Parsifal, Kundry and the Dance of the Seven Veils

edited and reformatted version of an introductory essay from

the enigma of parsifal

published in 2001 by the
Richard Wagner Society of South Australia Inc.


© Ralph Middenway 2001, 2003, 2006

Parsifal is unique in many ways. But it can be approached like virtually any other opera – like, for instance, The Magic Flute. Most importantly, it obeys the rules of all opera, notably these four:

Opera does not inform.

The programme does that.

Opera depends on the suspension of disbelief.

We know it isn't real but, like children, we make believe it is.

We perceive opera as a pattern of changing emotions.

The libretto and the music it inspires work on our childlike minds.

The opera orchestra never lies.

In Wagner, it tells the whole truth from the start – the details come later.


We experience Parsifal as a vivid dream. It's an extension of the grand composite dream of the Celtic bards, between about 500 and 1200, when Christianity was supplanting the old religion in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany, Spain and pan-Germany.

English-speakers are infatuated with one group of legends that together make up the part of the dream English-speakers call the Legend of King Arthur.

Many think King Arthur is specific to Britain, forgetting that Parsifal and Lohengrin, Tristan, Mark and Isolde belonged also to France and Germany. The Excalibur story may even have started in Tuscany. Parts of the grand Celtic dream were told by Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Mallory and Tennyson.

More recently we've had The Once and Future King – and Monty Python.


A number of things can obscure the dream. I'm reminded of Salome and her seven veils. The only real woman in the opera, Kundry, is also Herodias, Salome's mother, bound to wander the world, like Wotan, or the Flying Dutchman.

Herodias's crime was hubris – she laughed at the head of John the Baptist. Herod had married her, his brother's widow. John complained this was against Jewish law. One night Salome danced for Herod so delightfully he said she could have whatever she wanted. Salome asked her mother, who told her to ask for 'the head of John the Baptist'.

Wagner raised the stakes. He makes Herodias laugh at Jesus – some say 'on the Cross', but the libretto doesn't. Wagner used a late variant of the well-known Wandering Jew myth, in which Ahasuerus meets Jesus on the road to Calvary. In this variant male Ahasuerus becomes or is twinned by female Herodias.


Seven Veils?

They are, of course, what Salome wore when she danced for Herod that time.

A strip-tease act, no less - no wonder this idea has caught people's (well, chaps') imagination over the centuries.

In one of his plays, The Backroom Boys, Australian playwright Alex Buzo incorporates a Dance of the Seven Remington Typewriter Covers.


Whether or not the first veil impedes our dream depends on our willingness to suspend disbelief.

If I pretend I'm a Christian mystic, the Grail makes poetic sense:

The Grail is 'the crystal cup Jesus and His disciples drank from at the Last Supper. Joseph of Arimathea caught in it blood from the spear-wound in His side when He was on the Cross'.

And Kundry is 800 years old.


The second veil is our uncertainty about when and where the opera is set.

The period is roughly ninth century, before the Crusades really got under way.

Monsalvat, the Castle of the Knights of the Grail, is on the north of a mountain; from the south you look over Moorish Spain.

Imagine a castle on a ridge, with a cliff, a wall, a courtyard and a keep.

Imagine a forest of great chestnuts, oaks and other deciduous trees, with a little lake nearby.


The third veil depends on Wagner's success in putting the words together.

Opinions vary (as witness the essays in this book) and although the composer was a pioneer in so many ways, the man was of his time, and modern readers can find his libretto remote.

Hitler found Parsifal a rack for ersatz-Darwinian notions. But read what Wagner wrote; remember the man who put the opening season together was the conductor Hermann Levi, son of a rabbi; and read what Levi said about him. He certainly was no bleeding heart, but maybe he wasn't quite as bad as many suggest.

As a librettist, Wagner knew what he was doing: a lot, perhaps most of the trouble has come from the camp followers and others with axes to grind - not to mention a pride of poseurs.


The fourth veil is the act drop in the theatre.

