Dear Study Group Members,
At the bottom of this note I'm including the story we'll be reading together and discussing- a fairytale version of the Grail story. This time it's happening rain or shine, so please come. I recommend "The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden," and "He," by Robert Johnson if you'd like to read some more about the Grail Myth before class.
As usual it costs $20 to take part in the class, but I've decided to have a generosity policy- meaning people can choose how much they are able to pay. I'm very much looking forward to the group! Please contact me if you have any questions. - Lee
LONG AGO, a young knight named Parsifal was traveling through a great forest when he fell into a dream, 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. In a sailboat close to shore a solitary man sat fishing. Parsifal went down to the lake and called out to the man, asking what valley this was, and was there any place nearby where he could stay the night.
The fisherman, who seemed to be stooped over with pain, called back with effort, “This place is called Wild Mountain. You will find a warm welcome in that castle yonder.” Parsifal hadn't seen any buildings at all on his way down to the lake, but when he turned to where the man was pointing there stood an impressive fortress towering up into the sky. “When you reach the drawbridge tell them the fisherman sent you.”
Parsifal rode up to the castle moat, called out, “The fisherman sent me,” and the drawbridge was immediately lowered. When he entered the castle courtyard a crowd of pages took his horse, removed his armor, and led him to a room where he was bathed and dressed in a magnificent robe. Then a group of knights invited him into a tremendous hall, filled with nobles. Everyone was dressed as if for a great celebration, but they stood together solemnly speaking in whispers.
On a podium at the far end of the hall sat the fisherman, arrayed in king’s robes. He invited Parsifal to sit down beside him in the place of honor, and Parsifal did so, noticing again how intensely the king seemed to be suffering. He wanted to ask the king what was wrong, but remembered his mentor, who had taught him that a dignified knight should consider every word he spoke, and refrain from asking questions- especially in the presence of a king.
Just the hallway doors flew open, and a page walked in carrying a lance, the tip of which was covered in blood. He carried it solemnly to each corner of the room, and then out again; and as he passed many of the nobles began to weep. Next servants entered and set up tables for the king and all his guests. Each table was set with crystal lamps, and silver plates, goblets and knives. A basin was brought to the king who washed his hands and invited Parsifal to do the same.
The room became very still, and a princess entered carrying a golden Grail. As soon as the Grail was brought into the hall all the wounds and aches Parsifal had sustained on his journey seemed to leave his body. When the Grail had been set down before the king the servants held out all the empty goblets towards the grail, and instantly each one was filled with wine. Then the plates were held out and instantly they overflowed with every kind of wonderful food.
But Parsifal noticed that the king’s face and body were still twisted with pain, and though his plate and goblet were the first to be filled, he neither ate nor drank. Later that evening the king stood up, with great effort, and held out a beautiful sword to Parsifal saying, "When I was still an able man I carried this sword into many battles. Please take it- it will serve you well." Parsifal stood up, and every eye in the hall turned to him. He wondered at the meaning of everything he had seen and felt, but kept his peace, accepting the sword silently with a bow of thanks. Before he knew it, 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 dressed himself quickly and rushed out into the courtyard, leapt on his horse and galloped out, hoping he could catch up with the king and offer help. But he had barely crossed the drawbridge when it was yanked up behind him, and a voice cried out, “Were you born without a heart? Have you no feeling at all? You have cursed yourself through your own heartlessness, and everyone who comes near you will also be cursed. You have sat in the presence of the Grail, and now you will never see it again.”
Parsifal cried back, “What do you mean? What have I done wrong?” But there was no answer. He followed the trail of hoof prints that left the castle but instead of leading him to the fisher king they disappeared in the forest, and when Parsifal tried to retrace his path the valley, the lake and the castle had all disappeared.
From that day forward Parsifal felt crushed under a great burden of grief and shame. He had acted with callousness. He had done some terrible wrong, and now he was cursed, and could never return home, for fear of spreading that curse to his wife and his subjects. So instead he roamed the world, seeking to find Wild Mountain again- seeking any quest that might mend the curse and restore his honor. He wandered this way for four years, searching fruitlessly, until his suffering had become so intense he began to wish for death.
