Tuesday 14 April 2015

The Fisher King

An age of austerity harks back to Arthurian legend where the wounded Fisher King reigns and renders the fertile land barren - the same wasteland that Eliot wrote about (we've seen this before many times). What is his problem? He has to guard the Holy Grail - but he has an injured penis! Obviously in Arthurian legend, that is a reference to his fertility, but equally one might read it as a psychological flaw, a lack of creativity, a sexual problem, and so on. For this reason, the Fisher King becomes the emblem of the ruthless businessman or woman (no reason why a Fisher King should not be a woman - think of Mrs Thatcher!) whose ruthlessness in preserving their wealth (the Grail) is merely the result of rigidity or a lack of flexibility, creativity and insight brought about through their injury. The Fisher King is nothing but predictable - he can only catch fish. Whilst it is tempting to blame his lack of flexibility and creativity for the ensuing decline of the kingdom (which is inevitable), the important point to remember is the critical injury: to put it crudely, the problem is in the trousers! The king needs healing...

I first came across the Fisher King whilst studying Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage at University. King Fisher, as he is called in that opera, is nasty piece of work. A small-minded businessman who has no time for magic, rituals or any other kind of nonsense (as he would see it) practised by the youths and elders in the forest, although he does have his personal clairvoyant to keep the mysterious forces at bay. His daughter Jennifer is in the forest about to marry Mark - something King Fisher is determined to stop. Mark and Jennifer  pursue opposite personal journeys into darkness and light (part of a Jungian individuation process), whilst King Fisher brings his clairvoyant, Sosostris (this is straight from Eliot), to find out what has happened to Jennifer. Frustrated with her response, King Fisher attempts to unmask Sosostris. At the moment he touches her, she turns into a lotus flower (this rather confused audiences at the premier!), with Mark and Jennifer embracing as Shiva-Shakti in its middle. Enraged, King Fisher attempts to shoot Mark, but upon Mark's glance at him has a heart attack and dies. The death of King Fisher is a bit of a departure from the Fisher King legend, but the metaphor for Tippett is that this is a transformation which carries healing power for everyone as the kingly power moves from King Fisher to Mark. In Wagner's Parsifal it is a bit more straight-forward. In legend, it is Percival who is the knight who is finally able to heal the Fisher King. Wagner changed the spelling but the plot is the same, although in his version, the King loses his powers upon being healed.

The message in all of this is clear though: wounded kings are a problem. The cure lies in magic and mystery, in unmasking, in breaking the spell. Tippett believed art itself was the best cure for a society suffering a wounded king. I suspect he was right.

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