What happens when it flies out is up to the director. A bad one mucks it up. A good one shares Wagner's dream with modern audiences; it doesn't have to make sense - it's a dream.

The fifth veil is up to the singers.

What's needed ought to be clear, but opinions vary.

The sixth depends on the instrumentalists and the overall acoustic.

What's needed isn't always as obvious as one might suppose: Wagner could not imagine today's orchestral sound.

The seventh veil is the most important.

The musical director is no constable on point duty, but a builder: the composer's score is only a blueprint.


So – the veils cast aside, what's left?


An innocent young man finds who he is and gains the respect of a community.
He defeats their common enemy, goes away, grows up and comes back.
He brings peace to a troubled woman, restores the community's diminished leader and replaces him.



What's next?


We don't know.


It doesn't matter.



It's a good story. It happens. And in many opera plots too. Parsifal is the best of Papageno plus the best of Tamino, minus the love interest – and, perhaps one should add, minus Mozart, plus Wagner.


Wagner told King Ludwig II (von Wittelsbach) the Prelude had three themes: the Love of a self-sacrificing Christ, the Faith needed for redemption, and Hope in response to dismay at the Crucifixion. Nietzsche thought the Prelude the best thing Wagner had written. He also believed, as Aristotle did, that a work of art should be seen as independent of the idea that sparked it. You judge it on its own terms. Poetic truth is not literal truth. The Celtic bards knew that. Composers know too, for we are also bards – although others sing our songs.

The starting points for Parsifal are the Last Supper and the Crucifixion and their reflection in the overall springtime ambience of Good Friday, but Parsifal is a theatre piece. In the last analysis, personal beliefs are essentially irrelevant. The first question afterwards in the bar is not 'Am I closer to Christ?' but 'Did the performance work?'


Maybe you could play Prelude to Act 1 now.


What happens in Parsifal?

Act 1. A forest glade. A road up to the castle on Monsalvat. Mons Silvaticus > Munsalvaesche (Wild Mountain, i.e. covered in natural vegetation). A lake, below somewhere. Gurnemanz, a tough old knight; two young squires asleep under a tree. Daybreak.

People are up and about. It's time for the sick King to bathe in the lake. He is carried in a litter. Two knights come in. Gurnemanz asks, 'How's the King?' No better. Gurnemanz knows there's only one thing can help Amfortas, because he knows how Amfortas was wounded – with the spear that pierced Jesus's side (but there's more to it than that). The orchestra (which cannot lie) plays a Motif suggesting the character Wagner calls 'der reine Tor' – usually translated as 'the Pure Fool'.


The name Parsifal may have had a Celtic origin. Or Chrétien de Troyes may have made it up around 1180 for his Story of the Grail. Some say it means 'pierce the vale' in Old French, some 'having to go all through life's experience', or 'the Persians may fall'. Some say Wagner thought it Persian for 'pure fool'. Who knows?

For me 'Pure Fool' conjures a false image. 'Pure Simpleton' is closer to Wagner's meaning – or better still, 'Innocent'. Here's part of a letter to Hans von Bülow in 1864:
'King Ludwig: You must hear, see, feel this glorious youngster for yourself: Parzifal. He is said to be resolute, strict and most zealous in the business of government. He stands alone, no one influences him and all recognise him as absolutely and veritably king.'

Irrespective of how true to life that was, it's a vivid portrait of the mature Parsifal of Wagner's imagination. Ludwig was an extraordinarily beautiful youth, tall, well-built, fit and vigorous, although intense to a fault. I can't begin to see Wagner's ideal Parzifal as a 'fool' - not as we understand the word today.


The words associated with the leitmotif for 'der reine Tor' – what I call 'the Innocent' go something like this: 'Made wise through pity, the Innocent, wait for him, my [that is, the Grail's] Chosen One'. The others want to know who it can be that Gurnemanz is talking about, but he evades the question.

