Teaching Parzival in 11th Grade
By Barbara Benson
In a Waldorf school, Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival is taught in the 11th grade English Literature class. It dovetails nicely with the history classes for 11th graders which cover Rome, Medieval and Renaissance history.
In my own homeschooling with my youngest daughter, I taught this unit in 11th grade English. Part of my English literature class was on American Literature and the other portion included literature that worked in with my main lesson for her in World History. I was a bit concerned about my youngest being uninterested in the book since she is my practical athlete, the one who is considering an accounting major for college. I remember she would fall asleep when I read Arthurian legends to both girls at bedtime in their elementary years! I should not have worried, she actually loved the book ( and she liked selected Canterbury Tales too).
A great resource for all high school English classes is the free online ebook at waldorflibrary.org , Life Lessons- Reaching Teenagers Through Literature by David Sloane. He has an excellent section on 11th grade which includes the chapter ,”Parzival: The Quest within the Question”. I highly recommend this as a teaching resource and liked his explanation of why the book is timely for today’s teenagers:
” …Parzival may be set in a medieval world of knights and castles, but it is a remarkably prescient and contemporary tale about the striving of human beings to bring spiritual values to life on earth in the modern age.” (99)
Parzival’s quest for wholeness as a human and spiritual being involves dealing with doubt, suffering, and lonely isolation from his beloved until he develops the capacity for compassion and moral fiber that allows him to care for and ask the right questions of humanity. He also learns deep lessons of kinship from both Feirefiz and Gawain. As Sloane notes, teens are often very self absorbed in 11th grade, but the message of Parzival “suggests that our greatest destiny moments cannot be accomplished by or for ourselves. We must bring our brothers and sisters with us.”(112)
There are many ways to teach this great work of literature. The approach I used after our discussion of the time period and the work itself was to have her answer weekly questions about chapters and themes in the book, followed by a mid-book test and a final test, both of which were open book.
One of the themes that I used throughout some of the classic books I taught in high school was to consider Parzival in light of the archetypal hero’s quest as enunciated by Joseph Campbell. One example of the outline of the hero’s journey currently available online is http://changingminds.org/disciplines/storytelling/plots/hero_journey/hero_journey.htm.
Earlier in high school we had applied the stages of the hero’s quest or journey to both Gilgamesh and The Odyssey. Her final essay for this unit was to write a 3-5 page essay on the following question:
“Campbell considered Parzival one of the greatest works of the European Middle Ages and a monument to love, “perhaps the very greatest love story of all time.” In the first page of your essay, please discuss why you think such a famous interpreter of myths and legends said this about the book. On the second page, please answer how you think Parzival follows Campbell’s steps of the hero’s journey. If you wish, you can compare this hero story to your earlier reading of Gilgamesh for extra credit.”
My daughter wrote an excellent essay. She was impressed by the faithfulness and devotion of Parzival and Conwiramurs . Here is a sample portion from her essay to show how the love story inspired her:
” What makes this love story so strong is the fact that their faithfulness and devotion lasted despite their separation during the quest. This is very significant because Parzival had every opportunity to act differently. Several other knights exemplified a lack of virtue or faithfulness. Parzival’s own father Gahmuret, for instance, was unable to commit to either of his wives and ended up leaving them both while they were pregnant. The noble love that Parzival demonstrates with Condwiramurs is the vital difference between a knight with honest values and a knight without them. In Parzival’s joust with Feirefiz, Feirefiz is confident and boastful that he will beat Parzival, “unless he thinks of love” (386), proving that Parzival’s true affection for his wife will overshadow any other incentive. Parzival’s motivation by this noble love is the natural impulse that was also required for Parzival to become lord of the Grail.”
I think there are definitely great themes for today’s teenagers in Parzival and I wish you success on your homeschooling journey through this wonderful book.