The Bavarian knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (c.1170 – 1220), author of Parzival, was not the first great artist to be attracted by the story. Chrétien de Troyes, author of the unfinished Perceval, le Conte du Graal (Perceval, the Story of the Grail), was also inspired by the tale. He dedicated the romance to his patron Philip, count of Flanders, and his account of the Arthurian hero has a stylistic and thematic connection with Peredur, one of the medieval Welsh prose tales collectively known as the Mabinogi.
Te true origin of Perzeval’s story is unknown, but the variety of its treatments shows how literary material reflected local circumstances within a cosmopolitan ambiance. Von Eschenbach’s poem, arguably the greatest of the German medieval epics, is infused by the knightly ethic with its portrayal for the need of compassionate love when searching for a healing wisdom. Parzival’s grief-stricken mother, Herzeloyde, has consciously brought him up to be ignorant of chivalric knighthood following the death in battle of the boy’s father Gahmuret.
Itinerant knights, however, inform the youth of the glories of Arthur’s court at Camelot, and Parzival departs for the island of Britain. His despairing mother, however dresses him in a fool’s clothes in the hope that his appearance will exclude him from courtly life and the dangerous attractions of knighthood.
Parzival’s strange appearance makes him an object of curiosity at Camelot, and he is instructed in the need of knightly self-control. An even higher calling is reserved for him, however, and he arrives at the castle of the Grail where he meets the mysterious Anfortas, the wounded “Fisher King”. Anfortas is the keeper of the Grail, but his wound means that he can do little other than fish, and his suffering mirrors that of his kingdom, which seems doomed to sterility.
Many knights have tried to heal him, but only an individual with exceptional spiritual self-understanding can relieve Anfortas’s suffering. That penitent knight turns out to be Parzival, who therefore holds the key to the regenation of the kingdom itself. Liberated from earlier ignorance and self-centredness, Parzival learns that Anfortas is, in fact, his mother’s brother, and he himself becomes in time the Grail king.
Von Eschenbach’s highly charged account of knighthood’s challenges and tribulations gives a mythological dimension to the German empire of the Staufen. His primary emphasis is on the need for a spiritual self-understanding, but the theme of a regenerated kingdom that has recovered from its wounds and divisions has obvious affinities with the German empire’s political and military struggles in the age of the Staufen princes.