The Myth of the Fisher King Archetypes of the myth and its appearance in Ron Rash’s The World Made Straight by Jane McClain
THE FISHER KING MYTH In Arthurian legend, there is a story of the Fisher King. To summarize, a guardian of the Holy Grail is injured as a result of his inability to resist this sacred treasure. As he grows older, he searches for redemption. Parsifal (hence the name of Robin Williams' character "Parry" in the film The Fisher King) helps the guardian (also called the Fisher King) redeem himself. The red knight is an enemy of King Arthur, whom Parsifal slays. (In the film, the red knight represents Parry's hidden pain and emotional tragedy.)
The Original Screenplay Version (as written by Richard LaGravenese):
Myth continued But the boy was overcome. Innocent and foolish, he was blinded by greater visions--a life ahead filled with beauty and glory, hope and power. Tears filled his eyes as he sensed his own invincibility. A boy's tears of naive wonder and inspiration. And in this state of radical amazement, he felt for a brief moment, not like a boy, but like God. And so he reached into the fire to take the Grail. And the Grail vanished. And the boy's hands were left caught in the flames, leaving him wounded and ashamed at what his recklessness had lost him.
Cont. When he became King, he was determined to reclaim his destiny and find the Grail. But with each year that passed, with each campaign he fought, the Grail remained lost, and this wound he suffered in the fire grew worse. He became a bitter man. Life for his lost its reason. With each disappointment, with each betrayal, with each loss, this wound would grow.
Cont. Soon the land began to spoil from neglect and his people starved. Until finally, the King lost all faith in God's existence and in man's value. He lost his ability to love or be loved and he was so sick with experience that he started to die. As the years went on, his bravest knights would search for the Grail that would heal their King and make them the most respected and valued men in the land, but to no avail. Pretty soon, finding the Grail became a ruthless struggle between ambitious men vying for the King's power, which only confirmed the King's worst suspicions of man, causing his wound to grow. His only hope, he thought, was death.
Cont. Then one day, a fool was brought in to the King to cheer him. He was a simple-minded man, not particularly skilled, or admired. He tells the King some jokes, sings him some songs, but the King feels even worse. Finally, the fool says, "What is it that hurts you so much? How can I help?" And the king says, "I need a sip of water to cool my throat." So, the fool takes a cup from the bedstand, fills it with water and hands it to the King. Suddenly, the King feels a lot better. And when he looks to his hands, he sees that it was the Holy Grail the fool handed him, an ordinary cup that had been beside his bed all along. And the King asks, "How can this be? How could you find what all my knights and wisest men could not find?" And the fool answers, "I don't know. I only knew you were thirsty." And for the first time since he was a boy, the King felt more than a man--not because he was touched by God's glory, but rather, by the compassion of a fool.
Characteristics of the myth The Fisher King: • Depending on the author’s goal, some texts highlight the king aspect and some texts highlight the fisher aspect. • King: • responsible for the future of the kingdom • worldly wealth and power
Fisherman • Fisherman: • fishing skills may help to provide for his people in a natural, honest way. • The fish as Christian symbol—spiritual wealth, heavenly kingdom, fisher of men, feeding the multitudes
Identifiers • Wound—usually in the area of the groin (fertility), a leg, or thigh that inhibits him in some way and causes pain and agony. • The wound (a blight) serves as a reminder of his greed (or misguided priorities) and contributes to the infertility of the land hindering the progress of his people or culture.
Abode: A castle in traditional texts Often made of gray stone Place associated with the grail
Wasteland • Sterility of the king reflected in the land • The sterile king espoused to the land results in a barren land. • Symbolic of social and moral decay in modern texts (or a metaphor for modern apathy)
Helper • May be a “fool” in some texts • May be young and Naïve—metaphorical fool • May be a knight that saves the king and the land • In some texts, there are two fisher kings—father and son
The Red Knight • The king must be healed in order to restore fertility to the land • Obstacle: • Often represented as a red knight • Red symbolizes danger, anger, blood, and etc.
The Grail • Vessel associated with wealth—literal or figurative • Wealth can be what it contains • Prize that must be possessed to restore fertility or order • Christian adaptation—Christ’s cup from the last supper (not the original myth) • For Travis?
Other elements of the myth • Indulgence • Often represented by hedonistic partying where food and/or wine are consumed to excess • avoid responsibilities by indulging • Redemption • Healing of the wound and restoration of the kingdom • A brighter future • French words for "fisher" and “sinner" are almost identical (pêcheur and pécheur respectively).
Twists and Turns • A seemingly endless number of adaptations of the myth exist throughout history from the earliest writings till today. The number and extent of the variations make the characteristics difficult to pinpoint. Any new adaptation may incorporate bits and pieces from many or one of the older versions.
Contemporary Film Example CHIEF BROMDEN (from Carol Pearson's essay, "The Cowboy Saint and the Indian Poet: The Comic Hero in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." [Studies in American Humor 1,2 (October 1974), 91-98.]) Ken Kesey is a romantic. His wasteland is epitomized by Nurse Ratched, who "dreams of...a world of precision efficiency and tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren't Outside, obedient under her beam, all wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubes run direct from every pantleg to the sewer under the floor." His alternative to an orderly, mechanistic world is found among the psychopaths (for example, McMurphy), schizophrenics (Chief Bromden), neurotics (Harding), and idiots (Pete) who inhabit an insane asylum because they cannot, or will not, become well-adjusted robots. In less analytical times, these lunatics and idiots were called fools. (from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [New York: Penguin Books,
References • Overviewof the myth: • http://www.uidaho.edu/student_orgs/arthurian_legend/grail/fisher/ • Terry Gilliam’s movie: The Fisher King • http://members.shaw.ca/GilliamsGrail/index.htm