Parsifal Block Lesson

Sonia Setzer
Escola Rudolf Steiner in São Paulo, Brazil

Sonia Setzer has been the school doctor for Escola Rudolf Steiner in São Paulo, Brazil since 1972 as well as a general practitioner of Anthroposophical Medicine. Since 1991 she has served as President of the Brazilian Association for Anthroposphical Medicine. She has taught the 11th Grade Parsifal block since 1990. Valdemar is her husband and Professor of Computer Science at the University of São Paulo. He taught mathematics at the Waldorf high school in 1974-75. Their four children, now adults, attended Escola Rudolf Steiner from kindergarten through 12th grade. Valdemar wrote this report on Sonia's Parsifal class for the Waldorf Education Mailing List in October, 1994. If you have any questions or comments on the content of this article, please contact Valdemar Setzer e-mail. You may also want to visit Val's website that contains other interesting articles about Waldorf education.

Bob and Nancy

I would like to describe the last Parsifal block at our Waldorf school for the following reasons:
  • To study the Parsifal story in this way is, I think, a unique experience in the world
  • As such, it may serve as a guide for other Waldorf schools with high schools
  • To help create a sense of worldwide community by giving others an idea about some of our present local activities
  • To give some idea of the way a particular class was taught at a Waldorf school
  • To offer those schools without a high school a slight impression of its importance for the young people; maybe this account can become an incentive for the creation of a high-school.
In our school, it has become a tradition to give the Parsifal block, prescribed by Rudolf Steiner for the 11th grades, separately in an intensive way. In Germany, it is usually taught using Wolfram von Eschenbach's original (13th century) as part of the German Literature class which covers the Middle Ages. Here the class leaves town for a full week of activities centered around the legend. Usually they go to a primitive hotel, accompanied by the lecturer (since 1990, my wife Sonia Setzer, who is the school doctor; formerly it was taught by her father, Rudolf Lanz, one of the school founders and a leader of the local Anthroposophical movement; the present form of the block is her development), a painting teacher and the class sponsor.

The Parsifal legend (according to Steiner, Parsifal really existed, in the 9th century) tells the story of a naive boy, kept isolated from the world by his mother, who didn't want him to become a knight because her husband had died in a battle. He leaves home after meeting some knights in the woods, naively does bad things to some people, is made knight by King Arthur, is taught all the arts of knighthood, and then finds the Castle of the Grail. There he sees the Fisher King (his uncle) who is kept alive by the forces of the Grail while suffering from a wound that does not heal. Parsifal does not ask him why he suffers, the crucial question, and because of this fault (lack of interest in the suffering of another) wakes up next morning with the castle completely empty. He later learns of his fault, and starts a long quest for the Grail castle, full of adventures. He suffers a lot and progressively matures. At last, he is called back to the castle, poses the question to the Fisher King, thereby saving his and his court's fate, and becomes the Grail King. He also meets his half-brother Feirefis, who is a black (!) Moor ("pagan"). The legend is full of Christians motifs, but does not mention the Catholic church at all.

This legend makes a deep impression on students about seventeen years old. Through its images, they realize they are leaving a period where innocence and lack of responsibility dominate, and are beginning to enter the quest for the meaning and realization. What can they expect? Are they doing good or bad? What should be each one's Grail? Where are the Good and Evil forces? Are they leaving important questions unasked? These questions are not covered overtly by my wife; she lets the students discover the connections by themselves. During the last lecture this year, a boy said aloud: "Then Parsifal did what we are supposed to do!" You can imagine how happy my wife was, seeing that the students had experienced the message the whole block lesson was trying to convey. This clearly demonstrates Rudolf Steiner's deep knowledge of the particular circumstances and problems of each age. This is the basis of Waldorf Education.

This first class to take the program left on a Friday afternoon and returned the following Friday. The "hotel," extremely primitive (for instance, with large dormitories full of double-decker bunks) and located in the mountains north of the city (with playing field, swimming pool, etc.), was completely reserved for the thirty-one students. Experiences with other places where other guests or groups were also lodged were not very good.

The daily activities were divided as follows (this applies to this class; other classes could have slight variations):

Morning: The academic day begins with the morning verse and reading of some drafts written in the previous morning. In general, only a couple of students have their drafts selected for reading during the whole week. This time Sonia was very happy to be able to select drafts from a total of 14 students. Then comes a 1 1/2 hour lecture on Parsifal and related history (see program below) followed by 1 1/2 hour of individual draft writing by students on the lecture's subject; some material was dictated, based upon my wife's experience of the difficulty of each subject. Sonia reads the drafts produced each day, correcting mistakes in content, so the students may copy them in the next day to their notebooks.
Afternoon: 1 1/2 hour painting - students are given a special theme each day, like: landscape with castle, inside of a castle, a fight of knights, a face of some character from the story - it is typical for this age to choose "dark" characters, like those of Kundrie (the messenger of the Grail, whose face is horrible while Parsifal is not yet pure) and Klingsor (the magician who imprisoned four hundred young ladies in his Castle Merveille).

