“Gladly,” the boy said.
“Do you see this goblet? It is from the king’s own table. I went to the court to claim my ancestral lands, and”—the knight paused—“carelessly snatched up this goblet. In doing so, I spilled wine on the Lady Guenever’s gown. Say this to the king and those in his court—that the Red Knight is sorry to have insulted the queen by his carelessness. And if any man among them should care to retrieve the king’s cup, I stay here waiting for him to come.”
Promising to relay the Red Knight’s message, Parzival went on toward the city. By the time he entered the city gates, he had drawn quite a crowd. He feared for his little mount, who was being shoved this way and that. She stumbled to her bony knees more than once, and each time she fell, Parzival was forced to dismount and pull her to her feet as the mob roared with laughter.
When the raucous procession had forced its way into the courtyard of the castle, knights and nobles came tumbling out the doorways to see the cause of the disturbance.
Parzival called out to them all, “God keep you! That is what my mother told me to say.” He had to yell to be heard above the jeering of the crowd. “But which of you is Arthur? I see many Arthurs here! Where is the one who will make me a knight?”
Iwanet, a page about Parzival’s age, took pity on the boy. He ran forward and took the reins of the nag and bade Parzival to dismount. “The king is not out here in the courtyard,” he said. “I will take you in to see him as soon as I have stabled your horse.”
“My mother bade me give a special greeting to Arthur and his lady!” yelled Parzival, still trying to make himself heard over the noise of the crowd. “And I have another message as well. A knight that I met outside the city says he is waiting for someone to come and fetch the king’s cup. Can that mean he wants to fight? Oh, yes, and he’s sorry, too, that he spilled wine upon the queen. He was dressed in red. I wish I had such armor.”
Iwanet grabbed Parzival by the arm and dragged him away from the hoots of the crowd and into the castle. There the mocking ceased, for those within looked past his fool’s rags. The boy they saw was of such beauty and noble bearing that most suspected at once that he was the son of a king in disguise.
“God keep you, sir, and your lady, too,” Parzival said when he came into the king’s presence. “My mother told me to give you a special greeting.”
“What do you want from me, my lad?” Arthur asked, his voice as kindly as his bearing.
“Make me a knight!” the boy said at once. “It feels like years since I determined to become one. I can’t wait any longer. And I don’t ask anything of you but your leave. A knight I met upon the road into the city has wonderful red armor, which I should love to have. If I can’t take his, then I shan’t take anything from the king.”
“My lad,” the king said, “that knight you speak of would not easily give up his armor. He is very powerful. Indeed, he is making my life miserable because he thinks I have not given him his due. I can’t send an untried boy against Sir Ither, the Red Knight.”
But Arthur had a wily counselor named Sir Kay, who whispered in the king’s ear. “Send out the boy, my lord. He and Ither will just knock about a bit. The boy has to learn about these things if he is to be a knight.” In truth, Sir Kay cared about neither Sir Ither’s nor Parzival’s life.
“I do not want the boy to be killed,” said the king. But seeing how determined the boy was, he finally gave him leave to go.
Parzival was racing out of the castle when a strange thing happened. There was a princess in the court, the sister of those same brothers, Orilus and Lahelin, who had stolen the kingdoms of Parzival’s father. This princess had sworn not to laugh until she met the noblest knight in the land—the winner of many jousts. When she saw Parzival running out of the court in his sackcloth clothes and cowhide leggings, she laughed out loud without thinking.
Sir Kay was enraged. The princess had refused to laugh at all the noble knights who had sought her favor, and now she had laughed at this foolish boy. “You have shamed the court!” Sir Kay shouted, grabbing her by the hair. “You have made a fool of yourself and all of us by your unseemly behavior.” When a young knight sprang to the lady’s defense, Sir Kay beat them both.
Poor Parzival was dismayed. He had no idea that the princess was the sister of his sworn enemies, but that would not have mattered. The boy’s heart was tender toward any defenseless creature who had suffered because of him. He wanted to hurl his javelin at Sir Kay, but there was too great a crowd for him to do so.
I shall not come back to this court, he vowed to himself, until I make amends for the wrong done to this poor lady.
