The Fisher King is, in addition to being a film by Terry Gilliam, one of the legends associated with King Arthur. Though there are several versions of the story, the general idea is this:

A young man vows that he will find the Holy Grail. After doing so, he sees a vision of the Grail in the firelight. Overcome by the feeling of power, he reaches out to grasp it, but it vanishes, leaving his hand to be burned in the fire.

Many years later, he has become a king, and has sent many knights to search for the Grail, but he has never found it. He lies in his bed, a broken old man. A jester comes to comfort him, and seeing not a king but a human being in need of help, asks what he can do. The king says that he is thirsty, and would like some water. The jester fetches a cup of water for the king.

After drinking, the king sees that the cup is, in fact, the Holy Grail. He asks, "How is it that you have been able to find what my knights were unable to find?" The jester answers simply, "I do not know. I only knew that you were thirsty."
The Fisher King is featured in the story "Perceval".

In Chretien de Troyes' "Perceval", the Fisher King is immobile because he was injured in the leg with a lance. He used to be the protector of the lands near him, but because of his injury the lands have gotten into bad shape (see The Golden Bough). The reason he is called "the Fisher King" is because he goes fishing. He is also the holder of a few special objects, amongst which are a grail and a lance (the meaning of them is pretty obvious, but not stated by Chretien).

1991 film, directed by Terry Gilliam, and (primarily) starring Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, and Amanda Plummer. You'd probably also recognize David Hyde Pierce ("Niles" on television's Frasier), and Tom Waits as a disabled beggar. Ruehl copped an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her spirited performance, amidst a cornucopia of nominations and other awards.

The Fisher King is one of Gilliam's more accessible and coherent directorial efforts. The title is a reference, of course, to the Arthurian legend: Robin Williams plays "Parry", a modern-day homeless psychotic who believes himself to be charged with a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail - which happens to be locked away in the 5th Ave. castle-home of architect Langdon Carmichael.

Bridges' character, "Jack", is the radio talk-show host who unintentionally provokes an unbalanced regular caller ("Edwin") to go postal in an upscale bar. Before turning his shotgun on himself, Edwin blows away several patrons - most relevant to the story of whom is Parry's beloved wife. Jack feels responsible for the killings, and descends into a 3-year "emotional abyss". One night, while wandering the city in a depressed and drunken state, he encounters the now-mad Parry. The rest of the film revolves around Jack's own quest to help Parry.

We can see both Parry and Jack as the soul-scarred Fisher King of legend, and they each play the role of the legendary jester in each others' dramas. This symmetry is subtle and varied enough to fall short of schlockiness.

This ranks high among my All-Time Favorite movies. I'm no fan of tearjerkers, but the dramatics are totally natural to the story. A lesser director would have failed to alternate so seamlessly between tragedy and comedy. There are so many great scenes, both in terms of scenery and dialogue, and all the main characters are complex and engaging (if not entirely credible - homeless drunks aren't really known for breaking into song?) The graphic gore in one or two brief scenes is perhaps overdone, but this is more than overshadowed by the many other, more sterling aspects of the film.

The story of the Fisher King is a story of death and rebirth, not only of the wounded king himself, but of the land over which he rules. This can be seen even by looking at the name of the myth and its central character: The Fisher King.

The Fisher King was indeed called the Fisher King because he fished, but why he fished is the greater mystery. Since time immemorial bodies of water have been potent symbols of death and the unconscious, which were closer things once upon a time than they are now, for in days before photographs, it was only in dreams that we saw the dead live again.

Fish, who live in that water, are often a sign of rebirth, reincarnation, and other means of life from death, for they are the dynamic things that move even in the world under the surface of death. Pisces, of the Zodiac, is a powerful symbol of rebirth, coming as it does at the end of the Zodiac and the turning of winter into spring. Jesus is often given the name Icthus, an acronym in Greek of Jesus of Nazereth, Son of God. Even before the dawn of Christianity, fish were a powerful symbol of rebirth -- making appearances in the Judaism from which Christianity derived as well as other religions. Fishing is, then, the act of bringing about rebirth, of bringing life out of death.

There are many versions of the Fisher King myth, but common elements tend to run through them. The most prominent is, of course, the Fisher King himself, who is always wounded, typically in the groin, or in the side or thigh which are both symbolic of the groin.

The second common element is The Waste Land. The land over which the Fisher King rules is almost invariably infertile. This infertility is because of the King's own infertility -- his health is the health of the land, which is a typical theme in early Indo-European myth and, indeed, belief. There are many cultures that killed the king when their land was failing in the belief that his health was directly tied to the land, there are even some cultures where the king's wife would tell the priests when he was no longer able to satisfy her in bed, as an early warning of the failing of the land -- the king is dead, long live the king.

The third and fourth elements are the lance and the grail, that is, The Holy Grail. These, likewise, are symbols of fertility and are present with the Fisher King in some ritual that is, evidently, designed to heal the king and thus the land. The lance is a potent phallic symbol and the cup unmistakably yonical -- the merging of the two enacts human copulation, another means of restoring fertility.

The stories become divergent upon a third party entering into the story. Often, the person is an innocent who knows nothing of what is going on. Sometimes his innocence saves the king and the land, sometimes it dooms it. Sometimes the innocent even grows to find himself in the same position as the Fisher King towards the end of his life, or sometimes the once-innocent's own King falls victim to the same malady.

Whether the innocent saves or dooms the king, however, the tale remains a potent symbol of death and rebirth, and an allegory, if a thing can be called an allegory when those who created it believed the link to me more than metaphorical, for the turning of the seasons and the emerging of Spring's new life from the ashes of Winter.

King Arthur himself becomes a Fisher King figure at the end of his life, asking one of his knights to cast Excalibur, another potent male symbol, into the lake whence it came, the water here playing the role of a feminine symbol as well as a symbol of death, for afterwards Arthur is himself borne away across the waters to Avalon , the isle of apples - another symbol that recalls the feminine and death at least within Judeo-Christian canon as well as recalling the pomegranate of which Proserpene ate which required her to stay half the year in the land of the dead, to return again, reborn, when he is needed.

The innocent, or The Fool restarts the cycle whether it does so by beginning the king's life anew or beginning the life of an innocent out of the ashes of experience. The Fool is a potent symbol of new beginnings, holding as he does, the zeroth position in the Major Arcana of the Tarot. Indeed, he still has a day at the point where winter becomes Spring in our current calendar -- April Fools Day.

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