The Minne-songs, which form a purely lyrical poetry, were soon followed by poems of the narrative and didactic class. Early in this same thirteenth century the Nibelungen-Lied received its present shape; and the old legends, some like this taken from the heathen times, others of purely Christian origin, became the favourite subjects of the poets. The stories of Tristram, Percival, and the quest of the Holy Grail -- knightly romances and histories of saints that were half mystical and symbolical, half legendary -- must have filled the imaginations of youths and ladies in those days as novels do in ours. Most of these stories were connected with that circle of legends of which King Arthur and his Round Table form the centre, and were thus derived from a foreign, generally from a French or Provençal source, but their treatment was entirely German. It soon betrays two opposite tendencies, one of which takes up the external side of these romances, that of love of adventure and worldly success; while the other brings into relief their religious element and the development of character, and anticipates in the latter respect somewhat of the characteristics of the modern novel. Of these schools the representative types are Gottfried von Strasburg and Wolfram von Eschenbach. The former chose for the subject of his longest poem the story of Tristram and Iseult, and makes it the vehicle of depicting the knightly life of his own times on its most stirring and fascinating side. The latter selects the quest of the Holy Grail by Sir Percival, and embodies in his poem those grave and high conceptions of knightly duty and religious faith, which characterise the more serious thought of his day. Wolfram von Eschenbach was a Bavarian by birth, of ancient and noble family, but being a younger son, he possessed but little worldly wealth, and seems to have led a wandering life, welcome as knight and poet alike at the German courts and castles. From the frequent allusions in his principal poem to the court of Thuringia, he no doubt formed one of the band of knights, poets, and adventurers, who gathered round the Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia, and made that little court at once brilliant and disturbed. Wolfram's lifetime coincided with the brightest period of the German Empire under the Hohenstauffens, for he was born under Frederick Barbarossa, and died under Frederick II. German chivalry was then at its highest point, and religious fervour was kindled to enthusiasm by the Crusades; thus it is but natural that these should form the moving springs of his romance. cSir PercivalIt opens with the history of Gamuret, the father of Percival, a younger son of the noble house of Anjou, a knight of the adventure-loving order, who can never enjoy life but in stirring action. He takes service at one time under the Caliph of Bagdad, and wins the hand of a Saracen princess. But he soon leaves her to seek new conflicts, and after his departure she bears him a son, who grows up a heathen, but a very brave and noble knight. At last in Spain he obtains, as victor in a tournament, the hand of the queen and a large territory, and for a time lives happily with his wife; but hearing that his former sovereign is in need of his services, he sets out for the East, and is slain by the way. The queen almost dies of grief for his death, but lives at last for the sake of her little son Percival. Fearing, however, lest he should inherit his father's spirit and meet with his father's fate, she retires with him into a deep forest, where she brings him up in perfect seclusion, and forbids the few faithful attendants who had followed her, ever to name chivalry or knighthood in his presence: --
But her precautions are unavailing. One day three shining knights come riding through the green forest. The boy thinks they must be gods, they are so bright, and kneels to them. They tell him they are knights, show him their weapons, and, when he wants to know how he may become like them, tell him to seek King Arthur's court. Now nothing can detain the boy, his mother finds her tears are useless, and gives permission for his departure; but hoping to drive him back to her through disgust with the world, she sends him forth in a fool's dress, bidding him to wear it for her sake, to honour old men, and to prize a woman's kiss and her ring. So he sets out, and meets with various adventures to which his simplicity and unknightly dress give a half-comic air; he makes his way, however, by dint of courage and straightforwardness, and comes at last to King Arthur's court. Here he undertakes a combat with a knight in red armour, Ither, and slays him; but though Arthur and Guinevere receive him kindly, touched by his beauty, his courage, and his simplicity, he finds himself an object of derision to the other knights and ladies, and makes his escape carrying with him the armour and horse of the Red Knight. After a while he reaches the castle of a grey-haired noble knight, and, remembering his mother's instructions to ask the counsel of old men, he goes up to the knight and requests from him shelter and advice. Here he remains for some time, and speedily becomes proficient in knightly exercises and demeanour, assisted partly by a flying fancy that he feels for his host's fair daughter, Liasse. But he knows that he has not yet earned the right to a lady's love, and moreover the longing for action is upon him, and so once more he departs: --
In time he meets with a most beautiful princess, Konduiramir, who is besieged by cruel foes; he rescues her, falls deeply in love with her, and is at last rewarded by her hand and crown, and lives for a time happily with her. The land flourishes under his wise and mild sway, and all seems going well, till he remembers how long it is since he has had news of his mother, and sets forth to find her once more.
