The Fisher King
And a man stood there, as still as moss,
	A lichen form that stared;
With an old blind hound that, at a loss,
	Forever around him fared,
	With a snarling fang half bared.

I looked at the man; I saw him plain;
	Like a dead weed, gray and wan,
Or a breath of dust.  I looked again--
	And man and dog were gone,
	Like wisps of the graying dawn...
			
		--Madison Cawein, "Wasteland"
f the many symbols evident within the framework of the Grail motif, the Fisher King stands as perhaps the most abstract and enigmatic. Many Arthurian scholars have tried to encapsulate his significance over the years. Jessie Weston, for one, argued convincingly in her groundbreaking work, From Ritual to Romance, that the Fisher King is derived from pagan fertility rituals, and that beneath the surface of the numerous legends can be discerned the rites of primitive cults. Others, such as Heinzel and Nutt, have suggested that the Fisher King can be reduced, instead, to his archetypal status as the keeper of the Holy Grail, a position which entrenches him firmly within the iconography of esoteric Christianity. And still other scholars hold that the Fisher King is an amalgam, initially appearing in the wake of the Third Crusade, developed as a means for fusing the colliding Occidental and Oriental cultures. For the sake of clarity these radically diverging stances shall henceforth be delegated to three main categories: Celtic/Cult, Christian, and Chymical. This is possibly an over-simplification of the matter, but then again, as the romance writers of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries make plain, nothing associated with the Holy Grail or the Fisher King is ever wholly explicit. "The nearer the knights of Arthur's court approach the Grail Castle," William Nitze remarks, "the more illusive and intangible the holy vessel appears. Thus one might say the Grail symbolizes in its evasiveness the problem of its own origin." To this end it is irresponsible to think that there is a single conclusive answer to the matter of the Fisher King and his sacred charge, the Holy Grail. As Weston comments in frustration, "from the standpoint of a Christian interpretation the character of the Fisher King is simply incomprehensible, and from the standpoint of Folk-tale inadequately explained." Still, she goes on to add, it cannot be denied that the Fisher King functions as "the very essence of the tale." In other words, anyone seeking the Grail, be it hero, scholar, or a combination thereof, must first negotiate the perplexing matter of the Fisher King. A clearer understanding of the Fisher King and his significance can be found in his salient traits as they present themselves in the various versions of the legend. The following abbrev iations will be used:
  • C = Chretien de Troyes, Conte del Graal (c. 1160-1180)
  • Co = Wauchier de Denain, First Continuation (c. 1180-1200)
  • D = Robert de Boron, Didot-Perceval (c. 1191-1202)
  • P = The Mabinogion, Peredur (c. 1200)
  • Per = Perlesvaus-The High History of the Grail (c. 1200)
  • W = Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival (c. 1217)
  • Q = The Quest for the Holy Grail

(I) NAME: There are several primary variations regarding how the Fisher King is addressed in medieval romances. The title used most often is roi pêscheur, or Fisher King. Chrétien and his continuators prefer this epithet, as do most of the earlier versions that illustrate the growth and development of Perceval (P, Per, D). Later, more theologized versions, on the other hand, typically refer to the Grail keeper as riche pêscheur, or Rich Fisher (Q). And those authors wishing to emphasize the infirmity of the king and the desolation affecting his domain sometimes even use the title roi mehaigné, or Maimed King. The matter largely depends, as Heinzel has suggested, on whether the "fishing" or the "kingship" is the primary concern of the author. And in fact this crucial distinction can be used to identify the essential premises underlying the Celtic and Christian approaches.

The Celtic explanation has been championed by the big names in modern Grail scholarship, names like R. S. Loomis and Richard Cavendish. Generally speaking, advocates of the Celtic position believe that the immediate prototype of Chrétien's Fisher King is Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr, and the principle figure in the story of Branwen (c. 1060). Bran was originally a god, derived either from some pagan Briton deity or from an Irish sea-god, Manannan mac Lir, who, as Loomis explains, "dwelt on an elysian isle, where old age was unknown and where his company of immortals banqueted without stint and without end." He was of gigantic size. It was rumored that no house was big enough to contain him. Moreover it was also handed down that he possessed a magic cauldron which could restore the dead to life, no doubt an early model for the Grail. By the time Bran first appears in the Mabinogion, though, the euhemeristic process had transformed him into a mystical king of the Britons, a superhuman intermediary po ised between this world and the next.