Then comes 1 1/2 hour of copying final drafts into notebooks based upon the drafts written the morning of the previous day (this way the subject is "worked" upon during sleep), which have already been revised by Sonia. In general, students include some decoration in their notebooks, like painting the margins or even each whole sheet, using different colors for the letters etc. A couple of students are chosen each afternoon to work on a collective production of a large book on the legend, with beautiful writings and many paintings that they later give as a gift to a 5th grade class.

(after dinner):
A special lecture covering other themes (see below).

After lunch time and late afternoon students have time for leisure (resting, swimming, playing ball, walking, etc.). Many continue to work on their notebooks or paintings.

This time the lectures on Parsifal followed this scheme:

Day 1  Literature related to the Grail legend. The legend, excluding Gawain's adventures.
Day 2  Analysis of the structure of Eschenbach's book. Meetings and important happenings in Parsifal's life.
Day 3  Considerations about the legend. Reality and fantasy. Scientific subjects appearing in the book, like Astronomy, Botany, Mineralogy, etc. The symbol of the sword. The differences between Arthur's and the Grail's communities.
Day 4  The symbols of spear and Grail.
Day 5  Historic movements related to the Grail: Essenes, Manicheans, Bogomils, Cathars, the Orders of the Temple (Templars) and of the Christ (in Portugal). Masonry. The history of the Grail temple (Albrecht von Scharfenberg, 1270) and esoteric Christianity from 14th century up to Rudolf Steiner (this greatly impresses the students).
Day 6  The meaning of some names which appear in the legend. The meaning of Parsifal's path.

The evening lectures had the following themes:

1. The Middle Ages life, mainly in the castles, knighthood, bards, customs. (This was given in their first evening, after arrival and dinner, and is a preparation for the main lectures.)
2. The threefold human being.
3. Child evolution and the seven-year periods.
4. The arts curriculum in a Waldorf school as a function of the child's/young person's evolution (this one was given by the arts teacher).
5. Gawain's story.
6. Slide projection of landscapes of Brittany, the Cathar castles, Arab buildings in Spain (this was given by a teacher who had visited intensively those regions).
7. Dreams. (Sometimes my wife gives also a lecture on the four temperaments - both themes are loved by students).

After each evening lecture students closed the "official" program of the day by singing (in English) the beautiful chorus by Michael Wilson, "In the Quest of the Holy Grail," considered by some as the "Waldorf Hymn." Those who wanted to work on their notebooks or paintings continued doing so, others did whatever they wished, as long as they stayed far from the dormitories, staying quiet to those who wanted to sleep.

The hotel manager said he had never seen such a calm group of students, who didn't mess up everything and didn't require constant attention and shouting from their teachers (Waldorf education...). Sonia said she felt this class had a special reverence towards the story. As the beautiful watercolor and charcoal paintings became ready, they were hung on the walls of the large painting room, which served also as dining and lecture room. The hotel's typical kitsch paintings were gradually replaced by student's paintings, and the room started to look like a museum, highly admired by the hotel's personnel. (You may imagine the impression this makes on simple, semi-illiterate people...)

For each student, the physical result of the block is the notebook and the separate paintings he or she makes. The notebook I am looking at now has 62 pages, handwritten with large letters and has many decorations, done with colored pencils and watercolors (the paper sheets are produced separately and then bound together). The first page has the title "Parsifal" and colored drawings of a castle, a knight with sword and helm, a little boy with his bow and arrow (Parsifal's first weapons), etc. The second page has a drawing of a knight in his armor and a landscape, and the fourteen first lines in the original mediaeval German ("Ist zwivel herzen nachgebur,/ das muoz der sele werden sur/...", "If inconstancy is the heart's neighbor, the soul will not fail to find it bitter."). Each morning before the lecture the students read these fourteen lines in the original German. The third page contains the fourteen lines in Portuguese.

I will translate the answer given by a girl to the question the students were supposed to write in the last page of their notebooks. This gives a first-hand impression of how the students regard this block lesson.

Q: Which episode impressed, interested or touched you the most?

A: I had a great surprise in getting to know that there are so many things to be learned in life. For me, it was impressive to see how much wisdom one may extract from a story. So many things that I, by myself, would not have the capacity or, better, the patience to perceive. I reached the great conclusion that I formulate too few questions. I keep never questioning things. This is a pity and now I may feel myself motivated to do so: I have quite a lot to learn and I want to learn everything I can. And the only things that are lacking are, to my disappointment, patience and time. The relationships of Good and Evil among the heretic sects interested me a lot. The conversation on dreams was very agreeable. To me, there remained doubts as to what "reaching perfection" should really mean. What is a perfect person, really, and does s/he cease to be a human being in this case? The relationship that highly attracted me was Parsifal's and our life, as a path to be desired by each one of us. The contents of these days made me become more connected to the spiritual intervention in our lives, and the desire to increase this connection everyday. I am impressed that a school may give us so much life experience, changing the paths of our lives.

Many thanks,

Janaina" [that's an Indian name, pronounced Jah-nah-ee'-nah, J as in French].