Fisher King

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For the film, see The Fisher King (film).

In Arthurian legend the Fisher King, or the Wounded King, is the last in a long line charged with keeping the Holy Grail. Versions of his story vary widely, but he is always wounded in the legs or groin and incapable of moving on his own. In the Fisher King legends, he becomes impotent and unable to perform his task himself, and he also becomes unable to father or support a next generation to carry on after his death. His kingdom suffers as he does, his impotence affecting the fertility of the land and reducing it to a barren wasteland. All he is able to do is fish in the river near his castle, Corbenic, and wait for someone who might be able to heal him. Healing involves the expectation of the use of magic. Knights travel from many lands to heal the Fisher King, but only the chosen can accomplish the feat. This is Percival in earlier stories; in later versions, he is joined by Galahad and Bors.

Many works have two wounded "Grail Kings" who live in the same castle, a father and son (or grandfather and grandson). The more seriously wounded father stays in the castle, sustained by the Grail alone, while the more active son can meet with guests and go fishing. For the purposes of clarity in the remainder of this article, where both appear, the father will be called the Wounded King, the son the Fisher King.

Celtic mythology[edit]

The Fisher King appears first in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval (late 12th-century), but the character's roots may lie in Celtic mythology. He may derive more or less directly from the figure of Bran the Blessed in the Mabinogion; in the Second Branch, Bran has a cauldron that can resurrect the dead (albeit imperfectly; those thus revived cannot speak), which he gives to the king of Ireland as a wedding gift for him and Bran's sister Branwen. Later, Bran wages war on the Irish and is wounded in the foot or leg, and the cauldron is destroyed. He asks his followers to sever his head and take it back to Britain, and his head continues talking and keeps them company on their trip. The group lands on the island of Gwales (perhaps Grassholm), where they spend 80 years in a castle of joy and abundance, but finally they leave and bury Bran's head in London. This story has analogues in two other important Welsh texts: the Mabinogion tale Culhwch and Olwen, in which King Arthur's men must travel to Ireland to retrieve a magical cauldron, and the obscure poem The Spoils of Annwn, which speaks of a similar mystical cauldron sought by Arthur in the otherworldly land of Annwn.

The Welsh Romance Peredur son of Efrawg, based on Chrétien (or derived from a common original) but containing several prominent deviations, lacks a Grail. The character of the Fisher King appears (though he is not called such) and presents Peredur with a severed head on a platter. Peredur later learns he was related to that king, and that the severed head was that of his cousin, whose death he must avenge.

Later medieval works[edit]

The location of the wound is of great importance to the legend. In most medieval stories, the mention of a wound in the groin or more commonly the "thigh" (such as the wounding of the ineffective suitor in Lanval from The Lais of Marie de France) is a euphemism for the physical loss of or grave injury to one's penis. In medieval times, acknowledging the actual type of wound was considered to rob a man of his dignity, thus the use of the substitute terms "groin" or "thigh", although any good medieval listener or reader would have known exactly the real nature of the wound. Such a wound was considered worse than actual death because it signaled the end of a man's ability to function in his primary purpose: to propagate his line. In the instance of the Fisher King, the wound negates his ability to honor his sacred charge.

Perceval (Chrétien)[edit]

Chrétien’s Perceval (1180) is the first piece of work that mentions the Fisher King. In this work, Percival encounters a man and his servant fishing on a lake. These two individuals have a short conversation with Percival, which ends with them directing Percival to the Grail Castle.[1] Upon entry, Percival sees a beautiful castle and is surprised when he discovers that the Fisher King is the one to welcome him in. After entering, Percival is given a sword by the Fisher King and then celebrates Percival's arrival with a huge feast. During the feast, at the beginning of every course, a procession containing a candelabra, a bleeding lance, and a grail are all brought through the dining hall. Percival watches the objects go by and fails to ask the Fisher King about each procession. After the feast ends, Percival retires to his room, and once awake from slumber, discovers that the castle is in ruin and everyone gone. Over time Percival discovers that the failure to ask about the procession causes the Fisher King’s wound to remain unhealed. Unfortunately the story ends here, since Chrétien dies before the story's completion. Perceval contains the first mention of the Fisher King as the wounded guardian of the grail. The story does not explain the cause of the wound, and only states its location is in the thigh area. The only cure for the injury is Percival asking the Fisher king the healing question, although that event never occurs in the original story.