Just then we hear someone coming. 'She rushes in almost reeling. Her garment is wild and looped up high. She wears a girdle of snakeskins, the ends hanging down. Her black hair falls loosely. Her complexion is a deep red-brown. Her black eyes are piercing, sometimes flashing wildly, more often fixed in a stare like that of the dead.'

She's brought Gurnemanz some ointment from Arabia, for Amfortas. She collapses, bone-weary. Amfortas is carried in. He feels like resting for a while. Amfortas asks for one of the knights, but learns that he has gone looking for another healing herb. Amfortas is worried he will fall into Klingsor's clutches.


According to one version of the story, that of Wolfram von Eschenbach, from early in the 13th century, the King of Sicily had found the knight Klingsor jousting with his wife, and so gelded him. To get even with the rest of humanity he became a master of the black arts. Wagner's Klingsor (a bass) committed some unspecified carnal sin, castrated himself to atone and thereby increase his chance of joining the Knights of the Grail. But by his self-mutilation he automatically disqualified himself, and was excluded. In a fury he turned to black magic, where his having abandoned his sexual potency increased his magical potency.

This echoes the long-lived Phrygian ecstatic cult of Cybele. The analogy is with a priest – a practitioner, a non-Christian might say, of a sort of white magic. Klingsor's renunciation is more emphatic, but requires less day-to-day self-control – a potent novice, after all, becomes a potent priest.


Klingsor's castle faces Moorish Spain, and has specifically Moorish characteristics. Does he suggest Islam? The received truth is NO. One can never prove a negative, but he was a fallen Knight of the Grail, a human Lucifer, so a fallen Christian. Yet he is also the Knights' worst enemy, and they are a crusading order. Guilty by association? One cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt that in the back of his mind Wagner either did or did not think of Klingsor partly in terms of Islam.

Who said opera had to be reasonable? For some Westerners (you may think of a few) the Crusades have never ended. It's easy to build castles in the air. That's how producers work.


Gurnemanz asks Amfortas to try the balsam brought by 'the wild woman'. The King thanks her; but Kundry doesn't want thanks. The knights carry him out on the way to the lake. Two young squires turn on Kundry, calling her 'a beast'. She retorts, 'Aren't the wild beasts holy in the domain of the Grail?'

They believe her Arabian balm will hurt the King. Gurnemanz asks what harm she has ever done to them? She acts for them as a messenger to knights in far countries fighting the heathen.

At the time Parsifal is set, Islam and Christianity were confronting each other along an immense common frontier. When Chrétien and Wolfram were writing their versions of the story, what we call the Crusades were under way.

The squires complain that Kundry hates them. Besides, she is a heathen, and a witch. Gurnemanz says she is under a curse and doing penance. He tells her story, as much as he knows.


While building the Castle, Titurel (Amfortas's father and founder of the Order) had found her comatose in a thicket. The orchestra tells us (we'll work it out later): it was Klingsor's magic that put her there. Gurnemanz had found her in a thicket too, the day Amfortas lost the Spear. The orchestra tells us Klingsor used Kundry to get it – we don't understand. Nor does Gurnemanz.

Gurnemanz had found Amfortas in the arms of an unknown enchantress. Amfortas cried out. Klingsor had the Spear. Amfortas had a dreadful wound in his side. Gurnemanz brought him home. A couple of naive young squires, back from the lake, say the bath and Kundry's ointment have soothed Amfortas's pain. Gurnemanz fills them in as to the beginning of the Order. Titurel had a vision. Angels brought him the Grail, and Spear. Titurel built the Castle to house these sacred relics, and established an Order to purify the world through the miraculous powers of the Grail. Klingsor is their mortal enemy.

Klingsor is an anti-Prospero. His slave, Kundry, is more than a female Caliban. Her shape-shifting, from Crone to Love-Goddess to surrogate Mother, is analogous with that of Ariel, but Klingsor engineers it and there is no hint of Ariel's grudging affection for his master.

Klingsor had turned the dry hills to the south into 'magic gardens, with women rich in all beguilements'.

This suggests the Islamic martyr's paradise, flowers, palm trees waving gently in the balmy breeze, fountains, and half a harem per man.