Riding alone beside a lake in the deep forest, he meets with the sick king, Amfortas, disguised as a fisherman, who directs him to a wondrous castle, Monsalvas, which is in truth the abode of the Sangreal, or as it is always called in this poem, "the Holy Grail." The Holy Grail was said to be a vessel of pure emerald, belonging to Joseph of Arimathaea, from which our Lord had partaken of the Last Passover, and which had received the blood that flowed from His wounded Side. Since then it was said to dwell in a certain palace, guarded and served by knights and ladies. Wherever it appeared it bestowed what was needed for earthly wants, and for the soul's salvation; but none could see it except by special grace, and none were admitted to its service except the pure and devoted. Sir Percival is now put to the test, by being permitted to behold the Holy Grail. He is admitted to the splendid castle, and treated with hospitality; he sees the sick King Amfortas, who is suffering acute anguish from a poisoned wound. The Holy Vessel is borne through the banqueting hall by its train of beautiful virgins, but Sir Percival remains unmoved; he asks not the meaning of what he sees, he asks not why Amfortas is suffering thus. So he goes to rest; when he wakes the next morning, the castle is still and deserted; in the courtyard he finds his horse ready saddled and bridled, but no one is to be seen. As he leaves the castle a groom calls after him from one of the towers, bidding him depart as hateful to the sun. Percival turns in anger, but the window is closed, and not a creature is visible. A little further he meets his cousin Sigima, who is mourning in the forest over the death of her lover, and the story of whose faithful love and grief forms a touching episode. She hears where he has been, and explains to him all he has witnessed, but when she finds that neither pity nor wonder had moved him to speak, she cries woe upon him and drives him from her.
Percival rides on "with a thorn in his heart," but without clearly seeing what he has done wrong, nor does he for some time experience any ill effects from it. On the contrary, after various successful adventures, he reaches King Arthur's court, where he is received with acclamations; a splendid banquet is prepared in his honour, and Gawain, the King's nephew, shows him especial friendship. But in the midst of the banquet, when the festivity is at its height, his fate overtakes him. Kundria the sorceress, a terrible messenger from the Sangreal, rides into the hall, tells the knights that they and their Round Table are dishonoured by the fellowship of Percival, relates the story of his visit to Monsalvas, then tells them of another quest of the Castle Merveilleux, in which also honour is to be won, and disappears. She is followed by a strange knight, who accuses Gawain of wrong, and challenges him fiercely. All the knights rise from table, and gather round Gawain and Percival to console them. But Percival is inconsolable: --
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He determines to start at once on the quest of the Holy Grail, and not to return until his honour is restored. Gawain undertakes the quest of the Castle Merveilleux, and so the two depart. From this point the story divides, sometimes following the fortunes of one, sometimes of the other hero. But the story of Gawain is not a mere episode: he represents the child of this world; brave, ready, untroubled by deeper thoughts, he meets with difficulties indeed, but with far more good luck and brilliant success than Percival, until the latter accomplishes his object at last. Percival, on the contrary, encounters life in a much more dreary and commonplace aspect; for five years he wanders on, never reconciled to God, taking no pleasure in anything, meeting with no brilliant adventures, but carrying in his heart an intense longing to behold once more the Holy Grail, repair his fault, and then to be reunited to his wife, whom he never forgets. At last he meets with a hermit, Trevizrent, a brother of Amfortas, to whom he tells all his sorrows, and whose instructions at last restore him to faith. Percival says: --
Trevizrent replies by making Percival see bow his conduct at Monsalvas proved him unworthy of the honour that had been done him in admitting him to the vision of the Holy Grail; how his youthful impetuosity had been the cause of his mother's death, who had expired of grief for his long absence; and how his love of strife had led him to kill the Red Knight, who was his own cousin, a man of great virtue and purity, and would have been his friend. Towards God his sin is defined as disloyalty, the forsaking his rightful allegiance on the touch of trial. Throughout the poem we find that man's highest duty is conceived as loyalty to the various relations in which he may be placed, whether towards God or man. Doubt, fickleness, inconstancy are the deepest stains on a knight. Trevizrent thus vindicates the justice of God in punishing him, and then goes on to speak of the help he may yet expect from Him: --
