- Paperback: 426 pages
- Publisher: Scholar's Choice (8 February 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1294953931
- ISBN-13: 978-1294953937
- Product Dimensions: 18.9 x 2.2 x 24.6 cm
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
Parzival - Scholar's Choice Edition Paperback – Import, 8 Feb 2015
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
IF YOUR LIFE IS TO HAVE ANY UNDERSTANDING OF ITS AUTHENTICITY, YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK.
(Of course, the unrecognized hero of the story is actually Gawain who being a ladies man recognizes Parzival's love trance, and brings him out of it. Gawain isn't really featured here, but playa's got game.)
I read this and now I fear not a handful of dust, only to have missed out on the sunshine that dried it. We all fall down. Sometimes, if we're persistent, we get back up.
All three translations (to which I gave five stars) were in prose, unlike Jessie L. Weston's two-volume pioneering, and then-out-of-print (I think), "Parzival: A Knightly Epic," originally published in 1894, and the primary subject of the present review. Jessie L. Weston was an industrious translator of medieval Arthurian (and some other medieval) literature, and a lot of her out-of-copyright books have been picked up and re-issued. She was also a Wagner enthusiast (her "Parzival" is dedicated to him). The most famous of her books is "From Ritual to Romance," a highly-speculative, but fascinating, study of the Holy Grail traditions, which she tried to connect to a variety of religious traditions; this is available in a number of formats (although it has been a good many years since Arthurian scholars took her thesis seriously). Her views on the Grail story in any case are based on the French versions of the story, and do not directly involve Wolfram's decidedly atypical treatment of the subject.
I will deal with the more modern competition first. It should be made clear that I think these later translations are more readable, although the three (at the moment) Kindle editions of Weston's translation are less expensive than either of the Kindle (or paperback) editions of two of the three two prose translations. I will include as well some general observations on Wolfram and his major works, before returning to Weston's version.
The first of the prose translations was Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage's Vintage paperback (Random House, 1961), Parzival: A Romance of the Middle Ages," which is (apparently) now out of print. It was followed a couple of decades later by A. T. Hatto's "Parzival" (A Penguin Classic, 1980). The third was "Parzival: With Titurel and the Love Lyrics," translated by Cyril Edwards ("Arthurian Studies" series, D.S. Brewer, 2004). In 2006, Edwards' volume was reduced in scope to "Parzival and Titurel" as an Oxford World's Classics paperback, which also omitted the original introduction, and some technical apparatus. Some of us miss having them. (Well, I certainly do!) It now has a competent and readable new introduction by Richard Barber, focusing on the Arthurian context, which is relatively well-known, and less about thirteenth-century German literature. The narratives, however, are complete.
Thanks to Edward's decision to reproduce Wolfram's stylistic oddities as much as possible, his translation is less welcoming than the two earlier prose translations, but also more intriguing for those who are willing to take it slowly.
Thanks to the difference in title, its reviews have not been lumped together with other translations, as befell the Mustard-Passage and Hatto translations -- which is why I initially reviewed those two together, and constantly compared them.
Both Edwards' "Parzival and Titurel" and Hatto's "Parzival" are now available in Kindle formats. When I eventually reviewed Edwards' translation, I did so from the Kindle edition, without immediate reference to the full-length library copy in which I first encountered it several years before.
Those interested in trying Jessie Weston's nineteenth-century rendering can sample her verse style by using the "Look Inside" or "Sample" functions of the Kindle editions. Some readers may enjoy it (I don't). It should be pointed out that the nineteenth-century edition of this Middle High German text from which she worked is quite obsolete, as is the translation into modern German (by Simrock) to which she also referred.
Beside "Parzival," a long Arthurian (and Grail) romance, and the fragments of "Titurel," which picks up stories and characters from "Parzival," Wolfram composed a long Carolingian epic, "Willehalm," based on a French chanson de geste, and some charming lyrics.
Wolfram's complaints about rival poets, and their complaints about him, have turned out to be clues to relative dating of their works. From this, and some external evidence, Wolfram's poetic career has been dated between about 1195 and 1225; with the almost 25,000 lines of "Parzival" being composed between about 1200 and 1210.
Wolfram seems to have had the last laugh on his critics; "Parzival" apparently was far-and-away the most popular German work of the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, with something like ninety known manuscripts, and a 1477 print edition. Perhaps inevitably, the fragments of "Titurel" were "completed" in another long romance, long thought to be Wolfram's own work, but now called the "Juengere" (Follower's) "Titurel."
In "Parzival," Wolfram himself was translating, in his own wayward fashion, Chretien de Troyes' unfinished "Perceval, or, The Story of the Grail" -- although he himself claims to have an additional source, the mysterious "Kyot," who had a better, truer, version. Since Chretien himself claimed to have been working from a source provided by a patron, this has at times sent scholars searching in many directions. In his introduction to the Oxford World Classics volume, Richard Barber argues that the "better source" was entirely a creation of Wolfram's fertile imagination, and scraps of irrelevant but interesting ideas. He is probably right about the back-story Wolfram creates for it.
A Preface introduces the reader (or listener) to Wolfram's moral concerns, and also to his sometimes-maddening use of riddles and metaphors. We then have an entire opening section with the hero's father, Gahmuret the Anschevin [i.e., Angevin], having adventures in a vaguely-conceived Near East and North Africa, where he leaves a "pagan" wife and son: the latter, the multi-colored Feirefiz, crosses paths with his younger brother, the main hero, years later. (It is worth noting that, although Wolfram is a snob, and is fascinated by physical differences between human beings, he is in no sense a racist; color is no bar to aristocracy.)