Now we first hear the decidedly non-Arabic music for the magic gardens, in the form of the Flower Maidens' song in the second act.

The Flower Maidens, like the spirits Ariel conjures up, entice travellers into a trap – but theirs is a honey trap. Any knight blundering into the gardens is out of the game.


Old Titurel had retired in favour of his son Amfortas, who had set out to defeat Klingsor and clean the place up.

We know the result. With the Spear, Klingsor has disabled the Order. He wants the miracle-working Grail. Kundry is listening to all this, silent but agitated. In a vigil, in the sanctuary, Amfortas had prayed for a sign from heaven. The Grail had glowed, and he had heard a voice. 'Made wise through pity, the Innocent – wait for him, my Chosen One'.

There's a great commotion. A wild swan flies on, crashes and dies. Everyone is horrified. There's an arrow in its breast. A young lad is hauled in, carrying bow and arrows. Yes, he shot the swan. So what?


The swan, in one sense, represents Amfortas.

Wagner knew that for Indo-Europeans, the swan has long been one of the royal (sacred) birds. All the swans on the Thames belong to the Queen (by divine right); some say a wounded swan inspired Prince Siddartha Gotama of Sakya to teach humankind compassion, which he did as Sakyamuni, the Buddha.

But there's more to the swan than that. In Mycenæan Greece it was sacred to the Mother, in Achæan Greece to Aphrodite, in Dorian Greece to Apollo.

In Celtic myth it was sacred to Brigit, the once all-powerful Goddess whose status gradually fell to Muse and then to Christian Saint; but Irish and Scottish mystics identified Brigit with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary was and still is the spiritual focus also for many Bavarians.


The swan became a sort of totem bird of the extended ruling Wittelsbach family after Ludwig's father bought the long-derelict ruins of Schloß Schwangau (Swan County Castle) in Oberbayern (now the site of Schloß Neuschwanstein, (New Swan Stone) and Schloß Hohenschwangau (High Swan County Castle), still their country house). It was originally built during the 12th Century by the Knights of Schwangau. My guess, probably unprovable, is that this Order served in some measure as a real-life model for the Bavarian Wolfram's Knights of the Grail, and Schloß Schwangau for their castle.

In Lohengrin, pagan Ortrud has turned Gottfried into a swan, who draws the Grail Knight's boat; Lohengrin undoes the spell by means of prayer.

These ideas were explored further in a 2002 lecture to the Wagner Society – Why a Swan?
(q.v. - link at end of this essay)


The shooting causes uproar. Gurnemanz explains this is a sanctuary, a place where all life is sacred. The swan had been looking for his mate. 'And you shot him.' Something gets through to the boy. He breaks the bow, throws away the arrows, and seems to feel some sort of shame.

Gurnemanz quizzes him.

'Why did you do it?' 'I didn't know it was wrong.'
'Where are you from?' 'I don't know.'
'Who is your father?' 'I don't know.'
'Who sent you here?' 'I don't know.'
'What's your name?' 'I can't remember.'

Gurnemanz isn't impressed. 'What sort of a halfwit is this?'


But Gurnemanz doesn't give up. When he, Parsifal and Kundry are by themselves again, he tries the lad once more.

'Do you know anything?' 'I know about my mother, Herzeleide. We lived in the meadows. I made my bow to scare the eagles.'

'But you seem to be of noble birth. Why didn't your mother teach you to use proper weapons?'

Real men used lances and swords.

Parsifal doesn't know. But Kundry does.


His father had been a knight called Gamuret, killed in battle. His protective mother reared him in seclusion, making sure he never took to arms.

Parsifal starts remembering: Some knights. Riding. Splendid horses. He had run after them but couldn't keep up. He had wandered around for a long while, keeping robbers, giants and wild beasts at bay with his bow.

'That's right', says Kundry. 'Everyone was afraid of him!' 'Who's afraid of me?' 'The wicked'. 'Were they wicked? Then who is good?' Gurnemanz replies: 'Your mother. And now she is pining for you.'