Parzival (Eschenbach)[edit]

Parzival was written in 1210 by Wolfram von Eschenbach, forty years after Perceval. Parzival, although a different work, is strikingly similar to Perceval. The story revolves around the grail quest and once again the main character is Percival. Similarly to Perceval, Eschenbach kept the story line of Percival not asking the healing question, which results in him questing for years. Eschenbach's Parzival differs from Chrétien's Perceval in three major ways. Firstly, the Fisher King is no longer nameless and is called Anfortas. Secondly the Eschenbach thoroughly describes the nature of the wound. The wound is a punishment for taking a wife (every grail keeper is required to remain chaste), causing the King immense pain. Then lastly Percival comes back to cure the Fisher King. Parzival, unlike its predecessor Perceval, has a definite ending.

Development of Fisher King in Later Texts[edit]

The Fisher King's next development occurred around the end of the 13th century in Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, the first work to connect the Grail with Jesus. Here, the "Rich Fisher" is called Bron, a name similar enough to Bran to suggest a relationship, and he is said to be the brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea, who had used the Grail to catch Christ's blood before laying him in the tomb. Joseph founds a religious community that travels eventually to Britain and entrusts the Grail to Bron (who is called the "Rich Fisher" because he catches a fish eaten at the Grail table). Bron founds the line of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.

The Didot-Perceval is thought to be a prosification of a lost work by Robert de Boron. In it, Bron is called the "Fisher King," and his story is told when Percival returns to his castle and asks the healing question.

Wolfram von Eschenbach took up Chrétien's story and expanded it greatly in his epic Parzival. He reworked the nature of the Grail and the community that surrounds it and gave names to characters that Chrétien left nameless (the Wounded King is Titurel and the Fisher King is Anfortas).

Pelles[edit]

The Lancelot-Grail cycle includes a more elaborate history for the Fisher King. Many in his line are wounded for their failings, and the only two that survive to Arthur's day are the Wounded King, called Pellam or Pellehan, and the Fisher King, Pelles. Pelles engineers the birth of Galahad by tricking Lancelot into bed with his daughter Elaine, and it is prophesied that Galahad will achieve the Grail and heal the Wasteland. In the Post-Vulgate Cycle and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, the Fisher King's wound was given to him by Sir Balin in the "Dolorous Stroke", when Balin grabs a spear and stabs Pellam in self-defense. The spear is the Spear of Longinus, however, and Pellam and his land must suffer for its misuse until the coming of Galahad.

In Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur there are four characters (some of whom can probably be identified with each other) filling the role of Fisher King or Wounded King:

  1. King Pellam, wounded by Balin, as in the Post-Vulgate.
  2. King Pelles, grandfather of Galahad, described as "the maimed king". In one passage, he is explicitly identified with Pellam; in another, however, he is said to have suffered his wound in quite different circumstances.
  3. King Pescheour or Petchere, lord of the Grail Castle, who never appears on stage (at least under that name). He owes his existence to a mistake by Malory, who took the Old French roy Peschour ("Fisher King", a phrase that Malory never otherwise uses) for a name rather than an epithet. Nevertheless, Malory treats him as distinct from Pelles.
  4. An anonymous, bed-ridden Maimed King, healed by Galahad at the climax of the Grail Quest. He is definitely distinct from Pelles, who has just been sent out of the room, and who is anyway at least mobile.

In addition, there is the figure of King Pellinore, who is Percival's father (in other versions of the legend, Percival is related to the Pelles family). It would appear that Malory intended to have one Maimed King, wounded by Balin and suffering until healed by his grandson Galahad, but never managed to successfully reconcile his sources.

