Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles.

The Fisher King

a popular image of the GrailThe Fisher King is a figure closely associated with the Arthurian cycle and, more directly, with the legends of the search for the Grail.

A discussion on the development and varying source materials for the stories is beyond the scope of this article, but similar motifs and character types appear in each version, the main ones of which are listed below.

  • Chretien de Troyes, Conte del Graal (c. 1160-1180)
  • Wauchier de Denain, First Continuation (c. 1180-1200)
  • Robert de Boron, Didot-Perceval (c. 1191-1202)
  • The Mabinogion, Peredur (c. 1200)
  • Perlesvaus-The High History of the Grail (c. 1200)
  • Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival (c. 1217)
  • Mallory – The Quest for the Holy Grail

At the heart of this story is a king who possesses, or is associated with, a series of miraculous treasures. These generally include a spear, a serving dish, cauldron, platter or cup, and a sword, often broken.

The cup / cauldron / platter provides food or drink that brings physical satisfaction and contentment, healing, or even spiritual enlightenment, and the spear is capable of giving wounds that are not easy to heal. Indeed it may even be this spear that maims the eponymous king.

At the commencement of each story, the king is wounded and maybe also sick and / or decrepit.

Chretien de Troyes paints him as “handsome with greying hair” but in perpetual torment from his wound.

Robert De Boron describes the wounded king as being “old and frail and so full of great ills that he could stir neither hand nor foot.”

In Peredur the king is again described “stately and hoary headed”.

This wound, is most commonly, inflicted to the foot, thigh or groin. Commonly, the kings’ festering wound affects the whole land leaving it barren, a wasteland. This wound, and the wasteland, may be cured by the coming of the “Grail hero” who may recover the life-giving cup or ask the correct questions concerning this item.

Although the personal name of the maimed king varies he is frequently referred to as “The Fisher King” or in some later texts, “The Rich Fisher”.  Occasionally the Fisher King is the son or grandson of the maimed king.

So why is he the Fisher king?

In the Cretian De Troyes version, he is certainly fishing when he meets up with Perceval. This Fisher King has been wounded with a spear through the thighs. He can no longer ride but he can still enjoy fishing!.

Peredur, from the Mabinogion tale meets the first of his two lame uncles in a boat along with others who are fishing. In this  story there is no grail and Peredur is presented with a severed head on a platter. His role is to avenge the death of his cousin.

Robert de Boron gives his name as Bron and tells us he earned his title by providing fish for Joseph of Arimathea.

Pelles, in Malory’s story has been wounded through both thighs and is cured by the Grail Knight when drops of blood from the “holy spear” are placed on the wounds. He is also referred to as “The Fisher King”.

The fishing function of the king is not a particularly prominent feature. It feels, rather, that he is encountered fishing, or enjoys fishing merely to explain the “Fisher King” sobriquet.

The title “Fisher King” itself implies Christian interpretation of the story elements. The symbol of the fish, of course, is common in the early church. ‘Iesous CHristos Theou HUios Soter’ – the first letters of each word spell out the Greek word for fish.  Matth. IV.19, Mark I.17, Luke V.10 also refer to Jesus telling his disciples that he would  make them into “fishers of men”.

The “Hallows”, the miraculous items kept or associated with the maimed king, have also taken on a strong Christian semblance. The grail becomes the cup of the Last Supper and the bleeding spear, the weapon of Longinus used at the crucifixion. The sword is more obscure but is generally regarded as the sword of David. The stone is generally not directly present although a stone chair features in at least one version.

These items are still largely cognate with treasures from Irish and Welsh mythology. As we mentioned in the podcast, the De Dananns brought four treasures with them from the cities of the north. There was the sword of Nuada, the spear of Lug, the stone of Fal and the cauldron of the Dagda.

