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The Story and the Meaning of the Grail King

What are the Keys to Contentment?

When the stories of Parzival, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were initially written during the Middle Ages, there was a great change sweeping the Western World. The power of The Church was being challenged by powerful new ideas as well as the return of ancient ones like those represented in Gnosticism.

A conflict was brewing between the forces of social order and authority (the Church) and the influence of the individual and the direct experience of love and the divine (the Gnostics). The possibility that one could chart one’s own course, marry for love rather than duty, and experience the love of God directly rather than filtered through the Church hierarchy was considered a direct threat to the Church’s authority, and many who espoused these beliefs were branded as heretics, persecuted and killed.

This notion, however, that “the God within us is the one that gives the laws and can change laws . . . and it is within us” is at the heart of attaining contentment. When we follow our own path, we are participating in a heroic, divine activity that manifests the “God within us.” By living authentically, by listening to the divine within us, we make our own rules and serve the divine in the process.

What this essentially means is that we are Co-Creators with the divine. We create our fate, our destiny, our relationship with the divine. When we live authentically, following our own chosen paths, when we manifest our own unique potential and individual nature, we are serving the divine in the most pure sense.

When Parzival, out of compassion and love, heals the Grail King, he himself takes the throne and becomes the Grail King, the guardian of the highest spiritual values of compassion and loyalty. By choosing to live authentically, from the spontaneity of his own heart and soul, Parzival shows us how we might follow our own path with heart, loyalty and compassion, leading to a life of joy, passion and contentment.

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Transcending the Wasteland – Living Inauthentic Lives

Does Your Life Feel Empty and Meaningless?

Early in his illustrious career, Parzival, the greatest knight of King Arthur’s Court, encountered two fishermen in a boat on a lake. Weary from his travels, he inquired as to where he might find lodging for the night; one of the fisherman – the Grail King – invited him into his castle, if he could find it. Doing so, he was feted by the knights and maidens of the Grail Castle, who prepared a great feast in his honor, for it was foretold that the greatest of all knights would come to the Castle and cure the King.

Entering the Great Hall, Parzival was overwhelmed with compassion, seeing that his host, the Grail King, was wounded and in terrible pain, unable to sit, stand or even lie down. Rather than ask what ailed the King, however, Parzival kept quiet, for the rules of what constituted a noble knight prevented him from doing so. The dinner was concluded and in the morning, Parzival departed – and the Castle vanished, the King still ailing!

Suddenly, the great knight found himself cast out into the Wasteland, living by rules imposed upon him rather than by the spontaneity of his own noble nature, which longed to reach out and heal the ailing Grail King out of his deep compassion. Instead, Parzival is cast out into the Wasteland, and for five long years he searches fruitlessly for the Grail Castle and King.

Trudging aimlessly through the Wasteland is a metaphor for living an inauthentic life. Like Parzival, many people feel trapped and empty, their lives devoid of real meaning; they feel like they’re living someone else’s lives, living by someone else’s rules. We haven’t been able to embrace our passion, or even to feel compassion – to experience and understand the pain of others, and ourselves. In the Wasteland, people are living inauthentic lives.

The Key to Transcending the Wasteland is acting spontaneously from your noble heart – living an authentic life that is truly your own. After years of searching, Parzival finally earns another chance to visit the Grail Castle, and this time he doesn’t hesitate to act out of the compassion of his heart: “What ails you, Uncle?” he asks the Grail King, and this simple act – the spontaneous act of a noble, compassionate heart – immediately cures the Grail King, releasing Parzival from the Wasteland. Search your heart for your own authentic and noble desires, for therein lies your escape from the Wasteland.

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Following Your Own Path

Who’s Rules and Expectations do you Live by?

The Knights of the Round Table would leave for an adventure as a group, but each individual knight would enter the forest “at the point that he, himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path.” (from Joseph Campbell’s lecture, In Search of the Holy Grail: The Parzival Legend). “If there is a path, it is someone else’s path, and you are not on an adventure,” Campbell said.

This was a key component of the Grail Legend – if you follow someone else’s path, you wind up going completely astray, you wind up in the Wasteland. For Campbell the part at which the knights enter the forest at their own points “is a wonderful story: that which we intend, that which is the journey, that which is the goal, is the fulfillment of something that never was on the earth before—namely your own potentiality.”

This emphasis upon manifesting your own potential as an individual was revolutionary in the Middle Ages (when the Parzival stories were originally written), and is still key today (as represented in the work of Carl Jung and Individuation). By following one’s own path, you manifest your true potential, you blaze a trail no one has ever done before, and one that no one will ever do again – this is the process of bringing into being the authentic, divine nature deep within every one of us.