The Red Knight was surprised to see Parzival coming toward him, riding his pitiful little horse. He had been expecting a joust with one of the knights of the Round Table. “God keep you, sir,” Parzival called out. “The king has given me your mount and your armor. And if you are wise, you’ll hand them over at once.”
“If the king gave you my armor,” the Red Knight answered, “he has given me your life. I wonder what you’ve done in the past to deserve such a favor from the king.”
“Stop your chatter and give me your armor,” Parzival said, and he grabbed the reins of Ither’s horse. “You are Lahelin, aren’t you? The enemy about whom my mother warned me.”
The angry Ither jerked his reins from the boy’s hands and gave Parzival such a blow with his lance that his poor little horse fell to the ground. Then the Red Knight beat the boy with the shaft of his lance until the blood gushed. At first, Parzival could not move under the blows, but as soon as he could, he raised his javelin and hurled it through the gap in Sir Ither’s helmet.
The Red Knight fell to the ground. Seeing that his enemy was quite dead, Parzival began tugging at the Red Knight’s armor. But pull and struggle and twist as he might, he couldn’t wrestle the armor off the knight’s body.
At about that time, Iwanet, the page, came running up, having followed Parzival from the city. Iwanet was amazed to see the great knight dead and Parzival yanking and tugging at Sir Ither’s armor.
“God keep you!” Parzival said. “Now how do I get this armor off this knight and onto me?”
Iwanet helped Parzival unfasten the armor and remove it from the dead knight’s body. “Take off your buskins,” he said to Parzival. “They have no place under a knight’s armor.”
But Parzival refused. “No,” he said. “My mother made them. I won’t discard anything that my mother made for me so lovingly.” Iwanet sighed, but there was no way to change Parzival’s mind, so he helped him don the Red Knight’s gleaming armor on top of his sackcloth and raw leather.
But when Parzival asked the page to hand him his quiver of javelins, Iwanet refused. “The order of chivalry forbids javelins,” the page said. “Take instead the sword and lance of the Red Knight. These are the weapons of chivalry.”
Parzival did as Iwanet commanded, buckling on the great sword of Ither and fastening the lance to the shield as Iwanet directed. Then, impatient to be off, Parzival leapt unaided into the saddle of the Red Knight’s horse. “Take the goblet to the king and give him my greeting,” he said to Iwanet. “I myself can’t enter the court, for I have caused a lady to be humiliated on my account. I’m too ashamed to return.”
Iwanet made a cross out of the javelin that had killed poor Ither to mark the site of his death and then threw the rest of the quiver away. The knight’s body was later carried back to the castle, where all the ladies wept that one so handsome and brave should die without honor—slain by a mere dart in the hand of a raw and foolish boy.
Meantime, the great sorrel horse had carried Parzival far away until it came to the castle of a prince named Gurnemanz. The prince had lost three sons in battle, so when he saw Parzival at his door, his heart went out to the youth as though Providence had sent a fourth son into his life.
“God keep you!” Parzival said upon meeting the prince. “My mother told me to seek advice from a man whose hair is gray. If you will teach me to be wise, I will serve you as my mother told me to.”
Prince Gurnemanz was overjoyed. “Tell me about yourself,” the prince asked. “Where have you come from?”
Then Parzival told the prince about his mother and how he had left her; about how he got a ring and a brooch; how he had caused a princess much pain; and how he had won his armor. These stories made the prince sigh. “Was I wrong?” the boy asked. “Shouldn’t I do as my mother instructed me? Why should Sir Kay treat the princess so harshly? And why did Iwanet refuse me my javelins?”
Gurnemanz’s noble heart sank as he listened to Parzival prattle on. For the sake of the code of chivalry and the boy’s own safety, he must begin at once to teach Parzival how to be a proper knight.
The prince’s first task was to persuade Parzival not to wear under his armor the sackcloth clothes and cowhide buskins his mother had made him, but to put on garments of silk and wool, worthy of the son of a king. Next, the prince took him to the jousting field and taught him how to use his sword and lance. Parzival was quick to learn and soon unhorsed all the opponents the prince sent against him.
Prince Gurnemanz also taught him proper manners. He urged him to be humble and discreet among nobility and to be compassionate toward the poor and needy—to hold ladies in high esteem and to temper daring with mercy. “If you have defeated a man in battle,” the prince said, “you do not need to kill him. Never kill, my son, unless you must.”