King Pelles is the name of the Maimed King in some versions of the Arthurian legend. Pelles is one of a line of Grail keepers established by Joseph of Arimathea, the father of Eliazer and Elaine (the mother of Galahad), and he resides in the castle of Corbinec in Listenois. Pelles and his relative Pellehan appear in both the Vulgate (Lancelot-Grail) and Post-Vulgate Cycles, as well as in later works, such as Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (in which Pellehan is called Pellam). In the Vulgate, Pelles is the son of Pellehan, but the Post-Vulgate is less clear about their relationship. It is even murkier in Malory's work: one passage explicitly identifies them (book XVIII, chapter 5), though this is contradicted elsewhere.

Galahad, the knight prophesied to achieve the Holy Grail and heal the Maimed King, is conceived when Elaine gets Dame Brisen to use magic to trick Lancelot into thinking that he is coming to visit Guenever. So Lancelot sleeps with Elaine, thinking her Guenever, but flees when he realizes what he has done. Galahad is raised by his aunt in a convent, and when he is eighteen, comes to King Arthur's court and begins the Grail quest. Only he, Percival, and Bors are virtuous enough to achieve the Grail and restore Pelles.

Themes[edit]

Fisher King Injury[edit]

The injury is a common theme throughout the telling of the grail quest. Although some iteration has two kings present, one or both are injured-most commonly in the thigh. The wound is sometimes presented as a punishment, usually for phillandry. In Parzival, specifically, the king is injured by the bleeding lance as punishment for taking a wife, which was against the code of the “Grail Guardians”.[2] A thigh wound has been interpreted, by many scholars, in Arthurian literature as a genital wound. In some early story lines, Percival asking the Fisher King the healing question cures the wound. The nature of the question differs between Perceval and Parzival, but the central theme is the Fisher King can only be healed if Percival asks “the question”.[3]

In later iterations, Galahad became the focus of the grail quest. In Malory’s work specifically, the Fisher King is healed by Galahad, who pours the blood from the lance onto the king to heal his wounds.[4] The nature of the wound is still the same, located between the thighs.

Throughout Arthurian legend, homoerotic narratives have been found, and there are some strong arguments that they are present in the story of the Fisher King. The Fisher King’s wound can be interpreted as effeminate or in fact a “castration”.[5] The wound could be a feminizing aspect, especially coupled with the Fisher King’s inability to hunt. The treatment for this wound is also repeated contact by male servants (Roberts, 54). Furthermore, in some versions of the story, the only way to alleviate the Fisher King's pain is reinsertion of the spear that causes the wound. The reinsertion of the spear can be interpreted as the insertion of a phallic object. These depictions of the Fisher King gives credence to homoerotic undertones of the Fisher King.

Christianized Form[edit]

Most of the Grail romances do not differ very much from Parzival and Perceval. That being said there are two interesting exceptions to this case. The two pieces that hold a particularly strong Christian themed deviation than prior works are Queste del Saint Graal and Son de Nausay.[6] In Queste del Saint Graal, it is heavily Christianized not only in terms of the tone, but also the characters and significant objects. The Grail maidens become angels, there is a constant relationship between the knights and religious symbolism and most importantly the Fisher King is replicated as a priest-like figure[7] In the case of Sone de Nausay by Robert de Boron, Bron (the Fisher King) is part of a tale where the story makes a constant correlation between the Gospel narrative and the history of the grail.[8]

The Bleeding Lance[edit]

The bleeding lance has taken numerous forms throughout the Arthurian literature chronology. In the earlier appearances of the lance, it is not represented as a Christian symbol, but morphs into one over time. In Perceval and Parzival, the lance is described as having “barbaric properties” which are difficult to associate with Christian influence.[9] Chretien describes his lance with “marvelous destructive powers”, which holds a closer connection to the malignant weapons of the Celtic origin[10] In Chretien’s Perceval, the lance takes on a dark and almost evil persona[11] and also seems to overshadow the grail, which if this was a Christian story would be rather odd.[12] Wolfram’s tale also treated the lance in a similar dark manner. In Parzival, the lance is “poisonous” which contrasts sharply with the general trend of healing Christian themes. This lance is plunged into the Fisher King’s wound at different times to continue his pain, for having sought forbidden love.[13] This lance is considered significant because it is most often associated directly with the wound of the Fisher King, which is demonstrated both in Chretien's and Eschenbach’s versions of the tale.[14]

