Parsifal & the Fisher King
LONG AGO, a young knight named Parsifal was traveling through a great forest when he fell into a daydream; and so his horse was left to go wherever it cared to take them. As the sun was setting, Parsifal found himself looking down upon a beautiful lake surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains. A small boat floated close to one shore, and in it sat a fisherman. Parsifal went down to the lake and called out, “Friend, what valley is this? Is there any place nearby where a stranger might pass the night?”
The fisherman, who seemed to be stooped over with pain, answered, “This place is called Wild Mountain. You will find a warm welcome in that castle yonder. When you reach the drawbridge just tell them the fisherman sent you.” Parsifal hadn’t seen any buildings at all on his way down into the valley, but when he turned around there stood a great fortress towering up into the sky.
He made his way up to the drawbridge and called out, “The fisherman sent me,” and the bridge was immediately lowered. When he entered the courtyard pages took his horse, and led him to a room where his armor was removed, and he was bathed and dressed in a magnificent robe. After he had rested awhile a group of knights invited him into a tremendous hall, filled with nobles. Everyone was splendidly dressed, but they stood together solemnly, speaking in whispers.
On a podium at the far end of the hall sat the king, and Parsifal was astonished when he realized it was the same fisherman he’d spoken to just a few hours before. The king invited Parsifal to sit down beside him in the place of honor. Parsifal noticed again how intensely the man seemed to be suffering. He wanted to ask the king what was ailing him; but Parsifal’s mentor had taught him that to maintain his dignity a knight should consider every word he spoke with care, and refrain from asking questions in the presence of a king.
Just then the hallway doors opened, and servants entered and set up tables for the king and all his guests. Each table was set with silver plates, goblets and cutlery, and a basin was brought to the king, who washed his hands and invited Parsifal to do the same. Next, a page entered the hall carrying a lance, the tip of which was covered in blood. He carried it solemnly to each corner of the room, and as he made his way a few of the nobles began to weep.
Then a beautiful princess entered carrying before her a golden grail. As soon as she had brought the grail into the hall all the wounds and aches Parsifal had sustained along his journey suddenly left his body. Parsifal felt a sense of awe, longing and at the same time a complete fulfillment and peace he’d never experienced before. He felt that he had come to the end of all searching and striving, that he could feel the very presence of God. When the grail had been set down before the king the nobles held up their empty goblets, and instantly they were filled with wine. And when they held out their plates they overflowed with every kind of wonderful food.
But when Parsifal turned towards the king he saw that the king’s face and body were still wracked with pain. He longed to ask the king what pained him so, but again he kept his peace. Still, he wondered, how can a man with such a treasure before him remain so full of suffering?
A little while later the king stood up, and held out a beautiful sword to Parsifal saying, “When I was an able man I carried this sword into battle. Please take it. It will serve you well.” Parsifal stood up, and every face in the hall was turned to him. He wondered at the meaning of everything he had seen, but for the third time he remembered his mentors words and kept his peace, accepting the sword silently with a dignified bow. Before he knew it, the grail had been taken away, the tables were cleared and the king was wishing him good night.
When Parsifal awoke the next morning the castle was deathly quiet. His clothes and armor had been laid out for him, but not a single servant knocked on his door, and the whole castle seemed completely abandoned. He assumed everyone must have rushed away to deal with some crisis- so he put on his armor, rushed out to his horse and galloped out over the drawbridge, hoping he could catch up with the king and offer help. But he had barely crossed the bridge when it was yanked up behind him. Then a voice from behind him cried out, “Have you no feeling at all? By your own heartlessness you have cursed yourself, and everyone who comes near you!”
Parsifal cried back, “What do you mean? What have I done?” But there was no answer. He followed the trail of hoof prints that left the castle but they disappeared in the forest, and when Parsifal tried to find his way back he could not find any trace of Wild Mountain.
Parsifal didn’t understand what sin he had committed, but still he felt crushed under a great burden of shame. He knew what the accusing voice had cried out was true, that his soul was cursed and he could not go home without corrupting his beloved wife and all his subjects. So instead he roamed the world, seeking to find any trace of Wild Mountain or for some quest that might mend the curse and restore his honor. For seven years he wandered, fruitlessly, until his suffering and his despair were so intense he began to wish for death.
Then one late December evening he came upon a family of pilgrims- a gray-bearded man, and his wife and two daughters- all walking barefoot along the road. The gray-bearded man said to Parsifal, “Knight, why do you not observe this holy season? Why do you ride armed, when you should walk barefoot?” Parsifal answered, “There was a time I pledged my service to God. But God has cursed me. I do not look to Him for help.”
