The Question, the Fisher King and the Amfortas Wound

What is the Question that would heal the Fisher King?

In 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

The Question as a Test of the Quester

The 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.

Sword and Grail in the Castle of the Fisher King
Above: the Quester receives a sword from the Fisher King. In the hall we see the Grail, depicted as a ciborium.

In 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.

In Chrétien's account, the necessary Question is: Who is served by the grail?. A possible answer would be: The old king, whose heir you are. Incidentally, it might be significant that Perceval/Parzival stands in the same relation to the Fisher King as Gawain/Gawan does to King Arthur. In each case, the hero is the son of the king's sister. For a king that had no son, his nephew might be the chosen heir. Compare also Tristram/Tristan and his uncle King Mark.

open quotes In itself, deliverance as the result of the right kind of question is a universal, i.e. an archetypal, motif. Indeed, in fairytales it is usual for the hero who wishes to acquire the treasure to have to fulfil one or more special conditions, on the correct execution of which the result depends. One such condition is the question. There is often a prohibition on asking, as for instance in the legend of Lohengrin where it is a matter of guarding a mystery. The mystery is generally that of the hero's descent which, most frequently, is miraculous. With Perceval the matter stands differently. Excepting in Wolfram, and in Wagner where a pure fool, through pity wise becomes the quintessence of Parsifal's character, the question is not based on compassion.close quotes

[Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend.]

In Wolfram's account, the necessary Question is: Sir, why do you suffer so?. A possible answer would be: I was wounded by the spear and it alone can heal me.

Richard Wagner and the Question

The thing about the Question is that it is so utterly preposterous and totally meaningless.
[Richard Wagner, Wesendonck-Briefe 190-5, tr. Spencer and Millington.]

Right: Parsifal's question was written on the wall of the temple in a Paris Opéra production.
Qui est le Graal?

The Quester in Parsifal

Wagner dispensed with the Question entirely. What is important is not the question, but the recovery of the spear (Cosima's Diary, 30 January 1877). Wagner realised that there was another possibility: Parsifal fails to understand what he experiences at the Grail Castle, until he has relived Amfortas' encounter with Kundry. He then understands through emotional identification with the suffering Fisher King.

There 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. Who is the Grail?, he asks. Gurnemanz laughs. That cannot be spoken, he says, but if you are called to its service, the knowledge will not be hidden for long.

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]