In Arthurian legend, the Fisher King, also known as the Wounded King or Maimed King, is the last in a long line charged with keeping the Holy Grail. Versions of the original story vary widely, but he is always wounded in the legs or groin and incapable of standing. All he is able to do is fish in a small boat on the river near his castle, Corbenic, and wait for some noble who might be able to heal him by asking a certain question. In later versions knights travel from many lands to try to heal the Fisher King, but only the chosen can accomplish the feat. This is Percival alone in the earlier stories; in later versions, he is joined by Galahad and Bors.
Many later works have two wounded "Grail Kings" who live in the same castle, a father and son (or grandfather and grandson). The more seriously wounded father stays in the castle, sustained by the Grail alone, while the more active son can meet with guests and go fishing. For the purposes of clarity in the remainder of this article, where both appear, the father will be called the Wounded King, the son named the Fisher King.
In the Fisher King legends, it is implied that he becomes unable to father or support a next generation to carry on after his death (a "thigh" wound has been interpreted by many scholars in Arthurian literature as a genital wound). There are slight hints in the early versions that his kingdom and lands suffers as he does, and 20th-century scholars have suggested his impotence affecting the fertility of the land and reducing it to a barren wasteland.
The Fisher King appears first in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, the Story of the Grail in the late 12th century, but the character's roots may lie in Celtic mythology. He may be derived more or less directly from the figure of Brân the Blessed in the Mabinogion. In the Second Branch, Bran has a cauldron that can resurrect the dead (albeit imperfectly; those thus revived cannot speak) which he gives to the king of Ireland as a wedding gift for him and Bran's sister Branwen. Later, Bran wages war on the Irish and is wounded in the foot or leg, and the cauldron is destroyed. He asks his followers to sever his head and take it back to Britain, and his head continues talking and keeps them company on their trip. The group lands on the island of Gwales, where they spend 80 years in a castle of joy and abundance, but finally they leave and bury Bran's head in London. This story has analogues in two other important Welsh texts: the Mabinogion tale Culhwch and Olwen, in which King Arthur's men must travel to Ireland to retrieve a magical cauldron, and the poem The Spoils of Annwn, which speaks of a similar mystical cauldron sought by Arthur in the otherworldly land of Annwn.
The Welsh Romance Peredur son of Efrawg is based on Chrétien or derived from a common original, but it contains several prominent deviations and lacks a Grail. The character of the Fisher King appears (though he is not called such) and presents Peredur with a severed head on a platter. Peredur later learns that he was related to that king, and that the severed head was that of his cousin, whose death he must avenge by defeating the Nine Witches.
The Fisher King is a character in Chrétien's Perceval (1180) which is the first of a series of stories and texts on the subject of Perceval and the Grail. He represents the Pope, or papal authority, which has been compromised by wealth, an aristocratic lifestyle and dependency for support in his office upon those who live by the code of chivalry. Accordingly, he is unable to protect families, women, cultivated land, the built infrastructure and trade from the violence of knights who live by that code and which is characterised as waste. His impotence in the face of chivalry and its endemic evils is represented by the wound in his thighs which has crippled him and confines his activities to fishing with a hook. Later versions of the story, e.g. the Didot Perceval, reject this critique and point to papal succession as the source of papal authority.
Parzival was written in 1210 by Wolfram von Eschenbach, forty years after Perceval. Although a different work, it is strikingly similar to Perceval. The story revolves around the Grail Quest and once again the main character is Percival or Parzival. Similarly to Perceval, Eschenbach kept the story line of Parzival not asking the healing question, which results in him Questing for years. Eschenbach's Parzival differs from Chrétien's Perceval in three major ways. Firstly, the Fisher King is no longer nameless and is called Anfortas. Secondly Eschenbach thoroughly describes the nature of the wound. The wound is a punishment for wooing a woman who is not meant for him (every Grail keeper is to marry the woman the Grail determines for him), causing the King immense pain. Then lastly Parzival comes back to cure the Fisher King. Parzival, unlike its predecessor Perceval, has a definite ending.
