Sunday, September 9, 2012

Grimm Legends: Go Fish

The Fisher King. Not just a movie with Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams! (Although I would say that movie is well worth watching.) The concept of the Fisher King is a simple one: in the abstract, the king is the land is the king, and what befalls the king befalls the land as well. In the slightly more specific, the origins of the Fisher King are tied in with some of the first Grail stories. The Fisher King is the keeper of an artifact of power, usually the Grail, and he is wounded or disabled in some way, usually in the groin or upper leg area. If a questing knight asks the right questions, the king and thus the land are healed and the artifact is passed down to the questioner, who becomes the new guardian.

This is a very popular trope. Just off the top of my head the places where "the king is the land is the king" appears include: Pirates of the Caribbean (succeeded by Will Turner), the Dreaming world from The Sandman by Neil Gaiman (succeeded from Morpheus by Daniel), the Last Unicorn both book and movie (succeeded from Haggard by Lir), the Dark Crystal (succeeded by the Gelflings), a couple of countries in the Kushiel trilogy (most notably Drujan, but arguably Phedre herself, buying ten years of peace with the lives of ten knights sworn to her), the Lord of the Rings series with Mordor and the
elven kingdoms, the Dark is Rising sequence, Discworld, the Wizard of Oz, the Chronicles of Narnia (always winter and never Christmas, anyone?), everything David Eddings ever wrote, Asimov's Foundation, Wheel of Time, I could go on. At length. Even in non-European myth this crops up, with the Green Willow myth from Japanese culture and there is mention of a king in the Ramayana whose emotions change the seasons of his country. I'm sure if we wanted to take another hour we could double this list, but you get the idea. The Fisher King and his (or her) kingdom appear all over the freaking place.

With that in mind, and with Adsartha already having taken you through the Grimm-Grail Quest parallels, let's address the Fisher King concept specifically. There are no direct Fisher Kings in Grimm, yet. The prevalence of the trope alone, not to mention previously discussed literal and historical geekery, is enough to convince me that that's very much a yet. But we can discuss the potential Fisher Kings, the existence of artifacts that deal with one's spiritual health affecting the physical world, and other related phenomena. 

The first potential Fisher King that comes to mind is Renard, holding high rank in Portland both within the Wesen world and without. In the first season we don't have much in the way of wholesale threats to Portland; we're still getting a grasp on the overall mythology of the show and the writers are inclined to let us take our time getting acclimated to the world they're creating. But in the second season, not only are things getting serious, but we have a messy serial killer running loose in Portland who racks up a considerable body count in the short time he's on screen, followed two episodes later by an incipient plague. Even when we're not getting Renard lit in ways that highlight that magnificent bruise he was sporting for a couple episodes he looks haggard, worn. He has dark and cadaverous circles highlighting his orbital sockets, and compared to the calm and immaculately dressed captain we saw in the first season he's rumpled and tired-looking. His city is under siege, and that means he himself is under siege, at the head of it. He's very much aware of this fact. It could just be the burden of a responsible leader on two fronts, which he seems for the most part to be, even with the certain incident involving a hexenbiest and a deadly love potion. It could also be symbolic of something.

We don't have a sufficient picture of the nature of the Royals and their kingdoms to make a good judgment call on whether or not they're Fisher Kings. We do know that they're depicted as corrupt, vicious (and impatient), licentious bastards and that thus far they're desperate for artifacts to help them regain and rebuild their power base. Overall, this would suggest that their kingdoms are crumbling along with their morals, but we only have just enough information to draw this conclusion in very broad strokes.

That episode The Kiss gave us
all kinds of goodies. The unspooling post on that alone was about 7500 words long (which is more attention, I'm ashamed to say, than I gave a lot of my school essays). But one thing it also gave us is another example of a zaubertrank, and while love potions and aphrodisiacs might be common in many settings, a potion to create purity of heart is somewhat less so. And how is purity of heart via potion defined, anyway? Catherine's snide remark seems to indicate that it's difficult if not impossible for a non-human (or maybe just a hexenbiest?) to be pure of heart as defined by potions and spells. And yet the half-hexen Renard is one of the more decent royals we've seen thus far, placing emphasis and implied value on having a conscience and displaying (with one egregious exception) concern and responsibility for the welfare of his men. So is he impure because he's hexen, or because he willfully caused one of his men to come to near-fatal harm for his own purposes? And if the latter then why did Catherine, who knew about Adalind influencing Hank, cite Renard's bloodline as the reason the potion would be hard on him? If we're defining pure of heart as humanity, that might even leave Nick out; all references to Grimms we've heard spoken thus far have separated Grimms from humanity. 

