Healing Through the Fisher King
(Daniel 5; John 6:1-15)
"I sat upon the shore fishing, with the arid plains behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order? "
(Lines from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land)
If Eliot’s words are enigmatic, then ambiguous is the designation of Christ as king. Here is one, after all, who was laid in a manger. Who said, he came not to be served, but to serve. Who was hailed only unequivocally as a king when he hung upon a cross. Yet, we say, his is the name that is above all other names. Who has ascended to the heavens to reign at the right hand of the Father. Whose kingdom will have no end.
As providence has it I was exploring again Eliot’s epic modernist poem The Waste Land. And encountered Eliot’s own suggestion that part of the image that lies behind the poem is the myth of the Fisher King. Well, so far as I can see, that doesn’t throw an awful lot of light onto what is, by any reckoning, a most impenetrable poem. But the figure of the Fisher King does cast some light on the figure of Christ the King.
The Fisher King appears in a whole variety of guises and stories that find their origin in the Medieval period, within the corpus that circles around the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. What all these ancient tales have in common is that the Fisher King carries a debilitating wound to his thigh or groin. This means that, although he is the current ruler of the kingdom, he is unable to procreate and so pass on the kingdom to an heir and successor. And secondly, because of his disability, through the mystical connection between the state of the king and that of the kingdom (in a way that resonates with the Old Testament and other cultic ideas about monarchy), the land is falling to rack and ruin. Precisely what Eliot said was happening to the Western world between the wars, disabled, derelict, decadent and decayed – it was becoming a waste land.
As for the king himself, the only thing that gave him relief was sitting fishing. And it is here that we begin to see some resonances with the figure of Christ. Who came, at least according to one gospel image, as a “fisher of men.” And who was certainly found, often enough, associated with fishermen, or by the lakeside, or travelling in or teaching from a boat (just as Perceval in many of the legends first encounters the Fisher King, sitting in a boat.) In today’s second reading we even find Christ feeding the people with fish (and bread). Not fish that he has caught, mind, but fish that take the place of the wine here in the allusion to the eucharist (about more of which in a moment).
And like the Fisher King, Christ too, is of course - and critically - a wounded king. Both in the sense of (at least for the time of his earthy sojourn) having laid aside his kingly power and splendour, and through the fact that he, literally and theologically, bore our wounds and carried our infirmities. Indeed, it is by his wounds, we are told, that we are healed. Specifically, through his blood, poured out on the cross, proclaimed in the word, and dispensed through the sacrament.
And that brings us to the distinctive role of the Fisher King in Arthurian legend, where he features as the keeper and guardian of the Holy Grail. The grail, first associated with the cup taken by the Lord at the Last Supper, and itself symbolic of the blood of the covenant poured out for the forgiveness of sins, was later believed to have contained the literal blood of Christ collected at the cross by Joseph of Arimathea, who brought it, allegedly, to Britain. Whence it became the object of the quest of King Arthur and his knights, who identified it, not entirely inappropriately, as the source of healing for himself and his people.
So, in the various legends, all sorts of people (including Perceval, Galahad and Lancelot from Arthur’s court) come to the Fisher King, or the Wounded King (as he is sometimes known), in search of the holy grail, and find their healing. And that might represent, or evoke for us, the healing we might find in our searching out of Christ and our partaking of the sacrifice he made in flesh and blood. Nevertheless, that healing is personal and, at best, partial. As was the health that flowed from the Grail. Critically, in the story, neither the Fisher King himself, nor his land, can find their healing unless someone arriving at the royal castle in that misty, mystical land, asks the right question.
I’m not sure we can make too much of that particular detail, except to say that it is out of an enquiring spirit and believing faith that all sorts of new possibilities come. But there is a general point here that the healing of the whole land depends on the prior healing of the King. This, in many ways, reflects the truth of the resurrection, wherein Christ becomes the first fruits of the new creation. That is, the healing of the whole earth and all people is foreshadowed in the healing, the raising, of Christ. A healing and fullness of salvation which will come (will only come) about when all acclaim Christ as King, and, sharing in his resurrection, cultivate the kingdom, nurture the new creation, in works of repentance, mercy, justice and love.
Eliot leaves little real ground for hope or expectation of such healing in the The Waste Land. And in one sense we might be inclined to agree with him, looking out as we do from a despondent age on a ravaged world. Sin and suffering seemingly as rife as ever. But within a few years of writing The Waste Land Eliot found a Christian faith, and his caustic critique was tempered by a belief in the ultimate triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. And we might be inclined to think that the image of the Fisher King at least points to the source of such a hope.
The wounded king who rules as yet over a broken land and a damaged people, as it were, to a degree, impotently, or shall we say in a hidden way. But who is the source and servant of salvation for those who search him out and drink him in. Through whom his reign is released and his kingship proclaimed, so sharing and spreading the risen life, until his kingdom comes on earth as it exists in heaven.
And the servant king becomes for all, the sovereign king. Amen.