by Joseph Rex Kerrick
© 1997 by the author
1. THE GRAIL CASTLE
The mythic underpinnings of today’s strange world can be found in legends of the Holy Grail.
In a secret nexus at the center of space-time, and therefore outside of it, is a castle where a King reigns timelessly over all the universe. He never leaves his chamber in the highest battlement, and seems to care not a whit for the fortunes of the material worlds or the endless generations of beings who inhabit them; yet somehow he creates and sustains all these worlds, and his heart pumps the blood and the sustenance into all that lives.
The King possesses two implements, which are all he needs for his eternal task, for they are the source and the origin of life and of death. The one glows brilliantly in the dark night of the Abyss which surrounds the castle; many who see it call it a star, while some come away with a memory of it as a gemstone of the most lucid radiance. The other implement is sometimes seen as a weapon in the King’s right hand -- a sword, a spear, a lance, or in modern times a gun. It’s also visaged as a skull, like the one Hamlet held when he sought to penetrate these very mysteries.
The King entrusts the care of the Star of Life to his Queen, who keeps it in a precious cup to carry it forth into the halls of the castle. And his sword the King hands over to his noblest and mightiest knight, who accompanies the Queen wherever she goes and acts as Guardian of the treasure that she bears.
In those times that are today called the Middle Ages, among the people who lived in Europe, the Star of Life became known as the Holy Grail, and the Cup of the Queen was identified as the chalice that Jesus used at the Last Supper, containing the wine that became his blood; and in like manner, the weapon of the Guardian was said to be the spear that pierced Christ’s side while he hung upon the Cross. Embodied thus in these symbols, the mysteries inspired the rise of many orders, whose members pledged themselves to sacred service as knights and maidens of the Holy Grail.
These outward orders were modeled after the true Inner Order of souls who live in the Grail Castle, and venture forth from it into the world on periodic quests of enlightenment and salvation. This has gone on forever, and always will, in every land and every world, in ways invisible to the average mass of sentient beings; but the Medieval Grail legend gave to it all a local habitation and a name. In this way, the ineffable became tangible to mundane folk, and enabled them to be recruited into the sacred work.
Every day in the Great Hall of the Grail Castle there was a convocation in which all the knights and ladies gathered ’round, as the Queen held forth the chalice and the Guardian removed its covering, unveiling the stellar light of the Grail within. Then the cup was passed around the table, and each person in turn renewed their vows to service of the Grail and its King. Then they wished for whatever they might need at that moment, including food, drink, clothing,
and any other items of sustenance; and instantly the Grail provided it, for indeed the Star of Life is the sole and never-flagging source of all substance and energy in the universe.
Then the Guardian yielded up his spear to the men, though in some versions of the story it was identified as the sword Excalibur. Each knight in turn would seize it, renew his oath to defend the Grail with his very life, and the sword or spear would be magically replicated into whatever weapon he needed for his next battle.
Thus were the members of the Order sustained so that they could pour all the grace of their souls and all the force of their power into accomplishing the mighty millennial task of bringing the world gradually ever closer to total salvation.
2. AMFORTAS AND KLINGSOR
Now we come to one of the many tales of the Grail which has a peculiar resonance for modern times, and which in fact has been rendered into new adaptations to highlight this poignance of an eternal myth for a particular situation in space and time. This is the story of Parsifal.
In this variation of the epic, the Grail Castle itself has fallen upon hard times: the Spear has been stolen, the Guardian has been wounded, and the Grail Queen has disappeared!
How have such disasters come about? The tragic pattern of events began with an aspirant to the Grail Order named Klingsor, who could not master the required self-discipline over his lusts and his desire. Burning with ambition for attainment, he chose the weakling’s path and castrated himself, seeking to banish the drives he could not overcome by force of will. The Guardian of the Grail was at this time Amfortas, a king in his own right (though not the Grail King); when he found what Klingsor had done, he banished him forever from the Castle and the Order.