With how hard they hammered on the damned things (possibly literally damned) as being artifacts that catapult their wielders into power, we would be remiss if we did not at least touch on the Coins of Zakynthos. Now, the Coins themselves seem more like artifacts along the lines of the One Ring (or the Nine, for that matter) than any sort of grail artifact. However, even with the brief glimpse that we got of their influence on the people we do know, we can see the differences in how that influence manifests. Hank becomes preoccupied with getting the interrogation, taking people down, handling things on his own which involves a considerable amount of force. Renard, by contrast, doesn't use force at all. He doesn't need to. He displays no overt tendency to violence, only the assumption of absolute authority. And whether it's the facet of his personality that lets him run his precinct as efficiently and well as he does, or whether it's his strength of will buoyed by the Coins, the assumption of authority is enough for him to convince a full press conference and his department that what he's doing isn't wildly out of character. If Hank had held onto the Coins, assuming he could unseat Renard from his Captaincy, I don't think it would be a stretch to believe that the precinct would become a haven for cowboy cops, and the days of the phone book interrogation method would have come back with a vengeance. Conversely, Renard might well have ended up President of the damned country within five to ten years, of the sort where everything is ordered and pretty on the surface but with a very seamy underbelly. It's a dark version of the Fisher King, where the king is the land in the sense that the king's personality creates the land, but without the restriction of the land's troubles backlashing on the king. An imperfect Grail metaphor.

Which brings us back around to the Grail story again.

All the signs point to at least the overarching theme of a Grail quest: we have historically-tied royalty, knights who are potentially Templars, a powerful artifact that could save or rule the world, a mysterious map puzzle that leads to said artifact or at least some great treasure. We also have spells, witches, and both artifacts and potions that directly and tangibly affect the purity of the user, whether positively or negatively. The Coins are referred to as corrupting influences, only resisted by the strength of will of the Grimms. Catherine's potion was concocted to "chemically" purify Renard's heart, but somehow I don't think that implied a cardiovascular procedure. Not only that, this pure heart combined with royal bloodline was meant to and did cure Juliette of her affliction. So we already have one example of a specific ritual being performed to affect the spiritual and physical state of a person. The healing of the Fisher King by asking the right question is therefore at least probable. We haven't yet seen an example of royalty or leadership as tied to the land, but we also don't have much in the way of representative samples; the only canton we've seen thus far is Renard's. And he's seeking the artifact, the potential Grail, he's clearly not the keeper of it.

Actually, at the moment, we have three seekers of the potential Grail. We have Renard, who is our current leading candidate for any sort of responsible king at all. We don't know why Renard wants Nick's key and, for that matter, we don't even know that he's seeking the artifact at all. He could want Nick's key to drop it down the Marianas and thereby deny the Families the artifact as a sort of a grand FUCK YOU type gesture. (I favor this idea, it makes me cackle in unpleasant ways.) My second favorite theory is that he wants the key to bargain for the lives of this absent wife and daughter we see reflected in his wedding ring and in pictures all around his home, but have yet to hear a single spoken word of. I wouldn't put it past the Families to keep them hostage against his good behavior. For other questers, we have Nick, who is sort of half-heartedly seeking the Grail type artifact in the lines of more proactively seeking answers to all the shit that's raining down on his head. His motivations are plain and visible and pure, as much as anyone's motivations are pure; knowledge is commonly given as one of the most favorable motivations anyone can have for the completion of a quest. And then we have the Families, who are seeking power at all/any costs and who have not displayed a single redeeming quality among all the representatives (save one) we've seen so far.  