The Fisher King's next development occurred around the end of the 13th century in Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, the first work to connect the Grail with Jesus. Here, the "Rich Fisher" is called Bron, a name similar enough to Bran to suggest a relationship, and he is said to be the brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea, who had used the Grail to catch Christ's blood before laying him in the tomb. Joseph founds a religious community that travels eventually to Britain and entrusts the Grail to Bron (who is called the "Rich Fisher" because he catches a fish eaten at the Grail table). Bron founds the line of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.
The Lancelot-Grail cycle includes a more elaborate history for the Fisher King. Many in his line are wounded for their failings, and the only two that survive to Arthur's day are the Wounded King, named Pellehan (Pellam of Listeneise in Malory), and the Fisher King, Pelles.
Pelles engineers the birth of Galahad by tricking Lancelot into bed with his daughter Elaine, and it is prophesied that Galahad will achieve the Grail and heal the Wasteland. Galahad, the knight prophesied to achieve the Holy Grail and heal the Maimed King, is conceived when Elaine gets Dame Brisen to use magic to trick Lancelot into thinking that he is coming to visit Guenever. So Lancelot sleeps with Elaine, thinking her Guenever, but flees when he realizes what he has done. Galahad is raised by his aunt in a convent, and when he is eighteen, comes to King Arthur's court and begins the Grail Quest. Only he, Percival, and Bors are virtuous enough to achieve the Grail and restore Pelles.
In the Post-Vulgate and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, the Fisher King's wound was given to him by Sir Balin in the "Dolorous Stroke", when Balin grabs a spear and stabs Pellam in self-defense. However, the spear is the Spear of Longinus, the lance that pierced Christ's side, and Pellam and his land must suffer for its misuse until the coming of Galahad. The Dolorous Stroke is typically represented as divine vengeance for a sin on the part of its recipient. The nature of Pellam's sin is not stated explicitly, though he at least tolerates his murderous brother Garlon, who slays knights while under cover of invisibility, apparently at random.
King Pelles is the Maimed King, one of a line of Grail keepers established by Joseph of Arimathea, and the father of Eliazer and Elaine (the mother of Galahad). He resides in the castle of Corbinec in Listenois. Pelles and his relative Pellehan appear in both the Vulgate (Lancelot-Grail) and Post-Vulgate Cycles, as well as in later works, such as Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (in which Pellehan is called Pellam). In the Vulgate, Pelles is the son of Pellehan, but the Post-Vulgate is less clear about their relationship. It is even murkier in Malory's work: one passage explicitly identifies them (book XIII, chapter 5), though this is contradicted elsewhere.
In all, there are characters (some of whom can probably be identified with each other) filling the role of Fisher King or Wounded King in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur:
In addition, there is the figure of King Pellinore, who is Percival's father (in other versions of the legend, Percival is related to the Pelles family). It would appear that Malory intended to have one Maimed King, wounded by Balin and suffering until healed by his grandson Galahad, but never managed to successfully reconcile his sources.
The injury is a common theme throughout the telling of the Grail Quest. Although some iterations have two kings present, one or both are injured, most commonly in the thigh. The wound is sometimes presented as a punishment, usually for philandering. In Parzival, specifically, the king is injured by the bleeding lance as punishment for taking a wife, which was against the code of the "Grail Guardians". In some early story lines, Percival asking the Fisher King the healing question cures the wound. The nature of the question differs between Perceval and Parzival, but the central theme is that the Fisher King can be healed only if Percival asks "the question".
The location of the wound is of great importance to the legend. In most medieval stories, the mention of a wound in the groin or more commonly the "thigh" (such as the wounding of the ineffective suitor in Lanval from the Lais of Marie de France) is a euphemism for the physical loss of or grave injury to one's penis. In medieval times, acknowledging the actual type of wound was considered to rob a man of his dignity, thus the use of the substitute terms "groin" or "thigh", although any informed medieval listener or reader would have known exactly the real nature of the wound. Such a wound was considered worse than actual death because it signaled the end of a man's ability to function in his primary purpose: to propagate his line. In the instance of the Fisher King, the wound negates his ability to honor his sacred charge.