It is said that Bran had a sister, Branwen, who was the most beautiful girl in all the land. As a gesture of goodwill he gave her and the cauldron to the King of Ireland. Shortly thereafter the Irish started to neglect their alliance with Bran. So Bran assembled his army and invaded Ireland. The great battle that ensued brought about two major catastrophes: the magic cauldron was destroyed and Bran was wounded in the foot by a poisoned spear. An old poem in the Book of Taliesin refers to the latter of these two calamities: "I was with Bran in Ireland; I saw when 'the Pierced (Thick) Thigh' was slain (wounded)." Branwen was rescued and safely returned to Briton, but because of Bran's injury and the destruction of the cauldron, the land of Briton fell into disrepair. Only seven Briton warriors survived the expedition, one of whom was Bran's nephew, Pyrderi, a probable forerunner of Perceval. Greatly tormented by his wound, Bran ordered the survivors to cut off his head, which they did. The head was then carried back to Briton. Branwen died of grief for having caused such widespread carnage and despair but the head of Bran persevered in a charmed state of animation for seven years. After that time the survivors moved on to Grassholm where they found a royal hall overlooking the sea. There they spent eighty carefree years in the company of the head. They were not conscious of the passing time and did not age; that is, until one of the members of the party broke the enchantment of the castle. And so the seven were forced to leave Grassholm. They took the severed head back to London where it was buried in the White Hill facing across the channel toward France. It is believed in some parts of Wales that the vigil of Bran (only later was he given the Christian epithet bendigeid, 'Blessed') continues to ward off plagues and invaders from the British Isles to this day.

Here we have a story bearing an uncanny resemblance to later Grail romances. There is a worthy, charmed king in possession of a life-sustaining cauldron. He is afflicted by an agonizing wound that directly correlates to the desolation of his domain. And for a time he presides over an otherworld feast, at which his followers are regaled with food and drink, while oblivious to grief and worldly concerns. Based on these overwhelming similarities it is hard to refute Bran as the likely forebearer of Chretien's Fisher King. Yet Weston does just this. In place of Bran, she submits that the true origins of the Fisher King can be traced back to pagan Mystery Cults, and in particular the Irish story of the Salmon of Wisdom, centered around the exploits of Finn Mac Cumhail.

As a boy, Finn is said to have entered into the service of an old man, Finn Eger, who had been waiting seven years for the Salmon of Lynn Feic. Shortly after arriving, the youth succeeds in catching the fish where his elder had failed. The old man takes charge of the catch nevertheless. The young Finn is told to watch the fish while it roasts with the specific condition that he not eat any of it. But the boy, being young, hungry and impulsive, disobeys the command. He reaches into the fire to assuage his gnawing hunger, burning his hand in the process. As he put his thumb into his mouth to soothe the pain, he immediately became possessed of all knowledge, thereby becoming the symbolic successor of Finn Eger. In this myth the wonderful fish initially appears as a feature common to Celtic otherworld tales. It is "the magic food," writes Nitze, "whereby a hero is made immortal, and which enables him to be re-born." This theme, literally 'food for thought,' is also evident in the Welsh tale of Gwion, who partakes of the Cauldron of Inspiration, only to be reincarnated as Taliesen the bard. But the most obvious carry-over of this tradition(the concept of a sacred fish as a source of enlightenment(can be seen in the Christian applications of the story.

It is generally well-accepted that the fish is a symbol of Christ. In one prayer ('Iesous CHristos Theou HUios Soter, or Jesus Christ, Son of God the Saviour(the first letters of each word spell out the Greek word for fish. Christ Himself is known as the fisher, and the fishnet is the symbol of the Christian sermon. Accordingly, the name of the Fisher King is connected with the words of the Saviour: "I shall make ye fishers of men" (Matth. IV.19, Mark I.17, Luke V.10), which would make anyone who converts many a rich fisher. Moreover, since fishing is directly equated with proselytizing in later Christianized versions (Q), it makes sense that these sources would disregard the physical act of fishing altogether. The Rich Fisher is wealthy in the spiritual sense, having received the blessing of the Lord. He has no further need for secular affluence. In these cases, Cavendish observes, "the purpose of the quest is no longer succession to a throne, unless it is a heavenly one. Healing the crippled king and breaking the spell on the land are only incidental to [the more central theme of spiritual enlightenment]." Case in point, the plight and exodus of Joseph of Arimathaea.

