THE GRAIL/FISHER KING

Parzival goes riding in quest for his mother, when he comes to a lake, and floating on the lake is a boat, and in the boat are two men fishing.  One is the Fisher King, with peacock plumes flowing from his helmet.  (The peacock sheds its feathers in the wintertime and then grows them back again and thus reflects the round of the seasons.  The peacock’s tail, with those eyes, is symbolic of the nighttime heavens.  Also, the single eye in the feather symbolizes the interior, third eye of the passage to the spiritual realm.) 

   Parzival calls out, asking where he might find lodging for the night, and the one richly clad replies that he knows of no habitation but one within thirty miles.  He then directs the rider: “If you’ll go up that path, turn left, then ride up the hill and don’t have a misadventure and lose your way, you’ll find a castle.  But have a care,” he adds.  “The roads here lead astray; no one knows whereto.  If you arrive, I shall be your host.”

   For this is Anfortas, the Grail King, known also as the Fisher King and the Maimed King (Old French, entfertez, enfermetez: “infirmity”).   This whole place is an apparition that has appeared to Parzival because he’s ready for it.  People have ridden through that wilderness time and time again and never encountered the castle.  Parzival sees the castle; it is his castle, his destiny. 

… until at nightfall (Parzival) finally arrives at a fisherman’s hut.  Now, this fisherman is a very interesting figure: Anfortas the Fisher King, the Grail King whom Parzival is going to encounter later.  But right now Parzival is just biologically motivated, a little animal, you might say, looking for fame and success.  So when the boy comes in and asks, “Will you put me up for the night?” the fisherman says, “No, I won’t; I don’t want anything to do with you.” 

Why is the king wounded?  Here’s a critical point: this king’s name is Anfortas, from an old French word enfertez, which means “infirmity.”  He received his position by inheritance; he had not earned it.  Here again we have this business of receiving by anointment.  As a young man, like all young men, he was moved to love, and he rode forth with the war cry amor.  That is not proper for the Grail King.  The Grail King should have got past that.  

   So Anfortas was riding forth, and he encountered a heathen who had ridden from the gates of paradise in quest of the Grail; he had the words The Grail written on his spear.  And the heathen knight wounded Anfortas, piercing him through the genitals, emasculating him with that spear.  Anfortas lost his biological virility, yet he killed the heathen.  So here is the pair of ```````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````, nature and the spirit in collision with each other, as they were in the Middle Ages in Europe, a condition that brought about the Waste Land.  The king’s whole land was laid waste by this terrific blow.  Yet he manages to get back to his castle and is brought to behold the Grail, which keeps people alive.  RG  50

As we have seen, the figure of the old Grail King, who is nourished solely on the Host, cannot be dissociated from the context of these Christian ideas.  He obviously represents a Christian dominant in the collective consciousness, or alternatively the prototype of the Christian man.  He is not really Christ himself, but it is as if he personifies that element in the figure of Christ that has been admitted into tradition and consciousness and which has thereby become the ruling ideal that influences and impresses itself on society.  He therefore also represents the collective man who has been formed by the traditional Christian image.  But like all Kings, this ruler too has become old and in need of renewal or of redemption by a successor.  TGL 196

… the motif of the ailing King in need of healing and redemption is widely distributed in fairy-tales.  Psychologically this exactly reflects the fact that again and again the outwardly crystallized conception of the Self, after becoming a content of collective consciousness, grows old and must therefore be transformed, rejuvenated or replaced by another form.  This has to happen in order for the eternally self-renewing psychic life to flow up from the depths and for its ungraspable, eternally fresh and unexpected aspects to be retained.  TGL 197

   When Perceval makes his appearance, the Grail King is in precisely the condition of the “sick one who yearningly craves the fish”.  In reality, the King is fishing for the redeemer, who then actually appears in the form of Perceval.  This is enlightening, since the condition of the Grail realm and its King, sickly and in need of redemption, is the essential point of the quest.  The crucial matter here is less the winning of the Grail than the redemption that accompanies it.  TGL 198

