The graal in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem ‘Parzival’: Notes on its context and meaning

Ian Heron

Notes on the Meaning of the Gral in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzival is generally considered to be a reworked and expanded version of an unfinished work, Conte del Graal, by his literary predecessor Chretien de Troyes, and Wolfram’s hero, Parzival, derives from Chretien’s hero Perceval. However the aspects which are unique to Wolfram’s poem entitle it to be regarded as an original and complete source work containing significant information about the nature of the authentic graal or Gral, the form of the term employed in the translation referred to. The author contends that, of all the medieval poets, only Wolfram correctly reveals to the informed readership how to find it. His thesis, outlined here, is that Wolfram’s Gral signifies the ‘true inheritance’ of Christianity as received from St Thomas the Apostle in India.

Quotations from the poem are taken from the prose translation by Professor A. T. Hatto.


1.  Structure and Genealogy

2.  The Names of the Stone

3.  The Message of the Gral

4.  The Realm of Prester John

5.  Light on a Hidden Tradition

6.  A Note on Wolfram’s Sources

     Genealogical charts

London, February 2007

1.  Structure and Genealogy

Following established scholarship, an analysis of Wolfram’s text, which consists of a total of sixteen Books, suggests it can be divided into two groups of Books according to their respective sources. The first group comprises Books 3 to 8, some of Book 9, Books 10 to 12, and some of Book 13, and relates to Wolfram’s pre-existing literary source or sources, principally that of Chretien de Troyes.

The second group comprises Books 1 and 2, much of Books 9 and 13, and Books 14 to 16, and concerns the material unique to Wolfram. Amongst this material is his account of the origin of the story, and its outcome; it includes details of the Gral itself, of the Gral lineage or dynasty, and of the ‘Templeisen’, the fraternity whose duty it is to safeguard the Gral; and it recounts Parzival’s spiritual evolution. It also mysteriously implicates the historical figure of Prester John – a fact generally ignored or unexplained by students of Wolfram’s poem.

From the outset Wolfram’s narrative contains an important conceptual innovation, which is that he deliberately gives it an oriental dimension in addition to the western European setting employed by Chretien and all other Grail storytellers. The basis of this innovation is genealogical, in which the exploits of Parzival’s father, the Angevin hero Gahmuret, result in two marriages: the first to Belacane, Queen of the eastern land of Zazamanc, and the second to Herzeloyde, Queen of the European lands of Waleis and Norgals, but importantly also she is the first daughter of Frimutel, the patriarch of the ‘Gral family’. Unlike Chretien, Wolfram fills out the details of the Gral family, which consists essentially of  Frimutel’s five children: Herzeloyde, Anfortas, Trevrizent, Schoysiane and Repanse de Schoye. The sacred duty of the Gral dynasty, of which the Gral family is the generation whose members each play a crucial role in the narrative, is to preserve the Gral and its traditions.

In due course the son from Gahmuret’s second marriage, Parzival, will marry the orphaned Queen Condwiramurs, and fulfill his destiny to inherit the kingdom of the Gral, while the son from his first marriage, Feirefiz, will marry Frimutel’s youngest daughter, Repanse de Schoye, who is no less than the bearer of the Gral itself. Feirefiz and his bride will then return to his homeland, which Wolfram states unambiguously is India, and there they will have a son who is called Prester John, a name which is said thereafter to have become a title attaching to the lineage of kings who follow him.

Thus in separate ways male descendants of the House of Anjou marry daughters of the Gral lineage, something which amounts to more than dynastic intermarriage since this arrangement is evidently designed to continue the Gral lineage and its traditions. It enables Wolfram to show, on the one hand, how Parzival is the legitimate heir to the Gral kingship in the West, while on the other, how his half-brother Feirefiz is the inheritor of the Gral tradition in the East.