The more recent writings have the lance presented in the Fisher King’s castle with Christian theology. More specifically, it is supposed to be the lance that pierced Jesus Christ while on the cross. This is seen in both Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and the modern retelling Corbenic by Catherine Fisher. In Malory’s version the Fisher King is healed with the blood from the lance, signifying it as a good, holy, Christian object. In Corbenic we see the precession at the Fisher King's feast, featuring heavily on the Holy Grail, which is a strong Christian artifact. It can be extrapolated that in the same precession, the accompanying lance is the lance that pierced Jesus Christ.

Sword[edit]

The sword is commonly thought to be a gift from the Fisher King to Perceval. This is then followed by Perceval’s cousin’s prophecy that the sword will break at a crucial moment. In two cases, the writers tell us that Perceval broke the sword; in Eschenbach, it fails him in his battle against his half-brother at the end of Parzival, and Gerbert de Montreuil describes how he shatters it on the gates of the “Earthly Paradise”.[15] The adventure of the broken sword is a theme originally introduced by Chretien, who intended it as a symbol of Perceval’s imperfections as a knight.[16] The major example for his imperfection is that Perceval refused to ask about the Grail. This concept of punishment is also seen in Eschenbach’s tale where Perceval is told: “your uncle gave you a sword, too, by which you have been granted sin since your eloquent mouth unfortunately voiced no question there”.[17] The sword remains as a plot device to both remind Perceval of how he failed to ask the healing question and as a physical reminder of the existence of "Munsalvaesche" (Eschenbach’s name for Corbenic).

Modern versions of the legend[edit]

Richard Wagner used the myth in his opera Parsifal, based on Wolfram's work.

T. S. Eliot made use of the legend in his famous modernist poem The Waste Land.

Ernest Hemingway used this theme in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, through the main character Jake Barnes. Jake is a veteran of WWI who, because of war wounds suffered in the groin, is unable to perform sexually and only finds balance in life by going fishing.

The story is told in Éric Rohmer's 1978 film Perceval le Gallois, based on Chrétien de Troye's Perceval. The story of a wounded king whose wounds cause the land to become a wasteland, then healed by the grail recovered by Percival, is woven directly into the story of King Arthur in John Boorman's 1981 film Excalibur.

The 1991 movie The Fisher King, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, draws on this story.

Don Nigro's play Fisher King retells the story during the American Civil War.

Other modern takes on the Fisher King appear in novels like C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, Paule Marshall's The Fisher King: A Novel, Tim Powers' novels The Drawing of the Dark and Last Call, Susan Cooper's The Grey King (part of The Dark Is Rising Sequence), Michael Scott Rohan's Cloud Castles (part of his Spiral sequence), and Matt Wagner's comic book series Mage.

In 1998, David Crosby wrote and recorded a song with the band CPR, called "Somehow She Knew", based on personal experiences and the movie The Fisher King.

Joan Didion compared president Ronald Reagan to the legendary king in her critical essay "In the Realm of the Fisher King," published in 1989.

In Stephen Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, Merlin's grandfather Avallach, previously a king of lost Atlantis, is explicitly called the Fisher King. He carries a wound never healed from battle and spends his later years in Britain fishing on the lake. The character appears again in opera in Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage, partly inspired by Eliot's poem.

Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series includes a game where the central piece is called "the Fisher", which is a piece in the shape of an old, blinded and wounded man. The wounds on the playing piece mirror those sustained by the main character, Rand al'Thor. Like the Arthurian Fisher King, al'Thor's mood and physical health both have significant tangible impacts upon the world.

A more comic take on the same theme is David Lodge's Small World: An Academic Romance, where a senior academic, Professor Kingfisher, is unable to have "an erection or an original thought" until restored by a pertinent question asked by Persse McGarrigle (the Percival figure in the book).

