Racism and sexism in three parallel medieval romances – ‘Peredur’, ‘Perceval’ and ‘Parzival’

Introduction

The Welsh Peredur (written down in the 14th century but of earlier composition), the French Perceval (11th century, by Chrétien de Troyes), and the German Parzival (circa 1200, by Wolfram von Eschenbach) – each can be called a “bildungsroman”, insofar as it traces the education, development and maturing of a young protagonist.

(Peredur starts very well, but the ending as we have it is confused; Perceval is unfinished; Parzival is very sophisticated.)

I wish to discuss two episodes about the hero, before he has gone out into the wider world, from the rural, isolated spot where his widowed mother is keeping him.

The lad and the knights

Early on, then, the young man suddenly comes across a posse of Arthurian knights.  The knights ask the hero for directions, and he asks them about their equipment. So their priorities are different.

(1) In the anonymous Welsh Peredur, when the eponymous hero meets three Arthurian knights, his questions are answered readily:

‘Say, friend,’ said Owein, has thou seen a knight go hereby today or yesterday?’  ‘I know not,’ he replied, ‘what a knight is.’  ‘Such a thing as I am,’ said Owein.  ‘Wert thou to tell me that which I would ask of thee, I in turn would tell thee that which thou dost ask.’  ‘I will, gladly,’ said Owein.’

[Peredur, tr G Jones & T Jones, p 184; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 118f]

(2) In the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, however, some of the five knights (passing by) treat the hero differently, when he asks questions, and they complain that he is holding them up.  They comment on Perceval unfavourably:

“So help me God,” says their chief, “he’s a real ignoramus….” – “You may be perfectly certain, my lord, that the Welsh are by nature more stupid than grazing beasts; and this is one is just like a beast.”

[Perceval, tr D D R Owen, page 377]

Has the writer picked up discriminatory attitudes from the Norman French who were interacting with the Welsh in Britain at the time?

(3) Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (based here upon Perceval) reproduces this scenario, with variations.  Here, the hero delays four passer-by knights with his questions: three become impatient (while their leader is more sympathetic):

The foremost lost his temper at the sight of the boy in mid-path.  ‘This stupid Waleis [Welshman] is slowing us down.’  (The Waleis, I must tell you, share the same distinction as the Bavarians, but are even denser than Bavarian folk…)

[Parzival, tr A T Hatto, Book 3, p 72]

The lad and the maiden in the tent

The hero’s first encounter with a stranger, on his way to Arthur’s court, happens to be with a lady.  (Note that the hero recalls his mother’s advice and applies it, or misapplies it, here.)  The main thread of the three parallel stories is this: the hero enters a tent (or pavilion) and finds there a beautiful lady; he helps himself to food and drink, takes a ring from her finger, and kisses her.  But the details vary a lot.  I need to quote from the descriptions at some length.

(4) Note that, when Peredur reaches the pavilion, he has not eaten for “two days and two nights”.  I proceed:

The maiden made him welcome and greeted him….’ My mother,’ said Peredur, ‘bade me wherever I saw meat and drink, to take it.’  ‘Go then, chieftain,’ said she, ‘to the table.  And God’s welcome to thee.’ [Peredur takes half, only.] ‘My mother,’ said he, ‘bade me take a fair jewel wherever I might see it.’  ‘Take it then, friend,’ said she.  ‘’Tis not I will begrudge thee.’  Peredur took the ring, and went down on his knee and gave the maiden a kiss [on her hand?], and took his steed and departed thence.

[Peredur, tr Jones & Jones, pp 185f; emphasis added; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 120f]

Note how polite both parties are and how generous the lady is.  She is a good hostess and he is a good guest.

Given the mythological and magical elements underlying the story, it is possible that the lady has insight into Peredur’s destiny; and she may indeed be an Otherworld character (and herself an educator).

In her study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, G Goetinck states:

The meeting of Peredur with the Tent Maiden is one of the first episodes in which the hero is helped and guided by the power of the Otherworld whilst he is being trained.  It is also a version of the meeting between the hero and Sovereignty….

