The Unasked Question, Retold by Paul Jordan-Smith

A classic quest seen anew

From The Boy's King Arthur, 1922. N.C. Wyeth
From The Boy’s King Arthur, 1922. N.C. Wyeth

Anonymous | Medieval European

“AND WOE TO HIM who failed to ask the question burning in his heart. For had he but asked, the king would have been healed of his most grievous wound, and the waste land made whole.” The old man leaned back against the rock and looked steadily at the younger one before him. The fire between them crackled, and the shadows danced on the walls of the cave. A silence fell.

At last, the young man took a deep breath and sighed.

“Alas,” he said. “I am that man.”

“I know,” said his uncle.

“And this also I know,” he continued. “Even now, it is not yet too late. You must make amends for what you have done and what you have not done. Then, and only then, will your past deeds no longer be a burden. Your mother, who died when you left home, you cannot bring back. But the king—he lives still, though in the greatest pain and suffering. And the land around his castle—that too may live again. It is up to you.”

The young man looked long and sadly into the fire. He took another deep breath and met his uncle’s gaze.

“There is no escape,” he said. “I will do whatever you require of me.”

“It is not I who require, but Heaven itself.”

“What must I do?”

SO BEGAN THE YEAR OF PENANCE AND SERVICE, in which the old man told his nephew about the castle and the king, about the wound from which the king would never die nor ever be healed but by one who should come in due time with open heart, about those who dwelt in the castle and the great duty they performed, though none among them was that man whose question alone would restore all to perfection.

And the young man, looking into his heart, unburdened himself of all that he had done and failed to do. He told his uncle how, as a youth, he had seen shining men ride by the simple cottage where he lived with his mother, and how he had taken them for angels, rejoicing when he learned that they were knights in service to the king. A desire had grown in his breast to join their company, and against all his mother’s entreaties, he had pursued that one aim until that day came when he rode forth, never looking back.

“Had you looked back,” said his uncle, “you would have seen your mother’s death. It is shameful that you did not, yet you had your destiny to fulfill. It is hard to make amends for what we cannot avoid.”

“Then,” said the young man, “I found that place where knights were trained and, oaf that I was, thrust myself into their midst, begging to join their company. They laughed, but they fed me and gave me straw for bedding, and I began my apprenticeship. The old man who trained me in the arts of combat was patient with my clumsiness, but even he was sorely tried by the endless questions I asked of him. One day, he said to me, ‘Young man, you speak too much, and this slows your learning. Rein in your tongue so that the rest of you can quicken to the need of the moment.’ And from that day forward, I asked no questions of him or anyone. In truth, my teacher was right. For from that day, I began to acquire the knightly arts at a great pace. I reined in my tongue, discovered stillness, and learned.

“Yet inside, the oaf lived still, and stupidly. When at last I rode forth as a knight in service to the king, I asked nothing of anyone I met. Silence taught me much, for what I saw and heard was unsullied by impetuous words. I came to the waste land, and to the castle there, and was welcomed without words, and said nothing. And when evening came and I beheld maidens carrying a strange vessel from which a rich light shone and lit

the hall, and when I beheld a lance from which blood dripped, and when, looking through the parting of curtains I beheld a wounded man lying on a couch and fed from the vessel, though I was filled with wonder, I asked nothing. When morning came, all that host of knights and maidens, and the wounded man, had vanished.

“From there I rode forth, deeply troubled by what I had beheld, until I came here to your cave, Uncle. Alas for me, who asked not the question burning in my heart, nor took heed of my wayfaring. For how can I find again the waste land and its castle?”

For a long moment his uncle looked at him. Finally he spoke. “In truth, you cannot find it again. Yet there is hope, for the one who was with you knows the way, if you will put your trust in him.”

“But Uncle, I came here alone,” his nephew replied. “I came only with my horse.”

“It is the horse of which I speak,” his uncle said, and at once the young man understood.

And so it was that young Parsifal, mounting his horse, let go the reins that he might find the way back to the castle of the Sangraal, there to ask the question burning in his heart, heal the Fisher King, and make the waste land whole. ♦

From Parabola Volume 38, No. 4, “Liberation & Letting Go,” Winter 2013. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.