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Percival now becomes reconciled to God; he remains fifteen days sharing the hermit's fare, and learning from him the true history of the Holy Grail, and the meaning of all he saw, and then once more sets out on his quest. In course of time he arrives at King Arthur's court, just at the moment when Gawain has returned from his successful expeditions, bringing with him the beautiful Duchess Orgueilleuse, who has consented to become his wife. Once she had attempted to lure Percival from his allegiance to Konduiramir, but in vain. Gawain has now invited the whole Round Table to witness his nuptials, and his combat with Gramoflanz. Early in the morning he rides out to try his powers, he meets with Percival, and, not recognising him, attacks him; they fight long. Just as Percival is about to win the victory an exclamation of the squire's betrays to him his opponent's name; he instantly flings away his sword, dismounts, and reproaches himself for having fought with his friend. The combat with Gramoflanz is postponed to the next day, to give Gawain time to recover. Percival however contrives at dawn to take it upon himself, in order to spare Gawain, and overthrows Gramoflanz. He gives him his life; Gawain and he are reconciled, and three marriages are arranged at once. Percival is restored to his place at the Round Table, and treated with the highest distinction. Many a lady would fain try to console the stately knight, who never smiles except in courtesy; but he cares for no one but Konduiramir, and all the happy love around him only quickens his longing after her. He lies awake till dawn, then
But his time of trial is now nearly at an end. Not far from the camp he encounters his half-brother the heathen Feirefiss; they fight: Percival is almost overcome, but his strength is restored by prayer, and he is on the point of conquering, when his sword breaks in his hand. The relationship is now discovered; Percival returns to Arthur's camp with his brother, and in the midst of the rejoicings Kundria the sorceress appears once more to tell him that he is accepted as the monarch of the Holy Grail. He sets out for Monsalvas, heals Amfortas by the power of prayer, and then is suffered to meet with Konduiramir.
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They now all proceed to Monsalvas. Feirefiss receives baptism, which enables him to behold the Holy Grail; he marries the royal virgin who has hitherto borne it, and the two return to the far East to spread the true faith there. The younger of Percival's twin sons is sent back to the world to become the king of his temporal dominions, and Percival himself with Konduiramir and his elder son are left reigning at Monsalvas.
Such is a slight sketch of the finest and most earnest of these early German romantic epics. The style is at times long-winded and prolix, -- thus we have two pages full of all the remedies tried by Amfortas for his wounds, -- but the poem is pervaded not only by a lofty tone of thought and feeling, but by much grace, tenderness, and imagination, with touches of humour, and half-sarcastic, half-courtly allusions to the life and the writings of his own times.
"Each morn he bathes him in the stream;
Of care or harm he does not dream;
But when the birds' delicious song
Held ear and heart in magic strong,
His breast swells with a longing deep;
The child runs to his mother's side;
But when she asks, 'What makes thee weep?'
He cannot tell and will not bide,
As children wont at every tide.
His mother, filled with wakeful care,
Watches his footsteps everywhere,
Till once, unseen, she sees her boy
Lost in a dream of vaguest joy,
Listening to that sweet song. Then she
Swore the birds' enemy to be;
She bade her squires to catch and kill
All birds they found, the good and ill.
But ah! the birds were craftier yet;
They slipped away from bow and net,
And sweeter still o'er copse and corn
Rang their dear song at break of morn.
The boy then asked her wherefore she
To harmless birds was enemy, --
'Dear mother, let these murders cease,
And let us live with them at peace.'
The mother kissed her lovely boy;
'How could I thus break God's command,
Who made them but for purest joy!'
Awhile the boy doth musing stand;
'Who is God? mother mine,' he saith.
'My child, receive my words in faith:
God dwells above us bright as day;
Mercy and love are His alway:
Cry to Him in the hour of need;
He loves to help, and that with speed.
But there is one, His direst foe,
Faithless and cruel; far below
That Black one dwells in darkest night:
Heed not his lures, nor fear his might,
But even in thought from him, O flee
From him and Doubt, O keep thee free.'"
"In dress and manners now need he
Ne'er blush in noblest company;
Yet had his master's teachings stirred
Thoughts that till then had slept unheard,
That made his heart beat restlessly.
Too small his world seems now to him,
Too strait its bounds, its light too dim;
A mist before his eyes seemed spread,
No charm was in the verdant mead,
In him and round him twilight grey; --
His ignorance had passed away."
"There stunned and mute sits Percival, --
Ah, what avails the manhood now
Of that brave heart, its chastity,
Its lofty aims and ardent glow?