Joseph is the wealthy Jew to whose care the body of Christ is given for burial, and who, according to some stories, also comes to possess the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. While washing the body, he collects some of the blood in the holy vessel, and from that day forth he is extremely devout, praying daily. His fidelity is unsurpassed, but his zealousness, while spiritually enriching, only evokes the spite and animosity of his peers. So he is forced to leave Jerusalem, accompanied by his sister, his brother-in-law Bron, and a few select followers. Their voyage eventually carries them to Britain, where Joseph sets up the first Christian church at Glastonbury. It is there that the Grail is housed and henceforth used at the celebration of the Mass, or so one version goes. Perhaps a more pertinent telling of the story, though, at least with regard to the Fisher King, is provided by John Matthews in his book, The Grail: Quest for the Eternal.


In other versions Joseph goes no further than Europe, and the guardianship of the cup passes to Bron, who becomes known as the Rich Fisher after he miraculously feeds the company from it with a single fish, echoing Christ's feeding of the five thousand. The company settles at a place called Avaron (perhaps the same as Avalon, the Celtic name for the Otherworld, also identified with Glastonbury) to await the coming of the third Grail Keeper, Alain. A temple is built on Muntsalvach, the Mountain of Salvation, to house the vessel, and an order of Grail Knights comes into being. They sit at a Second Table, and partake of a sacred feast provided by the Grail; a form of Mass also takes place at which the Grail Keeper, now called King, serves as priest. Shortly after, he receives a mysterious wound, variously said to be in the thighs or the genitals, caused by a spear and attributed to one of several different causes among which are the loss of faith, the love of a woman against a vow of chastity , or an accidental blow struck by a stranger in self-defense. Hereafter the guardian is known as the Maimed or Wounded King, and the country around the Grail castle becomes barren and is called the Wasteland(a state explicitly connected with the Grail King's wound. The spear with which he is struck becomes identified with the Lance of Longinus, the Roman soldier who in Biblical tradition pierced the side of Christ on the cross. This spear, the Grail, a sword and a dish-shaped platter (which in mo re primitive versions of the story may have borne a human head [cf. Bran the Blessed], and which becomes confused with the Grail itself) constitute the objects, called Hallows, to be found in the Grail castle.

(II) ABODE: The Fisher King resides at the Grail Castle, an otherworld domain with the Celtic peculiarity of appearing and disappearing at any given moment. In Chrétien, Perceval is directed there by the Fisher King himself, but is unable to find it. He is just about to berate the fisherman for deceiving him when the castle suddenly appears in the distance: "Constructed of gray stone, it was square and flanked by turrets," with a "beautiful and well-situated" tower utterly beyond compare. A similar sequence of events is presented in the Didot account. Perceval is on the verge of giving up his search when a similar mysterious tower materializes before him, this time situated between two hills. In most instances the castle is only found by chance, and rarely before nightfall. Furthermore, it typically lies beyond some natural obstacle, a river, forest, or range of mountains (C, D, Per, P), all of which supports the notion that the castle, like its host, is enshrouded by some enchantment(the Fisher King mystique. Evidently it is not situated in any particular place; or if it is, it is not always visible to mortal eyes. And when Perceval finally does reach the castle in due time, his host has somehow arrived before him, despite the fact that the hero is on horseback and the Fisher King has to be carried in a litter. More often than not, the Grail Knight is unable to find the castle on his own accord, which means that someone or something is always interceding to keep him pointed in the right direction. The Fisher King himself directs Perceval in most versions, but this guidance can also be provided by a "helpful animal" (Co) or even "two children sitting in a tree" (D). "To seek the actual historical location is to miss the point," Malcolm Godwin notes, "and yet the two worlds do cross at certain sacred places." Castell Dinas Bran, for instance, is often linked to the Fisher King. Perched high above the River Dees in North Wales, it was rumored to be the stronghold of the god Bran, a point which lends credence to the Celtic approach. Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that what we are dealing with here are supernatural figures and events. There is no evidence in the romances that would suggest a permanent, static dwelling place, nor should we harbor any hope of one day finding its ruins. As the veritable locus of the Grail Quest the Grail Castle must remain as cryptic and arcane as the Grail itself.