(To me, it looks very much as if Wolfram had some sort of additional material -- there are odd resemblances to "Morien," an apparent interpolation in the medieval Dutch translation of the Lancelot-Grail romances, featuring Perceval's "Moorish" nephew -- but to have used his imagination quite freely in accounting for it. A prose translation of "The Romance of Morien" by Jessie Weston is available in various Kindle editions, one rather randomly illustrated from medieval manuscripts, and as an on-line PDF -- see Weston's Wikipedia biography for a link.)
Gahmuret's story is somewhat filled out in the first fragment of "Titurel," but why Wolfram made him an Angevin is unclear; it perhaps has something to do with the accession of a Count of Anjou's son to the throne of England (Henry II), but so far more detailed explanations -- including those by Jessie Weston -- have trailed off into unprovable speculation. (In England, the family became better known as the Plantagenets.)
This material is followed by Gahmuret's second marriage, and death, and, joining up with Chretien's narrative, the birth and upbringing in forest isolation of Parzival himself (the idea being to keep him from dying in battle like his father). There follows the ignorant boy's fateful encounter with some of Arthur's knights, his attempts at chivalry, and the splitting of the story to include the exploits of Sir Gawain (recognizable under German renderings, variously handled by translators over the years), and Parzival's first adventure at the Grail Castle. Although this is derived from Chretien's account of Perceval and "Messire Gauvain, " it is retold in Wolfram's quirky style, instead of an imitation of Chretien's famously lucid Old French verses. (Eric Rohmer's film version of "Perceval" is a splendid visualization of Chretien's version, and works almost equally well for the relevant parts of Wolfram's retelling, too.)
In both Chretien's and Wolfram's versions, there is a lot of comedy derived from the boy's literal-mindedness and ignorance of the world, and the resulting blunders, contrasted with his great strength and physical beauty. (He bears some resemblance to the original, animated, version of "George of the Jungle," except for the smashing headlong into trees.)
Then Wolfram returns to what seems to be new material, writing his own conclusion, including the maturation of Parzival. This also seems to have been in Chretien's mind, but he left this romance, as well as his "Lancelot," unfinished.
As in other versions, including the Old French "Continuations" of "Perceval," and the prose "Perlesvaus" (or "High History of the Holy Grail"), Wolfram draws Chretien's very mysterious "graal" into a Christian conception of the universe. But Wolfram explains it as a sort of magic stone that fell to earth during the War in Heaven, not a relic of the Last Supper. That more explicitly Christianized version seems to belong to the Old French cycle of "Joseph of Arimathea," "Merlin" and "Perceval," attributed to Robert de Boron, and was later picked up and amplified in the "Vulgate Cycle" of Arthurian romances (centering on Lancelot, and introducing Galahad as the Quest hero, alongside Perceval), the version known in English through Malory, and, so far as the Chalice interpretation, also used by Wagner.
Wagner plundered Wolfram for names and a certain "German" quality for his Grail opera, "Parsifal," besides using another version of a story Wolfram alludes to in "Lohengrin,' and the poet's name for a character in "Tannhauser." Personally, I suggest tossing aside all Wagnerian preconceptions, if any, and allowing Wolfram's real personality to have a chance. Sarcastic (especially about competitors), sentimental (especially about wives and children), full of pride in the knightly caste (a new phenomenon, which its members wanted to be very old), arrogantly announcing that he is completely illiterate in the company of poets who boasted they could read anything ever written, he is both annoying and lovable. A living personality, in fact, appearing in a time used to anonymous authors.
For those who find "Parzival" a pleasure, or who would like to try a more military, rather than chivalric, work, there are also translations of his "Willehalm," based on the Old French *chanson de geste* of William Curt-Nose, or Guillaume l'Orange, one of the heroes of the legends of Charlemagne and his descendants. I am familiar with two, both into prose. One, by Marion E. Gibbs and Sidney M. Johnson, was published by Penguin Classics in 1984, and is currently in print, as "Wolfram von Eschenbach: Willehalm." Charles E. Passage, one of the co-translators of "Parzival," had earlier translated it as "The Middle High German Poem of Willehalm by Wolfram von Eschenbach," published by Frederick Ungar in 1977. Although it is out of print, used copies of the trade paperback edition seem to be available. (Passage also translated "Titurel" for Ungar (1985), which, unfortunately, I haven't seen.)
Curiously, the supposedly illiterate Wolfram seems unusually aware of the idea (if not the facts) of history. The "Pagan" Saracens of his French source are connected by him with the Romans (as descended from the followers of Pompey, rather than of Caesar, and heirs of an old feud), and also with the extra-European characters he had already invented for "Parzival." He rather neatly brings into the correct sequence his versions of Arthurian and Carolingian Europe.
The main problem I see with Weston's translation of Wolfram is its use of rhymed couplets, which many readers may find wearying long before the end of the second volume. (There is also the distortion of meaning to fit meter and rhyme to worry those especially concerned to get at Wolfram's precise meaning.) Her appendices look helpful, but are as obsolete as the nineteenth-century scholarship from which they are derived.
Nabu Press has issued in paperback Weston's "Parzival," as well as out-of-copyright German text editions and modern German translations. Many of these, and others, can be also be found at archive.org (the Library of Congress website), although the two volumes of Weston's translation must be searched for as "Parzival," and not under the translator's name. (Archive.org also makes available the 1891 fifth edition of Karl Lachmann's enduring edition of Wolfram's works; Edwards, and, I think, the other modern translators, mainly used the 1926 sixth edition, or the seventh -- the current version, published by De Gruyer, may be the eighth.) There are also Project Gutenberg editions of a number of Weston's works, including "Parzival," some of them available in Kindle format, among other versions.