The true value of the metaphor of the search for the Holy Grail is the realization that God – the divine, the sacred, the truth – is in your own heart. So, because the divine is within you – and you are a direct part of that divinity – you must follow your own path! There are no rules, no instructions, you can’t get a map because it would be someone else’s.

“Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell says, for therein lies your path, there is where you will manifest your true potential, blaze your own trail, and become the incredible, unique and divine individual you were born to be.

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Loyalty and Compassion

What are some of the Highest Spiritual Values?

One of the most important messages in the story of Parzival (and particularly Richard Wagner’s Opera entitled, “Parsifal”) is the importance of compassion. Wagner’s Opera was influenced by his reading of Arthur Schopenhauer’s work and his understanding of compassion as the only valid basis for morality. It is through compassion for the suffering of other beings that the fool, Parzival, acquires wisdom and becomes a sage.

The metaphysical message of Parzival, based on Schopenhauer’s ideas and having much in common with the Buddhist concept of Samsara (the cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth), is quite beautiful, and requires compassion to truly understand: Stop striving, stop denying the Will, accept that suffering is an inevitable part of life and that desires can never fully be satisfied.

All things in this world are impermanent – meeting inevitably brings a parting, every beginning and ending. This is the nature of life – to deny it is to invite suffering. In the light of wisdom, the darkness of ignorance is lifted. All life is precarious; one must always seek a path of salvation and deliverance, the path of wisdom. We learn the importance of compassion from the suffering caused by our attachment to the impermanent – this is why compassion is one of the highest spiritual values.

Toward the end of the tale of Parzival, the great knight is invited to celebrate with King Arthur and his knights after the knights and ladies of the Grail Castle were rescued; he declines the invitation because of his steadfast loyalty to his wife, Condwiramurs, to whom he decides to return instead. His loyalty is immediately rewarded by the Grail Messenger, who shows him the way back to the Grail Castle and another chance to heal the ailing Grail King, which he does. Loyalty, then, is one of the highest spiritual values because it affirms the power of love; fidelity to love is fidelity to the divine, within you and all around you.

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The Story of Parsifal and the Grail Myth

The story of Parsifal is part of the medieval legend of King Arthur and the Quest for the Holy Grail. The Grail myth dates back to at least the twelfth century in Europe, and was transmitted in various versions, including French (from the poet Chretien de Troyes), English (Le Morte Darther, by Thomas Malory), German (Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version, which became the basis for Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” opera) and others. The Grail myth speaks directly to our psyche, and in particular, as the great Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson notes in his seminal work, “He,” to the development of the psychology of the masculine, in both men and women – and it is as relevant now as it has ever been.

The myth surrounds the wounded Fisher King, Amfortas, the king of the Grail castle. He is in agonizing pain, and the kingdom suffers as a result. The Fisher King wound, in psychological terms, is a common condition for Western Man, where every young man, as Johnson notes, “has naively blundered into something that is too big for him. He proceeds halfway through his masculine development and then drops it as being too hot. Often a certain bitterness arises, because, like the Fisher King, he can neither live with the new consciousness he has touched nor can he entirely drop it.” This wound, however, is crucial for the development of consciousness, for its redemption, through the intercession of Parsifal, is what leads to the complete integration of the Self – it is what leads to a life of self awareness, contentment, passion and authenticity.

The court jester explains that the Fisher King could only be healed through the actions of an innocent fool, who would spontaneously need to ask a specific question. As Johnson again so eloquently explains, “A man must consent to look to a foolish, innocent, adolescent part of himself for his cure. The inner fool is the only one who can touch his Fisher King wound.”

Parsifal defeats the Red Knight in the Grail Myth, from Wolfram von Eschenbauch
Parsifal defeats the Red Knight, from the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbauch

Parsifal’s Story

Enter Parsifal, a name which means “pure fool,” an innocent young man raised by his overly-protective mother in poverty, knowing nothing of his dead father (who himself was a knight), without any direction or schooling. He is dazzled one day by the appearance of a group of knights who visit his village and, to his mother’s dismay, decides with all the bluster of youth to seek them out to become a knight himself. She agrees to let him go, but gives him a homespun garment that he elects to wear for much of his life; this garment, Johnson notes, represents the “Mother Complex” in psychology, and will prove costly to Parsifal in his development.

