Parsifal


The following excerpt is from Dangerous Undertaking, where the wise old man Frank uses the Parsifal legend to illustrate to Neil, the skeptical corporate executive, a very important point about the power of questions to transform.

Let me illustrate by telling you one of Chrétien de Troyes stories. His tales were the foundation for the English legends about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and the quest for the Holy Grail. One of them is about Perceval, or Parsifal as he is often called.

“Parsifal was a Welshman, the only surviving son of a widow who lived in the Waste Forest. His two brothers had become knights and had been killed in combat, so his mother was terrified that Parsifal would suffer the same fate. She isolated him from any contact with the world and he grew up incredibly naïve and innocent. He never asked questions or strayed far from home because his mother told him not to. One day by chance he bumped into one of King Arthur’s knights riding through the Waste Forest and was immediately consumed with desire to become like him. For the first time, he disobeyed his mother. He followed the knight out of the forest to find the king and become a knight himself.

“Parsifal knew very little about what was involved in becoming a knight, but that didn’t stop him. He arrived at King Arthur’s Court with only the rudiments of training in the art of battle and immediately challenged the most experienced knights in Arthur’s kingdom. That’s why Chrétien called him Parsifal. The name literally means ‘innocent fool.’ The young man had to be incredibly naïve and foolish to challenge Arthur’s best knights.

“Surprisingly, Parsifal defeated them all, and quickly gained respect as a mighty warrior. But that was only the beginning. After his initial triumphs Parsifal encountered something, just like Dante did, that changed his life. While on a journey home to visit his mother he found his path blocked by a deep river. He was searching for a way across when he noticed two men in a small fishing boat. He asked them if there was a ford or a bridge nearby. They told him there was no way to cross the river for some distance, but one of the men invited him to stay the night in his home, which turned out to be a great castle.

“Parsifal entered the castle and was welcomed by the man from the boat, who was now dressed as a nobleman and being carried by servants on a stretcher. He wondered about that, but didn’t ask. The nobleman invited Parsifal to sit and dine at a sumptuous feast. A procession entered the hall, led by two servants carrying brilliantly lit candelabras. Following them was a beautiful maiden. With two hands she carried a golden wine cup covered with precious stones. It was the legendary Holy Grail, but Parsifal didn’t know this. He sat silently watching the procession, remembering his mother’s instructions not to ask questions. While they ate, the grail was carried back and forth before them again and again during each course of their feast. Parsifal never asked what the grail was or who was supposed to drink from it.

Frank paused and looked at me. “Seeing any patterns in Parsifal’s story, Neil?”

I nodded. “He sure wasn’t very curious, was he. Never asked the Fisher King what was going on.”

He smiled and continued.

“After the meal the servants prepared a bed for Parsifal in the great hall and when they were done the nobleman left him, carried out by his servants on his stretcher. Once again, Parsifal asked no questions.

“In the morning, Parsifal woke up to an empty castle. Not a single person could be found. He went to the chamber where the nobleman had been carried the previous night. He shouted and knocked for a long while, but no one answered. Everyone had disappeared. Outside the castle he found his horse saddled, his lance and shield ready, and the drawbridge of the castle lowered so he could leave.

“As Parsifal rode away from the castle he met a weeping maiden holding the head of a slain knight. She told him the story of the Fisher King, the nobleman who owned the mysterious castle. The Fisher King had been wounded years ago in both his thighs by a lance and was consumed by pain. The only way he could bear the pain was to go fishing each day. The maiden asked if Parsifal had seen the Holy Grail procession while he was in the castle.

“When Parsifal said he’d seen it, but had asked no questions the maiden was dismayed. If Parsifal had only asked the right question about the Fisher King and the grail he would have freed the king from his pain and the entire kingdom would have been released from its curse! Upset by her accusation, Parsifal left the maiden and rode off in a state of confusion.

“From that point in Chrétien’s story Parsifal went on many more adventures, but he never forgot the Fisher King. Finally, he decided to undo his failure to ask the right question in the mysterious castle, and made an oath that he would engage in no more knightly contests until he found the Holy Grail and freed the Fisher King and his kingdom. He vowed not to abandon his quest for any reason.

“Interestingly, de Troyes never completed the story of Parsifal’s quest. He left off writing mid-sentence so we don’t know how the story ended. Four other writers added endings later, each completing the myth differently. In the third ending—the one I like— Parsifal eventually finds his way back to the hidden castle, sees the Grail again, asks the right question, and frees the Fisher King from his suffering.

“So, Neil, does Parsifal’s story help you understand more about what it takes to see hidden patterns?”

I thought about Parsifal arriving at a river he couldn’t cross and meeting the Fisher King. That was unusual, but how was it connected to seeing patterns?

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the flight attendant hovering over us. She asked very softly whether we wanted any snacks. I think she was also giving us a subtle hint to be quiet. Frank glanced at me and I shook my head.

“Parsifal’s encounter with the Fisher King started it all,” I said, “but I don’t see what it has to do with seeing patterns, Frank.”

“What do you think Chrétien was hinting at in Parsifal’s failure to ask questions about the grail procession?”

“I suppose he was saying that if you don’t ask questions you’ll miss something that might be very important.”

I wasn’t used to this. People usually explained things to me. Why didn’t he just come right out with the answer instead of playing annoying guessing games? Who did he think he was anyway, treating me like this? I could feel the heat from my anger in my face.

He must have seen that he had pushed me far enough because he let up on the questions for a moment.

“Let me help you. Parsifal had a very peculiar way of thinking. He didn’t think for himself, and didn’t ask questions because that’s what his mother had instructed him to do. In effect, Chrétien was saying, Isn’t this odd behavior—encountering things without questioning them?”

He looked at me, gauging my reaction. I noticed little laugh wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and thought, this guy’s on my side, he’s not my opponent.

That helped and I cooled down. “So, you’re saying that Chrétien was trying to help us understand how important it is to turn off our autopilot. Otherwise, we’ll never see new patterns! Is that right?”

He smiled broadly, and I knew I’d finally gotten his point. His way of teaching might work after all.

“Bullseye! Chrétien knew that it’s very difficult for us to see our own peculiar ways of thinking. We invent stories about what we’re certain about and what we are allowed to question, and program our autopilot. Parsifal created a story that he must be silent and not question his mother’s advice. He was old enough, and his mother wasn’t with him anymore, but he still followed this outdated story. Chrétien promised that when we ask questions that go beyond the boundary of our thinking it can change the way we see things. If we pursue these questions long enough they will eventually transform us. And as we make the transformation journey, like Parsifal we may even heal wounded kings and kingdoms.”