The Women of Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach
Parzival, an Arthurian legend written in the early 13th century by Wolfram von Eschenbach, tells the tale of the knight Parzival, who rises from obscurity to become a valuable member of the Round Table and goes on to lead the quest for the Holy Grail. But despite the focus on the young knight, the Parzival story actually includes two great female characters, the first and second wives of Parzival's father.
Background and Plot Summary
The story begins a generation before Parzival's birth, with the tale of his father, Gahmuret. According to the custom of the day, all the wealth of a family was passed to the first-born son. This may sound harsh, but in these days it was a means of maintaining power, and making sure that wealth and land was not parceled out into increasingly smaller portions over the generations. Because Gahmuret is not the first born son, he is not eligible to inherit and must leave to seek his fortune.
Gahmuret becomes a fierce warrior, winning fame and a loyal company of men. He travels to far off lands, spending time in what would now be called Africa and the Middle East, eventually landing in Zazamanc, where he meets and marries Lady Belacane.
Later, after impregnating Belacane, Gahmuret leaves her, on the pretext that she is not Christian, but more likely to resume his nomadic, warring ways. The eternal bachelor winds up saddled to Lady Herzeloyde, who gives birth to Parzival. Gahurmet again leaves for adventure, and this time he gets himself killed.
While Gahurmet as a character helps to set up the work, establishing the tone and creating the legacy that Parzival will grow into, as a character he isn't nearly as interesting as his two wives, Herzeloyde and Belacane. Gahmuret is the quintessential ladies man, who can't seem to settle down and put down the sword. Herzeloyde and Belacane, on the other hand, are great examples of powerful women in medieval literature, who each have a large political impact, as well as posessing the wealth and power not held by the men, and are worth a second look.
Herzeloyde and Belacane's Many Similarities
In addition to marrying Gahmuret, Belacane and Herzeloyde have plenty of other similarities. Each is described with such words as “free of falsity” “chaste” “loyal” “honorable.” Both women are rulers of a kingdom, and are widely loved by their people.
Each marry Gahmuret out of love, but also out of a sense of necessity. While the women are extremely powerful and adept at ruling, they are still in need of a war leader. A marriage to a brave knight will provide a head for the military, one that is also tied to the queen through marriage, ensuring loyalty. This is where Gahmuret comes in, who sires a child in each case before abandoning the queen.
As a result of losing her husband, each women was depicted as losing the ability to ever be happy again. Despite this heartbreak and woe, both Belacane and Herzeloyde were each found a way of coping, in channeling their interests into their respective sons.
Differences in Childrearing
The main difference between the two lies in the direct treatment and upbringing of the son. Belacane raised hers as a proud, chivalric warrior, even though he is technically a “heathen.” Belacane’s son is kind, intelligent, noble, a mighty warrior, all the attributes that make up a respected knight.
Herzeloyde, on the other hand, goes the opposite direction, completely removing Parzival from the world of chivalry. This dynamic is similar to the Greek myth of Achilles, in which his mother raises him among women, in women's clothing, so that he cannot become a warrior and die young as has been prophesized. Yet for both the mother of Achilles as well as Herzeloyde, hiding the knowledge of weapons and battle from their son did not seem to make much of a difference. Despite knowledge and training, somehow the youths wound up naturally fulfilling the warriors role all the same.
Herzeloyde sent a foolish and incompetant boy into the world. Ultimately, Herzeloyde’s counsel to Parzival before he embarks on his journey is not useful. In order for Parzival to develop into the knight that it seems he is fated to be, he has to learn to abandon, revise, or selectively interpret much of what his mother taught him.
Implications and Speculations
Given that the two women are so similar in all other ways, why does Herzeloyde make such dramatically different choices when it comes to child-rearing? Is Herzeloyde simply fated to some measure of failure, as part of what might be considered a family curse? After all, when we finally find out her lineage, we learn that the past few generations have had their share of misfortune and sorrows.
Or is Herzeloyde deficient in her decision-making? Rather than deal bravely with the loss of her husband, she becomes reactive, and retreats from any perceived threat. In this aspect, Herzeloyde seems weaker than Belecane, who so stuck to her convictions that she didn’t convert to Christianity, a measure that might have kept her husband. Does Belacane have stronger force of will, while Herzeloyde is more easily affected by events and people surrounding her?
Or perhaps, Herzeloyde’s retreat from chivalry is simply a much-needed narrative device, after all, Parzival’s half-brother is not the main character. He is allowed to enter into the story fully-formed, while Parzival’s journey towards knowledge and awareness of the chivalric code is what makes up the tale. If Parzival had simply entered the world knowing all there was to know about knightly custom, he likely wouldn’t have failed the grail test in the first place, and then where would we be? With a good story, maybe, but certainly not the twisting and turning epic that Wolfram has pieced together.
More on Women in Medieval Literature
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