The Wasteland

One of the books I treasure is a battered old trade paperback with yellowing pages.  I value the book,  Creative Mythology, because of the author’s inscription: “For Morgan with all my good wishes. Joseph Campbell, 3/13/79.”  


You could say Campbell’s  four day lecture series that spring did much to open the path my imagination has followed ever since.  None of the stories Campbell unpacked in his lectures or books affected me more than Parzifal (or Parsifal) and his quest for the holy grail. The version of the grail story Campbell recounts is by Wolfram Von Eshenbach (1170 – 1220).  Wolfram was a German knight and poet, and his Parzivalis regarded as one of the finest medieval German epics.  Campbell looks to this version because it’s roots reach deeper than later Christianized versions where only the pious and chaste Galahad can attain the grail.  What matters for this post are those echoes we can see in the tale of the ancient legends of sacred kingship, and the ways an unfit or weakened king can blight the land.

Wolfram Von Eshenbach from Codex Manasse

Sometimes in youth we receive a vision or powerful experience that shapes much of the rest of our lives.  So it is with Parzival who finds his way to the mystical Grail Castle and meets its wounded king, Anfortas,  who is also known as The Fisher King.  As a young knight, a spear pierced the Fisher King’s “thighs” – a euphemism for testicles according to Campbell.  In ancient times, the virility of the king and the fertility of the land were one.  In the grail stories, Fisher King could not be healed and couldn’t die.  All the realm was barren.

Robin Williams as the Fisher King in the 1991 movie of that name, a contemporary retelling of the story

While in the castle, during a mysterious ritual, Parzival has a vision of the grail, which is described as a stone, though its shape isn’t fixed, and it brings everyone “what their heart most desires.”  Though he is intensely curious, Parzival does not ask the meaning of what he sees.  In the morning, the castle is empty.  All traces of life are gone.  He rides away, and when he tells his story, listeners turn away in disgust.  If Parzival had asked the right question, he would have healed the king and restored the land.    The young knight wanders the blighted realm for 20 year, enduring hardships and contemplating his failure.  Just like us, he watches time turn his youthful dreams of glory to ashes.

“Parsifal” by Odilon Redon

At last, one cold Christmas Eve, Parzival encounters a hermit, tells his tale, and learns the question he should have asked. After that, he achieves the castle again.  When the ritual ends, Parzival asks, “Whom does the grail serve?”   Everything hinges on asking the right question.  Anfortas is healed, spring returns, and Parzival becomes the new Grail King.


Hearing this old tale, we have to ask how the story plays forward.  “Wasteland” clearly describes the state of the world we read about in the papers, and “impotent” seems an apt description of most of the world’s governments.  This perception is not even new, for T.S. Eliot named it ninety years ago in his poem, The Wasteland:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water.

Giving mythical weight to our latest headlines, storyteller and mythologist, Michael Meade says: “Like Parsifal, the modern world has awakened from a deep sleep to find that the castle of abundance has disappeared, that the financial markets are in ruins, that blind religious beliefs are once again producing mindless crusades, and that great nature itself threatens to become a barren wilderness. Like Parsifal, we failed to ask the right questions when surrounded by abundance.” From “Parsifal, the Pathless Path, and the Secret of Abundance,” first published in Parabola, Fall 2009.

This has happened before, again and again, Meade reminds us – beginnings and endings, decay and renewal.  The castle of abundance waits for us, individually and collectively, somewhere in the wilderness, but old pathways won’t take us there.  There’s a time to do as Parsifal did – drop the reins and let the horse, an image of our instinctive wisdom, pick its way through the forest. The old stories were told in the winter, when the nights were long and the fires warm.  This winter, I am drawn to look at some of these tales, to see what they are still whispering to our souls, for they are wiser than the daily ephemera that passes for wisdom but is really the source of our confusion.

As Michael Meade puts it: “Despite the current confusions of dogmatic religions and the literalism common to modern attitudes, the earthly world has always been a manifestation of the divine. Call it the Grail Castle, the Kingdom of Heaven, Nirvana, the Otherworld; it has many names and each is a representation of the eternal realm that secretly sustains the visible world. When time seems to be running out it is not simply more time that is needed, rather it is the touch of the eternal that can heal all time’s wounds and renew life from its source.”

5 thoughts on “The Wasteland

    • The issue of asking the right question seems to be coming up a lot lately. I don’t think I grasped it too well when I was younger – I had to get to the point where I realized there weren’t going to be unlimited do-overs. I’m looking at another old story that seems to suggest the same thing.


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