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Karina Marie Ash

Donald Backman

Jun Kurihara

Amie Pascal-Joiner

Andrew Oetzel

Aimée Reed


Wolfram von Eschenbach's Voice of Mercy During the Merciless Age of the Crusades

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Karina Marie Ash

Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival and Willehalm idealize the transformative power of mercy during an age when crusade propaganda promoted the redemptive power of merciless slaughter. Although Parzival and Willehalm are secular works of literature, both narratives depict a theme of mercy that leads to peace and reconciliation. The appeal to mercy, which is embodied through Parzival's and Willehalm's progression from merciless warriors to merciful knights, is a voice that rises above the prevalent bloodshed that typified much of the crusades.

Although the crusades were sanctioned by the church and propagated through the preaching of contemporary theologians like Bernard of Clairaux, the carnage of the crusades conflicted with the fundamental message of peace that many Christians believed their faith embodied. Fulcher of Chartes's notably violent description of the first crusade (1095-1127) against Jerusalem illustrates the type of merciless mass murders that caused many to question the theological motivations of the crusades:

Nearly ten thousand were beheaded in this Temple. If you had been there your feet would have been stained to the ankles in the blood of the slain. What shall I say? None of them were left alive. Neither women nor children were spared. (66)
Perhaps because of this gruesome reality, two centuries later the main motivations to go on crusade for many were devoid of spiritual content. The epic Reinfried von Braunschweig (1300) lists eight secular motivations for going on a crusade: "durch frîgen muotgelust, ritterlîchen just, schwouwen, sîner frouwen wolt dienen umb ir mine, lîden pîn, guot, durch kurzewîle, durch ruon" ("from a free desire, knightly combat, to see the world, to serve his lady for her love, suffer pain, profit, for pleasure, for fame"), and the one religious reason to go on crusade: "daz er lûterlîchen got diende" ("to serve God with a pure heart") (Bumke, Courtly Culture 297) appears as an afterthought.

Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote Parzival and Willehalm between the twelfth century sermons that lauded crusaders as heroic martyrs for Christ, and the fourteenth century authors who encouraged the personal ambitions of crusaders. During Wolfram's lifetime (1170-1230) romances and epics poured out of France and German-speaking lands, depicting heroes who secured God's help in battle while fighting in glorious crusades. Das Rolandslied is a prototypical German crusade epic, which reinterprets Charlemagne's nephew, Roland, who had been ambushed by the Saracens, as a holy martyr. The epic presents Roland and his peers as exemplars of divine strength, who have divine protection until their final ascent into martyrdom. For example, when the Saracen Eschermunt spears Roland's companion, Engelirs, the narrator explains:

Ja stach im Eschermunt
den spiez durch di porte;
daz werc widerstunt dem orte
got in wol bewarte,
daz er im an dem lîbe nîne scadete. (Konrad 4794-4798)

(Yes, Eschermunt stung him
splintering through his armor:
But the armor withstood the point [of Eschermunt's spear]
God protected him well, so that he was not wounded on his body.)

Not only are the literary representatives of the crusaders divinely aided, but they have divine strength as well. Roland can slay "mêre denne vir hundert man"(5993) ("more than four hundred men") in a single battle. Charlemagne is depicted as so awe-inspiring that the heathens "alle entrunchen und ertwâlen" (7071) ("all drown themselves and die") rather than fight the Holy Roman Emperor. When the Saracens did fight, the narrator proudly asserts that the Christians bravely fought back and that "sich erbarmte dâ nieman" (5552) ("mercy was given to no one").