(III) INFIRMITY: That the Fisher King is incapacitated in some manner or another remains one of the few threads consistent to almost every version. The general conception of the Fisher King is that he is either very old or afflicted by some grievous wound. In the case of the latter, the injury is usually located in the generative region (the groin or thigh), but it can be manifested in the foot or heel as well, and is invariably a source of tremendous pain and agony. Still, these principle themes not withstanding, romance writers took a great many liberties when it came to the actual descriptions of the infirmity in question. The original image of the Fisher King, as found in Chrétien, is of a king in perpetual torment. He is courteous and hospitable, not to mention "handsome with graying hair," but these traits are overshadowed by his awkward inability to stand. His wound in the thigh keeps him confined to a litter, much to his disgrace and ignominy. Peredur remains true to this initial portrayal: the Fisher King is shown seated, apparently because of the wound, and is referred to as a "stately hoary-headed man." From here on out, though, variations run rampant. The First Continuation ignores the wound altogether. Some unnamed knight has been killed and lies suspended on a funeral bier, but the king himself is cast as "a tall and stalwart knight of a good age, a little grizzled." The realm lies in waste, yet the Grail Knight's quest is to avenge the murder of the brother, not to heal the Fisher King. On the flip side there are some instances where the wound is, if anything, overemphasized. In these cases old age and infirmity often overlap, doubling the miseries of the king. "A bitter bargain was struck twixt him and happiness," one author writes; "he lived toward death in dire distress" (W). While another version presents the enfeebled Fisher King as being so "old and frail and full of great ills that he could stir neither hand nor foot" (D). In Perlesvaus the languor affecting the Fisher King and the corresponding desolation of the land stems, not from any wound, but from the Grail Knight's failure to ask the question, 'Whom does the Grail serve?'

The source of the wound is another disputed point of interest that has fostered various interpretations from romance writers. Chretien reports that the wound was inflicted with a spear thrust through the thighs (parmi les hances ambedeus), while others maintain that it was caused by a lance, though not necessarily the Lance of Longinus (W, Q). In some instances it is even a poisonous sword that doles out the wound. Other variations include the Christian stance, that Bron was smitten for his lack of faith or a broken vow of chastity, and the Celtic stance, whence Finn Mac Cumhail is punished for tasting the salmon, either directly by the owner, who shoots him through the testicles with a poisoned arrow, or symbolically for having overstepped his bounds. Whatever the case may be, the wound is usually not confined to the Fisher King's immediate person but further constitutes a blight on his realm.


(IV) THE WASTE LAND: The concept of physical sterility carrying over into other spheres of life was an appealing objective correlative for poets in the wake of the first World War (used most effectively by T.S. Eliot to symbolize social and moral decay). But the intimate relationship existing between a monarch and his provinces probably relates back to a pagan strand from much earlier times. The waste land ultimately springs from an old Celtic belief in which the fertility of the land depended on the potency and virility of the king; the king was in essence espoused to his lands. In his comprehensive study, The Golden Bough, J. G. Fraser identifies a similar ritual in various cultures the world round. "The king's life or spirit is so sympathetically bound up with the prosperity of the whole country," he writes, "that if he fell ill or grew senile the cattle would sicken or cease to multiply, the crops would rot in the fields, and men would perish of widespread disease." Such is the case in the Grail legends as well. The woes of the land are the direct result of the sickness or the maiming of the Fisher King. When his power wanes, the country is laid waste and the soil is rendered sterile: the trees are without fruit, the crops fail to grow, even the women are unable to bear children. To suggest that the waste land functions at the very heart of the problem seems a gross understatement indeed. Once again, Weston takes the matter one step further: "In the Grail King we have a romantic literary version of that strange mysterious figure whose presence hovers in the shadowy background of the history of our Aryan race; the figure of a divine or semidivine ruler, at once god and king, upon whose life, and unimpaired vitality, the existence of his land and people directly depends."