A different take on the legend is told in the comic book series Fables written by Bill Willingham where the immature siblings Therese and Darien are transported to the land of "Discardia". Starvation is the threat as nothing exists in the desolate realm except broken yet sentient toys. Therese is crowned queen by these toys but descends into sin through her hunger. Darien sacrifices himself to save his sister by stabbing himself in the heart and pouring his blood into a large chalice which transforms into a magical vessel of never ending food. His body regenerates the land and "heals" a nearby stuffed toy (a dog) and he is referred to as the Fisher King.

The comic book writer Pat Mills explores elements of Arthurian legend (including the wounded/fisher king) in his 'Slaine' novel 'Treasures of Britain'.

Acoustic artist Frank Turner wrote a song called 'The Fisher King Blues' for his 2013 album 'Tape Deck Heart'.

The English series Merlin features the Fisher King in an episode called Eye of the Phoenix. Arthur is required to complete a traditional quest and Merlin becomes involved only to find that it is also a quest for him; the Fisher King rewards him with water from Avalon.

The police procedural series Criminal Minds episodes "The Fisher King" parts one and two featured a psychotic murderer who believed he was the Fisher King, and that FBI agent Dr. Spencer Reid was Percival, arrived to ask the healing question. The two show arc included the final episode of season one and the first episode of season two.

The 2014 novel The Resurrection of Rey Pescador by Alfred Cedeno alludes to the legend of the Fisher King throughout, especially in the chapter "The Wounded King."[18]

See also[edit]

  • Oedipus, a king wounded in the feet, presiding over a cursed land

References[edit]

  1. ^ Chretien de Troyes (2013). Perceval. New York: Routledge. ISBN 97-80-41578-28-90.182
  2. ^ Brown, Arthur (1910). "The Bleeding Lance". PMLA (PMLA) 25 (1): 1–59: 6
  3. ^ Eschenbach, Wolfram von (2013). Parzival. New York: Routledge. ISBN 97-80-41578-28-90
  4. ^ Barber, Richard (2004). The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Cambridge: Harvard University
  5. ^ Roberts, Anna (2001). "Queer Fisher King: Castration as a Site of Queer Representation ("Percival,Stabat Mater, The City of God"". Arthuriana (Arthuriana) 11 (3): 49–98: 51
  6. ^ Stone, Alby (1989). "Bran, Odin, and the Fisher King: Norse Tradition and the Grail Legends." Folklore (Folklore) 100 (1): 25–38: 27.
  7. ^ Stone, Alby (1989). "Bran, Odin, and the Fisher King: Norse Tradition and the Grail Legends." Folklore (Folklore) 100 (1): 25–38: 27.
  8. ^ Barber, Richard (2004). The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Cambridge: Harvard University. 40
  9. ^ Brown, Arthur (1910). "The Bleeding Lance". PMLA (PMLA) 25 (1): 1–59. 6
  10. ^ Brown, Arthur (1910). "The Bleeding Lance". PMLA (PMLA) 25 (1): 1–59. 2
  11. ^ Brown, Arthur (1910). "The Bleeding Lance". PMLA (PMLA) 25 (1): 1–59. 2
  12. ^ Brown, Arthur (1910). "The Bleeding Lance". PMLA (PMLA) 25 (1): 1–59. 27
  13. ^ Brown, Arthur (1910). "The Bleeding Lance". PMLA (PMLA) 25 (1): 1–59. 6
  14. ^ Brown, Arthur (1910). "The Bleeding Lance". PMLA (PMLA) 25 (1): 1–59. 3
  15. ^ Barber, Richard (2004). The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Cambridge: Harvard University. 106
  16. ^ Barber, Richard (2004). The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Cambridge: Harvard University. 107
  17. ^ Eschenbach, Wolfram von (2013). Parzival. New York: Routledge. ISBN 97-80-41578-28-90.205
  18. ^ isbn 0990353826

Bibliography

Further reading[edit]

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