Last week, I wrote a bit about the Wasteland—an archetypal place of nothingness, boredom, and lack of fulfillment.
Nothing grows in the Wasteland. It’s a sterile place void of life and opportunity. And nobody who lives in the Wasteland experiences growth, either. So if you’re in the Wasteland, you’re stuck. (How do you know if you’re in the Wasteland? Read that article I mentioned by clicking here.)
The Wasteland shows up in a lot of stories and myths. It’s a prominent feature in Arthurian legend, where it’s the realm of the Fisher King. Several big name medieval writers wrote versions of this myth, including Chretien de Troyes and a guy named Eschenbach.
Their versions of the Fisher King’s story vary from one another, and both draw heavily on Celtic mythology. So it’s tough for me to just write a summary of the legend of the Fisher King and do justice to the body of their work and the entirety of the myth and archetype without going too far over my word count.
Oh well. Here goes.
The Fisher King ruled a great land. In Celtic legends, a king was responsible for the fertility of his land as well as its safety. He was expected to use his creative powers to make it a fruitful place, and to use his sexual powers to give it a long dynasty of good stewards.
But the Fisher King commits adultery—he betrays his kingdom—and suffers a terrible wound in his groin as punishment. Bye-bye fertility.
The wound was more than just sexual impotence. He couldn’t create anything. The Fisher King’s realm wasted away into a barren, lifeless place. Nothing grew there.
His wound would not heal . . . but neither did it kill him. It caused him terrible pain and turned him into an invalid who couldn’t walk around and do kingly things, or even manly things. Or even ANY things. The only thing the Fisher King could do was sit there and fish.
The only way the Wasteland and the Fisher King can be healed, is if a worthy man asks the right question. BUT . . . nobody knows this. I’m not saying nobody knows what the right question is. I’m saying nobody knows that they’re supposed to ask a question in the first place.
The Fisher King’s prospects don’t look good.
King Arthur’s knight Percival goes to see the Fisher King, and during dinner a weird procession of people parades through the hall carrying strange objects like bleeding lances, golden grails, and candelabras. The procession is a symbolic “riddle” of sorts, containing clues about what happened to the Fisher King, where he went wrong, and how he and his land can be healed.
But Percival doesn’t know this. Percival is just super confused. It’s the oddest form of dinner entertainment he’s ever seen. But despite his curiosity—despite his burning desire to ask a question—he doesn’t ask the Fisher King any questions because that would be rude.
True knights are never rude.
In the story, we (that’s you, gentle reader) are both the Fisher King and Percival. If there is a part of us that is deeply wounded—so much so that we feel lost in a Wasteland—we are the only ones who can heal ourselves and bring our world back to life.
Joseph Campbell sums up Percival’s failure (our failure) in “Myths to Live By”:
“Thus he allowed concern for his social image to inhibit the impulse of his nature . . . The result of the suppression of the dictate of his heart was that the young, misguided knight . . . was so shamed and baffled by what happened that he bitterly cursed God for what he took to have been a mean deception practiced upon him, and for years he rode in a desperate, solitary quest . . .”
The idea of The Question that can heal the Fisher King is fascinating. Above, we saw that Percival could have just asked about the weird parade. Chretien de Troyes died before he finished his version of the story, so we don’t know what his version of the magic healing question would have been.
Many say The Question is simply, “What ails you?”
I think that we can use this magic healing question in our own lives, to heal our own Wastelands.
But it will require facing some uncomfortable truths, and following the dictates of our hearts rather than conforming to a social image or expectation.
Here are a few Questions that can get us started . . . but if we’re going to play with these questions, we should do so seriously. They’re not a quiz at the back of a fashion magazine about what we should really be doing with our lives. These are soul questions, and soul questions always take some soul baring.
What is expected of me?
Who expects it? (Society? Family? Myself? Others?)
What happens if I don’t meet those expectations?
How does fulfilling those expectations stifle my growth and my healing?
How have I betrayed myself and my kingdom?
It can all be summed up with: What ails you?
Facing the wound and naming it can be a very difficult, but healing action. Because once we face what’s wrong, we often know what would be right.