In the case of the waste land the solution assumes the form of the questing Grail Knight. He is the one who must ask the loaded question that restores fertility to king and land alike. However, as Cavendish notes, the healing of the Fisher King and his lands is never satisfactorily resolved in the medieval romances that have been handed down:

The tradition of the king as the mate of his land lies behind the Waste Land theme in the Grail legends, but the theme in incoherent and amorphous. The pattern ought to be this: a king is crippled or ill; as a result his land is barren; the hero heal s the king and fertility is restored to the land; probably, the hero's feat shows that he is the rightful heir. There is no Grail story in which this simple and satisfactory pattern appears (nor has any Celtic story survived which contains it). In the First Continuation there is a waste land which is restored, but no crippled or ill king and consequently no healing. In Parzival there is a crippled king who is healed by the hero, but there is no waste land. In Perlesvaus there is an ill king and a waste land, but no healing.

(V) THE GRAIL KNIGHT: Jessie Weston splits the development of the Grail Quest motif into three separate stages, each of which is represented by a certain knight whose unique temperment and background testifies to the mutable nature of the tradition.

In the first stage the hero is Gawain (Gwalchmai), characterized by his irascibility and impulsiveness. When Gawain first reaches the Grail Castle he is told that the land has wasted away ever since the mysterious death of some unnamed knight (Co). The Fisher King, wholly intact here, leads Gawain to the bier where the body lies draped in a scarlet mortcloth. The air resounds with the lamentations of the attendant maidens. It soon becomes clear that Gawain's task is to avenge the foul deed, which will in turn restore the bounty to the land. He falls asleep before he can ask about the Grail but he does inquire as to the nature of the bleeding spear, which brings about a partial restoration of the land. In a later German text, Diu Crône (The Crown), written around 1230, Gawain arrives at the Grail castle to find the lord extremely frail and elderly. Upon asking the appropriate question, which removes the enchantment from the realm, Gawain learns that the king and his entourage were in fact dead, but held in semblance of life until the task was completed. That the wasting of the land precedes the arrival of Gawain at the Grail Castle is of the utmost importance here. Based on this point alone Weston concludes that the Gawain versions of the story predate all others: "The 'wasting of the land' must be held to have been antecedent to that failure, and the Gawaine versions in which we find this condition fulfilled are, therefore, prior in origin to the Perceval."

In the second stage of development, Perceval (Peredur), the naive Widow's son, replaces Gawain as the primary hero. As a result the focus of the quest changes drastically. Versions centering around Gawain typically placed more emphasis on the healing of the land, probably because of his peculiar attachment to Nature. The recipient of the healing in the Perceval strain, on the other hand, is usually the king himself, with the rejuvenation of the Waste Land only coming afterwards. "The object of the rites is the restoration of Vegetation," Weston notes, "connected with the revival of the god; the object of the Quest is the same, but connected with the restoration to health of the King." Since the Perceval stage represents the most widely known storyline of the Grail Quest, it should be examined in detail. The following account is an overview of Chrétien's Conte del Graal.

When we first find Perceval he is a young man, living with his mother in the innermost folds of a wild forest. He has had no exposure whatsoever to the outside world. Perceval's father, we are told, was once a great knight, but was crippled in battle years before and died while Perceval was still very young. So Perceval has been reared by his mother alone, who has deliberately kept him ignorant of the world of chivalry lest he suffer a fate similar to that of his father. Perceval has no notion of civilized manners; he does not even know his own name. Yet despite his glaring nescience as to the ways of the world, he is a handsome and sturdy youth indeed.

One day in the forest Perceval encounters five knights all decked out in their glittering armor and noble heraldry. He initially mistakes them for angels sent by God. But the knights quickly disillusion him, explaining that they are members of King Arthur's court. Perceval is so impressed that he decides to become a knight himself. His mother does everything is her power to dissuade her headstrong son, but he brushes her protests aside. In time she is forced to relent and lets her son leave, but not before providing him with a rustic suit of clothes and some hurried instructions on how to deal with women, churches, and the lot. As he is leaving his mother faints in grief. He looks back and sees her lying prostrate on the ground as if dead, yet impatiently spurs his horse onward.