Thus there was sown in the heart of Klingsor an unquenchable lust for revenge against Amfortas, the Order, and the Light of the Grail itself. The spiritual knowledge and abilities he had acquired in his apprenticeship he now turned to the usages of darkness and the ruination of souls rather than their salvation. He built a mighty castle of his own in the boundless deeps of the Abyss which separates the Grail Realm from the mundane world. Hither he lured hapless souls who fell prey to his enchantments. Every human being has within them a wish to take the easy way to the heights, to gratify their senses without penalty, to experience pleasure endlessly with nary a twinge of pain nor pang of grief. So it was that Klingsor established in his stronghold a garden of earthly delights, where all wayfarers were physically titillated and given illusions in which their fondest fantasies seemed to have come true. This went on just as long as it took Klingsor to cunningly ensorcel their souls beyond all hope of escape. Then they found to their dismay that the price of folly is high indeed, as they were forced into slavery to Klingsor, and became the pawns by which he drew still more souls into his endless mesh of treachery.
Klingsor had the power to temporarily transplant his castle and all its keep from the Abyss to any likely spot in the material world. So it was that one day when Amfortas had journeyed forth into the land on a mission for the Grail, he encountered what he took to be the fair demesne of a local landulf. Squires and damsels hailed him as the renowned and noble Guardian of the Grail, and entreated him to come and dally inside for awhile, and sup with their own great lord, whose name they did not mention. Greeted in so beguiling a manner, Amfortas saw no harm in accepting the invitation. Once inside, he was given the honored place at table as stout-looking knights regaled him with battle tales and enticing maids danced about in sensuous costumes. Little did he suspect that the wine he drank was drugged with a substance that dulled the wit and inflamed the senses; so, though he imbibed with the moderation suitable to his discipline, he was soon drunk and vulnerable to seduction.
And the seduction was swift in coming. Klingsor’s most passionate harlots swarmed over Amfortas like snakes, caressing him and kissing him and begging him to take them to bed this very minute. Every touch of their delightful flesh on his body was enhanced a millionfold by the potion, and the formidable will of the Guardian began to waver.
Suddenly, however, his soul awoke. He leapt to his feet and shouted, “Avaunt!” and cast the houris from him. He took up his Spear and shoved aside the knights who would bar his way, as he strode out of the castle.
Standing just inside the gate to the outer courtyard was the most daunting obstacle of them all: Klingsor’s ultimate whore, an outrageously alluring wench who reeked of the silk of cornfield romps in the bloom of youth, whose fervid glance could warm the cockles of a corpse, and who now wove about herself a spell to make her appear to Amfortas as the stunningly perfect double of the Grail Queen.
The Guardian stopped where he stood on sight of her. “Why are you here, Milady?” he said, with his drug-befuddled brain struggling to make sense of the perfidious image. In reply she held out to him the Grail in its cup, or a masterfully-contrived doppleganger of the same. This trick triggered in Amfortas all the awe and reverence he naturally felt for the Grail. He reached out as he always did in the ritual to remove its covering, and instead found himself parting the diaphanous garment of the imagined Queen, and beholding her naked body, glistening with sweat and yearning to be penetrated by his wildly tumescing manhood. “My Lady. . . !” he said with the last remaining shard of his common sense. “My lover,” she replied, and drew him insistently down upon the carpet.
No sooner had Amfortas spent himself in the embrace of the witch than Klingsor leapt forth from a crevice and snatched up the sacred Spear from whence it had fallen. The veil dropped from Amfortas’ eyes, and he saw the horrid reality of his condition. Groggily he strove to rise to his feet, but in an instant Klingsor with a hideous shriek of triumph thrust the point of the Spear squarely into its Guardian’s groin.
The Grail knights, who had followed a trail of stardust, found their leader lying senseless and covered with blood in an empty field where the enchanted castle had been. They carried him home, and great was the wailing of the maidens and grief of the knights. But nothing was so afflicting as the sight of the heart-stricken Queen, as she wept so piteously at sight of him. Then she breathed life into him until he revived, dressed his wound and bathed him, and finally he returned to himself enough to sit up and look with recognition on those about him.
But he was in terrible pain from his wound. The Queen called for everyone to attend a convocation. At the given moment of the ritual, she held out the chalice to Amfortas. He required two knights to support him as he wanly put forth his hand to lift the covering -- but at that instant there came back to him the memory of the scene in Klingsor’s castle, of what had happened when he unveiled the imagined Grail. And now he shrank back and screamed in a most unmanly way, and despite all the urgings of his brethren and weeping entreaties of the Queen, he could not gird himself to lift the cover of the Grail. And thus the very power that could heal him was denied him by the wound itself.
