To celebrate April’s being National Poetry Month, I am going to indulge my love of two favorite things: my favorite poet, T.S. Eliot, and my interest in Arthurian legends. So bear with this overlong series of posts, as I wax both academic and fangirl at the same time….
T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land uses the Fisher King and Grail mythology from medieval romance cycles. The poem establishes themes of humanity’s mortal existence and spiritual thirst for redemption from depravity and suffering, while simultaneously demonstrating these themes’ relevance to contemporary society. Repeatedly the poem invokes imagery from various myths and legend to illustrate these themes to the reader. Although these various allusions to traditional works are seemingly unrelated, Eliot particularly focuses on the Fisher King legend as a main plotline which unifies all the other mythologies. From the epigraph of the Cumean Sybil to his concluding words of shanti, Eliot interweaves elements of different cultures into his poem, thus unifying a narrative on the themes which the Fisher King myth represents. Through the omnipresence of this myth throughout the poem, Eliot is able to convey the single message, affirming that despite humanity’s lack of idealism, loss of identity, and vitality, there is nevertheless a constant hope and possibility for deliverance from these inadequacies.
First published in 1922, The Waste Land was predominantly interpreted by contemporary critics as a continuation of the Grail legend. Scholars focused their research on The Waste Land in the context of other Grail legends, as well as the inspiration of Eliot’s poem, Jessie L. Weston’s anthropological study From Ritual to Romance. Interpreting the poem in mythological terms has since gone out of style in scholarly research, yet remains an applicable factor to how readers ultimately understand The Waste Land.
Although there are several versions of the Fisher King myth, many of which vary in specifics, all fit into the category of a questing mythology. In this quest a knight searches for the Holy Grail—a religious relic purported to be either a chalice Jesus used at the Last Supper, or an object which Jesus’ blood touched when He was speared in the side during the crucifixion. This object, often described as a cup but sometimes as a stone, was brought to Britain, where it was the goal of many Arthurian knights’ quests.
The knight of the Grail legend had to endure many trials to test his worthiness in attaining his goal, and would eventually encounter the guardian of the Grail: the Fisher King. Old and injured, the Fisher King and his land were under a terrible curse, which could only be broken if the knight asked the correct questions, or performed the correct ritual. Not only a sacred relic, the Grail possessed supernatural life-giving properties, and because of this the injured king could not die of his wound, although it was so mortal that the Grail could not completely heal it.
Eliot uses many significant symbols connected to the Fisher King myth. The Fisher King himself figures prominently as a persona in the poem, as well as the Quester whose function is to heal his wound, and the Holy Grail which is both the hope of redemption and the sustainer of stagnant life. All of these symbols and personifications were factors in the traditional medieval legend, which Eliot used to communicate about issues in modern civilization.
The Grail legend’s major role in The Waste Land is immediately evident in two ways. First, the poem’s title was lifted from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, and as the Waste Land is directly related to the Grail Quest in Malory’s epic, the use of this title works to foreshadow a major atmospheric theme of the poem. Second, the epigraph about the Sibyl of Cumae establishes a foundation for other variations of the Fisher King myth.
The epigraph of the poem, which relates the myth of the Cumean Sybil (744), comes from the Roman author Petronius’ Satyricon. This quote from the Latin and Greek is translated as:
Yes, and I myself with my own eyes even saw the Sybil hanging in a cage; and when the boys cried at her: “Sybil, Sybil, what do you want?” “I would that I were dead”, she caused to answer. (This is the translation in Eliot’s own edition.)
According to Classical mythology, the Cumean Sybil was a prophetess who was granted her desire for immortality, but she neglected to stipulate perpetual youth as well. Thus she aged and wasted away until the only hope for relief from suffering was the one thing that is impossible: her death. With this physical decay comes the people’s waning confidence in her prophetic authority and their inability to sympathize with her situation, a problem that manifests itself in The Waste Land in a variety of ways. The Sibyl’s desire to die is set in contrast of the opening of “The Burial of the Dead,” which describes the revivification of nature in the month of April. Even in this passage, revival is not seen as a positive event, but as a tenacious renewal of “memory and desire” (Eliot 774). Rather than offering the possibility of change, memory and desire are tortuous in the context of utter hopelessness. This hopelessness arises from the fact that, despite her ability to see the future, the Cumean Sibyl is incapable of changing her state of existence. Because the entire poem mirrors the mood of its epigraph, the Sibyl is a prototype of the Fisher King, and is representative of the personae within the poem who inhabit the Waste Land.
As the poem progresses, the Cumean Sibyl’s words recur through various incarnations. The Hyacinth Girl, for example, recounts an apparently happy memory, which resulted in the same symptoms that the Sibyl suffers, saying, “I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing” (Eliot 745). Later the woman in “A Game of Chess” pesters her companion with questions, one of which is “‘Are you alive, or not?’” (Eliot 747). Continually grasping for vitality in a dying existence is only the beginning of Eliot’s exploration of the Waste Land.
The Cumean Sibyl’s wish to die contrasts to the vitality of the poem’s beginning, and foreshadows the eventual decay of life in the Waste Land. Therefore the Sibyl serves her function as a prophetess, voicing sentiments that all the Waste Land’s inhabitants share. The Sibyl’s words reverberate through time from ancient days to Eliot’s time and, finally, to ours. Her plight of living-death is echoed most famously in the Arthurian Grail Legends, and in the persona of the Fisher King. Thus, through Eliot’s use of the medieval Quest for the Grail, The Waste Land attempts to confront issues not only timely, but timeless.