“You should come along with us,” the pilgrim said. “A saintly hermit lives not far from here. Maybe she can find a balm for your suffering.” Parsifal refused the pilgrim’s offer fearing to spread the curse to them. But as he continued on his way he wondered if there might still be any help for him. Then he looked forward into the darkness and cried out, “God, if you can help me, please help me now.” And he threw down his horse’s reigns and wept.
Soon afterwards he fell asleep, exhausted, in the saddle and when he awoke his horse was standing before the mouth of a cave. The old woman who lived there came out and invited Parsifal inside. Her face was so open and kind Parsifal soon found himself telling her about his suffering. He told her how he had become a knight hoping to serve God, and instead had ended up cursing himself, and now for several years had been carrying a burden of guilt he didn’t understand. He told the old woman he was seeking the Holy Grail, and couldn’t go home until he found it. And yet his search seemed hopeless.
The old woman said,
You are right. It is useless to seek the Grail. No man can serve God’s will by chasing his own. The fisher king was given the Grail to protect as his birthright. But tried to serve the Grail with ambitious pride and now he and his whole kingdom are strangled between life and death. When he was a young man a heathen king approached Wild Mountain, determined to take the Grail. When the king rode out to meet him, he was full of pride and and the passion for battle. He succeeded in killing the heathen, but not before the heathen had buried his lance deep in the fisher king’s thigh.
Everyone thought the fisher king would die, but the royal physician was able to remove the tip, and ever since then the Grail has kept him alive. Even so, his wound has become infected, and does not heal. And so his insides rot, and all of Wild Mountain suffers with him. Children die before they are born, the animals and crops are full of disease and the whole kingdom is caught between life and death. The only relief the king has found is in fishing, which lessens his pain for a time.
It was said that one day a knight would come to Wild Mountain, and all he had to do is ask the king a question, and the king would soon be healed. But no one could prompt the knight to ask it, and if he did not, his power to heal would fail, and from that day he would share the kingdom’s wound. And then one day a knight did come to Wild Mountain, and all the wonders of the Grail were revealed to him, and he sat beside the suffering king and said nothing.”
Parsifal said, “I was the knight who came to Wild Mountain, and stood in the presence of the Grail; who witnessed the king’s suffering, and stayed like a stone.” And he wept.
“Do not despair,” said the old woman. “Though every human voice may curse you and every human heart may harden itself against you, God will not abandon you. Admit your sin to Him, and place yourself in His hands.”
When Parsifal left the old woman he felt a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He still did not know the way to Wild Mountain, but he trusted that God’s hand would lead him. Soon after he met with another knight on the road. His strange vestments showed that he was a foreigner- a heathen. The knight challenged Parsifal to joust, and Parsifal accepted, not out of pride, but because it felt like God’s will. In the first clash of their lances both men were thrown from their horses. So they drew their swords and fought, and fought, until both men were struggling just to lift them. Finally, Parsifal’s sword (the one the fisher king had given him) broke, and the heathen knight overcame him and pressed his sword tip into Parsifal’s throat.
But then he lowered the blade and said, “It would profit me nothing to kill a knight like you. Show me your face, and tell me your name.” When they had removed their helmets Parsifal saw that the man’s skin was brown. And when the heathen knight spoke his family name it was the same as Parsifal’s, and they realized they were brothers who shared the same father. Both sought the Grail, and so they decided to seek it together.
Since Parsifal had come and gone the fisher king’s suffering had only grown more intense. He had begun to beg his queen to keep the Grail away so he might die. But she still held out hope that some help might come. So night after night she carried the Grail to the king’s bedside as he writhed in terrible agony.
Then one morning, when the knights of Wild Mountain rode out to patrol their kingdom, they came upon two knights in black armor. One of the two knights said, “The fisher king sent for me,” and so they were escorted back to the castle. When they arrived they requested to be brought before the king. The queen ordered that their request be granted, and so they were led into the king’s bedroom. Then Parsifal removed his helmet and knelt down beside the king. The king was writhing in agony, and Parsifal’s eyes filled with tears, and he said, “My Liege, can’t I do anything to help you?” And as soon as he asked this, the wound began to heal.
The fisher king was overjoyed, and he announced that he wanted to spend the rest of his days on the water fishing. Over time he became famous for his wisdom, and people came from all over the world to ask him questions. Parsifal became the king of Wild Mountain, and the new protector of the Grail. He sent for his wife, and when she came she brought with her twin sons, who she had given birth to just when Parsifal was first visiting Wild Mountain. And so Parsifal lived very joyfully with his wife, his children, and his brother; and all the people of Wild Mountain shared in their joy.
Based on The Tale of Perceval, by Chretien de Troyes (written between 1135-1190)
This version © Lee Scher, 2013, all rights reserved
Lee Scher facilitates a monthly fairytale study group in Portland, OR. For more info visit: http://www.meetup.com/fairytale-study-group or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on Lee’s psychotherapy practice please visit: http://www.goldenkeypsychotherapy.com