The Question, the Fisher King and the Amfortas Wound
n the medieval Grail Romances the Quester (who is usually called Perceval or Parzival, although in the earliest surviving version he is Gawain and in a later version he is Galahad) fails to ask a healing Question, on his first visit to the Grail Castle. Details vary between the different versions of the story but usually there is a wounded king who awaits the asking of the Question that will heal him. In some versions of the story not only the king but also his land is afflicted, such that asking the Question would heal both king and land. In other versions it appears that the wasting of the land is a consequence of the failure of the Quester at the Grail Castle. The king usually is referred to either as the Fisher King or the Maimed King. Sometimes there is another, older king who remains hidden from the Quester.1
he myth of Perceval is part of a larger tradition of stories about young heroes who are brought to a test or trial. The hero has to take the correct action or make the correct response instinctively. Passing the test may bring a kingdom, riches or some gift; failing the test may bring death or exclusion. Usually, the hero only gets one chance. The unasked Question is the opposite of a riddle and therefore a more difficult test.
Above: the Quester receives a sword from the Fisher King. In the hall we see the Grail, depicted as a ciborium.
n the medieval Grail romances, the hero visits the Grail Castle twice. On the first occasion, the boy remembers that he has been taught not to ask unnecessary questions, and so does not ask a necessary question. As a result, he fails and the land becomes, or at least continues to be, a waste land. By the time he finds the Grail Castle again, the hero has achieved enlightenment and is able to ask the Question and so bring healing.
n Chrétien's account, the necessary Question is:
[Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend.]
n Wolfram's account, the necessary Question is:
agner dispensed with the Question entirely.
here is, however, a question in Wagner's version: it is asked by Parsifal on his arrival at the lake in the domain of the Grail.
Footnote 1: "When we come to Chrétien's poem ... there are, not one, but two disabled kings; one suffering from the effects of a wound, the other in extreme old age. Chrétien's poem being incomplete we do not know what he intended to be the result of the achieved Quest, but we may I think reasonably conclude that the wounded king at least was healed. The Parzival of [Wolfram] von Eschenbach follows the same tradition but is happily complete. Here we find the wounded king was healed, but what becomes of the aged man (here the grandfather, not as in Chrétien the father, of the Fisher King) we are not told." [From Ritual to Romance, Jessie L. Weston, p.117]