Fisher King

The Grail King, The Rich Fisher, Rich Fisherman, Maimed King, Angler, Pellam, Roi Pescheor

He was the guardian, or any one of the line of guardians, of the Holy Grail.

A king encountered during the Grail Quest. He is sometimes, but not always, identified with the Maimed King. He is called Pelles in the Vulgate Version, in which the Maimed King is named Parlan or Pelleam. In Manessier’s Continuation we are told he was wounded by fragments of a sword which had killed his brother, Goon Desert. Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval, the first text to mention him, tells of a wound in the thighs or groin that left him infirm and infertile, and could not ride as a result of his infirmity.

According to Chrétien and most other writers, the Fisher King received the wound in battle, but in certain variations wound results from the Fisher King fooling around with the broken Grail Sword, which had killed his brother Goondesert (third continuation of Chrétien); or from a battle against the Hags of Gloucester (Peredur); or from the Fisher King’s disbelieving the Grail (Livre d’Artus); or from Perceval’s failure to ask the Grail Question (Perlesvaus); or from Perceval sitting in the Round Table’s Perilous Seat (Didot-Perceval). In any event, this injury made him unable to engage in any sport except fishing; hence, his name. In the Robert de Boron Grail romances, and their adaptations, the king is called the ‘Rich Fisher’ because he caught a single fish that fed thousands at the Grail Table. This man later became keeper of the Grail, and successive Grail Kings inherited the nickname. The Livre d’Artus reverts to the original explanation of the name.

As to his true name, the stories differ greatly: Chrétien does not bestow a proper name on him; the author of Perlesvaus calls him Messois; Wolfram von Eschenbach names him Anfortas; in Robert de Boron’s Joseph, he is called Bron and tells us he earned his title by providing fish for Joseph of Arimathea. In Sone de Nausay he is identified with Joseph of Arimathea himself. In the Vulgate Estoire del Saint Graal, he is Bron’s son, Alain the Large. In the Vulgate romances, the Fisher Kings after Alain include Joshua, Aminadap (Aminabad), CarceloisManuelLambor, and Pellehan; and in Arthur’s time, the designation belongs to Alain, Pelles, or Pellinore, the three sons of Pellehan. The non-Arthurian Sone de Nausay identifies him with Joseph of Arimathea. Most of the Grail legends describe the Fisher King as the uncle or grandfather of the Grail hero (Perceval or Galahad). He ruled the Grail Castle, called Corbenic (Carbonek) in the Vulgate romances.

Robert de Boron names him Brons and says that the title Fisher King came from the fact that he supplied fish for Joseph of Arimathea, though another early commentator derives his name from the Christian fish symbol.

The descendants of Joseph of Arimathea who guarded the Holy Grail in Carbonek Castle. In early versions of the Grail stories, the Grail itself is said to have been the vessel in which the blood of Christ was collected after Jesus’ side had been pierced with a lance by the centurion Longinus (John 19:34). Later versions made the Grail the cup from which Jesus and his disciples drank at the Last Supper. This wondrous relic is housed in the Grail Castle, where it is guarded by the Grail Keeper, the wounded Fisher King. Maimed ‘through the thighs’ (or scrotum), a wound said to have been caused by the Dolorous Stroke, he feeds only from a magic dish. His land has become infertile as a result of his wound, and will revive only if the King himself is cured. The cure will come about only if there is a knight brave enough to travel on the perilous journey through the

land of wailing women

to the Grail Castle and, once there, wise enough to ask the Grail Question. This would then brake the enchantment under which both King and land are held captive.

It is generally agreed that the story of the Fisher King is derived from an ancient fertility myth and has associations with the sea god, the ruler of the mysterious Otherworld. The Preiddeu Annwfn describes a journey made to this Otherworld by King Arthur in search of a magic cauldron, and this story is regarded as one of the sources of the Grail stories.