   To sum up, it can be said that the Grail King accordingly personifies the principle of Christian consciousness confronted with the problem of physis and of evil.  It is as if the dark aspect of divinity had attacked him in order to awaken him to a more conscious religious attitude.  But he cannot himself solve the problem within the structure of the outlook he personifies.  He therefore has to await a successor who shall free him.  His condition is analogous to that of the alchemical Rex as he is described in the “Aurelia occulta” …

   This champion of peace is the alchemical stone with which in the Grail legend, Perceval is equated.  TGL 212

The ailing Grail King corresponds to an imago Dei that is suspended, suffering, on the problem of the opposites; he is thus essentially the image of the Christian age and more especially of its second half.  Over against him, the apparently living Grail King must have personified a still older god-image; actually, the pre-Christian, Old Testament or pagan imago Dei, a father figure, that is, in which the opposites were not consciously united but were, rather, still unconsciously combined.  TGL 298

… it is a precise parallel to the crucified Christ with the crown of thorns; he’s in exactly the same role.  And so our wounded king, Anfortas, is also the wounded Christ. 

   Wagner brings up this point in his adaptation of the Grail’s romance also.  In the very last line of the opera, the king has been healed by Parsifal during his second visit, and from the loft come the boys’ angelic voices, singing of redemption for the redeemer.  The one who redeems the world must himself be redeemed – because, through the will of ignorance, his blood has become, as it were, petrified.  The blood must be liquefied, and made to flow again, in its redeeming form.  That is to say, the sense of the Crucifixion must be experienced.   RG 93

He is a beautiful and gentle youth but inherited rather than earned his position and role as guardian of the highest symbol of the spiritual life.  And in the way of youth, moved by nature, he rides forth one day from the Castle of the Grail with the battle cry, “Amor!” – which a young knight of the world was fitting, but for the Grail Guardian inappropriate.  Anforas’s spiritual role, that is to say, was formal and external, not consistent with his will.  And as he rode, he saw charging toward him from a neighboring forest a pagan knight.  Anfortas couched his lance.  The two collided and the pagan challenger was alain; Anfortas, however, was wounded sore, the other’s lance having unmanned him.  Its poisoned head remained in the wound, and on it was inscribed the words The Grail.   RG 151

   Thus the sense of the wound in Wolfram’s version of the legend was that in the Europe of his day the spontaneity of nature had been annulled.  Nature, represented by the pagan knight emerging from the forest, aspiring to its own spiritual fulfillment as symbolized in the words The Grail inscribed on the head of the pagan lance, had been struck down by the Christian, whose own nature had been thereby undone.  For spirit, in the medieval Christian view, was not of nature but against it, since nature had been rendered corrupt by the Fall in the Garden, and the repository of the spirit was the Church, not the heart corrupt.  Moreover, at the helm of the ship of the Church was a crew of master politicians: their Albigensian Crusade had already been launched in 1209, and their Inquisition (established 1233) was in preparation.  Spirit and nature were conceived and taught as contrary to each other: not the spiritual life as the flowering and completion of the natural, but as the abnegation of the natural.  That was the meaning, in Wolfram’s work, of the Waste Land: a people’s own inherent spirituality cut down by an order of values radically out of accord with the order of nature itself. 

  In anguish, the destroyed young Grail King returns to his castle, where the presence of the marvelous stone, lapis exilis, keeps him alive but of itself cannot heal the wound.  He remains in such pain that, as Wolfram states: “He can neither ride nor work, the king can neither lie nor stand: he leans but cannot sit.”  Eliot repeats the words: “Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit.”

