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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

The Fisher King

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Percivale'

If one story has haunted me, remained ever-present to me over the past thirty-five years or so, it is the story of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (c. 1210). Unlike the Galahad of Le Conte de Graal, a boring, already-perfect figure who gets the grail and evaporates like monastic froth into the ethers of a celibate dreamscape, Wolfram’s Parzival starts off as a complete goof: a bumbling teenager who stumbles into knighthood almost by accident—and even when he’s made a knight, it still takes him a long time to figure out how to be one. As he discovers, it’s not just a matter of wearing some knightly swag. Parzival’s hamartia resides in the fact that he heeds advice—far too literally and without any idea of context—first that of his mother, Herzeloyde, and then that of his mentor, Gurnemanz. When Herzeloyde, even though she has tried to shield her son from any notion of knighthood, agrees to let her son go off to seek it, among other things, she tells him, “Whenever you can win a lady’s ring and greeting, take it—it will rid you of the dumps. Waste no time, but kiss and embrace her.”[1] He basically accosts the first woman he meets, obedient as he is stupid, and takes her ring in the bargain, only pausing to say, “God be with you!—That’s what my mother told me to say.”[2] Gurnemanz, though he breaks the boy of the habit of talking about what his mother told him all the time, doles out some equally good/bad advice, though with the best of intentions: “Do not ask many questions.” Later, when Parzival encounters the graciousness and suffering of Anfortas, the Fisher King (unbeknownst to Parzival, his uncle) while in the presence of the Holy Grail, his heart burns to ask Anfortas why he suffers. But he doesn’t. As a result, Anfortas is condemned to more suffering and Parzival to aimless (or so it would seem) wandering.

I can identify with Parzival’s bumbling. I think we all can. But more and more, as I get older, my attention turns to the suffering of the Fisher King.

As I survey the wasteland of Western culture and its macro-microcosm the internet/social media, I cannot help but see that we are all simultaneously the bumbling fool and the suffering king. We do so many hurtful and stupid things, not because our mothers told us to, but certainly in obedience to some variety of superego or egregore. We do what we think we are supposed to do. And we are usually wrong. Likewise, the pains we bear in silence have never healed, though we wait upon the kindness of strangers. Anfortas was once like Parzival, once was a Parzival, but his overreaching caused him to be wounded: a wound to the thigh, signifying impotence. Our social media harangues—are they not evidence of a fear of impotence?

The great Terry Gilliam film The Fisher King beautifully illustrates how we can be both Parzival and Anfortas—who’s really wounded in this film, Jack or Perry? Who really needs healing? In fact, they both do. This scene poignantly describes such a psychology (as well as the importance of myth):

The good news is that healing is possible. On Parzival’s second visit to the Grail Castle, he asks the question: “Uncle, what is it that ails you?” He receives no answer, no explanation. But Anfortas is healed.

This theme of healing inhabits many tellings of the grail story, that of the Indiana Jones franchise no less than Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal (which certainly has some Galahad-like overtones). Perhaps one of the most intriguing modern treatments of the story (not to mention Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois) is Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s sublime 1982 cinematic treatment of Wagner’s opera. In Syberberg’s film, both a teenaged boy (Michael Kutter) and a young woman (Karin Krick) play Parzival (Anfortas is played by the opera’s conductor, Armin Jordan). In such daring casting, Syberberg paints a picture of psychic integration, or what C.G. Jung would call the coniunctio oppositorum (the conjunction of opposites): the interiorization of the feminine into the male psyche and the interiorization of the masculine into the feminine. Our culture has failed to accomplish this task for far too long, and it is a significant source of our suffering.

[1] Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, trans. A.T. Hatto (New York: Penguin, 1980), 75.

[2] Ibid., 77.

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