Until the time of the story, the Gral lineage has been perpetuated by kingship strictly inherited through the paternal line. The obscure Titurel is the first mentioned patriarch, and he is succeeded by Frimutel, who unlike his father, does not survive in the tale, but has sired the five children who make up the Gral family. In this generation the crown is borne uneasily by Anfortas, the elder son of Frimutel. Although it will subsequently pass to Parzival, his succession will represent a departure from the strict rules of inheritance, for he will inherit the kingship while Anfortas still lives. The reason for this is that the king has sinned against the Gral and a mysterious punitive wound prevents him from procreating, so he must remain childless. Had he not been still alive the crown would presumably have been inherited by his younger brother Trevrizent, but instead Wolfram has the latter atone for Anfortas’ sins by renouncing the world and living as a hermit.

To maintain the line of male inheritance, the succession must of necessity next pass to the distaff side and so to Parzival, who is the son of Herzeloyde, Anfortas’ eldest sister, by the worthy Gahmuret in his second marriage. However it was in widowhood that Herzeloyde brought up her son, and Parzival never knew his father, who was killed fighting for a noble cause in an eastern land. Parzival is himself drawn to the knightly calling while still a youth, and abandons his mother to pursue it without due consideration for her feelings. His absence means he is unaware of his own mother’s passing until long afterwards, and this is one of the circumstances that leads to a sense of desolation and self-examination which provide the impetus for his quest for the Gral.

As it seems Anfortas’ condition also precludes him from passing on the secrets of the Gral, it falls to Trevrizent to be the custodian of these until the heir presents himself, whereupon they may be disclosed. Parzival is initially unaware of his destined succession to the Gral kingship, but learns of it after meeting Trevrizent, who had seen the name of the heir miraculously revealed on the Gral – the manner in which all those called upon to serve it are identified. Parzival may not succeed to the Gral kingship merely by right, however, as from one generation to the next; in the special circumstances created with the ailing Anfortas, he has to prove himself worthy of it in deed and thought.

Wolfram states explicitly in connection with passing on the Gral traditions, that whereas the Gral maidens go out ‘openly’ – that is, they are ‘open’ to suitors – the Gral knights must not be questioned regarding their mission lest its purpose becomes known. Towards the end of the poem he illustrates the consequences of disobeying this rule with the story of Parzival’s son Loherangrin, who had to leave his wife the Princess of Brabant because she broke her pledge about not questioning him.

The rule of maternal ‘openness’ and the maternal line of inheritance which is at the crux of the intermarriage of the Gral dynasty with the House of Anjou does seem to offer some scope for interpretation. The issue was used by the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail to suggest that in Parzival the Gral maidens represent the role of Mary Magdalene in conveying the bloodline of Jesus. This would need to demonstrate, specifically, that either Herzeloyde, Schoysiane or Repanse de Schoye represented this role.

Admittedly the Gral family is a kind of ‘holy family’ and it would be very useful to discover where its origin lies on the range of possibilities between literary fiction and historical precedent. The suggestion in the book would certainly make a strong point if it can be shown, for example, that the Gral family has indeed as its basis distant ancestral links to the family of Jesus. However, Wolfram tells us that he was writing ‘eleven generations’ after the time of Parzival’s mother, so we can place events concerning the Gral family at around the time of the ninth century. It also has to be acknowledged that the author of Parzival seems to have deliberately constructed the Gral family so that each member has a specific narrative function: Anfortas teaches the cost of infidelity; Trevrizent shows that for him duty to the Gral –  the custodianship of its wisdom, to be imparted to Parzival, and atonement for his brother’s sinfulness – demands an hermetic renunciation; Schoysiane does not survive childbirth, but her daughter Sigune is given the role of informing Parzival of his illustrious ancestry; and Herzeloyde and Repanse de Schoye enable the perpetuation of the Gral tradition in the West and the East respectively through intermarriage with the House of Anjou.

