Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Discussion of The Fisher King

This week's In Our Time is on notion of The Fisher King (available from Jan 17th for a week). Conversation partners are Carolyne Larrington, Tutor in Medieval English at St John’s College, Oxford; Stephen Knight, Distinguished Research Professor in English Literature at Cardiff University; Juliette Wood, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Welsh, Cardiff University and Director of the Folklore Society. Other resources are here.

The story emerges in 1180 in Chretien de Troyes and continues in the different 12thC account by Robert de Boron. Stephen Knight's Greek, alas, is deficient when discussing the fish in Robert de Boron's account as a Christian symbol. In this story, royalty can be seen as weak and in need of redemption. Wolfram von Eschenbach's German version names the Grail King Amfortas who is wounded because of his pride in chasing after women. Parzifal, the hero, engages in self-discovery as a maimed person and has to learn and then acknowledge his connection to the Grail family by asking, "Uncle, what ails you?"

The story presupposes the ethos of a good Christian warrior who exercises Christian virtues and ideals of the knightly world. In some versions, there is a female goddess figure personified in the earth. Issues in it are not as simple as good versus evil but things like when to speak and when to be quiet. It is not just ancient ritual but also modern psychology. The tale is retold in Thomas Malory's Death of Arthur and in later versions of Arthur. By the Reformation, the story has almost disappeared but of course there is a 19th C version in Wagner's opera Parzifal. The story has resonances in modern novels like David Lodge's Changing Places.

I did once read a paper arguing that the anointing of Jesus for his death by a woman in Mark's gospel is a version of the Fisher King story. This relates to how the woman's action was perceived. The paper was intriguing.

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