Fisher King legends imply that the King has become unable to support a new generation which can carry on after his death.
In Arthurian legend, the Fisher King, also known as the Wounded King or Maimed King (Roi blessé, in Old French Roi Méhaigné, Welsh: Brenin Clwyfedig), is the last in a long bloodline charged with keeping the Holy Grail. Versions of the original story vary widely, but he is always wounded in the legs or groin and incapable of standing; all he is able to do is fish in a small boat on the river near his castle, Corbenic, and wait for some noble who might be able to heal him by asking a certain question. In later versions, knights travel from many lands to try to heal the Fisher King, but only the chosen can accomplish the feat. In earlier stories the feat is achieved by Percival alone, though he is joined by Galahad and Bors in the later ones.
Many later works have two wounded Grail Kings who live in the same castle (either a father and son, or a grandfather and grandson). While the more grievously wounded elder man remains in the castle, sustained only by the Grail. the more active younger man can meet with guests and go fishing, making the younger man the Fisher King.
Fisher King legends imply that the King has become unable to father or support a new generation which can carry on after his death. This is because a “thigh” wound has been interpreted by many scholars of Arthurian literature to be some sort of injury to the genitals. There are hints in early versions that his realm suffers as he does, and modern scholars have suggested his impotence affects the fertility of the earth, reducing it to a barren wasteland.
The Fisher King appears first in Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, the Story of the Grail in the late 12th century, but the character’s roots may lie in Celtic mythology. He may be derived more or less directly from the figure of Brân 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, 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 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 is based on Chrétien or derived from a common original, but it contains several prominent deviations and 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 that he was related to that king, and that the severed head was that of his cousin, whose death he must avenge by defeating the Nine Witches.
Later Medieval Works
The Fisher King is a character in Chrétien’s Perceval (1180) which is the first of a series of stories and texts on the subject of Perceval and the Grail.
Parzival was written in 1210 by Wolfram von Eschenbach, thirty years after Perceval. Although a different work, it is strikingly similar to Perceval. The story revolves around the Grail Quest and once again the main character is Percival or Parzival. Similarly to Perceval, Eschenbach kept the story line of Parzival 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, Eschenbach thoroughly describes the nature of the wound. The wound is a punishment for wooing a woman who is not meant for him (every Grail keeper is to marry the woman the Grail determines for him), causing the King immense pain. Then lastly, Parzival comes back to cure the Fisher King. Parzival, unlike its predecessor Perceval, has a definite ending.
Further Medieval Development
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 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 sepulchre. 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 Lancelot-Grail (Vulgate) prose cycle includes a more elaborate history of the Fisher King. Many in his line are wounded for their failings, and the only two that survived to Arthur’s day are the Wounded King, named Pellehan (Pellam of Listeneise in Malory), 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. 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 Guinevere. So Lancelot sleeps with Elaine, thinking her Guinevere, 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.
In the Post-Vulgate cycle and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the Fisher King’s wound was given to him by Sir Balin in the “Dolorous Strok”, when Balin grabs a spear and stabs Pellam in self-defense. However, the spear is the Spear of Longinus, the lance that pierced Christ’s side, and Pellam and his land must suffer for its misuse until the coming of Galahad. The Dolorous Stroke is typically represented as divine vengeance for a sin on the part of its recipient. The nature of Pellam’s sin is not stated explicitly, though he at least tolerates his murderous brother Garlon, who slays knights while under cover of invisibility, apparently at random.
King Pelles is the Maimed King, one of a line of Grail keepers established by Joseph of Arimathea, and the father of Eliazer and Elaine (the mother of Galahad). He resides in the castle of Corbinec in Listenois. Pelles and his relative Pellehan appear in both the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles and 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 XIII, chapter 5), though this is contradicted elsewhere.
In all, there are four characters (some of whom can probably be identified with each other) who fill the role of Fisher King or Wounded King in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
- King Pellam, wounded by Balin (as in the Post-Vulgate). In the Vulgate’s clearer Grail lineage, Pelles is the son of Pellehan and is wounded in a separate accident, while in the Post-Vulgate Pelles and Pellehan are brothers. The further step of mistaking them as the same character is understandable; Malory confuses the brothers Ywain and Ywain the Bastard, whom he eventually regards as the same character, after treating them as separate.
- King Pelles, grandfather of Galahad, described as “the maimed king”. In one passage, he is explicitly identified with Pellam; in another, he is said to have suffered his wound under different circumstances.
- King Pescheour (or Petchere), lord of the Grail Castle, who never appears (at least, not 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, bedridden Maimed King, healed by Galahad at the climax of the Grail Quest. He is distinct from Pelles, who has just been sent out of the room, and who is, anyway, at least mobile.
In addition, there is King Pellinore, who is Percival’s father. (In other versions of the legend, Percival is related to the Pelles family). It appears that Malory intended to have one Maimed King, wounded by Balin and suffering until healed by his grandson Galahad, but never successfully reconciled his sources.
The Fisher King’s Injury
The injury is a common theme in the telling of the Grail Quest. Although some iterations have two kings present, one or both are injured, most commonly in the thigh. The wound is sometimes presented as a punishment, usually for philandering. 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”. 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 that the Fisher King can be healed only if Percival asks “the question”.
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 genitalia. 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 informed 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.
Most of the Grail romances do not differ much from Parzival and Perceval. That being said, there are two interesting exceptions to this case. The two pieces that hold particularly stronger Christian themed deviations than prior works are the Queste del Saint Graal and the Sone de Nausay. The Queste del Saint Graal 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; most importantly, the Fisher King is replicated as a priest-like figure. In the case of Sone de Nausay, Bron (the Fisher King) is part of a tale in which the story makes a constant correlation between the Gospel narrative and the history of the Grail.
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. Chretien describes his lance with “marvelous destructive powers”, which holds a closer connection to the malignant weapons of Celtic origin. In Chretien’s Perceval, the lance takes on a dark and almost evil persona and also seems to overshadow the Grail, which if this was a Christian story would be rather odd. 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. 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.
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 Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. 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 procession 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 procession, the accompanying lance is the lance that pierced Jesus Christ.
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”. 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. 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 since your eloquent mouth unfortunately voiced no question there.” 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).
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- Matthew Annis,”The Fisher King”
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Originally published by Wikipedia, 05.09.2004, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.