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The Principle of Honor: A Poor Substitute for the Real Thing

That said, let’s turn to Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth, where Joseph Campbell hones in on the distinction between principled honor and honor that is genuine. In his forward, Evans Lansing Smith shares that of all original Arthurian-myth literature, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival is Campbell’s favorite. Being mine as well, I’d like to take a closer look. 

Parzival is a knight of many quests, one of which is to find the Grail Castle, a place visible only to those who qualify. What determines qualification is a composite of possibilities: sincerity, skill, training, grace, destiny, luck, who knows? Many have ridden through the surrounding terrain, and even inhabited it for years, yet never get a glimpse. 

The Grail King, also known as the Fisher King, is the keeper of the Grail, which in von Eschenbach’s narrative is a stone (as opposed to a dish or cup in other versions of the myth). The whole kingdom of the Grail has fallen into ruin because the king (who reflects that which he governs) bears a seemingly incurable wound to the groin. And here we can associate aspects of procreation with the Grail, which generates (apparently) anything out of nothing. For his wound (and, correspondingly, the whole kingdom) to be healed, the king need only be asked the one question: “What ails you?” 

That’s it. No exotic magical potions. No elaborate rituals enacted in twilight under auspicious planetary conjunctions—simply a question. It’s an odd solution, this question. But it is precisely its oddness that invites inquiry. What it means is up for grabs, and there are many opinions. Campbell writes that “[Parzival] has accomplished the worldly adventure . . . and now has come to the spiritual adventure, the one of asking the question, one that involves the Bodhisattva realization of compassion for all suffering beings” (52). 

I like this interpretation because it extends beyond a simple word-formula and into the emotional terrain of compassion, which implies a certain selflessness (which is, indeed, honorable)—something beyond the ego is at work, something nearer to the heart. However, when Parzival, after years of travail, does finally encounter the suffering Grail King and is compelled to ask what ails him, he does not because he has been instructed that a knight does not ask too many questions. And the quest fails. To this Campbell responds, “His nature prompted him many times to ask the question, but he thought of his knightly honor. He thought of his reputation instead of his true nature. The social ideal interfered with his nature, and the result is desolation” (52-53). And so, ironically, Parzival’s commitment to the principle of honor extinguishes any engagement or enactment of an honor that is genuine. 

Principles, applied dogmatically, do not acknowledge one’s story—as in “my story.” As mentioned previously, they surely have their value, but not when one applies their generic quality to all specific contexts. We could say that such principles provide a kind of essence, but that essence is removed from the environment in which it thrived—removed from the context that distinguished the phenomenology of its suchness, its character. To a mythologist, this environment is nothing less than its story. 

Fortunately, Parzival’s story isn’t over yet because he later embraces what Campbell refers to above as his “true nature.” For he manages to return to the Grail Castle a second time, a feat that was hitherto thought impossible—a feat described in the narrative as a “miracle.” But this time, seasoned by life-experience and wholly attentive to his context, he most certainly does ask the question and, yes, the kingdom is healed.

To this “miraculous” turn of events, Campbell emphasizes that “through your own integrity, you evoke your destiny, which is a destiny that never existed before” (79). Of all things, be they Grail-specific or not, that one insight is profoundly inspiring: that our destinies (i.e., our stories) are surely not written in stone, and that they can be inflected and redirected at any point if we simply embrace the fact that they are only and ever our own.


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