In the post on Leo Myths we looked at the quest for meaning in the story of the Holy Grail. The fulfilment of this quest is the healing of the Fisher King and that brings us to the 1991 film by Terry Gilliam. The Fisher King is a comedy-drama about Jack Lucas, a misanthropic DJ and his unlikely friendship with a homeless man called Parry.
The myth of the Fisher King is a fragment of the better-known Grail myth, and Jungian analyst, Robert A. Johnson says it’s one of the founding myths of our time. It’s about the healing of the wounded feeling function in men, but it also relates to women as they’re just as likely to feel alienated from themselves in the modern world. There are many variations of the story, but in simple terms, it goes like this:
A young prince is out and about doing a spot of knight errantry when he comes across a camp where a fire burns. The camp is deserted but a salmon is roasting on a spit over the fire. The prince is hungry so he takes some of the salmon and drops it because it’s too hot. But some of the fish finds its way into his mouth and it burns him. The wound is so bad that it won’t heal. The prince later becomes king and can only find respite from his painful wound when he’s fishing.
The wound is to the king’s ability to create and relate – the generative function. Other versions of the tale say that somebody returns to the camp and shoots an arrow through his testicles, or that he receives a wound to his thigh – both of which make more sense than the idea of being wounded in the generative function via the mouth.
However, the salmon is a symbol of Christ so the wound also relates to a level of consciousness that the prince isn’t ready to see – it’s too hot to handle. His inner world shuts down in response and he’s unable to connect with the source of life. This means he can’t feel or value anything effectively. He’s rendered impotent and can’t create new life.
The myth describes how the Fisher King is too ill to live but unable to die. Robert Johnson says there’s “no better description of our modern neurotic structure” and that most men today are wounded Fisher Kings in need of some healing. In his excellent book He: Understanding Masculine Psychology, he says:
“A man’s first step out of the Garden of Eden into the world of duality is his Fisher King wound: the experience of alienation and suffering that ushers him into the beginning of consciousness.”
In other words, the wound is the price we pay for increasing self-awareness. Some of our energy (libido) is lost or pushed into the unconscious making it hard to connect with others and even ourselves. But the myth also tells us how to heal the wound in a fool’s quest for the Grail.
The story arc of The Fisher King film is based more on the Grail quest than on the Fisher King part of the myth. The screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese, used these myths to provide a structure for the story he wanted to tell “about a narcissistic man who by the end of the film commits a completely selfless act.”
Jack Lucas is a Fisher King because he can’t love. He’s already wounded at the start of the film but unaware that he needs healing. As far as he’s concerned, everything is great – especially him! He’s a self-obsessed narcissist who rants bile at people on his radio show from a booth designed to look like a cell. Jack is trapped in his own world, separated from the rest of humanity – a disembodied voice, shouting into the void.
When Edwin, a regular caller, mentions his desire for a particular girl, Jack is scornful. He rants about yuppies and how they’re not human and don’t feel love, blissfully ignorant of the fact that he’s talking about himself:
“They only negotiate love moments. They’re evil, Edwin. They’re repulsed by imperfection, horrified by the banal… They must be stopped before it’s too late. It’s us or them!”
Jack gets the chance to star in a TV sitcom called ‘On the Radio’ with the sarcastic catchphrase, “Forgive me!” He wants to be a bigger star than he is already and sees this as an opportunity to be “a voice with a body.” In other words, he wants to be more real to others by becoming embodied.
But before he can take the job, Edwin goes on a killing spree in a yuppie bar. Jack obviously feels responsible but doesn’t want to admit it to himself. His career is ruined and he feels sorry for himself rather than for the victims of the terrible act.
Jack’s unconscious wound was acted out by somebody else because he has no self-awareness. Although he’s already wounded, this moment could be seen as a wounding experience because he’s suddenly made aware of the consequences of his actions. It’s a fall from grace that will trigger the process of healing. For the first time in his life, Jack has been forced to wake up to himself and what he sees is horrifying. He can’t stand to look, so he sinks into a depression.
Three years later, he’s hiding in the back room of his girlfriend’s video store – scared of people and drinking too much. Anne tries to deal with his moods but he’s like a child, brooding about the life he has lost. When Jack goes out on a massive drunken bender, a child mistakes him for a homeless person and gives him a Pinocchio doll – a symbol of his desire to become a real human being.
The fact that he’s suffering over what happened proves he’s not a lost cause – he can be saved. He wants to be more authentic, more real. He’s searching for something of value but looking for it in the wrong place.
Jack feels as if he’s being punished for his sins, so decides to kill himself by jumping in the river. He ties concrete blocks to his feet – an admission of his fatal flaw or feet of clay – but is interrupted by thugs who beat him up. Jack is rescued by Parry and his homeless friends singing a wild rendition of “How About You?”
Parry suffers from delusions and has visions and hears voices. He calls himself the ‘Janitor of God’ and says he’s a knight on a quest for the Holy Grail, but he needs help. He can’t reach the grail because the Red Knight won’t let him take it. His invisible friends – tiny floating fat people – identify Jack as ‘the One’ who will help in his quest.
