The Monomyth: The Legend of the Fisher King
This story emerges from ages past as an example of what Joseph Campbell calls the "Monomyth:" the story of man's search for himself; a mythic journey each of us is called to make during our life--the Hero's Journey.
Once upon a time, there was a mighty King, who was known throughout the World as the Keeper of the Holy Grail. His lineage had inherited the honor and privilege of protecting the Grail when it was brought back from the Holy Land during the Crusades. All who needed healing could come to his castle and ask to drink from the Grail, and upon drinking, receive healing.
This King had a handsome, young son who spent his days scouting the woodlands of his father's kingdom, often alone, hunting and fishing for weeks at a time. He was always happy in the woods, among the sounds and sights of nature; there, he had freedom, time to be himself, and long and happy rides in his father's woodland kingdom. He had friends as well among the woodland creatures and they did not fear his coming, often coming to his hand for treats and petting.
One night during a midnight ride, he came upon a campfire in a wooded glen. Above the fire, a salmon was spitted and was sizzling as it cooked. No one seemed to be around, so the prince waited for a time, waiting for the camper to return. Finally, fearing that the fish might burn, he removed the fish from over the fire and laid it upon the clean grass to cool.
After waiting for a bit longer and deciding that the owner might not return soon, the prince took a small bit of the salmon and thrust it into his mouth. In sudden pain, the prince jerked away, spitting the hot fish out of his mouth, for the fish was much too hot to eat. Then, off balance, he toppled into the fire, screaming in agony as a sharp hot brand impaled his groin, impaling his testicles.
The prince passed out with the pain and fell unconscious to the ground.
He was found in the morning by a patrol of his father's and brought back to the castle. But the wound would not heal. Infected and terribly burned, it festered and resisted all efforts by the court physician to heal it. In time, the boy was crippled--nearly an invalid--and no longer could ride the fields and woods of his kingdom. Soon, he began to complain that he was cold all the time, and couldn't get warm even when sitting in front of the roaring fire in the Great Hall.
He was therefore bound to his court and castle, immersed in the constant arguments, negotiations and courtly conversations with business and government men and women who came and went in the court. His life became filled with the business of the kingdom. No longer could he go on his long solitary rides in the woods, nor relax in the glens and lochs among the hills.
After several years, his aging father stepped down, and the prince became the king, but his wound still would not heal, and as his strength evaporated with his inactivity, his kingdom also fell into waste. The crops stopped growing, disease decimated his great herds of sheep and goats, the cattle would not breed, and even the wildlife disappeared. It seemed that the curse visited upon the king had also fallen upon the land. The only activity that seemed to give the King peace was the time he spent fishing in the lakes and streams close to his castle.
With the coronation of the wounded King, the kingdom seemed to pass into some other dimension. It seemed insubstantial, the castle seeming to float, mist-like above the land, disconnected from the Earth. Eventually, traders would set out for the kingdom, following the same roads as before, and find themselves arriving in some other region of the land. It seemed that the kingdom no longer existed within normal time or place, as though the Earth itself had given up the kingdom and her wounded King to heaven or hell.
Occasionally, some traveler would chance upon the King, fishing in one of the lochs or streams of the vast woodland, and would be directed to his castle, high above her surrounding hills. Only a few received an invitation to enter and stay for the night. Those who were, were told: "It's only a short way down the road, turn left, and cross the bridge."
Few were the travelers invited in, but those who were spoke afterward about the nightly feast served by the King. As the story went, there was a grand procession preceding the feast. A fair damsel would carry the Patton--the plate that carried the bread at the Last Supper. A handsome knight followed carrying the lance used to pierce the side of Christ on the Cross. Still another champion carried the Grail itself, which glowed with a light from within, bringing the procession to a climax.
Each person at the feast, it was said, was offered the chance to drink from the Grail and instantly received the wish most dear to his or her heart--whether he or she spoke their wish or not. Only the King, lying groaning on his litter, was unable to rise and take the healing of the Grail.
In the morning, the traveler would thank his hosts and leave. From these few, the legend grew of the Fisher King--the King of the Lost Kingdom of the Grail.