Throughout Arthurian legend, homoerotic narratives have been found, and there are some strong arguments that they are present in the story of the Fisher King. The Fisher King's wound can be interpreted as effeminate or in fact a "castration". The wound could be a feminizing aspect, especially coupled with the Fisher King's inability to hunt. The treatment for this wound is also repeated contact by male servants (Roberts, 54). Furthermore, in some versions of the story, the only way to alleviate the Fisher King's pain is reinsertion of the spear that causes the wound. In later iterations, Galahad became the focus of the Grail Quest. In Malory's work specifically, the Fisher King is healed by Galahad, who pours the blood from the lance onto the king to heal his wounds. The nature of the wound is still the same, located between the thighs.
Most of the Grail romances do not differ very much from Parzival and Perceval. That being said, there are two interesting exceptions to this case. The two pieces that hold particularly stronger Christian themed deviations than prior works are Queste del Saint Graal and Sone de Nausay.Queste del Saint Graal is heavily Christianized not only in terms of the tone but also the characters and significant objects. The Grail maidens become angels, there is a constant relationship between the knights and religious symbolism; most importantly, the Fisher King is replicated as a priest-like figure. In the case of Sone de Nausay by Robert de Boron, Bron (the Fisher King) is part of a tale in which the story makes a constant correlation between the Gospel narrative and the history of the Grail.
The bleeding lance has taken numerous forms throughout the Arthurian literature chronology. In the earlier appearances of the lance, it is not represented as a Christian symbol, but morphs into one over time. In Perceval and Parzival, the lance is described as having "barbaric properties" which are difficult to associate with Christian influence. Chretien describes his lance with "marvelous destructive powers", which holds a closer connection to the malignant weapons of the Celtic origin. In Chretien's Perceval, the lance takes on a dark and almost evil persona and also seems to overshadow the Grail, which if this was a Christian story would be rather odd. Wolfram's tale also treated the lance in a similar dark manner. In Parzival, the lance is "poisonous" which contrasts sharply with the general trend of healing Christian themes. This lance is plunged into the Fisher King's wound at different times to continue his pain, for having sought forbidden love. This lance is considered significant because it is most often associated directly with the wound of the Fisher King, which is demonstrated both in Chretien's and Eschenbach's versions of the tale.
The more recent writings have the lance presented in the Fisher King's castle with Christian theology. More specifically, it is supposed to be the lance that pierced Jesus Christ while on the cross. This is seen in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. In Malory's version the Fisher King is healed with the blood from the lance, signifying it as a good, holy, Christian object. In Corbenic we see the precession at the Fisher King's feast, featuring heavily on the Holy Grail, which is a strong Christian artifact. It can be extrapolated that in the same precession, the accompanying lance is the lance that pierced Jesus Christ.
The sword is commonly thought to be a gift from the Fisher King to Perceval. This is then followed by Perceval's cousin's prophecy that the sword will break at a crucial moment. In two cases, the writers tell us that Perceval broke the sword: in Eschenbach, it fails him in his battle against his half-brother at the end of Parzival; and Gerbert de Montreuil describes how he shatters it on the gates of the "Earthly Paradise". The adventure of the broken sword is a theme originally introduced by Chretien, who intended it as a symbol of Perceval's imperfections as a knight. The major example for his imperfection is that Perceval refused to ask about the Grail. This concept of punishment is also seen in Eschenbach's tale where Perceval is told: "your uncle gave you a sword, too, by which you have been granted since your eloquent mouth unfortunately voiced no question there." The sword remains as a plot device to both remind Perceval of how he failed to ask the healing question and as a physical reminder of the existence of "Munsalvaesche" (Eschenbach's name for Corbenic).