which we have respectively experienced quite different dimensions of the reality of love. Something of the substance of the Grail has communicated itself to us. Its revelation links humanity and the earth with Christ and this connection can become a source of loving attention for our fellow human beings and nature. 

About the author: Andre Bartoniczek is an upper school teacher of German and history at the Stuttgart Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School and works in teacher training.