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In the annals of valor, courtesy and courtly love, Christians and Moslems figure as friends as often as foes. Harun ar-Rashid and Charlemagne might have been pillars of competing faiths, but it pleased the Caliph to send the Emperor the gift of a white elephant. For all his paradoxical fame as a hero of the Reconquista, it was in the service of a Moslem king that Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar earned the sobriquet El Cid. Saladin and Richard I were best of enemies, so mutually attuned in chivalry that when the Sultan saw Cœur de Lion unhorsed in the Battle of Jaffa, he quickly dispatched a pair of worthy steeds.
In the enchanted universe of medieval romance, knights-errant range freely between Christendom and Dar al-Islam. The paynim Palomydes pursues the Questing Beast through Albion, joins the company of the Round Table, and vies with Tristan for the affection of La Belle Isold. Cousin paladins Rinaldo and Orlando fall under the spell of Angelica, a Moslem princess of Cathay, while Rinaldo’s sister Bradamante plights herself to the African knight Ruggiero. The pious Tancred takes up the cross against the Saracens only to have his heart conquered by one of their warrior damsels.
Not only do heroes and heroines cross borders in the romances, sometimes the romances themselves do. Echoes of the old Persian epic Vis and Raminresound distinctly in Tristan and Iseult. Cervantes claimed that he learned Don Quixote’s history from an Arabic manuscript penned by a certain Cide Hamete Benengeli. And then there is Parzival. In Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach rewrote Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished Grail romance Perceval with dazzling flair. But he did more: he introduced a hidden story that places the quest for the Grail in a new and different light. Wolfram’s source was a Provençal poet named Kyot. Kyot in turn derived the tale from a manuscript he found cast aside in Toledo, the work of a Moorish astrologer known as Flegetanis. From Kyot and Flegetanis, Wolfram learned of Parzival’s Moslem half-brother Feirefiz, and how the two brothers’ reconciliation led to the attainment of the Grail. In the wake of the failed Fourth Crusade, the discovery of the Grail hero’s tie of blood and destiny with a Saracen was a momentous revelation.
Wolfram begins his epic with the story of Sir Gahmuret, the younger son of King Gandin of Anjou. When the King dies, Gahmuret ventures abroad to seek his fortune. Intent on entering the service of the mightiest of rulers, he makes his way to Baghdad and accepts a commission from the Caliph. A string of exploits leads him eventually to Patelamunt, the capital the African kingdom of Zazamanc, where he finds the Queen besieged by invaders. Queen Belacane is black and beautiful and wears a massive ruby for a crown. She is not Christian, but Gahmuret regards her innocence as a natural baptism. Taking up her cause, the Angevin prince defeats the attackers, winning in the end the Queen’s hand and the kingship of both Zazamanc and Azagouc.
Despite his love for Belacane, who is soon with child, Gahmuret becomes restless and craves adventure. Slipping out in the night, he bids his wife farewell in a letter in which he entreats her to inform their expected son of his Angevin lineage. He does not return, and Belacane dies of sorrow.
Gahmuret’s peregrinations take him to Waleis, where he marries again. His second wife is Queen Herzeloyde, granddaughter of the Grail King Titurel. Herzeloyde conceives a child, but learning that the Caliph is under siege, Gahmuret races off to his defense. In the battle for Baghdad, Gahmuret loses his life and is mourned by the Caliph as a Christian whose death is “a grief to Saracens.” Shattered, Herzeloyde withdraws to the forest and raises her son Parzival in ignorance of chivalry.
As Parzival reaches the threshold of manhood he becomes aware of the existence of knights and sets out to join their ranks. In the adventures that follow he learns of his ancestry, undergoes knightly training, rescues and marries a maiden named Condwiramurs, and is admitted to the Round Table. At the enchanted castle Munsalvaesche, Parzival is shown the Grail, the “perfection of Paradise, both root and branch,” but fails to ask the necessary question and loses the chance to heal its guardian, the Fisher King Anfortas, and thereby to heal the kingdom of Terre de Salvaesche. For the next four and a half years, Parzival wanders in anguish in search of a second chance.At last, a fateful encounter opens the way. Parzival happens across a magnificently arrayed Saracen in a forest glade and at once the two knights fall into combat. The fighters prove evenly matched as they leap and thrust, their swords whooshing and clanging. Finally Parzival delivers a crashing blow to the Saracen’s helmet and his sword breaks in pieces. Now the stranger shows his quality. Rather than pressing his advantage, he offers a truce, and the two knights sit down on the grassy sward. The Saracen baffles Parzival by introducing himself as Feirefiz the Angevin, but the mystery is solved when he removes his helmet and reveals his parti-colored complexion, “like a parchment with writing all over it, black and white all mixed up.” At once Parzival perceives that this is his father’s elder son.
The two brothers are overwhelmed with joy at their meeting, though Feirefiz is grieved to learn of the death of their father, whom he had come in search of. Together they make their way to King Arthur’s court, where Feirefiz is received with honor and invited to the Round Table. In the midst of the ensuing celebrations, the sorceress Cundrie arrives and announces that Parzival is to become the Lord of the Grail.
Parzival and Feirefiz ride with Cundrie to Munsalvaesche. On arrival, Templars greet them and escort them to the presence of the ailing king Anfortas. This time Parzival asks the right question: Uncle, what is it that troubles you? Anfortas immediately regains his health, and Parzival is acclaimed the new Grail King. The Grail is brought out in a radiant and sumptuous procession, and Feirefiz falls in love with its bearer, the maiden queen Repanse de Schoye. Feirefiz accepts baptism—here we may justifiably suspect Kyot or Wolfram of wishful embroidery—and with the blessings of Anfortas and Parzival, he and Repanse de Schoye are married and depart together for the East. In India a son is born to them. His name is John—Prester John.
In Parzival creed matters, but deeds matter more. The chivalric code of honor transcends religious confession and unites Christians and Saracens in a commonwealth of courtesy and conscience. Though divided by belief, Parzival and Feirefiz are brothers in blood as well as spirit, as Wolfram makes clear: “these pure men without flaw each bore the heart of the other, and in their strangeness to each other they were still intimate enough.”
It was a stroke of immense good fortune that Kyot chanced to salvage Flegetanis’ manuscript from a heap of refuse. How many scrolls and codices, brimming with weighty lore, have been left to molder away or burn to cinders? How much of the wisdom of the ages has vanished into the hungry mouths of insects?
Sometimes lost books reappear. The book you hold in your hands, for example. Wolfram knew nothing of it, though it would have greatly intrigued him. Flegetanis knew it only by report. This little known treatise is Queen Belacane’s testament to Feirefiz. As long as he lived, Feirefiz guarded it as his most prized possession. Prester John inherited it and bequeathed it to his descendants. In time it was lost to fire, so that only its memory remained, until that too faded and was forgotten.
Now it has reappeared. Kindly do not press me for an explanation. Suffice it to say that no word that has ever been written is truly lost—if one knows where to find it. Wa Allahu a‘lam.
(From the introduction by the author.)