What Ails the Fisher King?

Anima Mundi

The Fisher King

The Fisher King. William T. Ayton,  2011.

A tale in brief:  Parsifal and the Fisher King

When re-approaching the tale, I found this concise version by Lesley Usher that succeeds in a beautiful way to convey the crucial points:

“When Parsifal lost his father, he was still a little boy and so his mother took him to an isolated cottage in the woods to raise him. In this way his mother shielded him from all knowledge of the world and its dangers. One day, however, he encountered a Grail knight and decided that he, too, would become one. A mere fifteen years old and dressed only in the homespun garments his mother made for him, Parsifal left home.

His travels brought him to the magical Grail Castle. Not everyone can see the castle but since Parsifal was innocent and pure he was able to see it. Once inside, he met the wounded Fisher King and witnessed the spectacle of the Grail procession. He longed to ask what the procession meant and why the king suffered. But his mother had warned him that it was impolite to be inquisitive and so he refrained from asking any questions. This silence was tragic, as asking those questions would have ended the suffering of the king.

Shortly after leaving the castle, Parsifal learned of his mistake. He wanted to return and set things right but it was too late. The Grail Castle had disappeared.

For the next twenty years, Parsifal tried to find his way back to the castle and to the wounded Fisher King. Finally he did (after many adventures) and when he asked the questions — Why does the king suffer? Whom does the Grail serve? — the Fisher King was healed and Parsifal, no longer a young fool, became the keeper of the Grail.” (Lesley Usher at Life as Myth)

While the tale offers a wide range of interpretive approaches, here I’ll focus on the hidden castle, the wound of the Fisher King, and the transformation of unconscious dynamics.

The Concealed Grail Castle

That the Grail Castle is hidden, undiscoverable but by one innocent and pure, challenges us to consider what has the power to conceal the sought after realm.   As I’ve shared before, it has been my experience that shame often operates with a cloak of invisibility.

What is interesting is that in the Judeo/Christian culture, guilt is often pointed to as the cause of loss of innocence and purity.  If we can shift our perspective slightly we begin to recognize that this is yet another way that shame has managed to remain concealed.  John Beebe, in his book Integrity in Depth, has pointed out that shame has a prospective function in that it protects the most valuable contents of soul, the pearl of great price.

Unless we take the broad definition of sin, to miss the mark, it is hard to find guilt in Parsifal’s keeping quiet.  Allowing the inner voice of the mother to guide his actions, we see how he has yet to learn the capacity to trust his own intuitive promptings.  He has yet to gain his own voice.

Is this ignorance a burden of guilt?  Perhaps it is something else. The burden  of Parsifal’s misstep guides the next two decades of his life as he searches to find entry to what he becomes locked out of.  In my read of the dynamic, the young Parsifal becomes a wounded healer in this first encounter, and in effect, through his contact with the Fisher King, he begins to carry the wound himself.

“What Ails Thee?”

The Fisher King has a perpetual wound.   If we can allow that this figure would represent an aspect the Self, we find ourselves exploring a dynamic quite similar to the one Jung explored in his Answer to Job.

Some versions of the tale note the wound is in the groin, others have it in the thigh.  In both cases the wound points toward phallic issues. ((It’s an interesting compensation for the wounds of Christ which conspicuously omit any wounding of the phallic.))  Many writers have observed the shame operates as the underbelly of narcissism where grandiosity and idealization, both exaggerated elements in the Jobian Yahweh, figure prominently.

On a collective level, that the West is wounded in the power drive is not earth shattering news.  That a healing is possible is a hopeful prognosis that has not yet been realized.

The Healing of an Archetypal  Wound

For Parsifal, the task is to give voice to the reality of the wound, not just to witness it.  We are left with a question: why would asking “what’s wrong with you” heal the wound?

To forgo the mannered discretion and speak that something is out of sorts on the archetypal level teaches us that consciousness demands relatedness.  Parsifal, like Job, need not have the answers, but the courage to step forth and address the mystery in those most difficult places, especially where they challenge collective preconceptions of perfection, idealization and grandiosity.


Author: Richard Reeve

I'm the Senior Director of Development at Panthera, a global conservation organization committed to stemming the population decline of cats in the wild. I enjoy rural living with my wife Judith and our two children in the Catskill Mountains of New York.