Parzival remembered the lark and the Red Knight and felt fresh sorrow for their deaths.
“And, my son, you must not constantly speak of your mother. It makes you seem like a child. Nor”—and here he sighed—“nor must you ask so many questions. When you ask questions, you make people think you are a simpleton.”
He begged Parzival to stay on at his castle, to marry his daughter and become in reality his son. But Parzival was impatient for adventure. “I’m not ready to marry, for I still have much to do before I come to man’s estate,” he told the prince. “When I am a famous knight, I shall come back and ask you for the hand of your pretty Liaze.” Parzival did not mean to lie, but he knew nothing of what lay ahead or that his heart would soon tread quite a different path.
Few horses known could travel as fast as the great sorrel, so it was by evening that Parzival found himself on the bank of a roaring river. On the other side of the river gorge was a walled city, and the only way to the city was by a bridge made of rope strung across the raging torrent, Before the gates of the city, Parzival saw more than fifty knights armed and helmeted for battle. When the knights realized that Parzival meant to cross over to the city, they cried out, “Go back! Go back!”
But Parzival urged his steed forward. Their first few steps out on the woven bridge made the whole span swing wildly from side to side. As fearless as he was in battle, at the sight of this bridge, the brave sorrel shied and would not go on. At length, Parzival dismounted and slowly eased himself and his terrified mount across the treacherous suspension. By the time they got to the other side of the chasm, the knights had disappeared and there was no light to be seen.
The gates of the darkened city were bolted, and at first no one answered his call or his knocking. But, at last, a tiny window in the wall opened and a young girl looked out. She thrust a lantern out of the opening to see who had knocked and saw the handsome Parzival below. “If you come as an enemy,” she called down to him, “I pray you be gone, for we have suffered enough from our enemies. If you come for shelter and food, we cannot help you, for the city has been under siege for many weeks and there is no food within these gates. It will be best if you go and leave us to die.”
Now Parzival remembered Gurnemanz’s teaching that a knight’s duty was to help those in need, so he said, “I have come for nothing but to offer my help to the king and people of this city.”
“Our king has died,” the girl said. “And it is for love of his daughter, our new queen, that we suffer. She will not give herself in marriage to her enemy, King Clamide, and he is determined to destroy us unless she relents.”
Parzival persuaded the girl to let him in and take him to the queen so that he could offer himself in her service. As he walked through the narrow streets, Parzival’s heart was moved to pity. Even in the dim light of the maiden’s lantern, he could see that the people were as pale and weak as plants that have never seen the sunlight. Children stared at his shining red armor with great sad eyes, but no one had the strength to greet him.
The girl led Parzival as far as the castle, where the queen’s guard took him into a garden. There, he removed his armor and washed the rust off his body. Clean garments were brought for him to put on, for even in this sad city, courtesy was not forgotten.
At length, Parzival was led into the throne room. The nobles and their ladies were nearly as wretched and weak as the peasants he had seen in the streets. But pale and thin as she was, there stood one whose beauty shone dazzling as the evening star. Even as Parzival stared at her, Condwiramurs the queen came toward him, kissed him on the cheek, and took his hand to lead him to where he was to sit down beside her.
Parzival sat without speaking. He remembered that Gurnemanz had warned him not to ask questions, and he was determined that he would behave in a manner befitting a knight in the presence of this lovely queen.
At last the queen spoke. “I am told that you have offered me your service. It has been a long time since a stranger has come to offer us help. Who are you, sir, and where have you come from?”
“I am Parzival the son of Gahmuret, my lady. And today I have come from the castle of a kind prince named Gurnemanz, to whom I owe much.”
“I am amazed and overjoyed to hear you say this,” she said. “Amazed because the trip to my uncle’s home is a two-day journey and you have accomplished it in one. And overjoyed to hear that you have come from my mother’s brother. His daughter, Liaze, and I have shared many a sad tear. Indeed, her brother died seeking to defend me from this villain who has stolen all my lands and now besieges this city, which is all that remains of my father’s kingdom. As I have just told my kinsmen”—she indicated two monks who stood nearby—“we are at the point of famine here. I cannot even offer you the entertainment that a guest of your stature is due.”