Kundry interrupts. 'Not any more – I saw her, dying, as I rode by. She sent you a greeting.' 'It's a lie!' Parsifal grabs her.


Gurnemanz is annoyed. Parsifal faints – first the swan, now his mother. Kundry sprinkles him with water and gives him a drink. Gurnemanz says she's kind: the Grail protects those who return good for evil. 'I never do good!' she says. She drags herself towards a thicket. She would like to sleep forever, but is afraid of sleep because of the dreams.

Amfortas is carried back from the lake to the castle. Gurnemanz thinks there is something unusual about Parsifal. He decides to take him in to the castle too. 'If you are pure, the Grail will give you food and drink.' 'Who is the Grail?' 'It's hard to say…'

The wood disappears, a gate opens in the rock, they pass through and we follow them up the hill. We hear the Transformation Music, first bells pealing out from the castle, then leitmotifs representing the Grail, Faith, Amfortas's Repentance, and the Love Feast.


You might like to play the Transformation Music now…


Gurnemanz and Parsifal are in a great hall. Light comes from a huge dome overhead. Parsifal is awe-struck. Gurnemanz watches for any sign of grace. The knights enter in procession to places at two long tables, singing an invocation to the Eucharist. A boys' choir off-stage in a gallery joins in. Four squires carry a shrine in a purple-red cover, containing the Grail. Amfortas is carried in, to a couch upstage centre. The squires put the shrine on a table in front of it. Everyone is settled. The silence that follows is broken by the voice of old Titurel.

Now we come to the crux of the matter: Titurel hasn't seen the Grail since Amfortas fell from grace. Amfortas has been so overcome by guilt that he thinks himself too contaminated to unveil it. As only the King has the mana, the spiritual force, this has meant general excommunication. Unless Amfortas gets his act together, this stalemate will continue until someone turns up with enough mana to replace Amfortas, or get the Spear back, or defeat Klingsor, or all of the above.


Titurel wants to see the Grail again. Otherwise he will die. Amfortas wants him to take back the throne. Titurel says he's too old for the job. He and the others want Amfortas to stop playing the martyr, uncover the Grail and get on with life. But Amfortas is too far gone for now: 'Grievous is my legacy; I, the only sinner among the brethren, to minister the holy relic and pray its blessing on these pure ones!' Parsifal presses his hand to his heart and holds it there. His destiny calls. He doesn't understand yet, but this pity will eventually lead him to understand the sorrows of life and he will grow wise. Amfortas collapses.

The boys offstage sing the leitmotif of the Innocent Parsifal. Then comes that of the Grail as Amfortas raises himself from his couch. The squires unveil the golden shrine and take out the crystal chalice. They put it in front of Amfortas. He bows in prayer as offstage voices sing the usual invitation to take bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus.


The hall has become dark. A shaft of light falls on the Grail. It glows a deep (royal) purple. Amfortas, transfigured, lifts the Grail and consecrates the bread and wine: the knights, on their knees, raise their eyes to the Chalice. Titurel is ecstatic. Amfortas sets the Grail down. The squires replace it in the shrine and cover it. The purple glow fades and darkness gradually gives way to full daylight.

The Eucharist is served. Gurnemanz offers Parsifal a seat next to him but he's awe-struck. Amfortas has not taken communion for the obvious reasons. And now a crisis: his wound has broken out again. Squires carry him out. The knights follow.


When everyone has gone, Gurnemanz shakes Parsifal by the arm. 'Why are you just standing there? Don't you understand what you've just seen?' Parsifal is speechless. Gurnemanz is fed up. 'You're a fool! Go away! And leave our swans alone!' He opens a side door, pushes him out, shuts the door and leaves.

But the music cannot lie.

A single voice from the dome sings the leitmotif of the Innocent Parsifal. Other voices join in with a benediction, the bells peal quietly, and the curtain falls.


