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).


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