What do you call a fish with no eyes?

More than the background regarding the Fisher King as a symbol, and his recreation in The Waste Land, Weston’s information regarding the historical importance of the fish as a “life symbol” (119) illuminates the connection between arthurian legend and modernist poet Eliot.  Weston discusses the fish symbol being used  to represent life, and sometimes even fertility not only across religions, but cross-culturally as well, citing multiple tales  In the chapter regarding the Fisher King, Weston quotes an unknown author saying, “‘the Fish was sacred to those deities who were supposed to lead men back from the shadows of death to life'” (120).  This concept, I think, is key to understanding the link between The Waste Land and Weston’s writings.  Here, we see the idea of something (or someone) being brought from a state of limbo, a state very much like death, back to life, one of the main themes of the Fisher King legend and the Waste Land involved.  Eliot’s Waste Land is similarly in a state of limbo, where rats are more free than humans.  A direct reference by Eliot to this chapter of Weston’s says, “I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?” (423-425).  This quote has the elements of the the infertile land (“arid plain”) and the fishing that Weston discusses so enthusiastically.  It also implies that, perhaps, there is a way to heal the damage that has been done to the land.

An interesting contrast is that, with the symbol of the fish and the Fisher King, it is implied that “all life comes from the water” (126).  Here though, Eliot seems to disagree, or at least offer a contrasting view.  As has already been discussed in class, Eliot frequently invokes references to drowning, beginning with Madame Sosostris’ prediction, to “fear death by water” (l.55), and continuing with the later image of how the “last fingers of leaf / Clutch and sink into the wet bank” (l.173-174).  Contrasting the idea then, of a life-giving water, Eliot emphasizes the dangers of water.  Why would Eliot have repeated this, when so much of the rest of the poem backs up Weston’s writing?

(Answer: a fsh (sorry I must admit I stole this from How I Met Your Mother))


Wordly Wise

T.S. Eliot intended the parable of the Fisher King(s) to serve as a sort of prologue to the Waste Land. Taking what I could from the text, I identified the immortal figures as having once again fallen out of cycle with the natural world in the aftermath of WWI.

According to French poet Robert de Borron, Brons, a simple fisherman by trade, consumes a meal comprised of sacred fish and the precious blood of Christ via the Holy Grail (Weston 110-111). One of the few consistencies across later versions of the story is the ruler(s) predicament; in one manner or another, he is described as possessing an injury to the groin that corresponds with the slow extermination of his kingdom’s flora. Often a distinction is drawn between one Wounded King and his father/grandfather that suffers from a similar ailment. Later writers worked romance into the tale, with the aging Kings entrusting a young knight (of considerable nobility) to restore their kingdoms. Close adherents to the legend of the Fisher King note the ruler as an ineffectual ruler who silently allows his domain to wither, and perhaps due to his literal castration solemnly resumes his position as a fisherman in the Hero’s absence.

Certain passages from the poem re-imagine the Fisher King within the context of the 1920s. Fishing alongside the Thames, a solitary figure “muses” upon the deaths of his brother (a fellow ruler, a reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and his father the Wounded/Maimed King (Lines 189-192). That the eldest King has ostensibly perished indicates a newly crossed threshold, or a destruction so permanent that it could condemn a deity. Eliot doubtlessly intends this as an allusion to ancient fertility myths (such as the Akkadian god Tammuz) and to emphasize the impact of World War I. So surrounded by decomposing bodies and feral rodents, the King patiently awaits the return of a hero that will restore his dignity and position. When rain finally lands along the shores of the Ganges, fulfilling the promise of restoration, we revisit the European fisherman and his very own Waste Land. Consumed by the same unanswered question (“Shall I at least set my lands in order?”), England continues to degrade as the cycle of despair ostensibly continues (“London Bridge is falling down”) (Lines 423-425).

The Dead Knight and The Fisher King

In Ritual to Romance, Jessie Weston writes about the legends of the Grail and the Fisher King. She writes that in the Bleheris version of the story there is a Dead Knight next to the King. He was killed by the ‘Dolorous Stroke‘ which was also responsible for the creation of the Wasteland. The Dead Knight plays a role similar to the Fisher King of other stories who were similar in appearance and circumstance to the land. The Wauchier text contains the Perceval version of the grail legend. In this version, the Dead Knight is the brother of the King. The dead brother of the King (now given the name Gondefer) was murdered by the treacherous Partinal. Perceval must then slay the murderous traitor to renew the land and the King.