Act 2 – Prelude


Act 2: The Prelude represents the hateful Klingsor, and tells us Kundry is his agent – willing or not, we don't know. The curtain rises. We're in a dark tower of Klingsor's castle, with magical gear all over the place. Klingsor is looking into a magical mirror, a mediæval closed-circuit surveillance system. Parsifal is coming. He must neutralise this potential threat. Klingsor had used Kundry as a honey trap for Amfortas. Now for the boy.

He lights some incense and magicks a dazed Kundry out of nowhere. Kundry wakes with a great shriek: Not all this again! Klingsor quizzes her. Where's she been? Over the mountain? Why did she run away? She is tongue-tied. But yes, she was with the Order, repenting her past. He scoffs. Kundry will seduce them all. He will neutralise them with the Spear and take the Grail.


Klingsor is also a sort of Alberich. He's foresworn physical love and gained power. Alberich stole the Rhinegold to make the Helm of Invisibility and the Ring of Power. Klingsor stole the Spear of Invincibility and intends to steal the Grail of Power. But the one coming now is most dangerous because most Innocent. Despite Klingsor's self-castration he's still the rapacious man he was before he was flung out of the Order – the combination of impotence and rapacity is not a nice one.

Kundry hates being used, but she can't do anything about it. She laments his power over her, and her seduction of the weak Amfortas. She would like to sleep forever and be done with mischief-making. She protests hysterically when Klingsor tells her she is to seduce Parsifal. Klingsor sounds his horn. Offstage, his slaves, some of them former knights, attack Parsifal, who is, however, more than a match for them. Klingsor laughs – he enjoys a nice bit of carnage.

We know it's Parsifal – the orchestra tells us.


Time to move. The tower disappears, and Klingsor with it. The stage is a magic garden. Tropical vegetation, luxuriant flowers. At the back, the battlements of the ramparts, flanked by projecting portions of the castle, in a rich Arabian style, with terraces.

Parsifal is standing on a rampart, looking at the garden below. It's wonderful! Beautiful young women run in from all sides, wearing a few veils over nothing in particular. They've heard the sounds of fighting. What do they see? A splendid young man butchering their lovers. After a while they invite him to join in their games, for which they slip into some more comfortable floral arrangements.


How do the Flower Maidens get over the loss of their lovers so quickly?

These are but spirits and are to melt into air, into thin air - oriental spirits, like houris in a Muslim martyr's Paradise.

They cluster around, sing, caress him, promise delights, bicker as to who gets him first. But the naïf pushes them off. Then Kundry calls his name – he is astonished. Parsifal! That's it! Once in a dream his mother had called him by that name.


The Music of the Flower Maidens


The houris are frightened of Kundry. She pulls rank. As they leave, they farewell the innocent boy.
Kundry, a young, enticing woman, dressed for the harem, lying on a couch of flowers, calls him:

'Parsifal! Fal-parsi, Pure Fool!'

That's what his father Gamuret, dying in a foreign land, had named him, before he was born. She tells his life story – that's why she was waiting. Herzeleide had loved him too well. Whenever he wandered away she was on edge until he came home. One day he didn't. She pined away and died.

Parsifal realises what he has done. He is overcome with shame. Kundry says grieving love for the dead woman can lead to the consoling love of a live one – what Gamuret felt for Herzeleide. A mother wishes for her son not only her kiss but a lover's. Kundry suits the action to the word.

But the orchestra tells us there's black magic afoot.


The brave Innocent can only attain wisdom through suffering with and pity for others. Suddenly he understands Amfortas. The guardian of the Grail, sworn to purity, had succumbed to the honey trap. The Grail is tainted. It's up to him to put things right, somehow. Again Kundry offers release, but her mood is changing.

Parsifal feels what Amfortas felt and doesn't like it. He pushes her away. Kundry changes again. He can feel compassion for Amfortas – why not for her? She has been waiting for someone like him since the first Good Friday when she had mocked Jesus on the road. In her endless journey to nowhere, she has often recalled the loving, forgiving look on Jesus's face, though she has led many men away from him. Parsifal could purify her in his embrace.