J.W. Thomas maintains that the depictions of Engelirs, Roland, Charlemagne, and other literary representatives of the crusades "may well have contributed to the literary concept of knighthood in the chivalric romances of Germany" (2). The combination of mercilessly exterminating one's enemy and withstanding all assault through divine intervention influenced secular romances of Wolfram von Eschenbach's contemporaries. One such contemporary was Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, who depicted the Arthurian hero, Lancelot, as being both merciless in battle and divinely aided in his romance Lanzelet. One example of Lanzelet's ruthlessness occurs during his duel with Iweret. Iweret pleads for a truce, but Lanzelet slays him without hesitation (4542-4546). In another scene, Lanzelet dishonors Galagandreiz by sleeping with Galagandreiz's daughter while staying at his castle. Galagandreiz discovers the shame Lanzelet has brought upon his house and offers to resolve the conflict of honor by challenging Lanzelet to a knife throwing match. After Galagandriez honorably hits the mark, Lanzelet declines his turn to throw his knife. Instead of honoring the match, Lanzelet savagely stabs Galagandreiz with his knife and murders him without hesitation (1178-1188). Yet, despite Lanzelet's merciless behavior towards his opponents, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven asserts that "Lanzelet dem helde balt die saelde got gefuogte, der tûsent man genuogte" (6204-6206) ("God gave the bold hero Lanzelet a blessing, that would have been enough for a thousand men"). Lanzelet, like the crusaders, is blessed and supported by God regardless of his merciless actions.

Wolfram von Eschenbach also portrays heroes who behave mercilessly towards their opponents in Parzival and Willehalm. The distinction between Wolfram's heroes and the conventional depiction of heroes in the literature of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries hinges on the premise that both Parzival and Willehalm progress from merciless warriors to merciful knights. Mercy is the central lesson that both of Wolfram's heroes have to learn through the course of their journeys. This article will analyze how the attainment of mercy is a central theme in both of Wolfram's narratives and assert that this theme exemplifies a voice of mercy resounding in a merciless age.

From Merciless to Merciful in Parzival

Joachim Bumke, Frederich Maurer, and Peter Nusser interpret Parzival's struggle to attain the virtue of mercy through the theological perspective of sin and redemption (Bumke, Eschenbach 74-78; Maurer 149; Nusser 222). Parzival's thoughtless and often ruthless deeds are sins, which need to be redeemed through an acknowledgement and absolution of them. Parzival does acknowledge his sins when he requests advice from the hermit Trevrizent: "nu gebt mit rât / ich bin ein man der sünde hât" (456, 29-30) ("now give me advice / I am a man who has sinned"). After this confession Parzival becomes a compassionate knight, who is worthy of ruling the Grail Kingdom. Peter Wapnewski notes that this premise of sin and redemption echoes the theological concept of the redemptive power of confession voiced by Augustine in the fourth century, and that this premise was still a dominant part of Christian theology in the twelfth century (90). Thus, both the text and the contemporary theological influences of the time support the interpretation that Parzival's path to compassion is based on sin and redemption.

A close reading of text will reveal that it is not simply sinning that estranges Parzival from merciful acts, but rather Parzival's misconception of God. My analysis will point out his misconception prior to his confession to Trevrizent and show that Parzival shared a religious expectation of God that mirrors the beliefs of the crusaders. Then Wolfram's ideal of a merciful Christian God will be discussed through the lessons Parzival learns after his confession. Finally, I will demonstrate how the ideal of God's divine intervention for merciless heroes is replaced with Wolfram's ideal of heroes who learn to be divinely merciful.

Parzival's religious instruction begins with his mother, who explains God's loyalty to her son, but not God's mercy (Kindler 7213). Parzival's mother tells him: "sîn triwe der werlde ie helfe bôt" (199, 24) ("With loyalty to the world, He offers help"). God is introduced to Parzival as a type of liege lord who is loyal to his men and is ready to come to their aid. Crusaders, who saw themselves as sanctified soldiers of God, and Parzival both expected God's loyalty to come in the form of divine help. Interestingly the French romance Perceval, upon which Wolfram is believed to have based his story of Parzival, does not emphasize the central role of God's loyalty in the young hero's religious training. When Chretien de Troyes depicts the formative foundation of faith that Perceval receives from his mother, God is not portrayed as a helper but as a "prophete sainte" (579) ("holy prophet") who suffers for mankind. Perceval's mother further instructs him to "Por oir messes et matines / et por cel seignor aorer / vos lo gie au mostier aler" (590-592) ("pray to the lord, as I have said, / at any church that you pass and hear matins and the mass"). The distinction between Chretien's focus on faith in a suffering prophet and Wolfram's focus on faith in a helpful God establishes a link between Parzival's shared religious expectations and the crusaders' expectations which doesn't exist in the original French version.