[Goetinck, p 140]

(5) In Perceval, there are no indications of a mythological aspect to the lady, and the situation is quite different:

On the bed [in the tent], all alone, lay a young girl fast asleep….She woke with a start….The girl trembles with fear on account of the youth, who to her seems crazy….”Be on your way, lad!” she says.  “Be off, before my lover sees you.” – “By my head, I’ll kiss you first, whoever it may upset,” says the youth, “because my mother told me to!” – “I’ll certainly never kiss you if I can help it,” says the maiden. “Be off…!

Perceval is much stronger than the lady: he kisses her seven times [presumably on her mouth]; and he pulls her ring (“set with a brilliant emerald”) from her finger, and puts it on his own.  She bursts into tears.  He adds insult to injury:

“Bless you, maiden.  Now I’ll be off well rewarded – and it’s much nicer kissing you than any chambermaid in all my mother’s house, for there’s nothing bitter about your mouth!”

[Perceval, tr Owen, pp 383f]

Perceval takes food and drink, without asking permission, and departs, leaving the young woman still weeping.

Perceval, then, is cruel and unfeeling and not at all chivalric.  He does not treat the young lady as his equal.  He totally misapplies his mother’s advice about how to treat women.  His immaturity does not excuse his behaviour.  He gets off to a bad start in his career as a knight.

Perhaps the status of this lady reflects the low status of women in France, at the time, compared to the rights accorded to them in the Wales of the early Middle Ages (cf the laws attributed to Hywel Dda).  From the remarks made by the lady in Perceval, it is clear that she relies on her male friend to defend her; and for her it is unfortunate that he is temporarily absent.

(6) Parzival is like Perceval, at this point in the story.  (The lady is named Jeschute and she is a duchess.)  The account is long and circumstantial. It reflects badly upon the hero.  I quote a salient passage:

The lady wailed loudly.  He paid no attention to what she said but forced her mouth to his.  Wasting no time, he crushed her breast to his, duchess or no, and also took a ring.  On her shift he saw a brooch and roughly tore it off.  The lady was armed as women are: but to her his strength was an army’s.  Nevertheless there was quite a tussle of it.

[Parzival, tr Hatto, Book 3, p 77]

Conclusion

The fundamental theme of the three romances is the education of the hero concerning love, chivalry and government.  Evidently, Perceval and Parzival have a very long way to go before they can be regarded as educated!  Peredur, however, has already mastered basic courtesy.  The nature of his encounter with the lady is appropriate to the development of the overall story.  Perceval and Parzival’s behaviour, by contrast, is characterised by the use of brute force, so that they come across as villains rather than heroes, at least for the interim.

The Welsh story is shorter and more concise than the continental ones.  On the surface it is unsophisticated, in comparison with its continental analogues.  But it has beauties and subtleties of its of its own; and in some respects it deserves to be seen as more appealing than the other two.

References

Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Goetinck, G W (editor) (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawc, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

See also:

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Franz Kafka,’Das Schloss’ (‘The Castle’)

 

Sie sind nicht aus dem Schloẞ, Sie sind nicht aus dem Dorfe, Sie sind nichts.  Leider sind Sie doch etwas, ein Fremder, der ûberzählig und ûberall im Wege ist, einer, wegen dessen man immerfort Scherereien hat.

You are not from the Castle, you are not from the village, you are nothing.  Unfortunately, though, you are something – a stranger, superfluous, always in the way, constantly causing trouble.

[The landlady of the village inn to K, in Chapter 4]

 

The title

The word ‘Schloss’, in the title, can be translated as ‘castle’ or ‘palace’ or “country house” (or even ‘lock’).  The building (or buildings) that figure in Kafka’s novel appears, however, to be quite unimpressive – certainly, this is how it appears to ‘K’, the protagonist.

Publication

Kafka left his third novel incomplete (but see below).  It was published only after his death, at the instigation of his friend Max Brod.

The story

K arrives in a village, in winter, to take up an appointment as a land surveyor, for Count Westwest.  The local castle (the Castle) overlooks the village.  The Castle officials (an all-male elite) oversee all the goings-on in the village and record them, in bureaucratic detail.  They are respected and looked up to by the villagers, and indeed obeyed.