Assuming we're taking from the most common Arthuriana sources (Malory and Chr├ętien) either Perceval or Galahad is meant to heal the Fisher King and solve that instance of the riddle of the Grail. And as we've already discussed, that indicates Nick or Renard. The alternative interpretation that we didn't go into too much in the other post, because we can go on and on and on about this if we let ourselves, is that both Nick and Renard are Galahad, the one a brighter mirror of the other. But we'll start with Chr├ętien and Nick-as-Perceval, not the least of which is that it's the simpler of the two. Perceval comes across the Fisher King in his journeys and is invited to stay at his castle. He is warned beforehand not to talk too much, and so says nothing upon witnessing a strange ritual: first a young man carrying a bleeding lance passes from one chamber to another, then two boys carrying a candelabra, then a beautiful girl carrying a decorated cup or bowl. This happens at each course of the feast. He wakes up the next morning alone, continues on his way, but is then rebuked for not asking his host whom the grail served and why the lance bled, for doing so would have healed the Fisher King. Do I need to mention that the lance that bled is often seen and referred to as the Longinus lance, the spear of destiny, the spear that pierced Christ's side? I didn't think so, but I did anyway. Need I further mention that, whether historically accurate or not, the Longinus lance is often one of the artifacts held by the fictional recountings of the Thule Society? Which is also fictional shorthand for Hitler's pet magicians. The actual history of both the Thule Society and the lance is much different, but like the Fisher King, this is a Thing That Pops Up Everywhere.

Over to Malory and the Unlikeliest Galahad Ever! Because in Malory, the Fisher King is more tied with Galahad than any of the other knights. I'd give you the gist of Galahad and the Fisher King except there is no gist with Malory. The man rambles on so much it makes you wish for William Goldman to write a Good Parts book about the damn thing. As briefly as I can make it, Galahad is told by a dying priest to go heal the Maimed King who awaits him. He goes with Perceval, Bors, and Perceval's sister (who we're roughly equating to Nick, potentially Monroe, and we're not sure on the Perceval's sister part). They have adventures, the lady dies, a number of these adventures involve Christian things and blood magic. Towards the end they receive communion from the grail, the bleeding spear shows up again and, sanctified by the spear or the blood or both, Galahad heals the Maimed King. (And shortly thereafter dies, but we already discussed the fangirl rebellion, yes?)

So, the Fisher King is one of the most common (and often one of the final) tests in the Grail quest, and we've already described how likely it is that it's going to come up. Given that Perceval may be Nick, Galahad may be either Renard or Nick or both if we're doing a bright and dark mirror plot, how are our artifact seekers likely to react? At the rate the Families and their representatives have been going, I do not feel confident that they could confirm the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, African or European, let alone ask or answer a question of the Fisher King. Their methods thus far have involved strong-arming or otherwise using force to get what they want, which never ends well in tests of virtue or cleverness. If Nick is Perceval he might manage to come up with the right question, but I suspect that will become either more certain or less after another season's worth of character development. And I don't actually expect the Fisher King to become an issue till the end of this season at the earliest. Renard is probably the best candidate not only for solving the riddle of the Fisher King correctly, but also for becoming the next Fisher King, himself, but that more assumes another question test, which puts Renard being Perceval rather than Sir Pure-of-Heart. If Nick or Renard is Galahad, accepting the rituals of blood magic and the responsibility to carry out a quest to heal a maimed or dying leader of honor sounds pretty well in character for both of them.

With the whole Grail quest having just recently got a kick-start at the beginning of the current season, it's a little early to put down strong odds for who is which knight from among the choices, what parts of the Grail quest will be used and which approach to the Fisher King they'll take. However, given the correspondences and symbology and possibly especially given the strength and prevalence of blood and life magic, I think we can be confident that it really is a matter of when it shows up, not if.


  1. I think I was in high school the last time I read anything at all about Arthur or the Quest for the Grail. This is all very fascinating for me! I will admit though, in my head all of these knights look like Monty Python.

    Having said that, I want to comment on one of your plot theories. This one in particular:

    "My second favorite theory is that he wants the key to bargain for the lives of this absent wife and daughter we see reflected in his wedding ring and in pictures all around his home, but have yet to hear a single spoken word of. I wouldn't put it past the Families to keep them hostage against his good behavior."

    I really like this idea. Its a good motivation for all of his mysterious ways which is the one thing I feel is missing. I find myself wanting Renard to be a good guy even though he is far more interesting as a gray character (see Nick for a boring white knight.)

    1. As Terry Gilliam is in fact a scholar of Arthuriana, this is perfectly valid. ;)

      Renard's motivations are definitely one of the things the writers have done a good job of concealing. Much to our table-chewing annoyance. But whatever is going on with his wife and daughter, he's clearly deeply attached to them still. Their pictures are all over his home, and he still wears his wedding ring despite their being no signs of anyone else living in his home. In fact, those pictures are the only personal touches that seem really personal, instead of things he might have around for conspicuous wealth/power signals.