Wolfram may have altered Parzival's fundamental understanding of God's role to accommodate the cultural expectations of his German-speaking audience. According to Frederick Maurer, the Germanic ancestral virtue of loyalty to one's lord and the Christian virtue of loyalty to the Lord conflict with each other because Germanic people were accustomed to following a victorious liege lord, not a suffering Lord (11). Peter Nusser further explains that the German people tended to modify Christianity by incorporating the virtues of Germanic heroism into the religion. Although the image of the suffering Christian God was intended to illustrate God's mercy and give Christians hope, the humility that is required to receive God's mercy was an affront to the Germanic warrior tradition that was rooted in the concept of honor. The prevalent literary depictions of the crusades often promoted the honor of the crusaders, instead of their humility before God. Therefore, Parzival's image of God as a helper mirrors the image held by the crusaders and is reinforced by the cultural traditions of the German speaking audience.

Parzival's journey from merciless to merciful begins when he leaves his mother to become a knight after serendipitously meeting a couple of knights from King Arthur's court. When he arrives at the court, Sir Keye mockingly informs Parzival that he will gain honor and become a knight if he defeats Ither, the haughty knight who had just insulted Queen Ginover. Parzival doesn't realize that all the other knights have declined to fight Ither because of Ither's prowess and strength. Ignorant of the situation and the code of combat, Parzival slays Ither with the same merciless regard that Lanzelet had towards Galagandriez. Parzival foregoes a duel with Ither and simply murders him by throwing a javelin into Ither's eye. The merciless act is mirrored in the French version of the narrative. Chretien de Troyes renders Perceval's murder of Ither as a praiseworthy initiation into knighthood. In the French version, King Arthur scolds Sir Kay for driving away a youth "qui hui cest jor m'a mout valu" (1240) ("who served me well today"). This indifference to ruthless violence reflects the militant culture of the crusades.

One would expect Wolfram's German version of the story also to laud the conquest of Ither, since Parzival did win Ither's armor and his horse. Yet, Parzival is not praised in Wolfram's version, instead Ither's death is lamented by the same woman he insulted, Queen Ginover:

Vrou Ginovêr diu künegin
sprach jaemerlîcher worte sin.
åôwe unde heiâ hei,
der ob der tavelrunder
den hoehsten prîs solde tragn,
daz der vor Nantes lît erslagn. (160, 1-3; 6-8)

(Lady Ginover, the Queen
spoke her words with misery.
Oh pain and woe!
That a knight from the round table
who was held in the highest praise,
before Nantes lies slain.)

By presenting Ginover's lament over Ither's death, Wolfram casts a moral judgment upon Parzival's act. Parzival's victory over Ither is not glorified or even heroic, it is tragic. The tragic aspect of Ither's death is not addressed in the French version of the narrative. Wolfram departs from the original narrative to voice a criticism of Parzival's merciless deed by presenting the suffering that is endemic to ruthless aggression.