In the absence of clear evidence in Parzival for the idea put forward about the role of Mary Magdalene, the fundamental purpose for the involvement in the poem of the distaff side in the inheritance of the Gral by the House of Anjou cannot be disregarded, which is to show how Parzival can become the heir to the Gral kingship consequent upon Anfortas’ sinfulness, thus assuring the continuity of the tradition. The ensuing dramatic development of Wolfram’s narrative containing his message of the Gral, which is intimately linked to Parzival’s spiritual evolution, is predicated upon this state of affairs. It seems likely, therefore, that the question of the maternal line of inheritance in the poem concerns the perpetuation of some specific knowledge which is vouchsafed in the custodianship of the Gral in the special circumstances described. However, this does not exclude the possibility of the continuation of Jesus’ bloodline in the historical House of Anjou, only that it is not obviously a subject addressed in Parzival.


2.  The Names of the Stone

Wolfram is generally thought to have been unique in describing the Gral as a stone. He called it ‘lapsit exillis’, which scholars usually accept should be read as the Latin words ‘lapis exilis’. Taken literally, lapis means ‘stone’ and exilis means ‘slender, mean, insignificant’. In this respect it differs from the symbolic artefact of his literary predecessor Chretien de Troyes, who uses the word ‘graal’ to describe the object. Indeed this term is first encountered in his story, entitled Conte del Graal, where it can be  interpreted variously as a platter or salver, or a kind of Eucharistic vessel such as a ciborium. It is perhaps puzzling that Wolfram uses a very similar term ‘gral’, even though for him the object referred to differs; however he was adamant in his criticism of Chretien’s version of the Gral story, and asserted the correctness of his own.

Wolfram was clearly certain that his choice of symbol was the right one, and he is thought to have had an independent literary source for it. In this respect I have come to accept the origin of his term lapis exilis put forward by a number of scholars who trace it to the medieval legends about Alexander the Great, of which Wolfram must have had knowledge. In one of them, entitled Iter Alexandri ad Paradisum, the proud and ambitious Alexander arrives at the gate of the Earthly Paradise and is there rebuked by a sage or holy man who gives him a small stone, lapis exilis, to remind him of the virtue of humility. Alexander takes heed and abandons his plan of world conquest. This parable seems a fanciful version of history, in that when the historical Alexander reached India he accepted wise counsel, abandoned his plan of conquest and turned back. The important points to consider which are carried over by Wolfram from the Alexander legends are the name of the stone, its message and symbolic function, and possibly the location of the episode cited – although this is probably a fortuitous coincidence, since we are uncertain whether the sage would have espoused the faith which Wolfram, much later, deliberately wishes to inform us about. Clearly however the nature and role of the stone in the Alexander parable do have their respective parallels in Wolfram’s characterisation of the ‘insignificant’ stone and in its symbolic purpose throughout his poem .

In his poem Wolfram’s depiction of the stone makes it into something which, though on occasion visibly manifest to its guardians – the Gral king and his household – has a nature and substance which is essentially transcendental. Thus he gives it no tangible material form to clarify the impression conveyed by the term lapis exilis, yet endows it with miraculous beneficent powers, while his explanation of its origin is not a terrestrial one, but allegorical and laden with religious mystery. He recounts, through the words of Trevrizent, how the Gral was ‘left upon the earth’ by a host of ‘noble angels’ who ‘did not take sides’ in the war in Heaven between Lucifer and the Trinity, after which its custodianship passed to the Gral family. Its other-worldly origin perhaps conjures up the imagery of a meteoritic stone or something originating in the celestial sphere. Of course this bears no relation to Chretien’s ‘graal’, but Wolfram was adept at word-play, and he is likely to have known the French words ‘grel’, hail, and ‘grelon’, hailstone, and therefore felt justified in using the Germanised term ‘gral’, which, despite bringing with it an element of ambiguity, he knew in essence referred to his symbol of choice. Thus although in Wolfram’s view either Chretien’s choice of artefact was wrong, or he misapplied the term, he was able to use a very similar term either through etymological coincidence, or his adaptation of the French word, to describe the symbol which he believed correctly represented the ‘true inheritance’ of the Christian faith.