The knights spoke amongst themselves and concurred that: “He needs the Spear. We must recover the sacred Spear from Klingsor, and that will restore Amfortas and open again the Grail.” All the knights pledged themselves to the quest, vowing they would not rest nor falter until the Spear was returned to its rightful place beside the Grail.
Then the entire assemblage joined hands in a great circle and sang a prayer to the Grail King in his chamber above for the success of the quest and the rapid recovery of the Spear. Finally the Queen, with tears running down her cheeks, raised her clasped hands to the ceiling and cried out: “My Lord and my love, my spouse and my master, please tell us the will of the stars in this fearful matter.”
The room was hushed, for so rare was the direct intervention of the Grail King in the affairs of the Order that only the most ancient individuals in the great hall could remember the last time his voice had been heard herein. But now, after a pause of a few long heartbeats, that voice resounded to the multitude.
In grave and compassionate tones it said: “The Spear will not be won save by the hand of an innocent fool, who will attain wisdom through pity.” Then there was silence again, broken at length by sighs of grief, the weeping of strong men, and the soft lamentations of women. A voice said loudly: “Alas!”, and darkness fell.
3. HERZELEIDE’S SON
Most versions of the legend now shift the story to a time several years after these events, to a cottage in the remotest corner of Europe. Here a woman named Herzeleide, which means “heart sorrow”, was raising her son alone. She kept the boy isolated, and remained aloof from nearby villagers. These people respected her, for she had the look and bearing of a noblewoman. The rumors were that her husband had been a knight killed in the Crusades, and that, greatly saddened by this, she wished to shelter her son from all contact with the ways of combat and warfare.
If this were truly her intent, it was at length foiled; for no sooner had the boy come of age when he encountered a bevy of knights riding along a road through his forest, and was so awestruck by their godlike appearance and demeanor, that he immediately wished to become one such as they. When he told this to Herzeleide, she wept and begged him to forget his new vision and to stay with her; but his heart was set, and at last she gave him her blessing to depart.
The young man set off into the world, and many adventures befell him. His naiveté and sincere enthusiasm atoned for his social blunders, and even won him favor when eventually he made his way to King Arthur’s Court. Here he expressed a wish to engage in combat with a fierce and formidable knight who had bested all of Arthur’s champions. The King was amused, and gave the young man a horse and weapons to attempt this feat. Great was the astonishment of all when he won the battle and took the armor of the fearsome knight. Some said it was sorcery
and others mere luck; but a wise consensus was that the young man’s innocence conferred a divine blessing on skills no doubt inherited from his unknown sire.
So it was that against all convention Herzeleide’s son was knighted without having traversed all the rites of passage and rigors of training that were usually prerequisite for this honor. But now another problem arose; for if we are to believe the legends, the young man until this moment did not even have a name. When Arthur asked his name, he just stood in mute confusion as if the notion had never occurred to him before. “He’s a pure fool,” said a lady of the court in respectful jest. This struck everyone as so apropos that he was knighted on the spot with this appellation as his name, which in the language of that time was “Parsifal”.
Parsifal proved to be the greatest champion Camelot had ever seen, for he was the only knight who was never once defeated in battle or joust, for blood or for glory. Indeed, a powerful charm, or even the grace of God, seemed to ever envelope him in its sacred aura. Thus it was natural for the knights and ladies, and the King himself, to advise him on the highest calling of every true knight; and so it was that Parsifal set off on a quest for the Holy Grail.
4. THE SILENT WITNESS
The legends relate how Parsifal ventured down many a blind path and false trail in his search for the Grail. But one day as he rode along on his great white stallion, he was halted by a peculiar sight:a woman dressed in leaves and animal skins was rooting through the brush on her hands and knees, pulling up plants and putting them into a sack. Parsifal hailed her, but so intent was she on her curious work that she seemed not to hear him or even to notice his presence. Finally he dismounted and shouted: “What are you doing, good woman?”
This time she replied: “I’m gathering healing herbs to ease the pain of my Lord, for he is sore afflicted with a wound.”
This seemed to Parsifal a worthy task, so he asked, “Is there any way I can assist you?”
