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.


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