3.  The Message of the Gral

As mentioned, the Gral was brought to earth by the angels who were banished because of their neutrality in the ‘war in heaven’ between Lucifer and the Trinity. The reason for their predicament seems straightforward enough. Since the angels had not sided with Lucifer, who had led a rebellion in Heaven, they are clearly not guilty of pride, the gravest of sins. From the point of view of the Church, therefore, the implication of this is that they should have sided with the Trinity, but evidently there was no such commitment. At the point in the story in Book 9 when elucidation of matters concerning the Gral is given to Parzival by his uncle Trevrizent, Wolfram has him say that the angels were permitted to redeem themselves; however towards the end of the tale Trevrizent retracts this, a change which which may have been prompted by religious pressure on the author. Since inciting disbelief in the Trinity would have been looked upon as an act of heresy, the angels’ lack of commitment would undoubtedly be grounds for denying them redemption in the eyes of the clergy.

Wolfram, through the words of Trevrizent, has seemingly dissociated the meaning of his Gral from this established article of faith. As the doctrine of the Trinity is generally considered to be a post-scriptural formulation of the Church, he may be indicating the Gral is identified with a different Christian tradition. A related but less obvious difficulty arises further on in Trevrizent’s exposition, when he emphasises that certain knowledge of the Gral, whose custodians, it must be recalled, were the banished angels, may nevertheless only be given on Good Friday, a day uniquely identified with the Crucifixion. In looking for a resolution for this apparent paradox it could well be inferred that the Gral brings with it forbidden or even heretical knowledge of some kind.

This is not obvious, however, as Trevrizent enlightens Parzival subsequently on the spiritual tasks he must face as heir to the Gral kingship. Though destined by the rules of inheritance to succeed the  present king, his uncle Anfortas, Parzival has not thus far exhibited the conduct required of him, and crucially he has failed to ask the ‘compassionate question’ which will heal Anfortas’ wound, sustained as a result of transgressing the principle of fidelity which members of the Gral family have a duty to uphold. Parzival will have to prove that he realises and accepts the spiritual side of his nature, and the power of Wolfram’s narrative largely turns upon a series of episodes which depict his personal journey of salvation. In a climactic scene of knightly jousting Parzival becomes reconciled with his rival in the combat, and the outcome is emphasised by the protagonists’ recognition of their kinship, for his rival is revealed as none other than his elder half-brother, Feirefiz, whom he has never before met. Parzival’s reconciliation signals that at last he is prepared to ask the ‘compassionate question’, and upon doing so and having brought about the healing of the ailing king, he is shown to have redeemed himself and he inherits the kingdom of the Gral. This represents the culmination of his spiritual journey.

The outcome of the combat between Parzival and Feirefiz is by no means the only example of knightly reconciliation in Wolfram’s narrative, although it is the most important one. In fact Wolfram’s accounts of jousts and combats suggest they can be interpreted metaphorically in terms of a general distaste he has for strife. He evidently demonstrates a wish to show that combat, and by implication conflict itself, can and should be renounced; there are for example the various themes of discredit and dishonour (Parzival and Ither, the Red Knight); reconciliation and abandonment prior to starting a joust (Gramoflanz and Gawan); and stalemate and reconciliation (Parzival and Gawan; Parzival and Feirefiz). Wolfram’s message here and in other examples in his poem therefore seems to concern the practise of humility. Notably, Trevrizent’s information indicating the neutral angels’ refusal to side with Lucifer makes the point that humility is a necessary qualification for the guardianship of the Gral.

The point is being made that humility is the predominant sentiment or quality attached to the actions which open the way to redemption. Most significantly for Parzival as hero, and as a representative of humanity, it is a precondition of reconciliation.