After a number of exploits as a knight, Parzival turns his aggression inward: "dem reit sîn manlîchiu zucht kiusch unt erbarmung" (451, 4-5) ("His maturity as a man leads him to self realization and compassion"). Parzival reflects on the violence and pain of the world and questions God's role in his pain. Since Parzival conceives of God as a helper, not a sufferer, Parzival reasons that God will help him by taking away the pain he suffers:

Er sprach 'waz ob got helfe phligt
diu mînem trûren an gesigt?
wart ob er ie ritter holt
ode mac schilt unde swert
sîner helfe sîn sô wert
und rehtiu manlîchiu wer,
daz sîn helfe mich vor sorgen ner
ist hiut sîn helflîcher tac,
sô helfe er, ob er helfen mac.' (451, 13-23)

(He said, "I wonder if God might bring aid
to conquer my pain?
If he ever held a knight dear,
or a shield and sword,
and he is worthy enough help is just combat,
that his aid might free me from my troubles,
today is his day of help,
so let him help me if he can.)

Parzival's challenge to God is expressed in the language of a proud warrior: "gesigt" (conquer), "schilt unde swert" (shield and sword), and "manlîchiu" (brave). In counterpoint to Parzival's proud skepticism about God, Chretien's Perceval simply "que de Deu ne li sovient mais" (6011) ("remembered God no more"), received a lengthy lecture about Christ's suffering on Good Friday, and galloped to the nearest church because he was "Et Percevax, qui mout se dote avoir vers Damedeu mespris" (6142-6143) ("in terror of the sin he thought he had committed"). Wolfram turns the neglected faith of the French Perceval into the questioned faith of the German Parzival. According to the image of God that Parzival's mother instilled in him, God should help Parzival because he is loyal. God seems utterly disloyal to Parzival, since Parzival has been a valiant knight and God still allows him to suffer. Parzival decides that God will not help him to relieve his suffering. This perceived act of disloyalty provokes Parzival to renounce God. When he meets the holy hermit Trevrizent, he does not fear the sins he may have committed, rather he berates God for His lack of honor:
Swâ kirchen ode münster stuont,
dâ man gotes êre sprach,
kein ouge mich dâ nie geschah
sît den selben zîten
ich suochte niht wan strîten.
ouch trage ich hazzes vil gein gote:
wand er ist mîner sorgen tote. (461, 4-10)

(Wherever a church or cathedral stands,
where man speaks of God's honor,
no attention will I ever give to them,
but on the contrary will I seek
nothing other than battle.
Also, I have a great hate against God:
because He is the source of my troubles.)

Instead of hastening to a church to redeem his sins, like Chretien's Perceval, Wolfram's Parzival shuns churches and hates God. Parzival not only besmirches God's honor, but he also asserts that God's power hasn't helped him at all (461, 13). From Parzival's perspective God is not the exemplar of honor and strength that he should be. God has not lived up to Parzival's image of him.

Parzival's expectations of God are based on the crusader ideals of strength in battle and divine intervention. Trevrizent introduces Parzival to a new image of God. Parzival's false image of God, who had a duty to reward him for being a proud warrior, and Trevrizent's image of a God who grants mercy to his humble servants stand in direct opposition. Fritz Peter Knapp maintains that only after Parzival shed his false image of God, does he find God through the humble recognition of his own culpability and God's mercy (598). By illustrating that a false interpretation of God can lead to the disillusionment of one's faith, Wolfram may be addressing a spiritual void that many Christians may have experienced during the crusades. Parzival's estrangement from God may have resonated with audiences in the twelfth and thirteenth century. Wolfram offers Parzival as an exemplar that can lead the faithful away from their doubts about a god of war and towards a new understanding of a god of compassion.

Trevrizent, the holy hermit, embodies the compassionate alternative Wolfram strives to show his audience. After hearing Parzival's tirade against God, Trevrizent assures Parzival that God will help him and tells him: "von dem zwîfel ich iuch nim." (464, 8) ("from your doubt in God I will free you"). He explains to Parzival that God's power is not in battle prowess, but in mercy. Since the fall of Adam man has suffered sin. God's strength is in his ability to forgive those sins through his mercy (465, 1-10). Trevrizent not only corrects Parzival's misguided interpretation of God, but, after discovering Parzival is his nephew, Trevrizent elucidates Parzival's naive fiascos that have prevented Parzival from living out his destiny as the Gral King.

