In Arthurian legend, the Fisher King, or the Wounded King, is the latest 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. 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 time, acknowledging the actual type of wound was considered to have robbed 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. Not surprisingly, such a wound was considered worse than actual death as it signaled the end of a man's ability to function in his primary purpose--to propagate his line which then, in the instance of the Fisher King, negates his ability to honor his sacred charge with respect to the Grail. In the Fisher King legends, not only does he become impotent and unable to keep his task himself, but he also becomes unable to provide for a next generation to do so and his kingdom suffers as he does, his impotence affecting the fertility of the land and reducing it to a barren Wasteland. Little is left for him to do but fish in the river near his castle Corbenic and wait for someone who might be able to heal him. Not surprisingly, said healing would involve 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.
Confusingly, 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.
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
The Fisher King's next development occurred around the end of the 12th 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).
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:
- King Pellam, wounded by Balin, as in the Post-Vulgate.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Modern versions of the legend
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.
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.
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 story is also dealt with in the 1991 movie The Fisher King, directed by Terry Gilliam.
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 in a similar manner to the main character of the series, Rand, whose emotions seem tied to the land.
The Fisher King's presence may also be recognized in the novel The Natural where Pop Fisher resembles him in the fact that while he was sick, the team was on a losing streak.
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.
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), and Matt Wagner's comic book series Mage.
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 episode "The Fisher King" 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.
- Oedipus, a king wounded in the feet, presiding over a cursed land
- Saint Nicholas, the miracle of wheat multiplication
- The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol by Roger Sherman Loomis ISBN 0-691-02075-2
- Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends by Ronan Coghlan
- From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston (available online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/frr/)
King Eahlstan the Fisher (Character in "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" by Tad Williams
- "Lanval", The Lais of Marie de France, translators Glynn S. burgess and Keith Busby, Penguin Books, 1999.
- Fisher King on In Our Time at the BBC. (listen now)
- Student Research on the Fisher King at the University of Idaho
- Fisher King research at the University of Rochester