4.  The Realm of Prester John

With the combat between Parzival and Feirefiz, Wolfram has returned to deploy the unique structure he established early on through Gahmuret’s two marriages. In their encounter, Feirefiz, who was born a ‘heathen’, has unwittingly acted as the agent of Parzival’s spiritual transformation, and after the latter is crowned Gral king, Feirefiz also receives a Christian blessing: he is baptised, and afterwards marries the bearer of the Gral, Repanse de Schoye. Now, towards the close of the poem, the narrative turns decisively eastwards, and in doing so makes a remarkable and unexpected documentary link. Feirefiz and his bride sail to his homeland, clearly identified by Wolfram as India, and although not explicitly stated by the author, the assumption must certainly be that the Gral itself accompanied them there, on account of Repanse de Schoye’s role as its bearer. At this point in the text, the crucial passage in Book 16 speaks for itself: ‘. . . in India she [Repanse de Schoye] bore a son named ‘John’. They called him ‘Prester John’, and, ever since, they call their kings by no other name.’ Interestingly, of Frimutel’s three daughters, only Repanse de Schoye survives until the end of the story, and we are told that ‘Anfortas was glad that his sister was undisputed mistress over so many territories’. The important turn of events in India is thus concisely conveyed in the text with only the briefest further elaboration, at which point the reader becomes abruptly aware that the author has concluded the tale he wanted to tell: ‘The authentic story has now reached you concerning Frimutel’s five children . . .’

Not only is Prester John a name encountered in history around the time of Wolfram’s writing, but the passage of the faith to the East can be looked upon as the mirror-image of the direction from which knowledge of matters concerning the Gral which interested Wolfram actually took, suggesting that with this device he is hinting at its provenance. In effect he is saying that the answer to the question, ‘Where is the Gral to be found?’ is therefore India. The mention of the country can hardly escape the reader’s attention, since it occurs in various episodes on at least eight occasions.

It mystifies me why discussion of the issue of Prester John – Priester Johannes in Wolfram’s text –  is generally ignored by scholars of Parzival, given that his role in the story seems to represent the destination of the narrative route Wolfram has taken. My view is that following through the question of his historical identity may well be the key to discovering what the Gral meant for Wolfram. While his account of Parzival’s spiritual journey reveals the ideals of conduct expected of a European knight who serves the Gral, it is the oriental component of Wolfram’s story that enables us to know what the author signifies by the Gral in its historical context.

Prester John is a figure who first became known about in Europe around 1145 through the arrival of a famous ‘Letter’ allegedly sent by him to the Papal court. It later circulated in a number of versions and with various embellishments, making it a concoction of truth, hearsay and fantasy, but essentially the Letter portrays Prester John as a Christian king who rules over a fabulous, paradisical land in the Orient. It seems likely that Wolfram had knowledge of the document, and extraordinarily he virtually spells this out in the following line of Book 16: ‘Feirefiz had letters sent throughout the land of India describing the Christian life, which had not prospered so much till then’. The difference in Wolfram’s story is that it was Feirefiz who had set about converting India to Christianity, referring to a situation which had already begun by the time the author’s Prester John is introduced. It is not surprising that Wolfram knew of the historical figure, since in Europe at the time of the Second Crusade his name had acquired an heroic status from the hope and expectation aroused by his association with the rumoured coming of a warrior-saviour to support the defence of the Holy Places against the Saracens. This aspect of the legendary king is thought to relate to Yeliu-Tashe, a Chinese-Mongol prince who established the short-lived Kara-Khitai empire in Central Asia, and who may have espoused Nestorianism.

In the European historical context, this actual name ‘John’ is likely to have derived from a conflation of at least two Christian figures. On the one hand, credible scholarly opinion maintains that it is taken from John, a patriarch from the Syrian Church at Edessa, who visited Rome in 1122. Edessa claimed some of the authentic relics of St Thomas the Apostle, who was the first to take the teachings of Jesus to India, and there was a shrine for him in Edessa in which miracles were said to take place. The visit may have kindled interest in Europe in the traditions associated with St Thomas, and he is mentioned several times in the Letter to the Papal court. More significantly regarding the matter of this essay, the other figure linked with Prester John is identified thus by the Russian scholar Vsevolod Slessarev through information contained in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, in which is related a journey made by the Apostle to southern India and the instruction he gave there to the legendary King Mazdai. Although Mazdai is said to have subsequently turned against Thomas, the latter entrusted the inheritance and perpetuation of the faith he brought to two co-workers: Sifur, his guide in India, and Mazdai’s son, Vizan – a name which is Persian for John. In effect, we may infer that in succession to Vizan, a lineage of guardians of the tradition St Thomas had taken to India had been founded. Not only do they share the same name, but clearly a parallel can be drawn between the details given about Prester John and his lineage in Wolfram’s narrative, and the details concerning Vizan and his successors in the historical account. Those of Wolfram’s audience who were aware of this connection would also have been able to perceive it as the key to decoding the historical significance of the Gral concealed in the poem.

