Why Fisher, anyway? There are many possibilities, but I think it’s a pun. The French words for “sinner” and “fisherman” are the same, pecheur, with a difference in accents in the written words(Sorry, I can’t seem to get a French accent above the “e” on my iPad, so you will have to Google it to see what I mean.)
This is a confusing character. There may be more than one of him. One is King Pelles, who is the father of Elaine of Carbonek. Or Pellam. Or maybe they are brothers? Father and son? Depends which version you read. It’s part of the Grail legend and, of course, appears in our friend Malory’s work, but also in French and German stories of the Middle Ages, and may even have pre-Christian Celtic elements.
Anyway, he is a sinner who has been wounded by the Spear of Longinus, which was used to stab Jesus on the cross. He can only be healed by a pure Grail knight who is sometimes Galahad and sometimes Percival. His wound is described as being in the thigh, but is probably meant to be in the genitals, so you have to assume he was wounded after fathering Elaine or other characters described as his children. What was his sin? Liking women too much, apparently!
In Malory there is an early story, “Balin and Balan” in which the two brothers end up killing each other unintentionally, the sort of story you will find in Tolkien’s more depressing works. In it, there is a downright scary scene in which Balin is rushing through a castle unarmed, having broken his weapon, being chased by King Pellam, whose brother he had just killed. He finds himself in a room with a bed, and a spear set on a gold table. Desperately, he grabs the spear and stabs his pursuer. Dreadful things happen, because this is not just any old spear, of course. The whole castle comes crashing down and both Balin and Pellam fall into a “swoon” for several days, awakening in the ruins. Balin has struck the Dolorous Stroke, and Pellam will be in agony from his unhealed wound for years till Galahad comes along to heal him.
Or Percival. Or whoever. Anyway, that is the last we hear of it till the Grail Quest begins. Pellam is a Grail Keeper, a relative of Joseph of Arimathea, so is important.
More than that, the land is also “wounded”, becoming a wasteland. Maybe another good reason for not letting kings run around having knightly “adventures”!
In John Boorman’s film, Excalibur, the whole Fisher King thing is handed to Arthur himself, who needs to drink from the Grail to recover. The knight who achieves it and brings it back to his lord is Percival, who has to answer a riddle(no, not “what is your name, what is your quest, what is the flight velocity of an unladen swallow?”). Arthur has been wounded and the land with which he is connected has become a wasteland. When he is healed, he and his knights gallop across land which is blossoming with his recovery, to the tune of “O, Fortuna” from Orff’s Carmina Burana.
If the King Pelles of the Elaine story really is the Fisher King, no wonder he wants a grandson to relieve him of the misery of his wound!
Tomorrow’s letter is G, featuring Gawain, Guinevere and the Green Knight. See you then!