The Fisher King is a figure in Arthurian legend, the last in a long line of British kings tasked with guarding the Holy Grail. The Fisher King is both the protector and physical embodiment of his lands, but a wound renders him impotent and his kingdom barren. Unable to walk or ride a horse, he is sometimes depicted as spending his time fishing while he awaits a "chosen one" who can heal him. Versions of the story vary widely, but the Fisher King is typically depicted as being wounded in the groin, legs, or thigh. The healing of these wounds always depends upon the completion of a hero-knight's task.
Most versions of the story contain the Holy Grail and the Lance of Longinus as plot elements. In some versions, a third character is introduced; this individual, unlike the hero-knight archetype, is ignorant of the King's power, but has the ability to save the king and land, or to doom it. Variations of this third party give us divergent legends.
As a literary character, the Fisher King originates in Chrétien de Troyes' unfinished writings of the adventures of Perceval. Many authors have endeavoured to complete and extend the work, resulting in various continuations. Major sources of the legend include Chrétien's Li Contes del Graal; Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal (c. 1160-1180), Wauchier de Denain's First Continuation (c. 1180-1200), Robert de Boron's Didot-Perceval (c. 1191-1202), Peredur son of Efrawg (c. 1200), Perlesvaus (c. 1200), Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (c. 1217), and Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur (c. 1400).
The Fisher King first appears 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 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. He gives this cauldron 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 eventually 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.
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. As in Perceval, Eschenbach's story does not have Parzival ask the healing question initially, which results in him Questing for years. However, 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; it 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), and it causes him immense pain. Lastly, Parzival comes back to cure the Fisher King. Parzival, unlike its predecessor Perceval, has a definitive ending.
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 and the Maimed King. Galahad 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 Stroke", 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.
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 who was wounded by Balin and suffered until healed by his grandson Galahad, but he never successfully reconciled his sources.
The injury is a common theme in the telling of the Grail Quest. While the details and location of the injury vary, the injury ultimately represents the inability of the Fisher King to produce an heir. 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 storylines Percival asks the Fisher King the healing question, which 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 significant 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 Quested 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. Chrétien describes his lance with "marvelous destructive powers", which holds a closer connection to the malignant weapons of Celtic origin. In Chrétien's Perceval, the lance takes on a dark and almost evil persona and also seems to overshadow the Grail, which, were this 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, as punishment 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 Chrétien'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 Chrétien, 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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