It is conceivable that the name of Mazdai may have found its way into the genealogical structure of Wolfram’s poem in the form of Mazadan, the earliest ancestor of the House of Anjou. If this is so, then at first it would seem he has been transposed to the Angevin lineage from the place where one would have expected to find him, as an ancestor in the Gral lineage – because according to the legend of St Thomas in India, Vizan or ‘John’ and his lineage is the direct historical inheritor of the faith which Wolfram seems to be saying is the Gral tradition, whereas the Angevin lineage belongs historically in the West. However, given that one of Wolfram’s aims was to describe how the Gral and its message found its way into, or rather back to, Europe from its custodianship with the followers of St Thomas, and that in large measure he constructed the events concerning the Gral family to contrive the means by which the Gral tradition is introduced into the House of Anjou, his placing of Mazadan as its distant patriarch could have been a further coded way of him saying that in the West, the House of Anjou shares this knowledge.


5.  Light on a Hidden Tradition

There were undoubtedly those in Wolfram’s audience who realised the implications of the message of the Gral passing into the custodianship of a lineage of kings in India who bore the title of Prester John. India also emerges as the geographical common factor in the legends of Prester John and Alexander the Great, and the message of humility in the text of Iter Alexandri ad Paradisum becomes a general moral theme in Parzival. It is possible to see in the journey of Feirefiz to India with the Gral a literary resonance of the journey there of St Thomas the Apostle with the early faith, while the Letter of Prester John explicitly speaks about St Thomas in India in various anecdotes – for example, he was said to have been present ‘at the table of Prester John’ – reflecting a notion at the time of a contextual link between the two figures which Wolfram must have been aware of.

Wolfram had employed either an existing or Chretien’s Gral story of knightly chivalry as a basis for his own, and had superimposed on it a new structure and a contrasting narrative overlay which told of the spiritual journey of Parzival, with the evident aim of conveying his understanding of the authentic Christian message. Since according to Wolfram’s tale, the descendants of both marriage lines in the Gral family had maintained the continuity of the Gral tradition, it follows that this authentic message in the first instance found its way into, and was preserved with, the historical House of Anjou.

Although around the time of Wolfram’s writing, fragmentary knowledge of the Eastern Church would have filtered into European Christendom by way of returning Crusader knights, such knowledge could only be spoken about in a discreet or cryptic manner. It was not until the late twelfth century that the ‘Grail’ stories began to appear, but only Parzival, dating from around 1210, conveys intriguing glimpses into the Eastern world. Clearly, beliefs derived from the Eastern Church would have posed a threat to Rome had their adoption become widespread, and the Church authorities would soon step up measures to eliminate dissent. Nevertheless Wolfram’s better informed readers would know that Prester John’s kingdom was an ideal, virtuous land where the Christian faith had flourished, and justice and humility were to be found: this was in contrast to Europe at that time, where the Church was intent on asserting its doctrine, consolidating its authority and as a consequence was riven by discord and pride. The main underlying idea of Wolfram’s Gral, therefore, is the existence, or one might equally say co-existence, of a version of Christianity in India which was closer to the authentic and original message of the faith than that upheld by Rome. Despite the evolution of early Church doctrine into a canon of belief universally accepted by the Catholic priesthood, there can only have been one ‘true inheritance’, namely the teaching originally given by Jesus, and it is difficult to believe that this was not closely reflected in the faith adopted by the followers of St Thomas in India.

