The other morning I was listening to one of my favorite IPOD casts - the BBC 4 show In Our Time hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Each week Melvyn gets together a group of academics to explore one specific topic for an hour - the topics can range from The Charge of the Light Brigade to Tectonic Plates to The Nicene Creed to what this week's topic was - The Fisher King.
It was an hour long romp through the history and development of the Fisher King from his first mention in Chretin de Troyes final unfinished story to his "fleshing out" inn the works of Robert de Boron, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Malory, Wagner (Anfortas) and finally in such modern renderings as Elliot's The Waste Land the Terry Gilliam's movie The Fisher King. As well as some of the potential Celtic sources for the story that may go back to the second branch of the Mabynogion (Bendigrifyfn the giant in the story of Branwen as well as Irish tales).
I've done a lot of studying of the Grail legends over the years and the role of the Fisher King. I often wondered what was it that caused in the 1180-1200 this somewhat burst of stories about the Grail (and of course the transition of the Graal from a plate, to a stone to finally a chalice that was used in the Last Supper as it culminated in Malory.
I also recently read an excellent book by G. Ronald Murphy called Gemstone of Paradise which talks about Wolfram von Eschanbach's use of the stone at the Grail and what the possible origins of this may have been (well worth a read).
What both this book and the radio show did is put the development of the Grail stories in an historical context - namely that at the time of the development of these stories to be told and then read to/by the lords and ladies of Europe - Saladin has just recaptured Jerusalem and the holy land and the west which created the need for a Third Crusade. The West were at a low and they needed something to rally around - and here might have been the perfect thing - a pure holy talisman that belonged to the west and despite losing the holy land to the "infidel" this symbol of purity was still on the side of the West - I guess in a way it was like having Superman on the side of the Allies during World War II - fighting for truth, justice and the American Way.
'll be pondering more tonight at I listen to Parsifal from the Royal Opera House on BBC Radio 3 - any comments much appreciated!