The one deed that stands between Parzival and his destiny is an act of compassion. Before meeting Trevrizent, Parzival witnesses the extreme pain that Anfortas, the Gral King and Parzival's uncle, suffers. Instead of acting out of compassion and reaching out to his uncle by asking about his pain, Parzival's pride restrains him from saying anything. Parzival feigns indifference to the suffering of Anfortas because he has been told that he would appear unmanly if he asked too many questions (239, 11-15). Parzival's attempt to present an honorable appearance prevents him from experiencing the humility of putting aside his pride. If Parzival had been humble in the Gral castle, he could have shown compassion to his uncle, which would have enacted God's mercy upon Anfortas and healed him. Before this transformation can occur, Parzival must learn the true nature of God and strive to embody his divine ideal of mercy. Once Parzival has learned this new value system, which replaces ruthless pride with merciful humility, he is ready to begin his life as a merciful knight.

Wolfram emphasizes the change in Parzival's orientation from merciless to merciful by drawing attention to Parzival's horse. After Parzival decides to stay and learn about God's mercy from Trevrizent, Trevrizent asks him about his horse. Not only did the horse lead Parzival to Trevrizent after Parzival let the horse's reins fall freely around its neck, but Parzival explains that it is a new horse. The horse he originally acquired when he slayed Ither was lost in battle. Parzival just recently won the new horse in a joust with a knight from the Gral castle. According to Maggie Macary, "Parzival has discarded all remnants of the Red Knight (Ither)," a symbol of his misguided and merciless past, in exchange for "a horse marked with the spiritual symbols of the Gral" (Macary). The horse symbolizes the change in Parzival, who will lose his battle-hungry image of God for a new image won through his discussions with Trevrizent.

Indeed, the next duel that Parzival encounters while riding this horse does not end in merciless slaughter but in merciful, brotherly love. Although Parzival and his opponent are unaware of each other's identity, Wolfram informs his audience that their duel is lamentable because: "si wârn doch bêde eins mannes kint" (740, 5) ("they were both one man's child"). Parzival is actually jousting with his half brother Feierfizz. Their lances shatter and their fierce combat continues with a sword fight. Parzival's sword breaks in the heat of the battle and Feierfizz suggests that they call a truce until they have recovered enough to continue fighting. This is Parzival's first humiliation in battle. His pride has been cast down by the defective sword which Anfortas had given him. Just as the Gral horse leads Parzival to Trevrizent's teachings of God's mercy, the Gral sword leads Parzival to experience humiliation and mercy. If the sword had not broken, it is likely that Parzival would have never accepted his brother's merciful truce, which led to their reunion. Parzival has acquired the knowledge and experience to be a merciful knight.

After reconciling with his brother, he is ready to reconcile with Anfortas. Parzival returns to the Gral castle as a merciful knight who humbles his own pride and honor by announcing that God's glory, instead of his own, will be seen through the healing of his uncle (795, 22-23). Then Parzival humbles himself before God by kneeing in front of an icon of the Trinity. Finally, he utters the words of compassion, which heal his uncle and secure Parzival's ascension to the throne of the Gral Kingdom: "oeheim, was wirret dier" (796, 29) ("Uncle, what ails you"). Thus, the merciless warrior has been transformed into a merciful knight by learning about God's mercy and experiencing how God's mercy brings peace and reconciliation through humility and compassion.

From Merciless to Merciful in Willehalm

Wolfram confronts the merciless behavior of Christians directly in Willehalm by retelling the victorious legend of Charlemagne's cousin, William of Orange, who defended the Duchy of Orange from the Saracens, as a tragedy. Frederich Maurer maintains that Willehalm already recognizes the importance of God's mercy at the beginning of Wolfram's narrative (171). James Poag further asserts that "it would be doing violence to an example of the heroic genre— Willehalm— to expect significant religious development in the heart of the central figure" (115). This paper will read against the grain of genre expectations and analyze the religious development of Willehalm by expanding upon Frederich Maurer's theory of developmental suffering in Willehalm to show how suffering transforms Willehalm from a merciless warrior into a merciful knight.