Having traced the Gral to India and reasoned that it signified a branch of the early faith now unacceptable to Rome, the question arises whether there is anything that can usefully be gleaned from Wolfram’s text regarding the particular character of the church and its ministry. In the first instance there can be little doubt that the mores of the early community must at least in part be reflected in the themes of compassion and non-violence which comprise the moral lesson of the poem, since this is symbolised by the Gral, which, as such, is the prize being sought in the narrative drama. It is also evident that there is an affinity between the role of the Gral dynasty and that of the lineage of custodians of the faith taken to India by St Thomas the Apostle, on account of what is apparently, in related contexts, an identity of purpose, namely the perpetuation of a closely-guarded religious tradition. However, although it can be plausibly inferred that, like the Gral dynasty, the members of the early sect also led a life of humility and self-discipline as a tight-knit society whose relations were governed by strict rules of fidelity and discretion, the scope of any useful comparison is not likely to extend to the latter providing a genealogical model.

In Parzival there is also explicit evidence of an alternative Christian tradition in the important role assigned to baptism. Specifically, Feirefiz’ baptism prior to voyaging to India with his bride-to-be, the Gral-bearer Repanse de Schoye, signified both his renunciation of heathendom and initiation as a Christian. Only after baptism does he actually see the Gral for himself, whereas beforehand it had been invisible to him. His baptism and conversion opened the way for his subsequent evangelism in India, suggesting that, following a pattern alluded to earlier, the sacrament may have become associated with the tradition of ‘Gral Christianity’ which then found its way from the East into Wolfram’s story. Christian baptism owes its origin to a rite of John the Baptist, whose teachings are acknowledged as having had a significant influence on the early faith; in fact many members of the early church understood that John’s influence was as important as that of Jesus, and this was regarded as a heresy by Rome. John’s ritual is said to have amounted to a ‘higher baptism’ which was a kind of gnostic revelation, and in Parzival the words delivered by the priest preparatory to Feirefiz’ baptism seem to hint at this, and speak of the purifying and revelatory powers of water.

Given the parallel drawn above between the Gral dynasty and the custodians of the early faith in India in the continuity of a religious tradition, it is appropriate here to mention the main esoteric implication of Wolfram’s conception of the Gral. The involvement of St Thomas in the background to the Gral story – a figure who appears as a result of tracing the reasons for Wolfram’s inclusion in the narrative of Prester John – inevitably raises the issue of certain legends associated with him, which suggest that he was Jesus’ twin, that Jesus himself journeyed to India, accompanied Thomas and taught there, and ended his days in Kashmir. These legends have been the subject of well-documented enquiry by Islamic writers in particular, while the information about Jesus in the Koran contains details which are incompatible with the Biblical record. The really subversive consequence of finding credible evidence of such problematic biographical material in India, or of a convincing case for it being made, is of course that Jesus would have had to physically survive the Crucifixion: it would follow that the Biblical account of this event would be undermined, and with it the validity of the doctrine derived from the teachings of St Paul, the first century theologian, on which the Church of Rome bases its message of salvation. St Paul was the dominant influence in giving form to the doctrine of the early Church; crucially, in asserting Jesus’ Divine nature and by interpreting the Crucifixion as an act of sacrifice to redeem mankind, he laid the foundations for Christianity as a worldwide religion.

Could the knowledge of the secret history of Jesus, denied by the Church, be the source of the ‘hidden spring’ of the Gral? Was this the unmentionable reason why the angels who chose to be neutral were banished, and why certain knowledge concerning the Gral could only be confided on Good Friday? The religious society most likely to have come into contact with traditions of Jesus in India was the Knights Templar, and their suppression is notable for the falsity of the accusations against them. Even now we are still somewhat in the dark about the reasons for this. Might the Knights Templar have become knowledgeable about Jesus’ secret history and might they have been suppressed to stifle it? The question has an important resonance in Parzival since Wolfram called the knights of the Gral household templeisen.