Both Lug’s spear and Nuada’s sword were matchless weapons. No-one could resist them and the wielder could not be beaten. The stone of Fal would “cry out beneath any king who would take Ireland”. However it is the Dagda’s cauldron which resonates more precisely with the grail story. It is said that no company would leave the cauldron  unsatisfied.

The Dagda is a magnificent “larger than life” character in Irish story, especially in the Moytura text.  Here, after consuming a cauldron of porridge, five fists deep and made with fourscore gallons of milk as well as numerous goats, sheep and pigs with a ladle so large a man and a woman could “lie” in it, he cuts a grotesque figure. Just before he has his highly bawdy encounter with the Fomoire Indech’s daughter, he is described as having “a cape to the hollow of his elbows and a grey-brown tunic around him as far as the swelling of his rump. He trailed behind him a wheeled fork which was the work of eight men to move. His long penis was uncovered. He had on two shoes of horse-hide with the hair outside.”

This is a rather different image of a grail keeper!

The Welsh Bran is also the keeper of a cauldron of abundance. He, also,  is said to be so big that no room could contain him.  In the story from the second branch of the Mabinogion he is a giant who has to wade across the sea to his sister Branwen’s wedding in Ireland. There he gives the cauldron to the Irish king as a marriage gift.

The story of Bran and Branwen is long and tragic but well worth reading in full. In brief, however, Branwen is mistreated and a war ensues in which Bran is mortally wounded. by a poisoned arrow to the foot and the land becomes a wasteland. Bran asks that he be decapitated and his living head continues to guide and to provide an ambience of charmed abundance for more than eighty years. Even when the charm is broken, the head is buried in London where it continues to protect the country. To this day Bran’s ravens at the Tower of London sustain the legend.

Bran clearly shares much in common with our maimed grail keeper. Indeed his name is very close to Robert de Boron’s “Bron”, who is a brother in law to Joseph of Arimathea. Even Peredur’s revelation of the severed head might be an echo of Bran’s oracular head.

It has been suggested that Nuada is a version of the Fisher King. There are some similarities:

  • He is wounded and, after the time of his leadership, there is evidence of famine and dearth in the land as well as requirements for tribute demanded by the Fomoire.
  • His name contains the meaning of “acquisition”, “gathering in”. This etymology could well include hunting and / or fishing.
  • Evidence from the Roman temple of Lydney associates Nodens (Nuada) with hunting, fishing and healing.
  • His silver hand could connect with acquisition, money and wealth. He seems to be a type of merchant king.
  • He has to step down as leader once blemished,. but once his flesh hand is restored by Dían Cécht, continues as a fine strategist and becomes, once again, an active leader with Lugh as his “Dux Bellorum”.

There are also significant differences:

  • All maimed kings are wounded in the foot, thighs or groin. Nuada’s wound is the loss of an arm. No other wound is ever referenced.
  • Nuada’s silver arm has no special powers other than that of a quite miraculous prosthetic. It does not feed or sustain himself or others. Indeed the silver arm is still a blemish. It does not permit him to regain the kingship.
  • The famine and dearth happens under his replacement, Bress. When Nuada looses his arm, he has just fought a victorious campaign against the Fir Bolg. It is only after Bress takes over that it could be said that the land is laid waste.
  • There may be a hint of a “grail question” in the tests of judgement that are set to trick Bress. Once he has given a “false judgement” – (this will be examined fully in our next podcast episode) – he can no longer be leader. However, it is the Dagda “grail keeper”, the possessor of the cauldron of abundance who devises and carries out the trick. And he is certainly no maimed king.

There are certainly echoes of the Fisher King in Moytura but this story has a different atmosphere throughout. It is robust and earthy.  Nuada is a wounded leader but is no infirm and impotent king. The Dagda is the guardian of “abundance” but shows no inclination to search for the services of a “grail knight”.

In later episodes we will be examining the role of this central and colourful character in more detail.  I, for one, feel he has more to tell us.

Chris Thompson, Nov ’12

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