Parsifal encounters the Fisher King

It seems to me–though perhaps some male readers will comment–that the quest to become a full man is in part a search for the father. It’s more difficult for a boy or young man who never knew his father, who lost him at a young age, or who has a father that deeply disappoints him, to find a strong masculine identity within. If the boy cannot find his real father, he must somehow identify an ideal father, someone to emulate and to make proud.

These ideas lurked in the crannies of my mind as I began to write The Beechwood Flute.  I had vague memories of the Celtic/Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, who suffers from an unhealing wound. After looking more into the tangle of medieval traditions and Christian (Grail) symbolism surrounding this myth, I identified most closely with the Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version. The Fisher King is a good king, wounded by a lance thrust into his thigh or groin. Because of the king’s ongoing illness, associated in the legend with emasculation and infertility, his kingdom languishes and becomes a wasteland.

Wolfram von Eschenbach

Only a pure knight can heal the Fisher King, and the healing must begin with the young man asking the right question. The Fisher King’s castle is hidden; the searcher happens upon it by chance. In Wolfram’s version of the tale, the brash young knight Perceval finds the castle and the ailing king but is too overwhelmed and confused to ask the healing question. As a result, Perceval finds himself the next morning alone in a deserted and ruined castle, doomed to return to his wandering.

Years pass. Perceval endures suffering of his own. He learns what it means to love and be faithful to a woman. He grows in strength and faith and chivalry, until one day he finds the castle again. The king is more ill than ever, screaming, with the stench of his wound filling the room. This time Perceval provides the question. He asks in compassion, “Uncle, what is it that troubles you?”

In The Beechwood Flute,  I wanted to show Kiran, like Perceval, failing the Fisher King on his first encounter. Of course, the King or bandit chief fails Kiran too: sick, suffering, he has no patience or empathy and sends him away. Kiran must return to his own quest, alone. Through suffering, fidelity, and moral growth, he must become a man who has the compassion and wisdom to heal. His friend Myra tells him, “A good man makes things whole,” and Kiran has to figure out what that means. Only then can he try again to find the hidden castle, in hopes of healing the Fisher King and returning the land to fruitfulness.

One issue I faced in adapting the legend is that, although classified as a fantasy, Flute steers away from magic. No spell or curse could cause the unhealing wound. Indeed, when a book group kindly read an early draft of the manuscript, they questioned Corbin’s wound: How could it persist for so many years? Luckily, another doctor (like me) was a member of the group, and she assured them that chronic osteomyelitis or infection of the bone can flare up and drain intermittently over a very long time. Moreover, it might be cured by the kind of packing and open drainage that Kiran recommends. With a little knowledge of medicine, I was able to bring together legend and likelihood, bitterness and hope.

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