The Coming of Parsival
In a neighboring kingdom, a young man was living with his mother, Heart's Sorrow, in the forest. They made a living the best they could, for his father had been killed on a knightly quest some years before. Like their father, his brothers also had gone out to seek their fortunes, had become knights, and been killed in battle. The mother, determined that her youngest son would not follow in her husband's or other son's footsteps, had kept her son separate from the community and unaware of the rigorous training programs for knights to be. Nevertheless, she could not prevent him from growing up and demanding to leave as well, so finally he too left, determined to become a knight.
Parsival found his way to King Arthur's Court, and there asked to enter knight training. The knight Gournemont was assigned to train him. The young knight endured the rigorous training for several years and began finally to be sent on lesser missions commensurate with his skills and experience. Like many others in the court, he was entertained by the stories told by traveling bards of a mysterious castle in the mist, where a crippled king held court and, it was said, the Holy Grail was kept. But no other knight had ever seen the castle.
One night Parsival was on such a mission and was traveling through a woodland area. He came upon a small lake with a lone fisherman in a small boat. He hailed the fisherman and asked if there was an inn close by to spend the night. The fisherman, a crippled gentleman of indeterminant age, told him that there was no place within thirty miles, but he might stay the night at his house: "Just down the road a little way, turn left, and cross the drawbridge."
Parsival did as the fisherman said: he rode a little way down the road, discovering a drawbridge off the left side of the trail, leading into a mysterious castle. He rode across the drawbridge, only to find the bridge snapped up close behind him, nearly causing his horse to throw him in its attempt to avoid being struck from behind. He was welcomed by a page and made comfortable for the night.
Eventually, he was called into the castle's courtyard, where he witnessed a strange procession of ladies and knights carrying several mysterious objects. All present are healed or gifted by the drinking from a glowing cup, except for the strange fisherman who lay groaning on a litter. Parsival wondered what this was all about, what the strange objects were, and why the fisherman should be denied healing, but he unsure whether he should speak or not, so he held his tongue and did not ask for information or explanation. He guessed what the glowing cup was and wondered how it could heal, but felt shy and uncertain, so did not ask. In the morning, Parsival arose. He found the castle deserted, mounted his horse, and rode out the gate. Behind him, the castle faded into the mist and disappeared.
The farther he rode, the more Parsival realized that he had failed his guest and himself. The greatest mystery and quest of his life lay behind him. But the castle was now gone and when he might again come across the old fisherman, he could not guess. Parsival continued his training in knight errantry however and for many years fought and jousted with the knights and armies of Arthur's enemies. Twenty years passed. Gradually, as the years passed, he grew gray and tired of the constant warring and suffering. He lost the certainty that he was fighting for the forces of the light and that the enemy knights he faced were defending the dark. The faces of the enemy began to remind him of his own friends and his younger opponents reminded him of the faces of his own children. He felt the meaning go out of his work and life and began to question whether he should retire to a small house in the forest where he could sit and rethink his life.
Old King Arthur however asked him to go on one more quest, and so he set out late in the afternoon. At twilight, he stumbled across a small lake where none should be, and there near the shore was a small boat with the figure of a man in the stern. It was the same fisherman he had encountered twenty years before, looking unchanged from the first time he had seen him. Parsival hailed the fisherman again, asking for a place to stay the night. Again, the Fisher King invited him to stay the night at his house: "just down the road a little way, turn left, and cross the drawbridge."
That night, Parsival again witnessed the strange procession, the bringing of the Grail, and the healing of the guests. This time, when the King failed to rise, the aged Parsival rose and spoke: "Whom does the Grail serve?"
A voice sounded in the silence: "The Grail serves the Grail King!"
At his question, the crippled King rose from his litter, healed. The court erupted in cheers and all gave thanks. For many years, the castle had waited for a hero who would come and ask this question. Outside, the Land began to change, as fields and pastures began to form in the midst of the forest, crops sprung up, and wildlife returned. Gradually, over the next three days, the castle slowly settled firmly onto its foundation and life returned to the old kingdom. Free of pain, the Fisher King celebrated his healing, but again part of this world, he rapidly aged and after three days, died an old man.
Parsival retired to his forest home with his family and was happy, seeing that his life had led up to this moment: despite all the years he had spent fighting useless battles benefiting no one, he had finally had the opportunity to serve something greater than himself.