Willehalm's defeat in the first battle marks the first stage of suffering according to Maurer. Not only does Willehalm flee to solicit more troops to help him recover his duchy from the Saracen siege, but his favorite nephew Vivianz lies dead on the battlefield. Maurer asserts that Vivianz's death drowns Willehalm in such pain and guilt that he falls back into his ancestral bloodlust and seeks revenge for Vivianz's life (179). This vengeance manifests itself in a combat scene between Willehalm and the Saracen knight Arofel. By comparing the depiction of this scene with the depiction of the same scene in the French epic Aliscans, which was believed to have been Wolfram's source, Willehalm appears to have very different motives than his French counterpart William. In the French version of the story, William sees Aerofles and prays: "Consent moi, sire, par la toie bonte" (1283) ("By Your good grace, I ask You and beseech to let me have that Paynim's rapid steed"). His motivation mirrors Parzival's motivation to slay Ither. Both warriors consider the acquisition of a horse a worthy reason to attack their opponent. Despite Aerofles's plea to surrender to William if William returns his horse, William slices off the Saracen's head and keeps his armor and horse.

Wolfram's Willehalm has a very different intent for fighting Arofel than his French counterpart. Willehalm does not espy Arofel's horse and decide to steal it; instead he charges at both Arofel and another Saracen King because "er wolde et ze Orangis hin, / da Gyburc diu künegin / sin herze nahen bi ir trouc" (77, 9-11) ("He was wanting to ride on towards Orange, where the Queen held his heart in her safe keeping"). After Arofel must admit his defeat, he offers to surrender not only himself but his horse and anything in the entire kingdom of Persia if Willehalm would allow him to live. Wolfram emphasizes the piteous plea of the crippled King by expanding the pithy dialogue originally found in Aliscans to include lengthy laments by Arofel. Although Willehalm still slays the Saracen and takes his horse and armor, Wolfram provides a different motive for the merciless murder:

Do der marcrave siniu wort
vernam, daz er so grozen hort
vür sin verschert leben bot,
er dahte an Vivianzes tot,
wie der gerochen würde,
unz daz sin jamers bürde. (79, 25-30)

(When the Margave [Willehalm] heard what he was saying and realized that he was offering him immense riches in exchange for his shattered life, he thought of the death of Vivianz and of how that might be avenged and his own burden of grief made lighter.)

Willehalm murders Arofel not for his horse, but to avenge Vivianz. His merciless deed is noted by the narrator who mourns that when Arofel died: "Da erschein der mine ein vlüstic tac. / noch solden kristenlichiu wip / klagen sinen ungetouften lip" (81, 20-22) ("Thus had dawned a day of loss for Love, and even today Christian ladies should still be mourning this heathen man").

Arofel's death is described as a tragic event in Willehalm, just as Ither's death was mourned by Ginover in Parzival. Since the death of Aerofles is not mourned by anyone in the French epic Aliscans, Wolfram may have purposely departed from the original narrative to draw attention to the merciless murder of Arofel that deserves pity. By placing Willehalm in the role of a merciless warrior who murders the pitiful Arofel for revenge, Wolfram depicts the mature Willehalm with the same dearth of mercy that the immature Parzival had when he murdered Ither. Thus, Willehalm does not appreciate the role of God's mercy in relation to his own mercy at the beginning of the epic.

