Final notes on the Grail and the Wasteland

An ailing king lives at the heart of the Wasteland. We often find this figure in fairy tales, such as “The Water of Life,” where efforts to heal him launch the story.  Jungians interpret the king as the “dominant ruling attitude” of a culture or individual, which grows atrophied unless it is periodically renewed.

water of life king

In seeking a simple description of our own collective attitude, I thought of an often misquoted phrase spoken by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925: “The chief business of the American people is business.”  This attitude swept the world in the years since then and sheds much light on our current Wasteland with an ecosystem in crisis.  Sadly, few people know what else Coolidge said in that speech:  

“Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence…So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it…But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness. In every worthy profession, of course, there will always be a minority who will appeal to the baser instinct. There always have been, probably always will be, some who will feel that their own temporary interest may be furthered by betraying the interest of others.” (1)


In the earliest versions of the legend, the king is healed when the hero asks this question:  “Who does the Grail serve?”  In these tellings, the Grail is a stone or a large platter that nourishes each person according to their heart’s desire.  This suggests a cornucopia, a potential earthly and spiritual abundance.  There have always been cycles of growth and cycles of famine, cultural florescence and decay.  In the legend, that question, “Who does the Grail serve?” appears to lie near the heart of these cycles.  Somehow we intuit that what Campbell termed “Greed for more  than one’s share” on a large scale is a formula for disaster.


In my two previous posts, I mentioned hearing many accounts of people seeking new ways of doing most everything.  I’ve collected so many stories it took several days figure out how to present them.  Simplicity won out in the end; here is one brief account, with more to follow in the future.

I’ve listened to Jill Stein on several occasions, most recently on in November, 2013.  Stein, a Harvard Medical School graduate, “became so outraged by how politics adversely affected her patients” that she ran as the Green Party candidate for president in 2012.

Naturally, she was not allowed to participate in the presidential “debates,” which don’t really deserve the name, but in 2012 she and Green vice-presidential candidate, Cheri Honkala, were arrested for simply trying to enter the debate hall.  “We were arrested, taken to a secret detention facility, and handcuffed to metal chairs for eight or nine hours until the debate was long over.”  

Jill Stein, 2012 Green Party candidate for president

Jill Stein, 2012 Green Party candidate for president

You’d expect her to be discouraged after this blatant violation of civil liberties, as well as a host of other abuses she cited during the interview, but she was not, saying instead that,

“America is ready to move. And when we start moving together…all we have to do is realize how numerous, strong and inspired we are. And then we are unstoppable. You know, in the words of Alice Walker, the biggest way people give up power is by not knowing we have it to start with. It’s by flicking that switch and rejecting the disempowerment that’s beaten into us every waking moment by every media source that surrounds us.”

I encourage everyone to watch the interview or read the transcript.  There much that was frightening but even more that was hopeful in this discussion of our current situation.  As time goes on, I’ll feature other optimistic stories I have collected, featuring “ordinary” people searching for those Grails that can transform and renew the world and the lives we are living.

Notes from the Wasteland

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Talk of drought in California isn’t uncommon.  Normally it means lower levels in reservoirs and thinner snowpacks in the Sierras.  Bad news for skiers, and boaters, and farmers, perhaps, and an earlier start to the fire season, but’s it’s January, and for those who don’t ski, or boat, or farm, it’s easy to ignore until summer. But this time it’s different. This year it simply will not rain.

Even in “dry” winters, you see warnings that river currents are cold and swift.  This year the river’s so low there is no visible current.  Half of the local lawns are brown, and those that are green invite visits from the “water patrols” the districts threaten to form.  They say the reservoir from which we get our drinking water is at 17%; that image isn’t easy to forget.

A year ago, I posted a report from the National Intelligence Council.  Every four years, the NIC, representing every US intelligence agency, collaborates on a summary of the world situation to give the incoming president.  They post the report online for anyone to read.  After the last presidential election, the NIC gave the administration a report called Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds:

Click for the text of the whole report

I discussed the report in detail in a post in December, 2012, but it’s worth reviewing one of the four “Megatrends” the report identified.  The CIA, the NSA, the FBI, and the 13 other agencies that compiled the report do not waste time debating climate change; they accept it as a given and factor it into predictions, saying that by 2030:

Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle-class. Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources. Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter and dry and arid areas becoming more so.

What gives you pause is their conclusion:

We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future.

At this time, if we have to depend on our “policymakers and their private sector partners” to be proactive, we’re screwed, but there are different ways to look at our situation.  As usual, I try to relate literal “truth” to archetypal patterns, and in this case, the obvious mythic story is that of the Wasteland.

The story relates how Camelot fell apart.  How the rift between Arthur and his queen threw the land into ruin.  How the ailing king sent his knights in search of the Holy Grail, the one thing that could restore the barren world.  Those who reached the Grail Castle found another mysterious king inside, wounded through the testicles, in constant pain but unable to die.  His only relief by day was to float in a boat on a lake near the castle.  For this reason, he was known as “The Fisher King.”  He could only be healed by the right knight arriving at the castle to ask the right question.

Antecedents to the story are ancient and predate the Arthurian tales, perhaps by thousands of years.  In writing his poem, The Waste Land (1922), T.S. Eliot relied on an anthropological study, From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston, who in turn, drew on The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazier’s study of sacred kingship.

In the mythic cycle Frazier explored, the earthly king was “married” to the Goddess of the Land.  His potency and the earth’s fertility were one.  When he became old and infirm or impotent, the health of the land suffered.  He was ritually killed and a new king selected.  We find echoes of this in Arthur’s estrangement from Guinevere, though of course by then, the era when monarchs submitted to sacrifice was past.

We aren’t ruled by kings anymore, but if we consider “governments” alongside the word, “impotent,” and if we ignore what Viagra can fix, we find these meanings: “weak; ineffective, powerless or helpless; having no self-control.”

Yet the news isn’t all bad, and that is a theme I plan to explore in a series of posts exploring the Wasteland.  For one thing, the Grail hides there and nowhere else.  For another, the old stories never suggest that rulers can save us.  Renewal comes from the outsider, the dummling, the fool, Parsifal the rustic youth, or a carpenter from Nazareth.  

There are literally thousands of people today, already in or ready to enter the metaphorical forest on a quest for better ways to live.  I plan to discuss a few of their stories here.

“Arming the Grail Knights” by Edward Burne-Jones, tapestry, 1890’s, public domain