Parsifal says that won't work. To gain peace she must give up carnality. She changes again. Her kiss has unlocked his innate wisdom. She could teach him what it is to be a god, in her arms. She doesn't care what happens as long as she can enjoy him first. Parsifal isn't having any: she can show him the way to Amfortas. As far as she's concerned, Amfortas can go to hell.

'Who wounded him?' 'The same man that I can call up to put you out of the way if you keep on about Amfortas!'
And once more she tries to embrace him.


Kundry & Parsifal – The Kiss


Parsifal pushes Kundry off again. This is the last straw. She calls Klingsor. For a parting shot she curses his prospective journey back to the castle and to Amfortas. Klingsor appears above. This is the moment he's been waiting for. He hurls the Spear at Parsifal. It hangs in midair, over Parsifal's head!

Parsifal grabs it. 'The Spear will close the wound it made, and it will put an end to your evil make-believe.' He makes the sign of the Cross with the Spear. The castle collapses, the garden withers. That's the end of Klingsor. Kundry falls to the ground. Parsifal leaves, 'You'll know where to find me.' The orchestra portrays Kundry's desolation. The curtain falls.


Act 3: Parsifal's long search for Amfortas and the Grail has begun. He'll find it, but he has to earn the right first. The Grail will fetch him back when he's ready. The orchestral prelude to the third act foreshadows music of revolutionary subtlety. It covers Parsifal's years-long journey back to the Grail. He's wandered, fought, survived difficulties and self-doubt. Pity for the tragic Amfortas urges him on. He can, must, will heal Amfortas with the Spear. Nothing else, no-one else can do it. Parsifal is no longer an Innocent. But the price has been heavy, not only for him, but for the Order as well.


Curtain. Early morning. Near the Castle. Springtime flowers, mountain meadows. A forest. A rocky spur. A spring. Gurnemanz, very old, comes out of a hermit's hut. He has heard someone groaning. Kundry is nearby, and her sleeping memory of Klingsor is the cause of her nightmare. Gurnemanz finds her in a thicket and carries her out.

She wakes with a cry. She stares, then assumes her usual role of serving-maid. There's not much to do. The Order is in decline. The Grail is denied them, and with it their normal food. Kundry has changed too – she seems fully awake in body and soul. Gurnemanz puts it down to its being Good Friday. She takes a pitcher to fill at the spring. She sees someone come out of the forest, and tells Gurnemanz.

The orchestra tells us it's Parsifal.

He is in black armour with a closed helmet, the Spear in his hand. He walks as in a dream.


Gurnemanz offers hospitality. Parsifal shakes his head wearily. Gurnemanz chides him. He is on holy ground. Shield, spear and closed visor are inappropriate, especially today. Doesn't he know what day it is? Parsifal shakes his head. Surely he must know about Good Friday? Parsifal thrusts the Spear into the ground, puts sword and shield beside it, opens his visor, takes off his helmet and puts it with the weapons: then he kneels by the Spear to pray.

Gurnemanz is astonished. 'Surely this is the Fool I drove away?' Kundry doesn't reply. Then he recognises the Spear and he praises the Holy Day for what it has brought. He is ecstatic.


Parsifal gets up, looks around, and recognises Gurnemanz. He tells of his troubled journey. At last he has managed to bring the Spear undamaged back to the Grail. Gurnemanz says that after Parsifal's memorable visit, the King's condition became worse. He refused to perform his holy office, keeping the Grail in its shrine, hoping to die without it. They eat common food and their strength is gone. There are no more crusading calls. Gurnemanz has become a hermit and waits for death. They barely exist. Without the Grail, Titurel sickened and died. Parsifal is desolate. He feels a burden of guilt (unreasonably – as if reason had anything to do with it) and comes close to fainting. Gurnemanz supports him. Kundry sprinkles him with water.

The orchestra tells us Kundry is content to leave her fate in his hands.


