another quest


Gerald Morris has done a great job with the Parsifal story too.

Parsifal has been kept in ignorance of knights and all things chivalrous by his mother, for reasons of her own. When he sees a knight ride by though, he is seized by a desire to become one himself….

The story is told by Chretien de Troyes, though he stopped writing it before he got to the end. Wolfram von Eschenbach retold it, claiming to have got the story from one Kyot the Provençal, who himself got it from an arabic manuscript written by a muslim astronomer from Moorish Toledo.

I identify with Parsifal because he’s hopelessly ill-equipped for any quest, but has a sort of raw enthusiasm. Like ‘Lazy Jack’ he’s always following the last piece of advice he’s been given. At first he always asks questions, just as his mother told him to, then he is taught to not ask questions because it is not seemly in a knight, and then, when his moment comes at the famous grail castle, he doesn’t ask about the strange things he sees, the sick Fisher King, the bleeding lance, the Grail that magically produces food.

Later he finds out what a mistake he has made:

The king, the queen and the barons gave the most joyful welcome to Perceval the Welshman, and led him back to Carlion, returning there that day. They celebrated all night and the day that followed: until, on the third day, they saw a girl coming on a tawny mule, clutching a whip in her right hand. Her hair hung in two tresses, black and twisted: and if the words of my source are true, there was no creature so utterly ugly even in Hell. You have never seen iron as black as her neck and hands, but that was little compared to the rest of her ugliness: her eyes were just two holes, tiny as the eyes of a rat; her nose was like a cat’s or monkey’s, her lips like an ass’s or a cow’s; her teeth were so discoloured that they looked like egg-yolk; and she had a beard like a billy-goat. She had a hump in the middle of her chest and her back was like a crook … She greeted the king and his barons all together – except for Perceval.

Sitting upon the tawny mule she said: ‘Ah, Perceval! Fortune has hair in front but is bald behind. A curse on anyone who greets or wishes you well, for you didn’t take Fortune by the hand when you met her. You entered the house of the Fisher King and saw the lance that bleeds, but it was so much trouble for you to open your mouth and speak that you couldn’t ask why that drop of blood sprang from the tip of the white head; nor did you ask what worthy man was served by the Grail that you saw. How wretched is the man who sees the perfect opportunity and still waits for a better one! And you, you are the wretched one, who saw that it was the time and place to speak and yet stayed silent; you had ample opportunity! It was an evil hour when you held your tongue, for if you had asked, the rich king who is so distressed would now have been quite healed of his wound and would have held his land in peace …’

Perhaps the latest Parsifal type person is Po, the Kung Fu Panda – hopelessly ill-equipped, but somehow improbably making it through to herohood in the end. There must be scores of stories like this, Disney seems to like them, where Everyman manages to do the impossible. But my favourite is Parsifal and, I’m pleased to say, Sam loved it too.



  1. isl_gr said

    I think the Parsifal idea is in several of the stories in Disney’s film “Fantasy” and yes, children love stories about awkward heroes. Aren’t they themselves awkward heroes who achieve the impossible? Growing up in this world?

  2. isl_gr said

    As I was leaving I had the feeling I dropped a too serious comment. Then as I got in Flickr I ran across the “corrupt a wish” game thread at Blue Ribbon Group
    I almost fell on the floor from laughter. We are all Donald Ducks!

  3. Simon G said

    haha (My favourite: ‘I wish I were thinner’ – ‘Granted, but you will also be shorter.’)
    What a great game / antidote to true but serious-aftertaste-leaving comment – also good for when queuing up for things with children.

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