Both the character of the King and the Dead Knight show a connection between leaders and their land. In both versions of the story presented, the leaders are harmed and nature follows. The same thing happens when wars are fought. There is some sort of struggle among leaders and the rest of the country has to deal with it. Wars begin with various causes but they end with soldiers left to fight on the ground. Soldiers do not hold ill will towards the opposing soldiers because this is not truly their fight. They have not sat down with the other soldiers and realized how much of a jerk that one German lieutenant is. No! They fight because they have been told to do it and their fighting is destroying the land.

Eliot, along with his contemporaries, felt disillusioned with the world and how easily country leaders could flippantly change it. In the grail legends, the King and the Knight do nothing to restore their land and they pay no further price. A new knight simply comes along to pick up the pieces and restore the land. I doubt Eliot would like this type of ending. Throughout his poem there is fire and water. Fire is often written as destructive and bad whereas water is good and gives life but Part IV of the poem is titled Death by Water. In this way, restoration and life does not yield the best outcome. I am left wondering if Eliot sees any possible way of overcoming without entering a new cycle of destruction.


Parallels between Eliot’s The Waste Land and the Grail legends can easily be drawn from due to Eliot’s implication of a waste land brought on by the Great War, but there are less obvious nods to the Grail legends. Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance (1920), re-iterates that Holy Grail questers, Gawain, Perceval, and Galahad have been tasked with restoring health, fertility or both. On page 20 Weston mentions, “There can be no doubt that the original Perceval story included the marriage of the hero.” A re-occuring theme in Eliot’s work is the disturbed dynamic between man and woman. In Grail legends, Perceval’s marriage was a solution that yielded rewards. Drawing on the idea that The Waste Land is heavily influenced by Grail legends, it makes sense that the lack of action between people in the poem is contributing to the perturbed picture Eliot illustrates. Upon entering the poem, Eliot wastes no time in letting us know that nature is off, and this includes traditional relationships,”Nothing again nothing/ Do you know nothing/ Do you see nothing/ Do you remember nothing/ I remember/ Those are pearls that were his eyes” (120-125). In the above lines, a wife is desperately trying to speak with her traumatized husband, who can only recall things about death and is unable to take any sort of action towards comforting her or himself which further implies impotence. Whereas Perceval’s union in the Grail legends reflected fertility and advancement, Eliot’s subjects seem to be stuck and unable to advance because nobody can take action.


As we have already discussed in class Fertilization is a key component of the “Wasteland, ” and according to the new book, it is also a key component in some Indian mythology along with its similarity to the Grail mythology. However, the “Wasteland” is completely contrary to the other text in how it relates to fertility. For the “Wasteland” it is about the lack thereof and the problems associated with a society that cannot reproduce. While for the other texts it is about the sanctity of fertilization and there is a happy ending of water flowing through the land.

From the very beginning of the “Wasteland,” there is an immediate reference to the importance of spring, fertility, and winter, death. Eliot says “Winter kept us warm, covering // Earth in forgetful know, feeding // a little life with dried tubers.” It is critical to note that in this passage it is the winter that brings “a little life” to, presumably, the soldiers below. Madam Sostris telling the reader to “Fear death by water.” This warning is already an incredible juxtaposition between the life that water brings and the death that it is threating now.

In “From Ritual to Romance” the author talks about some other scholars who claim that the purpose in Mysterium und Minus in Rig-Veda is to illustrate “the purpose of stimulating the processes of Nature.” It then goes on to tell the story of a kingdom that has fallen to drought and can only be saved by fertility, or the loss of the prince’s chastity. A princess comes in disguise to take him away. After some convincing the prince was whisked away and “the marriage is consummated the spell is broken, and rain falls in abundance.”  This is stark contrast to Eliot’s world where the rain, although it brings life, brings pain.