Gurnemanz tells Kundry that only water from the holy spring is good enough for Parsifal. He looks to Parsifal to be the new King. If he is pure, the sacred stream will wash away the dust of his long wanderings. They lead Parsifal to the spring. Kundry undoes his greaves; Gurnemanz removes his breastplate and says they should go to the castle for Titurel's funeral. And the Grail will be unveiled.

Gurnemanz takes water from the spring and sprinkles Parsifal's head to wash away his cares. Kundry bathes his feet, anoints them with oil, then dries them with her hair. Parsifal takes her phial and gives it to Gurnemanz, who anoints him, pouring it over his head, blessing him.

The brass play Parsifal's leitmotif.


Parsifal takes water from the spring and sprinkles it on Kundry's head, baptising her. She weeps. He looks around. Everything is bright in the morning light. Parsifal has never seen it so beautiful. Gurnemanz talks of Good Friday's magic, the grateful earth not weeping for the Saviour's suffering, but rejoicing at its own rebirth through it.

This is not just good Christian theology – it's about the ageless ritual of the king sacrificed at the spring equinox for the common good, for a good harvest next autumn.


Good Friday Music


Parsifal kisses Kundry's forehead. A peal of bells. Midday. The new Grail King is to accept his heritage. Gurnemanz brings his mantle out of the hut and drapes it over Parsifal's shoulders. Parsifal gets the Spear. They go to the Castle.

At last we're in the great hall, without the communion tables. The light is dim. Two processions come in, one carrying Titurel's coffin, the other Amfortas, preceded by the Grail. They are restive: if only Amfortas can screw up his courage one last time… Amfortas raises himself and laments the suffering he has brought on them all.

Amfortas bids farewell to the father who died through his dereliction. He prays his father may intercede for him. He prays the Order may come to life again. He prays for his own death. The knights call on him to 'Uncover the Grail!' But he tears open his wound and tells them to 'slay the sinner and put an end to his woe!' He's delirious.


The Knights in disarray.


Parsifal, Gurnemanz and Kundry have come in. Parsifal touches Amfortas's side with the point of the Spear. Amfortas is transformed. Parsifal assumes the holy office. He goes to centre stage, holding the Spear high. He tells the squires to open the shrine. They do so. Parsifal takes the Grail from the shrine and prays before it. The chalice glows as darkness descends.

Everyone sings. A ray of light falls on the Grail, which glows brightly. A white dove hovers over Parsifal.

The dove, the heraldic device of the Knights of the Grail, suggests the Holy Spirit. Spiritus Sanctus is masculine in Latin – in German, Heiliger Geist. But it is feminine in Hebrew and in Greek, hinting at Mary. And for millennia the dove, like the swan, was sacred to the Mother.


Kundry collapses. Peace at last, her part played, her torment at an end, her last look on Parsifal. Amfortas and Gurnemanz kneel before the new King. Parsifal stands showing the Grail from side to side in blessing. The curtain falls.





Further reading: Other essays in the book outline its Anglo-Celtic, French and German origins. They in turn point the way to more books. Along with some of the other essayists, I found Lucy Beckett's Parsifal (1981, CUP) thought-provoking. There are Web links for many legendary names in the book.

There are also some pre-Classical, Classical, Jewish and early Christian sources to consider – Leda, Aphrodite, Lucifer, Paul and so on. If you feel like an exhilarating ride through the religious mælstrom of Europe and Asia Minor over the last four or five millennia, you could try Robert Graves's brilliantly imaginative The White Goddess (1961, faber & faber). Written over fifty years ago, it has to some extent been overtaken by more recent work, and many of his theses are in any case unprovable. But some aspects of Parsifal and the other Arthurian legends – for example, Kundry, the Flower Maidens, the Spear, the Wound, the Swan, the Dove; Arthur's visit to Annwm for the Cauldron, his birth, death and long-expected second coming – and also of The Ring cycle make a lot more sense in the light of Graves's poetic answer to the question:

What is this cycle of life and death and rebirth all about?

Why a Swan? >