The necessity of leaving his wife in peril to defend the castle while he seeks support troops to fight the Saracen invasion of Orange is the second stage of suffering that Maurer points out in his analysis. All of Willehalm's knights have perished under Saracen swords. Without additional troops Willehalm will lose his wife and his duchy. Maurer interprets Willehalm's pain from the humiliation of defeat and desperation that causes him to leave his wife in peril as a further source for anger and vengeance (179). As Willehalm travels towards to court of the King in Lyon, he rides through the town of Orleans in his bloodied and tattered armor. Both Aliscans and Willehalm recount the gruesome tale of how the townsfolk mistook the harassed Duke for a merchant and insisted that he pay a toll for entering their town. Willehalm's indignation at the affront escalates his rage until he mercilessly slaughters countless unarmed men before riding out of the town. Willehalm's wrath has transformed him from a merciless opponent on the battlefield to a ruthless reaper of death among defenseless peasants.

After the insult Willehalm suffered in Orleans, his rank and status are even more demeaned by the lack of reception he receives when he arrives at King Louis's court. When Willehalm is finally given audience with his sister, the Queen, and her husband, King Louis, Louis appears receptive to the idea of aiding Willehalm until the Queen fears that the cost of war will endanger her courtly life and declares: "mir ist lieber daz er warte her / denne ich siner genaden ger" (147, 10-11) ("I would rather have him serve us than seek his favour myself"). Willehalm's own sister has effectively said that she would prefer Willehalm to lose his wife and duchy than ever be indebted to him.

Maurer designates the Queen's disinclination to supply Willehalm with support troops as the third stage of his suffering. Willehalm cannot restrain his torment from turning into rage. In both French and German versions of the epic, Willehalm rips his sister's crown from her head and is about to slit her neck. Only the intervention of Willehalm's mother prevents him from brutally murdering his sister, the Queen of France. Willehalm has devolved from a merciless opponent in battle, to a ruthless murderer of peasants, to a potentially treacherous assassin of nobility. Finally, Willehalm's anger is appeased and he is granted the troops that he needs to defend his duchy.

The French epic ends with a glorious victory that is crowned by a royal wedding between the beloved nephew of William's wife and William's niece. Wolfram's version of the epic has survived as an unfinished fragment in which the narrative ends after the presumed death of the beloved nephew, Rennewart. Whether Wolfram intended to finish the epic with the return of Rennewart and a happy marriage is not discernable. The surviving manuscripts of Willehalm depict Willehalm's lament over Rennewart's death:

Mir ist hie vor jamer als we.
ei starker lip, clariu jugent
und din pris hoch und breit
dir niht dienen lazen,
so bin ich der verwazen.
hat dich der tot von mir getan? (452, 30-453, 7)

(Oh, strong life, bright youth
and your high renown and fame
have not served you.
So am I damned.
Has death taken you away from me?)

This final stage of suffering is unique to Wolfram's version of the epic. Willehalm again addresses his sorrows through rage; this time he directs his anger at the highest authority: God (456, 2-5). His wrath towards God mirrors Parzival's denunciation of God. Yet, Willehalm remembers that his beloved wife is a gift of God's mercy. He reconciles his anger by recalling that "wan din helfe und ir trost, waere immer unrelost" (456, 19-20) ("Were it not for Your help and her consolation, I would be ever unrelieved of the bonds of misery"). In contrast to Parzival, who had to be taught about God's mercy to assuage his rage, Willehalm is able to recall God's mercy based on his love for his wife. Humility leads Parzival to mercy, but it is Willehalm's understanding and recognition of love which leads him to mercy.

In the final verses, Willehalm recalls that he was severely wounded after the battle and sought out a tent where he thought he could receive dressing for his wounds. After entering the tent, he discovered it was a morgue of dead pagan kings enshrouded in such a state of honor that: "ich geloube im wohl, er waere in holt / swer die koste durh si gap" (464, 22-23) ("I am sure whoever provided the rich setting for them must have loved them"). When Willehalm reflects on the loss that so many Saracens were also suffering: "mich gerou daz ich dar under war" (465, 1) ("I was ashamed that I was there"). Willehalm's shame humbles him after he considers the pain of the people who loved the deceased kings.

