24 Jan The story of Parzival – Chapter 5 – Anfortas
Anfortas the fisher king
Parzival ventured homeward, but erratically, with no one to guide him right. One evening he came to a lake where he saw, at some distance, a man arrayed in a hat with peacock feathers seated in a boat, quietly fishing. When he inquired about lodgings for the night, the angler directed him to a nearby castle with moat and drawbridge, the only place around. As it happened, the angler was lord of that very castle.
Parzival was welcomed by knights young and old, and tended graciously by servants who took away his armor and arms. A page offered him a cloak of gold of Araby, a ceremonial garment, saying it was a loan from the princess Repanse de Schoie. In the inner hall of the castle Parzival found a large company seated on a hundred couches with many sumptuous quilts. Fragrant aloes burned in the chimneys. The lord of that place, the angler he had met, was called Anfortas, the son of Titurel (grandfather of his mother, though Parzival knew it not – not yet). He was seated in a hammock near a huge fire, and, to Parzival´s surprise, he looked more dead than alive. Clearly the old man was ailing, and needed to be wrapped in sables to stay warm. He invited Parzival to sit close by his side.
Now a sad spectacle came to pass. Under the gaze of grave-faced knights, a page ran into the hall, bearing the Bleeding Lance, and the whole company set to weeping and wailing. But somehow the Lance assuaged the very anguish it aroused.
Next, through an iron door at the far end of the hall, came a procession of flaxen-haired maidens in scarlet gowns, their heads bedecked with flowers, each bearing a golden candelabra; then four ladies with ivory trestles to be set before the ailing king; and then – more wonders! – four ladies with a glorious slab of garnet-hyacinth, cut thin to make a table-top. The eight ladies wore robes of brilliant green, ample in length and girded at the waist with narrow silken bands. Other maidens, making eighteen in all, brought the serving ware to set this glorious table. And after them all came the princess, Repanse de Schoie, attired in rich brocade, her face radiant as the sunrise. Upon a green platter she bore a paradisal thing called ‘the Gral.’ Lights played around the Gral from six slender vials with balsam burning. The princess bowed to the maidens with the vials, and set the Gral before the wounded king.
Parzival gazed dumbfounded at all of this, thinking it so odd that he wore the cloak of the princess who bore the Gral.
Now the entire company gathered to the table, attended by many pages and servants, and the Gral served forth wondrous repast to them all, dishes warm and cold, new and old, a boundless feast to be consumed from the magic cornucopia. And then, after the meal, whichever liquor the guests desired welled forth from the same source. Parzival witnessed all this in wonderment, but true to the dictates of good breeding, he refrained from asking any questions about what he beheld. While he was musing, a page brought him a sword with a ruby on its hilt, but even then, though prompted, the hero asked no question.
Soon the feasting was done, the ladies performed their services in reverse order, and the company dispersed. Then it was time for Parzival to retire to his chambers. He slept a while and awoke drenched in sweat. Beside him was his armor and two swords, but no one was around, no page or maiden of the court. Siezed by fury and confusion, he ran through the halls of the castle, but all was deserted except for one page hidden behind a curtain. Damn you, the page cried out, for you did not ask the Question. Parzival was stunned, but when he called back, the page went away as if walking in his sleep, and slammed the palace gate.
Outside, Parzival could find no trace of the departed company, or any trace he found grew fainter as he followed it. After some futile searching, he heard the voice of a woman lamenting. She lay in the grass beside a dead knight who was embalmed. At first Parzival did not recognize his cousin on his mother´s side, Sigune, whom he had met before. When he attempted to recount his perplexity to her, concerning all that had happened in the castle with the showing of the Gral, she countered in a more perplexing way, and spoke in riddling terms. Would you deceive those who trust you?, she asked. There cannot have been such a place, or if there is, it cannot be found by seeking – though many try. Someone who is meant to find it will do so in an unwitting way. Such a place is Wild Mountain, the castle in the wilderness. It is the realm of Anfortas, King of the Gral. His brother Trevrizent lives in poverty and seclusion in a hermit´s cell, somewhere nearby. The Gral King suffers a grievous wound that will not heal, yet he cannot die from it, either… But you are Parzival, she continued, and you must know all about this. Recount to me the wonders you beheld at the showing of the Gral. Tell me, most of all, that the agony of the king has been ended.
How did you recognize me? – Parzival asked. Sigune replied that they had met before and reminded him of their family connections: his mother was her aunt. They were all relatives of the Gral Family, it seemed. He did not recognize her because she had shorn her hair to lament the death of her beloved knight. Sigune told her cousin that the sword he carried, given to him at Wild Mountain, was a magical weapon, but she feared that he had left the magic of it behind! You missed the greatest treasure in the world, she said, because you did not ask the Question. For this you will be considered a dishonorable person, a man accursed.
Devastated to hear that he could never make amends for his ignorance at Wild Mountain, Parzival turned away and departed.