Perceval finds Arthur soon enough at Carlisle. He rides into the hall and demands that he be made a knight. Judging by his bustle and insolence, though, the king does not think he is quite ready for knighthood. So Perceval hurries away to prove his worth. In the skirmishes that follow the youth distinguishes himself as a formidable opponent, but he is so obtuse regarding chivalrous behavior that his opponents are never quite sure whether he is right in the head. After a time he comes to the castle of a man named Gornemant, who knights him after teaching him how to behave and how to properly manage his lance, shield, and sword. Gornemant further warns Perceval not to talk too much, as it is unbecoming for a knight to chatter. At this point, having fulfilled his original purpose of becoming a knight, Perceval means to return home to his mother. But one adventure after another and his subsequent infatuation with a girl named Blancheflor delays this rendezvous. Still intent on returning home, he comes upon a river one day where he finds two men in a small boat, one of whom is fishing. He learns from the fisherman that the river is impassable for miles in either direction. And so, with dusk rapidly approaching, the fisherman offers Perceval refuge for the night at his castle nearby.

Perceval follows the instructions given to him by the fisherman and eventually finds the castle. There he is graciously received by the lord himself, who is crippled and lies on a rich couch in front of a blazing fire. The lord presents Perceval with a fine sword and they pass the remainder of the evening feasting and chatting. As the meal nears its end, a procession of youths enters the hall. The first youth bears a white lance, the tip of which emits a single drop of blood that runs down the length of the lance on to the youth's hand. Perceval is curious and longs to ask about it, but he remembers Gornemant's parting advice and keeps quiet. Then two more youths enter the hall carrying golden candelabra which illuminate the hall. They are followed soon after by a beautiful maiden who holds in her hands a golden grail decorated with precious gemstones. The grail shimmers with such a dazzling light that the candles momentarily lose their brilliance. After that, still another maiden passes through the chamber, this one carrying a silver platter. The procession crosses the hall and files abruptly into a room on the opposite side. As mysterious as this all seems to Perceval, he holds his curiosity in check, figuring that he can ask a servant about the significance of these items the following day. The meal finally ends and the king is carried off to bed in his litter. When Perceval wakes the next morning, he is surprised to find that the hall is empty. There are no signs of the previous night's company. So Perceval arms himself and rides out over the drawbridge. However, before he can cross, the bridge begins to rise under him so that his horse is forced to jump for the far side. He calls back to see who raised it, but receives no answer.

It is only later in the forest, when he comes across a damsel cradling the corpse of a headless knight in her arms, that Perceval learns the true nature of the castle. She reprimands him for not asking any questions. Apparently if he had asked the right questions about the lance and the Grail he would have healed the Fisher King and great good would have come of it. As it is, though, the castle has disappeared and the king remains in agony.

After this encounter Perceval returns to the court of King Arthur,now a stately figure where once he was a fool. He receives a welcome as befits a hero for his exploits while away. Just as the celebration is getting under way a loathly damsel, hunchbacked and crooked, enters the hall on a tawny mule and proceeds to scold Perceval for failing to take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself at the castle of the Fisher King. Ashamed of his egregious omission, Perceval leaves the castle in dis grace. Furthermore, he vows never to spend two nights at the same place or evade any danger until he has discovered why the lance bleeds and whom the Grail serves.

He spends the next five years wandering in search of answers, yet they are far and few between. It is not until Perceval consults a hermit, who turns out to be his uncle, that he learns the whole story about the wounding of the Fisher King and the consequent enchantment affecting his realm. This was as far as Chrétien got in the narrative He never finished the manuscript, but from what we can gather from other sources, Perceval eventually returns to the Grail Castle and does ask the question, thus freeing the king of his suffering and the land of its desolation. Furthermore he learns that the Fisher King is his grandfather, which makes him the rightful heir to the Grail. With this knowledge the old king dies and Perceval is instated as the third and final coming of the Grail King.

