The Mystery of the Godless Grail Quest

The Fisher King is a movie I’d never heard of before I took Hero Quest and the Holy Grail. I find this surprising on the one hand, because it’s actually a very good movie. But on the other hand, some of the content, and the general weirdness of various scenes remind me that it is certainly not a movie for everyone. Nevertheless, it takes a very intriguing concept and setting and melds it with the general milieu of the Grail legends to produce a thought-provoking, moving movie experience. As a side-note, though, I wouldn’t have believed last semester that a course about the Holy Grail would involve watching two movies starring Robin Williams, but no Monty Python (although this film was directed by Terry Gilliam).

The film is about a radio shock jock, Jack, (played by Jeff Bridges) who unintentionally encourages one of his listeners to go on a shooting spree in an expensive restaurant. His career falls apart around him, and he becomes depressed and suicidal, moving in with a girlfriend who lives in New York City in a small apartment above the tiny video rental store she owns. Driven to the brink of suicide one night, he is attacked by a couple of thugs and rescued by an insane homeless man named Parry (Robin Williams). Parry, it turns out, is a former college professor who lost his grip on reality when his wife was killed by the shooter in the restaurant.

The remainder of the movie is about Jack’s attempts to redeem himself by helping Parry, and Parry’s consuming quest to locate the Holy Grail (which he believes is being kept by a reclusive billionaire within a castle in NYC). Both men require healing, and both learn a lot along the way. Jack hooks Parry up with the girl of his dreams, Parry helps Jack see the value of his own relationships, and so forth.

The direct parallels with “The Story of the Grail” are even more overt here than in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Parry is very clearly a shortened form of the name “Perceval” and the character bears this out with his extremely simply outlook on life. His fixation is on the Holy Grail. Everytime he encounters some sort of psychological trigger to his past life, he is traumatized by terrifying visions of a red knight coming for him. When Jack first dresses him up a bit to make him look presentable, he keeps his trashy street clothes on underneath (just as the other Perceval puts his first set of armor on over his normal clothing, refusing to take it off).

When I first saw Jack wandering the streets of New York City, I thought to myself, “urban wasteland.” The rural wasteland of the original Grail stories has been replaced with a bleak cityscape full of cold asphalt and concrete and littered with garbage and graffiti. Significantly, in the closing moments of the movie, Jack and Parry are seen lying out in the midst of a green field in Central Park, almost as though they have restored the grime around them to beauty and fertility once again.

As for the role of the Fisher King himself, there are many potential candidates to fill the spot. Parry and Jack are both emotionally wounded and need healing that they cannot seem to find anywhere else. Jack believes he is cured before he actually is (before he finds the Grail) and it takes a remission from Parry to galvanize him into completing the quest all the way. Once he has found the Grail he realizes that he cannot simply return to his old life as if nothing had happened to him in the interim. His wound was deeper and stretched farther back than the incident with the shooter. There was something fundamentally wrong with his worldview that must be fixed, and Jack is a better person for it.

Parry’s wound is of a much more obviously crippling kind, as reflected by his comatose state before Jack seeks out the Grail. Jack thought that he could simply fix a few of the superficial problems in Parry’s life in order to fix all of it, but only the drastic failure of this strategy convinces him that he must seek out the Holy Grail, however silly he thinks it is.

Finally, almost as though by accident, the billionaire seems to be a sort of Fisher King figure as well. He sits in his castle, hidden from the world, and when Jack breaks in he finds him dying with no one around to save him. Jack sets off the alarm and brings help, saving the man’s life. He is a third figure (and perhaps the closest to a literal Fisher King) that can stand in for that character, healed by the successful completion of the Grail quest.

With very little imaginative effort on the part of the viewer, this movie conforms very closely to the Grail tradition in its basic elements, reimagining things just enough to keep it all interesting. But the most fundamental question that I am learning to ask of any Grail story is: What is the nature of the reward given for successful completion of a Grail quest?

In this case, there is certainly an element of spiritual healing, but it is also emotional and psychological healing (two elements which wouldn’t have received a great deal of attention in the Middle Ages). Also, the healing and restoration that the Grail brings with it is really no longer attached to Christianity at all, except very vaguely. It certainly is no longer connected to the taking of communion in any way, and in fact, the Grail itself in the movie is not the literal Holy Grail, but an unrelated trophy of no real value. It is merely the idea of the Grail that brings healing, because the real, physical object presumably no longer exists, and has no inherent worth even if it did. The spirituality surrounding the Grail is still present, but it now lacks a source or a purpose. What will be the next step in this chain?

~ by Jared on April 27, 2006.

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