6.  A Note on Wolfram’s Sources

Wolfram’s message is reinforced in the first instance by his criticism of his predecessor’s story. Whether or not he based his reworked and expanded story on Chretien, or on an unidentified or lost text, he is clear in discrediting the former’s version, which is in any case unfinished, and asserting the correctness of his own. In support of this Wolfram gives a detailed account of his own sources. He names his main source as Kyot de Provencale, a storyteller who evidently found it first in Toledo as a tale written in Arabic by Flegetanis, a seer or astrologer who had a Jewish mother descended from King Solomon and a Moslem father. Later on Kyot found a longer version of it in the chronicles of the House of Anjou in France.

Wolfram states that Kyot recognised the importance of the tale because he happened to be a baptised Christian. Furthermore, the facts about Flegetanis’ ancestry make the point that he was qualified to write about matters of both Judeo-Christian and Moslem interest. However, even someone of Flegetanis’ erudition is unlikely to know in detail a story of knightly chivalry such as that given by Chretien de Troyes, whereas Kyot undoubtedly would be able to do so, and Wolfram in effect tells us this by connecting his find to the House of Anjou. By subtracting the material likely to be known uniquely to Kyot, therefore, it is the aspects of the story unique to Wolfram which are attributable to Flegetanis, while the added part of the longer version must refer to the chivalric tale such as Chretien’s.

What Wolfram has sought to do here is to lend credibility to the aspects of the story of Parzival concerning his conception of the Gral: the Gral family; the Gral as a stone, its origins and its message; Parzival’s spiritual evolution; the passage of the Gral to India; the implication of the historical figure of Prester John; and the spread and continuity of Christianity in India. Wolfram has handed this role to the Moslem Flegetanis because as a native of the East but a non-Christian, he could credibly be acquainted with such matters and might be expected to convey them impartially. Wolfram himself could not, however, treat Flegetanis as his ‘first-hand’ source, as this would risk offending the Church, and he has therefore cleverly distanced himself from him by crediting the acceptable Kyot – supposedly a French troubadour – as his principal and immediate source for the whole story. To this state of affairs it needs to be added that many scholars of the poem are of the opinion that ‘Kyot’ is actually an invention of Wolfram’s – something which may also be true, of course, of Flegetanis. However this would not affect Wolfram’s conception of the Gral, or his conviction of having the right story; it would simply confirm to us his ingenuity in disguising his real sources and shielding himself from criticism.


Genealogical charts of the main dynastic lines in Wolfram’s Parzival

The inter-dynastic marriages discussed in the text are shown in bold type

.         Angevin lineage                                                                                                            Arthurian lineage

.         Mazadan m. Terdelschoye
.         :………………………………………………………………………………………….
.         :                                                                                                                                       :
.         Lazaliez                                                                                                                          Brickus
.         :                                                                                                                                       :
.         Addanz                                                                                                                           Utependragon m. Arnive
.         :                                                                                                                                       :……………….
.         Gandin m. Schoette                                                                                                        :                        :
.         :…………………………….                                                                                         Arthur              Sangive
.         :                    :                      :                                                                                          m. Ginover       m. King Lot of Norway
.         Galoes          :                      Flurdamurs m. Kingrimursel                                              :                         :
.                            Gahmuret                                                                                                   Ilinot                Gawan
.                            m. [1] Belacane…………… m. [2] Herzeloyde
.                             :                                             :
.                            Feirefiz                                 Parzival
.                            m. Repanse de Schoye        m. Condwiramurs, daughter of King Tampenteire
.                             :                                             :…………………..
.                            Prester John                           :                             :
.                                                                           Loherangrin          Kardeiz

.         Gral lineage

.         Titurel
.         :…………………
.         :                          :
.         Frimutel              Rischoyde m. Kaylet
.         :………………………………………………………………………………
.         :                          :                       :                        :                                          :
.         Herzeloyde         Anfortas         Trevrizent         Schoysiane                        Repanse de Schoye
.         m. Gahmuret                                                      m. Kyot of Katelangen      m. Feirefiz
.         :                                                                           :                                          :
.         Parzival                                                                Sigune                               Prester John
.         m. Condwiramurs
.         :…………………………..
.         :                                         :
.         Loherangrin                       Kardeiz
.         m. Princess of Brabant