Now for the first time the wild woman stood up and looked at Parsifal. “Why, yes,” she said, “there is. The Sun is hot and the way is long, so perhaps you would be so kind as to allow me to ride your mount to my Lord’s castle.”
Parsifal immediately agreed. The woman then told him that her name was Kundry, and that she had gathered quite enough herbs for that day. He lifted her onto the horse, and set off walking whilst leading it with the reigns, in the direction she showed him. In this manner, after travelling apace for some time, Parsifal entered the grounds of the Grail Castle.
In the courtyard an aged knight was instructing some young squires. They were startled by the sight of Parsifal leading Kundry on his horse, and stood up to see what manner of intrusion this might be. Kundry bowed low before the knight and presented him with the sack of herbs. “How fares our Lord Amfortas?” she said.
“Not well,” said the knight, whose name was Gurnemanz. “The pain of the wound continues to increase, despite all the herbs and potions. He yearns mightily for death. We have persuaded him to perform the rite again tonight, though every time he has sworn it would be the last.” Then he gestured to Parsifal and asked Kundry, “Who is your companion?”
Parsifal stepped forward, and his face fairly shone with the boyish earnestness and sincerity which he had never lost in all his adventures. Gurnemanz and the squires could not help but be struck by this quality.
Kundry said to them: “He appears to be an innocent fool. And yet he has all the accoutrements of a knight and a fighter.”
Gurnemanz caught her import. “The prophecy!” he said. “Perhaps we shall yet have redemption.” Then he spoke to Parsifal, saying: “Why have you come hither, my son?”
“I am in search of the Holy Grail,” said Parsifal.
Gurnemanz was greatly moved. He clasped Parsifal’s shoulders and said: “Your eyes shall behold it this very night! Come with me.” Then he led him into the castle.
As Gurnemanz now explained to Parsifal, the magical nature of Amfortas’ tragedy was such that the wound he received by the Spear at the hands of Klingsor could never heal, and thus he had suffered for lo! these many years.
The tragedy had been compounded when the Grail Queen mysteriously vanished not long after Amfortas had received his wound. Bitterly did the Guardian lament his failure of duty in losing the Spear and his subsequent inability to expose the Grail when proffered to him by the Queen. This had prevented her, too, from fulfilling her sacred tasks, so it was no wonder, he said, that she had forsaken him and the castle. Perhaps she had found ways to carry on the work of salvation in other quarters and by other means; no one knew for sure, though everyone speculated and wondered.
Ironically enough, after the Queen was gone Amfortas found that he now had the courage to lift the cover of the Grail, when it merely sat upon the altar and was not in her embrace. In this way, the members of the Order continued to receive its sustenance. However, even the holy light of the Grail proved unable to heal the wound of Amfortas, reconfirming the knights in their opinion that this could be accomplished only by means of the magical instrument that had originally inflicted the wound, namely the sacred Spear, which was still in the grasp of Klingsor.
And irony was redoubled upon irony, for every time Amfortas exposed the Grail, it renewed his vital energies and forced him to live on with the pain of his wound, which seemed to slowly and remorselessly increase with every day that passed. Thus his will increasingly turned away from the ritual; he desired that the Grail should remain concealed until he had wasted away and died, and thus be relieved of his agony. The knights and ladies pleaded that this would also be the death of the Order, and, thus importuned, Amfortas performed the holy rite of renewal, though ever more rarely and reluctantly.
And now, as evening set in, the divers folk gathered in their places in the Great Hall of the Grail Castle. In the outermost circle stood Parsifal, with Gurnemanz at his side. The very last person to enter was Amfortas, borne on a litter by two knights. He was clearly in extreme pain.
Hymns were sung, the Grail King was invoked for mercy, and then the Grail was reverentially carried into the chamber in its chalice, and set before Amfortas. At the climactic moment of the ritual, he reached forth to lift the covering. At the first touch, however, his hand began to tremble, and he drew back.
The knights shouted in unison: “Fulfill your duty! Disclose the Grail!”
Amfortas writhed on the litter in the gravest torment of body and soul. “No!” he screamed, “I will not! I cannot! Have pity! Let me die!”
At the rear of the chamber, Gurnemanz’ attention was riveted by the tragic spectacle. He did not see the tears streaming down Parsifal’s cheeks as he stared at the miserable figure of Amfortas.