The Castle and the village are fundamentally separate.  Castle officials visit the village but villagers are not permitted to enter the Castle. The officials transact much of their business in the village itself, at night.  They conduct interviews with villagers at night too.

The novel largely consists of a record of the series of meetings between K and individuals – both villagers and officials – which give him some insight into how the place works.  (Called to his own first proper interview with an official, at night, K misses his appointment, by falling asleep!)

Some Castle officials abuse their power over the ordinary people by taking local women as their mistresses. They are free too to discard them.  (One man in particular – Herr Klamm – is mentioned.)  The women who are taken up by Castle officials gain rather than lose higher social status in the village!  (Any woman who rejects such a relationship is ostracised by the community)

K himself tries to use his relationship with a young villager (Frieda) as a bargaining tool in order to arrange a man-to-man interview with Klamm – this he fails to achieve.

K is engaged in a struggle for recognition as a professional person – a land surveyor.  He never has the opportunity to practise his profession.  Indeed, one informant tells him that his services are not required and that the job offer resulted from a bureaucratic error.

K remains an outsider.

The language

Kafka’s prose is precise.  It has many long sentences, with subordinate clauses.  Different aspects of a topic are balanced.  Different arguments are weighed against each other.  It reminds the reader of bureaucratic language.  Even the characters’ speeches tend to be formal.  Typically of literary German, reported speech features extensive use of the subjunctive mood.

Kafka’s German is fairly easy to understand, because of its clarity; but it is difficult to translate into fluent English.   For example, the word order sometimes has to be changed – but with this the delicate structure of the original may be impaired.

The story is told, in a way, from K’s perspective, as the reader is given access to his thoughts as well as his statements, as in a first person narrative.  The other characters’ thoughts are revealed in their body language (as reported) and what they say.

K, the protagonist

The reader is entitled to ask questions about K.

Why does he stay in the village, given that he suffers a series of rebuffs?

Is he too proud about his status?  (He does accept a job as a school caretaker as a temporary measure.)

Is he insufficiently flexible in his dealings with both villagers and officials?  Does he expect the system to adapt to him rather than the other way round?

What is more important to K – his proclaimed love for the barmaid Frieda or his wish to use her as way to set up an interview with Klamm (her former lover)?  Does he neglect her, in the pursuit of his struggle for recognition?  Does he, indeed, misuse her?

The officials

The bureaucrats communicate with K through letters and through interviews – solely on their own terms (who, when, where and how are entirely at their discretion).

The fact that the offer of an appointment to K as a land surveyor was a mistake is not officially recognised.

The bureaucrats fail to resolve K’s status and so leave him in limbo.

An ironic ending

In his afterword to the first edition of Das Schloss, Max Brod states that Kafka revealed to him how the story would end.  By this account, K does not give up his struggle; but he eventually dies in the attempt, from exhaustion.  The local people gather around his death bed.  Now the Castle officials hand down their decision: although they deny K any legal claim to live in the village, taking into account the circumstances, they grant him permission to live and to work there.

Themes

  • Class: the officials have arbitrary power over the lives of the villagers and appear to from a separate, superior class
  • Gender: the officials are all male; they abuse their power when they take village women (expected to comply) as their mistresses
  • Bureaucracy: while little indication is given of much activity being carried out in the village, it is made clear that the officials maintain detailed records of everything.

Meanings

1 The novel reflects the human search for belonging to a community

2 Similarly, it reflects the human search for recognition, by the community, of one’s personal worth

3 It may reflect the human search for order in society

4 It may also have something to do with the need for fairness and flexibility, which can temper the rigid administration of rules

5 It may reflect the elusive nature of a fair social order and the imperfections of human societies in reality

6 In part it may be a satire on excessive and inflexible bureaucracy (the maintenance of some sort of order, at any cost)

7 It may too represent a critique of excessive individualism

8 For a 21st century reader, it can be seen as a parable that illustrates the plight of people who remain outsiders, for example, the homeless, those who suffer discrimination, foreigners, asylum seekers and refugees

9 Fundamentally, Das Schloss remains ambiguous.

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The nature of the Castle in Franz Kafka’s ‘Das Schloss’

I have picked up Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss again, after nearly fifty years, reading it again, and translating passages, for my own amusement.  I’ll be writing more about it, later.  On the cover of my copy (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main), Hermann Hesse is quoted as calling the novel “the most mysterious and beautiful of Kafka’s great works.”  (I agree with Hesse.)