Important: Impotence

The most obvious and emphasized idea in Ritual to Romance that was paralleled in The Waste Land was the idea of impotence. In Weston, it is described through Perceval, in which the hero “fail[s] satisfactorily to resolder the broken sword.” The text also mentions in general how “the main object of the Quest is the restoration of health and vigour of a King suffering from infirmity caused by wounds, sickness, or old age;” In other words, the quest is to cure the impotence of a king to cure the waste land. The text also mentions a Norwegian (?) piece of work where “the condition of the King is sympathetically reflected on the land, the loss of virility in the one brings about a suspension of the reproductive process of Nature,” linking the King’s impotence to the wasted land.

In The Waste Land, the tone of the poem exudes a feeling of impotence in the general meaning of the word. The idea is clearly presented though, in Part 3: “Unreal City/Under the brown fog of a winter noon/Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant/Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants/C.i.f. London: documents at sight,/Asked me in demotic French/To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel/Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.” This stanza illustrates a homosexual encounter, which is sex without fertility and relates to the theme of impotence. On the next page Eliot writes “Time is now propitious as he guesses,/The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,/ Endeavours to engage her in caresses/Which still are unreproved if undesired./Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;/Exploring hands encounter no defence; his vanity reuires no response,/And makes a welcome of indifference.” This excerpt describes a sexual encounter between a typist and clerk, but the encounter is a very passive acceptance. This idea hovers over the entire poem, and also represents impotence in a way that is representative of humanity at this time.

Nature, Weather, Seasons, and the Waste Land

Humans, from any time period, present or past, and for any time period in the perceivable future, depend upon what Weston calls “the regular and ordered sequence of the processes of Nature.” (24) While adaptability provides some protection, for the most part any change in these processes, sudden and drastic, will likely cause mass devastation. This fundamental stressor to the human animal manifests in both the Grail Quest stories and in the story of Rishyacringa. Drought in particular is a problem in these stories. Drought is a failure of the seasons, the regular ordering of weather, to properly prepare the earth for its purpose (at least its purpose for humans) to grow food. This lack of water turns the land to waste (note that too much water is also a problem.) The term waste here refers to the uselessness of the earth. Soil, without water, cannot perform its purpose, therefore it is useless, it is wasted.

Eliot is also concerned with the order of nature and the land. The first stanza in Burial of the Dead starts “April is the cruellest month.” (1) The poem starts in spring time. However instead of being a false spring that will bring to life-water like in the Grail  and Rishyacringa stories, Eliot’s springtime has rain. In fact this rain is “stirring / Dull roots” (3-4) getting the ground ready to produce life. Eliot’s waste land is quite different than the waste lands of the kingdoms in those ancient stories. Eliot’s waste land is not useless. It is most likely perfectly capable of growing food. Instead of being turned to waste by nature the land in Eliot’s poem has been tarnished by us humans. We have wasted it by shelling it, and filling it will dead bodies. The land is not unfruitful, crops could grow. However we won’t plant any because the ground is sullied, unholy. Nature didn’t turn this land to waste, instead humans wasted the land.

WWI and Grail Legends

From Ritual to Romance helped elucidate not only allusions The Waste Land makes but the way in which it references ancient texts. The connections between the Grail legends and the Rig-Velda, though parallels, are said by Weston not to be “the direct sources of the Grail legend” (Weston 30). Eliot is entirely deliberate in his parallels, but in the same way he is updating ancient ideas originating from nature cults and adapting them for the modern age. One such parallel is the three cultural identities of the heroes: Gawain (English), Perceval (French), and Parzival (German). In addition to the poem’s various references to these cultures, languages, and their myths, Eliot’s references call-upon the main powers behind WWI (Germany, France, and England). Just as Weston points out the ancient to Medieval connection, Eliot connects Eastern mythos to the struggles of European modernity.

Like the “three cases the misfortunes and wasting of the land are the result of war” (Weston 19), WWI left Germany is a deep state of starvation due to the British food blockades. Eliot writes in part V, “I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?” (Eliot 423-425). While this is a vague reference to starvation, it obviously calls upon the aftermath of WWI, and certainly references Weston’s book. These parallels are important because Eliot not only utilize Weston’s ideas thematically, but also conducts the same ancient to Medieval, in Eliot’s case, modern connections Weston writes about.