Then in the next moment every soul in the great hall was shaken as the voice of the Grail King boomed forth from above and resonated off the walls. “Amfortas!” it cried, “perform your sacred duty. Reveal the Grail!”
Amfortas now looked utterly resigned. Clearly making a heroic effort, he lifted the lid from the chalice. The sight of the Grail’s radiance sparkling forth from within sent a thrill of ecstasy up Parsifal’s spine. It blossomed into a burst of white light at the top of his head, and he could feel the majestic presence of the Grail King in the chamber above. Gurnemanz glanced at him at this moment, and was taken aback by what he perceived as a senseless blank stare.
The members of the assemblage received their needs from the Grail, and at the end Amfortas sealed it up once again. The ritual was over, and the people slowly and sadly filed out of the Great Hall.
In the courtyard, Gurnemanz angrily assailed Parsifal. “Do you know the meaning of what you have just seen? Do you have any idea of what has transpired before your eyes?” Parsifal could only look dumbly in front of him, as if he were greatly abashed. “Bah!” said Gurnemanz. “You are merely a common simpleton after all. Begone from here!”
Parsifal mounted his horse and rode toward the gate. He saw that the drawbridge was already being raised, so he spurred his steed which then leaped the last gap over the moat. But the edge of the drawbridge struck one of its hooves a glancing blow, and horse and rider went sprawling onto the broadsward beyond the moat. Neither was injured, and as Parsifal raised himself on the grass and looked back toward the castle, he saw instead only a tangle of forest and ferns illumined in the light of a gibbous Moon.
He gathered the reigns of his horse and was about to mount, when he noticed Kundry sitting on a large rock and regarding him with apparent amusement. “They don’t like me either,” she said. “Some, like Gurnemanz, tolerate me, but most suspect me of being a witch, or worse. This, despite all my efforts these past years to bring solace to Amfortas with my healing arts. And not once have they ever invited me into their ritual! Perhaps ’tis just as well, for I might meet the same fate that you have just suffered.”
Parsifal said, “Where can I find the castle of Klingsor?”
Kundry’s face was suddenly alight with a strange fire. She rose from the boulder and pointed westward down the road. She said, “Straight on until you reach the Abyss. Step over the edge and you will be there.”
“Thank you, milady,” said Parsifal, then leapt onto his charger and galloped off. Kundry looked after him, shaking her head. “The FOOL!” she said.
5. A CONJURATION
On the floor of a fetid chamber deep beneath Klingsor’s castle, there was a large round stone into which a mystic inscription had been carved with arcane letters, as well as a strange sigil. This device was a magical seal, and Klingsor now pushed it aside, revealing a hole reaching blackly into the depths of the earth. Now he set candles around the mouth of the pit, and burned incense which filled the chamber with pungent smoke. Then he performed a sorcerous rite, gesturing toward the hole and calling barbarous names.
“Ho!” he shouted, “Inanna, Tiamat, Lamia, Lillith, Gorgon, Lloigor! Hag of Hell, come forth!”
A low moaning was heard, and gradually became louder, as if someone or something was slowly rising up from the pit. Klingsor made beckoning motions and chanted: “Ishtar, Gundryggia! Awake and arise! Your master has need of you.”
A haggard form, female in aspect, struggled up from the hole, then momentarily fell back. The wizard invoked her again: “Kali, Kraken, Kundry! Arise and step forth!” With a terrible wail and moan, Kundry crawled out of the pit and sprawled herself at Klingsor’s feet.
After a moment she sat up and shook her fists at him, saying: “Why did you wake me? Ah! Sorrow! Sleep, sleep. . . deepest sleep. . . death!”
“The sweet release of death is not for the likes of thee,” said Klingsor.
“No,” she said, “only sleep. And I had just gotten back to sleep after another painful interlude with those insufferable snobs at the Grail Castle. And now you wake me so soon! Why? Why?”
“Prithee, my dear, I would not disturb thee without good reason. And the fact is that my other spies tell me that you have news of some import.”
Kundry rose to her feet and wiped clumps of roots and black earth from her rough garments. “Yes,” she said. “The fool prophesied by the Grail King is at this moment on his way to destroy you and reclaim the Spear.”