The word ‘Schloss’ can be translated as ‘castle’ or ‘palace’ (or even ‘lock’).  The building (or buildings) that figure in Kafka’s novel appears not to satisfy either description but, rather, to be quite unimpressive – certainly, this is how it appears to ‘K’, the protagonist.

I turn to Chapter 1 and provide a free translation of a descriptive passage (below).

On the whole, the castle, as it appeared from a distance, corresponded to K’s expectations.   It was neither an old fortification, built by and for a knight, nor a new, magnificent palace, but an extensive structure, consisting of few two-storey buildings but many low buildings, tightly packed together.  If one had not known that it was a castle, one could have taken it to be a small town.  K could see only one tower.  He could not make out whether it belonged to a dwelling or a church.  A swarm of crows circled round it.

Keeping his eyes fixed on the castle, K kept on walking.  Nothing else concerned him.  As he got closer to it, however, the castle disappointed him: it was truly a miserable little town, distinguished only by the fact that all of it (perhaps) had been built in stone; but the paint had peeled off and the stone appeared to be crumbling.  K briefly thought of his home town: it hardly came second to this so-called castle.  If K had only been interested in sight-seeing, then he would have had a wasted journey, and he would have done better to visit his old home, where he had not been for such a long time.  He mentally compared the church tower of his home town with the tower in front of him.  That tower rose unhesitatingly and boldly, tapering to its broad roof, ending in red tiles – an earthly building (what else?), but with a higher purpose than the rows of low houses, and with a clearer expression than the grey workday.  This tower – the only one he could see – was apparently the tower of a dwelling, perhaps that of the main building.  It was perfectly round.  It was graced, in places, with ivy.  It had small windows, which reflected the sun, in a crazy pattern.  It had a balcony all round it, the battlements of which – unsafe, irregular and crumbling (as if hand-drawn by an anxious or careless child) – formed a serrated edge against the blue sky.  It was as if a gloomy occupant, who should have kept himself locked away in the remotest room, had broken through the roof, in order to show himself to the world.

From my background reading, it remains unclear to me whether the castle of the novel is based on a real place that Kafka had seen, or more than one, or whether it is derived from his vivid imagination.

In the novel, Kafka’s castle is the headquarters of the opaque bureaucracy that strictly governs everything that happens in the village below – with grave consequences for the fate of K himself.  As in Amerika and Der Prozess, powerful people look very ordinary (just like the castle itself).  They don’t need to show off.

 

Notes on Franz Kafka’s ‘Der Prozess’/’The Trial’

Introduction

I have found it a pleasure to study Kafka’s Trial again.

The Trial is a good read.  It is well written. Kafka covers the absurd in a dispassionate way.  The prose reflects, at times, legalistic language (appropriate to the nature of the story), very cleverly.

At first sight, The Trial may appear to foreshadow the oppressive tyrannies that have disfigured the history of the 20th century and later.  (It was written in 1914 but first published, after Kafka’s death, in 1935.)

But I think we should study it carefully and retain an awareness of its ambiguities.

The Content

As at the beginning of Amerika, The Trial story opens with a dramatic, informative and emphatic sentence:

Jemand muẞte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daẞ er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.

Somebody must have told lies about Josef K, for although he had nothing wrong, he was arrested one morning.

His being taken by surprise, early in the morning, is reminiscent of the rude awakening of Gregor Samsa, in Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis].

Josef K’s fate follows this sequence: arrest, but no charge, no release of court papers to K or his advocate, no cross-examination, no verdict, no sentence, but a violent disposal.

The court proves to be opaque, impenetrable, highly bureaucratic, hierarchical and secretive.

From the start, it is downhill all the way, for K.