The central theme evident in the Perceval strands is the development of the Grail Knight himself in his pursuit of excellence. The fact that he is the heir to the Fisher King is made all the more ironic given his glaring simplicity. In the scheme of the world Perceval is an overgrown child, sheltered by his mother. But who better to rejuvenate a king plagued by age and infirmity than a knight characterized by his youth and seemingly unbounded vigor. Thus we bear witness to the cyclic forces governing the Grail Castle.

The third and final stage in the development of the Quest motif is dominated by Galahad (Galaad), renowned for his unparalleled purity and excellence. The themes of vengeance and healing are gone, as is the wasting of the land, which leaves spiritual enlightenment as the final goal. Perceval and Bors are often presented in the company of Galahad, but they are inserted merely as measuring stones to underscore Galahad's unquestionable superiority. As the son of Lancelot he is perfect; he has never failed, nor does he in his quest for the Holy Grail. In most versions he reaches the castle, achieves the Grail, and then just disappears. He fulfills his destiny and then leaves this world in an ethereal blaze of glory.


(VI) HALLOWS: Many scholars agree that the four hallows carried in the Grail procession are likely derived from the four treasures of the Tuatha de Danaan, the tribe of the great Irish goddess Danu. And there is considerable grounds for the comparison. The treasures of this early Celtic rite were the Sword of Nuada, the Lia Fail, the Cauldron of Dagda and the Spear of Lugh. Compare these to the broken sword, the silver serving dish, the Grail, and the bleeding Lance as found in Chrétien, and it becomes apparent that the argument is well-founded. Weston has suggested that the hallows can be reduced to the realm of sexual symbolism, with the male principle of the Blade (the Sword and the Lance) and the female principle of the Chalice (the Platter and the Grail), but as the Oxford medievalist attests in David Lodge's Small World, "This business of phallic symbolism is a lot of rot." No, it seems clear that an old Irish or Celtic ritual is the true source of the Hallows. A separate frivolous interpretation also links the four treasures with the suits of the Tarot, where Swords = the Broken Sword, Pentacles = the Serving Dish, Wands = the Bleeding Lance, and Cups = the Grail.

The matter of the Sword falls into two main categories, Celtic and Christian. In Celtic lore swords were often believed to possess unique or extraordinary qualities that empowered the hero with superhuman abilities. Magic swords of this type are mentioned in both "The Spoils of Annwn" and "Culhwch and Olwen." In later Grail stories the sword is frequently broken, whereby the mending of the sword represents one of the tasks used to test the mettle of the Grail Knight (Co, Q). Christian stories tend to identify it with the Sword of David. As we are told in the Queste del San Graal, the Sword of David was placed in a ship by Solomon's wife to be sent down the ages until the Grail knights discovered it. The last person who unsheathed the sword, King Parian, was less than worthy. Consequently a blight struck his land and he was later wounded in the thighs and made impotent by the lance. And so the Sword of David lies in wait for Galahad, the symbol of sheer perfection, who eventually finds it and uses it to heal the king and land. Another possible alternative is the sword that Gawain is sent to fetch in Perlesvaus–the blade used to behead John the Baptist.

In Chretien, the second treasure, the Platter, is identified as a tailléor, or carving dish, made of silver. But in other versions the platter assumes many different forms. At various times it appears as a stone, a paten, a table, a dish with a severed head upon it, or even a stone chair. The most interesting manifestation of the platter, though, would have to be the gaming board in Perlesvaus:

[Gawain] looked all around him and saw all the doors shut tight, and then, looking towards the foot of the couch, he could see two candlesticks burning before the chessboard with all the pieces set up; one set was ivory and the other of gold. Sir Gaw ain began to move the ivory men, whereupon the gold pieces countered his moves and checkmated him twice. In the third round Gawain hoped to gain revenge, but seeing that he was heading for defeat once more he broke up the game.
Here the board is symbolic of the land and the pieces which move over its surface are the main characters of the Quest, which would explain Gawain's threefold failure; he is not destined to succeed in his quest. Generally speaking the platter is the most elusive of the four hallows, probably representing a primitive form of the Grail itself.

