By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Although it was a last-minute addition, the myth of the Fisher King plays an important part in one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century: T. S. Eliot’s modernist poem The Waste Land (1922). But what is the story of the Fisher King, and what is its meaning and significance? Who was the Fisher King, and where did the myth originate?
Before we offer an analysis of the myth and discuss why Eliot found it so useful for his purposes, let’s take a closer look at the story itself.
Fisher King myth: plot summary
In Arthurian legend, the Fisher King is a man tasked with guarding and keeping the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is the cup that was said to have caught the blood of Jesus Christ as he bled on the Cross. It is also sometimes described as the cup used at the Last Supper, where Jesus entreated his disciples to drink wine in memory of him, the wine symbolising his blood.
In many versions of the story, the Fisher King is usually wounded or maimed in some way, usually because he has been pierced by a spear. In the most famous version of the myth, his wound is in the groin: a symbolic piece of retribution, inflicted by God in punishment for the assault on women which occurred at the Fisher King’s court.
In other versions, the wound is in the thigh, which may suggest the groin but may not have sexual symbolism.
The Fisher King, being so wounded, cannot lead his men into battle or tour his kingdom. Instead, all he is able to do is fish in a small boat on the river near his castle: hence his name, the Fisher King. His land is often described as a barren wasteland in which nothing will grow: the impotence he is suffering as a result of his groin wound is also echoed by the infertility of the land, where his crops fail.
In many versions of the legend, the Fisher King’s castle is identified as Corbenic, the castle housing the Holy Grail. Aside from passing his days fishing, the Fisher King has little to do except to wait for the coming of a noble knight who might be able to heal his wound for him.
The noble knight usually does come: it is either Percival alone or, in later versions, Percival accompanied by Galahad and Bors, knights of the Round Table of King Arthur, who have come seeking the Holy Grail, for which they have been on a quest for some time. These noble knights manage to heal the Fisher King in exchange for the Holy Grail.
Fisher King myth: analysis
Is the Fisher King’s wound symbolic, moral, or merely physical? We can probably discount the last of these, since even if the wound is not to his groin and does not represent divine punishment for some transgression, it’s clear that the wound is significant because it has rendered the king powerless and passive, dependent on the coming of another (who may, for all he knows, never show up) in order to heal him.
Therefore it seems sensible to analyse the maiming of the Fisher King as symbolic of some sort of penance or punishment: he is being forced to undergo suffering until such time as he is healed by the coming of another whose arrival is foretold.
The parallels with Jesus Christ are so clear as to be unavoidable. Just as Christ came down to earth to deliver all of humankind from its sins, spiritually healing us all (if one believes in the Christian story), so the noble knight will come and heal the spiritual and physical wound that afflicts the Fisher King.
Usually, Percival and Galahad are depicted as chaste knights, forgoing all pleasures of the flesh so that they may purify themselves and thus prove themselves worthy of finding the Holy Grail. (This is an idea which Monty Python had a lot of fun with in their film about Arthur and the Holy Grail.) In other words, they must show themselves to be devoted to Christ in order to come into possession of the Grail which caught Christ’s blood.
Similarly, of course, the Fisher King must give them the Grail in order to be healed, at least in many versions of the legend.
And there are also Christlike parallels in the Fisher King himself: in his wound inflicted by a spear (the Gospels tell us that, at the Crucifixion, Jesus was wounded in his side by a spear), in his kingliness (Jesus was Crucified as ‘King of the Jews’), and even in his pastime, fishing in the river, which recalls the importance of the fisherman in Christianity (Simon Peter being a fisherman, in whose honour the Papal ring is known as ‘the Fisherman’s ring’).
How, and why, did T. S. Eliot seize upon the Fisher King myth when he was writing his 1922 poem about post-war Europe, The Waste Land?
In one sense, he didn’t: he had written much of the poem before he encountered the myth and decided to use it as a way of bringing together many disparate elements of his poem: social and spiritual decay, sexual pleasures unaccompanied by a deeper sacred significance, and, of course, the motif of a waste land. Eliot then peppered the poem with a few references to various narrators engaged in fishing and, one might say, hoped nobody would see where he’d papered over the cracks.
But the Fisher King story does lend The Waste Land a degree of thematic unity, even if it was an eleventh-hour addition (as was the final title of the poem, which was originally called, less promisingly, ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’). In the critic Helen Gardner’s phrase, the Fisher King is behind rather than in the poem. But he is still an importance presence.
Eliot encountered the story of the Fisher King in Jessie L. Weston’s 1920 book From Ritual to Romance, which discusses this and other Arthurian legends. Eliot acknowledged his debt to Weston’s book (as well as to a work of comparative mythology by James Frazer, The Golden Bough) in his notes to The Waste Land.
The Fisher King story offers, in the last analysis, a way of understanding the many and varied themes of Eliot’s poem: the way human passivity and loss of direction has far-reaching impacts on all of society; the sense of listlessness and spiritual crisis that followed the end of the First World War; and the various symbols and motifs suggesting sexuality and (in)fertility which figure in the different parts of Eliot’s poem.
To return to Monty Python, the Fisher King myth is given a modern twist in ex-Python Terry Gilliam’s 1991 film The Fisher King, in which Jeff Bridges’ character can only be psychologically and spiritually healed for his past sins by encountering Robin Williams’ character, who tells him about the legend of the Fisher King. The Grail Quest motif is also updated in the film, with Williams enlisting Bridges’ help in stealing the ‘Grail’ (actually a trophy on a shelf in an office).