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The Fisher King

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 17 January 2008

Melvyn Bragg and guests will be delving into the world of medieval legend in pursuit of the powerful and enigmatic Fisher King. In the world of medieval romance there are many weird and wonderful creatures – there are golden dragons and green knights, sinister enchantresses and tragic kings, strange magicians and spears that bleed and talk. And yet, in all this panoply of wonder, few figures are more mysterious than the Fisher King.Blighted by a wound that will not heal and entrusted as the keeper of the Holy; the Fisher King is also a version of Christ, a symbol of sexual anxiety and a metaphor for the decay of societies and civilisations. The Fisher King is a complex and poetic figure and has meant many things to many people. From the age of chivalry to that of psychoanalysis, his mythic even archetypal power has influenced writers from Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century to TS Eliot in the 20th. With Carolyne Larrington, Tutor in Medieval English at St John’s College, Oxford; Stephen Knight, Distinguished Research Professor in English Literature at Cardiff University; Juliette Wood, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Welsh, Cardiff University and Director of the Folklore Society

  • Further Reading


    Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval: The Story of the Grail, in Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances including Perceval, trans. D. D. R. Owen, (London, Everyman, 1987) (earlier editions did not include Perceval: for the Fisher King and context see pp. 414-8)

    Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval: The Story of the Grail, trans., Nigel Bryant, (Cambridge, Brewer, 1982) (Now available in paperback, this provides not only Chrétien’s unfinished Perceval but also, uniquely, translations of all the continuations – four of them)

    Wauchier de Denain, First Continuation (c. 1180-1200)

    Didot-Perceval, (c. 1191-1202)

    Perlesvaus, or The High History of the Holy Grail

    Peredur The Mabinogion, (c. 13th century)

    Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur (1470)

    Robert de Boron, Merlin and the Grail: Joseph, Merlin, Perceval, trans. Nigel Bryant, (Cambridge, Brewer, 2001) (for 'Bron, the Fisher King' see Joseph, pp. 42-3)

    Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzifal, trans. A. T. Hatto, (London, Penguin Classics, 1980) (Parzival meets King Anfortas, The Angler, in Chap. 5, learns about him and the Grail in chap. 9 and asks the Grail question in Chap. 16)

    T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, ed. Michael North, (New York, Norton, 2000) [1922]

    C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, (London, Lane, 1945) (this original version is a good deal longer than the 1955 Pan edition)

    David Lodge, Small World, (London, Secker and Warburg, 1984)

    Anthony Powell, The Fisher King, (London, Heinemann, 1986)

  • .

    The Fisher King, (film) directed by Terry Gilliam, (TriStar Pictures, 1991)

    Excalibur, (film) directed by John Boorman, (Orion, 1981)

    John Rh?s, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, reprint ed. (New York, Russell and Russell, 1966) [1891] (Chapter 134, 'The Origin of the Holy Grail' includes material on Bran, the mythic Welsh king from the Mabinogi stories, as the source for the Fisher King/Maimed King)

    Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, (New York, Doubleday Anchor, 1957) [1920] (Chapter 9, 'The Fisher King')

    David Jones, The Sleeping Lord and other Fragments (London, Faber, 1974)

    Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton) with new intro by Harold Bloom (1957)

    J.D. Bruce, The Evolution of Arthurian Romance from the Beginnings Down to the Year 1300, 2 vols., (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1922) (vol. 1, Part 2, Chapter 1, 'Chrétien, Robert de Boron and the Theory of Christian Origin', 2 'The Theory of Celtic Origin', 3 'The Ritual Theory': Chap. 3 deals most with The Fisher King

    Roger Sherman Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, (New York, Columbia University Press, 1927) (Chap. 18, 'Fisher King and Maimed King')

    Roger Sherman Loomis, The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1963)

    Helaine Newstead, Bran the Blessed in Arthurian Romance (New York, 1939)

  • .

    John B Vickery, The Literary Impact of the Golden Bough (Princeton, 1973)

    George Williamson, A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem-by-Poem Analysis, second edition, (London, Thames and Hudson, 1967) (Chap. 5 deals with The Waste Land, with recurrent references to the Fisher King)

    Charles Williams, and C.S. Lewis, Arthurian Torso, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948)

    Charles Williams, The Greater Trumps (London, 1932)

    C.B.Cox and Arnold Hinchcliffe, eds. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Casebook, (London: Macmillan, 1968) (Contains Cleanth Brooks’ famous Christian interpretation of the poem)

  • .

    Additional References
    Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend, trans. Andrea Dykes, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1998) [1970] (Chapter 11, 'The Suffering Grail King' is a lengthy discussion of the king, the fish and their various meanings in Jungian terms)

    Martin B. Shichtman, `Hollywood’s New Weston: The Grail Myth in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and John Boorman’s Excalibur’, Post-Script, Essays in Film and the Humanities 4 (1984), 35-48; reprinted as Chapter 19 in The Grail: A Casebook, ed. Dhira B. Mahoney, (New York, Garland, 2000) (Discusses Weston’s concept of the wasteland as a basic image in these films)

    Kevin J. Harty, 'Parsifal and Perceval on Film: The Reel Life of a Grail Knight', Chapter 14 in Perceval/Parzifal A Casebook, ed. Arthur Groos and Norris J. Lacy, (New York and London, Routledge, 2002) (Discusses Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King)

    Joan Didion, 'In the Realm of the Fisher King' in Vintage Didion, (New York, Vintage, 2004) [1989] (Discusses Reagan through the image of the maimed king)


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