   The people of the hidden castle live on in helpless sorrow, waiting for that one to arrive who will, out of the impulse of his own noble heart, pronounce the words that will break the spell.    RG 152

THE FISHER KING

The basic theme of the Grail romance is of a king, a Fisher King.  Christ had said, “I will make you fishers of men.”  The pope’s ring is called the fisherman’s ring, and it bears a picture of a great draft of fishes.  The Fisher King has been very seriously wounded, and as a result of the wound, the land is laid waste.  The central problem of the Grail romance is to heal the Fisher King.  The goal of the Grail hero is to heal that wound, but he is to do so without knowing how he is to do so.  He is to be aperfect innocent, not to know the rules of the quest, and he is to ask spontaneously, “What is the matter?”   RG 26

In (Robert de Boron’s version of the Grail Legend), Joseph’s (of Arimethea) brother-in-law Brons catches a fish which is put on the table beside the Grail.  This is why the guardian of the Grail is known as the Fisher King.  TGL 163

As we know, Anfortas has another role to play in Parzival: that of the Fisher King.  In the Orphic tradition, Orpheus is “the Fisher.”  Christ said to his apostles, “I shall make you fishers of men.”  The ring worn by the pope is called the Ring of the Fisherman.  It represents the spiritual principle going down into the unconscious waters to pull souls, or beings, out of the unconscious state into the realm of the light.  

   And so Parzival, is going to render this boon.  These preliminaries really carry a sense of the depth hidden behind the maimed king, the Fisher King, the one who is fishing for men.  Christ crucified is the Fisher King.

   According to Abelard’s view, this was a great problem for the Church.  Why did Christ have to die?  What was the sense of his death?  There were two approved views.  One was a very early view that you find already in the doctrine of Original Sin, and in some of the very early interpretations: that the Devil, through his deception of Adam and Eve, had gained legal power over their souls.  And the only way he could be relieved of that power was by being deceived himself.   

   So if God the Father made a kind of contract with the Devil with the intention of deceiving him, though the Devil had already deceived man, he would have to swap Christ’s soul for man’s soul.  “If you will release man,” he says, “I will give you my son.”

   The Devil, like people of the same character, mistakes shadow for substance.  He thinks he should make the swap.  As a result, God goes fishing for the Devil with Christ.  The image is of Christ on the cross as the bait on the hook.  And there’s an image that comes from the twelfth century in a little work written by a nun named Herrad of Landsberg called Hortus Deliciarum (The garden of delights) – it’s a kind of handbook for the nuns teaching children – that shows God the Father fishing.  And the weights on the fishing lines are the kings of the house of David, with Christ at the end on the fishhook, and Leviathan, the Devil, is rising to be caught by the bait.  He was caught, all right, on the hook –namely, the cross.  But Christ, since he was deathless, not subject to death, escaped.  So the Devil was tricked. 

   This was one notion of the atonement: Christ redeeming us, in the sense of a bank loan or a debt being redeemed.  The next great crisis in the Christian view of the Crucifixion comes in the eleventh century with Saint Anselm, who says that nobody owes the Devil anything; it was God the Father who was owed something because of the offense to him, which man was responsible for because of disobeying him in the Garden.  This was a horrendous offense, because God possesses infinite virtue, and nobody could possibly pay God the redemption.  There was no man who could do it. 

   So out of love for man, Christ assumed the role of being man – he was both God and man, and therefore eligible to make atonement.  And he died voluntarily, because living a good life wouldn’t have been enough to atone.  The death itself was the atonement.  But he didn’t have to receive any merit for the death, being infinitely virtuous, so he passed the merit on to man, and through Christ’s merit we are all redeemed. 

   Can you have these two views at the same time?

   Abelard saw both as perfectly ridiculous, and his notion was that Christ came to win us through love back to God, from whom we had been alienated through our rejection of him.  And it was simply to prove God’s love and to invoke our love that Christ came to us.  So we can compare this to Christ offering himself as bait to man.  The Fisher of Men is what he was, like our Fisher King in the Grail romances, in this role of the redeemer, of Christ, of the Bodhisattva.  RG 161