Parsifal finds and enters Arthur’s Court but is initially ridiculed and expelled; however, legend held that a damsel in Arthur’s Court who had not smiled for years would burst into laughter at the sight of the greatest knight – which she did at the sight of innocent Parsifal. The Court immediately held Parisfal in high regard and Arthur knighted him on the spot.

Parsifal, naive and not burdened with fear or anxiety, seeks out the most fearsome knight of all, the Red Knight, a warrior so fierce he had never been defeated. Parsifal, in his earnest naivete, confronts him and asks him for his horse and armor. Laughing, he agrees, but only if Parsifal can take it. Predictably, Parsifal is knocked to the ground by the powerful knight but, as he fell, Parsifal throws his dagger into the Red Knight’s eye, killing him. This victory, as Robert Johnson surmises, represents the integration of the “shadow side of masculinity, the negative, potentially destructive power . . . [he] must not repress his aggressiveness since he needs the masculine power of his Red Knight shadow to make his way through the mature world.”

The newly empowered knight goes out seeking battle and adventure, rescuing maidens and defeating opponents, but not killing them; any knight Parsifal overcame he instead instructed to join Arthur’s Court and swear allegiance to him.

The First Encounter with the Fisher King

One day along his heroic quest, Parsifal sought lodging, but was told there was no place to stay for miles. He then encountered a man fishing in a boat on a lake, and asks if he knows of any place to stay for the night. The fisherman, the Fisher King, tells him to go down the road a little bit and go the left. Parsifal obliges and suddenly finds himself on the grounds of the Grail Castle, windows gleaming, knights and ladies greeting him, the splendor of which he had never dreamed of in his life.

A great ceremony was about to begin, one which occurred every evening. A great feast and celebration was held where maidens brought out to all assembled the Holy Grail, from which all would partake, immediately granting them whatever they desired – everyone, that is, except for the Fisher King. Because of his agonizing wound, he was unable to drink from the Grail, and his affliction continued to wreak havoc across the kingdom.

During his quest, Parsifal had encountered a mentor, Gournamond, who had instructed him in the ways of knighthood. When encountering the Holy Grail, Gournamond instructed Parsifal to ask an important question, “Whom does the Grail serve?” This was the question that would heal the Grail King’s wound. However, his mother had also told him not to ask too many questions and hers was the advice Parsifal heeded this time in the Great Hall. All assembled knew the prophecy that one day an innocent fool would enter the castle and ask the question that would heal the King – all except Parsifal – and very quickly the ceremony ends, with everyone retiring for the night. The next morning, Parsifal rides out and the Grail Castle disappears.

The Wasteland

This loss tormented Parsifal, and it would take years of grueling, rigorous battles and quests before Parsifal realized that the homespun garment that he wore beneath his armor – the psychological symbol of the Mother Complex – had to be removed before he could partake of the Grail and heal the Fisher King.

Parsifal spends some twenty years earning his way back to the Grail Castle. They are difficult years, however, and he grows in bitterness and disillusionment; these represent the difficult years of middle age, where one begins to question one’s very existence and the choices made. After twenty years of searching in vain for what was lost in his first encounter at the Grail Castle, Parsifal has had his arrogance and pride beaten and humbled. One day, along his latest quest, he is introduced to a forest hermit.

At first, the hermit scolds him for his failures – especially for not asking the question when he first encountered the Fisher King. However, he soon softens, sympathizing with Parsifal, and then invites him to go down the road a little bit and go to the left . . .

Returning to the Grail Castle

Again, Parsifal suddenly finds himself on the grounds of the Grail Castle, this time, however, with twenty long years of earned experience and humility. Again, he finds himself in the midst of the great feast and celebration where maidens brought out the Holy Grail for all to partake.

This time, however, Parsifal asks the question, “Whom does the Grail serve?” The simple act of asking the question immediately heals the Grail King and the entire Castle erupts in celebration! What is the answer to the question? “You, My Lord, the Grail King.” And what exactly does this answer mean? Very simply, we serve something far greater than ourselves. Carl Jung, the great psychologist, would say that by asking this question, one comes to the realization that the Ego now comes into service of the Self.

The goal of life is not merely to attain personal happiness. Rather, it is to serve the Grail – that is, to live a life not of ego but of our most authentic nature, our souls. As Robert A. Johnson so eloquently sums it up,

One can not pursue happiness; if he does he obscures it. If he will proceed with the human task of life, the relocation of the center of gravity of the personality to something greater outside itself,  happiness will be the outcome.”

For a beautiful examination of this myth in much greater detail, please see the book “He: Understanding Masculine Psychology” by Robert A. Johnson, from which all quotes above were derived.