Frederich Maurer maintains that by the end of the epic Willehalm has endured so much suffering that he learns mercy (181). The suffering certainly provoked Willehalm's actions throughout the epic. If he had not been suffering from a fresh wound, he certainly would not have sought out the tent where he was confronted by those who suffered far more than a wound. By feeling sorrow for the deceased pagan kings and those who loved them, Willehalm relates their suffering through his own experience. This compassion humbles him and frees him from the cycle of vengeance that previously spiraled into wrath through his wounded pride. Willehalm has evolved through suffering to become a merciful knight who compassionately frees his noble pagan captives to bury and mourn their dead in their own land. He tells the freed prisoners of the war to bring the honored dead back to the Saracen Sultan: "des genade und des hulde / ich gerne gediende, gesterst ichs bitten" (466, 8-9) ("whose grace and favour I would like to earn, if I dared seek it"). Thus, the final merciful act of Willehalm is to seek reconciliation with his enemy the Saracen Sultan.


Wolfram von Eschenbach's emphasis on the evolution of Parzival and Willehalm from merciless warriors to merciful knights illustrates a Christian ideal of mercy that rises above the bloodshed that prevailed in the age of the crusades. Parzival behaved like a merciless warrior because he was ignorant of God's divine mercy. Willehalm behaved like a ruthless murderer because his wrath blinded him from perceiving God's mercy. Both knights suffer humility. Parzival is humbled by his defeat and his brother's mercy. Willehalm is humbled through the realization of the suffering shared by the Saracens. In the end, both men are moved to acts of compassion, which endear them as exemplars of mercy who seek reconciliation.

Works Cited

Aliscans. Ed. Erich Wienbeck, Wilhelm Hartnacke and Paul Rasch. Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1903.

Bumke, Joachim. Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages. Trans. Thomas Dunlap. Woodstock: Overlook, 2000.
---. Wolfram von Eschenbach. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche, 1981.

de Troyes, Chretien. Le Conte du Gral (Perceval). Ed. Felix Lecoy. Paris: H. Champion, 1975.
---. Perceval or The Story of the Grail. Trans. Ruth Harwood Kline. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.

Fulcher of Chartes. A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem 1095-1127. Trans. Frances Rita Ryan. London: W.W. Norton, 1973.

Kindlers Literatur Lexikon. 17, 23. München: Deutschen Taschenbuch, 1974.

Knapp, Fritz Peter. "Heilsgewissheit oder Resignation? Rennewarts Schicksal und der Schluß des Willehalm." Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte. 57. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche, 1983. 593-612.

Konrad der Pfaffe. "Das Rolandslied." Das Rolandslied des Pfaffen Konrad und Das Alexanderlied des Pfaffen Lambrecht. Ed. Frederich Mauer. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1964.

Macary, Maggie. "Passing through the Valley — Parzival's Two Initiations." Myth and Culture. 1999-2002.

Maurer, Friedrich. Leid: Studien zur Bedeutungs- und Problemgeschichte besonders in den grossen Epen der Stauferischen Zeit. Bern: A. Franke A.G., 1951.

Newth, Michael A., trans. The Song of Aliscans. New York: Garland, 1992.

Nusser, Peter. Deutsche Literatur im Mittelalter: Lebensformen, Wertvorstellungen und Literarische Entwicklungen. Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner, 1992.

Poag, James F. Wolfram von Eschenbach. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Thomas, J.W. Priest Konrad's Song of Roland. Columbia: Camden, 1994.

von Eschenbach, Wolfram. Parzival. Ed. Karl Lachmann. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1965.
---. Parzival. Trans. A.T. Hatto. New York: Penguin, 1982.
---. Willehalm. Ed. Werner Schöder. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1989.
---. Willehalm. Trans. Marion E. Gibbs and Sidney M. Johnson. New York: Penguin, 1984.

von Zatzikhoven, Ulrich. Lanzelet. Ed. K.A. Hahn. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1965.

Wapnewski, Peter. Wolframs Parzival Studien zur Reliösitat und Form. Heidelberg: Carl Winter U, 1955.


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