Fisher King: Wikis


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The Fisher King, or the Wounded King, figures in Arthurian legend as the latest in a 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. When he is injured, 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. Knights travel from many lands to heal the Fisher King, but only the chosen can accomplish the feat. This is Percival in the earlier stories; in the 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 clarity, the father will be called the Wounded King, the son the Fisher King where both appear in the remainder of this article.


Celtic mythology

The Fisher King appears first in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, but the character's roots may lie in Celtic mythology. He may be derived more or less directly from the figure of Bran the Blessed in the Mabinogion; in the Second Branch, Bran had a cauldron that could resurrect the dead (albeit imperfectly; those thus revived could not speak after they were resurrected), which he gave to the king of Ireland as a wedding gift for him and his sister Branwen. Later, he 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 in 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.

In the Welsh Romance Peredur son of Efrawg, based on Chrétien (or derived from a common original) but containing several prominent deviations, the Grail has been removed. 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 occurs in Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie about the end of the 12th century, 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 he entrusts the Grail to Bron. Bron, called the "Rich Fisher" because he catches a fish eaten at the Grail table, founds the line of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.

In the Didot-Perceval, thought to be a prosification of a lost work by Robert de Boron, 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 takes up Chrétien's story and expands it greatly in his epic Parzival. He reworks the nature of the Grail and the community that surrounds it, and gives names to characters Chrétien left nameless (the Wounded King is Titurel and the Fisher King is Anfortas).



The Lancelot-Grail cycle includes a more elaborate backstory 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". To defend himself from an enraged Pellam, Balin grabs a spear and stabs him. 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:

  1. King Pellam, wounded by Balyn, as in the Post-Vulgate.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 Malory never otherwise uses) for a name rather than an epithet. Nevertheless, Malory treats him as distinct from Pelles.
  4. An anonymous, bedridden 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. One of a line of Grail keepers established by Joseph of Arimathea, Pelles is the father of Eliazer and Elaine, mother of Galahad, and 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 he is coming to visit Guenever "to lay with her.". 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 takes on the legend

Richard Wagner used the myth in his opera Parsifal, based on Wolfram's work. Some critics claim that T. S. Eliot made use of the legend in his poem The Waste Land, although there is disagreement as to how, to what extent, or if at all.[1]

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 and starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams.

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 The Dark is Rising Sequence), and Matt Wagner's comic book series Mage. Don Nigro's play Fisher King retells the story during the American Civil War. In 1998, David Crosby wrote and recorded a song with the band CPR, called "Somehow She Knew", based on personal experiences and the movie The Fisher King. Joan Didion compared president Ronald Reagan to the legendary king in her critical essay "In the Realm of the Fisher King," published in 1989. 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.

See also

  • Oedipus, a king wounded in the feet, presiding over a cursed land


  1. ^ Thormählen 1978, pp. 69-74.


  • Thormählen, Marianne (1978), The Waste Land: A Fragmentary Wholeness, Lund: Gleerup, ISBN 91-40-04648-6 .

Further reading

External links


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