He is disgraced before them all.
Yet innocent and pure is he,
No vice can in his life be found,
Ne'er have his steps transgressed the bound
Of modesty, the soul's true prize
And fairest crown in noble eyes.
"Gawain embraced the valiant man,
And strives to cheer him as he can,
'O friend, thy journey well I know
Will bring thee many a toil and woe:
God give thee luck, and grant to me
In time of need to succour thee.'
But Percival cried, 'What is God?
Would He have suffered such a load
Of scorn to fall on thee and me
Were He so good and great and free?
The fountain of His might is dry.
Him truly served my arm and heart,
My recompense is this sore smart;
Henceforth His service I resign,
If He hath wrath, that wrath be mine.
O friend, thou go'st to war and strife,
Take for thy aid a faithful wife,
A woman fair and chaste and good,
Complete in tender womanhood;
Be she thy guide, thy strength, and guard,
Her love will be thy best reward.'"
"Like to a dream my joy is fled,
A weight of grief is on my head;
Where church and minsters fairly rise,
I ne'er am seen by mortal eyes;
In strife and combat am I known,
Yet hate I none but God alone;
For He, revengeful, sends me scorn
And sorrows scarcely to be borne.
if God would give us help indeed,
No anchor else my life would need,
But jealous of my just renown,
Fate all my deeds with thorns doth crown;
And could God help it, could He right: --
Let men praise as they will His might; --
I cry aloud unjust is He
Who leaves me bound by misery."
"Eternally shall sound His praise
Who showed to man such wealth of grace,
His noble nature bowed to us
And stooped to wear our likeness thus.
God's name and nature is pure Truth,
He hateth all disloyalty;
Then think upon thy life with ruth,
And let thy firm decision be
Never from Him to turn aside,
Who still is true whate'er betide.
He is the Father far above,
Whose essence is unfaltering Love;
Yet love or wrath the world may choose;
Ah woe! if thou that love refuse!
But God is also radiant Light,
Piercing the thickest walls with might;
No secret impulse stirs the breast
But stands before that eye confest;
The swiftest thought He sees and tries
Ere it from heart to lips can rise.
If God so judge each thought that lurks
Within thee, on thy own vain works
How wilt thou dare to found a claim?
Must thou not bend with inward shame
Before that Perfect Purity,
And ask His grace to succour thee?
Thou hast thy choice, or love or wrath,
But choose, oh choose, the better path;
Changed be thy mind, then shalt thou prove
That God can look on thee with love."
"His eye dath on the armour rest
That lies before him, and his breast
Anew is filled with heavy sighs:
'If Fate for aye to me denies
What on her favourites she bestows,
The joy of happy love, whose power
Can put to flight the sorest woes,
Nought else I ask that she can shower.
But God wills not such happiness!
If we had loved each other less,
The tie might break, and I might find
Some solace elsewhere to my mind.
But her love hath such hold on me,
Who never from my griefs am free,
No love or joy can in me dwell,
My sickness is incurable.
Fate loves to give in lavish measure
To those who strive for earthly pleasure!
God give sweet joy to all men here!
But from their host I disappear.'"
"So Percival rode all night through
To meet that lady sweet and true;
Till with the earliest blush of day
A host of tents before him lay,
Pitched on the dewy flowery sward,
Bright banners floating all abroad.
He finds the tent where sleeps the Queen
Among her women, and between
Her beauteous twins; -- Ah, now at last
His joy is come, his griefs are past!
There on the bed of whitest snow
Three lovely heads like roses glow,
Lit by the morning beam they sleep,
Smiling in slumber calm and deep.
Till the Queen wakened, opes her eyes,
Beholds him there with glad surprise,
And springs to her great hero's breast,
By joy itself o'ercome, opprest,
With kisses covers all his face,
And holds him in a close embrace.
She cries: 'Thee now my God doth send,
My heart's delight, my only joy;
At last, at last there is an end
Of mournful days and long annoy;
I have my heart's most fervent prayer,
And fled is every thought of care.'"
"So I, Wolfram von Eschenbach,
Following the Master whom I trust,
Have told the story true and just
Of the great deeds of Percival,
His noble race, his children all;
I leave him in that lofty place
Where he was called by Heaven's high grace,
And he whose life shall end like this,
Whose soul no guilt or bitterness
From God above hath power to part,
Whose valiant arm and noble heart
Earth's homage too of right obtain, --
I trow he hath not lived in vain."