The Grail Quest

(If Parzival asked the Grail King about his health) the land would be healed, the king would be healed, and joy would about – but he doesn’t, because Gurnemanz counselled him not to ask too many questions.  So he holds his peace.  “For that I pity him,” states Wolfram, “and I pity, too, his sweet host, whom divine displeasure does not spare, when a mere question would have set him free.”   Nevertheless, very politely, at the end the king says, “I think it’s bedtime.”  The queen, along with twenty-four attendant maidens, advances, bows to Parzival and his host, takes up the Grail, and leaves the hall.  The ceremony has ended.  The room clears, and the guest is courteously conducted by four maidens to his room, where he is seen to bed with wine and fruits of the kind that grow in Paradise. 

And he sleeps long but has threatening, terrible dreams.  The quest has failed.  For the first time in his life Parzival has suppressed the impulse of his heart in deference to an alien social ideal; his public image as a proper knight.  The baleful impulse of the motivating principle responsible for the wasting of the Waste Land itself has cut off in Parzival an impulse of his nature.  Dharma, “duty,” the last temptation of the Buddha, the force of social opinion, has turned him from his noble course, and thereby has compromised the authenticity of his life.  RG 52

Parzival, because of his failure to ask the Grail King ‘the question’, resolves to find the Castle of the Grail again (which is supposed to never happen).  He and Gawain are ready to leave for different quests and Gawain says, “I commit you to God.”  

Parzival responds, “I despise and hate God.”  He adds, “I have served God and he has not been loyal.”  In other words, Parzival is applying the human, courtly values – the highest values of his time – to God, and this is improper.  But now he rides forth, having renounced the God of his mother, the God of his culture, on adventure, and he’s going to spend five years in the desert of his soul.  The world’s become a desert through him, and he himself has become a desert in quest of regeneration. 

This is the true beginning of the Grail Quest.  Everything up to this point has taken place in the way of our hero’s nature; Parzival’s character has carried him through, but his desire to achieve fame in the world has cut him down at the high point, and he’s lost both his spiritual and his earthly career.  It’s in this condition that he sets forth on his great adventure, while Gawain rides forth on his. 

   For Parzival it is to be an ordeal of five lonely years, as he searches through the forests.  For, like the fairy hills of Ireland, the lake with its two fishermen and the castle of sorrowful knights and ladies lie hidden, though everywhere there is a haunting sense of their presence.  This is the Forest Adventurous, where we meet our adventures when we are ready for them.  The forest brings forth our own world, and here in this attitude of hatred, rejection, ego, and pride, Parzival rides.  And something becomes ready in him during this time.  RG 58

(After meeting his brother Feirefiz, Parcival) Cundrie the Loathly Damsel, riding on her tall horse, appears exactly as before.  She gets off the horse, bows weeping before Parzival, begs for forgiveness for what she told him before, and proclaims him the Grail King.

   The point here is that he has assumed this role not in direct quest but through the integrity of his character, through his loyalties, courage, and single-minded resolution.  Furthermore, this news has been announced to Condwiramurs, who, with their two little sons, Lohengrain and Kardeiz, are on their way.  Cundrie tells Parzival – and now we come to the wonderful, crazy resolution – “You must come to the castle with a male companion.”

   Parzival says, “I will ask Feirefiz.”  Many a Christian cannot get to the Grail Castle, but this Muslim can.  So these two noble men – here’s the matter of character that goes way beyond anything like sectarian divisions – ride with Cundrie to the castle, where they are welcomed.

   And when Parzival sees the Fisher King, Anfortas, he asks the question, “Ocheim, was wirret dier?” (Uncle, what ails thee?) and instantly the king is healed, and Parzival becomes the new Grail King. 

   Consider what is happening here: he has become the Grail King without inheriting the wound.  That is to say, it is possible to be in that position intact and entire.  This is a very optimistic work about the powers of man.  

   Parzival goes to pick Condwiramus, whom he is to meet at the same place where he saw the three red drops in the snow.  On the way he stops off at Trevrizent’s hermitage, and what does Trevrizent say when he hears the new that Parzival has achieved the Grail Castle?   He says, “This is a miracle that you have worked.  Through your own will you have caused the Trinity to change its mind, to change its rules.  Just as through hate you evoked God’s hate, through love you evoke God’s love.”  He is saying, that is, through your own destiny, which is a destiny that never existed before.  RG 79

   In this spirit, then, I will cite the Buddhist legend of the World Savior, Gautama, as a clue to the meaning of the Grail Quest. 

   This princely youth, Gautam Sakyamuni, had achieved Enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree, or the Tree of Awakening (bodhi means “awakening”), which, as the axial tree at the center of the turning world, is equivalent to that in Saint Brendan’s voyage of the Paradise of Birds: there came to him from the four quarters of the earth, the four guardian kings of those quarters, each with a gift of a begging bowl; and those four bowls became fused into a single bowl of stone, which, like the Celtic Grail, or the cauldron of Manannan, was an inexhaustible vessel.  The Buddha came to his realization only after years of trial and seeking, finally coming to the so-called Immovable Spot of the paradisial tree.  We are not to seek this place in the world; we are to seek it in our own will.   It is the place where the will is moved neither by the quest for life nor by the fear of death; the Buddha, seated there, had been approached by the antagonist, the Tempter, as Christ had been, in the desert.  The Tempter, in his character of the Lord of Desire, Kama, displayed before the seated one his three voluptuous daughters (whose names, by the way, were Desire, Fulfillment, and Regrets); but the prince, who had already left behind the delusions of ths senses, was unmoved.  The next temptation was that of the fear of death, the Tempter now in his character of Mara, the lord of Death himself.  But again the prince unattached to ego, was unmoved.  Then finally, in his character of Dharma, lord of the duties of life imposed on one by society, the master of delusion commanded the meditating prince to give up his seat on the Immovable Spot and return to his princely throne.  The one seated there only moved his right hand to touch with his fingertips the earth, and the very goddess of the earth, of the tree, and of the all-enclosing sphere of the sky, with a voice of thunder that resounded from the whole horizon, declared the unmoved and immovable prince to have already so given of himself in compassion to the world that there was in fact no historical person there anymore, and he was eligible for that seat.  With that, the deluding ruler of the world – the lord Kama, of lust; Mara, of the fear of death; and

, of socially imposed duty – was humbled, his power broken, and the prince, that night, achieved the Enlightenment, which he then, for fifty years, made known as the Middle Way of releasing humankind from delusion.   RG 84