Rivers in “The Waste Land” and “From Ritual to Romance”

As others have pointed out, water plays an integral part in both The Waste Land and From Ritual to Romance. My take on the theme of water will focus on the story of Rishyacringa and its connection to Eliot and his poem. In the story, Rishyacringa- a young Brahmin- gives up his chastity to bring prosperity to what some might call a wasteland (sound familiar?). “…the lad (Rashyacringa) is carried to the capital of the rainless land, the King gives him his daughter as wife, and so soon as the marriage is consummated the spell is broken, and rain falls in abundance” (Weston 28). Rashyacringa’s sacrifice to bring rain back to the land plays into a larger theme found in Indian storytelling, that of “The Freeing of the Waters” which focuses on restoring the flow of water to the rivers of India (Weston 24). As a brief sidebar, I believe the king in the story bears a striking similarity to the Fisher King that Xandra blogged about below.

Now to connect this to The Waste Land, we’ll turn to Part V, page 18, where we see images of Indian rivers and fertility.  Eliot writes, “Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves // Waited for rain, while the black clouds // Gathered far distant, over Himavant” (lines 395-397). A dried up river in India, what a coincidence! Or completely intentional, as we even see Eliot connect the Ganges to the Thames with the imagery of limp leaves waiting for rain. The reader may recall similar lines about the English river at the beginning of Part III, “…the last fingers of leaf // Clutch and sink into the wet bank” (lines 173-175). Eliot connects Anglo and Indo cultures just like Weston does in her landmark study. Skipping ahead a few lines in Part V, we’ll connect the marriage of Rishyacringa to some of Eliot’s lines which seem to regard sex:

My friend, blood shaking my heart

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract

By this, and this only, we have existed (lines 401-405)

“Blood shaking my heart” evokes vitality and life to me, and “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender” seems to refer to a sexual act done in the heat of the moment that one may come to regret later. This is the exact circumstance under which Rashyacringa loses his virginity to the temptress. Further, “an age of prudence can never retract” the sexual action. Rashyacringa could go back to being chaste, but the newly freed river wouldn’t suddenly stop flowing. “By this, and this only, we have existed,” pretty obviously means we must give into our animal desires as a species in able to continue existing. Personally, I connect Rashyacringa’s plight to that of Eliot, who Dr. Drouin says struggles with deciding to live a normal life (represented by water) or a life with a higher calling (associated with fire). This section, of course, deals with water and the restoration of life and the normal life cycle, but also with the rejection of the ascetic.

As a brief, more out-there postscript, a possible alternate reading for the same section is through the lens of warfare and death instead of birth and life. “Blood shaking my heart” could be about fear before a battle, “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender” could be one surrendering to the conflict wholly, becoming animalistic, and the inability of the “age of prudence” to “retract” the conflict could demonstrate that there is no undoing the war. “By this, and this only, we have existed,” as in, warfare is inherent in man’s nature. Death and birth have equally important roles to Eliot, and the fact that this can almost as  feasibly be read through the lens of war shows how connected the two are in Eliot’s verse.

Death by Water

Weston’s tracing of elements of the Grail Quest to the ancient writings of chiefly agricultural peoples establishes water as a feature of upmost importance in the Romances. “The ‘Freeing of the Waters,'” Weston writes, “is precisely the feat by which the Grail heroes, Gawain and Perceval, rejoiced the hearts of the suffering folk” (24). While the wound of the Fisher King is one that can be connected with personal infertility, the wound of the common people is natural infertility, drought. The significance of water in the Grail Quest narrative very much seems to reappear in The Waste Land, a place where “the cricket [gives] no relief / And the dry stone no sound of water” (23-4). The cricket here is significant as it seems to represent both sexual infertility and drought – the chirping of a cricket is its mating call, and it used to be seen, in some folklores, as a sign of impending rain.

It is interesting to note, however, that water is a source of some ambivalence in The Waste Land. Although the beginning of the poem places us in the emotional and spiritual Wasteland of post-World War I Europe, we are told by Madame Sosostris to “Fear death by water,” a portent that is actualized in Part IV of The Waste Land (55). Water, thus, is both a force of life, bring fertility in an agricultural sense, and a deadly force, one which ultimately kills Phlebas the Phoenician sailor. It is also worth noting that it is not until after Phlebas’ death that rain returns to the barren landscape. Perhaps we might see Phlebas as a type of Quester, one who can, only through death, return life to the Wasteland.