Klingsor guffawed with great gales of laughter. “And how will he be any different from the countless other fools who have fallen into my trips and snares, and been undone?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “This one DOES seem different. For one thing, he truly is innocent.”
“Aha!” said Klingsor. “In that case I must call upon the services of an expert in the art of liberating foolish youths from their innocence.”
“No!” she wailed, “not again! You can’t force me!”
“Oh, but I can. And you know it.” Kundry sank back down to the floor, moaning in despair
6. BATTLE OF ARMS
Parsifal had ridden west for several days. Now it was night again as he came to Land’s End. The Moon was gone, and the sky was covered by a coal-black mist so that neither could he see the stars. He stood on the edge of a towering precipice and looked over the lapping black waves of the vast ocean stretching into the infinity of an unseen horizon. Truly he had arrived at the Abyss.
But where was the castle of Klingsor? Every rumor said that it was somewhere in the Abyss, but he could not see it. Kundry’s words came back to him: “Step over the edge and you will be there.” This was a fearsome prospect! Even at this giddy height, he could hear breakers faintly crashing on rocks far below. If he stepped over, would some magic or miracle save him from certain death? Could he trust the word of a very witchy woman whom he had known for less than a day?
If this were a test of a fool’s credentials, Parsifal passed. He plucked up a flower from the ground, perched his sword jauntily upon his shoulder, and strolled toward the edge of the Abyss as if he had not a care in the world. His horse, standing untethered nearby, whinnied and reared as if to warn him of the danger, but he paid it no heed. He just kept walking until he stepped over the cliff.
For one heart-swallowing second his body lurched downward into empty space. But then -- halleluyah! -- the space was no longer empty. His foot clomped upon the solid wood of a drawbridge, which spanned a short stretch of darkness and led to the gate of a mighty castle. This edifice was of most peculiar make, with towers and battlements in fantastic shapes, and a sense of dark malevolence overarching all. The castle stood on a large island which seemed to have magically reared up from the ocean floor.
Parsifal crossed the drawbridge and passed through the gate, his sword at the ready. He entered the courtyard into brilliant light, though he could not see the source of it -- there was certainly no Sun in the sky, unless the Sun had turned black.
Suddenly he found himself under attack, as knights in strange armor assailed him from all sides. Instantly he swung his sword in a wide arc about him, and it clove the armor of his attackers like butter. The weirdest thing about it was the helmets, which were boxlike and rectangular, or in some cases polyhedral. The overall effect was that these creatures were automatons, mechanical men, an impression augmented by their herky-jerky movements. This made it easy for Parsifal, moving as swift as thought in the smooth flow of God’s grace, to cut them all down without sustaining so much as a scratch or a bruise on his own body. When he did this, however, blood flowed freely from the wounds and dismemberments of his opponents, proving that they were truly men of flesh, despite their robotic demeanor.
When the last enemy knight had fallen, Parsifal sheathed his bloody sword
and looked about him. He found that he was in a garden, surrounded by all manner of exotic blooms. Some of the flowers were as tall as a man -- or a woman. And indeed, to his wonderment, these flowers now opened their leaves and petals, and showed themselves as ravishingly beautiful damsels, with naked and delectable flesh beneath the verdant overlay. They all began to speak, or sing, a mournful refrain: “Oh, woe! You have slain our lovers and protectors! Why have you done this, o man?”
Parsifal was about to exclaim that he had defended himself out of dire necessity, but as he beheld the beauty of the flower maidens, a rush of unaccustomed feelings came over him; and he said instead: “Because, my lovelies, they barred my way to you!”
On a bat-winged battlement above, Klingsor watched the scene in concealment, with Kundry in close attendance. “Ah!” he chortled, rubbing his hands together, “the charm infallibly begins to work. Already he forgets his true purpose in coming hither.”
Kundry was no longer dressed in earth-stained tatters, but in the seductive finery of a regal courtesan. And even subtler raiment did she wear: a spell of universal beauty, so that any man who looked at her would see his heart’s desire. Any man, of course, but Klingsor, who was immune by virtue of his act of self-mutilation long ago. For this reason alone he was able to command the primal power of this most potent witch -- if witch indeed she was.
“Go down,” he said to her. “Be ready. My flower-sluts will not be able to pull it off -- I can sense it.” And swiftly Kundry descended the tower.