The third treasure, the Holy Grail, is also steeped in ambiguity, though not to the extent of the platter. It is variously described as a cup, chalice, or deep dish. Part of the mystery surrounding the shape and dimensions of the Grail stems from the fact that the word graal is never explained in the early Grail romances. The monk Helinand defined the similar word gradale as meaning scutella lata et aliquantulum profunda, or a wide and slightly deep dish. This was definitely the case in the early romances, where the Grail is said to have served a salmon or pike to the Grail king. Later versions, on the other hand, employ the more conventional description, that of a cup or chalice often associated with the one used by Christ at the Last Supper.

The Grail carries with it certain representative traits. One of these properties is the provision of food and drink. When the hero reaches the Grail castle, it is almost always the Grail that provides the sumptuous meal: "The moderate and the gluttonous, both had just enough to eat....Mulberry juice, wine red or white to please the cup of every knight–whatever beverage came to mind the knight within his cup would find, all from the Grail's capacity" (W). The occurrence of such a lavish feast in these cases clearly suggests a connection to the horn of plenty or ambrosial cup found in various mythologies. Consequently, the Grail is often perceived as a healing or nurturing vessel. It clearly sustains the inhabitants of the Grail castle and is further accredited with the longevity of the Fisher King. But the fact of the matter is the Grail destroys as readily as it heals. Those chosen few who pass its rigorous tests are transformed, but those who attempt to grasp its meaning before they are ready are purged. Lancelot and Gawain are found to be flawed men in the later versions and are not allowed to commune with the Ultimate Source that the Grail embodies. Generally speaking, the Grail goes hand in hand with transformation. It is the ultimate life-giving and life-sustaining vessel. It is the quintessential reward to the most challenging of quests.

Which brings me to the last of the four hallows, the Bleeding Spear/Lance, to my mind the most curious of all the sacred relics. Quite early in the development of the story it comes to be identified with the Lance of Longinus. Christian legend maintains that Longinus was the blind centurion who thrust the spear into Christ's side at the crucifixion. Some of Jesus' blood fell upon his eyes and he was healed. In this station the lance links the wound of the Fisher King to that of Christ. "It is indeed, morally, precisely the wounding of the Keeper of the Hallows which then takes place," writes Charles Williams. "Man wounds himself. It is an image of the Fall." And though the Lance/Spear later comes to be synonymous with the wounding of the Fisher King, it is also the greatest healing influence of the four Hallows. The spear has a mysterious double-edged quality; it is a spear which both heals and wounds. As Malcolm Godwin notes:

The Celtic spear, within the essential Grail myth, renders impotent whosoever it strikes, leaving him in a strange state in which he can neither be healed nor actually die. This 'Dolorous Blow' lays waste his lands and only a hero of exceptional power s and worthiness is able to lift the burden and heal the sufferer by using the selfsame spear that wounded him.

CONCLUSION: What we have in the figure of the Fisher King, it seems to me, is an intermediary between two planes of existence, the present and the hereafter. With his intimate ties to the land, he is a symbol of the fructifying force in Nature, but he does not revel in this role. Instead, he is confined to an otherworld domain, surrounded by charmed hallows that only prolong his suffering until the arrival of a hero. In general, the mythic dynamism of Arthurian Romance is the primitive struggle of man to compel and control the force of Nature, the very force on which the Fisher King's life depends. So he represents something of a paradox: he is a remnant of some much older Irish or Celtic god who was overrun by the Arthurian tradition and then incorporated into the stories as the keeper of the ultimate treasure, infused with life so that he might die a preordained death.

In modern times the Fisher King has developed into an broad archetype, identified with personal anguish and moral or ideological sterility. His plight has been adapted to many different arenas. In psychology, Robert Johnson has observed that "the fisher king's wounding in the thigh is symbolic of our difficulty in directly sexual matters. But it also represents wounding of other generative functions: one cannot create or produce at one's job, has dried up, or perhaps lacks warmth or attentiveness when tenderness would be appropriate." Movies have been made which address the Fisher King theme, albeit crudely, and numerous authors have used him as a powerful metaphor for modern apathy. From his humble beginnings the Fisher King has acquired an almost unheard of amount of notoriety. There is something about the Fisher King that appeals to each and every one of us. And so he shall persevere, maybe for all eternity.


A Sampling of Arthurian Texts Dealing with the Fisher King

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