Then one 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 be walking 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 holy man lives not far from here. Maybe he can find a balm for you.” Parsifal refused the pilgrim’s offer, but as he continued on his way he wondered if there still was any hope for him. Then he looked forward into the darkness that surrounded him and cried out, “God, if you can help me, please help me now.” And then he threw down his horse’s reigns.
Within a few hours his horse brought him to the mouth of a cave. The old man who lived there came out and invited Parsifal inside. The old hermit’s face was so childlike and kind that Parsifal found himself talking about his dilemma. He told the man that he had become a knight hoping to serve God and instead he had ended up cursing himself through his own conduct, and now he carried a burden of grief and guilt he didn’t even understand. He told the old man he was seeking the Grail, and couldn't go home until he found it. But that his search seemed completely hopeless.
The old man said, “You are right. It is hopeless to search for the Grail. No man can understand God’s will or serve it through his own. The fisher king tried to serve the Grail with pride and now he and his whole kingdom suffer between life and death. It was his birthright to be the Grail’s protector. When he was still a young man a heathen king approached Wild Mountain, determined to take the Grail. The fisher king rode out full of pride and passion to joust with the infidel, and succeeded in killing him, but not before the infidel had buried his lance deep in the fisher king’s thigh.
Everyone thought that he would die, but the royal physician was able to remove the lances tip, and ever since then the Grail has kept him alive. Even so, his wound will not heal, and it has become infected. And so his being rots day by day, and Wild Mountain suffers in agony along with him. Children die before they are born, everything is infected with disease and the whole kingdom is caught between life and death.
A wise woman told the king that one day a knight would come to Wild Mountain, and if he asked the right question the fisher king would be healed. But no one could prompt the knight, and if he failed to ask it, his power to heal would fail, and from that day he too would feel the king'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 at all.”
Parsifal said, “I was the knight who came to Wild Mountain, and saw and felt all the wonders of the Grail. I was the one who witnessed the king’s suffering, and remained like a stone." And then he began to weep.
“Do not despair, my son,” said the old man. “God is merciful. Though every human voice may curse you and every human heart might harden itself against you, God will not abandon you. Only admit your sin, and place yourself in His hands.”
Parsifal stayed with the old man for a few days more, and when he left he felt a great weight had been lifted from him, though he still did not know the way to Wild Mountain. He was thinking about going home to see his wife when he met a heathen king on the road. The king challenged him to joust, and Parsifal accepted the challenge, 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. Then they drew their swords and fought with them 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 king overcame him and pressed the tip of his sword into Parsifal’s throat.
But instead of killing Parsifal, 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 king spoke his own last name it was the same as Parsifal’s, and they realized they shared the same father. Both of them were seeking the Grail, and so they decided to seek it together.
Since Parsifal had come and gone the fisher king’s suffering had grown only more intense. He had begun to beg his queen to keep the Grail away from him so he might die, but still she held out hope that a knight might still come. So night after night she carried the Grail to the king as he writhed and screamed in 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 said, “The fisher king sent for me,” and so they were escorted back to the castle, where they demanded to be brought before the king. And when they were Parsifal removed his helmet and knelt down beside the fisher king, and looked at him. The king was writhing in agony, and Parsifal’s eyes filled with tears, and he said, “My Liege, can I do anything to help you?” And as soon as he asked this, the fisher king’s wound was healed.
The fisher king was overjoyed, and he gave his crown to Parsifal, announcing that from then on he wanted to spend all his days fishing. And so he did, and his former subjects often called out questions to him from shore, for he was known far and wide for his kindness and wisdom. Parsifal became the new king of Wild Mountain, and protector of the Grail. He sent for his wife, and when she arrived she brought with her twin sons, who she had borne just when Parsifal first visited Wild Mountain. And from that day, Parsifal lived very joyfully with his wife, children, and brother, and all the people of Wild Mountain shared this joy.
© Lee Scher, 2013