Jack discovers that Parry’s wife was killed by Edwin three years ago. Parry was traumatised and now can’t remember anything about his old life. He used to be a professor called Henry Sagan who wrote a paper on the Fisher King myth. Parry’s obsession with the Holy Grail is his only connection to his old life.
In this clip, he tells Jack the story of the Fisher King – it’s slightly different to the original myth, but the essence is the same:
Jack feels responsible for Parry’s condition but refuses to indulge his fantasy about the grail. He wants to help, to “pay the fine and go home.” Perhaps if he can make Parry’s life more bearable, his own life will get back on track and he’ll be redeemed. But really, he just wants to make the guilt go away.
Jack spends time with homeless people and gets to know them. He listens to their stories and begins to develop some compassion and understanding of human frailty. He discovers that Parry is in love with a woman he has been watching for months. Lydia is shy and lonely – a damsel in distress. So with Anne’s help, Jack sets Parry up on a date.
Parry and Lydia are made for each other and after dinner, Parry walks her home and gives her a goodnight kiss. But an old memory resurfaces and the Red Knight appears and chases Parry through the streets. He’s caught and beaten by thugs, who are revealed as henchmen of the Red Knight.
The Red Knight represents raw instinct and power, like the lion killed by Hercules. Robert Johnson describes it as “the shadow side of masculinity, the negative, potentially destructive power” that must be struggled with but not repressed. It’s a dangerous energy but essential to normal psychological functioning. Without the ability to assert power over your own life you can be overcome by the instincts and become a bully or a thug. Or you lose touch with the instincts and end up beaten and defeated, incapable of making your way in the world.
Parry is haunted by the Red Knight whenever he begins to remember what happened to his wife. He was powerless to stop the gunman and couldn’t save her. So the Red Knight is a projection of his loss of power coming back at him in distorted form. It acts as a threshold guardian, blocking the way forward but also protecting him from remembering too much of the past.
His mind is broken – it rebelled against the reality of what he experienced: the grief at the loss of his wife, and his inability to stop it from happening. The horror of it tipped him over the edge into a world of madness. Now he’s trapped there, stranded in a mythical landscape in the depths of his own psyche.
Parry enters a catatonic state after the beating – unable to move forward in his life and heal until he can let go of the trauma and begin to mourn his wife.
Meanwhile, Jack is oblivious. He believes the debt to Parry has been paid in full and returns to his old job. But it’s not the same – he appears listless, as if he’s just going through the motions. Things come to a head during a meeting with a TV producer who wants to make a show about ‘wacky’ homeless people.
Jack walks out in disgust when he sees his old attitude reflected back at him and finally sees it for what it is – exploitation. He was using Parry in order to help himself.
He visits Parry in hospital and rants that it’s not his fault and that he refuses to feel responsible. But then why is he there? Jack says it’s easy for Parry to be crazy and so much harder for him trying to work out what he’s doing, especially when:
“No matter what I have, it feels like I have nothing.”
He wants Parry to wake up to let him off the hook, but knows Parry wants him to get the grail. He refuses to do it and says he doesn’t believe in it, but something stops him from leaving. He doesn’t want to do this crazy thing because he feels cursed or guilty or responsible. Now he wants to help Parry for Parry’s sake, not for his own.
So Jack becomes a knight on a quest. He dresses in Parry’s old clothes and enters the world of his delusions. Parry believes a billionaire called Langdon Carmichael has the grail in his house that looks like a castle. Jack breaks in to steal the cup, which is really an old childhood trophy – a symbol of lost youth and innocence, reminiscent of Rosebud in Citizen Kane. But Jack also discovers the billionaire has taken an overdose. He triggers the alarm as he leaves the house, which saves the old man’s life.
Jack returns to the hospital with the grail and gives it to Parry – who slowly wakes up and is finally able to acknowledge his loss and mourn his wife. Jack is also finally able to tell Anne that he loves her, something he was never able to do before.
Jack has learned to humble himself. He has to go crazy in order to succeed on his quest, and even sees his own version of the Red Knight in the stained-glass window of the castle. He becomes a fool and believes in fairy stories, like Parry, the madman. Jack’s ego is dissolved and he enters a liminal place where normal laws are suspended and things stop making sense. It’s like going crazy, but instead of being trapped there like Parry, he returns with the grail.
The grail in this story represents the ability to love and care for others. And in that sense, Parry isn’t that wounded. Despite his madness, he can see the beauty in Lydia, something that others can’t see. His feeling function is intact, but he’s been overwhelmed by the unconscious. It has obliterated his identity – his ego – but he can still love.
Both Jack and Parry are wounded healers and their fates are bound together. Jack is wounded at the start of the story and his wound causes the wounding of Parry (or Henry). In order to heal, Parry needs to forgive himself for continuing to live and love after his wife’s death. But to do that, he needs Jack to heal himself too. Jack needs Parry’s forgiveness for the consequences of his thoughtlessness and so he can reconnect with his feelings and learn to love.
Both are fools and both are kings. In the end, they save each other.
Images: film stills