In Chrétien’s version, this monarch turns out to be Percivale’s cousin on the mother’s side, a king who had been wounded in battle by a javelin through both thighs. (Percivale’s father had also been maimed with a thigh wound – weapon unspecified – and the javelin was the one weapon Percivale had learned in boyhood to use, for hunting.)

Wolfram tells us that the son of the Grail King, Frimutel, was wounded in the scrotum by an envenomed spear while jousting. He was carried into the presence of the Grail where he awaited the coming of the questioner (Percivale) who would ask the Grail question about the Grail and thus restore him to health.

The maimed monarch of the Grail Castle is called the “Fisher” because his only recreation is fishing, with hook and line, from a little boat, his wound having rendered all other sports impossible for him. He shows himself courteous and hospitable, seeming wise and reasonably cheerful. His father, another king, brother to Percivale’s mother, is the man who sits in a room off the main hall of the castle and is served with consecrated hosts from the Grail.

I cannot find in Chrétien’s work any indication that the Fisher King’s country is a waste land, except in the sense of “uninhabited” – the Fisher king’s castle or manor would seem to the only habitation for many leagues about and it, apparently, is often invisible to travelers.

The Fisher King, however, can spread a fine meal; the description of “waste land” in Chrétien’s romance would seem more appropriate for Blancheflor’s land around the castle of Beaurepaire after her war with Clamadeu.

In the early tales, the injured Fisher King awaited Perceval’s arrival for healing. To accomplish this, Perceval had to ask the Grail Question, either “Who does the Grail serve?” or “What ails you?” This would have restored the Fisher King, enabling him to rule his land, and would have spared Perceval himself many hardships. Because of his innocence, Perceval failed to ask the question on his first visit, causing distress, but on his second arrival he successfully cured the king and became the new Grail King himself. In the Vulgate romances, on the other hand, the Fisher King remains king of Corbenic even after the Arthurian knights accomplish the Grail Quest.

His role is complicated in some romances (including Chrétien) by the existence of a separate Maimed King, usually the Fisher King’s father. In Perceval, both kings suffer from the same malady, while in the Vulgate romances, it seems that the Maimed King alone is injured. In many stories, the Maimed King has been wounded by the Dolorous Stroke.

The Fisher King may be an derivative of Bran the Blessed, a wounded King of Britain in Welsh texts. Scholars arguing for a Christian origin for the Grail legend have seen the Fisher King as an allegory for Christ, corresponding with the Grail as a symbol of the Eucharist. As some Grail stories link the Fisher King’s health – and particulary, as his wound is often described as occurring in the groin, his sexual potency – with the prosperity of his land, other critics have seen him as a spirit figure in an elaborate fertility myth.

Malory and others identify the Fisher King as Pellam. Lewis Spence cites evidence that at one time the Maimed or Fisher King was Arthur himself, an idea used to superb dramatic advantage by John Boorman in Excalibur, the only movie and one of the very few modern fictional treatments of any kind which does the Grail Quest well.

Spence makes much of the connection between the title “Fisher King” and the ancient Celtic Salmon of knowledge. Without denying this application, I feel bound to quote Phyllis Ann Karr with a reminder that “the fish is an even more ancient symbol of Christianity than is the cross”.

Amfortas is called Anfortas in Wagner’s opera Parzival. His name may be derived from Latin infinnitas.


Sources
Perceval, or Le Conte del Graal | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Joseph d’Arimathie | Robert de Boron, 1191–1202
First Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval | Attributed to Wauchier of Denain, c. 1200
Second Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval | Attributed to Wauchier of Denain, c. 1200
Perlesvaus | Early 13th century
Parzival | Wolfram von Eschenbach, 1200–1210
Vulgate Lancelot | 1215-1230
Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1215-1230
Vulgate Estoire del Saint Graal | 1220-1235
Vulgate Merlin | 1220-1235
Le Livre d’Artus | Early 13th century
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
Peredur | 13th century