Selected themes

INNOCENCE V GUILT

The officers who arrest K observe that he claims to be innocent, while not knowing the law (whatever that is): “er gibt zu, er kenne das Gesetz nicht, und behauptet gleichzeitig, schuldlos zu sein.”

Leni, the woman who looks after the lawyer, and who seduces K, advises K to admit his guilt.  The lawyer himself gives K the same piece of advice: ‘Das einzige Richtige sei, sich mit den vorhandenen Verhältnissen abzufinden’ [‘The only correct course was to come to terms with things as they stood’].  (Chapters 6 and 7)

The court chaplain informs K that his case is going badly and that he is already considered to be guilty.  K denies that he, or indeed anyone, can be guilty.  The chaplain replies that this is exactly what guilty people say.  (Chapter 9)

EXHAUSTION AND HUMILIATION

K meets other defendants.  Involvement with the court takes up more and more of their time and it wears them out.  K has a similar experience.  He tries to carry on as normal and continues working at the bank; but he perceives the extent to which he is distracted by the court case, and tired out by it.

At his lawyer’s house, K meets a defendant who has been involved with the court for five years (Chapter 8).  The relationship between this defendant and the lawyer has been inverted: the man is extremely humble in front of the lawyer, as if his self-respect has been completely undermined: ‘Das war kein Klient mehr, das war der Hund des Advokaten.’ [‘This was no longer a client but the advocate’s dog.’]

Finally, at the point of death, K compares himself his treatment to the way a dog might be treated: ‘“Wie ein Hund!” sagte er, es war, als sollte die Scham ihn überleben” [‘“Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame was meant to outlive him.”].  (Chapter 10)

HELPERS

Josef K seeks help with his case from both men and women.  With his contacts with women, there is a sexual aspect.

K seeks out Fräulein Bürstner, his neighbour, to talk about his arrest: he ends up kissing her repeatedly without her permission (a case of sexual assault).  (Chapter 1)  Unsurprisingly, she terminates all contact with him.

K shares a fleeting mutual attraction with the wife of the court usher.  The usher – let alone K himself – feels obliged to tolerate court officers taking her for themselves.  (Chapter 3)

K is seduced by Leni, his lawyer’s carer, as the same time as she offers to help him.  At this point, K reveals some insight: ‘“Ich werbe Helferinnen,” dachte er fast verwundert’ [‘“I recruit women helpers,” he thought, rather to his surprise”].

The court chaplain expresses disapproval of K’s approach.  He tells K that he seeks too much help from strangers, especially women, but that they cannot help him: “Du suchst zuviel fremde Hilfe, und besonders bei Frauen.  Merkst du denn nicht, daẞ es nicht die wahre Hilfe ist?”

Philosophical questions raised by The Trial

1 What is guilt?

2 Who is fit to judge the guilty?

3 What if the judges are themselves corrupt?

4 How should men relate to women, and women to men?

Hypotheses re interpretation

Some of these may overlap.

1 K is innocent and it is the court that is guilty.

2 K changes.  The corrupt nature of the court infects him.  At the start, he is innocent; but under the influence of the arrest, he becomes guilty.  The arrest precedes the commission of the crime.  K’s guilt arises from the lustful aspect of his character, which comes to the surface.

3(A) The court represents dark aspects of the human psyche (especially K’s), or human society, or both, normally hidden from view.

3(B) K should face up to his faults, without relying on advisors and advocates.

4 What is the meaning of life?  Well, life has no meaning, other than the meaning we give to it.  Many things do not make sense.

5 Some aspects of our world are benign, others are not.  We suffer cruel, unjust events, inflicted by arbitrary, unaccountable forces.  As individuals or as a society, we do not have full control.

6 The world that Kafka portrays is ambiguous and the reader has to live with the ambiguity.  No single interpretation of his work is adequate.

7 It is also possible to read Kafka’s novels as reflecting his own anxiety about sex and relationships with women, as reflected in events in his personal life.

Conclusion

This remains a very modern novel.  The protagonist is not an old-fashioned hero – he has faults and makes mistakes.  He arouses sympathy in the reader, as he finds himself in a maze, with no way out other than the one that is imposed on him.