Character-defined Destiny

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Character-defined Destiny

The Greek poet Homer established the heroic epic literary genre more than two-and-a-half millennia ago with the composition of two voluminous works of art, the Odyssey and the Iliad. From its inception, the heroic epic cast human fate as a type of whimsical recreation for the gods. In fact, the word fate was adopted from the name of the Greek gods in charge of spinning the thread of human life and then cutting it when a person’s destiny had been fulfilled. Hence, a person’s fate in the Homeric epics was largely determined by providence, and a person’s individual actions had little bearing on what became of him or her.

We see a new understanding of fate begin to take form in the two primary heroic epics of thirteenth century German literature. The story of Parzival introduces the role of individual maturation in the fulfillment of one’s destiny, notwithstanding its predetermination by God through birthright. The Nibelungenlied, on the other hand, suggests that predestination is the result of the inevitability of one’s own idiosyncrasies: one acts in accordance with one’s own character traits and cannot act otherwise. Both understandings of fate, however, afford man a much larger share in the determination of his own destiny than the Homeric epics ever did and, as such, can shed light on the evolving notion of the “heroic” informing each work.

The story of Parzival and his quest for the Holy Grail was first told by French author Chrestien de Troyes in the 12th century; naturally, the fate of Parzival would have already been well known to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century audience. Then the focus of the epic is certainly not Parzival’s destiny, but his development and maturation throughout th...

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... The reason for this is that Gawan (and the code of chivalry he represents) regards his relationship with God in feudal terms, expecting reward in return for service. Even though Parzival once fell from grace and the favor of the round table, he was able to gain redemption through God with the help Trevrizent. By confessing his sins before God and atoning for his trespasses, Parzival was thus able to attain a higher level of honor.

Redemption is the pivotal piece of the heroic puzzle that the society of the Nibelungenlied lacks. In Parzival there is no sense of the imminent doom that pervades the Nibelungenlied, because of the society’s steadfast belief in God’s eternal mercy. And, as long as the society of the Nibelungenlied remains bereft of the potential for redemption, it will remain entangled in its own type of Atreus curse and doomed for self-annihilation.

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