Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach is a story from the Middle Ages of knightly exploits and romance centering around the Grail Quest.
The title character, Parzival, is an uncouth youth when he stumbles upon knights for the first time. Observing these noble men he unhesitatingly and with determination decides to become a knight. This intention is the first expression of a budding awareness of himself which plainly reveals–although in the form of a childish wish to begin with–what will prove to be his ultimate goal and true vocation. Parzival is more than a story about a man in need of self-knowledge. It is a tale of a unique individual in need of realizing his authentic self.
Although Parzival is young, inexperienced, and untrained, early in the story he engages the renowned Red Knight in battle and slays him. Untutored in noble action, he removes the knight’s armor from the dead body and dons it himself, effectively concealing his own identity and simultaneously impersonating the true Red Knight.
As the story unfolds, Parzival receives expert training and becomes a true knight in and of himself. He does not need to masquerade as one with a spurious costume. Parzival conceals his identity, continues to impersonate the Red Knight, or is misidentified until all but the final chapter of the book. It is only in the final chapter where Parzival satisfies the Grail requirement, releases the Grail King from his ongoing torment, heals the Wasteland, and himself becomes the Grail King that identity issues fade from a prominent position in the story line.
Although Parzival commandeers the Red Knight’s armor and wears this military shell for most of the story, the Red Knight’s armor does not constitute Parzival’s true identity. Through this costume his identity is confused with someone else. In fact, the Red Knights armor constitutes a persona, a mask, with which Parzival presents himself to the world. Emma Jung, C.G. Jung’s wife, so effectively describes Parzival and the Red Knight’s armor that I quote her at length. Referencing Chrétien de Troyes’ version, Perceval, she says:
It is noteworthy that Perceval puts the armour on over his coarse Welsh undergarment, from which he will not be parted. On the one hand this means that he feels the armour is essentially a part of him, on the other that basically he is not yet a knight, as he would wish to be, but only exhibits a knightly exterior. This corresponds to the concept that analytical psychology designates as the persona (mask). The term “mask” indicates that it is not the essential nature of an individual that is concealed behind the exterior and that a certain impression is the result when seen from the outside. To some extent, therefore, the persona forms a façade and is usually so constituted as to be suitable to the society in which the individual lives; for this reason Jung considers it a segment of the collective psyche. This means that the individual appears merely as a member of a race, clan, professional class, etc., and not as a human being with his own unique characteristics. Such a persona comes into existence more or less automatically, since the human being belongs to a particular nation and a particular family or class whose traits of character and way of life he shares. [. . .] At first he has simply to accept the role which falls to him as his share of the family or society to which he belongs. Consequently one is the child, the son, the daughter, the young man, the marriageable girl, the father of a family, the wife, the mother, the representative of a particular profession and so on. It is accordingly significant that Perceval does not know his own name, knows himself only as cher filz, beau filz or beau sire–the words his mother used in addressing him [. . .]
[…] the persona is not to be understood as nothing but a mask, as a wish to simulate something before the world; it is also an important and necessary mode of adaptation. [. . .] The persona deteriorates into a mere mask when it no longer fulfills its purpose but only conceals a void or worse, therefore falsifying the essential nature of the individual (emphasis my own). At the same time the persona-like clothing offers a defense against the world without which the individual would be all too vulnerable. It also often represents, in a way, a prototype or ideal of what is to be achieved, of what one hopes to realize. Thus it can serve as a valuable guideline. But when the ideal is wrongly chosen, when it is unattainable or unsuited to the individual nature, then striving towards it can often lead one into error.
The Red Knight’s armor may constitute the means of recognition or an identity to those who see Parzival or hear about him. However, Parzival’s armor is “only a defense against the world” protecting Parzival in his vulnerable state as he moves from being a youth to adulthood. For Parzival, the armor is not an ideal wrongly chosen. In fact, it represents a prototype or ideal of what Parzival is to achieve or hopes to realize. Nonetheless, it is a persona.
Sometimes an individual will identify almost completely with a social role, a piece of literal ego-history, or a persona-mask. At other times there may be an unconscious identification with some universal pattern, an archetypal configuration, a collective and primordial image. The problem is that the person is neither some social role nor an archetype. Parzival, when he becomes the Grail King, realizes his true vocation. His identity is not limited to this role and the persona-image of the Red Knight’s armor is no longer needed. His sense of self is stable and his authentic role is only a portion of this newly realized sense of self.
From her book, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz says that in fairy tales “generally, we interpret clothes as having to do with the persona.” For example, Little Red Riding Hood may be identified by an article of clothing within her community, however, the comment by von Franz suggests that the clothing equated as a persona is a superficial covering and is not her true identity.
Bruno Bettelheim in his book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales points out that in fairy tales “at the tale’s end the hero has mastered all trials and despite them remained true to himself [herself], or in successfully undergoing them has achieved his [her] true selfhood.” That is, at the end of the tale the character’s persona is no longer needed as a protective device.
In our everyday social context, a persona may be a defense against the world or it may be a prototype of a future intended achievement. Through these stories we garner an understanding of persona and identity and learn to differentiate between them. We then may recognize that the province of the individual is to accept the task to discard the identity assigned by society and assume a more authentic personal identity which is rarely identical to the persona.
Ponder what’s in your closet. Is your wardrobe a defense against the world or a prototype of something authentic and true? Has your “persona” deteriorated into a mere mask no longer fulfilling its purpose but only concealing a void or worse, therefore falsifying your essential nature? Are you in need of updating your wardrobe?